Interview with Dr. Kamil Ahsan of South Asian Avant-Garde: A Dissident Literary Anthology
The following interview is between Dr. Natalie Deam, visual arts editor for Flyway, and Dr. Kamil Ahsan, managing editor of the South Asian Avant-Garde (SAAG): A Dissident Literary Anthology, who has also published with Flyway. Dr. Ahsan is an environmental historian and interdisciplinary scholar with a Ph.D. in Developmental Biology and an M.A. in History of Science from the University of Chicago, currently a doctoral student in History at Yale working on the history of coral reefs.
I’d love to hear you describe your work with the South Asian Avant-Garde: A Dissident Literary Anthology, or SAAG. What’s the cutting edge like these days? Have you seen any new themes emerging in environmental writing or the avant garde in particular?
One of the questions that we have put down at the center of this project is what is the avant-garde right now and what is the geographical specificity of saying there is even such a thing as the South Asian avant-garde. There’s plenty of historical claims either way and we do have an interview series where we have people weighing in on that, which is a valuable conversation to have. But when I first started reaching out to editors to join the team my impulse was to recognize a few things: first, a media landscape that focuses on representation in ways that are shorn of actual values and principles. One of them for instance, is labor. I find that literary passion projects that center minorities far too often expect writers to contribute for free because it should be a fun thing to do to be part of a minority collective. I feel like the complete opposite should be expected. It should be expected that if you’re doing something of that nature then you’re going to properly remunerate people because you value their labor.
The other part of it is that I don’t particularly find there to be a space for the 25% of the global population that South Asians and the diaspora represent. It was hard for me to think about a multi-disciplinary outlet that actually gave space to leftist voices in reporting, fiction, translation, poetry, essays, and multimedia in a way that was truly cohesive and sustained. If we took a page out of the Latin Americanists for instance, we have a publishing house, New Directions NDP, which is widely known as a venue for publishing avant-garde writing and largely translated work. I think it’s surprising for a lot of people, when they read Borges and Bolaño, how radical they really are. And the reason I think it’s surprising for people is that writing in the non-anglophone tradition has sustained socialist and radical politics in ways that we have missed. It is hard for English-language speakers sometimes to understand that maybe there’s better work that’s being done in other languages that really pertains more to their politics. We have to really work to try and recognize it. The industry doesn’t particularly value that labor either. For example, Urdu is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and so many of the most famous Urdu writers have never been translated. This is true for pretty much every dialect and every language across South Asia. It’s a shame, and I don’t want to focus specifically on translation because it’s only one part of SAAG’s project, but I think it’s a good emblem for what the overarching project is trying to do, which is that it’s trying to tease out the critical interventions that people are making constantly at the margins of publishing and publishing industries that are rarely recognized. It’s less about the notion of the avant-garde, which might be a more emergent property of what we produce, and not so much something that we need to focus on.
Another example would be art and activism. For instance, we have an interview very recently with Aqui Thami, who runs something called “Sister Library.” She goes from city to city with a curated library that is tailored towards the communities they’re doing outreach towards. Before and during the pandemic they have been providing spaces for low-income people, people from the slums, people coming home from factories, for child care, providing spaces for women who work in those industries to provide relief for them and a space for them to gather knowledge. And also to provide resources for people who cannot read to be able to be given that knowledge such that knowledge making is no longer only within the domain of literacy— which is how we’ve been thinking about it in the modern era for so long! And I find that just fascinating. I mean who knew that art activism could be that beautifully well-wrought and well thought out?
What are you hoping to achieve with SAAG?
We’re trying to do something huge, but one of the things that I really hope for SAAG is that I really want the people who fancy lit mags to sit up and take notice of a few things:
The first is that you can represent us by representing more radical voices. You don’t have to choose the most tepid among us. It is not incumbent on you to do that. You can go there, allow yourself to give us a bigger landscape and a bigger canvas to paint on, because we have radical dreams and radical futures.
Flipping that on its side, I would also really encourage people to start thinking about minority projects as projects that not only minorities should care about. I have friends who are white and are more invested in SAAG than plenty of South Asians I know. We could sit here all year trashing white people, but that’s really completely unnecessary. The real truth of the matter is that if I saw a minority community that I was not in trying to excavate avant-garde work, art and literature, multi-media work and present it in a way that could be accessed from anywhere in the world, I would be tuned in because it feels important.
That’s why things like Propublica and the Marshall Project in journalism feel so important. It would be nice if every so often white writers and artists thought “Hey, my money would be well deserved and well sought after in this fundraiser, too, because I would genuinely gain from this perspective.”
