archival bonding and colliding

As a researcher working through trans histories and pasts, as well as presents/presence and belonging, I am faced with a critical and necessary task: to not apply the concept of transgender to the lives of (gender-shifting) individuals whose narratives, writings, photos and other smudges on the historical record, predate the term itself. This is one of the messy realities of observing/analyzing the past and its affective collisions through a current and rapidly-evolving transgender presence.

When my heart races and I don’t notice it immediately, when my reactions to pieces/fractions/shreds of a queer or trans archive are dispersed across my body, is it because a presence in the past has found its way across an ocean of time to find me, or is it the complete opposite? Is it because part of me gets tired of wishing I had a temporal connection to someone of an earlier time? Michelle Caswell et al. ask, “how can we think about the impact of community archives on members of communities that have been marginalized by mainstream archives” (2016: 57)? Last night while browsing the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA), I answered this question with my body.

Alison Laing Photo Album 1963_001

Alison Laing Looks Onto Lake. 1963. Photo: Unknown. https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/0v838057g

First, my strong connection to water. Second, an elder. Third, togetherness. My response reads this glimpse into history as one of visibility, authenticity, fluidity. I could have it all wrong. Still, I am touched. I want to know more about her. I search for anything on Google and discover the work she has done as an educator for trans individuals. I form a bond with another through an artifact.

Caswell et al. put forth the idea of representational belonging: “the ways in which community archives give those left out of mainstream repositories the power and authority to establish and enact their presence in archives in complex, meaningful, and substantive ways” (74).

I feel it.

Reference

Caswell, Michelle., Marika Cifor and Mario H. Ramirez. 2016. “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing’: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives,” In The American Archivist, 79 (1): 56-81. DOI: 10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.56.

poking the (academic) bear

As a research project, Saltwater Stories is about autoethnography; it is about interrogating the self in order to generate theories and insights about the social and the cultural more broadly speaking.

I’ve worked at least partially autoethnographically since about 2012, but this is the first time that I’ve used autoethnography to frame a large-scale research project. The process has been both liberating and intimidating. At some points I have torn my hair out. At others, I have felt intensely vulnerable and exposed. Sometimes I have wondered what on earth I was trying to accomplish and why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. But then at other points, this project has felt more ‘right’ than any other major project before it.

What’s helped, along the way, has been the establishment of the MUN Autoethnography Reading and Research Group. Last spring, the Department of Gender Studies invited performative autoethnographer Tami Spry to St. John’s and my colleague Natalie Beausoleil and I got to talking about approaches to research. Natalie, a sociologist of health, works with arts-based research methods. I’d been moving away from standard academic writing, feeling my critical and creative instincts stifled by traditional forms and approaches. And so we contacted others around the university and the MUN Autoethnography Reading and Research Group was born.

Our group has grown over the past year to include well over twenty students and faculty members from across the university: Community Health and Gender Studies, of course, but also Education, Nursing, Folklore, Sociology, Engineering, and Human Kinetics. We meet ever three to four weeks or so to discuss autoethnography readings on a range of topics. Some come to every session; others can barely find time to be there. But I think it’s safe to say that we’ve created a vital space for thinking about and working with autoethnography at Memorial University.

A couple of weeks ago, we held our first public event. “Poking the (Academic) Bear: Experiments with Autoethnography” was an opportunity to share our work in progress with each other, and with the public.

autoethnography

The parameters were simple: any autoethnographic work in progress, in any form, in any style, with a time limit of seven minutes per presenter.

We booked the MMaP Gallery on MUN’s campus, and went for it.

And what a night it ended up being! We had 11 participants, a full house, and presentations that included essays, poetry, 1980s pop music, video, and more. There was – and still is – so much to chew on, so much to think through, so much to consider.

Below, thanks to photos taken by Lesley Butler and live tweets by both Lesley and Daze Jefferies, you can catch a glimpse of the event in action.

academicbear2

 

academicbearcecile

Cecile Badenhorst from MUN’s Faculty of Education on words that keep escaping…

academicbearsonja

Me – on protest weather on Good Friday. (photo by Lesley Butler)

Conclusion: will we do this again? Yes! Most definitely!

Thanks to all presenters for sharing bits of themselves and their research.

 

 

What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.

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Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.

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Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

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Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

collecting: haptic ecologies of kin and kind

2000-2006. As rural children, my peers and I come face to face with all material considered useless and ready to be disposed of, into the ocean: black garbage bags, plastic bottles, oil, old car parts, onion sacks containing corpses of unwanted kittens.

