These days, it’s not particularly revolutionary to suggest that the body is an archive. The popularity of DNA mapping means that the whole idea of biological archives has become commonplace. Companies like Ancestry promise to reveal your family histories and to tell you “what makes you uniquely you.” They promise to reveal more than your family tree – they suggest that they can map your history through time.
As Carolyn Abraham writes in her 2013 book, The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us,
The past is never lost not completely; we carry it with us, in us, and we look for it in our parents and in our children, to give us our bearings and ground us in the continuity of life. And the past accommodates. It shows off in dazzling, unpredictable ways – a familiar gait, a gesture, the timbre of a voice, a blot of colour along the tailbone. The body has a long memory indeed. Written in the quirky tongue of DNA and wound into the nucleus of nearly every human cell are biological mementos of the family who came before us. And science is finding ways to dig them out, rummaging through our DNA as if it were a trunk in the attic (4-5)
It’s a seductive science, this science of DNA-storytelling. It promises the world and more. It tells us it can end racism. It says we are all one family. It tells us that our origins are not murky; that they can be measured just through an analysis of our saliva. Carolyn Abraham describes her own heady encounters: “I suddenly imagined the human genome map as an actual map, capable of leading a person back through her foggy history, pointing the way to foreign lands and forgotten stories.” (16).
I dove into this murky pond on St. Patrick’s Day 2017. A company offered to tell me how much Irish I had in me. “None,” I thought to myself. “Absolutely none.” It’s an odd thing, living on this island that is so very tied to Ireland and knowing that there’s no hint of the Irish in you.
I manufactured all the spittle I could (I’d already read somewhere that it was actually quite a challenge to produce even the bare minimum required), and sent the kit off. Every few weeks, I’d get a computer-generated email telling me that they were working on things. And then, a few weeks ago, presto, there it was: an email that would tell me everything I ever wanted to know about myself.
The results were not particularly surprising: Northern European, South Asian, and African. I knew all of this already. And all within exactly the proportions I’d expect, knowing what I do about my family history. The only oddness was the 1% Pacific Islander, which I suspect, is just the result of however the company chose to determine the categories they’re working with.
Because here’s the thing. What is Europe? Who is Europe? What is Africa? Who is Africa? What is South Asia? Who is South Asia? Who is a Pacific Islander? Who determines any of this, and on what premises are these tests even based?
As the research of Kim TallBear and Alondra Nelson, among others, reveals, the science of DNA mapping is premised on problematic histories. In particular, even as companies promote a ‘we are all one’ narrative, their testing relies on notions of “purity” that perpetuate long histories of scientific racism.
The biological archive can offer some stories, but perhaps not the most important stories, about who we are and how we live together. And so these results, while promising the ‘truth’ of one’s history, must in the end be seen as not much more than a game.
As a result of fetomaternal microchimerism, women will carry their reproductive histories within their bodies. We also know that bodies are fundamentally affected by the social experience of poverty. So, too, have researchers begun to uncover the intergenerational health effects of trauma. Trauma lodges itself in the body and can be passed on to subsequent generations.
Our bodies are sensitive instruments, keenly attuned to the world in which we live. Our bodies respond to all the things that happen to us. In and through them, we can read the stories of our lives.
“Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger,” writes Roxane Gay. What follows is a raw and deeply intimate examination of Gay’s body and her relationship with it. Gay’s body is her archive of her life: it carries not only her experiences, but also all of her emotions. It carries her longings and desires. It carries her family history. It carries her grief. It carries her rape. And most of all, it carries her hunger.
As I think through family histories, pasts and present, I wonder about the stories lodged in my veins, my skin, my psyche. Beyond DNA, what other stories might my own body reveal?
How do we access the archives of the body? How can we ever understand the stories it has to tell us? And what will we do with those stories once we’ve found them?
Abraham, Carolyn. The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us. Random House Canada, 2013.
Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. HarperCollins, 2017
Nelson, Alondra. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconcilation after the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
Reardon, Jenny and Kim TallBear. “’Your DNA Is Our History’: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology, 53.S5 (April2012): S233-S245.
TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of Race and Indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 35.3 (2007): 412‐24.