As an example, this is a story I did not know of before our interview with Aladdin Ullah, a playwright, actor, and theatre-maker, who talked about Bengali Harlem. A lot of people don’t know this, but before the bulk of the Indian-American diaspora and the now Pakistani diaspora migrated to the US, the Bangladeshi diaspora moved there earlier. At the time they were part of East Pakistan, because this was prior to 1971. Where did they go? They went to Harlem, where they shaped their arts and cultures and theatre-making practices around Black artists and musicians and playwrights. That’s why now there is such a thing known as Bengali Harlem, because their practices are so imbricated with the African American culture of Harlem. That’s a history that is so forgotten, but it explains so much for the current moment. For instance, within the Asian American community, Bangladeshi Americans are one of the poorest demographics. Why is it that Indian Americans and Pakistani Americans are among the more affluent and Bangladeshi Americans are not? What is the real distance between them? It’s really when and where that migration occurred to. That’s fascinating to me! I would find that fascinating even if it was about any other community, and I’m not Bangladeshi. So that kind of story and that kind of excavation matters to me, whether it’s the 1619 Project or whether it’s Bengali Harlem, and I think it should matter to everyone, which is why it’s something that I really hope that we succeed at making clear with SAAG.
What is the best way to support SAAG?
Please point people to our website. Here is the fundraiser link: aaww.org/saag, with a three minute video that really encapsulates what we’re trying to do in as tight a manner as possible. But if people want to really delve into the substantive material they can watch our interviews on our website: saaganthology.com/interviews, on Youtube, or on Twitter.
I would love to hear about what else you’re working on now. In particular I’m interested in your work on coral reefs. Coming from your interdisciplinary academic background, what draws you to the reef in particular, what does it mean to you, and how do you think about the way the reef operates as a sign of precarity and our failure to rise to environmental crises and also as this infinite well of creative inspiration and biodiversity?
Three things- and the first you’ve already articulated, which is the precarity of it, and the urgency of doing historical work on coral reefs right now. It almost feels like I’m running against the clock because of the precarity and the danger of losing the world’s coral reefs and the vast ecosystem that indigenous people have known for so long. It is a site of such danger and precarity and loss and devastation and sadness that creates the affective loss of the coral reef. I haven’t done any oral history thus far, but I’ve read a lot of accounts, particularly by indigenous people, and they show that the time scales are even more accelerated than say for the melting of the arctic glaciers: say, by 2030 they might have gone extinct. We literally have less than a decade, we’re losing them so fast, and every year we’re breaking records of coral bleaching. So the temporality of reefs, within the already extremely constrained temporality of climate change— which is that somehow within this extremely constrained status quo political system that refuses to change, somehow we’re going to have to either manage or die—even within that temporality, coral reefs are on an even much smaller temporality. It’s like a case study of precarity within precarity.
The second thing is scale —famously, you can see the immensity of coral reefs from outer space. Coming from the history of science lens, the thing about coral reefs is that they have been studied at literally every level of scientific understanding that you can think of. Imagine it like a microscope lens, you’re zooming in and zooming out. So what I find fascinating is not so much the science but this constant knitting of one scale above another. The thing that I’m really intrigued by is thinking about how you tell a history of the coral reef as a landscape, as an ecosystem, as an entity, by traversing all these scales of thought and all these scales of understanding when they’re all so contingent on when they’re understood.
The third and final thing is that corals reefs have a very thin historiography; it’s not very well studied. In Coral Empire by Ann Elias, she argues that in the beginning to mid-twentieth century coral reefs became a symbol of modernity. Interestingly, it actually connects with the avant-garde because the surrealists and in particular Andre Breton picked up on the coral reef’s diversity as this symbol for proliferating diversity and life but also danger, this paradoxical element. This led to these massive dioramas that you see in museums and the spectacle they created like on Time magazine’s cover. Coral photography is a huge deal even today, and the advances in coral photography have become an industry. So really coral reefs are a site for much bigger things than themselves— and there’s already so much muchness in reefs themselves—but they’re also symbols for modernity writ large and how human beings conceptualize what the modern is and what the avant-garde is or what science is or what progress is. So it’s just a site of such rich intellectual inquiry that I was drawn to it not just because of my background in biology but because it felt like it struck every other chord in my repertoire.
The story that you published with Flyway, “It Skipped a Generation” offers a series of monologues delivered from parent to child that takes on so many questions about the environment and race and our precarious situation, particularly the risks that climate change poses to marginalized communities and people of color. I wonder about the inter-generational historical perspective that you take on in that story and in light of your environmental history of the coral reef, what can you say about the value of our history of science and environmental history for artists and creators concerned about climate change?
I’ll be honest; fiction is the one practice of mine that I feel the most nascent at. Reportage, and essays in particular, is my core practice because I feel like it brings together my interests in the most prismatic of ways because I get to deal with things transparently and obliquely and refractively. But fiction is an interesting place for me to play. I’m still figuring out my place in it. That story was 100% animated by environmental history. I started writing it after reading Donald Worster’s The Dust Bowl, which is one of the works that people argue quite literally started the field of environmental history.