While some of these sink to the bottom of the harbour and stay there, potentially serving as reminders for the times we used to have or possible regrets (all those poor kittens), others float on the surface and are carried away in sweeping movements by the Notre Dame Bay. In good weather, she sends them back mellifluently, maybe hoping we will gather them again and find better ways of dealing with our disposals.

The next year we enter junior high where we have our first critical look at environmental studies. We are taught to get out into nature and take care of our bodies because endorphins make us feel better. We are taught to play our part in keeping our towns clean, and a summer project for students encourages us to pick up litter from ditches. Because we live in the middle of nowhere, our only way to get around is by walking or riding our bikes. Feel good, do good. We get to cash in all the bottles we collect. After all, the best way to engage adolescents in critical environmentalist praxis is through a capitalist promise, no?

Still, after all this learning and all these dollars later, I have been no stranger to spitting out my gum in public or leaving trash behind in places I know I shouldn’t.

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Double exposure from my Holga 135bc. September 2011. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

In his article examining Indigenous perceptions of relationships between humans and nature, Enrique Salmón (2000) asks us to think about the concept of kincentric ecology and to interrogate its unfolding in traditional and vernacular terms and practices.

Do we care enough about our emerging kin? Those life-forms who are coming, and will come, into being as our corporeal holdings rot and take on new forms. In this moment, most of us only think we won’t be returning to the earth in any way. We aren’t thinking about the ways we make, weather, and are in this world together (Neimanis and Walker 2014).

Conjointly, how might we change our everyday actions to better reflect the philosophy that we inhabit the earth with many others (non-human and more-than-human), that we are “sharing breath with our relatives” (Salmón 2000: 1328)?

Putting together the work of Indigenous thought, ecofeminisms, posthumanisms, and art/science/theory collaborations brings to light the cogent need to re/think our haptic relations to kin, what Larissa Lai might call “shreds of the flesh of [our] own kind” (2002: 52). This imagery of and turn to touch/ing can put us face to face with the way we produce sustainable narrative-making with the environment. It is not enough to say that life-forms are made of the same quantum parts. We need to be aware of our intra-active touching with all other lives, recognizing that when we harm them, we harm ourselves. We play a game of Double This, Double That.

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway imagines an “elsewhere and an elsewhen that was, still is, and might yet be: the Chthulucene” (2016: 31). While some may think that her theorizing comes from an unexpected place (the spider Pimoa cthulhu), its rootedness in nature follows a tradition of particular Indigenous pedagogies (Wildcat 2009; Pierotti 2011; Simpson 2014). Because the spider has been named by humans, yet its eight long feelers embody the tangled and tangling elsewhere/elsewhen Haraway contemplates, her theory is able to come into being through the intra-action of human and non-/more-than-human nature, as the Chthulucene “entangles myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages” (2015: 160).

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The sculpture Maman (1999) by Louise Bourgeois. I remember seeing it for the first time at the National Gallery of Canada in 2009 and being completely taken aback yet captivated. Photo: Deanna Nichols. https://flic.kr/p/4mrynM

Haraway teaches me that “tentacle comes from the Latin tentaculum, meaning ‘feeler’ and tentare, meaning ‘to feel,” and that “tentacularity is about life lived along lines…not at points, not in spheres” (2016: 31-2). I step out of the book’s pages to catch a glimpse of my own surroundings, to imagine the lines formed in rock by the feelers of the Atlantic Ocean: the way that she has played with this island, forming rugged edges where land touches water in bursts, and at places in the sides of cliffs where that touching never stops, smooth surfaces like innocent skin from “continuous erosion” (Hallett 2010).

These life-forms have been playing with each other for millions of years, and both of them are still here.  Not so long ago, our human kin started to erase many of these lines that guide us: we try to dominate in this game of touching and feeling, we strip away interrelations and exchanges from tentacular powers and forces, from all things. When Haraway says that “maybe, but only maybe, and only with intense commitment and collaborative work and play with other terrans, flourishing for rich multispecies assemblages that include people will be possible,” (2015: 160) she wants us to recognize the harm that cannot be undone, to imagine ways to mend these many forms. She asks us to make our own sacrifices in order to care for our many kinds of kin, our familial/familiar, since “it is high time that feminists exercise leadership in imagination, theory, and action to unravel the ties of both genealogy and kin, and kin and species” (161).

