Interview by Rachel Howard
What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?
I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy. My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies. It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time. More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people. I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves. But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly. So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself. New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.