What I was trying to get at this from the perspective of having read the histories, was a sort of grief I felt that I didn’t know the histories already. I think that everyone feels this way in the certain degree— you know that feeling you get when you’re old enough to see your parents as human beings and not just your parents? History feels like that to me sometimes because it feels like I missed out on something. Something that was maybe even happening while I was alive but I don’t know it and that’s sad.
One of the saddest things to me I think is that so many Americans contain within them the story of the economic depression of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl and the absolute devastation. They carry it within them as historical legacies because they’re children of people who underwent those things. Just as one day — hopefully, if climate change doesn’t kill us all—many of our children are going to be products of the current economic depression and this current pandemic. What is the statute of limitations in terms of knowing that history and remembering it? It seems to me that it’s a lot shorter than we would like it to be.
That level of historical loss is profound and that really animated that story. I think it’s profound not just because it permeates our culture but our familial relationships. I cannot truly understand my parents and my grandparents if I do not understand the crises that they lived through. That’s part of what that story was about, and one of the bonds I was able to share with Kartika, the editor I worked with at Flyway. It wasn’t just about the broad things I’m talking about, but this very affective level of sadness that I feel if I don’t know that my grandparents literally lived through the Dust Bowl and survived to tell the tale and I wasn’t listening to them when they told me.
I wonder about the ways that this is particularly important when we talk about environmental destruction and climate change. When you’re working on environmental historical projects like with the coral reef, as well as the excavation work you’re doing at SAAG, what are you drawn to? Are you drawn to people’s voices, materials and lifeforms, difference or similarity across history? Where does your inspiration lead you?
My go-to is my agenda, the thing that the objective scholar or journalist is not supposed to have—as if there is such a thing as an objective scholar, right? That doesn’t exist. As a Marxist scholar who wants to think about these things in terms of power and structures and systems of oppression— this world riven by racial capitalism that we are now currently smack dab in the middle of thinking about and being forced to think about— that informs my practice more than anything else.
So in that way my politics and my agenda are a very important part for me, but that doesn’t necessarily always tell me how my storytelling is going to go, and it doesn’t always demonstrate exactly how to do something, either. Ultimately I think for me it almost always falls down into affect— how do I feel about it, how do other people feel about it? How do we tease out the affective imaginary possibilities? The Eve Sedgwick, or Lauren Berlant type thinking on affect territory and affective criticism of literature and writing in general, married to Jacques Derrida, Marxist thinking on temporality and history and how we process time and phenomenology and all that kind of stuff… I mean I could bandy around these names but at the end of the day what really matters is how something feels in a charged moment.
I was going to ask, given your diverse academic backgrounds, how do you process those different theoretical lenses? If it comes down to thinking about how to complicate our thinking about nature, what are the questions and feelings that you have when you try to sit down and write about affect surrounding the environment?
I want to take one step back and note that if the history of disciplinary formations and the ordering of categories is a history of capitalist knowledge production, then the history of theoretical formulations is also a manifestation of the history of capitalism. That doesn’t make any particular aspect of theory more or less invaluable, but it does really depend on the intrinsic value of theory. So many theories are ultimately thought of within the schema of Marxist theory, like environmentalism, that it doesn’t invalidate or validate anything in particular. But that’s the first step I take when thinking about the history of theory.
The second aspect is that the utility of theory for me— and it’s not just affect theory; I have a lot of fealty towards critical theory, equal socialist theory, race studies, subaltern studies— I think they are all incredibly flawed in their own ways and incredibly, world-shakingly important in their own ways like every body of theory is. How to utilize that for me varies. If I’m doing academic work, then I have to think about that in a more ordered manner. That’s the only real difference between academic and nonacademic work for me, that there’s a certain expectation of order and schema that’s not necessarily expected in non-academic work. How important is it to informing my practices? The answer to that question is predictably idiosyncratic and depending on my mood at any time on day, who knows, it’s so contingent.
As an interdisciplinary writer, how you see yourself navigating the different genres in your academic, essay, and fiction writing? Do you feel like you’re working on a common set of questions that pull your work together, or reaching towards different goals?
To a degree I think it’s true for most interdisciplinary scholars that our practice is informed and created by accident and failure and abrasion and difficulty and career tumult in general. I started out as a journalist because I was doing my PhD in biology. Journalism at that time felt like the thing I was most invested in, with criminal justice and environmental justice issues. I was living in Chicago and when I got started Laquan McDonald was a really big deal. My friends were reporting on those stories and so that was my gateway into publishing. Quite literally having that separate career, first as a journalist and then as a writer in more literary fields, was my way to get through a PhD that I was extremely dissatisfied by. I didn’t know how I would have made it through if I hadn’t had that on the side, if I’m entirely honest. There’s a great level of happenstance and coping mechanism that goes into it.
