Checklist of Irrelevance for the Brown Girl Writer
The following essay and checklist by Koko Hubara were originally published as a part of UrbanApa art platform’s collection Blackness & the Postmodern curated and edited by Sonya Lindfors.
Postmodernism is, from an intersectional feminist point of view, a fascinating -ism. While it challenges us to not take anything as a given and encourages us to step outside boxes – which, and this goes without saying, is the very point of making art, regardless of genre or school of thought – it manages, at the same time, to conveniently keep parts of history, marginalizing structures of society and power structures in general out of the reach and scope of any kind of skepticism. So, while postmodernism claims that it is impossible to rate discourses based on whether they lead to some type of objective truth, it also somehow manages to keep some categories of society as more prevalent than others in a very modern manner of thought that, upon closer inspection, only seems to serve the privileged.
“In order to become a subject, one has to place oneself in the realm of language”
Of course, postmodernism has an answer to this: prevailing discourses prevail because they are valued by elite groups. You may remember the mid-century French philosopher, linguist, literary/ cultural theorist and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray who argued that those in power are more interested in developing solid mechanics rather than fluid mechanics because the institution of physics, which is predominantly male, associates solidity with male sex organs and fluidity with female sex organs. She agrees with Jacques Lacan and all the greats that in order to become a subject, one has to place oneself in the realm of language but adds that in order for women to be free to use language, the masculinity of language has to be recognized and changed. Because she wrote at a time when people of color were not considered an equal and credible part of any discourse, she understandably does not elaborate on the Whiteness of language. I had a great lesson of what is valued in a postmodern Finnish cultural landscape when I became a writer of color of a couple of firsts. And through this lesson, I created the “Checklist of Irrelevance for the Brown Girl Writer”.
But, to provide context, let me start at the beginning. When I started my studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in 2004, postmodernism was all the rage. I am quite confident that this was the case in most parts of the Western world. Being a curious (at best) and unstable (at worst) personality was a match made in heaven with the times, in which it was trendy to be skeptical to the point of panic, metaphysically relative, and as subjective and free in intellectual spirit as possible. I ended up studying English philology, North American studies, social work and communications for a total of ten years, and I feel like it was not just semantics but everything from Beowulf to the Finnish welfare state system that was taught through a Foucaultian lens.
In the spirit of postmodernism, I was being taught to question everything around me – except Whiteness
As a working-class Finnish kid who had survived a great recession in the 1990s and as someone who had grown up in a fairly religious and conservative household, I remember feeling excited and able to finally breathe through the fragmented thoughts of postmodernism; not everything was gloomy and black or white (no pun) all the time. At the same time, I remember being endlessly exhausted throughout my academic decade, feeling misunderstood and misplaced (stupid, fat, ugly) most of the time. Up until very recently, I thought the reason for my fatigue was the double-edged fact that while this all-encompassing postmodernism granted me too much freedom of thought and identity at too young an age, I also happened to be a Brown Girl surrounded by only White, Eurocentric higher knowledge and White students and teachers (well, I am lying: I did have one Brown student colleague and one African-American professor in one course throughout all those years). But my understanding now, after a few years of participating in a public discourse on journalism, literature and the arts in general from the point of view of non-whiteness in the Finnish context, is that that was not the whole truth. My exhaustion and confusion were—are— actually brought on by a much more relentless and painful dichotomy than that of young adulthood and personal background. In fact, it is a paradox that I am not in any way responsible for or in any position of power to change. It was not just me being the only Brown Girl in all of the nearly one hundred classes I took, and now being the only nonwhite Brown Girl Editor-in-Chief in all of Finland’s one hundred years of independence (I will return to this later in the text). It was the fact that, in the spirit of postmodernism, I was being taught to question everything around me – except Whiteness, except the very thing that I was being taught.
It could be argued, since writing is an artform based solely on words and the self-contained, self-referential nature of language, that it is, in and of itself, the very epitome of postmodernism in the arts. I do not have any knowledge about working in other artforms, but I do know that writing is a deeply solitary, subjective act of creativity, no matter the subject. Save for sporadic meetings with an editor or a book cover art director, there is no team. Save for short readings for PR purposes, producing literature does not happen in front of an audience. It happens, at least in my case, in a food-stained, worn-to-pieces Supreme T-shirt with the blinds closed on a sunny day. There is always blank paper on which you can place anything. And whatever it is that you choose to write, it is all based on imagination, i.e., endless skepticism, relativism and a complete denial of objectivity.
