Writing the Sikh Self: From Founder to Fateh

The purpose of this project is to give a glimpse into the Sikh religion while also relating different themes to the texts and concepts covered in class. It is not my goal to proselytize but to promote awareness and understanding for this beautiful faith that I am so proud to be a part of. I’m not trying to say Sikhism is the best and the only true religion, not at all, that’s not what it says in our Scripture, I’m just trying to say, don’t shoot at us. It was difficult enough before, but after 9/11, things got really bad, especially for innocent Sikhs and their families whose only crime was to proudly wear a symbol of their Sikh faith and identity. I have seen and experienced the hatred and fear myself and am even more motivated to help people learn about Sikhs and embrace our differences rather than fear them.

There was a lot of pressure on me while making this Prezi because it’s much more than a project for a class for me, it’s a representation of my culture, my people, my history. It was a struggle trying to decide what to include and what to leave out, though I know I left out way too much stuff and plan to continue working on this Prezi, long after this class is over, to make it as comprehensive as possible. It was also hard to make it a stand-alone presentation because I feel like I have to explain it myself, one because I love making presentations, especially when I’m talking about something I’m passionate about, and two, because I have so much to say I don’t think text can convey it the way I’d like to myself.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed making this presentation and learned so much, I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak on this topic and hope that you all took something away from it. It’s been a pleasure seeing all your projects and learning about you all. I’m going to miss my English 360 family. Much love to all of you.


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The Self Simplified- A Student’s Tool Kit

Mission Statement: We are determined to simplify the critical jargon presented in the Tool Kit of Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s book “Reading Autobiography”in order to provide to all those in the Blogosphere a way of interpreting and analyzing autobiographies (or “Self Life Writing”) in an effective and simple manner while additionally providing our own real life examples.

Upon closer exploration of our blog you will see that we have provided our own definitions of each item from the Tool Kit and a concrete textual example, as well as a personal account from our own lives that demonstrates the ideas presented at the beginning of each post. Thus, you will sense a definitive pattern to our posts. Definition, textual example, personal experience. Additionally, we were pretty set on presenting our blog posts in a consistent, cohesive format but eventually decided that in the spirit of collaborative autobiography, we’d present our posts as we did them individually. So ultimately, the synthesis of our self-representation has led to a pretty dynamic and diverse presentation of our critical analysis as well as creative content. It should be noted as well that our work load was pretty even. Joe has longer, at time, more in-depth individual posts but I (Mary Alice) did all the technical work in creating the blog, formatting it, adding pictures, etc. as well as the proposal/introductory posts.

We decided to do this project because we wanted to give clear definitive answers to some of the many questions put forth by Smith and Watson. What we mean by this is simply that the Tool Kit consists of questions for inquisitive readers to ask him/herself when reading an autobiographical text. Our Tool Kit consists of answers in regards to the specific texts we have read supported by critical and creative examples.

You’ll notice that the posts will, for the most part have the same date. This is because we are working as a group and doing a good portion of these posts on our own and have decided to review them all together at the end and decide as a team what order to post them in based on relativity to one another.

As far as problems go, we had two main issues, one of design and one of content. As our proposal states (which you can view here), we wanted to do a “Prezi” originally but with that much text in a visual presentation, it looked more like aesthetic vomit than anything else. So, after seeing the success of other student blogs in addition to the obvious success of our class blog, Auto[blog]raphy, we decided that the best format for our presentation would we to create a blog. Our issue of content was that this project ended up being a ton of work. In effect, we doubled our blogging for the semester by doing an additional twenty-six blog posts between us. In each post, there is both critical and creative interpretations, essentially touching upon both realms of analysis that we worked with this semester. Furthermore, choosing which text represented each term most fittingly was a challenge. We had to condition ourselves to fit a text to the term instead of vise versa. For instance, Joe was trying to use Cabeza de Vaca for Relationality because he liked the text, but eventually realized that the Slave Narratives best represented the term.

All in all, we hope that this blog will serve as a cohesive study guide for ourselves, the class, and the external readers of the blog.

LINK: Our wonderful, awesome blog!