What potential might lie in viewing the natural world, not as “one of wonder, but of familiarity” (Salmón 2000: 1329)? What about the intra-action of both? Is the notion of wonder a key component of imaginative thinking? Can imagination be familiar?

For a moment I imagine myself as Larissa Lai’s hybrid shapeshifter Nu-Wa (fish, snake, human) with her many types of feelers. Nu-Wa shows me her ancient world without touch: “In the beginning there was just me…The materials of life still lay dormant, not yet understanding their profound relationship to one another” (2002: 1). If we do not recognize the critical power of relating to all our multispecies and multiform kin through touch, and if the earth does not use all her tentacles to seek revenge first, maybe in the end we will be like Nu-Wa, alone and unable to feel.

And I will not be ready. Will you?

She might leave me, she might leave you.

She might show you garbage floating on the surface.

She might ask you to imagine, like Stacie Cassarino:

the space between what you deserve
and what you will into this animal world,

knowing you will lose it,
you will float there, hardening (2009: 12).

References

Cassarino, Stacie. 2009. “Kingdom of Glass,” In Zero at the Bone: 11-2. Kalamazoo, Michigan: New Issues Poetry & Prose.

Hallett, Vicki. 2010. “Continuous Erosion: Place and Identity in the Lives of Newfoundland Women,” In Despite this Loss: Essays on Culture, Memory and Identity in Newfoundland and Labrador, eds. Ursula A, Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman, 74-91. St. John’s: ISER Books.

Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” In Environmental Humanities, 6: 159-65. http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol6/6.7.pdf.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Lai, Larissa. 2002. Salt Fish Girl: A Novel. Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Neimanis, Astrida., and Rachel Loewen Walker. 2014. “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality,” in Hypatia, 29 (3): 558-575. DOI: 10.1111/hypa.12064.

Pierotti, Raymond J. 2011. Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology: Indigenous Peoples and Politics. New York: Routledge.

Salmón, Enrique. 2000. Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship,” In Ecological Applications, 10 (5): 1327-32. https://www.fws.gov/nativeamerican/pdf/tek-salmon-2000.pdf.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. 2014. “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” In Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3 (3): 1-25. http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/22170/17985.

Wildcat, Daniel R. 2009. Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.

© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017

The Blur Between

When writing about the making her film Daughters of the Dust (1992), Julie Dash credits the archives for helping shape the historical, ethnographic foundation of her story: a Gullah family at the turn of the century, contemplating northern migration from their Sea Island home to the US mainland.

Turning to the archives myself, I decided to browse the photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “public domain” collection to see what I could find.

One image caught my eye.

It was a photograph by Henry P. Moore of a group of former slaves on a plantation during the American Civil War (1862).

 

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Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

 While in residence, [Moore] made some of the earliest and most poignant Civil War photographs of slave life in the Deep South. Moore focused on the changed lives of African Americans in the aftermath of the Union victory (navy and army) at the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.

 With the departure of their owners, plantation workers in Union-controlled areas were no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42)

 “No longer slaves but not yet free.”

A liminal state.

Caught between a divided nation,

Between time,

Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?

I think what really caught my attention about this photo was the way in which the plantation workers looked towards the camera. I do not know if this photograph was staged or not, but the fact that the Black workers return the gaze of Moore’s camera really jostles the power dynamics of the photographs. In a way, this gaze seems to acknowledge the tripartite relationship between subject-artist-viewer.

But what does this relationship signify? What power structures exist in this frame, and beyond it?

If we take the title, for example, what can we learn?

After the word “negroes” (a word quite out of date, although only so since about the 1970s) there is the bracketed phrase: “Gwine to de Field.”

gwine (gwīn)


  1. Chiefly Southern & South Midland US

A present participle of go1.

[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

The inclusion of this in the title makes me wonder if it was Moore’s conscious attempt to more “authentically” (a loaded word, yes) represent his subjects? Does this title allow the subjects to speak, in a way? Or is Moore exoticizing their own language? Are the subjects ‘othered,’ and silenced through the power structures imbued in this photographic (and somewhat ethnographic) pursuit?

We also learn from the title that this image depicts a plantation on Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This is near St. Helena Island, which is the Sea Island in which Daughters of the Dust was set (the focus of my current research).

Julie Dash has said that she wanted to make Daughters of the Dust to tell untold stories, the untold histories.

What stories are held in the frame? What histories are hidden?

