Along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, wharves and stages sit at the water’s edge, extending vernacular glimpses into family beginnings and histories, their shifting durability. Pushing itself off land, a wharf has direct contact with the sea, its legs enveloped in water and kelp, surrounded by snails and things that wash ashore. Resting on top of the wharf, the stage is a site of production. Inside, you might find buckets, nets, rubber clothing, and tools to split, clean and salt fish. If you look closer, it will bring to light so much more.
It is a place where hard work happens.
A place of processing and mythologizing.
All at once, it is a place of theorizing.
I am self-aware of this.
Running too fast, my mom had tripped and fallen on our family wharf in the 1960s when she was a child. 30 years later she showed me the spot where it happened, chronicling the torn skin of her knees, how she got “some smack.”
I knew then that our wharf had stories etched into its aging, grey wood. It had weathered decades of water, salt, fish guts, and blood. Stretching out from years gone by, it had given us economic stability, property, and pleasure. It had become polysemic.
What about the stage?
Years and years before my mom made it into the world, my great uncle Tom lived like others in my hometown – inside the stage that he built. I picture it now: crooked walls, painted red and chipped, reeking of oil and gas. Every time I set foot in there for the first 10 years of my life, I would notice what appeared to be fragility. It was slanting and waning. A small wooden box split into two rooms. No electricity. No visible life. I couldn’t imagine surviving in there. Yet, mom and dad told me, “that’s what they had to do back then.”
As I interrogate living histories of this island I call home, I come into contact with dynamic concomitants of rural subjectivity. I always thought they were scars, rough hands, wear and tear. But look, see: you want to show how tough you are without spilling your guts, you want to believe you can master the little nature you know.
I look back, now, to disentangle memories of alkalis, ice pans, and fish inshore and nearshore (McCay 1995: 144). I listen, again, to occupational narratives of women working their bodies to the bone in stages and fish plants. I reimagine jigging fish with my mom, and I feel her tug at my life jacket when I see, once more, the humpback whale moving right below us.
This was growing up.
As a rural trans child, I knew I had a unique history with water. The ocean, that dark blue spirit, guided me back to it/her when I needed healing. To look into it/her, to undo myself and to create myself in an instant (Wang 2010: 270). What was being written in that exchange between element and earthling?
She always told me to go slow.
In doing so I might open up, touch, and recognize the fragments that shaped the women who came before me: splitting and salting (McCay 1995: 147). Coming undone in order to preserve all their/my/your be/longings. Doing what one has to.
For moments, there is an opulent eloping, finding pleasure in ritual performance. Disguised visiting, hybridity, fluidity: sometimes men dressed like women, and women dressed like men, not for role reversal, but simply for disguising one’s gender (Palmer 2005: 150).
Would my trans womanhood shake all of that up? Soda, so dauntless – the way it pours out, reaching to distort body shape and size (150). I was rewriting history, becoming active in the politics of the co-operative (McCay 1995: 160) shaping of subjectivities in isolation.
It doesn’t take long before I break
& nature breaks its own rules
as tradition beats up
the gender symmetry
my home thinks it knows:
For the first time
I see myself
in bottle caps,
a broom handle
and high heels
(Jefferies 2015: 6-7).
At the same time rurality makes room for me to cross over into occupational and architectural histories in order to make sense of my world, I pry it open and throw back the potential of theorizing trans identity and experience through mummering – performing and materializing through geopolitical drag. Without a language to embrace, a community to hold on to, a history to unravel (though I create them in an instant), I re/configure what I know as durability, I learn to touch its un/steadiness. I perform at a stage different from the one my hometown showed me, and I know that being vulnerable to the process of performance, or privy to its transformative possibilities means full engagement of the body and/in theory (Spry 2011: 165-6).
At a party
someone mistakes me
for an archangel (Jefferies 2015: 7).
At the stage I find myself staring out on to saltwater as I watch it move closer to me.
Jefferies, Daze. 2015. “Ugly Stick,” In Seesaw with the Spear, 5-7. London: Payhip. PDF e-book.
McCay, Bonnie J. 1995. “Fish Guts, Hair Nets and Unemployment Stamps: Women and Work in Co-operative Fish Plants,” In Their Lives and Times: Women in Newfoundland and Labrador, A Collage, eds. Carmelita McGrath, Barbara Neis, and Marilyn Porter, 144-162. St John’s, NL: Killick Press.
Palmer, Craig T. 2005. “Mummers and Moshers: Two Rituals of Trust in Changing Social Environments,” In Ethnology 44, no. 2: 147-166.
Spry, Tami. 2011. Body, Paper, Stage: Performing Autoethnography. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Wang, Jackie. 2010. “Hybrid Identity and a Writing of Presence,” In Other Tongues: Mixed‐Race Women Speak Out, eds. Adebe DeRango‐Adem and Andrea Thompson, 270-6. Toronto: Inanna Publications.
© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017