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Introducing Muddying the Waters

Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism

I can formalize responsibility in the following way: It is that all action is undertaken in response to a call . . . that cannot be grasped as such. Response here involves not only “respond to,” as in “give an answer to,” but also the related situations of “answering to,” as in being responsible for a name (this brings up the question of the relationship between being responsible for/to ourselves and for/to others); of being answerable for . . . It is also, when it is possible for the other to be face-to-face, the task and lesson of attending to her response so that it can draw forth one’s own.

—Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, “Responsibility”

The notion of “solidarity” that still pervades much of the Left in the U.S. . . . dresses itself in the radical rhetoric of the latest rebellion in the “darker nations” while carefully maintaining political action at a distance from our own daily lives, thus producing a political subject (the solidarity provider) that more closely resembles a spectator or voyeur (to the suffering of others) than a participant or active agent, while simultaneously working to reduce the solidarity recipient to a mere object. . . . At both ends of this relationship, the process of solidarity ensures that subjects and political action never meet; in this way it serves to make change an a priori impossibility . . . [and] urges us to participate in its perverse logic by accepting the narrative that power tells us about itself: that those who could make change don’t need it and those who need change can’t make it. To the extent that human solidarity has a future, this logic and practice do not!

—El Kilombo Intergaláctico, Beyond Resistance Everything

The intellectual basis for the demand to decolonize the academy has been eroded by skeptical, postmodern philosophies that have called into question the founding terms such as humanism, identity, progress, truth, and liberation. Postmodernism . . . [has opened] up new ways to diagnose the causes of oppression and to critique domination, but it has also resulted, particularly in the humanities, in a demoralization and confusion about what unites our diverse constituencies, what language we can use to make demands, and what vision we are working toward, just as it has called into question the ability to invoke any “we” here at all. I believe we need today to re-invoke that “we” that would include all groups targeted by identity based forms of oppression.

—Linda Martín Alcoff, “An Epistemology for the Next Revolution”

Muddying the Waters is about ever-evolving journeys that confront and embrace the messiness of solidarity and responsibility. In describing and analyzing these journeys—frequently through stories, encounters, and anecdotes—this book aims to both separate and intimately link the question of scholarship with that of political action. These chapters—based on essays written between 1994 and 2013, often with coauthors, collectives, co-artists, and comrades—engage this relationship without claiming the label of activist scholarship, and without invoking categories such as transnational, postcolonial, or women-of-color feminisms as pure bodies of thought that can help us sort through the challenges posed by these journeys. Far from providing a methodological engagement with questions such as “how to” undertake transnational feminist studies or alliance work across the borders of academia and activism, then, this book places question marks on the utility and logic of neat positions and categories. I underscore the necessity of muddying theories and genres so that we can continue to embrace risks of solidarities that might fail and of translations that might refuse to speak adequately.

When academic engagements become locked into pure theoretical positions and loyalties, the possibility or impossibility of solidarity and responsibility is already pronounced, sometimes through their dismissal or celebration as self-contained categories such as “deconstructivist theory,” “postmodernism,” or “activist scholarship.” Consequently, the journeys in and through which the complexities of solidarity and responsibility are felt, known (however, partially), and struggled with, either get relegated to methodological appendices of critical ethnographies or articles on “action” research, or they are dismissed a priori as invalid or unworthy of academic discussion.1 Such segregated conversations also serve to reinforce the problematic division between “abstract thinking” and “concrete doing.”

A related problem arises when the lenses that academics deploy to address questions of epistemic hierarchies betray the logic and investments emanating from our own locations. Structural asymmetries grant metropolitan researchers access to more resources, richer rewards, and control over the means of widespread dissemination of knowledge. This material hierarchy can result in a taken-for-granted epistemic hierarchy in which metropolitan knowledges are privileged as “sophisticated” and where nonmetropolitan knowledges are perceived as “raw data” or stories that need to be framed and put into perspective by the formally certified intellectual. Critical scholars have long recognized the need to provide an ongoing critique of these co-constitutive hierarchies, and have grappled with ways in which we can name, interrogate, and unlearn our privileged analytical frameworks. More frequently, however, one encounters a wholesale dismissal, or a radical reinterpretation, of “other” knowledges on the terms of the supposedly more evolved paradigms. At the same time, metropolitan assumptions of privileged understandings are often deflated in encounters with nonmetropolitan subjects or interlocutors who may neither acknowledge nor respect this hierarchy and who may be disdainful or critical of metropolitan academics, their misplaced priorities, or their inadequate frameworks.

These politics of language, location, engagement, and epistemic hierarchies raise several questions: Can notions such as solidarity and responsibility, trust and hope, vulnerability and reflexivity serve a useful purpose in ethically navigating the forms of epistemic violence in which metropolitan academics are, and will always remain, complicit? Is it possible to ethically navigate this terrain without lumping different kinds of epistemologies and knowledges into simple categories where one is regarded as inherently superior to the others, or where all are deemed as commensurable, and therefore, legible, transparent, and comparable to one another? Can such ethics be articulated in ways that do not foreclose an intermingling of stories, truths, and affects, on the one hand, and commitments to scholarly objectivity, on the other?2

While some scholars have approached these questions through concepts such as sustainable epistemologies (Scheman 2012), others have framed their arguments in terms of the sites from where scholarship should emerge (Mohanty 2003, Mama 2009, Alexander and Mohanty 2010), as well as the need to question the separation of methodology from theory (Bennett 2008, Nagar and Swarr 2010). For example, Naomi Scheman’s inquiry into the responsibility of the public university underscores the importance of the social contracts that are contingent to research and discovery, teaching and learning, and outreach and public service of the university, and that necessarily involve those who are subject to or vulnerable to the work of the university (Scheman 2012). Bennett, in comparison, frames the dilemmas facing Africa-based feminist research by refusing to draw a line between theory as a way of approaching realities and experiences, and research methodologies as the “how” of engaging with those realities and experiences and of making alternatives possible when injustices emerge (Bennett 2008, 3).