Postmodernism is so concerned with the fragmentary nature of human life that it misses out on the fact that, in the end, for some of us those fragments intersect.
Literature is also a truly postmodern form of art in that when it finally reaches the audience, it generally reaches it one by one. The act of reading, most of the time, happens in private, within a very personal, relational space, within an incredibly individualistic linguistic landscape over which I, the writer, have no control whatsoever. I’d like to think that my reader also sits in their ragged house clothes, having an unhealthy snack, getting my book dirty with their greasy fingers. Or, perhaps, they read my book on the toilet. This thought makes me very happy.
What does not make me happy, what in fact makes me as uncomfortable and confused as I ever was as a young student, is what happens to my writing when it ends up in the hands of individual readers who are simultaneously representatives of institutions that have merrily participated in creating postmodernism – even with a parallel, rigorous discourse on civil and human rights and decolonization – who have not, in the forty odd years’ time they have had, bothered to stop and think about how this philosophy applies to them in the contexts of Gender, so-called Race, Class (in my personal case) and of course other contexts such as mental and physical ability/accessibility, sexuality and so forth, as well as the different intersections of all of these. In the last few years, it has become clear to me that postmodernism is reserved, despite all of its noble efforts and seemingly universal premises, for those who do not turn their skeptical eye onto how deeply White a concept it is. Postmodernism is so concerned with the fragmentary nature of human life that it misses out on the fact that, in the end, for some of us those fragments intersect. I am talking about the institution of literary criticism and journalistic coverage of literature in general.
As I said, I became the writer of a couple of firsts. I am the author of the collection of essays called Ruskeat Tytöt – Tunne-esseitä, which translates into English as Brown Girls – Emotional Essays, and the Editorin-Chief of Ruskeat Tytöt Media. The book, as well as the online media, were both the first “for us, by us” textual publications by a Finnish person of color that were explicitly not concerned with explaining non-whiteness to whiteness. I have very verbally dedicated both of my endeavors to other Brown Girls, i.e., those of us who have been completely excluded from the literary and media canons in my home country.
In this essay, I am going to focus on my book rather than the online media, as I feel the internet is a space freer of institutions and confinement of thought. I maintain that because of the endless natures of the internet and social media, I have not had to face the same type of resistance to my work as while writing a book. In fact, book bloggers – most of them, to my knowledge, people with no background in literary criticism, and also people online who identify themselves as White (save those who identify as explicitly racist) – have not had any problem with treating my book as a normal book and my online media work as just that.
We are constantly juggling the randomness of postmodernism while simultaneously dealing with monolithic, marginalizing structures that seem to be in no hurry to question themselves, let alone change.
Let us start with the name of the book: I chose it because, in the context I was writing it – the Finnish cultural and national landscape – I had next to no statistics or even other scientific references to draw from, mostly only personal experience and feelings. In Finland, like in most countries in Europe (to my understanding) no data of the ethnicity of its inhabitants is collected, based on the idea that during the Second World War, ethnicity statistics were used to plan and execute genocide and such a mistake cannot be repeated. The thought is important and noble, yet while protecting minorities and people of color, it at the same time erases us. Some data is collected, of course, this being a person’s country of birth, their parents’ countries of birth, mother tongue and nationality. Someone like me, whose own and mother’s country of birth is Finland and whose mother tongue and nationality is Finnish, is considered a native Finn. And, in day to day language, native Finn means White, which is the complete opposite of how I have been treated my entire life in my home country, based on my Middle Eastern (or at best racially ambiguous) appearance and name – and how I am now being treated as an artist/writer. This very much reminds me of the paradox of postmodernism from the point of view of a female writer of color: the magnificent quest for freedom somehow also manages to erase entire discourses. This freedom is still not granted to everyone.
