How might a queer lens unearth different conceptions of space and place? How do queer diasporic artists use aesthetics to forge transnational connections? How might radical relationality provide a model for queer ethics and politics?

In episode 69 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with queer diaspora studies scholar Gayatri Gopinath about how visual culture allows us to draw alternative cartographies and see things queerly, how diasporic communities are using art to challenge national governments and transnational capitalism, the radical possibilities of region-to-region connections across the Global South, and why mentoring queer scholars of color is such a vital part of how Gayatri imagines otherwise.

Guest: Gayatri Gopinath

Gayatri Gopinath is an associate professor of social and cultural analysis as well as the director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. She works at the intersections of transnational feminist and queer studies, postcolonial studies, and diaspora studies. She’s also the author of the book Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, which was published by Duke University Press. Gayatri’s new book, which we talk about in our interview, is called Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora and will be out in November 2018 by Duke University Press. Gayatri’s scholarship on gender, sexuality, and queer diasporic cultural production has been published in the journals GLQ, Social Text, positions, the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, and Diaspora, as well as the edited collections The Sun Never Sets: South Asians in the Age of US Empire, Political Emotions, and The Blackwell Companion to LGBT Studies.

We chatted about

  • Gayatri’s new book Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (02:04)
  • The region versus the nation in theorizing diaspora (04:02)
  • Aesthetics as a queer practice (06:46)
  • Recent developments in queer studies (08:50)
  • The importance of mentoring early career queer scholars of color (10:42)
  • Imagining otherwise (14:02)

Purple, green, and blue bokeh background. Text reads "What would it mean to live your life knowing that your life is bound up, intimately bound up, with those who seem so distant from you? Gayatri Gopinath on episode 69 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast"Takeaways

Gayatri’s new book Unruly Visions

The book focuses on queer visual aesthetic practices, which I call more specifically the “aesthetic practices of queer diaspora.” I define this as visual practices that engage with questions of migration, gender and sexual formations, and different diasporic or geographic locations. One of the central points that I’m trying to argue is that these aesthetic practices give us a queer optic and this is an optic that allows us to see differently. It allows us to see connections between various formations that have historically been obscured within conventional historiography.

The region as a site of diasporic identity formation

So you ask why the region and it’s really my attempt to shift the focus of diaspora away from the nation. If you think about the typical ways in which diaspora has been formulated, it’s always in relation to the nation. The nation becomes the constant and inevitable reference point for diaspora. The nation is that which diasporic subjects leave, that they return to or long to return to. So what I’m saying is that in fact thinking not so much about diaspora–nation but diaspora–region allows for all kinds of different social and political formations to become apparent that are in fact occluded within nationalist narratives.

The diasporic queerness of visual culture

Visuality has always been central to my work. My first book, Impossible Desires, was trying to suggest a model of visuality, a queer reading practice that was about seeing differently so that queer desires and bodies that were unintelligible within standard formulations of diaspora, of nation, as well as of queerness were made apparent….In this book [Unruly Visions], I’m extending that argument and I’m looking at how what I’m calling the aesthetic practices of queer diaspora disrupt dominant ways of both seeing and knowing. I think all my work has been very conscious of how colonial ways of seeing are central to colonial ways of knowing, surveying, and disciplining bodies, populations, and landscapes. And I think we are all aware of how visuality is such a contested terrain and that the ways of seeing and knowing instantiated under colonial modernity continue to shape our present.

The growth of queer diaspora studies

The very fact that queer diaspora studies is a field now, a recognized field, is sort of still remarkable to me because when I was beginning to write my dissertation in the mid-to-late 1990s, there really weren’t many models out there to emulate within queer studies of queer work that engaged questions of race, migration, and diaspora. So it was really daunting in terms of imagining the field of possibility for what I wanted to do. What I see now, some fifteen, twenty years later is that queer diaspora studies, but even more generally queer of color scholarship, has become really central to queer studies.