For a growing number of university-based intellectuals, “activist scholarship” (Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey 2009a) and “ethnographies of activism” (Chari and Donner 2010) have become important rubrics for working through the above-mentioned questions of location, engagement, and responsibility. Critical of the tendency to separate activism from scholarship, Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey “argue for activist scholarship as a model of active engagement between the academy and movements for social justice” and commit themselves to making “activist scholarship possible as a viable mode of intellectual inquiry and pedagogical praxis”(Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey 2009b, 3). In examining innovative and participatory research methodologies developed by activist scholars in partnership with social movements, however, they also remain alert to “the danger of producing an idealized vision of collaborative or anti-oppressive research, recognizing that even research with emancipatory intentions is inevitably troubled by unequal power relations” and “ethical and political complicities and contradictions” (Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey 2009b, 3).

Some politically engaged scholars, in contrast to Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey, fear that the creation of a more permanent institutional space for activist scholarship might displace the model of objective, value-free inquiry. For instance, Kamala Visweswaran provides the example of Hindu nationalist groups who were active in the school textbook controversy in California to remind us of the multiple meanings of “politics” and “activism” and of the dangers of automatically elevating political engagement to a higher platform. She argues that there are times when it may be as important to uphold the model of objective inquiry as it is to recognize that fellow activists may not share the same goals or political sensitivities (Visweswaran 2011). She argues that

activist scholarship or social science must too often presume agreement on what constitutes the political in order to place “action” on the agenda. And yet what constitutes the “political” is radically contingent upon time and place . . . This is all the more reason not to let an a priori understanding of something called “activism” or “politics” unreflexively shape scholarship. Now, more than ever, we need a commitment to thinking the political through its multiple guises. . . . To do so, I would argue that it is often productive to separate—but not detach—the question of scholarship from political action. (Visweswaran 2011, 77)

While we may argue whether or not it is truly possible to separate scholarship from political action without “detaching” the two, it is worth grappling with the ways in which we might attend to the radical contingencies of time and place while also resisting simplistic assumptions about shared political sensitivities or agendas. Susan Geiger and I have proposed what we call “situated solidarities” as a way to facilitate this grappling (see chapter 3). In attending to the specificities of geographical, socioeconomic, and institutional locations of those who enter into intellectual and political partnerships, and to the particular combination of processes, events, and struggles underway in those locations, situated solidarities resonate with Chela Sandoval’s “differential consciousness,” Carole Boyce Davies’s “critical relationality,” Sara Ahmed’s “ethical encounters,” and Jodi Dean’s “reflective solidarity” (Sandoval 2000, Davies 1994, Ahmed 2000, Dean 1998).3

Sandoval’s conceptualization of “U.S. third world feminisms” necessitates differential consciousness as a mode of theoretical engagement that is flexible and tactical in its analysis and intervention based on context and climate (Sandoval 2000, 41). Davies similarly underscores relational and deeply contextual negotiation, articulation, and interrogation of a variety of resistant and multiply linked discourses. As an “inherently migratory” epistemology, her notion of critical relationality “asserts the specificity of the other,” but “moves beyond singularity or sameness to varied interactions, transgressions and articulations” (Davies 1994, 41). This fluidity allows for an “anti-definitional” analytical space in which multiple theoretical positions interact relationally in one’s critical consciousness to create “complexly-integrated and relational theoretics” that allow for “possibilities of alliances which recognize specificities and differences” (Davies 1994, 41).4 In an analogous vein, Ahmed calls for deconstructing “stranger fetishism” by working toward an ethics of encounter. These ethics require opening up the encounter in order to learn—without an expectation of fully accessing—a stranger’s thick histories and complex positionings in time and space, as well as their connections to other places and times that enable such a meeting. This articulation is reminiscent of Jodi Dean’s vision of “reflective solidarity” that envisions feminist solidarity as rooted in two moments—“that of opposition to those who would exclude or oppress another and that of our mutual recognition of each other’s specificity” (Dean 1998, 4).

Muddying the Waters resonates with and extends these and similar understandings by laboring through the concepts and promises of radical vulnerability and love, reflexivity and risk, translation and coauthorship as mutually constitutive and interdependent in knowledge making and alliance work. In these journeys of the “I” and the “we,” defined by situated solidarities, the possibilities of alliances are inseparable from a deep commitment to critique that is grounded in the historical, geographical, and political contingencies of a given struggle. These are journeys enabled by trust with the ever-present possibility of distrust and epistemic violence; journeys of hope that must continuously recognize hopelessness and fears; and journeys that insist on crossing borders even as each person on the journey learns of borders that they cannot cross—either because it is impossible to cross them, or because it does not make sense to invest dreams and sweat in those border crossings.

In a way, Muddying the Waters can be seen as an academic memoir, a self-conscious attempt on my part to become radically vulnerable, even as I share knowledge and truths that become possible only through coauthorship with many others. I turn the gaze upon myself as a researcher, writer, and cultural worker who has wrestled with critiques of identity and meanings and possibilities of authorship and politics through academic projects. These projects have been undertaken across places as far removed from each other as the classrooms of the University of Minnesota, the streets and neighborhoods of Dar es Salaam, and the villages of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh. Places, and the languages in and through which those places become alive or are rendered invisible or powerless in academic engagement, become significant “characters” in this story of my academic journey as the chapters grapple with the politics of taking on research sites and making expert knowledges, as well as the politics of leaving places alone when one cannot adequately grapple with one’s responsibility to those sites of knowledge making.5

Wounded Truths / Troubled Fields: Considering Stories, Solidarity, Suspicion, and Hope through Sangtins’ Diary


Once upon a time a learned man who considered himself highly accomplished climbed on a boat. The simple boatman respectfully welcomed him. As the boat started sailing, the pundit asked the boatman, “Hey, do you know anything about capitalism?”

The boatman folded his hands, “I am an illiterate man, sir. How would I know about capitalism?”

“What’s the point of living in such darkness? You have wasted twenty-five percent of your life,” the learned man pronounced as he tossed some pan-masala in his mouth.

As the boat sailed further, the pundit was once again taken by an urge to establish his intellectual authority—“So, you are a laborer. I am sure you have heard of Marxism!”

“Where would I learn about that, Sahab? I have no clue what Marxism is.”

