Hello! The Escritoire is a blog category that I’ve been meaning to use for quite some time, a place to write about my process as an author. I’ve decided to expand on that to write about my process and challenges as an academic as well. This is only the first of what I hope will be a series of posts. And this one is more general because it’s an introduction.
I call myself a postcolonial Gothic academic. What does that entail? Are my priorities, for instance, different from those of Gothic academics from the first world and the Northern hemisphere?
Not automatically, I’d declare. We all come from the same place of loving literature, all that is spooky, and sublime. What propels me towards Gothic literary scholarship is the same thing that propels me towards being an SFF author with Gothic roots and propensities. It’s in the stories I read, it’s in the philosophies and literary criticisms I devour as though they were page-turning thrillers. It is fueled by a sepulchral fascination with my own night-terrors, my fears and paranoias.
When I teach my Masters in Literature course on Gothic Literature in Popular Culture and Media, I tell my students that I am drawn to this topic because I am afraid, and I want to know why I’m afraid. That inquisitiveness about the darker aspects of the human psyche informs my fiction-writing as well. I am not always political. I am more inclined towards exploring the intimate minutiae of human nature, the ways in which we screw up, the things that influence us, the things that draw us against our better nature.
And one of the things I love about Gothic literary criticism is that it gives me an apparatus within which I can explore the intersections between the supernatural and the personal, the gruesome and the sublime. Also, some of the best written literary scholarship out there are by Gothic scholars, displaying an intimate understanding of the written word coupled with the complicity of psyches that wallow and delight in the manifestations of the Night and all it brings.
And yet — as a South East Asian, I have often felt alienated by this tradition as well. Why is that? Well, I don’t think people automatically set out to make me/us feel alienated, to be fair. But most of Gothic scholarship is centered on the west, and even when it looks outwards, that centrality is still set in place. We write from the margins, we are studied in the margins. There’s this kind of possessiveness about the Gothic I’ve encountered during conferences as well, a kind of hostility that I’ve experienced (but will not expand upon on this blog).
In that most famous tract on the postcolonial Gothic that I problematised in my PhD dissertation, the ontology of the postcolonial Gothic is linked to loss, of never being able to return to a point of origin. The Gothic Other then, should revel in her state of being, a state of loss — content only to be a revenant.
In one of the comments made by a PhD examiner, she asked me to make very clear that I understood that the supernatural elements I was studying were psychological “vehicles” and to make the Lacanian slant clearer. I acquiesced of course — but here’s the thing…
Here in South East Asia, horrors stalk us everywhere. In corridors. In our dreams. We may have relatives who are yogis, or who are witch doctors. We have tales about saka, and bunian, and pontianak and penanggalan. These stories aren’t “metaphors” of colonial subjugation, or of our loss of culture. They don’t exist to be picked apart by western apparatuses as manifestations of our collective psyches.They are part and parcel of our world, our unempirical superstitions. And while as a scholar I take the stance of empirical distance — choosing to study these aspects of literature from an analytical and psychological point of view, I know that when I take out the trash after 8pm, I shouldn’t look left or right. I know I am saying prayers under my breath. I know the fine line we walk. A fine line we talk about unempirically and without irony. Yes, even in academia. And we’re not talking about it because we want to analyse our psyches. We’re talking about it because we know that the buildings we inhabit have a culture, a history, and sightings that only idiots wouldn’t respond to with caution.
Are they somehow psychic manifestations? Are people all collectively deranged? I suppose to the West it would seem like it. I am far more empirical than most in these parts and do take quite a few things with a pinch of salt. But I have seen and experienced too much not to be careful even so.
These are the things that distance me from the hallowed halls of Gothic academic scholarship in the first world. Things I don’t write about as a scholar but which I address in my fictions. We have stories about the bunian in my estranged maternal family as well. What did I do with those stories? I turned them SFnal, created an entire empire from the stories and the night-terrors I inherited.
The freedom I do not get as an academic, I expand into my fictions. But as an academic I ask different questions. I cannot ask the same distant questions as an academic in the first world. Yes, I delight in all of those early Gothic writings. Yes, I have read Burke more times than I care to admit, and I’ve been a huge Romantic since my teenage years when I read Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and Keats more times than I care to tell you. I read Coleridge when I was eight years old. This has been my whole life, this sad colonial legacy that grew into a passion and inquisitiveness for the Gothic spaces around me (although some would declare that only English spaces are Gothic spaces, forgetting that the philosophical, literary and theoretical roots and influences of the Gothic come from Europe and to a certain extent, the Middle East).
The colonial mansion I grew up in, the low-cost homes built in the 80s and the 90s we lived in, post-parental divorce were so Gothic and looms so large in my dreamscapes that I’ve written more than one story about it. My land is teeming with ghosts, revenants and stories. And yes, we use different words for it. Not “sublime” or “Gothic” or “revenants” but the experiences are cognates to those distilled in the theory books that I read.
I will always cherish and be grateful to the canon and body of Gothic literary scholarship for the apparatus they provided so I could explore my fears, desires, and understand better not just these tales, but how I react to them. But the apparatus is limited. The apparatus is made to study US. We need to study and understand OURSELVES. And here’s the crossroads I am at as a Gothic scholar. One I’ve been at in the past two years since leading two research grants which diverge into genre and gothic — both from Malaysians and from the African Diaspora.
It’s a crossroads of which I am painfully aware every time I teach the Gothic and ask students to tell me about their own fears, their own stories, their own perspectives.
We are not revenants, walking without souls. We are not monstrosities, condemned to forever exist in the marginalia of eurocentric Gothicised discourse. We live, we breathe in an air made thick with nightmares but we belong wholly and solely to ourselves. And this is what I bring with me on the next step on my journey as a postcolonial Gothic scholar (and author).