A Conversationby Julia Byran-Wilson and Mel Y. Chen
Julia Bryan-Wilson: I’m trying to decide what to write for this “alternatives” issue, but I’m bone-tired since I just got back from Chile, so I can’t think very large-scale or in abstract terms. Grand claims or gestures feel hard to generate.
Mel Y. Chen: Because the latest grand gesture was your 24-hour transit back home, yes? Maybe focus on something small and concrete?
Bryan-Wilson: Okay, how about this? After academic talks, what if all questions directed to the speaker really were questions, asked in the spirit of curiosity rather than aggressive platforms to show off knowledge?
Chen: I agree, but I wonder how many people really know how to do that? Some of us don’t seem to have gotten the training. Also, the wish to insinuate “I have a better idea than you” is too tempting. Do you want to tell the story of the person who trumpeted her ostensibly expert perception about Chinese workers in a film? When people are rude, I enjoy this memory.
Bryan-Wilson: That was particularly obnoxious, but I don’t want to simply complain. How about this: what about having gendered pronouns disappear? That would be a massive, substantial change.
Chen: Yes, or the primacy of male-female ones for certain unthoughtful adults who are hostile when accosted by gender diversity. For them, it would be so nice to replace that binary with a dazzling wealth of gendered pronouns that they need to study to be able to use.
Bryan-Wilson: Sure—I long for a far more complex and open system, one with spaces beyond he/she or even ve, ze, they. Remember when that little kid asked if you were a boy and a girl and you responded, “I’m what you think I am?” That was great. And today when the 3-year-old daughter of our friend Anne said “Are you a man?” you replied “I am everything.” Why not?
Chen: I love how kids ask. They are learning about the world and its multitudes even as they ask for the correct category membership. I feared my answer was confusing for her, but it was what came out in sincere response. I don’t worry about confusing adults when I respond with the same words, right? Ultimately, I engaged in a learning experience with her, in reflecting on how I answered her question, to her, in that context. Shouldn’t we learn from each other, always?
Bryan-Wilson: Yes, yes, yes. Learning from each other, always. I think we have our alternative.
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JULIA BRYAN-WILSON and MEL Y. CHEN teach at U.C. Berkeley and live in Oakland, California.