watered

watered

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Amsterdam canal, 2016. photo: Sonja Boon

In a 2013 article, Astrida Neimanis proposes a “watered” form of feminist subjectivity, one that attends not only to human concerns, but also to ethical engagements with the nonhuman.

Extending feminist posthumanist conversations initiated by such thinkers as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, she observes that “In purely descriptive terms, we are bodies of water, but we also reside within and as part of a fragile global hydrocommons, where water – the lifeblood of humans and all other bodies on this planet – is increasingly contaminated, commodified and dangerously reorganized” (103).

What does it mean to imagine ourselves as water bodies? How might our approach to politics change if we think ourselves through our relationships with the nonhuman, rather than against them? What new possibilities might emerge?

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Shallow Bay, Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon

“We are all bodies of water,” Neimanis writes (2012; 2013). Imagining ourselves as watery bodies forces us to locate ourselves within rather than against the nonhuman world, and simultaneously, to acknowledge all watery bodies – both “human waters and ecological ones” (Neimanis 2013, 27) as having agency. This encounter paves the way for thinking through hydrologics; that is, the ways in which water organizes itself. Water, Neimanis writes, can be simultaneously imagined as conduit, memory, archive, facilitator, and gestational milieu. It is past and present. It is intimate and planetary.

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Kid the elder, North Sea, Scheveningen, The Netherlands, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

Water isn’t a new topic for this collaborative blog. I’ve written about it before, as have the graduate students – Lesley Butler and Daze Jefferies – associated with this project.

Among other things, we’ve explored oceans and rivers as sites of theory and in relation to mapping and questions of place. We’ve also looked at water as a site of story, myth, and history.

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campground. can’t remember where. Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon

I’ve long been fascinated by the liquid, the fluid, the stuff that resists borders, flows beyond them, and renders them obsolete.

And so it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m drawn to theorizing that begins with water. Some of my favourite theorists – the “friends” I made during my doctorate – draw on the fluid or the liquid. Hélène Cixous, for example, starts with the “white ink” of the lactating maternal body as a source for a utopian feminist imaginary, ideas which have been taken up, extended, expanded and explored by numerous other thinkers, among them Alison Bartlett, Fiona Giles, Robyn Longhurst, Rhonda Shaw, Margrit Shildrick, Iris Marion Young, and Quinn Eades. Indeed, Elizabeth Grosz, in her foundational Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, suggests that women’s embodiment has been constructed in a “mode of seepage.”

All of this thinking relies on boundary breaking, on reimagining social relations through a fundamentally different way of imagining bodies. No longer discrete entities, the bodies of feminist theorists are porous. They leak. They seep. They expel. This is theory founded on touch, on porosity, on connection.

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loo with a view, Bay Roberts Newfoundland, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

But the more recent work of thinkers like Neimanis and Karin Amimoto Ingersoll moves beyond the fluxes and flows of the human body. The fluid is not just about the human, they argue. We need to situate ourselves – our bodies and our knowledges – within a larger, nonhuman world.

What, then, are the implications, really, of that seemingly simple – almost facile – statement, “We are all bodies of water,” that underpins Neimanis’ work?

My older son, who is linearity and logic embodied in human form, would contest the very premises of the statement. “No,” he would say, “we’re not. We’re only 60% water. That statement is inaccurate.” Older son is very literal. The body of the ocean and the body of the human are not the same body. The water is not the same. And as such, there’s no more conversation to be had.

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Georgia Strait between the mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo: Búi Petersen

My younger son, much more given to flights of imaginative and conceptual fantasy, would start with the 60%, but he’d be much more amenable to thinking through relationships between watery worlds – the world of the ocean and the world of the human body. He’d start thinking through various possibilities (which would likely include Captain Underpantsy thoughts in some form or another, but would also become more philosophical). He’d start thinking about how the ocean sounds and feels. He’d think about swimming.

And he’d turn, too, to a piece his youth choir commissioned and performed just last month.

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Twillingate, Newfoundland. Kid the younger as cheeky monkey. Photo: Sonja Boon

They’d spent months rehearsing the program, and we’d hear updates after every session. “We’re singing this new piece about the ocean and it has 9 part harmony!” His face was luminous, his voice eager. He talked about the fun of learning it and about the colours and textures the music evoked. Every rehearsal was a new adventure, and for us, as parents, a thrill to experience vicariously.