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Hello World, Rankine Speaking…

I’m finding that the more I read from Rankine, the more I sense a separation between narrator and text.  For a while I blamed both agency and authenticity, unreasonably upset that she would separate herself from her readers in such a way.  But Smith and Watson write an interesting section in Reading Autobiography in which they explain the different types of voices within writing.  I realized then that perhaps this could vouch for some of the obvious detachment.  The autobiographical “I” has a great deal to say for the voice of the story – Rankine often switches from the narrating to the narrated “I” as she incorporates stories of her interactions with the world.  More specifically, she also includes the voice of others, no matter how passive.  Smith and Watson explain this in the Voice section of Reading Autobiography by noting that “autobiographical narration is also opulated with external voices…[which] may be incorporated through citation of dialogue or the use of free indirect discourse” (80).  A fine example of this method can be found on page 54 of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely as Rankine retells the story of her meeting with an editor regarding a book she is writing about hepatotoxicity.  While the editor asks Rankine to explain her views on the liver itself, Rankine refuses to answer her directly.  Instead she reads an article from the Times. The display of the editor’s frustration leaves Rankine pondering what she might have said.  On this same page, she writes, “I understand that what she wants is an explanation of the mysterious connections that exist between an author and her text.  If I am present in a subject position what responsibility do I have to the content, to the truth value, of the words themselves?  Is “I” eve me or am “I” a gearshift to get from one sentence to the next?  Should I say we?  Is the voice not various if I Take responsibility for it?  What does my subject mean to me?” (Rankine 54).

Despite the long-winded nature of this self examination, the passage allowed me greater insight into Rankine’s mind.  And as such, I felt guilty of expecting such connections between the text and my author as well.  She goes on to say that she could have told the editor about how the liver relates to the the world–or even reference a poet like Vallejo because he has obtained a closer perspective on what to think.  Nevertheless, the tone in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely suggests Rankine’s own inability to express a voice of her own.  Perhaps this is, in part, why she often separates even the “I” from her text.  Toward the beginning of the book, for example, she often makes note of “the eyes” instead of “my eyes”.  While there are many potential reasons for this separation like any other, perhaps the justification falls into the theory that Rankine, like anyone else with moderately inaccessible thoughts, simply cannot provide an entirely true reason for what she writes.  Smith and Watson support this idea by writing that “crafting a textual voice out of such experience raises the stakes of life writing and asks that readers grant a different kind of authority to the narrators of such struggles, particularly when their voices are multifarious and ambivalent” (84).  As it turns out, my frustration with Rankine’s voice is unfounded yet again.  Instead of taking the easy way out, Rankine raises the stakes on life writing in order to address subjects that need not be explained through a close connection between narrating voice and text.  It has become our own responsibility, then, to see to it that life-writers are not held to some existential standard regarding their connection to their own writing and the world around them.

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A Quest for Agency: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Agency plays an ever-present role in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Her original work is splayed throughout with cultural references–medical, entertainment, sports, political, historical, and literary. A constant theme that appears strung through these references is that of death and a fear of death, suggesting that it is something she struggles with greatly. In one particular passage, she references her 40th birthday: “It occurs to me that forty could be half my life or it could be all my life.” She continues relaying it to culture, “On the television I am told I don’t want to look like I am forty. . .With injections of Botox, short for botulism toxin, it seems I can see or be seen without being seen; I can age without aging. I have the option of worrying without looking like I worry,” (104). Society, to her, is guiding her agency and telling her how to live. Smith and Watson write of agency, “Where and how does a narrator thematize her ability to interpret her life, and perhaps recognize an obligation to an other?” The answer here is on every page. Through this work, she makes an attempt at gaining back her own agency by gaining her own sense of self-understanding. She expresses her concerns, self-doubts, and fears on every page of this book. In a separate passage she presents what appears to be a dialogue: “Define loneliness? / Yes. / It’s what we can’t do for each other. / What do we mean to each other? / What does a life mean? / Why are we here if not for each other?” (62). Within this passage, Rankine recognizes precisely an obligation that people have to each other, or what they are lacking in obligation. Along with this she also questions life, perhaps her own life, and her own understanding of it. All aspects of this work tie into her theme of death and the struggle she blatantly faces throughout trying to define herself and her place in life through American culture. Her struggle for agency.