“What a pity. You have ruined fifty percent of your life . . . But you must be married. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of feminism.”

When the boatman expressed his ignorance of feminism, too, the pundit declared seventy-five percent of the boatman’s life wasted. Before the boatman could respond to this declaration, the boat began to sink in mid-stream. The boatman said to the scholar, “Punditji, you know everything. Now, swim.”

But alas, the pundit had not learned to swim.

“Punditji, I have merely wasted seventy-five percent of my life, but you are just about to lose all of yours!” Saying this, the boatman quickly swam across the river. The scholar drowned.

This story is often told by the members of Sangtin Kisaan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS) in the villages of the Sitapur District.6 And the story is often followed by the question: “Why didn’t the boatman try to save the scholar?” If the scholar had not incessantly mocked the boatman and belittled his knowledge and existence, there is a good chance that the boatman would have extended his hand to save the scholar and perhaps the knowledges and lives of both the men could have been saved.

If we agreed that each one of us is part pundit and part boatperson, there would be very little to hold in place the wall that separates intellectuals from the authors of everyday lives and struggles. Unfortunately, however, our world is inflicted with a system in which the gaps between the pundit and the boatperson work to reinforce differences of caste, class, gender, race, and place. Who becomes the subject of knowledge and who is designated as the pundit to produce, legitimate, and disseminate that knowledge? And what are the implications of this inequality? Raising these questions in the context of the politics of rural development and women’s empowerment, nine sangtins began a journey as writers in Sitapur district of India in 2002, a journey that first acquired the form of the book Sangtin Yatra and subsequently evolved into Sangtin Kisaan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS), a movement that now comprises several thousand workers and peasants, both women and men, over 90 percent of whom are dalit.

Grappling with the nuances of class, caste, gender, and communal differences in relation to Development, this journey is, on the one hand, committed to securing livelihoods and the right to information and to ensuring water supply to a dry irrigation channel for the saathis or members of SKMS. On the other hand, in linking the issue of socioeconomic disempowerment of the poor with their intellectual disempowerment, this journey poses the question of who determines target populations, issues, and activities for projects of empowerment, and how? Who keeps the accounts of these activities and for whom? And how do the coordinators of these projects, in becoming the “experts” on the disempowered, contribute to maintaining the status quo? As saathis go through their own soul searchings on these issues, we also explore ways in which connections between intellectual labor and grassroots organizing can be deepened, and how the realities of sociopolitical and intellectual hierarchies, as well as the very definitions of who and what constitutes the margins, can be complicated and transformed.


Richa Singh’s U.S. Diary

Syracuse, 6 April 2007

For two women traveling from what some would call the third world of the third world, this is Surbala’s and my eleventh day in the USA. Surbala, Richa [Nagar] and I were supposed to leave Syracuse University and reach Minneapolis today but we couldn’t. The gathering that some of our supporters had planned in Minneapolis was canceled. Northwest Airlines stopped twelve passengers from boarding the overbooked flight today, and the three of us were part of that group. And then began Richa Nagar’s four-hour-long fight with the representatives of the Northwest Airlines—a fight in which Surbala and I could not participate verbally because we did not speak English. It was a fight in which no one screamed with anger but where an extremely tense argument with clenched jaws and hostile glances went on forever. I remembered many dharnas. This was also a dharna. A “civilized” dharna in a land of so-called civilized people. The three of us remained solid in our protest. But I could not help thinking: “What would have happened if only Surbala and I had been traveling today?” Everything that happened today broke my confidence to travel alone in America. The long, hard journey from Delhi to Minneapolis began to seem easier. . . . The humiliation that we lived today has sharpened my perspective.

In a world defined by casteism, I come from the category of discriminating castes; I have never been subjected to the humiliation that a dalit experiences, and even with my lower-class background I have enjoyed the benefits of my caste privilege without desiring them—sometimes in the form of an “admiration” for my determination to fight and sometimes as compliments for my “shrewdness” or “cleverness.” I had known that race discrimination exists, but now I am seeing and feeling it. I am beginning to recognize the expressions of those eyes, which sometimes seem to be struggling to come out of their temptation to discriminate, and at others, seem trapped in the confidence of their assumed superiority. I keep realizing the ways in which Surbala’s and my racial difference makes us weak here. . . . The ways in which it invites others to insult us. . . . It’s not simply a matter of our color—it’s the matter of our color that is intensely differentiated by its class, its language, its clothing, its walk, its smile. . . . This discrimination is more dangerous than caste discrimination because it is one that begins with the eyes. It is not that the pain of caste discrimination is any less than this. But racial discrimination seems so quick and so dangerous—just like the automatic doors of this country—they open and shut with a speed that leaves us stunned. At least for us, this speed is terrifying.

Between late March and early May of 2007, Richa Singh and Surbala crossed multiple borders between Satnapur, Sitapur, Lucknow, Delhi, Amsterdam, and Minneapolis so that they could spend five weeks in the United States participating in a series of academic and activist forums that focused on discussions of the Sangtin Writers’ book, Playing with Fire, and the movement building that emerged from our Hindi book, Sangtin Yatra. This border crossing into the United States post-9/11 was one of the hardest trips that either Richa Singh or Surbala had ever taken anywhere. It inflicted humiliations and silences that they had not encountered before. And it produced tensions and tears among three sangtins, whose audiences, despite best intentions, could not escape the desire to judge who among us was the “most authentic” sangtin. The nonstop turbulence throughout this trip led us to reflect, argue, analyze, and travel across many borders in ways that we found generative for the future of our alliance. For example, the three full-time organizers—Richa Singh, Surbala, and Reena—who were working mainly with dalit women and men to build SKMS in the villages of Sitapur in 2005–6, came from the sawarn castes, and this reality became an important focal point of the collective critical reflexive work of SKMS around caste and gender. Richa Singh’s and Surbala’s stark confrontation with racism in the United States helped to deepen this reflexivity by triggering an embodied awareness of race and caste in ways that none of us had approached before. We noted how languages of race arbitrarily draw on signifiers of difference, and how language, clothing, moving, laughing, and talking become markers of racial otherness. On the one hand, we appreciated how our different environments construct racism and casteism. On the other hand, the process of jointly inhabiting and experiencing particular spaces and places in the United States heightened our awareness of how power operates in those contexts with which we took our intimacy for granted.7