Mentoring early career queer scholars of color

What I hope to do is give students a model for the kind of queer work they can do within academia but also to model for them what it means to move through academia as a person of color and especially as a queer person of color. I think for many of us, the profession can feel quite toxic at times. It can feel demoralizing. For many of us as people of color, as queer people of color, we often feel like we don’t belong. We have to continuously prove ourselves, our right to be in the room, the legitimacy of what we want to study. So I hope I offer my students a model for how to navigate this really tricky terrain because even as I think we’ve made a huge impact within the field of gender and sexuality studies with the work that queer of color scholars do, that queer diaspora studies scholars do, I think it’s a different question when it comes to how much we are being valued within the institution itself.

Imagining otherwise

The world [I’m working toward] would be one where each of us moves from a place that recognizes radical relationality—the ways in which our fates are deeply intertwined with all other things, all other beings, human and nonhuman, around us. I think that’s really what my book is about ultimately: the unexpected interconnections between apparently radically dissimilar formations. What would it mean to live your life knowing that your life is radically bound up, intimately bound up, with those who seem so distant from you? I think you’d have to move in a really different way, make really different decisions in your life. I think that’s the beauty of the art that I’m looking at—it forces us to grapple with that radical relationality.

More from Gayatri

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 69 and my guest today is Gayatri Gopinath. Gayatri is an associate professor of social and cultural analysis as well as the director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. She works at the intersections of transnational feminist and queer studies, postcolonial studies, and diaspora studies. She’s also the author of the book Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, which was published by Duke University Press. Gayatri’s new book, which we talk about in our interview, is called Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora and will be out in November 2018 by Duke University Press. Gayatri’s scholarship on gender, sexuality, and queer diasporic cultural production has been published in the journals GLQ, Social Text, positions, the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, and Diaspora, as well as the edited collections The Sun Never Sets: South Asians in the Age of US Empire, Political Emotions, and The Blackwell Companion to LGBT Studies.

In our interview, Gayatri and I chat about how visual culture allows us to draw alternative cartographies and see things queerly, how diasporic communities are using art to challenge national governments and transnational capitalism, the radical possibilities of region-to-region connections across the Global South, and why mentoring queer scholars of color is such a vital part of how Gayatri imagines otherwise.

[To Gayatri] Thank you so much for being with us, Gayatri.

Gayatri Gopinath [01:49]: Thank you so much for having me. This is really a lovely opportunity,

Cathy [01:52]: So I would love to dive in by talking about your fabulous forthcoming book, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora diaspora. Can you give our listeners a little bit of an overview of what that book?

Gayatri [02:04]: Sure. What I’m trying to do in the book is bring queer studies to bear on diaspora studies and studies of visuality. So I’m thinking about diaspora and sexuality and visuality together. The book focuses on queer visual aesthetic practices, which I call more specifically the aesthetic practices of queer diaspora. I define this [the aesthetic practices of queer diaspora] as visual practices that engage with questions of migration, gender and sexual formations, and different diasporic or geographic locations. So one of the central points that I’m trying to argue is that these aesthetic practices give us a queer optic and this is an optic that allows us to see differently. It allows us to see connections between various formations that have historically been obscured within conventional historiography. So I’m saying that these are aesthetic practices that give us a different lens, both into the past and, and into the future. It’s in the space of the aesthetic that we can see these connections that are typically obscured and these are connections across geographies, across various social formations, and across various temporalities.

Cathy [03:20]: So one of the things that I was really intrigued by in this book is how you talk about a kind of personal connection that you have two different regions of the globe through connecting to your earlier scholarship but also your familial house and your familial history in Kerala [a region in southern India], the regional Kerala, and you use this personal connection to talk about these broader historical and geographic structures. I’m curious what draws you to the concept of region as both super-national (exceeding the nation) but also subnational (kind of smaller than the nation) as a way to connect diasporic, historical, political, and relationships. Why the region?

