Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Course in Minority Literature

Life as Art, Art as Propaganda: Finding the Centre of Minority Writing

Following Gramsci, Gayatri Sprivak argued that subalterns are those groups and communities which fall outside the purview of the structure. They not only lack the voice, they do not even exist within the context of the socio-political structure.
Minority identity however has its existence within this defined structure. The ideal of the minority completes the binary of the mainstream. Therefore, for the mainstream to survive minorities must not only exist, it must remain in the periphery. Therefore, it’s an interesting hypothesis: What happens when a defined minority stops becoming such? Or what happens when a minority community gears up for the same rights the mainstream enjoys? But first, what is minority?

A minority is a sociological group that does not constitute a politically dominant voting majority of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority — it may include any group that is subnormal with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power. Dominant minority groups may include the following: Racial or ethnic minorities: Every large society contains ethnic minorities. They may be migrant, indigenous or landless nomadic communities; Gender and sexual minorities: An understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in the Western world since the 19th century. The acronym LGBTQ is currently used to group these identities together. While in most societies, numbers of men and women are roughly equal, the status of women as a "subordinate" group has led some to equate them with minorities; Religious minorities: Persons belonging to religious minorities have a faith which is different to that held by the majority; Age minorities: The elderly, while traditionally influential or dominant in the past, have in the modern age usually been reduced to the minority role. Children can also be understood as a minority group; Disabled minorities: The disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of disabled people as a minority or a coalition of minorities who are disadvantaged by society.

In the recent years, these and other various minority groups have produced their own literatures which not only question the binary of mainstream and minority and but also seek to disrupt it altogether. These literatures range from a sedate plea for equality for everyone to militant demand for rights. At best it offers insight to a community which till now was ignored or stereotyped, at worse it offers a picture of deep-rooted dissidence.

The current course will make an attempt to read these literatures from various minority groups in the context of the changing socio-political, militant ideology and will try to find an answer as to what these minority literatures seek do and what they have achieved.

The Course:
The course will read select writing from the gamut of minority literature in the context of the following:
a. Minority Writing as Opposed to Mainstream Writing: While mainstream writing seeks to be ‘universal’ to appeal to a diverse readership, the scope of minority writing is limited. It is personal at its best and political at its worse. Its focus of vision is always narrow, focused on an individual or a small group. It resists the idea of transcending from the immediate reality.
b. Art vs. Propaganda: Art is an end in itself; it does not serve any other purpose other than representation. On the other hand, propaganda is information spread for the purpose of promoting a cause. There is a common tendency where minority writing veers towards propaganda. Where does one draw the line between art and propaganda?
c. Language as a Sign of Difference: Language is a social construct, and the dominant language is always mainstream for example, Sanskrit in Ancient India and English in modern India. Even in the local languages, there are variations. In this context, it is interesting to see how the minority writing exploits the mainstream language, especially when a text written in a local language is translated into English.
d. Seeing Things: From Inside/From Outside: For a long time, the minority identities have been represented in literature by mainstream writers where even the sympathetic look at the identity comes from the outside. How does this change when a writer from a minority community decides to write for himself. Is there a possibility to compare and contrast Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Untouchable’ and Laxman Gaikwad’s ‘Branded?’
e. Minority Writing & the Audience: Who are the target audience of minority writing, the people who share the same identity and concerns or those outside the community and experience?
f. Art for Art’s Sake &Art for Activism: While art represents a reality, activism seeks to change the reality. Is it possible to use art as a tool for social change?
g. The Personal as Political: Unlike the mainstream writing, which seeks to universalise an experience, minority writing seeks to personalise an experience as the point of reference, where an individual becomes a political entity and a point of reference.
h. The Politics of Vocabulary: A minority identity essentially stems from the mainstream reality. It takes the existing structure and disrupts it. While doing so, minority identities appropriate certain mainstream constructs as part of their own political agenda. For example, the word ‘nigger’ has been appropriated by the black community in the US. The same way, the word ‘queer’ has been appropriated by the people of alternative sexuality.
i. Intolerance & Militancy: The mainstream seeks a homogenous social structure. The minorities seek to disrupt it. In this struggle, both the sides have to face intolerance and militancy, the reason why books are banned and writings are censored.
j. Social Construct & Economy: Money and power and the access to both define what makes a minority, for example, the Jews in Germany just before the rise of Hitler.
k. Positioning Identity: What the minority writings seek to achieve and how they have been successful in the Indian subcontinent?

The Course Design:
The course will study the above mentioned issues in modules. Each issue will be made into a module where the students will read selected texts, watch films and discuss the theories and discourses.

The following are selected authors/texts to be discussed in the course:
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Selected writings
Jyotirao Phule: Selected writings
Namdeo Dhasal: Selected poems and political writings
Laxman Mane: From Poison Bread
Laxman Gaikwad: Branded
Malcolm X: Selected writings
Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Jean Genet: The Thief’s Journal
Tony Morrison: The Bluest Eye
Sashi Deshpande: That Long Silence
Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing
Kamala Das: My Story
Mahasweta Devi: Arjun
Michel Foucault: Selected writings
Aswini Suktankar: Facing the Mirror
Hoshang Merchant: Yaraana
Pandey Bechan Sharma “Ugra”: About Me
Baby Haldar:

Course Hours:
Tentatively, the course should be completed in less than 30 teaching hours.

Course Evaluation:
Apart from the classroom discussions preceding/ followed by each module, students will be asked to prepare a presentation. They will also have to submit a paper at the end of the term, for which the students will choose their topics in consultation with the instructor.

Course Designed By
Dibyajyoti Sarma

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