When Language Loses Its Bite by Zahir Janmohamed

Ahmedabad, India, May 31, 2015*

Many years ago when I was a teaching assistant to the celebrated poet June Jordan at UC Berkeley, she gave me a piece of advice to help me weed through the pile of student submissions we received: if it is abstract, throw it out. I thought she was joking but then she handed me a one page sheet of “no-no words” that she prohibited students from using. The list included words like “racism,” “oppression,” and “loneliness.” Her list seemed a bit harsh and unfair—after all, how can you push students to write about their pain if they cannot use words like, for example, “misogyny”?

June Jordan

June Jordan was born in Harlem in 1936 and grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Poet, activist, teacher, and essayist, she was a prolific, passionate and influential voice for liberation. June Jordan, who died in 2002, lived and wrote on the frontlines of American poetry, political vision and moral witness.

Jordan, who died in 2002 and was one of the first black women to receive a PhD from Columbia University, had little tolerance for poems about pretty flowers or fleeting crushes. But she had even less patience for abstraction.

She pioneered a style she called “vertical rhythm” that exploits the inherent musical value of words. What set Jordan apart—and made her a “soldier poet,” as she often liked to call herself—was her willingness to enter uncomfortable spaces with remarkable specificity. In her most famous piece, Poem about My Rights, she begins by talking about walking and then moves on to police brutality, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and finally onto her own experience of being raped. It embodied a theme found so often in her work—that violence interrupts us when we least want it or expect it; that violence has a stubborn habit of revisiting us long after we experienced it that we can never really speak of it using the past tense.

This is was our task as poets but we often fell short and she let us know. She once chided me for a poem I wrote about the US invasion of Iraq in 1990, which started a few weeks before I started high school in California. In it, I describe some of the anti-Muslim remarks that were lobbed at my family, insults that left us feeling isolated. Jordan crossed out that word “isolated” and called me a coward for using it. Push harder, she kept telling me—describe what that isolation looks and feels like without actually using that word.

So I re-wrote the stanza and I described how my father once scolded me for not putting out our American flag on our front porch before I left for cross-country practice in the morning. If you do not fly the flag, my dad reminded me, then “American boys” will continue to drive by our home and call us sand niggers.

Jordan still did not think the poem was quite there –it was too clichéd, she correctly argued—so I re-wrote it about two dozen more times, each time adding more details that embarrassed and hurt me. With every revision, I kept protesting and she kept telling me—this is poetry. It is making your pain public.

I have been thinking about Jordan and her advice to young poets as I follow the ongoing discussions about the relevance of human rights work. In a terrific exchange in The New York Times, a law professor and the executive director of Human Rights Watch debated whether human rights work is effective or outdated. It is a brilliant exchange and I find myself agreeing with both viewpoints. When I worked at Amnesty International, I often found myself cringing at how human rights groups often replicate the white savior complex that Teju Cole brilliantly critiqued in his famous Atlantic essay.

But in discussing human rights, we seem to be stuck on two questions: is human rights work effective? And has it really achieved anything? If we measure the success of human rights advocacy by the decrease in human rights violations worldwide, then the answer is a resounding no. For example, there are more refugees in the world today and those who remain displaced are likely to remain without a permanent home for longer than ever before.

However in thinking about human rights, I keep returning to what Jordan told us on the first day of class: if you want to move an audience, use specific language—in short, name names. This, I believe, is the power of poetry and it is also the power of human rights work. It is the ability and the willingness to say things that we often bury.

During the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009, for example, Amnesty International called the attacks by Palestinian militant groups like Hamas to be war crimes because the crude nature of these weapons, and the manner in which they were used and directed, would inevitably cause harm to innocent Israelis. Likewise, Amnesty International argued that the Israeli firing of Palestinians holding white surrender flags at close range constituted an intentional act of killing.

If the above seems like lifeless, technical jargon, well then that is the point. Too often when we talk about human rights crises, we universalize the issue to such an extent that we strip it of its context. As a result, our language loses its bite. The problem in Israel and Palestine, then, becomes one of “ignorance,” or “centuries of tension,” or “misunderstandings.” This not only makes the conversation boring—it also shifts discussion away from more uncomfortable, tangible truths, like, say, US military aid to Israel.

Eve Ensler (born May 25, 1953) is an American playwright, performer, feminist, and activist, best known for her play

Eve Ensler (born May 25, 1953) is an American playwright, performer, feminist, and activist, best known for her play “The Vagina Monologues.” Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called this play “probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade.” In 2011, Ensler was awarded the Isabelle Stevenson Award at the 65th Tony Awards, which recognizes an individual from the theater community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of humanitarian, social service, or charitable organizations.

Human rights work is effective because it punctures rhetoric by employing technical language. No one understands this better than Eve Ensler, the founder of the Vagina Monologues. In a moving essay for NPR’s This I believe series, Ensler talks about how she wanted to say the word “vagina” over and over again so that women would stop feeling shame about their bodies. Her comments are a reminder that sometimes the most subversive thing that we can do, whether we are artists or human rights workers, is to be specific:

Naming things, breaking through taboos and denial is the most dangerous, terrifying and crucial work. This has to happen in spite of political climates or coercions, in spite of careers being won or lost, in spite of the fear of being criticized, outcast or disliked. I believe freedom begins with naming things. Humanity is preserved by it. 

*Zahir Janmohamed is a free lance writer based in Ahmedabad, India. He was an eye-witness to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, India when he was a Bill Clinton Service Corp Fellow with the America India Foundation and he is now writing a memoir about the aftermath of the violence set in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura.

He is currently an Emeritus Member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and he has received fellowships from the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony and the MacDowell Colony.

His articles have appeared in The New York TimesForeign Policy, Guernica, The WashinZahirJanmohamedgton PostThe San Francisco Chronicle, NewsweekThe Boston Review, The GuardianScrollKafilaOpen Magazine, The Hindu, and Outlook Magazine.

Prior to working on his book, he spent a decade working in politics. From 2006 to 2009, he worked as the Advocacy Director for Amnesty International where he managed the organization’s lobbying, public outreach, and media work on the Middle East and North Africa.  While at Amnesty International, he appeared on CNN, Fox News, BBC, NPR, and Al Jazeera. He has briefed senior officials at the White House and the State Department and authored numerous Congressional resolutions. In 2009, he was asked to testify before the US Congress about human rights abuses in the UAE. As a result, he was given an award by the UN for his commitment to human rights. After Amnesty International, Janmohamed served as a senior foreign policy aide to Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN). Find more on Zahir’s work on his personal website. Twitter: @ZahirJ

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