Gayatri [04:02]: Yeah. So, that’s one of the crucial points that I’m making in the book—trying to combine a discussion of the region with aesthetics and archive and affect. So those are sort of the four terms that I’m playing with. So you ask why the region and it’s really my attempt to shift the focus of diaspora away from the nation. If you think about the typical ways in which diaspora has been formulated, it’s always in relation to the nation. The nation becomes the is the constant and inevitable reference point for diaspora. The nation is that which diasporic subjects leave, that they return to or long to return to. So what I’m saying is that in fact thinking not so much about diaspora–nation but diaspora–region allows for all kinds of different social and political formations to become apparent that are in fact occluded within nationalist narratives.

[05:04] So in relation to a space like Kerala for instance, I’m interested in the alternative gender and sexual formations that may exist in the space of the region that is seen as sort of this eccentric marginal space in relation to the nation and that therefore gets occluded with a nationalist historiography. I’m placing texts together that otherwise wouldn’t be seen in relation. So I’m looking at South Asian diasporic art practices along with Middle Eastern, Indigenous Australia, etc. These are texts that otherwise wouldn’t be seen as having anything to do with one another.

My book opens with an image from the artist Akram Zaatari. Zaatari is a Lebanese artist, a contemporary Lebanese artist, who excavates a regional photographic archive from south Lebanon to bring its queer valence fore. He’s implying in his work that this space of south Lebanon tells us a different story than what we can get from a kind of broader nationalist historiography. The story of the region is not the story of the nation. I would also say that thinking through the region rather than the nation allows us a different kind of cartography. So we can think of region-to-region connectivities, Global South connections that could connect south Lebanon to south India. So this is a different cartography that puts into conversation spaces that are seen as radically dissimilar.

Cathy [06:43]: What got you interested in visual culture and aesthetics?

Gayatri [06:46]: Visuality has always been central to my work. So my first book, Impossible Desires, was trying to suggest a model of visuality, a queer reading practice that was about seeing differently so that queer desires and bodies that were unintelligible within standard formulations of diaspora, of nation, as well as of queerness were made apparent. So there’s a real continuity, I think between these two books. And in this book [Unruly Visions], I’m extending that argument and I’m looking at how what I’m calling the aesthetic practices of queer diaspora disrupt dominant ways of both seeing and knowing.

I think all my work has been very conscious of how colonial ways of seeing are central to colonial ways of knowing, surveying, and disciplining bodies, populations, and landscapes. And I think we are all aware of how visuality is such a contested terrain and that the ways of seeing and knowing instantiated under colonial modernity continue to shape our present.

[07:47] So I think all my work has really been interested in the creative ways in which queer aesthetic practices disrupt these dominant ways of seeing and knowing. So just as it has been central to these hegemonic ideologies of race, of gender, of sexuality, so too does vision (and the politics of vision) become central to the contestations of those ideologies. I do think that the aesthetic in general is also a place we have to go because that’s where some of the most powerful political critiques are being articulated. The aesthetic is not beholden to the pragmatic. It’s a place where those connections actually become tangible and palpable.

Cathy [08:28]: In the book, you talk a lot about the kind of transitions or transformations that you’ve seen in the field of queer diaspora studies and you’re one of the founders, the cofounders of this field. It’s changed so radically since the early two 2000s and I’m curious at this stage in your career, at this stage as a scholar, what’s been really exciting for you in terms of seeing that field evolve?

Gayatri [08:49]: Yeah, I think that’s what was exciting or interesting to me about writing the introduction to this book in particular because it allowed me to sort of look back at the last ten or fifteen years of a scholarship and think about where the field has gone. I would have to say that the very fact that queer diaspora studies is a field now, a recognized field, is sort of still remarkable to me because when I was beginning to write my dissertation in the late 1990s, the mid-to-late 1990s, there really weren’t many models out there to emulate within queer studies of queer work that engaged questions of race, migration, and diaspora. So it was really daunting in terms of imagining the field of possibility for what I wanted to do. So you know, what I see now, some fifteen, twenty years later is that queer diaspora studies, but even more generally queer of color scholarship, has become really central to queer studies.

