Monday, 23 December 2013

A Curious Fancy: In Conversation with Ragini Nag Rao [Isis Scans plus full unedited interview!]

A very happy Christmas eve, eve to you! I feel beyond blessed to share this wonderful interview I conducted with Ragini for Isis Magazine. Ragini is the author of one of my favourite fashion blogs A Curious Fancy and also contributes to Rookie and xoJane amongst others. 

As her answers were SO good, and the whole experience was such a joy, Ragini has been kind enough to allow me to include our full conversation alongside the scans of the final interview. Best Christmas eve, eve present ever, no?

Full interview:

The act of dressing up allows us to rewrite stories, both in public history and personal memory. What stories do your clothes tell?

You know, what’s the first thing I thought when I read this question? How people tend to entirely discount fashion and the act of dressing, claiming that it’s frivolous and then, of course, linking it to being female. The thing is, as you rightly say, dressing up does tell a story. The first time anyone sees you, they can’t see into your mind - they observe your appearance.

There is such a lot of baggage tied in with how I choose to present myself, being a fat, brown woman. I do feel an obligation to “uphold” my race, as many people of color do when it comes to their appearance. The same goes for being fat. But like with any other obligation in my life, I tend to shake it off a lot of the time as well, because I don’t deal well with obligations. As a result, my natural state is in my pajamas, entirely makeup free. When I do dress up, I do it as a confidence boost. Like I mentioned on my blog once, narcissism is a form of selfcare for me, and dressing up with a full face o’ slap is a huge part of that narcissism. Dressing up is a way of caring for myself and pleasuring myself (and yes, my use of that term is a covert reference to one of the literary critics I hate the most haha.)

My clothes have a story of their own to tell me, but whether that story is apparent to those who see me is something I really don’t know about. Dressing up in little girl clothes feeds my childhood desire for little girl clothes and ties me in with the history of people of color appropriating “western” clothes. Much of the time, those clothes were an imposition, but sartorially speaking, my closest relations would be the Herero women of Namibia in their elaborate Victorian dresses.

The issue of women wearing “western dress” is still a prevalent one in India, where I live, and when I go out dressed the way I do, I’m an anomaly. I love being an anomaly, as much in my hometown of Kolkata, as in York where I lived for a few years. In Kolkata, I’m overly large and strangely dressed, an object of much public amusement. In York I was merely strangely dressed in a sea of people clad in black and beige.

Talking about this reminds me of an incident last winter when my blogger friend Mary and I met up in York and spent the day out in town. We look rather similar, despite our racial difference (she is white) and dress very similarly too. All through that day, strangers and waitstaff kept approaching her and engaging her in conversation with barely a glance in my direction. It was the most stupefying form of invisibility I have ever faced. I guess that as a brown woman in a First World nation, I was invisible, no matter what, unless I was a target of hatred. My clothes didn’t make a difference to my invisibility, a stark contrast to how hyper visible I am in India.

Personal style has its own narrative in its constant evolution punctuated by periods of stasis as in my case. The story my clothes tell anyone who cares to listen closely is one of violence, I guess. It’s the story of a girl whose racial identity was violently erased while being constantly scribbled into with reminders of her otherhood. To this day, I can’t wear Indian clothes without feeling completely out of place - my little Western girl coats and hats are where I feel most at home. Yet it makes me an anomaly, a brokenness I am keenly aware of. For anyone who wants to read between the lines of my wardrobe, this should be apparent.

Can you explain the importance of femme identity as both a fat person and a woman of color?

In being femme, I am constantly straddling the fence between being degendered as a fat woman, while being hypersexualized as a brown one. My size is seen as a neutering factor but at the same time brown women are wanton, hypersexual creatures, unless, of course, they are shy and submissive with a hidden perverted streak that’s just aching to be let out...right? But the great thing about being femme, as opposed to being feminine, is that you get to pick and choose the elements of your identity.

