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Friday, January 13, 2006

I like the way that Barb has persisted in questioning her relationship to the Fil Am community. Questions of accessibility, of transgression and pushing boundaries, of relevance outside of the poet/artist/academic community.

When I'm teaching a classroom of mostly white, upper and middle class, heterosexual students, I challenge them to move away from the Center and the privileges of that location as they encounter texts by "ethnic" authors whose work appears inaccessible and incomprehensible to them. For example, they complain that they have a hard time understanding Leslie Marmon Silko (in a videodocumentary) because she gestures a lot, speaks in a metaphysical language, she doesn't talk in a linear way, etc. It never occurs to them that this perceived incommensurability requires that they let go of their culturally and socially-conditioned expectations about what a good interview should be. When they complain that: "if she has anything to say to me, why doesn't she speak in a language that I can understand?" I do not let them off easily; instead I challenge their assumptions and then make them do the extra work of moving away from the Center and towards the margins. This is my academic work.

Community: Two weeks ago, I was asked to read (for the first time) by the local Fil Am community. The community was celebrating the opening of its small library and the annual christmas party. I have a tenuous relationship with the community because I am not able to immerse myself in its activities (a requirement of belonging); yet I sense their acknowledgement as being one of them on occasions like this. Things didn't go exactly as I had planned but I made adjustments according to what I sensed were appropriate to the moment. Instead of reading from my books as I had planned, I quickly changed to a more interactive mode of addressing the audience. As everything shifted (the time, the program sequence), so did my own expectations. At one point, they told me to keep talking because the pot roast for the luncheon hasn't arrived. So I kept talking and I paused every so often to ask if the pot roast has arrived. Everyone seemed happy, a few books were bought, and the party continued.

There is a lot of ambivalence that I experience when I'm in community settings. But I don't think that I "dumb down" or "talk down to the masses" -- I hope I don't anyway, as I feel that would be a very patronizing stance that is undeserved. A friend who is a cultural activist and mainly trained in popular education once told me that the relationship between scholars and community workers is a symbiotic one. "We need your theories and you need our data" is how he put it but he also insisted that the burden of responsibility lies more on the scholar if she wants to be relevant, and more importantly, to be heard.

Some community members who have read my work say that it's difficult to understand because it's too academic. I am also aware that other Fil Am scholars do not think of my work as being rigorously academic enough and, therefore, not taken seriously. (There are also those, however, who tell me they appreciate my "critical interventions.") I notice the academic cliques that form. I do not mind my location on the margins of both. I can only be myself, after all.

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