In her diary, Richa Singh wrestles with her experience of racism through her knowledge of caste. As a lower-class member of one of “the discriminating castes” she grapples anew with the implications of caste-based politics as she tries to make sense of her hitherto unknown experience of racialized exclusion and othering. She feels that racial discrimination is worse than caste-based discrimination, even as the stories retold by saathis of SKMS make the trauma of casteism unforgettable for her or anyone else associated with SKMS. This is a point to which Surbala, Richa Singh, and I return again and again throughout Surbala’s and Richa’s stay in the United States. Rethinking and articulating the dreams and struggles of SKMS while breathing and moving in the sociopolitical spaces of the United States reshape our understandings of race and caste, of belonging and citizenship, of borders and border crossings. These spaces also make us acutely aware of how “progressive” North American audiences judge our authenticity as members of a collective. Whose experiences of marginalization are definitive, after all? Who should be authorized to speak about those experiences to whom, and when? Who is the true representative of an alliance? This phase of our journey also raises questions about intimate structures of power, about how we understand the politics of speech, representation, solidarity, and agenda setting in a movement. Grappling with this and similar questions becomes part and parcel of our commitment to trouble the dominant meanings of the “field” and of seeing our “heres” and “theres” as intertwined. This self-conscious collective process inspires a search for new “truths” that have evolved since the writing of the Sangtin Yatra—the truths of lives and relationships that have come to define SKMS.


In a restaurant in Delhi, a friend from SKMS and I are in a discussion with two feminist scholars. The SKMS saathi shares that, despite repeated efforts to end segregation between women and men in the monthly meetings of the SKMS, quite a few women cover their faces with ghoonghats and choose to sit separately from the men.

This narration immediately draws a sharp response. Our Delhi friends question the SKMS member’s desire to see women out of the ghoonghats. Why and for whom is segregation a problem? they ask her.

The SKMS member is taken aback, not because the questions surprise her but because she is known to pose precisely such questions before others whom she deems guilty of simplistic assumptions about rural women’s oppressions. Since I know the SKMS member well, I can sense that she made the comment about the ghoonghats in the hope of initiating a more complex discussion about the dilemmas of organizing women and men in the current phase of SKMS’s struggles. However, the reaction that her comment triggered silences her. She withdraws.

I want to prove to the other two academics that SKMS’s engagement with feminism is more nuanced than what they have assumed. I give the example of a starkly opposite scenario—the theater workshop of SKMS where seven men and five women shared the space of a room for five days and nights and where the intimacy of the process led to incidents that could shock those who make quick assumptions about the “oppression” faced by rural women of Uttar Pradesh. I tell them about Radhapyari who, on the third day of the rehearsals, refused to enact a scene of domestic conflict with Sri Kishan and stated flatly, “I can’t put my heart into this role. The person who is assigned the role of my husband reminds me of my father-in-law.” The faces of the men listening to Radhapyari turned red. A woman in the group asked, “So whom do you want?” “Manohar,” said Radhapyari. Blushing, Manohar entered the scene and Sri Kishan quietly exited.

This second story fascinates our friends; they find it far more interesting than the “ghoonghat story” and urge us to write about it. But the SKMS member barely listens. She has checked out from the conversation by this time.

Retelling Encounters, Making Knowledges:
A Praxis without Guarantees

In imagining feminist polyvocal testimonies as “cross border (reading) alliances,” Patricia Connolly-Shaffer deploys the idea of “truth telling as tale telling,” a phrase that can also be used to describe my representation of the above excerpts from a coauthored diary that offers glimpses of SKMS’s attempts to formulate its vision of solidarity and alliance work. If stories are experience-based accounts, then it is helpful to consider Connolly-Shaffer’s conceptualization of stories as the medium through which fragmented truth claims subtly emerge and get interwoven and reworked to gain a kind of epistemic wholeness. Rather than providing ready-made solutions or unproblematized truth claims, then, storytelling becomes a “deliberative” exercise in which “hesitations and contradictions are rhetorically employed to comment on the limits of memory to convey social knowledge” (Connolly-Shaffer 2012, 20).

In the context of the journeys and border crossings embraced in this book, storytelling is enabled through what Hanan Sabea calls “encounters and conversations.” Sabea critiques the taken for granted and “catch-all” nature of the term transnational and expresses concern about the ease and facility with which the idea of the transnational circulates and thus naturalizes its critical analytical potential. As a possible “cleansing practice” that can impart some utility to the term, she includes encounters and conversations that take shape “from particular locations and positions, while simultaneously attempting to traverse compartmentalized and already packaged forms of knowledge” (Sabea 2008, 16). Noting how several of these encounters are products of the shifting locations from which we practice and produce knowledge, Sabea reminds us of Walter Mignolo’s articulation of “conversation as research method.” By conversations, Mignolo does not mean “statements that can be recorded, transcribed and used as documents.” Instead, he cites the most influential conversations as “people’s comments in passing, about an event, a book, an idea, a person. These are documents that cannot be transcribed, knowledge that comes and goes, but remains with you and introduces changes in a given argument” (Mignolo 2000, xi).

As an entry point into imagining and practicing radical vulnerability, the excerpts from the coauthored diary suggest how conversations can enable or stifle arguments and hopes for dialogue and alliance. They also offer an opportunity to extend and complicate discussions on the politics of location, authenticity, trust, and relevance in cross-border engagements and alliance work, a subject that has triggered passionate discussion for at least two decades. More recently, Mama reframes this problem in terms of the manner in which politics of location and positionality limit the ability of “visiting and expatriate researchers [who] can hardly ever develop the intellectual, political, and practical connections and everyday knowledge that local activist scholars accumulate and develop through many years of work and involvement” (Mama 2009, 63). Arguing that the “global feminist” literature is often not intimate enough to be useful to women engaged in struggles on the ground, and that “the grand theories put forward by Western-based academics are for the most part too general and removed to inform local strategy,” she argues for “creating and building relationships of solidarity and service” that, despite their challenges, can “enable outside researchers to overcome some of these limitations” (Mama 2009, 63). Activism, for Mama requires locally based feminist work, and “it seems we have a long way to go in developing intellectual solidarities that work against the global systemic political-economic inequalities that frame our work, regardless of our intentions” (Mama 2009, 64).