My book tackles a variety of topics from literature to hip hop, from motherhood to Paris. What I am trying to say in it is that Brown Girls are concerned with all the small and grand things in life, just like everybody else, all the while tackling life in a country that does not acknowledge them unless it is in the context of racializing, exoticizing, fetishizing and generalizing. Outside the four walls of the home, we are constantly juggling with the intersections of race and gender and, some of us, many other things as well. What I am trying to say in my book is that we are constantly juggling the randomness of postmodernism while simultaneously dealing with monolithic, marginalizing structures that seem to be in no hurry to question themselves, let alone change. This kind of constant double-life is, in my opinion, exhausting, and it derails energy that instead of being used for mere survival could be put into the artistic practice.
I wrote my book after careful considerations of style, structure, and language, just as writers are supposed to. I deliberately chose the essay form because I felt its dual nature – the simultaneous presences of fact/ fiction and personal/social high/low would best serve in delivering my points. I used all of the languages in which I think and speak, from Yemenite Jew Hebrew to rap lyrics to academic Finnish, to create a realm of language that includes all parts of who I am and to include as many people as possible, a language that depicts the very fragmentary nature of my postmodern being. Except that it was never read as such by the gatekeepers of the postmodern discourse, the critics.
The book hit the shelves with a bang, which is what every writer hopes for. It was wonderful; rarely have I felt such pride and joy – and absolute freedom. Äiti, aba, walla, I made it, I managed to make a few smart choices and make use of all of my many privileges and publish a book. This joy lasted exactly up until the point that it ended up in the hands of cultural journalists. bell hooks writes, “Racism is perpetuated when blackness is associated solely with concrete gut level experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking and the production of critical theory. The idea that there is no meaningful connection between black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture must be continually interrogated.” I suppose a similar thing could be said of brownness. Just to give you a few examples: the biggest daily newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, decided to not write a normal review of my book but instead created a whole new article concept in order to speak about it. In the article which was written by the White journalist Arla Kanerva, they gave my book to two teenage girls of Arab background and asked them if they could relate to it. The headline read: “Brown Girls Are Used to Movies in Which People Who Look Like Them Are Terrorists – Koko Hubara Wrote a Book About It, and Teenagers from Espoo Identify With It.” Not a word about essay as form, about the language I chose to use, the stories I told (among which I did not really go into the representation of Brown people in the film industry, not with the lazy angle mentioned in the headline, at least), the thoughts I had. Just plain, pure infantilization and underestimation.
I have been asked multiple times in interviews what it feels like to be a Brown Girl, as if I know of another life.
Another example: one of the most popular contemporary writers in Finland, Juha Itkonen (White, Male) wrote a one-page review of my book in one of Finland’s most reputable monthly magazines, Image (review not available online). In it he calls my book “enlightening and strong,” but he also calls me “an activist first, author second” and focuses heavily on my writings on cultural appropriation in the Finnish literary context, which I had published online over a year before the book came out, which were not included in the book, but with which he seemed to disagree, because writers should be free to do whatever they want. Third example: I was interviewed by a longtime journalist (White, Female) for a lengthy feature in the Women’s magazine Voi Hyvin (Feel Well, not to be found online). We had a great conversation for over three hours, and I left the interview happy, feeling that I had said what I wanted to say and presented myself agreeably. I felt understood. A few days later, I received a draft of the article. It was full of a) generalizations on people of color and b) things I had most definitely not said, in quotes. When I confronted the journalist via e-mail, asking her why she had made me say things that I had not said (and disagreed with), she promptly replied, educating me on the fact that she herself was an adoptive mother of a Brown Boy and had participated in a peer support group for adoptive parents in which they had already discussed all the issues that I write about. So she felt that she knew better than me what I thought of the world. Let’s just say that her e-mails did not get any less aggressive when I explained to her, as a fellow journalist, the Finnish ethical code of journalists and the rules of quotation.
We do not have time nor space for all of my experiences of being a postmodern writer of color. All interviews, save one, were conducted by White people. I have been asked why I am so angry – after I have just told a joke. I have been asked multiple times in interviews what it feels like to be a Brown Girl, as if I know of another life. What it feels like to have experienced sexual violence based on my skin color as a child, as if there were more than one plausible answer. My book has been called a self-help book. It probably goes without saying that the book was not nominated for any literary prizes.