The concert itself was breathtaking. Ocean was composed by Tim Baker. Now a member of one of Newfoundland’s best known musical exports, Hey Rosetta, he’s also former Shallaway chorister. Ocean, based on poetry by Sue Goyette, asks singers and audience to think with and through the sea. As Baker wrote in the program notes, “Not … the scientific sea, full of resources and ecosystems and carefully mapped tides and temperatures, but… the sea as it is when you sit with it.” As he read Goyette’s Ocean, he listened to the ocean, to its stories, to its histories, to its meanings, and he imagined himself and his forebears – all members of coastal communities – trying to understand it: “a mystery, sometimes dark and furious, sometimes gentle and glittering, and always shifting and always inscrutable.”

What emerged from these meditations is a hauntingly beautiful work that calls on us to think with and through the ocean: “How can we commune with the ocean to know it better? How can we tame it, so to be blessed with its bounty, and spared its fury? How do we ask it questions, and how do we listen when it responds?” he asks in the program notes.

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Middle Cove Beach. Photo: Sonja Boon

Ocean, in the end, is a series of questions, a longing, a keening, a wondering. It’s a love song and a lament. With its repeated refrain, “are we listening?” it asks us to think again about our relationship with the sea, and about the stories it might be trying to tell us.

…have we forgot how to see in the dark?

…have we forgot how to hear your tongue?

…are you talking to us? are you crying out?

…are you calling to us? are you trying now?

Similar questions lie at the heart of Neimanis’ theorizing about watery bodies. Who are we, watered? And why might this matter?

“As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation. The space between ourselves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin – the traces of those same oceanic beginnings still cycling through us, pausing as this bodily thing we call ‘mine.’ Water is between bodies, but of bodies, before us and beyond us, yet also very presently this body, too.” (Neimanis, “Hydrofeminism” 85)

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Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon

In her recent book, Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology, Karin Amimoto Ingersoll draws on Indigenous Hawaiian ways of knowing that are premised on the ocean. This “seascape epistemology” is:

“an approach to knowing presumed on a knowledge of the sea, which tells one how to move through it, how to approach life and knowing through the movements of the world. It is an approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual, and embodied literacy of the ‘aina (land) and kai (sea): birds, the colors of the clouds, the flows of the currents, fish and seaweed the timing of ocean swells, depths, tides, and celestial bodies all circulating and flowing with rhythms and pulsations….” (5-6; see also 16)

For Amimoto Ingersoll, a seascape epistemology is a deeply embodied and profoundly holistic way of knowing; a knowledge gained only through deep and close encounters with the nonhuman world and the stories it has to tell.

As she writes:

“Finding the words to express the seascape as it wets my skeleton and salts my veins is a thirst that drives me. Interacting with this swirling life form taps me into unseen possibilities. Attempting to articulate our relationships with nature, with the ocean, is to be human. That is why humanity is found in the sea. I am the moonlight hat shines from the black heaven, dispersed through the watery prism of swells into another realm. The unseen can be seen in my imagination as a being both integrated and free. I can become my own process of becoming within this universe unto itself, with life, rhythms, colors, and sounds unique to this watery sphere. Inward I go.” (184)

These ideas echo, in some ways, those put forward Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker in their 2014 article, “Weathering.” In thinking through the politics of climate change, Neimanis and Loewen Walker propose a rethinking of the concept of home.

“Like other climate change theorists and activists, we propose to bridge the distance of abstraction by bringing climate change home,” they write (559). But the home they propose is not the “Western, urban, and domesticated home that more often than not seeks to extract itself from the weather-world” (559). Rather, they suggest something much broader: “we … invite our readers to be interpellated into the ecological spacetime of a much more expansive home, at once as distant as that melting icecap, and as close as our own skin” (559).

Weathering, for Neimanis and Loewen Walker, is a way of moving beyond the traditional nature/culture divide to acknowledging the ways that human and nonhuman are entangled with one another.

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Fort Amherst, Newfoundland, 2017. Photo: Sonja Boon

Drawing on Stacy Alaimo’s understanding of transcorporeality, they propose a theory of “weather bodies” shaped by and through the natural world, even as they also shape that world: “The ebb and flow of meteorological life transits through us, just as the actions, matters, and meanings of our own bodies return to the climate in myriad ways” (560).