While I am sympathetic to Mama’s concerns about the need to recognize the knowledge that can only become possible through a deep engagement with the local, the earlier excerpts from a coauthored diary suggest a need to seriously complicate the frequently invoked division between “inside” and “outside” researchers as well as the accompanying binaries of global (as general or research-driven) and local (as grounded or activist) in order to realize the possibilities of alliance work. A categorizing of investments and abilities of researchers or activists in ways that render some as more authentic or involved than others by virtue of their location or “origins” can be dangerous. A commitment to cultivate radical vulnerability through situated solidarities demands that we grapple with the material and symbolic politics of our locations and imagine how researchers might play a role in evolving ethics and methodologies that seek to build dialogues across locations. On the one hand, those who wish to enter into difficult long-term dialogues can do so only if the conditions of dialogue allow them to interrogate, and to express suspicion of, one another. On the other hand, the expression of suspicion and interrogation must happen in ways that enhance—rather than foreclose—sensitive negotiations of experiences and interpretations, for it is precisely in these negotiations that possibilities for shared yearning and dreaming reside.

My retelling of the above tales here (and of similar tales throughout this book), then, is an invitation to explore ways of building trust and accountability by becoming radically vulnerable. If mistakes and complicities with violence necessarily accompany our actions, memories, desires, and locations as representers, then our methodologies must allow all the members of an alliance to become vulnerable before one another about these mistakes and complicities, while also recognizing that our ability to grasp or know these can only be partial and provisional. Only then can we feel brave enough to voice suspicion of each other’s desires and interpretations without fearing that such expressions might stifle hopes for alliance work. This kind of vulnerability cannot rely on traditional notions of transparency and accountability in its logic because it is grounded in bonds emerging from multifaceted relationships and trust, in hopes and dreams, in affect.8 However, as Dia Da Costa reminds us, this groundedness cannot slip into a celebration of affect as an innocent space that is “not yet usurped” by dominant ideologies and practices; instead, affect connotes “the visceral sense of social structures, ideologies, histories, policies and bodies that constructs their ongoing vitality, intensity and resonance in social life.”9

In a way, the ethics and methodologies of encounters, anecdotes, conversations, and storytelling that I am invoking through radical vulnerability strive to achieve, in the realm of research praxis, a politics of indeterminacy, or a politics without guarantees.10 If the academy is not the only site of knowledge making, then an opening up of the horizon of theorizing must begin with a recognition that academic knowledges might be enriched through creative conversations with knowledges that evolve in sites of struggle that seem distant to the academy, including knowledges that are “vernacularized” or remarginalized through their contradictory instrumentalization and incorporation in globalized identities, discourses, and projects (see Dutta 2013). Such an intellectual project also requires us to appreciate that knowledge claims—and truth claims—from “other” locations are often invoked in the form of stories, and to pay attention to how we might be listening to, or ignoring, these stories and the knowledge or truth claims that they make or imply, and with what results.

At the same time, an engagement with stories is itself a politics of negotiation. Poststructuralist and postmodernist feminist scholars have long underscored the necessity of grappling with discursive contexts and histories of experience, rather than considering experience to be the constitutive core of discourse (see Butler 1990, Scott 1991). This insight is fundamental to any responsible engagement with stories. In reflecting on the possibilities of political theater through alliance work, Sofia Shank and I argue that deployment of concepts such as “subalternity” and “transexperience” by social scientists often betrays a desire to demonstrate embodiment or “real experience”—sometimes in a celebratory multicultural mode, and at other times in a more self-reflexive vein, about the marginalization of particular kinds of bodies or lives (Shank and Nagar 2013). We point out that stories can neither reveal the experiences of those they are inspired by, nor can they be imagined as being contained by predefined “subaltern” or “trans” identities. Rather, the responsibility and labor of telling stories involves a series of delicate negotiations through which one must underscore the impossibility of ever accessing “lived experiences” and where one’s engagements with who is speaking, who is referenced, and who is listening can become legible only when contextualized within the multiple and shifting social relations in which they are embedded (Shank and Nagar 2013, 106). Only then can one hope to represent structures of violence without reducing them to accessible narratives that reenact the very violence that “we” seek to confront.

A politics without guarantees, then, is rooted in a praxis of radical vulnerability that is committed to opening up spaces for negotiation by always returning us to the ethics of how and why one comes to a story and to its variable tellings and retellings. The telling of stories must continuously resist a desire to reveal the essential or authentic experience of the subject; instead, every act of storytelling must confront ways in which power circulates and constructs the relationalities within and across various social groups. This struggle happens as much through what is narrated as it does through the gaps and silences, and through that which remains obscured or unavailable within narrative. On the one hand, such praxis unavoidably struggles to decenter the authors and to complicate the meanings of authorship and coauthorship by forging conversations among seemingly disparate sites, languages, texts, and arguments, while simultaneously analyzing the ways in which power functions to make these mutually illegible or invisible. On the other hand, such praxis creates texts in and through which coauthors from multiple locations can negotiate subalternity and theorize power by strategically staging truths and stories about their evolving encounters and struggles. Such multilocational coauthorship by a political alliance requires that the authors try to retain a certain amount of control over their intellectual and theoretical production and over the ways in which their texts and stories—as well as their circulation and consumption—can be interpreted as part of the politics of knowledge production. At the same time, this exercise of rethinking and complicating the politics of knowledge making remains undergirded by the inevitable contradiction posed by the centrality of the professional researcher in enabling this decentering of the authors and readers.

