Book Review: Of Color by Jaswinder Bolina

It was after midnight when, reading by iPhone flashlight under the covers so as not to wake my girlfriend, I finished Jaswinder Bolina’s essay collection Of Color. I rarely stay up late to finish a book, much less to finish a book of essays on the day I bought it, and snippets of the text have been swirling in my head since I finished reading it several weeks ago. What is it about Bolina’s writing that pulled me in and left a mark?

That’s what I’ll be trying to get at in this review, but before I do, let me set the scene. It’s late June. Protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd have spread across the country, even to quaint Asheville, North Carolina, where I’m visiting my girlfriend’s family for the week. We can’t drive down Main Street because a trio of Black Lives Matter protestors have set up a quiet blockade with their bicycles. We park, put on our face masks, and walk to a bookstore. Inside, the shelves in front are full of books by Black and brown¹ authors, books on social justice movements in general and Black Lives Matter in particular. Your typical detective bestsellers have been relegated elsewhere, at least for now. There’s an uneasiness to drifting among glossy hardbacks while, outside, the world burns. As there should be. I eventually come upon Of Color in the muted “Essays” section in the back, and its dust jacket gives me hope that by reading this book I will briefly engage with issues of race in America rather than shying away from them. I buy it. And this, like everything else, has become a political action. Wearing a mask, obviously, and of course patronizing an independent bookstore, and so without a doubt buying a book on race written by someone with a foreign-sounding name and published by super-liberal McSweeney’s. Like anything political, I therefore expected Of Color to be full of tension. Productive tension, to be sure, but tension nonetheless.

Instead, Bolina reflects on America’s most politically charged issues — racism, immigration, class — and defuses the tension through an exemplary demonstration of sustained empathy. The sense of release is almost chiropractic. His opening essay, “Empathy With The Devil,” focuses on 9/11 and the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden. Bolina expresses amazement at a friend’s ability to understand both sides of an issue on which, especially for a brown American immigrant, anything less than absolutism is tantamount to treason. The example’s extremism serves two goals. One, empathy matters most when the stakes are high. Two, obviously “correct” opinions — e.g., we should hunt down Osama bin Laden for what he did to us — must be open to disagreement. There is always a middle ground and sometimes it’s uncomfortable; at one point Bolina calls it a “moat” (13). While it may seem unsustainable, he encourages us to keep treading water anyway.

In my favorite passage of the book, Bolina gives us one of his own personal moat-dwelling moments. He recalls watching a girl ride a unicycle. There’s a hot-dog shack nearby, and a tanning salon and a bar. Bolina’s impulse is to criticize her and the whole scene. “How effortless she makes it to indict her as a symbol of our excesses,” he writes. “What a bore all our opulence is” (16). And then he reverses tact, showing what it feels like to take an instinctive opinion and turn it back on itself, on oneself:

I’m tempted to vilify it, but my complicity in this culture makes the critique either self-righteous or hypocritical. Besides, I admire the girl’s sense of whimsy. I wish I had a leather jacket, a hot dog, the skills to ride a unicycle. And I don’t want to engage in easy liberalism, the activist mindset that contemplates, mourns, and criticizes but does nearly nothing to change the conditions that allow atrocity in the first place. Such a mindset might motivate me to vote left of center, to donate to Amnesty International. It might get me to march and to Occupy. But it operates at a safe distance, and that distance is part of the problem too. In that space, self-righteousness and cynicism fester. There every atrocity is born. (16–7)

How surprising and sad to discover that Bolina wrote this essay in 2012, seemingly eons before the entrenched divisiveness that defines our culture today. Take cancel culture, or cries to defund the police², or the tacit assertion that “blue” lives and Black lives cannot both matter, or the idea that economic recovery and containing COVID-19 are at odds — they’re all utterly bereft of nuance. I suspect that only a few people actually identify completely with either side of these issues because, come on, how could you? The extreme versions of these arguments — like most extreme arguments — collapse at the slightest prodding. Regarding cancel culture: is there no racist act small enough to be used as a learning opportunity instead of as an excuse for public shaming? Black vs. blue: what about Black cops? These are unserious questions for unserious arguments. It feels like up until now we’ve collectively ignored the uninformed few who stand behind such injurious opinions, but our legs have finally gotten tired from all the treading and so we’ve joined them on the shores.

Bolina argues that empathy — what he calls “seeing through both sides of the bullet hole” — will deliver us from this divisiveness (19). “It may well offer our best rescue from alienation, apathy, and atrocity, from ourselves and each other,” he declares (19). This first essay serves as a signpost for the others, which seek to prove Bolina’s thesis by demonstrating what happens when we choose nuance over absolutism, when we replace black-or-white opinions with those of color.

