We have different rituals for marking time in my little Legal Language tutorial Whatsapp group. Wednesdays were the overlap teaching day through the Fall term at the University of Melbourne, syncopating our week with a particular rhythm. But then our teaching responsibilities ended and Melbourne’s second lockdown loomed before us, and so Wednesdays became the day to share – something.
Through September, my midweek contribution to the group has been a self-recorded poem.
This is a bit of an obvious choice, in no small part because of where I live. Home, for more than a year now, has been a spacious nook within the Institute of Postcolonial Studies. As the lockdown has worn on, and the walls of the Institute have become my world, its library has been an unwavering companion. A shelter from the storm in Melbourne’s first wave, and a place to try and recover in the rock-bottom-weariness of the second.
Fittingly for a space that wears the postcolonial mantle, the library features two shelves stacked with books on postcolonial theory. A bit more surprising is the content of the other three shelves – a staggeringly rich collection of Anglophone poetry from the collection of poet Martin Harrison. The term for this is perhaps “irony”, an adjective Desmond Manderson uses to describe the Institute’s location, at 78 Curzon Street. Curzon, as in George Nathaniel Curzon, the British Viceroy of India who presided over a devastating famine at the turn of the 19th century.
Here is another level of irony, though perhaps we are now stretching the limits of that word: how to describe a brown man, who comes of age and spends most of his adult life in India, who then inhabits this building and takes guiltless pleasure in devouring and sending recordings of Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare to his colleagues on a Whatsapp group?
This particular tendency of this particular postcolonial is not recent.
I’m thinking about a conversation in Bangalore, 2015, another time another world. My ragtag theatre group – the Bardolators, we call ourselves – has just finished a park performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We’ve been overwhelmed by the numbers, the numbers in turn have drawn media attention, and there is a microphone jabbed at me. Pulsing with post-performance adrenalin, I don’t fully register the journalists’ question at first, he repeats, why Shakespeare.
Do you want to translate the work to make it more accessible?
It’s a free performance in a public park.
But if you translated –
We would lose the rhythm of the language and that is just as important.
I think about this exchange a lot, going back to my wilful stubbornness in engaging with the question. I could have acknowledged the rich tradition of Shakespeare in translation, the diversity of Shakespeare adaptations and re-appropriations across different regions in India. I could have spoken about how Shakespeare’s contemporary parallels exist in the madcap wordplay of the Indian lyricist, as Jonathan Gil Harris delightfully explores in his book Masala Shakespeare. I could have mentioned how, with enough craft, it is possible to replicate and even re-enchant Shakespeare’s verse into language that explodes with similar craft, as the Company Theatre’s Twelfth Night adaptation, Piya Behrupiya does in spectacular fashion.
All of this is important and valuable, and yet it doesn’t do much to dispel the other truth –
For this particular postcolonial subject (have I even earned that label?), none of these other Shakespeares replaces the Shakespeare found between the covers of the First Folio. No linguistic wordplay will match the joy of trippingly tangling through the iambic heartbeat of “I love thee not therefore pursue me not”. It’s just not the same kind of love.
It’s also something that marks my tense relationship with Postcolonial Theory, or atleast a version of it that I find myself in constant confrontation with. This is the version that is very good at exposing and uncovering, at asking us to rigorously account for positionality, at helping us uncover our complicity (to borrow a keyword from Spivak) at making sense of how we engage in mimicry (Bhabha’s contribution). It’s the version that lurks beneath the question posed to me, the brown, Bard-loving subject: “Why Shakespeare?”
What this version of postcolonial discourse seems less obviously geared towards, what it appears to have a less abundant vocabulary about, is attachment. Why not Shakespeare, I might want to ask, what happens if, in the conversation with that journalist, we switch from a position of me having to account for some kind of lack or sense of alienation to a different register of conversation? What if we’d taken this seemingly difficult love and spoken about what it meant to tend to it, in this time and space? What would it mean to pivot the conversation towards nourishment and sustenance and repair?
As a postcolonial queer, I find a more readily identifiable account of attachment in queer theory. Earlier, I named my inclination to Shakespeare as a tendency. Tendencies happens to the title of a celebrated 1993 essay collection by the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. Many of these essays revel in questions of attachment and nourishment – tendency as in inclination, but also to tend, as in to nurture. Later in the decade, Sedgwick would start to work out a project of reparative reading, an approach that allowed her to find productive ways of describing attachment to a text. This is an approach that brings together questions of texture and affect – what would it mean, to draw on the title of another of her essay collections, to touch feeling? To work through the different ways in which a text touches us, to work through the different worlds we might make possible with a text?
This would be the register at which I might relay a set of questions back to that journalist –
Ask me about the ways in which we reworked Midsummer in the here and now.
Ask me about the ways in which we snuck queerness through the trojan horse of Shakespeare’s text into this very public stage.
Or perhaps, I might have deflected with another story and walked away quietly.
Perhaps this one.
The South African prison of Robben Island housed leaders of the African National Congress at different points during their struggles against apartheid across the 1970s. Books were a bit of an impossibility to acquire in this space, but one of its famous prisoners, Sonny Venkatrathnam managed to sneak in a particularly voluminous text. Covered in Hindu religious iconography and passed off as “the Hindu Bible” to disguise its non-religious contents, the book was circulated amongst the inmates of Robben Island over the years. On Vekatrathnam’s requests, each of the text’s readers signed their names against their favourite passages. One of the more famous prisoners picked the following lines:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once”
The man was Nelson Mandela, the quote from Julius Caesar.
The book, the object that provided a sense of community for these political prisoners, was Shakespeare’s First Folio.Back to top