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October 30, 2004

A Natural Transgression: An Interview with Nadia Davids

Nadia Davids is a South African playwright and the current Visiting Scholar in Performance Studies at New York University. Her play, At Her Feet, is an exploration of Muslim women�s identities in South Africa. It was recently premiered in New York City.

Joe: You�ve traveled internationally. Is your experience of plane travel different since 9/11? Can you talk about your experience before and after?

Nadia: Yeah, well it�s interesting. When I�you know when you grow up Muslim in South Africa it doesn�t mean "Arab" and it doesn�t mean "Middle Eastern" at all. I mean there�s a diasporic connection with it, in many ways. And that�s based on a, you know, a shared religion, a shared language of recitation when you are praying, and I suppose a conflation of certain cultural traditions that just end up happening when�you know�things are globalized. But I mean there are very specific local identities that are entrenched in being Muslim in the Cape that have nothing to do with Wahabi Arabism, you know, at all. Um, and I don�t have any Middle Eastern family. I mean I have one Aunt by marriage but it�s, you know, it�s Afghanistan�and it�s�for me it was this very bizarre experience when I got to Berkley in 2001. Everybody just assumed that I was one of like eight things (laughs). And they would range from being like, Italian to being Palestinian. Um, to being Pakistani, to being Iranian, to being, you know, this kind of thing. And it was "Oh well, okay, I�d never heard that before, that�s kind of interesting" Um, or Israeli. Um, so�uh, that was, I mean�but that was a more kind of benign form of it. And then most recently when I came back into the country from Holland I had an unpleasant experience in Amsterdam where this man kept looking at my photograph and pointing at my photograph and tapping it. And tapping at my name and he asked me three times if I was sure that I was South African�which confounded me because I�d never had someone question my national identity in this way (laughs ruefully). And since it�s central to who I am so I was very upset. And, um, eventually I asked him, you know, "What exactly do you mean?" And he said to me you know, quite clearly, "Are you sure you�re not Middle Eastern?" I said, "Yeah, I�m sure I�m not Middle Eastern" So he said,
Are you sure your parents aren�t Middle Eastern?" And so I said, "well, I�m pretty sure I�d know where my parents are from." And he said "Are you sure your Grandparents aren�t Middle Eastern?" (Laughs) And I said, "I have one Grandparent who is not South African and she�s English." And he said "Oh." And then he disappeared with all my documentation for about ten minutes. And then he came back.

So, I mean, I suppose that�but that moment�I was�was�I mean it was uh, I can�t explain it�It was a minor moment in terms of um (pause), It wasn�t unpleasant, it wasn�t socially unpleasant um, it was conducted in a fairly professional way and he was very nice, but for me, it�I actually felt�I felt disassociated from my body in the most bizarre way. And I felt like I had to somehow become accountable for whatever genetic�(laughing)�genetic frame that like mixed up and like, kind of like my features somehow read as being a certain thing for him, So when he�s tapping at my photograph which is literally like an image of myself on a piece of paper and tapping at my name�and I�m somehow feeling responsible for the fact that I read in a certain way. Um, and then being angry because um, and not even�angry in the sense that he asked me those questions not because I�m offended to be asked if I�m Middle Eastern but because of what that�actual implication behind him asking me those things. You know, where it lies and where it resides. So (pause) And I�then I said "And if I was�?" (Shrugs) "And then?" You know�

Joe: Did you have any expectations�because you�ve been to the U.S. before�so, in this trip, did you have any expectations about the way you might be perceived?

Nadia: Well, I think what used to�everybody think was incredibly funny at Berkley was when I would tell them I was Black. (Laughs) And in South Africa, I mean, you know that would raise a few eyebrows but�you know I was classified "colored" under Apartheid um, which (shaking head) is neither here nor there. Uh, in many ways it�s just�it�s just a ridiculous appellation that�s just (shaking head) you know, one of the many Apartheid social identities that gets proscribed to people, um, more contentious than say, �Black� or �White� or �Indian� because it was a created term. And what happened a lot of the time is that you would have people who�d grown up with this appellation, you know (pause) going through a process�I think it was sort of a Bikoist narrative�of, of embracing Black consciousness and saying "If we are all not White, you know we all are then Black." And it�s about kind of like getting beyond regressive spaces of denial and shame and the conspiracy of silence that sometimes rules these narratives. And embracing that sense of Black consciousness, that sense of Africanness, Um, which was a very popular thing to do for people in the 70�s and 80�s particularly amongst activists.