The way I dress is deliberately non-sexual in its infantility yet sexualised because I prefer very high hemlines. In my femmehood, my aim is to confuse, to provoke and break the rules of asexuality/hypersexuality that are imposed on me. I’ll go out in a short dress with a scowl firmly fixed on my face that says fuck you because I don’t care for the feminine accessibility to my person that is imposed on me. I’ll go out in hotpants and glare at the world because I’m fat and I dare you to say something nasty which will give me the golden opportunity to rip your throat out. I love the contrast between my little girl clothes and my inner hostility to the world.

Feminine is subdued, submissive and eternally accessible, femme will dance on your corpse in stack heel boots because femme gives no fucks. I think that is what, for me at least, lies at the heart of being femme - as a fat, brown woman, I live with the burden of expectations on me to constantly be pleasing, to seek approval, which is something I did for a long time before discovering the glorious world of femmeness, but being femme gives me the freedom to live with that “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. That is what makes it so freeing for me.

You have frequently spoken of India’s hatred for fat women. Can you explain this for those unfamiliar with Indian beauty standards?

The first thing to understand about India is that it is a violently misogynist nation. Women in India are prized on two things - looks and submissiveness. Women truly are the second-class citizens of India, along with trans*people. Yes, we can demand education and yes, we have the right to vote but in a country where female infanticide and foeticide are widespread, the question is, will you remain alive long enough to demand/access those things? Indian beauty standards are tailored on the basis of internalised racism and a particular sort of fatphobia that ties in with misogyny and from which men, to a large extent, are exempt. We value compactness in a woman because that makes women easier to assault, and we value “fair” skin because of our internalised racism. Women are wives and mothers and have few other socially sanctioned roles to play. Even in this day and age, a woman who chooses to focus on her career is seen as a corrupted form of womanhood, and not really a woman at all. India’s fatphobia is just another face of its misogyny, a tool to keep women under control.

You identify as a feminist, why?

I identify as a feminist because of the freedom it provides me, because it hands over the reins of control over my own self to me. Without feminism, I would still be labouring under the belief that because of my inability to “bag” a man, because of my singlehood at my age, I am a failure. Feminism helped me harness my brain to think for itself instead of thinking the same old restrictive thoughts I would otherwise have been trapped in. The scenario in India is very different to that in the West - when it comes to acknowledging the humanity of women, we are still a good 100 years behind. Women in India are servants, incubators, bedslaves. Feminism gave me an out from that nightmare I would otherwise have been forced to live, feminism through its facet of fat activism helped me live comfortably in my body. And lastly, the kind of feminism I subscribe to advocates equality for every single person who has ever been a victim of institutionalized oppression. As a fat, queer brown woman with an invisible disability, how could I not get on board with that?

As a blogger you have to cope with being highly visible online. How do you deal with this? Is it limiting to be reduced to a static image?

The problem with visibility arises when Reddit and Men’s Rights Activists find you, really. It becomes a huge problem when you are subject to rampant abuse from anonymous, hate filled quarters. As a blogger, I don’t feel confined to a static image because I have words with which I can shape and reshape my online image. For years, when I chose to just look pretty on my blog to the exclusion of all else, I was seen as mostly harmless. But a woman who finds her voice and speaks out must be subject to the ire of the internet. I used to pride myself on always being accessible to my readers - something which I subsequently had to stop by closing comments and locking my social media profiles as much as I could. It upset me greatly, but it was preferable to being driven into anxiety attacks by hateful trolls.

You criticized Jeffrey Eugenides’ portrait of Kolkata in The Marriage Plot. When our heritage is shorthand for human misery, how can we, as third world women of color, bypass these limited narratives? Or are they unavoidable?

Obviously, we need to create our own narratives. It always irked me that Dublin has Ulysses and Glasgow has Lanark but Kolkata has no such equivalent to my knowledge as a mostly monolingual person. Of course, this is my failing, and the failing of my upbringing which prioritized fluency in English above all other languages, much to the detriment of my cultural education.

