Notes: Garlough, Christine L., Desi Divas: Political Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances

Garlough, Christine L. (2013). Desi Divas: Political Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.


Garlough discusses, through case studies of cultural performances, South Asian American grassroots activism, highlighting the ways in which calls for acknowledgement operate in their diasporic rhetorical practices.

Keywords: diasporic rhetorics, social histories


“In performing a desire for acknowledgment and by making claims of vulnerability, a petition for future relations and a stake in one’s own being is made. These diasporic performances by South Asian American women—what I will call diasporic performances—keep trauma visible and testify to the suffering of others” (p. 15).

“Of course, not everyone wants to hear this story or feel her pain. She is performing as a parrhesiastes—speaking at great risk, in front of an audience where power relations are unbalanced, freely confessing the truth of her experience, although the threat of retribution is quite real” (p. 128).


One of the things I’m thinking quite a bit about, probably because I’m steeping in this project is the ways that her conception of “passionate acknowledgement” (p. 174) and her discussion of recognition/acknowledgement throughout the text is activism in the ‘AIDS Crisis’ and particularly the activism of ACT UP.

When she discusses Roopa’s performance and the rhetorical moves being made that center around call and response and that ask for and give welcome, I’m thinking of the relationship that this establishes between a ‘rhetor’ and an ‘audience.’ For one, the construction of recognition and acknowledgment itself troubles such a boundary: here we have two possible rhetorical actions the audience can make—which is to say that the audience is agentive here. This troubles boundaries of rhetorical subjects and questions or performs in many ways who has agency within a rhetorical situation—by constructing the audience as having agency that influences the trajectory of the performance, not only is the audience moved (perhaps in both senses of the word moved) into the subject role that experiences the suffering of the performer, but the audience is also questioned as to who actually has agency in this situation. The performer’s agency is acknowledged here as conferred to her by her audience. We can see this running through each of her case studies.

What we don’t necessarily have an answer to is what the boundaries or effects of acknowledgement are. Acknowledgement and recognition both are modes of response that position the audience as having different power, privileged locations, but to what extent does this have to be confronted in order to constitute one response or the other?

This is what brings me to late 80’s AIDS activism. When ACT UP occupied streets in New York to call attention to the crisis, they were giving a call for acknowledgement. They needed governments, institutions, and people to acknowledge the crisis, to acknowledge AIDS, to acknowledge gay people as people, to acknowledge that people were dying. However, their zaps, or their protests—though a performance—was not made to make others experience suffering. The appeals were not made to have the general public feel them but to hear them: their work was an active refusal of systems designed to silence queer people and AIDS. In this way, agency was something held hostage in the same way that the queer community was held hostage. This is not to say that pathos didn’t operate at all—the act of disruption is a felt experience—but that something in the power, reciprocity, and purpose behind how Garlough discusses acknowledgment seems different than these performances.

Notes: Josue D. Cisneros, The Border Crossed Us: Rhetorics of Borders, Citizenship, and Latina/o Identity.

Cisneros, Josue D. (2014). The border crossed us: Rhetorics of borders, citizenship, and Latina/o identity. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press.


Cisneros argues that both registers of borders, the geographic and the civic, have historically defined citizenship in racialized terms, crossing and (re)crossing Latina/o communities. Cineros traces the use of vernacular performances of citizenship and border rhetorics throughout Latina/o rights struggles.

Keywords: rhetoric, social histories, history, borders, Latina/o


“[B]ecause they faced not only institutional barriers but also cultural and historical antagonism and outright persecution, the aliancistas deployed a tactical subjectivity as both citizen-subjects and noncitizen radicals. This border rhetoric oscillated between enacting citizenship through civil rights discourse and reformist appeals and performing a separate identity through ethno-nationalist discourse and radical activism” (p. 78).

“Vernacular enactments of citizenship are always momentary and confluent; vernaculars are neither wholly liberatory nor constraining but enact complex relationships of agency and identity” (p. 106).

“That border rhetorics and particular civic imaginaries are naturalized through rhetoric masks the fact that the border moves and materializes differently across space and time, that the borders of citizenship as they are conceived in any one space and time are unnatural” (p. 147).

“A backlash against identity and identity politics (on the right and the left) contributes to the difficulty of speaking of identity in concrete political terms and occludes the fact that identity is a reality of social location and part of a potential program for liberation and social change” (p. 152).


Cisneros, in many ways, does the kind of social history work that I would like to do. The work that he does highlights the rhetorical performances of Latina/o activists in key moments of Latina/o struggles for basic rights. He writes about how the Latina/o identity is constructed by coloniality  and deployed strategically in these moments he examines. Borders are material/social space of contestability and citizenship is performing belonging within bordered spaces: performing a racialized Latina/o identity in particular ways is performing as well as challenging that bordered space.

So I’m thinking a little about what citizenship means as an archive, as an archive of belonging and an archive of belongings. I’m finding this to be a productive metaphor for me to think through. I’m thinking about Enoch’s (2013) “Releasing Hold: Feminist Historiography Without the Tradition” that suggested inquiry into how the archive does the rhetorical work of remembering, but also the work of forgetting. I’m wondering how this might be useful in thinking about citizenship as being constructed toward particular identity performances even as Cisneros (2014) notes Latina/o identity has been prevented from developing concrete identity terms. This could explain that inability to discuss “identity in concrete political terms” (p. 152).

But I’m also thinking about this in terms of Archive Fever and the anxiety that surrounds this archive. The dust. The dust as these contestations, right? So how is the archive constructed in such a way to mask the rhetorical work of that archive? Of sustaining citizenship. Of collecting dust of the same in the fear of ‘death.’ Borders as the materialization of these anxieties. How might Steedman’s treatment of Michelet’s fever of the dust that kills complicate that? I think she, in seeing everything in the archives as having no beginnings, but seeing them ‘in medias res’, could highlight some of the ways that borders are contested and how citizenship, far from essentialist, is shifting.

But this is just a metaphor to help me process some of this.

There are easy connections to some of the work that I’m doing myself, looking at queer activists between 1987-1990, where I can see similar rhetorical moves being made, where what does it mean to be an American citizen is contested, where there’s a move to develop concrete terms to discuss identity—to perform identity in particular ways to address needs of basic human rights. There are similar differences in performances by activists within ACT UP as performing radical activisms and other LGBTQ activist organizations who wish to perform activist activity framed heavily in ‘civil disobedience’ discourses that heavily appeal to the dominant culture’s sensibilities of what it means to be a citizen.