And, for me, it felt like a natural transgression to embrace this kind of ideology as well.

And I think, I mean, you know I mean in many ways it�s true I�ve had a Black experience growing up in terms of�you know I�ve had things that I haven�t been able to do growing up because I wasn�t White in Apartheid South Africa. Certain experiences at schooling, certain experiences with um�with�(laughing ruefully) nobody in my family could vote! (Laughing) I mean that�s, you know, a fairly disenfranchising experience�um, but I could never claim�it�s interesting because I would never claim being Black in a South African sense in it�s totality because I�ve experienced privilege as well, you know, I�ve experienced Colored privilege. And I haven�t had my life, my rights circumscribed in the same way that Black South African people have. So, it�s very peculiar for me to come here and be read�as you said earlier �as a "White girl. " Because (laughing) it�s just so (shakes head) completely out of my frame of reference, so out of my frame of engagement with people.

This interview, which lasted for forty minutes, was very rich. Before we began we discussed a loose structure based on three general areas of interest�biography, identity and Nadia�s work�and I prepared a checklist and follow up questions based on these. These areas of interest were chosen because of their intersection with my larger project and also because of an assumption they would also be relevant to Nadia, politically and aesthetically. Nevertheless I thought it was important not to put too much pressure on the potential shape of the interview and suggested that, ultimately, she could talk about whatever she wanted and refuse any question that didn�t please her. It was important to me in both the interviewing and transcribing processes to allow for the "dimensions of the speaking event" as described by Dennis Tedlock in his "Toward and Oral Poetics", the themes of which I will address in a moment.

Through the process of interviewing I have begun to see the points of intersection between the practical and theoretical readings we�ve done in preparation for this interviewing project. The exhaustive preparation necessary for a recorded interview, indicated by the practical readings, were helpful in creating a frame for the experience, especially since once begun the interview followed its own course. Being prepared in terms of my equipment and a theoretical base for my questions allowed me to be more flexible in the moment. Further, the questions I improvised based on Nadia�s responses came closer to being "open" in the ways discussed by last week�s readings.

I transcribed this segment of the larger interview because it resonates with several of my concerns�national, racial and ethnic identity within different political frames. The transcription process raised several points for me, both practical and theoretical. In concrete terms I learned that my digital video camera, a Samsung, is not compatible with the imovie program on my Mac. I had an instinct that downloading the video on to my computer would ease the transcription process for me, allowing me to break the interview into smaller, more manageable segments. After borrowing another camera (that I established would be compatible) I was able to manipulate the video as I transcribed it, which raised a set of theoretical concerns. In capturing the dimensions of a "speaking event" I was conscious of Tedlock�s injunction against the flattening of spatial relationships within the "grotesque and giant machinery" of language. Rather I have tried to allow for the features of the speaking event that are continuous. Tedlock�s assertion that prose has no existence outside of the printed page and that spoken narratives are better understood as "dramatic poetry" informed my transcription process. If, as Tedlock writes, meaning is the "core of the event" and language is not directed only toward "ideal meanings" but also refers to "what is" then transcription must allow for an affective trace. This ethic, as much as any of the transcription guidelines I read, guided my decision to include, parenthetically, Nadia�s affective responses. This was an effort to work against what Ricoeur describes as a "bracketing (of) the message for the sake of the code, the event for the sake of the system, the intention for the sake of the structure."

That Harold Scheub provocatively describes language as "fully fleshed� only in concert with "an underlying set of formal relationships" gives the repertoire of lived feeling short shrift and favors in Terry Eagleton�s phrase "structures of power" over "structures of feeling."

My learning process in this phase of my project encompassed such practical wisdom as "always bring a tripod" and the theoretical concerns I have gestured toward above. I hope to unpack these as I move forward, developing a methodology for approaching the living subjects necessary to my exploration of (multiplex) identity.

Posted by at October 30, 2004 9:45 PM