The Dynamics of Postcolonial Passings: Comparisons and Intersections
Online conference, 12-13 May 2022
Hosted by the University of Liège, Belgium,
and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Confirmed keynote speakers:
Pamela L. Caughie (Loyola University Chicago, USA)
Lipika Pelham (author, documentary filmmaker, and journalist)
Suzanne Scafe (University of Brighton, UK)
January 2021 saw the premiere of the adaptation of Crucian-Danish-American Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing at the Sundance Film Festival. Racial passing in the USA, both as lived experience and as it is represented in the arts, has been one of the most frequently analysed forms of passing, along with the Jewish experience of passing as non-Jewish during the Nazi regime. In Passing: An Alternative History of Identity (2021), Lipika Pelham offers a fresh perspective on such widely studied cases through placing them alongside lesser known real and fictional accounts from around the globe in a thought-provoking way. Her selection includes examples of caste, gender, and sexuality passing in India, religious and ethnic passing between Palestine and Israel, and racial passing in South Africa, Brazil, and Britain. While, in the stories documented by Pelham, passing is sometimes portrayed as an experience of “self-invention, rebirth and opportunity,” it also often entails “loneliness, alienation, uncertainty and terror” (80).
In the field of postcolonial studies, analyses of passing in creative writing and film (outside the USA) have so far consisted of isolated articles, many of them focusing on a single form of passing, even when multiple forms are at play simultaneously. The complexities involved in the lived experiences and representations of postcolonial passings, whether comparative and/or intersectional, are yet to be investigated in depth.
As Pamela L. Caughie reminds us in Passing and Pedagogy: The Dynamics of Responsibility (1999), passing has traditionally been studied employing one of two positions. The binary logic of identity distinguishes between authenticity and fraudulence: one is either x or y. Claudia Mills in her article “Passing: The Ethics of Pretending to Be What You Are Not” (1999) argues that the social privilege of certain groups and the oppression of others are the central motivating factors in a person’s need to pass. However, this is challenged by cases of reverse passing such as those of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, white and Jewish American women who passed for black for apparently different reasons: Dolezal claims to be transracial and Krug maintains it was an attempt to escape trauma. In contrast to the binary logic, the double logic of identity views identity as complex and layered; passing is therefore a social practice that is a performative strategic intervention rather than an act of self-denial or inauthenticity. In this sense, the passer does not abandon one identity for another, but rather creates their identity through performance: identity is what one does. Thus, for example, following Kelby Harrison in Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (2013), there is no difference between being x or passing for x, as both perform social scripts attributed to x. While this double logic has been welcomed for presenting a more fluid approach to identity that deconstructs socially ingrained categories such as race or gender, Caughie in her book calls attention to what cultural theorists have viewed as the problematic potential of such fluidity, as it leads to “the collapse of categories, to the levelling of distinctions, and thus the ‘disappearing’,” in the case of race, “of actual black people” (22). Consequently, the erasure of distinctions that have historically been invoked to oppress certain categories of people may be used to delegitimize rights-based discourses.
Theorists do converge in stressing the importance of geographical and socio-political contexts in manifestations of passing, whose intricacies lend themselves particularly well to artistic explorations. This is strikingly illustrated in Suzanne Scafe’s 2020 analysis of Mojisola Adebayo’s Moj of the Antarctic: An African Odyssey (2008), a one-woman performance that stages the story of Ellen Craft who, in the nineteenth century, fled enslavement in the American South by passing as a white disabled gentleman, with her husband posing as her servant. Analysing this instance of quadruple passing – race, gender, class, and able-bodiedness – recorded in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860) and reimagined by Adebayo, Scafe astutely shows how Craft, whose enslavement defined her as an ungendered non-subject, reclaimed her subjectivity by conforming to conventional gender categories from which enslaved people were excluded. As Craft’s complex story shows, context plays an important role in how subjectivity is asserted and in how identity is performed, both in real life and in writing. This idea applies across different genres, including speculative fiction and film, which often probe not only identity but also what it means to be human, inhuman, superhuman, transhuman, or subhuman, which are explored in figures such as the zombie, the vampire, or the anthropomorphic robot, all of whom may pass or fail to pass as human, or complicate notions of what is human or the identity category for which human/non-human is a metaphor.
Caughie contends that passing is a frequent practice in many people’s lives. For example, she questions whether teaching a literature from another culture is to perform as an authority, hence to pass: “How can we teach that which we do not know?” (124). Pelham for her part asks whether creative writing itself is not a form of passing in which authors pass as narrators and characters. Such discussions raise questions over the multiple forms of passing that may occur in the creation, translation, reading, analysis, and teaching of postcolonial literatures and film. Passing in pedagogical settings has also been at the centre of a recent controversy in the USA, following an Asian-American professor’s decision to show his class the 1965 film version of Othello, in which Lawrence Olivier performs in blackface. In response to the outrage, some shared Fred Moten’s article “Letting Go of Othello” (2019) on social media, a piece in which Moten argues that the use of blackface in the film may actually call attention to the fact that the character Othello is consciously performing (therefore, passing) and that he is also the creation of a white man’s imagination. This prompts Moten to ask a provocative question: “Isn’t it absolutely appropriate, then, that a white actor should enact […] a white fantasy of blackness?” While Moten is here thinking within the binary logic of identity, writers such as Lionel Shriver and Bernadine Evaristo, by contrast, position themselves in favour of the more fluid double logic when, questioned by Pelham, they defend a writer’s right to inhabit characters whose identities differ from their own. Extending the idea of writing as passing, one might even wonder whether forms of reading that involve identification with narrators or characters may not similarly adopt strategies of passing, thus raising further ethical quandaries.
These reflections lead to a series of questions. What do intersectional and/or comparative readings of passing tell us about identity and about the specific socio-political context in which passing occurs? What happens when writers, narrators, readers, and translators are viewed as passers? Do traditional postcolonial theories of mimicry, hybridity, and creolization help to elucidate theories of passing or, conversely, do they challenge or complicate them? Is a “postcolonial” identity, whether applied to a person, character, or writer, yet another form of performance? Those who work in postcolonial studies are often assumed to be committed to an anticolonial, decolonial, anti-racist ideology in their lives rather than merely in their profession. Is being a postcolonial academic an identity that is authentic or fraudulent, or is it merely a performative role as any other? Does the duration in which one passes matter to the theorization of identity?
Possible topics to be explored include, but are not limited to:
- Identity passings (religion, gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, caste, nationality, disability, being human)
- Ideological passings (religion, political views, philosophical stance)
- Voluntary and involuntary passings
- Permanent or temporary passings
- Passing vs. reverse passing
- Passing as a positive or negative experience
- The ethics of passing
- Comparative passings (different literary traditions, different characters, different forms)
- Writers, readers, critics as passers
- Translation: is a translator passing as a writer, a narrator, a character, and/or a cultural insider?
- Linguistics: passing as a native speaker, a competent speaker, a speaker of another language; multilingual language practices (style shifting, register shifting, code-switching)
- Passing in the digital world
- Passing and the law: undocumented migrants passing as legal citizens; unlawful passings
While papers will be delivered in English, we encourage proposals that examine non-anglophone literatures and cultures as well, and from any relevant critical field. 250-word abstracts for 20-minute papers should be sent to PocoPassings@gmail.com by 5 February 2022. Notifications of acceptance will be sent out by 28 February 2022.