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I was told “You will never forget this moment”.

And I haven’t.

There are moments in life where everything around you is internalized- cataclysmic moments where everything turns on itself and life shifts from what you’ve known. Hiroshima, the Kennedy assassination,  the stock market crash, they all come to mind. Perhaps some live to have many of these moments in their lives and the more you are aware of your surroundings the more likely you are to even realize when these are occurring across the globe- natural disasters, wars, death– the often crippling moments of life.

I had one of these moments nine years ago, many people did. In 2001 I was sitting in my 7th grade math class when a teacher rushed in and said some words to our own lecturing teacher. She turned on the television. Everyone was talking all at once and I was confused, on the television we saw massive clouds of black smoke coming from two buildings.

It was early in the day, we hadn’t gone to lunch yet.

At first thought I concluded that the civil war in my country had finally exploded into a massive death toll. I had only moved from Colombia three years prior, and the constant guerrilla warfare always resulted in casualties and our family was always on edge- a week before this date a church with a full congregation had been blown up blocks away from my grandmothers house. I held my breath as I thought of my family and their safety. I breathed easy when I realized this was in New York- when I realized my family was safe.

This easy transition to relief was challenged by the agonized looks in the faces of my peers. Our teacher was sitting at her desk gripping her hands, as the first tower fell so did the tears. I can still remember that moment of pure selfishness as I stared at the TV, the moment when I realized that I was fine because those I cared about were fine. This would not affect me.

That moment of selfishness still haunts me. The fascination at which I watched these horrible events unfold did create empathy, but it was late in its arrival. Those mere minutes of relief have created a memory which still haunts me.

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Claudia Rankine and Space in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Liver

Reading Rankine’s unique work, I was struck by her frequent references to different prescription drugs, the television and the liver. As I read on, I felt that this was more of an Autobiography of America from a certain perspective in a certain geopolitical space and time than an Autobiography of Rankine herself. However, such a work could not be written without Rankine’s unique background as she is a “subject located in [a] complex space of citizenship” (RA 45) due to her perspective on being Black in America and the changes in spatial rhetoric after 9/11/. The personified America she writes about is plagued with problems with race relations, a vicious cycle of depression and over-medication, liver disease, fear, and loneliness. The issues she presents are not necessarily her own but those dealt with by Americans everywhere. The need for drugs to function normally is a scary but true reality in America today. Something is obviously wrong with this picture. The sense of emptiness illustrated by Rankine’s poetry, prose, and pictures is not something felt only by Rankine. I believe Rankine is trying to figure out where we went wrong.

An example of this personified America and the struggle with identity in this space and time is shown in the passage where she says, “As the days pass I begin to watch myself closely. The America that I am is washing her hands. She is checking for a return address. She is noticing the postage amount. Then the moment comes: Inhalation anthrax or a common cold? I have to ask myself. Something happens– a new kind of white power– and I am led inside. Do I like who I am becoming? Is this me? Fear. Fear in phlegm. Fear airborne. Fear foreign. My flushing toilet, my hot water, my air conditioner, my health insurance, my, my, my–all my my’s were American-made. This is how I was alive. Or I wasn’t alive. I was a product, or I was like a product, a product of and like Walt Disney’s cell animation– stylishly animated, somewhat comic. I used to think of myself as a fearless person” (92-93).

She characterizes the fear felt by all after 9/11 and gives Americans a collective identity characterized by fear. I also noticed she makes references to “I” and in the above passage the “my, my, my” may add to her social commentary in reference to the individualistic and independent nature of Americans. Maybe this very “American” trait, this “I” this “me, me, me” mentality creates this American-made unhappiness and is part of the reason America feels so lonely.

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Collective memory and the role of the media in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

In Reading Autobiography, Smith and Watson discuss the expanded possibilities for collective memory and the creation of “’imagined communities’” with the advent and widespread use of technologies such as television, film, and the Internet (26). The sense of identification with memories, emotions, and experiences which have not necessarily been experienced firsthand available to those with access to these technologies “produces collective memories that are individually felt and may evoke empathy and reorient people politically,” according to Smith and Watson (27).