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Moore, Henry P. Detail of “Negroes (Gwine to de Field).” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

I look to the woman on the ride side of the photograph, carrying a child. The skirt of her white dress is blurred, as if caught in the midst of movement. At a glimpse it looks ghostly. Mother and child caught in motion – in a flash of the camera, caught between past and present. They may be caught in between – in the liminal – yet, in their ghostly, blurred visage, they appear to transgress the limits of the photograph.

Moore may have wanted to capture a moment, but what he also captured was (a) movement.

In any case, in that blur, I am reminded of the life behind the image. The stories untold and the histories that still resonate.

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina,” photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42).

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

 

help me to name it: self-mythologizing as experiential inquiry

myth:
ic
ology
ologize

I think myth is an overused and misunderstood word. A message that cannot be fully explained. A belief, a story, a legend, a folktale, a poem. A door that blows open, the leaves that fly in. A mess. Something untrue, something to roll your eyes at.

We talk about them all the time.

Through my academic training and prodding away at various texts, I have come to realize this: scholars of symbolic culture have a hard time agreeing about things. Ask a folklorist or cultural anthropologist what exactly it is that they do – what their discipline is about – and you might confuse yourself more than you intend to. But you want to, and you will, absorb something potent about humans studying humans. There is no single nature. We are all doing our own thing the best way we know how – making up definitions, forming arguments – all abandoned, all scattered (Brand 2001: 211).

For my own learning and interactions with Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, for my wayfaring and desire to locate the self in the story, I propose that mythologizing can be concerned with narratives of origin.

Something we see ourselves in.

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My dad on a beach, years before I was born. July 1985. Photo: Roseann Jefferies.

On a visit home at the end of the summer, my dad and I are able to share a few hours together alone at sea. It is a chance to bond, to show each other that there are sparks, a deep love that exists between us. Most of all, this is an opportunity for the both of us to showcase how many exclusive facts about history, culture, and the environment we can throw out in the open. We have always played these games of knowing.

That evening we see whales, drink cans of Coors Light. I visit the place where my ancestors settled after departing England. They settled on the islands because the best fishing grounds were located there. That’s how they survived.

As far as I know, the story of my place-based patrilineality, and my affinity to this island, begins here:

Thomas Jefferies moved to Exploits/Burnt Island from Crewkerne in Somerset, England in the late 1870s. I wonder what his daughters Jemima and Anna-Bella looked like, how they created meaning on a tiny sheltered enclave surrounded by water.

My dad shows me the house they grew up in – now renovated since the island has become a place for doctors and others to keep summer cabins.

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The Jefferies family lived in the house in the middle. I imagine it was built shortly after arrival, circa 1870. August 2016. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

My self-mythologizing involves this place. I travel here before I know anything about it. Maybe it wasn’t travel at all, I just ended up here. “Ghosts try to step into life,” writes Brand (111). They wanted to show me something. I wanted my dad to take me here. And then after hearing about them I wanted photos of the houses – I didn’t realize the history revealed to me would poke me like a tattoo that I wasn’t ready for.

I am marked, now carrying symbolic history of my family on my skin. “Then there’s the ones we don’t know about. It’s better if we just leave them alone,” my dad says. If I don’t dig down into that forgotten oldness, how will I know what’s waiting for me there? I want to tell my dad that he can’t just bring me to a place and tell me to not search for too much. In this corporeal form, experience is the earth of my autobiographical development. The quest to come into contact with/touch/notice parts of my lineal lore – my inside story – induces me and sets me up to come up short eventually. A game of knowing is never just a game, it is an obligation, and “I can feel a never-going-to-be-sated hunger there” (108).

___________

When we tell a myth about ourselves, we have the flexibility to play with it. A Map to the Door of No Return is a work of self-mythologizing in various ways. Blurring the lines of autoethnography, personal experience narrative, fiction, and theory, Brand takes on the challenge of writing and representing her life through carefully corrugated memories and meditations. However, she argues that “myth is of course seductive, but it needs material power to enforce it” (129). Can’t material power be the human voice? What about something written? If I narrate it, chances are I mean it. Is that not powerful enough?

As much as I learn about maps, I feel like I am traveling through the text with no direction in sight. Can I read it backwards? What about in fragments? Playing with the headings. What am I supposed to know now that I have turned the pages in strange patterns and chapters inside out, now that I have seen where October ends and Finding a Compass begins. My thoughts are supposed to be scattered. Pain of pasts written into present. In the Diaspora, memories of blackness and home disperse across geography and temporality. Brand’s traveling across distance and time incites my own symbolic movement through the text. As she travels, she tells a story about herself. One of great change and searching, of flight. She is constantly moving places.

