Refusing the Biopolitical State: An Interview with Nathalie Batraville

Nathalie Batraville – Photo by Dartmouth College

In a first-of-its-kind study undertaken by political scientist Malinda Smith at University of Alberta in 2018, Smith found that Black professors constitute three percent of all professors in Canada. In Quebec, the disparity is most stark: at McGill and Concordia Universities, for example, Black faculty constitute less than one eighth of a single percent. Within a faculty population that numbers in the thousands city-wide, Black women faculty in Montreal are singular. These numbers, of course, communicate a larger story about the province, given that four major research institutions are located, squarely, alongside the second largest and most diverse Black population in the nation — one also known for its history of organizing and educational obtainment.

Today’s interview highlights the work of Nathalie Batraville who was born and raised in Montreal and completed her doctorate at Yale University, where she studied the writings of Haitian authors who were active during the dictatorship of François Duvalier. This year, she completed a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in the esteemed Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. There, she founded Project X, a workshop series aimed at increasing radical queer Black presence, conversations, and organizing on and off campus. This fall, she began as an Assistant Professor of gender and sexuality studies at Concordia University, where she is currently teaching a self-designed course entitled “Ending Sexual Violence” that engages with Black feminisms and prison abolition. Her teaching, research and scholarship examine the intersections of biopolitics and gendered violence, which she names “rapiopolitics.” In a forthcoming essay, she explores the writing and resistance strategies of Assotto Saint, a Haitian-American poet, gay icon, and ACT UP organizer, as a way of articulating a “disruptive agency,” or as she writes, a “willing participation in the disruption of structures that produce vulnerability” under current-world biopolitical regimes.

Rachel Zellars: Whenever I engage with your work, I am aware of how much more expansively I can reach in my own reading and thinking, to better make the connections between gender violence — particularly violence upon the body — and its disruption. What does someone like Marie Vieux-Chauvet, someone whose writing you have explored at length, have to teach us about the historicity and impact of gender violence in the lives of Black women?

Nathalie Batraville: What a pleasure it is, Rachel, to have once again the opportunity to think together with you. It is always a treat because my work is indebted to you, to our friendship, and to your luminous work on and unwavering commitment to Black women.

I am currently working on two book projects, both influenced by Marie Vieux-Chauvet. The first, “Black Feminisms Beyond the State: Poetic Figurations of Liberatory Sex and Politics in Haiti,” offers a Black feminist reading of the Haitian Revolution and conceptualizes liberatory futures beyond independence by offering a critique of postcolonial state power in Haiti. Using literature and archival research from François Duvalier’s dictatorship (1957-1971), I argue that the task of reconfiguring relations of power and subjection under biopolitical regimes begins by acknowledging and addressing the mutilation of Black women’s flesh as a structuring logic in the transatlantic slave trade’s enduring legacies. This project’s starting point was Haitian novelist and playwright Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, colère et folie, published in 1968, in which she called attention to the violence of state institutions, incarceration, and education in particular, and also posed sexual violence as a central yet unresolved and unaddressed problem for Black women. If as Saidiya Hartman writes, “consent, will, and agency” were “complicated and ungainly” for the enslaved, they remain at best highly contested under ever-shifting disciplinary technologies that are gendered and racialized under late capitalist regimes. In Amour, colère et folie, the impossibility of a shared erotic life, as a willful, desiring, personal and political exchange, stems from neocolonial state violence, but more broadly from a collective inability and unwillingness to name and reckon with the legacies and persistence of racialized gendered violence. The breakthrough for this project came when I began to interpret Vieux-Chauvet’s bleak pessimism as articulating a refusal of the modern colonial and postcolonial biopolitical state, a refusal that produces an epistemological and sociological shift by centering the self-determination of Black women.

Zellars: In your essay, “Disruptive Agency: Rethinking the Grammar of Consent,” you write in response to a question proposed by the Third Eye Collective, a transformative justice community group founded in Montreal in 2013: “What would happen if we re-centered the theme of gendered violence within Black radical traditions such that these histories acknowledge violence against Black women as a coherent, fundamental syntax within its intellectual and organizing politic?” Why was it important for you to respond to this question specifically?

