The Word Is Resistance: A Personal Remembrance of Barbara Harlow and Her Legacy

“Where’s the next chapter?!”

That’s what Barbara Harlow wrote in my copy of Resistance Literature. I had graduated with my Ph.D. in 1993 and was no longer her student but, boy, were those words, down to that concluding exclamation point, seared into my mind! For two years I had heard them at regular intervals. They had helped keep me—as they had other doctoral students who had gathered around Barbara—on track to completion. Barbara inscribed those words in 1994, on a trip to New York, where I was then living. I had owned a copy of her book for years but, I guess, never bothered to have it signed by her.

Barbara’s gone now and it is time, sadly, to speak of legacies. One extraordinary legacy—hard to quantify but vital—is her work with graduate students. Barbara leaves behind generations of doctoral students she trained and helped secure academic positions. These students continue to develop and expand the work of the E3W (Ethnic and Third World Literature) concentration that Barbara helped found at University of Texas-Austin, albeit sometimes in ways quite different from her. In later years Barbara grew critical of many of the directions in which “postcolonial literature” went, but what she achieved for the literatures of formerly colonized places through her teaching and research cannot be overstated.

Resistance Literature, a lucid little gem of a book, remains to me the indispensible Barbara Harlow book. In it Barbara delineated a trans-genre category of literature in a manner that succeeding generations of scholars have found endlessly productive. If we speak routinely now of resistance literature it is because Barbara did so much to bring the term into critical fashion.

I teach Resistance Literature often (it teaches well at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) and when I do I emphasize the manner in which that book embodies what I consider to be quintessential Barbara Harlow critical traits—the attention to neglected archives; an undoing of received notions of what counts as literature; a productively tense (sometimes outright skeptical) relationship to theory; an acute recognition of the “theory” immanent within literary texts; a robust sense of what one might call practical politics (the politics of institutions, parties and movements) in whose context literature could be read in novel ways; and, above all, an unswerving commitment to the wretched of the earth. It is worth remembering that most of these critical tendencies were somewhat anomalous when Resistance Literature was published in 1987, a time of high intellection in the American academy. Into the hot sauna of hybridity theory, Resistance Literature poured like a cold shower of reality.

Barbara wrote a lot and edited a lot. There is much in her work that repays sustained study. Whether it is Barred, her book on prison literature by women, or the collections of primary documents she co-edited with Mia Carter, Barbara’s work carved out new terrain, staked out polemical positions, recovered forgotten voices. In Resistance Literature, Barbara wrote, “the emphasis in the literature of resistance is on the political as the power to change the world. The theory of resistance literature is in its politics.” Resistance, that’s the word for Barbara—an interest in and emphasis on resistance, it seems to me, is to be found everywhere in Barbara’s work.

I met Barbara for the first time within a couple of years of arriving in the United States, when I moved to Austin in 1989 to study with her. Austin was still a hippy-ish place then. Volkswagens and tie-dye shirts abounded. Barbara was no hippy but like the hippies sometimes glimpsed in the neighborhoods around campus she was at a tangent to hegemonic American culture.

At the same time, it has always seemed to me that there was a bit of American pragmatism in Barbara’s politics, that her desire to judge ideas and values by their practical consequences in the world owed something to radical American traditions. Barbara traveled widely in the world, spending time in France and Egypt and South Africa, and learned from everywhere she went. At the same time, she remained to my mind unmistakably American. In 2017, when Trump is working so hard to sully everything that America might stand for, it is good to remember that Barbara Harlow too was an American.

For all her American-ness, Barbara had a universal quality that I value more and more as I get older—persistence in struggle. Life’s default setting is to wear you down, to file away your contrary edges. If it doesn’t break you, life will fatigue you with its thousand cuts. Or else it will tempt you with the hundred comforts of compromise (of looking away, of keeping quiet, of taking the well-worn road of convenience). There was nothing convenient about Barbara. She was hard, as more than one person can attest. She was indefatigable in her commitment to inconvenient truths. She remained committed till the end to her values.

Barbara, I’ll miss you in all your hardness.

Here’s my next chapter.


6 replies on “The Word Is Resistance: A Personal Remembrance of Barbara Harlow and Her Legacy”

Thank you for taking the time to pen this heartfelt and honest remembrance of Barbara, Shankar. You’ve deftly and succinctly captured Barbara’s many gifts and idiosyncracies, and identified her legacies with precision. Warmest regards to you from Michigan.


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