Radical Vulnerability, Reflexivity, and Coauthorship:
Outline of a Journey

As processes of growing and becoming, journeys convey evolution without closures and yield important insights into what is possible. Journeys are about risks that we must take in making choices. And journeys are also about the price we must pay for making mistakes. The six chapters in this book, then, can be described collectively as a journey in which I have sought to grapple with politics and ethics of research, and with methods and languages of collaboration in the context of feminist engagement across north-south borders. Starting from my historical and ethnographic research on the spatial politics of race, class, caste, religion, and gender in postcolonial Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and traversing the complex terrain of possibilities and limitations of alliance work with (but not limited to) the SKMS, these chapters follow a loose chronology to highlight the central theoretical and political questions that have accompanied my explorations of different forms of feminist engagement to grapple with questions of location, power, translation, and representation. I underscore the necessity and inevitability of becoming radically vulnerable in and through critically self-reflexive collaborations, translations, and coauthorship. These co-constitutive and ever evolving labors and processes lie at the heart of struggles to produce knowledges that can travel meaningfully and responsibly within, between, and across worlds.

The first chapter, “Translated Fragments, Fragmented Translations,” draws attention to the ways in which a commitment to radical vulnerability can enable and enrich politically engaged alliance work, and the particular ways in which affect and trust empower translations across borders. If becoming radically vulnerable requires all the members of an alliance to open ourselves—intellectually and emotionally—to critique in ways that can allow us to be interrogated and assessed by one another, then how might one begin to write such praxis? I share excerpts of letters, conversations, poems, and narratives from contexts that might seem disjointed and disparate on the surface but that tell stories—of encounters, events, and relationships—that have enabled the arguments I have made in the rest of this book. These fragments also point to the intense entanglements between autobiography and politics and seek to initiate a discussion on feminist praxis that commits itself to learning and unlearning by inserting one’s body—individually and collectively—in the process of knowledge making and the generative challenges that such insertion poses for imagining storytelling and engagement across socioeconomic, geographical, and institutional borders. Even as they underscore the importance of resisting closures in feminist engagement with questions of translation, representation, and solidarity, the fragments remain rooted in the specific sociospatial and institutional contexts and locations (in the United States, Tanzania, and India) in and through which my concerns for theorizations of praxis have evolved over the last two decades. In particular, the question of language and place is tightly interwoven with my engagements with politics and praxis of knowledge production—the languages that enable or foreclose the making of certain kinds of knowledge about specific places and people; the languages in which knowledges are (or are not) allowed to travel to particular spaces and communities, and the intended and unintended effects of the ways in which knowledges and their translations travel in often unforeseen ways and directions.

Three additional things are worth noting about “Translated Fragments, Fragmented Translations”: First, the splitting of the text into two columns interrupts the usual expectations around conventions of genre, temporality or chronology, and coherence, while implicating the reader in the making of knowledge through the physical act of reading itself. The reader can choose which fragment to pursue and for how long, and how to give it meaning in relation to other fragments. Second, rather than describing and reflecting upon my positionality as an author, the fragments I have chosen to share here make me an object of study and scrutiny. This sharing, I hope, can serve as an invitation to explore new imaginaries through which critical scholarship can render and animate the researcher’s own making and unmaking of the research process as well as the pasts and presents with which that research is always entangled. Finally, in “Translated Fragments” and throughout Muddying the Waters, I highlight how the labor and praxis of translation constitute the core of engaged research. At the same time, my choice to leave some words and concepts as untranslated is deliberate, a simple reminder of the impossibility of ever achieving fully accessible translations.

Students sometimes ask whether I have encountered resistance in making the choices that I have in the academy. There are certainly stories to tell. For example, I could talk about the time when an editor at a university press told me to take the manuscript of Playing with Fire to the university printing services, which would dutifully print whatever the authors requested. This was when I insisted that the names of nine authors needed to be on the cover and that no epigraphs from the original Hindi book, Sangtin Yatra, could be shortened or modified in the English translation. Or I could talk about all those times when students who have been attracted to the kind of work I do have been instructed to stay away from the naive approaches to academic engagement that my work exemplifies. However, even without these stories, the sequence and the timing of publication of ideas can itself generate insights about the politics and possibilities of knowledge production, and about the interpretive communities that enable us to make and circulate certain kinds of knowledge in a given time and place.

Chapters 2 to 4 sketch an intellectual journey that I began with my research on South Asian communities in postcolonial Dar es Salaam. The arguments are molded by an unfolding process of my own understandings of the issues and how these translated into specific forms of engagement as I learned to navigate and rework the rules and expectations of the U.S. academic establishment. Although I think differently about some of these arguments now, revising them substantially would interrupt the stories they tell about my own intellectual history and disciplinary locations and relocations, and about my journeys between and across worlds, communities, and political projects and commitments. Together, these three chapters suggest that the kind of radical vulnerability that I argue for in chapter 1 goes hand in hand with a critical self-reflexivity that is attuned to our institutional and geopolitical positions; such reflexivity constitutes the core of situated solidarities that enable engaged intellectual work across divergent and unequal locations.

The second chapter, “Dar es Salaam: Making Peace with an Abandoned ‘Field,’” is based mainly on an essay (Nagar 1997) that emerged from my doctoral dissertation (Nagar 1995). This essay has been used by researchers as an example of “how to” undertake the challenge of understanding and interrogating one’s own multilayered positionality in critical feminist ethnographic research, and the manner in which such exercise can allow us to grapple with the complex politics of intersectional difference in the context of fieldwork. The piece discusses the manner in which my own gendered, racialized, and communally marked body was read by different Tanzanian Asian communities in various social sites in the city of Dar es Salaam and how these encounters shaped the knowledge I was able to produce about Asian communal politics in that city in the early 1990s.

The second part of chapter 2 turns to questions of reciprocity, power, trust, and ethical engagement in research relationships by focusing on examples of two life historians who participated in my study. The first was Frances (pseudonym), a Goan taxi driver with strong views about gender and race, and the second was Nargis (also an alias), a divorced Shiite feminist professional who had returned to Dar es Salaam from London to fight a property case on behalf of her father. To offer an example of the kind of feminist “ethno-geography” that this self-reflexive methodological exploration helped me create, the chapter ends with a sidebar drawn from excerpts from an unpublished chapter of my dissertation that focuses on the politics of languages and mother tongues in Dar es Salaam. This chapter underscores that a complex self-reflexivity that is attuned to time, place, and sociopolitical and cultural specificities must accompany any feminist engagement with questions of power and difference. However, my involvement as an academic researcher with Dar es Salaam and my need to subsequently distance myself from that research site became inseparable from my struggles with the practice of self-reflexivity in feminist research, a point that I introduce here and develop variously in the subsequent two chapters.