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Commewijne River, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

Weathering in a Newfoundland context brings to mind the peeling paint on outport clapboard houses, the leathery skin of those who have made their livings on the oceans. Weathering is a landscape shaped by glaciers, waves, winds, and storms. It is the hunched tuckamore growing sideways along the coastline, the clothing dancing on a line in the middle of winter. Weathering is a whole family lost at sea; it is a crying ocean no longer filled with cod.

Weathering is a “worlding with [the earth]” (567).

“are we listening?”

 

baulinepossibly

References

Amimoto Ingersoll, Karin. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Duke UP, 2016.

Baker, Tim. “Program Notes” for Ocean, “Oh Canada: A Canadian Choral Celebration,” Shallaway Youth Choir, 8 April 2017.

Bartlett, A. Breastwork: Rethinking breastfeeding. University of New South Wales Press, 2005.

Bartlett, Alison. “Breastfeeding as headwork: Corporeal feminism and meanings for breastfeeding.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 25.3 (2002), pp. 373–382. doi:10.1016/S0277-5395(02)00260-1

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” French feminism reader, edited by Kelly Oliver. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, pp. 257-275.

Eades, Quinn. All the Beginnings: A Queer Autobiography of the Body. Tantanoola, 2015.

Giles, Fiona. “Fountains of love and loveliness: In praise of the dripping wet breast.” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 4.1 (2002), pp. 7–17.

Giles, Fiona. Fresh milk: The secret life of breasts. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile bodies: Towards a corporeal feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Longhurst, Robyn. Bodies: Exploring fluid boundaries. London, UK: Routledge, 2001.

Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker, “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia 29.3 (2014), pp. 558-575.

Neimanis, Astrida, “Feminist subjectivity, watered” Feminist Review 103 (2013), pp. 23-31.

Neimanis, Astrida. “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water.” Undutiful Daughters: New Directions in Feminist Thought and Practice, edited by H. Gunkel, C. Nigianni & F. Soderback. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 85-100.

Shaw, R. “Theorizing breastfeeding: Body ethics, maternal generosity, and the gift relation.” Body and Society, 9.2 (2003), pp. 55–73. doi:10.1177/1357034X030092003

Shildrick, M. (1997). Leaky bodies and boundaries: Feminism, post-modernism, and (bio)ethics. London, UK: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion. On female body experience: “Throwing like a girl” and other essays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.

(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2017.

The Atlantic

I have been thinking a lot more about the ocean recently. Maybe it’s because this Newfoundland spring has brought about a particularly striking seascape.

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View from Signal Hill, St. John’s. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler

Earlier in the season, harbors were packed with ice, and although visually it was quite beautiful, it certainly made it difficult (and sometimes, impossible) for boats to come and go.

 

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Pack ice in Torbay. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler.

And now, icebergs are ‘in season’. Those ‘bergy bits,’ which are the inspiration for this ‘Theory Thursday’ blog series, draw out locals and tourists alike. Those glacial giants are picture perfect, but of course there is more to them than meets the eye. Well, there is 90% that we don’t usually see, if we want to put a number on its underwater mass. But what about the rest of the iceberg’s story? What was its journey? How did the crashing of waves work to carve each berg’s unique shape? What of the glaciers from which they came?

What else can we learn when we think more about the water? About the movement, the current that brought these bergy bits to our harbors? How does the ocean influence the journey?

 

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Icebergs near the Quidi Vidi “Gut” a few years ago. April 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler.

While I touched on ideas of water briefly in my post on the movie Moonlight, I would like to open up the theoretical dimensions of the ocean a little bit more here.

Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds (2006) has been particularly eye opening for her take on the Atlantic Ocean through a black geographic perspective (thanks, Sonja, for the recommendation!).

Referring to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, McKittrick says:

 I want to read The Black Atlantic, and the black Atlantic, differently: as an ‘imbrication of material and metaphorical space,’ in part because the text is so noticeably underscored by a very important black geography, the Atlantic Ocean, through which the production of space can be imagined on diasporic terms …

I suggest that if The Black Atlantic is also read through the material sites that hold together and anchor the text – the middle passage, the Atlantic Ocean, black travelers in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, the slave ship, the plantation, shared outernational musics, fictional and autobiographical geographies, nationalisms – it clarifies that there are genealogical connections between dispossession, transparent space, and black subjectivities. Historical and contemporary black geographies surface and centralize the notion that black diaspora populations have told and are telling how their surroundings have shaped their lives (xxi).