I’ve always been an ardent environmentalist on radical politics but it was only in my last two years that I discovered that environmental history might be a thing that I might want to do. I was fairly taken aback, because I thought academia was not my place at all. I had spent four years in this staid, stoic place of ivory towers, and then, shocker of shockers, I found out that oops, I do actually want a professor’s office after all.
But in terms of the big questions that animate me— I’ll be honest they start off from a narrow perspective of justice. This sounds trite, but that doesn’t make it less true, which is that I entered into the US in 2012 and figuring out journalism and justice stories was also a way to figure out what makes this country tick, in a way that I had not picked up before. It was a way for me to navigate my own experience of understanding what this country is all about. It’s banal because there’s a grain of truth to it, which is that no matter how knowledgeable you may find yourself, America is a conundrum of a country and when you come to it you’re just like… I did not expect any of this, and you have to figure it out and it’s a trip.
When thinking about environmental studies, having an interdisciplinary background is an obvious strength, but drawing from my own experiences, I think that it can also be a challenge when trying to reach across different disciplinary boundaries and institutions. Thinking about your work as a writer and the type of justice stories you’re trying to tell, how do you see yourself reaching out across these borders?
In two ways: the first is that it’s an iterative process. We’re dealing with ossified academic and disciplinary categories that have histories that are in and of themselves contingent, sometimes flawed and sometimes also accidental—but more often than not, and increasingly so, agenda driven. As someone who identifies as a Marxist scholar in particular, capitalism plays a big role in understanding that— but also thinking about humans as conceptions of temporality, of what it means to be humanistic, natural, scientific…these terms mean something so different today and have valences that they did not have even a century and half ago. There’s so much imbued in knowing that the nature of categories and fluid… perhaps it’s made me bolder in that I’m willing to accept that there is change possible. But I think that for one of the logical fallacies of education systems at large, existing within the categories that these disciplines truck in, is that they assume a sort of stasis. That stasis is then embedded in the learned’s mind as something that cannot be challenged. Then that fluidity is only learned through a career.
The second thing is, yes, I do truck here and there in personal essays, and it feels like an arrogant thing to say, but I am that sort of person who gravitates towards intellectual history. If I were to non-academize that sentence, I’d say I’m the sort of person who writes the personal essay not because I have any interest in myself per say but because the affective qualities of my own experience are the things that I find the most universal. It’s not necessarily about my ethnicity or my race or my national origin— I feel like the more I can spin universal, the better I feel about my practice in general and the more multi-disciplinary that feels because, again, it goes back to our categories of the humanistic, the environment, nature. Affect has played such an important role in my thinking in the last two years in particular, if I keep that in mind then it never really feels like it’s not particularly about me, even if it’s literally about me. That’s one way to do this practice that makes it feel less daunting.
To end on a practical note, as someone who is so well read and has written for so many different audiences in different ways, can you recommend any writing practices for aspiring writers who might contribute to Flyway or to SAAG? And on the other side, can you recommend any reading practices for people who are interested in trying to cut across disciplinary boundaries as you have done?
With the caveat that my answer is completely contingent on this day and time that we are talking at and will change by the hour… I’ll start with reading practices: the biggest source of inspiration for me is philosophy. I consume philosophy about as much as I consume fiction and I’m happy I do that because it’s not easy reading or the sort of thing you get through because it’s a page turner, but if you’re looking for imaginative possibilities, I can’t think of a better place to go than philosophy. Whether you want to start with pre-Socratic thinking or Aristotle or whatever, for me, Montaigne is my go to. If I feel sad, I’ll read Montaigne.
In terms of practices, reading literary criticism about as widely as one reads literature is really valuable. This was something I started doing about two years ago, by reading more literary criticism about Toni Morrison even though I’ve been reading her work for a long time. I subsequently followed up with my other favorite writers, Elena Ferrante and Mathias Énard. The more literary criticism I read the more I realized how constrained all of them were as writers when people received their work. When you’re thinking in the year 2020 about Toni Morrison, it’s radically different to how she was written about than in 1982 and reading that is incredibly important to me because it gives you a historical vantage point without realizing it.
Writing practices… you know the old saying about write what you want to read? I would recommend for people who might submit to Flyway or to SAAG, to rephrase that as write what you need. What is the sustenance that you need in this moment in time? Like, if we’re overwhelmed by the murder of George Floyd, what is the thing about anti-racism that you need to read right now? Write that, because no one else is doing it in this moment in time. If you are overwhelmed by the sheer death that you are witnessing in this pandemic, tell us what you need by writing what you feel you need. That need is so primal and so important. I wrote “It Skipped a Generation” out of the need to expiate my own guilt for not having listened to my own parents and grandparents better.