Rajeev Balasubramanyam & Kadija George Sesay

Freeing the Mind from Binaries into Cultural Freedoms

We want to propose an idea….

Our aim was to discuss identity, trauma, colonialism, and spirituality in an emotionally honest way, uninhibited by the need to be sufficiently academic. These issues, we said, create binaries in our lives which can be isolating and divisive, so how do we break away from them to accept ourselves in all our complexity and multiplicity? The two of us share a friendship which embraces one another’s differences, and so we used this as a starting point from which to develop our ideas and thoughts. 

Rajeev read an extract from his novel, Professor Chandra Follows his Bliss (2019) and from his letter to McSweeney’s on why being unable to play rugby at school led to his distrust of politicians. He suggested that people close to one another don’t have to agree, but merely to respect one another’s point of view, and to leave space for dithering, confusion, and changing one’s mind. This occurred between Chandra and his daughter in the novel, and in his essay, he told us about an Amazonian jungle game which involves two teams charging towards a finish line, each carrying a tree trunk. When one team tires, a member from the opposing team crosses over to help them, the idea being to cross the finish line at the same time. Chandra and his daughter were unable to do this in his novel, going head-to-head instead of side by side, unable to respect one another in support of the common good. 

Kadija introduced Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Moving to the Centre (1992) into the conversation, which discusses moving from strangling binaries to multiple threads within language. In Rajeev’s novel, Prakash, reflects this: his hatred for colonialism is so extreme that he starts to mimic the colonisers themselves in his behaviour. Rajeev stated that if you try to write a novel from such a limited, non-dialogical position, it won’t be very interesting. There has to be emotional and intellectual freedom.

By writing in Kikuyu, Kadija said, Ngugi has removed himself from that binary. He wasn’t writing ‘in opposition’ to English, or out of an obligation to fight colonialism, but in the language which he felt gave him the most personal freedom. Cultural freedom, we agreed, releases us from fixed positions, leaving us able to hold multiple, and shifting, viewpoints.

Kadija considered binaries from a more literal perspective. In her essay ‘Growing up Chrismus’ in New Daughters of Africa (2019), she showed us what could have become as a religious binary, with one parent from a Muslim background, the other from a Christian one. The audience commented that the cultural binaries they saw, were in fact regarding food rather than religion. Kadija spoke of how once, she was frustrated when her mother refused to use local country rice over the Western branded rice, forcing herself into a binary, becoming a ‘Prakash’. She also referred to the ‘jollof rice war’ which started off in jocularity and ended up as a very real war which it’s safer not to mention. Who makes the best jollof rice (in West Africa) has become a rugby game.

Someone in the audience picked up on Rajeev’s statement, ‘trauma unlocks binaries’ which became the starting point for further discussion. Responses from the audience showed that people were using different methods to move away from their binaries to move to different social positions, including being public about their sexuality and researching into family history; how embracing its hidden (indigenous) history gave them greater freedom.

This led Kadija to speak about how trauma is intergenerational, and how earlier generations often had to hide their identity to fit into an acceptable space within the dominant binary of their time. We agreed, we were the first generation to recognise the traumatic aspects of colonialism, and to begin the process of healing. Our parents and grandparents never had the privilege of cultural freedom and to use writing in the way we have, to process trauma and being able to heal. 

We proposed an idea…….

Dr. Rajeev Balasubramanyam and Dr Kadija George Sesay  

Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s Pocast ‘Blissful Thinking


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