So often, the “naturalization of identity and place” leaves experiences of diasporic populations out of geographic conversations. How then, can we change the conversation?

Ultimately, McKittrick aims to reaffirm that “black Atlantic cultures have always had an intimate relationship with geography” (xxi). She challenges the notion of the Atlantic Ocean purely as a metaphor for “placelessness” and “vanishing histories,” rendering black writers as “ungeographic.” Instead, she emphasizes the material significance of physical geographies on black lives (xxi).

McKittrick pushes our perceptions of space and place further. What happens when we bring an element of fluidity to our notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’? What if we really consider the physical of the so-called ‘placeless’, or if we actually apply geography to the so-called ‘ungeographic’? How might we see diasporic differences, differently? Can we somehow reconcile the metaphoric with the material?

When we look to the water, what else can we learn? Or better yet, how else can we learn?

Geographic solutions to difference and political crises (such as segregation, imprisonment, ghettoization, genocide, the sexual-racial division of labor, surveillance, as well as social theories that “add on” a subaltern body) are undermined when difference is taken seriously, when a sense of place does not neatly correspond with traditional geographies, when transparent, stable political categories are disrupted by places unbound, and all sorts of humans open up different, less familiar, alterable geographic stories (McKittrick 34-35).

 

Sources:

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

 

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

home in a mode of migration

In 2013, I participated in visual artist Pam Hall’s collaborative “Building a Village” project. The premise of the project was simple: Pam would send a house model – photocopied onto white cardstock – to any interested party and we would decorate it as we saw fit. Pam requested $1 to cover the cost of postage but other than that, we were on our own.

My house model arrived early on in the process. But then it languished on my desk as I pondered how best to approach it. Like a true academic, I overthought every step of the process. There were variables to consider. I had to think through authenticity, truth, representation, equity, justice, honesty. I had to ponder my pasts, my futures. I needed an argument, a thesis, a theory. And I had to consider my artistic desires (and also, my inevitable artistic limitations).

“What does home mean to you?”
This quickly became an angst-ridden existential question.

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Lovely Greenspond, NL. There was a house for sale, right by the ocean, when we were there… and we did, for a few foolish moments, contemplate the possibility of buying it…

Because here’s the thing. I’ve lived in 5 countries on 3 continents and my histories span 2 more. I have 2 mother tongues. I learned a third language that I’ve lost completely, and then a fourth that jostles with the first two. I was born in a country that has absolutely no links to my heritage. At our Canadian Citizenship Ceremony, ours was the only family where every single member was born in a different country.

So what does home mean in this context?

All around me, Pam’s project was growing. She kept us all up-to-date with a Facebook page, sharing the new houses as they arrived in her mailbox. Some were intricate; some were colourful. Some were the work of professional artists; others the submissions of interested and keen crafters. Some, like me, just wanted to explore stories. Each one was unique. No two were even remotely similar.

The more I thought, the further my webs unspooled themselves. The more I thought, the more tangled they became.

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Newtown, NL

And then, suddenly, a moment of clarity.

Home, I realized, was not something fixed.

Movement has marked my pasts; it’s also marked my presents. And so, certain of something at last, even if that something was unmoored, I photocopied some historical maps, cut them into tiny pieces, and collaged them to the outside of my house, foregrounding the cities and regions that mattered in relation to my family history, while also leaving room for some sea serpents and other creatures of the wild ocean.

On the inside, I attached my statement: “home,” I wrote, “in a mode of migration.”

Photo 2015-02-11, 3 25 32 PM

public transport, river crossing, Paramaribo

And that, I thought, was that. I felt pretty proud of myself. I’d solved the puzzle. I felt creative. I felt … certain, comfortable, right.

My little house joined hundreds of others and later became part of Pam’s Houseworks show at The Rooms. [for more views of the “Building a Village” project, click here, here, here, and here)

Imagine my surprise, then, when it dawned on me earlier this year that my enslaved ancestors lived not only in the same country, but on the very same plantation for three generations. And that most of their descendants lived in the same country for the next century.

So much for my theory.
And here I thought that creating a cardboard house caused an existential crisis.

The facts, such as are, make for slim pickings. I knew them, but I hadn’t quite put them together.