Chapter 3, “Reflexivity, Positionality, and Languages of Collaboration in Feminist Fieldwork,” owes its origins to a project that Susan Geiger and I undertook between 1997 and 2000. Originally titled “Reflexivity, Positionality, and Identity in Feminist Fieldwork: Beyond the Impasse,” this project addressed an impasse that, Susan and I posited, emanated from narrow discussions of identity and positionality in interdisciplinary feminist fieldwork, as well as a growing anxiety among feminist scholars based in the northern academy about engaging with subaltern subjects in “the field.” Our argument for the need to radically rethink why and how we engage in self-reflexivity in order to allow politically transformative agendas to emerge encountered resistance in feminist scholarly circles in the late 1990s. Two leading feminist journals rejected our manuscript without reviewing it, even as the arguments that Susan and I had begun to explore continued to gain prominence in my own intellectual journey. This prominence found expression in the writing I undertook after Susan’s death, which forms the basis for what appear as parts 2 and 3 of chapter 3. In “Footloose Researchers” (first published in Gender, Place and Culture, or GPC, in 2002), I revisited the key arguments that Geiger and I made about the nature of this impasse by analyzing three feminist responses that I received in 2000 to my manuscript “Mujhe Jawab Do (Answer Me!).” Thanks to Lynn Staeheli and Linda Peake, the editors of GPC at the time, the conversations around the writing of ”Mujhe Jawab Do” and “Footloose Researchers” became part of a self-reflexive project for feminist geography and for the journal itself, and found expression in a special issue of GPC in which Lynn and I coedited a section titled “Feminists Talking across Worlds” (Staeheli and Nagar 2002). The last section of chapter 3, based on a chapter written in 2005–6 at a time of hope in the aftermath of the battles won by the authors of Sangtin Yatra, elaborates on threads of earlier discussion on reflexivity and location, with specific reference to the politics of language and collaboration.

“Reflexivity, Positionality, and Languages of Collaboration in Feminist Fieldwork” begins with a re-presentation of the original argument that Susan and I made in our 2000 essay. We argue that, despite the proliferation of self-reflexivity in feminist ethnographic research, much feminist scholarship has tended to avoid some of the most vexing political questions in transnational feminist praxis: Who are we writing for, how, and why? What does it mean to coproduce relevant knowledge across geographical, institutional, or cultural borders? How do we interrogate the structure of the academy and the constraints and values embedded therein, as well as our desire and ability (or lack thereof) to challenge and reshape those structures and values? We posit that effective participation in border crossings necessitates a processual approach to reflexivity and positionality, combined with an acute awareness of the place-based nature of our intellectual praxis. Such praxis commits itself to building situated solidarities that can grapple with the larger interconnections produced by internationalization of economies and labor forces while challenging the colonialist prioritizing of the West. These solidarities must be simultaneously attentive to the ways in which our ability to evoke the global in relation to the local, to configure the specific nature of our alliances and commitments, and to participate in social change are significantly shaped by our geographical, temporal, and socio-institutional locations, and by the processes, events, and struggles unfolding in those locations.

Part 2 of chapter 3 elaborates on some of the problems discussed in the previous section by highlighting the manner in which narrow academic engagements with reflexivity fail to account for the ways in which identities form, shift, and reconstruct themselves in and through the processes and encounters that constitute fieldwork. The section ends with a brief meditation on what might count as theory in feminist research that seeks to speak responsibly to audiences and colleagues located in starkly different locations, an argument that I continue to modify and refine in later chapters with the evolution of my own journey in multiple locations across the sites of academia, NGOs, social movements, and community theater.

In part 3 of chapter 3, I argue that an ongoing political praxis of language and translation resides at the core of any struggle that seeks to decolonize and reconfigure the agendas, mechanics, and purposes of knowledge production, a point to which I return in the last chapter of the book. This preliminary discussion links struggles in the realm of cultural and identity politics with those about the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of sites from which knowledge and norms of expertise and professionalism are produced. It also suggests that formulation of political ideas, intellectual concepts, and languages of collaboration in a collective with open membership is a constantly evolving process. It is only by nurturing this dynamism that we can appreciate knowledge as being produced in both place and time, drawing on diverse sources of experience and expertise, in ways that the “fields” created by the academy, NGOs, and social movements can become means, rather than ends.

Chapter 4, “Representation, Accountability, and Collaborative Border Crossings: Moving Beyond Positionality,” is a revised version of an article originally written between 2002 and 2003 in consultation with Farah Ali (an alias) and what we then called the Sangtin Samooh, or Sangtin women’s collective, of Sitapur District in India. The original essay, invited for a special conference on postcolonial geographies at the National University of Singapore, evolved in close relationship with aforementioned struggles around how and why to “do” reflexivity. It advances the discussion in the previous chapter by summarizing how considerations about collaborative spaces in postcolonial feminist and geographical analyses have often hinged on questions of positionality, reflexivity, and identity, largely in relation to the politics of representation. Such approaches, especially in fieldwork-based feminist research, have translated into a kind of reflexivity that mainly focuses on examining the identities of the individual researchers rather than on the ways in which those identities intersect with institutional, geopolitical, and material specificities of their positionality. I then take this discussion forward by arguing for a postcolonial and transnational feminist praxis that focuses on (a) conceptualizing and implementing collaborative efforts that insist on crossing difficult borders; (b) the sites, strategies, and skills deployed to produce such collaborations; and (c) the specific processes through which such collaborations might find their form, content, and meaning. To ground this discussion, I draw on two collaborative initiatives that I undertook in Uttar Pradesh—the first with “Farah Ali,” a Muslim woman who shared her life story with me in the aftermath of 9/11 with an explicit aim of reentering the United States with her daughter, and the second with members of the Mahila Samakhya Programme in Sitapur (MSS), who were beginning to imagine the future of the organization, Sangtin. Chapter 4 ends with a poem, first written in Hindi and subsequently translated into English, in which I confront the limits of critique that we undertake as academics. At the same time, the process of writing and sharing the poem with women I had built close relationships with in MSS and Sangtin constituted, for me, important moments of learning how some forms of articulation travel and resonate more effectively across borders than others, and that embracing radical vulnerability as a mode of being and trusting, analyzing and building together has much to do with making this resonance possible. It was this belief in the possibility of coexisting resonances, furthermore, that led me to retain the poem in the final version of this essay despite criticism by two feminist geographers attending the conference in Singapore, who argued that the poem performed emotional manipulation in ways that contradicted my own critique of critical geographers’ predominant modes of engaging the question of representation.

