Spring '00

"Prof. Mohan, I'm reluctant to talk in class because I'm afraid I'll sound ignorant or insensitive"

One student said this to me some years ago, when I was teaching "Postcolonial Women Writers," and her words set me thinking about what we face when we read any text, but especially texts that speak to or issue from contexts unfamiliar to us. I wrote the paragraphs that follow, largely from my own struggles as a reader.

What makes us good readers? Wide-ranging knowledge of the culture and history of the country from which the books emerge--this can be acquired by book learning; a range of life experiences is useful; careful and insightful reading; self awareness. Taken together these ingredients offer good defenses against the readers' vices of ignorance and insensitivity. At the same time we must realize that as people, as readers, we never complete our learning or our life experience. And so we must be avoid a false sense of security, and insupportable authoritative claim to certitude and finality that our analyses cannot have. As Renato Rosaldo says, "All interpretations are provisional; they are made by positioned subjects who are prepared to know certain things and not others. Even when knowledgeable, sensitive, fluent in the language, and able to move easily in an alien cultural world, good [readers] have their limits, and their analyses always are incomplete" ("Grief and a Headhunter's Rage," 8). In other words, any understanding we--I as well as you--have of the texts we read is partial, limited, and changeable, for our interpretations are rooted in our experiences (as people who are readers) and in what the words say to us. Expertise can only be gained by hard work and authenticity is irrelevant to interpretation.

There are some stances we can adopt usefully. We must be careful not to attribute recklessly our own categories and experiences to members of another culture. That is, we must avoid facile notions of universal human nature. At the same time, however, we cannot assume that apart from our group, everything human is alien to us. "One hopes to achieve a balance between recognizing wide-ranging human differences and the modest truism that any two human groups must have certain things in common" (Rosaldo, 5).

Our task as readers is to understand the texts' renderings of love, marriage, family life, motherhood, childhood, ambition, etc., as emerging within a field of social relations. We must understand the subject's --the author's, narrator's, character's, readers'--position as taking its meaning within this field. Our aim is also to understand our activities as those of positioned (and repositioned) subjects. We might begin with a set of questions, revise them as we proceed on our readings, and in the end emerge with a different set of questions from what we started with.

Send me your responses to what I've posted, and we can get a discussion going.