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View from above. August 2013. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

I choose window seats when I am in air, in transit from place to place. Between bursts of white, I see where the land meets the ocean. Somehow I scrounge up the money to travel or I am offered a vacation. Mythology is also about evolvement – how I got up here from down there. One must think about this horizontally. In my life, the origin of opportunity is intricately connected to grounds of orientation, isopleths of privilege. It’s about ability, access, the site at which I am located. My learning, understanding that “we accumulate information over our lives which bring various things into solidity, into view” (141). It’s about Burnt Island and that white house.

I wish to know more about movement:

The dispersal of my ancestors like capelin in the water. Nobody caught us in a net or picked us up off the beach rocks in the spring, cooked us, ripped our heads off with their teeth. We were able to lay our eggs and get away – the lucky ones – making something of ourselves. Of course almost all capelin die after spawning on the beaches – I am just playing around. In my self-mythologizing, I very well could be a fish. Why can’t it be true? To imagine parts of myself in another, to imagine myself as another.

Transmogrification and transmutability can be principal portions of the way we narrate place, identity, and experience in our lives. Brand’s writing transmogrifies time and place – channeling me through her imagination, memory, and longing of/for oldness and mis/direction. She theorizes a map as “a set of impossibilities, a set of changing locations” (224). As my bearings shift, so do I. My stories too – we have no choice. Self-mythologizing is a game of knowing how well one can narrate the underpinnings of personal experience – how well one is equipped to and for change.

Did my ancestors know where they were going when they ended up here? What tensions did they have about journeying on to new terrain? Did they understand how 146 years of transmutation would make a good story? How far would their spawn swim into the future?

Reference

Brand, Dionne. 2001. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Vintage Canada.

 

Maneuvering the Master’s House

When I initially began my research about a year ago, I looked mostly to literature on postcolonialism, transnational feminism, and life writing. But as I was primarily interested in how film and gender fit into these general topics, I found myself perusing a book called, Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through (2014). While trying to see if I could find any specific films or filmmakers that might help me hone in on a more specific topic, one paragraph stood out to me:

 Far from Hollywood, Senegalese director Safi Faye realised she could communicate more effectively in visual images rather than words to overcome the multiple languages of her country and avoid using the language of France, the coloniser of her country, Senegal (Kelly and Robson 12).

Although quite short and straightforward – more a survey than anything profoundly theoretical – this quote helped me to think more about the significance of film within (post)colonial contexts.

How does the visual medium of film work through the colonial implications of communication? How does it navigate language differences within (and across) borders? How does it challenge, and engage with, notions of silence?

In a way, Safi Faye’s filmmaking philosophy seems to echo Marlene NourbeSe Philip.

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

the tongue is the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended … (Philip 56).

Sometimes I find myself forgetting the histories of power and persecution behind the very words that warp my tongue.

Perhaps I don’t really forget, rather, I fail to notice.

When something becomes seemingly second nature, like language – like my mother-tongue – it becomes hard to defamiliarize it, to distance yourself from it. But this is why it becomes all the more important to remember the many injustices that occur at the level of language.

 English

is my mother tongue.

A mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan lang

language

l/anguish

   anguish

— a foreign anguish.

 

English is

my father tongue.

A father tongue is

a foreign language,

therefore English is

a foreign language

not a mother tongue (Philip 56).

What does this mean then for filmmakers like Safi Faye who are caught between languages? How can the visual help us navigate those colonial histories? Can film maneuver the politics of language more effectively than other textual mediums?

I think also to Audre Lorde, who famously claimed: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (112).

 Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women … know that survival is not an academic skill … It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support (Lorde 112).

If we think of these “tools” in terms of language, how can we apply this to Safi Faye’s approach to postcolonial filmmaking? Can filmmaking dismantle the ‘master’s house’? Or does filmmaking become yet another tool of the ‘master’?

 What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).

Can filmmakers, with unique, passionate, and critical ways of storytelling, direct their lens in a way that is resistant to their patriarchal, racist surroundings? Can filmmaking effectively contribute to (post)colonial conversations?

 

Sources:

Kelly, Gabrielle and Cheryl Robson, editors. Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through. Supernova Books, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue/Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017