It’d be hard to imagine a less radical argument, and yet there is something radical to Bolina’s commitment to identifying with the other side, even when it hurts. In one essay, “Color Coded,” he talks about a childhood encounter with a blonde girl who teased him by asking, “Are you a Hindu or a Gandhi?” (42). Bolina, who is Sikh, was born in Chicago, and whose parents emigrated from India, might be forgiven for mocking the girl’s apparent stupidity. However, he concedes that “she was making inferences, some of them quite clever,” and pinpoints the actual problem with her deliberately rude question (42). The problem wasn’t the ignorance that caused her to mistake Bolina’s religion or nationality. “Ignorance,” Bolina writes, “can be forgiven. It was the willfulness of her act that made it deplorable” (43). If Bolina had chastised the girl for being ignorant, he would have been acting hypocritically because everyone is ignorant of something and ignorance can be forgiven. Instead, he isolates the point that matters: the girl was being mean on purpose, and being mean on purpose is deplorable.

The specificity of Bolina’s reasoning is essential because it prevents this encounter from ballooning into a white-people-are-ignorant issue and instead reduces it to a this-girl-wanted-to-hurt-my-feelings one. This is the mechanism through which empathy and nuance might rescue us: by allowing us to see things for what they really are. Notably, Bolina does not imply that empathizing with someone on the other side means validating or justifying their actions. This is something that’s often missing from the social arguments of today. You can, for example, try to understand why a white police officer acts more violently toward Blacks than others without endorsing his racist behavior. This doesn’t mean excusing heinous actions. It means focusing on what about an action actually makes it deplorable and then targeting that as the problem.

In another essay, “Foreign and Domestic,” Bolina recounts being mugged by three young Hispanic men. He was walking home late one night when they jumped him and took his belongings at gunpoint. Bolina acknowledges the wave of emotions he experienced following the incident — anxiety, embarrassment, fear — but now, with the clarity of time, sees the situation from the other side. “Certainly I feel scared and angry and violated,” he writes. “But hungry enough, frightened enough, hopeless enough, I might mug me too” (83). Bolina calls attention to Trump’s myth that Hispanic immigrants pose a threat to Americans, which, abhorrent or not, happens to describe Bolina’s mugging quite accurately. But rather than accept his experience as proof of some greater truth about a group of people, Bolina shifts some of the blame onto himself:

Whatever threat or violence awaits this nation in the years ahead, none of it lurks because we permit diversity and difference to enter here. It awaits us because we permit disparity and indifference to smolder, because we seek not to correct desperation and injustice but to insulate ourselves from them. If our luxuries are worth taking, it’s because we walk obliviously among those we leave wanting. (83–4)

I am tempted to draw a connection between Bolina’s compassion and his family’s immigrant history. There is plenty of evidence to support this claim. In the essay “American, Indian,” Bolina recounts how, when his aunt and uncle immigrated in 1971, they would occasionally receive phone calls from strangers who’d landed at O’Hare International Airport hoping to start their lives in America. “The callers,” writes Bolina, had “simply found a payphone in the terminal, opened the directory, and dialed the number next to any name that sounded like it came from their part of the world” (92). Bolina’s aunt and uncle would pick them up at the airport and host them until they’d found jobs and housing. In another touching anecdote, this one from the essay “My People,” Bolina relates a story from his childhood. His next-door neighbor, a European immigrant, had come over to Bolina’s house for dinner and noticed a photograph of Bolina’s grandfather in military uniform. A few days later the neighbor brought over a similar photograph and showed it to Bolina’s father. “My uncle!” said the neighbor. “He was soldier too! Like you father! He was in the SS!” The neighbor didn’t seem to realize that his uncle had fought against Bolina’s grandfather in the Second World War. Bolina’s father “looked into the other side of the war, paused a moment, then smiled, nodded, and said, ‘Yes. I see. Thank you.’” (88). Bolina remarks, “In this moment, some avenue of history ended… an old argument evaporated” (88). This characteristic, to be willing/able to look into the other side of something — through the bullet hole, as it were — and accommodate those who are different from us, seems like something immigrants come by naturally.

Maybe so, but Bolina recognizes that, as immigrants establish themselves in America, they become susceptible to the same dispassionate myths as everyone else. He’s watched this happen to his extended family, who, during the Obama administration, grew anxious that “blacks and Latinos” would take their jobs, and so they eventually voted for Trump:

They support Trump’s every regressive diatribe in spite of the fact that they’ve benefited from affirmative action and unemployment, from social security protections they now believe are too economically burdensome, from the very immigration policies they now support ending… Decent and devoted to this nation as he might be, [the brown immigrant] too can grow fearful and eager to blame anyone else for his misfortunes… This is how the turbaned desi comes to ally himself with white supremacists. (101–3)

The bleak reality is that anyone, even immigrants, can succumb to fear and greed. The positive spin on such a dark truth is that compassion is a muscle we can exercise, not something we inherit. Bolina’s uncle exercised it when he picked up strangers at O’Hare. His father exercised it when he overlooked the chasm between the Allied Forces and the Axis Powers. Bolina exercises it by trying to understand what has caused his extended family to rally behind a racist and xenophobic administration. And we, the reader, can sense Bolina’s careful and well-meaning struggle to empathize with an other. It feels like progress is being made. It feels more productive than treading water.