Batraville: What compelled me the most in the Collective’s statement is that you were posing that question not only in theoretical or conceptual terms, but were also pointedly asking organizers and scholars, writers, and community workers to address — on the level of praxis — the pervasiveness of sexual assault and its impact on the autonomy and agency of Black women. Gendered violence within Black radical traditions remains largely unaddressed, particularly in Montreal, and Third Eye asks us where we go from here, what will we do, what transformations are necessary before we even begin, and who will take up this work?

Finally, I have found that often, theoretical work not only lacks this necessary orientation towards praxis, but also lacks a sense of place. I therefore tried to root that essay in the place in which I was living, which was Lebanon, New Hampshire, and the place from which I came, and to which I still had strong connections, which is Montreal. The statement helped orient my work towards this place.

Zellars: I want to name your presence at Concordia as both a crucial and historic one. Would you reflect upon what it means, personally, for you to be there and what projects are priorities for you at the University?

Batraville: I am wary of any triumphant account of my return! I want to be clear that this position is the result of certain forms of privilege I have, even as a single queer Black woman of Haitian descent who comes from a working-class immigrant family. Yet, even with privilege, access, and mobility, this achievement has come at a cost to my mental health. Spending nine years of my life in institutions — stimulating and well-resourced as they might be — that are dedicated to the reproduction of an elite, was often soul crushing.

I left Montreal to pursue graduate studies in the United States because at the time, particularly in literary studies departments, I didn’t see many scholars doing the kind of analysis I wanted to deliver that challenged colonialism and hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Nine years later, not much has changed. I want us to be clear about naming the absence you described in your introduction as a form of epistemic violence. The scarcity of Black scholars in Canada producing writing and research about anti-Blackness has consequences on the level of representation and on a discursive level. We do not know, for instance, as El Jones and Robyn Maynard have pointed out, to what extent Black trans and cis women, Black queer, non-binary and trans people, and Black people living with disabilities are at greater risk for sexual violence. In the classroom, in the media, before we even speak, there is a thick layer of social, historical, and political obfuscation through which we have to try to pierce that is the product of institutions built to consolidate power and maintain racial and economic hierarchies through erasure, exclusion, and entrenchment. These longstanding forms of discursive control can ultimately place disproportionate amounts of pressure and labor on the few of us who are here.

Concordia is the site of a protest led in 1969 by Black students of Caribbean descent, that to this day, represents the largest student occupation in Canadian history. In the past few years, students have been mobilizing to push the university to create a Black Studies minor, which would work to illuminate Black histories and intellectual traditions in Canada and beyond, and host a critical mass of scholars who could work together to generate bold and disruptive ideas and transformative research alongside community members.

I have learned so much about building community from you and also from living in New Hampshire, and this orientation is one that I wish to bring to my work in Montreal. Opportunities for the handful of Black women faculty working across the city’s four universities to come together are few and far between; I would like to see what possibilities might open up if we were to challenge that isolation. I hope to contribute to the transformative community work that Black people have been doing in Tio’tia:ke for years, people like Gabriella Kinté, founder of Librarie Racines, a bookstore dedicated to writers and artists of color, and Rodney Saint-Éloi, founder and editor of Mémoire d’encrier, a vibrant publishing house that features works from diverse voices and fosters critical conversations about colonialism. There are so many conversations I wish to have with Black scholars, organizers, and community members but also with Indigenous scholars, organizers, and community members. This is such a small place, but somehow I feel that half the struggle is finding each other, seeing each other, and hearing each other through those aforementioned layers of obfuscation.

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Rachel Zellars

Rachel Zellars is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her work focuses on the history of slavery in Canada, Black migration through the Maritimes and into the Atlantic world beginning in the 18th century, as well as gender violence and disability. She is also a co-founder of the ​Third Eye Collective. Follow her on Twitter @rachelzellars.​

Comments on “Refusing the Biopolitical State: An Interview with Nathalie Batraville

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    Thank you for this important piece. This concept of this erasure as “a form of epistemic violence” has ramifications for so many academic institutions, in Canada and across the Atlantic. As the BBC news recently reported, there is only one female Black history professor in Britain as we speak.
    I will be sure to mention your interview during my lecture at the University of Cambridge Heritage Research Center in two weeks. I am grateful for all you are doing.

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