I imagine it is difficult for any writer to makes sense of the criticism they receive, no matter their gender and/or so-called race; it must be very difficult to move on to the next story after writing one and then reading the reviews. In fact, the aforementioned Juha Itkonen himself made headlines a few years back when he wrote a miffed Facebook post as a reply to a not-so-great review in Helsingin Sanomat of his book in which he was reprimanded for polishing his sentences too much (ironically, that is probably the only critique that I have yet to hear of my own work).
All of this has left me with a few questions: what would happen if these liberal, postmodern gatekeepers read my book as a book of essays? What would happen if they let me into the canons of literature and the arts in general? What are they afraid of? Why go through all this trouble of trying to shrink my work into irrelevance? What is there to lose? What is the worst that could happen if everyone were granted the opportunity to place themselves in the realm of language and become a subject? I cannot help but think that the reasons for this can be found not in an inability but a reluctance to look at the limits of postmodernism, the fact that it has failed to recognize intersections of human life and its own Whiteness – the fact that in all of its freedom, it actually is a tool for maintaining White privilege and oppressive structures in society.
I know for a fact that is it difficult to move forward when one’s entire body of work has been, either explicitly or implicitly, deemed angry, silly and childish. It makes one feel quite hopeless, to be honest. And what is really quite surprising and funny is that it is actually insufficient postmodernism that has given me hope after everything.
This Checklist of Irrelevance for the Brown Girl Writer that I have been trying to get to throughout this essay is exactly that: postmodernism as hope, postmodernism as a guide to what is relevant and what is not, a guide to placing oneself smackdab in the middle of language as art. It is a very simple practice with which you can get started by answering these questions, also known as part one of the Checklist.
HERE STARTS THE CHECKLIST
1. Do I or do I not read what is written about me?
If not, then that is fine, but let us imagine that for the sake of keeping up with the discourse, I choose to read what is written about me.
2. In which case, which publications do I choose to follow?
Maybe the daily newspapers and quality magazines but not the neo-Nazi message board? Why do I make this choice – why do I agree to this discourse’s prevalence?
3. When do I choose to read what is written about me?
4. (As a type of side note: How do I communicate to the people around me that I do not wish for them to send me links to articles that undermine my work and dehumanize my people all at the same time?)
5. How do I react when I read what is written about me in these prestigious publications that I have chosen to follow, which is usually something that I call “acceptably and casually racist/sexist”?
After answering this set of questions, you may move onto part two of the Checklist:
6. Is this person White? Is this person Male? Is this person middle or upper class? Is this person of the 61 age that he is likely familiar with the concept(s) of Postmodernism, even likely to subscribe to them? Is this person a representative of an institution that is likely familiar with the concept(s) of Postmodernism, even likely to subscribe to them? Is the institution predominantly White, and/or built on Eurocentric assumptions? If the answer is “yes” to more than one question, (If not, I may stop to ponder the intersections at play. Or not.) I bring out…
7. Part three of my Checklist of Irrelevance: Is this the person I am writing to? Is this the person I want to align myself with? Can my writing better this person’s position of power in the world? Will they do the same for me with their writing? (Writing to get rid of guilt does not count.) Is this the institution I am writing for? Does this institution valuate me in any way other than as a token or trend? Are there any institutions I can write to?
If the answer is “no” to more than one question, the Checklist of Irrelevance is completed and I go on to write whatever it is that I damn well please in all of my postmodern freedom and subjectivity and Girlhood and Brownness in the epicenter of every letter, syllable, word, sentence, paragraph, chapter and story. The Checklist is a tool to reclaim postmodernism as a theoretical frame for a discourse of intersectional feminism – no, on being a Brown Girl Writer – of taking what is mine and exercising my freedom to question everything, just like Lacan and the other White Men wanted.
Text: Koko Hubara
This essay and checklist by Koko Hubara were originally published as a part of UrbanApa art platform’s collection Blackness & the Postmodern curated and edited by Sonya Lindfors. The publication contains eight texts of various forms, each of them approaching the friction between Blackness and postmodern contemporaneity in one way or another. The writers come from different backgrounds and localities; they are artists, curators, researchers, performers, activists and much more. The collection is not seeking coherence, but juxtaposing different voices and perspectives. Read more and download for free here.