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely echoes Smith and Watson’s concept of collective memory through her emotional interaction with events and people through their portrayal in the media. As Rankine explores her connection to people that she has never met, she experiences a hopelessness tied to such collective memory: “It felt wasteful to cry at the television set as Amadou Diallo’s death was announced. Sometimes I think it is sentimental, or excessive, certainly not intellectual, or perhaps too naïve, too self-wounded to value each life like that, to feel loss to the point of being bent over each time” (57). Reflecting on the impossibility of fully conceiving the importance of each individual life, and the pain brought by the realization that so many peoples’ lives are treated as worthless, Rankine finds that she cannot dismiss other people’s experiences because they are brought to her through television news.

Although she claims to avoid identifying with the people shown on TV by changing the channel, flipping through the static, perhaps, Rankine cannot get away from the collective memory of anxiety and worry brought by the media. Her interest in nighttime pharmaceutical commercials advertising antidepressants further reveals the mental state of the nation: “[At night] people are less distracted and capable of tuning in more and more and most precisely to their fearful bodies and their accompanying anxieties” (29). As Rankine generalizes her experience to the experiences of countless people across the nation and the world, feeling the worry that permeates her own mind and watching these commercials for antidepressants, she identifies the strange interconnectedness of media interaction and the effects that such messages have on individual understanding and memory. Ultimately, television brings to Rankine a picture of the world outside of herself; however, it simultaneously represents many of the anxieties pertaining to death and destruction that she has experienced in other forms in her own life, tying her personal life to a collective memory.

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Experience and the Reader in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

When I picked up Claudia Rankine’s book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely from the University Bookstore, I read the title and gulped. I remembered hearing those words from my grandmother before she died and I remembered saying words like them to a boyfriend who threatened to leave me during a bad spell of depression. Most vividly though, I remembered whispering similar words to my sleeping and hospital ridden sister, Liz, begging her not to die when she was considered terminally ill. I was begging her not to leave me in a world where she didn’t physically exist anymore. Furthermore, I was begging her to let me in, to help me to understand her pain and her lonliness as if somehow I could access it if only she gave me permission.

The words “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” are imperative; they suggest a begging command, a helpless inquiry, a fear of abandonment. These emotions are echoed throughout Rankine’s novel and for awhile we are led to believe that the root of her loneliness is in feeling that nobody could possibly understand her feelings of abandonment, which is true, however, the roots extend beyond that. Because she understands her own sense of loneliness and knows that no one will ever know exactly what it feels like, she in turn, understands that she will never know how the people she loves the most experience their pain from being alone. Textual examples include her sister who loses her husband and children, and her friend who loses her mother and continues to wear her coat in order to feel some sort of lingering connection to the woman she has lost. Rankine reminds herself that it is not her responsibility to feel grief for these people because no grief that she feels will give her access to the grief of her loved ones.

While at times her prose, poetry, prose poetry and images may seem unnecessarily cynical and weighted down in darkness, she is conveying her experience from the bottom of a pit that I’m sure we’ve all crept in and around within our lives already. Perhaps we have an issue with her cynicism because we are fortunate enough to be able to take the position of the spectator that she addresses with the quote that precedes the novel. We don’t have to feel her pain, but we do have to touch it and poke at it just to try to understand it. In doing so, we gain small spurts of access to her loneliness, a realm of abandonment that we can all relate to as we stare at the images of static television sets begging to be turned off. We flip the page to avoid it, full well knowing it’s still there frozen in black and white pixels and causing a low hum to echo in our ears. It’s a reminder to keep turning the pages; the faster and farther you go, the sooner you get away from it until suddenly you turn the page, and there’s another one staring at you.