I am torn in my thinking about this. If someone writes an Ulysses for Kolkata in Bangla, should it be translated and made accessible to the rest of the world? Or should it remain inaccessible except to a small number of people, a narrative kept within the circles of those who would understand it innately? Do we need the Western gaze to validate us? At the same time, Kolkata (and India) remains maligned in the Western world, the chaos of our multiple voices reduced to just one stricken cry.

 How important is it to change this image? How important is it to let our humanity be accessible and not just as sob stories? To write our stories and keep them to ourselves, to the “insiders” - would that still not result in the narratives being brought to life? I think that at the root of this lies the question of how important Western validation is.

 Is a story told to a limited group of people, people who share in it with their presence in the story, a non existent one? Are obscured narratives through their inaccessibility, invisible? I don’t know if the narratives exist, but if they do, I am torn about the idea of making them accessible because while the distorted and unilinear picture that is presented of us in Western media is disturbing, I see no onus on us to prove our similitude to a hostile gaze.

How did you navigate the paradoxes of studying post colonialism at an English University?

When I went to the UK, I was rather naive. Moreover, the objective of my relocation wasn’t education, not really, I just wanted to get away from India and the multitude of ways in which I was oppressed here. My naiveté prompted me to take up the subject that I was the most curious about, without any regard to its epistemic nature and how paradoxical it was to have the former colonizers of my nation teach me the intricacies of postcolonial studies. I believed in the essentialism of colourblindness back then, and saw academicians as a hallowed group of people who prioritized knowledge above all else. Little did I know about the wilful obscurantism academic knowledge comes with, its gendered nature, its whiteness, its Anglo/Euro-centricism to the exclusion of knowledges of colour. All I had known about postcolonialism came from living it, and all I still know about it comes from living it. The halls of academia taught me nothing from books, but it taught me much and more in the experiences it took me through.

Whatever interest I had in classes rapidly disappeared once I realised that lectures, my favoured form of learning, were eschewed at the postgrad level in favour of seminars where I would be subjected to the opinions of my fellow students for four hours a week. A week into classes, I asked myself if this is really what I had spent a fortune on, but then, my fellow students were mostly white, and white opinions, even when they are those of learners at the same level as me, come with a steep price tag. I had always been hostile to academese, even as an undergrad, and postcolonial studies, unfortunately, is brimming with it.

I wanted clarity, I wanted ideas, concrete thoughts with a concrete aim of empowering disenfranchised POC, but all I got was a babble of jargon from which it was well nigh impossible to isolate a single original idea, and a fistful of fellow students who had no other aim apart from excelling in their future PhDs and joining the ranks of the academic elite. It was isolating, and it was an insurmountable barrier to accessing what I felt was essential to my academic purpose, and it was an incredible learning experience which taught me more about postcolonialism firsthand than any text could have. I didn’t just read Bhabha, Young, Greenblatt, Spivak and the like - I lived them, I lived their words, obscure though they may have been to my hostile mind. Even though I don’t have the academic language deemed necessary for the field, I consider myself a postcolonialist because lived experience can never be overshadowed by scholarly perusal.

So many women of color have been robbed of our childhoods. How can we create a space for us to reclaim our innocence? Somewhere for us to be pretty and silly, cute and playful, and all those other things that seem to be the exclusive territory of white women.

Identity is a performance, lives lived are a performance. Innocence is regarded as the performative domain of white women, and the way for us, women of color, to reclaim our innocence is to perform it as loudly and as publicly as we can. The image of the skinny white girl standing brokenly in a field of bokeh in half light wearing a vintage dress and looking utterly forlorn needs to be replaced. I was very much heartened by the fact that this was one of the prompts for October’s theme at Rookie (which I write for) and it came with a clear instruction for any such submissions to be sent for review first so that they didn’t play into the whole heartbreaking innocence of white girls trope. Innocence is a space which will never be freely granted and we have to fight to reclaim it. We need to put our images out there for the world to see, to peruse, to reject over and over again, but the luxury of giving up the fight is not something which women of color, or any marginalized group has. In performing innocence, we need to paradoxically be unabashed, we need to be brazen. It is only then that I can see us clearing a space to explore our innocence freely, as unselfconsciously as we should have been able to in the first place.

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