[09:52] And for junior scholars, for folks just entering grad school, there’s this vast body of work that they can draw on. That’s certainly not something I could have imagined twenty years ago. The queer work that I find most exhilarating right now is work that engages with critical disability studies, Indigenous studies, trans studies, that thinks about the boundaries of the human and the nonhuman. So queer diaspora studies is now sort of one node, one critical node in this sort of expanded sense of what queer studies can be. You know, I just find myself very inspired by some of the new work that’s coming out now.

Cathy: Have you found that you have a lot of opportunities to do mentoring of younger or early-career queer diaspora studies scholars?

Gayatri [10:45]: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s really important to me in terms of how I see my place in the academy. And so I work with folks not only at NYU but really throughout the country and even internationally. It’s important for me to offer that kind of mentorship. Actually I was just given a mentoring award by the LGBTQ students on campus and that was, I have to tell you, that was one of the most moving and meaningful awards that I’ve received.

What I hope to do is give students a model for the kind of queer work they can do within academia but also to model for them what it means to move through academia as a person of color and especially as a queer person of color. I think for many of us, the profession can feel quite toxic at times. It can feel demoralizing. I think for many of us as people of color, as queer people of color, we often feel like we don’t belong. We have to continuously prove ourselves, our right to be in the room, the legitimacy of what we want to study. So I hope I offer my students a model for how to navigate this really tricky terrain because even as I think we’ve made a huge impact within the field of gender and sexuality studies—the work that queer of color scholars do, that queer diaspora studies scholars do—I think it’s a different question when it comes to how much we are being valued within the institution itself.

Cathy [12:09]: I’m curious how you see your work mentoring students, as a scholar, the various kinds of projects that you’re a part of, how you see those things combining your interest in academia or scholarship with your interest in visual culture or art as well as social justice activism.

Gayatri [12:25]: I think my work has always been inspired by the activism I see around me. So my first book [Impossible Desires], it really couldn’t have been written without my involvement and queer of color activism in New York City in the 1990s. And it emerged out of the really creative ways in which I saw queer diasporic folks navigating these really complicated terrains around migration and sexuality and race. And so that was the inspiration for me to write my first book: the creative ways in which folks both created expressive culture but also how they used dominant culture and transformed it. That became the basis of my first book. And now I find myself, I guess we all find ourselves, at this really alarming moment in history. And I think it’s easy to feel quite demoralized by this moment. But I find myself very inspired by what I’m calling the unruly visions of the artists I write about. They’re the ones creating these other worlds that far exceed the here and now and that imagine these other ways of being in the world, to cite the title of your podcast.

Cathy [13:36]: I think that’s actually a really nice dovetail into my final question, which kind of gets at the so what, the big why behind all of this—which is that that world that you’re working towards. You mentioned some of the worlds that these artists are creating, but I’m curious about your vision, and I know there’s definitely going to be some overlap here. What is that world that you’re working towards when you step in front of a class, when you mentor students, when you write your scholarship kind of world? What world do you want?

Gayatri [14:03]: That’s such a good question. And it gets at the heart of everything we do. And I would say that world [I’m working toward] would be one where each of us moves from a place that recognizes radical relationality—the ways in which our fates are deeply intertwined with all other things, all other beings, human and nonhuman, around us. I think that’s really what my book is about ultimately: the unexpected interconnections between apparently radically dissimilar formations. So what would it mean to live your life knowing that your life is radically bound up, intimately bound up, with those who seem so distant from you? I think you’d have to move in a really different way, make really different decisions in your life. I think that’s the beauty of the art that I’m looking at—it forces us to grapple with that radical relationality.

Cathy: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing how you imagine and create otherwise.

Gayatri: Thank you so much, Cathy. Thank you for the work that you’re doing too.

Cathy [15:12]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]