I ask those in the class who felt drowned in the aforementioned darkness to consider the Latin phrase “lux in tenebrism.” It means “light in darkness.” The phrase  is usually used in regards to paintings, especially those of Caravaggio, but I think it applies here. The darkness is the overwhelming sense of loneliness. The light comes from Rankine’s decision to document it and our subsequent willingness to read it. In doing so, we understand her point exactly. She is giving us permission to try to understand her loneliness and at the end of the novel we realize that we can’t holistically understand it or feel it because it is uniquely hers, despite the open and intimate portrayal of it. In the same regard, this conclusion confirms the title. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. We can not completely understand her pain, and thus, we are forced to continue to let her be lonely despite a world of anonymous eyes who read and relate to her words. As she explains on page sixty-one, loneliness is what we can’t do for each other.


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Rankine’s Lyric Voice and Form

Considering Rankine’s obsession over understanding loss and ultimately death, I feel that the lyric is the perfect approach to trying to reify those abstract and complex ideas.  Her background as a poet allows her this liminal space between narrative and a fragmented poem to develop her autobiography in a structure that relies heavily on the lyric form to translate those abstractions into meditations on herself and past experiences, inner questioning, strange recollections, and the various metaphorical representations of the television.  It seems Rankine uses form in her autobiography to further express thoughts that can’t seem to be voiced by language (a common struggle for poets), incorporating photographs, images from the media and history, labels off of pill bottles, strange graphics of the human interior, all of which all for the narrator to keep speaking without using dialogue.

The prevalence of loss and death throughout Rankine’s life leaves her in this state of constant uncertainty which takes the form of questions and this strange dialogue that I saw as a verbal exchange between Rankine and her inner self. For example, in the dialogue on page 119 it is apparent that two voices are present: the first asks, “Life is a form of hope?” to which the second replies, “If you are hopeful.”  Rankine seems to ask herself this question about life and hope, and the voice that answers back is her inner self fixated on death and loss, the anti-depressant medicated self, the self that answers truthfully and unabashed.  What follows is contemplation over this idea between what Rankine wants to believe in reality and what she fears to be true.  As this meditation closes, Rankine declares “I am here” — here in this life, hopeful yet hopeless. Her inner self recognizes this and the two voices seem to merge in the last line by replying with the inescapable truth: “And I am still lonely.”  This type of self-questioning reminds me of the dialogue in Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred between the past and present selves, which could be a definite model for the development of her lyric voice.


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The Moments Inbetween “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”

For an individual who considers themselves “happy,” reading Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is an exercise in self-restraint. “Why” you may angrily shout at the lifeless novel “can’t she stop being so damned depressed?” Yet to read Rankine’s experimental offering as a melancholy diatribe would, I believe, to be missing her point.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the opening vignette concerning Rankine’s father and the death of his mother. The way Rankine describes her father, he is utterly racked with pain at receiving the news of his mother’s death. Her father’s grief, distraught as he may be, is simply a performance to the adolescent Rankine. She is no more connected to her father’s emotions following his loss than she would be trying to empathize with his frustration over filing tax returns. Quite simply she may empathize but she cannot sympathize.

Again, the ambulance driver that may or may not come to her door following a call to the suicide hotline cannot sympathize or understand the condition Rankine finds herself in. She does not want to kill herself, she’s already dead she explains. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely functions as a peculiar piece of art when one considers its a work on one’s essential lonesomeness in the face of death while embedded in a culture saturated with death.

Rankine’s inclusion of page 5’s note further illustrates this point. She includes a study which indicates that modern cinema depicts more deaths on the screen in an increasingly graphic fashion. These are the true performances Rankine talks about with relation to death. And as the inclusion at the beginning of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely indicates, life is not a spectacle and the sadness of the world, contrary to what Shakespeare may have said, is not a performance.

Thus, I find that some of the more abstract images of Rankine’s novel begin to make sense. Perhaps the blank T.V. emerges not as an embodiment of the author’s loneliness but an alternative to the hyper saturation which numbs our senses to the pain of others. Perhaps, in titling her work Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine is pleading that we, as readers, begin to understand that the pain and suffering we see others in will one day be our own. In that way, Rankine’s novel sheds its superficial air of dreariness and gains an altogether sentimental sheen. If the world is a spectacle and a massive sea of grief a proscenium than we as humans are all performing together.

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