Women of color meet at the meridians

Kum-Kum Bhavnani has a sparse office, but with manuscripts making their way to her desk from all over the world, it won't stay pile-free for long.

Dr. Bhavnani came to Smith College last July as a visiting professor and editor of a new journal, "Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism."

Created to make room for the voices of women of color, it aims to foster a new tone in women's scholarship. Readers will find academic articles in its pages. But nestled in, too, will be photography, poetry, and other mediums that sometimes give better expression to the variety of women's experiences around the globe.

A diverse editorial board reviews all submissions to Meridians, which will be published twice a year by Wesleyan University Press and Smith.

Bhavnani was born in India but educated in Britain. That's where she got her first taste of political activism as a university student. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, she teaches women's studies, sociology, and global studies. She spoke with the Monitor at Smith, in Northampton, Mass.

What is the primary mission of Meridians?

It focuses on the issues that women of color/third-world women have brought to the fore in feminist movements, and takes those issues further. Not simply repeating the by-now fairly well-known controversies and accusations which are, sadly, still well founded - like the racism of the predominantly white women's movement or the ethnocentrism of Western-oriented women's movements - but also to say, "Well, what do we do with this?"

I hope that Meridians is able to make links between first and third world, so that the divides between them start to be seen as slightly artificial.

Also, I think that Meridians has a job to [show that] women's lives across the world are complicated, and in that complication, to see how we can see commonalities as well as differences.

What does the title mean?

It is intended to evoke so many different ways of thinking about issues. When you think about feminism, race, transnationalism, there are interconnections. You're involved, you're embedded with each other. One meridian doesn't make sense without another.

I think the subtitle gives enough of a hint of the purpose of the journal without limiting it. This journal encourages writing poetry, fiction, extracts from plays....

Is Meridians filling a void in academia?

It's intended to not be only an academic journal. I think Meridians fills a need because really there isn't anywhere that allows women - mostly women of color, not exclusively, of course - to talk about our analyses and our lives in the ways we want to talk.

Sometimes the way we write disturbs the prevailing ideas in women's studies. So, you're always wondering, "Where can I send something? I just want to write it, I don't want to upset the people at 'Signs' or 'Feminist Review,' but they never seem to publish things like this."

Does the journal reflect an overlap between scholarship and politics?

Women's studies is and was clearly a political project, and sometimes there's an amnesia about that political relationship. Meridians, because it centers [on] women of color/third-world women, somehow can't forget a political relationship....

Having women present in the university just changes the atmosphere. For white-dominated countries, first-world countries, it's very hard for them to see people like us [women of color] walking the corridors, holding our heads up high, and not only in the expected niches. Although our work has opened up spaces for newer areas of scholarship, sometimes we are expected to conduct our work only in those areas (for me, for example, South Asian studies, even though I know so little about India).

My hope is that as Meridians establishes itself, you won't be able to predict the type of articles that will be included. For example, in the next issue, I just made a judgment call, I'm publishing a piece by a white woman, talking about racism in Australia. Should this be for Meridians? Should it publish pieces only by women of color? Although the journal must place women of color at its center, as authors in particular, I also think it should publish things that are slightly on the edge. That's what I think politics is in the academy: to embrace controversy and encourage discussion.

Do contributors have to be women?

We've had submissions that we're considering seriously from men. I think what is often wrongly dismissed as identity politics is very important to ensure spaces for many different groups. Simultaneously, I want to also say that the identity of the content of the journal is what should mark it. Because if I end up at a place saying only women of color can write, then I imply that [others] not only cannot write about those things, but that they also can't understand them. It's tricky ground, but if we approach the tensions with political and intellectual integrity, I think we can work out what is best at any particular moment.

What kinds of issues will the journal cover?

I think economic globalization has hit many people in a big way, especially in realizing the links between the wealth of the first world and the poverty of the third world. The protests against the [World Trade Organization] have brought a number of constituencies together that haven't been coming together in the last two decades.

So, what does globalization mean, the desires it engenders as well as the fears, are issues I hope we can include. The second issue [of the journal] has an article on the sex trade and globalization. We also have an article on global feminisms and food. The author is reviewing about 10 books on food, and she looks at food production, food consumption, ways to prepare food. And this is something that's going to be big, because food can be a key means for seeing globalization as lived relationships, not merely as an abstract process.

What are the biggest challenges in this endeavor to have discussions across national and cultural lines?

To me, the biggest challenge is to have lots of different constituencies reading Meridians, even if to get angry about it. My desire is that Meridians should be out there in as many venues as possible and that we write accessibly. One of the things Meridians does is give a cheaper [subscription] rate for those living in the third world.

Might Smith and Wesleyan draw more faculty and students of color as a result of putting out Meridians?

Yes, because, look, these places are producing this very innovative academic publishing.

But also just within the academy [it says], "Look, it's possible to change things. The barriers are there, but you can break through them."

Another consequence that's very important is to encourage women who haven't published before, to see the pleasure of sharing your ideas. So I do quite a lot of work with some of the people who submit, about how to make the piece work. There's a sense of achievement, a sense of possibility, a sense of hope. However critical the analyses may be, just the existence of the journal means that there's room for women of color.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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