I therefore cannot claim that Bolina’s compassionate disposition has anything to do with immigration or having brown skin. But there is clearly a connection between his tender, nuanced exploration of polemical topics and what he does for a living: Bolina is a poet. He has authored several books of poetry and teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Miami. These impressive qualifications belie his true nature as a writer, for Bolina does not write with the confident gravitas one might expect from a professor but instead with the unease of someone who finds himself put in charge too soon. This is the impression I get from “What I Tell Them,” in which Bolina confronts his role as a poetry professor. The essay takes the form of a long list of things that Bolina tells his students, things like “there are too many poets” and “you matter too little” and “you know too little, what are you doing here?” (57). Much of the advice is anti-poetic, unromantic, harsh, but it comes off as sincere/caring instead of rude/patronizing because the things he tells them are the same things he tells himself. “I say,” writes Bolina, “I’m only twelve or so years removed from where you are, and I know too little” (58). Even in the field of poetry, where Bolina’s skills and opinions have been formally endorsed, he repeatedly questions himself. It’s the same self-effacing doubt that creates space for empathy in social situations, and it is beautiful to watch.

“What I Tell Them” is the loveliest essay in the collection because of the way it blends hope and uncertainty, wisdom and doubt. For example, he calls attention to a cliché — “poems aren’t made of ideas, they’re made of words” — and then worries that reciting this cliché to his students will make him seem “woefully earnest” (58). Ultimately he decides that it doesn’t matter if he ends up embarrassing himself. “This isn’t about me,” he writes. “Only the poems matter” (58). The advice he comes up with on his own is more much more interesting than the truisms, anyway. On the subject of words, he tells his students to use their own words as opposed to the words that other poets have by now worn out:

I give them examples. I tell them, our “morning” is always “frigid” and “gray,” our “clothing” is always “ragged” and “torn,” and our “fingers” are always “stained” “with” “tobacco,” “the” “fingers” “of” “smoke” “caressing” “the” “light bulb.” I tell them, your morning should be neurons and steam. You should arrive in a smock or in machinist’s regalia. You needn’t bother with smoking and fingers, we’ve had enough cigarettes in poetry. (61)

There’s levity and humor in these observations, to be sure, but this is a serious essay written with urgency. Bolina is trying to scare/energize his students into realizing how unremarkable they are for writing poetry, how persistently they’ll have to work in order to achieve any sort of readership, how essential poetry is to the development of language, and how innovative/honest they’ll have to be because otherwise the result won’t be worth the effort. There’s a lot of physical language in this essay: poems that “overthrow you,” poems that “sputter and quit,” poems that you have to “kick” (62). You get the sense that Bolina is trying really hard to get the message to land with his students. For the sake of poetry, I hope it does.

After all, it isn’t only Bolina’s students’ future that’s at stake but the future of poetry itself. In “The Writing Class,” Bolina argues that advanced degree programs in writing, like the ones Bolina attended and the one in which he teaches, have made poetry more widely written but not necessarily more widely read. Bolina worries about the elitism/privilege inherent in a system where poorly funded graduate degrees are all but necessary to gain entry. he recounts that it was only through “the economic advantage [his parents] had worked and paid for that permitted [him] to be so brazen” as to pursue a PhD in English (66). The problem is that these degrees require financial security in addition to all the normal prerequisites for graduate school (a college degree, the GRE, recommendation letters). These programs have nonetheless proliferated in recent decades, and the surge in works by graduate-schooled writers has led more and more people to be “indoctrinated” into the system’s “culture of privilege” (69).

Why this matters so much for poetry in particular is that poets of the so-called writing class inhabit an environment where most people talk and write the same way. According to Bolina, “If nobody comes along to challenge our language and its embedded frames of reference, ours becomes a private conversation, continually reaffirming our existing perspectives” (72). By now the notion should be familiar to us: it’s another plea for a diversity of viewpoints. He calls this restriction of language “downright existential” for poets (72). Worse, nowadays it seems that the only people who read poetry are those who write it, causing the genre to become even more insular (74). To break the cycle, Bolina calls upon poets to look outside their own experiences so they can produce relatable poetry and thereby advance the field:

If we want that poetry to matter to people outside our classrooms and conference halls, if we want to bring the masses to our work, then their lives and their languages need to matter to us first… If our work doesn’t bring refreshment to readers outside of our industry, if too many feel disconnected from it, it’s probably not because their desire for the poetic has gone unmet or gone away altogether, but because they can’t afford our version of it. (75–6)

This may be the only explicit call to action in the whole book, and, though I hardly ever read or write poetry, I find myself moved by it. I think this speaks to Bolina’s lasting impression and the reason I feel fortunate to have found this book. How wonderful to take a problem, like poetry’s failed mass appeal or getting mugged or xenophobia, and insist on seeing through to the other side, no matter what you might find there. It strikes me as totally mature, this acknowledgement that you can be part of a problem even if you didn’t directly cause it, even if you’re the victim. Whatever happens in November, it won’t save us from the divisive sociopolitical climate in which we find ourselves. With Of Color, Bolina has laid out a template for how we might diffuse some of the tension. But we’ll need to be willing to swim.

[1] I’m following Bolina in using the lowercased spelling of “brown.”

[2] Of course, many protestors are not actually asking for the police to be defunded entirely but instead for some funds to be redirected to other services where they can better serve the public. But this isn’t what’s portrayed in the news or propagated on social media.

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