The last two chapters of Muddying the Waters focus on the coauthorship that emerges from collaborative praxis: How might we approach the idea of coauthorship when critical engagement seeks to complicate the sites of knowledge making as well as the dominant ideas about what counts as valid knowledge? Even as these chapters resist, even foreclose, the possibility of anything resembling a typology or “tool kit” for practicing coauthorship, they provide insights into the labor and challenges of stepping into long-term journeys with co-learners and co-teachers across sociopolitical, geographical, linguistic, and institutional borders.

Chapter 5, “Traveling and Crossing, Dreaming and Becoming: Journeys after Sangtin Yatra,” is based on writing that I undertook with members of SKMS in Hindi and English between 2004 and 2012, as well as on my own reflections (shared with various academic and nonacademic audiences) on that writing. These include an invited essay coauthored with Richa Singh (Singh and Nagar 2006) and translated excerpts from SKMS’s Hindi book, Ek Aur Neemsaar (Nagar and Singh et al. 2012). The chapter traces the beginnings of the creative journey with sangtins that led to the making of Sangtin Yatra and analyzes the political battles that emerged from this yatra in multiple sites. In simultaneously documenting and critically examining the manner in which shared dreams and commitments evolve and fail in an alliance, it raises questions about professionalization, expertise, aspirations, and knowledge making in the context of movement building. It also engages the politics of language by weaving together multiple genres, writing styles, and idioms to tell the stories of SKMS after the publication of the books Sangtin Yatra and Playing with Fire and in its growth as a movement. At the same time, the chapter questions and complicates a romantic desire to seek lasting “sisterhood” or solidarity through alliance work. In highlighting the key moments in a collective journey, the reflections focus on the analytical frameworks and forms of knowledge that have emerged, as well as the dialogues triggered by our collaboration in multiple institutional sites—academic presses, NGOs, activist collectives, donor agencies, solidarity networks—and discussions of curriculum and structures of basic and primary education at the national level. Academic theories, reflexive activism, and critical pedagogy become interwoven and extended as members of the collective work in multiple sites to democratize hierarchical structures of knowledge production—and to rethink the meanings of the political—through collaborative praxis.

The final chapter ties together the insights gained from a twelve-year journey, chiefly with members of SKMS, in a loose and open-ended articulation of “Four Truths of Storytelling and Coauthorship in Feminist Alliance Work.” For those who work in alliances across borders, coauthoring stories can become a powerful tool to mobilize experience in order to write against relations of power that produce violence, and to imagine and enact contextually grounded visions and ethics of social change. Such work demands that we not only grapple with the complexities of identity, representation, and political imagination, but also rethink the assumptions and possibilities associated with engagement, expertise, and the very ideas of storytelling and authorship. Drawing on partnerships with sangtins and others, I reflect on the labor process, assumptions, possibilities, and risks associated with coauthorship as a medium for mobilizing intellectual spaces in which stories from multiple locations in an alliance can speak with one another and evolve into more nuanced critical interventions that destabilize dominant discourses and methodologies. Chapter 6 ends with the last scene of a play in Hindi and Awadhi that I coauthored with members and supporters of SKMS, Aag Lagi Hai Jangal Ma (The Forest Is Burning), in 2010. Even as this scene articulates the ways in which rural lives and livelihoods are relentlessly violated by structures of power and by our own complicities with those structures, it calls for continuing to place our hopes in fighting, dreaming, writing, and singing together.

The four truths underline the forever-entangled nature of theory, story, and strategy in coauthoring struggles through a praxis of radical vulnerability. The truth claims that are articulated in and through struggle are part of knowledge as movement. They cannot be foreshadowed or captured in a schema or model; they can only emerge from processes, from relationships, and from encounters and conversations; and they can only be identified and retold through anecdotes that are often slippery, indeterminate, subjective, and inseparable from the context in which they are experienced, felt, or uttered. Thus, there cannot be any universal truths or anecdotes that can be verified, falsified, or repeated—only an invitation to come up with more truths rooted in more journeys and relationships that must continuously unfold.

In Muddying the Waters, I retell tales in order to learn from the partial truths they have to offer. Is it possible to grapple seriously with questions of epistemic violence without giving up a belief in politically engaged scholarship? Can immersing ourselves in translations of struggles across multiple institutional, sociocultural, linguistic, and theoretical borders through a praxis of radical vulnerability make the processes and products of our labor simultaneously accountable to multiple interpretive communities? In wrestling with such questions throughout the book, I am deeply aware that many of those who have made it possible for me to craft my arguments here will remain distant from this book for myriad reasons. At the same time, I hope that these arguments will trigger conversations in and beyond the spaces of U.S. research universities among students, readers, and colleagues in Lucknow, Pune, New Delhi, Istanbul, Diyarbakir, Cape Town, and Pietermaritzburg; in organizations and struggles I have worked and learned with, made mistakes with, and celebrated victories with; among critics and interlocutors who might be suspicious of my claims as well as among those who think that there is a legitimate and useful place for this pursuit. What I offer here is a blending of genres, concerns, and meditations that may speak more to one audience than the other at a given time, but then switch to a more direct conversation with a specific audience. And through all of this, my objective remains simple: to nourish difficult collaborations, alliance-work, and coauthorship across borders—even if they seem impossible to undertake or sustain at times—so that we can continue to hope for sociopolitical and epistemic justice within, despite, and beyond our institutions and locations.





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