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COLLABORATIONS – The Erotic Journey: Traveling, Reading, Becoming – by Fawzia Afzal-Khan

Posted in: Guest Essay

View from lawn chair holding book Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Photograph by Fawzia Afzal-Khan, 2018.

I’ve known my friend Zeba for the past four decades– a bit longer if you count the year I joined Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore. She was a senior and part of a group of wimmin I found dashingly daring because even back then in that conventional space, they were so different from the norm–well, she particularly epitomized the power of the erotic that I would later read about in Audre Lorde:

“…the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”

According to Lorde, we’ve been mistaking the erotic for the pornographic, which is a plasticized, trivial, psychotic sensation. By giving in to a fear of feeling fully and passionately (because we’ve been taught to shun the erotic), we become “unintentional.” In so doing, we become the “Other” of “Man”– the “feminine” creatures lacking ontological existence as Simone de Beauvoir philosophized in her 1949 book, The Second Sex, which we can now recognize was about so many positions beyond the gender binary she reiterated. Or, as Lorde tells us, somewhat more clearly: we become those “who do not wish to guide their own destinies.”

Easier perhaps, to let another bear the burden of our being, to not have to make decisions about what to do and how to live. But, in relinquishing such a “burden” of making our own choices, however tough the path may turn out to be, we also give up the “internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic.” We give up that sense of satisfaction and completion which only an embrace of the erotic can bring us, an embrace that will bring us closest to a fullness of being and living.

Zeba has been one of my favorite travel companions, through whom I have learnt to enjoy, appreciate and appropriate the funkiest of musical tastes from Spinal Tap to David Byrne, in whose company I allow the wind to mess up my hair, wake up to sunrise kissing my face in a lakeside cottage, drive madcap from Barcelona to Pamplona to indulge my fascination with Hemingway and bulls in Pamplona, walk through purple-covered moors in search of Heathcliff and Cathy, all the while marching up and down the dales of a female friendship punctuated by similarities that have helped us overcome our differences through respect––not by sm/othering or collapsing into a forced sameness.

And so, celebrating many decades of embracing the power of the erotic, as we enter the senior stage of our lives, marking my entry into grandmotherhood and her own remarkable ongoing struggle with a chronic illness pushed back through her passionate joie de vivre– we drove her black turbo-charged Beetle several hundred miles recently, to a charming sun-filled cottage on Lake Champlain just south of Montreal. The hours of our journey flew by. Our personal and political selves entwined as we sang along  and even danced in the car to the music of Cesaria Evora, Gilberto Gil,  Junoon and Noor Jehan, and the “Bismillah, I will not let you go” of Queen.

At our lakeside retreat, we read and chatted, cooked together, and soaked in the susurrus of the water amidst the silence. We gazed admiringly at the majestic green mountains across from us on the other side of the lake’s lapping waves, went for a hike on the paths around a chasm created 13,000 years ago, enjoyed an ice cream cone at a roadside creamery, and chatted some more about our families, friends, the state of the world we live in and our deep engagement with it.

Through the process of this “becoming,” this life-long journey into each other’s intimate worlds where the personal and the political become one, I feel I have entered what Jane Lazarre calls “a heightened awareness which always seems to involve the entwining of my own life with something outside of myself.”

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe called this state of feeling “imaginative identification,” an ever-strengthening link between “self-discovery and humane conscience.”

To me, this is the gift of feminist friendship: where we celebrate the erotic in the endeavor, the hard work that sustained and meaningful friendship requires of us. This “work,” that is the hallmark of a life well-lived, is indeed a conscious decision. It unleashes the power of the erotic, understood as commitment, to something bigger than some narrowly-defined self-interest. In Audre Lorde’s hallowed words, when we celebrate the erotic in any endeavor, that means we make a conscious decision to commit, because we want to, because we believe in it.

So this long-term friendship–like my other life endeavors–has been a conscious decision, akin, in Lorde’s words, again, to “a longed-for bed” which one “enters gratefully” and from which one rises up “empowered.”

It is empowering indeed, to live and bask in the light of the erotic endeavor: where you become a better you through the good company of imaginative communities, with whose help the “I” becomes a “you” becomes an “us.”

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a 33 year veteran of MSU. A University Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English, she directed the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program from 2009-15. Her areas of specialization include Postcolonial Literature and Theory, Cultural and Performance Studies and Transnational Feminist Studies. She is author and editor of five books, and her sixth, Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan Through its Women Singers, will be published later this year by Oxford University Press. She currently holds a Fulbright Visiting Specialist Fellowship (2015-2020), is a past winner of an NEH development grant that enabled her to make a  documentary film on women singers of Pakistan, and returns to MSU this fall after having been a Visiting Professor of the Arts at NYU in Abu Dhabi for the 2018-19 AY, where she taught courses in Muslim Popular Culture, Transnational Feminisms and Feminist Theory in Globalizing Contexts.

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