So here they are:

Sarah plantation was on the Western side of Suriname. Located along the coast, rather than along the rivers like most of the other plantations in Suriname, it was offered up for development sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. By 1820 or so, the parcel of land originally granted to a man named Dietzel had been sold to John Bent, who appears to have been the first to manage it as a cotton plantation, and thus it was that Sarah plantation was born.

I don’t know when my ancestors arrived at Sarah plantation. The Slave Registers indicate that Frederick Noa, the patriarch, was born in 1798; his mother is listed as “unknown.” To me, this suggests that he arrived at Sarah plantation as an adult, perhaps just as it was being developed. He would have had two young children in tow at the time, and a partner, a woman who is listed as “deceased” in the Register.

And from that point on, he likely stayed at Sarah plantation. His children, including a set of twin daughters – Eva Albertina and Frederica – were born there. And later, his grandchildren, too.

It’s entirely possible that Frederick Noa didn’t leave Sarah plantation between his arrival, likely sometime around 1820 and the abolition of slavery in 1863. Even then, it’s possible that he stayed on until the end of the transition period, in 1873.

So, let’s do the math: assuming an arrival date of 1820, Frederick Noa was enslaved at Sarah plantation for 43 years. His two sons, Edward, Philip Elias were also at Sarah for 43 years, while his daughters, Eva Albertina and Frederica, were there for 36. Add 10 years if they stayed on through the whole transition period.

And now let’s compare this with my own experiences. We’re now closing on 9 years in the same house in St. John’s, which is the longest I’ve ever lived at a single address. I’ve never lived in any community longer than 11 years.

This year – 2017 – will mark 42 years since my parents and I arrived in Canada, 33 since I became a Canadian citizen. It’s one country and it’s a long time. But Canada, with its 5 time zones, is immense and I’ve lived in several provinces.

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Sunrise in St. John’s, almost the eastest of east.

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Tsawassen to Swartz Bay ferry – heading towards the westest of west.

I can’t even begin to imagine 40 years in one location.

How does place – and permanence – affect one’s view of the world, I wonder. How does it affect our understanding of home? If I extended them the invitation, how might my ancestors have imagined home? And can I ever hope to recover any of their imaginings?

What does home mean to you?

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A row of temporary homes along Lumsden North Beach, NL… 

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Fortunately, Lumsden North Beach is huge! 

 

 

slanting: refiguring the stage at the shoreline

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.”

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House, Wharf and Stage on Exploits Island. August 2016. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

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.

Mythologizing.

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).

Splitting.

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.

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Mummers Parade in Bridgeport, Newfoundland. December 2014. Photo: Daze Jefferies.


It doesn’t take long before I break

off into

fr
ag

ments,

& 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
across time
and distance,

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.

References

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

A Rap on Race and Return

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New York City. August 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler

There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartographer after cartographer, refined from Ptolemy’s Geographia to orbital photographs and magnetic field imaging satellites. But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location (Brand 2).

Since reading Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return (2001) last month, I have found myself thinking more and more about rap music.

Sometimes people find it strange when they learn that I like rap. And I can understand it, I suppose. Maybe it is because I’m a feminist, and rap music is often accused of misogyny. Maybe it is because I am a white Canadian and rap is typically associated with Black Americans. Or maybe it is just my years of classical ballet training that has made me appear stiff and straight-laced, not exactly what you envision when you think of hip hop. Either way, I understand that my positioning as a rap fan is at least a little bit awkward.

Perhaps this is also why I feel a little strange writing a blog post on the topic. I am no ethnomusicologist, but while reading Dionne Brand’s book, rap lyrics kept popping into my head. It might seem like a strange pairing, but I think there are more connections between Brand’s writing and this musical genre than one might initially think. There are countless rap songs, and even entire albums, devoted to ideas of identity and belonging, both of which are central to A Map to the Door of No Return.

 If I can say it. Let me. I think that Blacks in the Diaspora feel captive despite the patent freedom we experience, despite the fact that we are several hundred years away from the Door of No Return, despite the fact that the door does not exist; despite the fact that we live in every state of self-agency, some exceedingly powerful, some less so of course but self-agency nonetheless. One might even argue for the sheer magnificence of our survival against history (Brand, 52).

When Brand speaks of the Door of No Return – in all of its complexities and incarnations – I realize that much of hip hop is an ode to that very door, whether it is explicit or not.

Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion

The soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing

(Kanye West, “Gorgeous”)

I will admit, before I became more familiar with rap, I always wondered why guns and money were such dominant themes. It was just so far removed from my way of life that I could not see the appeal.

Well, I later learned that it is not really about the guns, nor the money. It is about injustice and inequality, surveillance and oppression. It is about the circumstances that make crime a reality. About (re)claiming power, security, and a sense of self. A necessary evil, if you will. These things might still be far removed from my life, but that does not mean I should not listen to it. In fact, I think it gives me more reason to listen.

Many black rappers … contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. The white politicians, the artists complain, neither understand the music nor desire to hear what’s going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form (Philips, “Los Angeles Times”).

If we don’t listen, how do we learn?

In the latter part of her book, Brand takes particular care in describing a scene at a juvenile courthouse. Even as an observer, Brand feels an “immediate loss of control and a sense of surveillance” when she steps into the courtroom (103). It’s a taste of incarceration, an unsettling appetizer. The juveniles are “diasporic children,” marked by the hybridity of their names (106-7). They are liminal in identity, in hybridity, and the courtroom is their “rite of passage” (107). If they must all pass through this rite of passage, what are they leaving behind? What are they becoming?

Thinking of these children going through the justice system so early in life, I can’t help but think about the imagery of mass incarceration and police surveillance in rap music.

Penitentiary chances, the devil dances

And eventually answers to the call of Autumn

All of them fallin’ for the love of ballin’

Got caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin

Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums

Based off the way we was branded

Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon

And at the airport they check all through my bag

And tell me that it’s random

(Kanye West, “Gorgeous”)

I don’t want to generalize an entire genre, but I think it’s fair to say that issues of racial and class justice are dominant themes. This is part of the reason why I find rap music so enlightening. It’s resistance. It’s rewriting history. It’s peeling back the layers of society, revealing the realities of inequality that are experienced by so many (and are ignored by so many, too).

When I think of the Door of No Return, I also think of Kendrick Lamar. His albums play like stories; vivid stories of violence and (loss of) innocence on vinyl.

While reading of desire, identity, resistance, and belonging in Brand’s work, I think, too, of Kendrick’s latest performance at the Grammys (see performance here).

He enters, shuffling, hands shackled, leading a line of prisoners onto the stage. A saxophone croons from a prison cage. Is this the embodiment of captivity (Brand 35)?

When unappreciated, the Black body is shown walking, single file or double chained … The many permutations and inversions of the original captivity leach into the contemporary popular discourse and the common sense (Brand, 37).

… Imprisonment comes to look like slavery in the 21st century.

I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black

Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black

And man a say they put me in a chain, cah’ we black

Imagine now, big gold chain full of rocks

How you no see the whip, left scars pon’ me back

But now we have a big whip, parked pon’ the block

All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black

Remember this, every race start from the black, remember that

(Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”)

He trudges across the stage, looking lost and found at the same time. Spitting verses, surrounded by fire and African dancers. Is this a rebirth? A reclamation?

I’m African-American, I’m African

I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village

Pardon my residence

Came from the bottom of mankind

(Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”)

He ends his performance standing in front of a map of Africa, simple in its black and white depiction, except for a small “Compton,” placed right in the heart of the continent. He’s playing with the paradoxes of home, of origins, of belonging, of the Diaspora, and … the Door of No Return?

The audience cheers. The lights dim.


But when the performance is over, what then is my relationship to this music? To this genre? Is it just a spectacle of social injustice for me? Am I just witness to the music, or am I still implicated in the histories that make these stories possible?

If there is one thing that I have taken away from Brand, it is the idea that the past is ever-present. History haunts us. It is not bound to history books; it lives in and through each and every one of us. History is complex, and it can be contested. That is why Brand writes. And why Kendrick raps. It is why I am listening … and still learning …

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@therealelp. Tweet by rapper El-P on how rap music will become even more politically charged after Donald Trump’s election win. 9 November 2016.

Sources:

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

Kanye West. “Gorgeous.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella Records, 2010.

“Kendrick Lamar @ 2016 Grammy Awards.” Vimeo, uploaded by Sofia Payro, 21 Feb. 2016, https://vimeo.com/156180581.

Kendrick Lamar. “The Blacker the Berry.” To Pimp a Butterfly, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2015.

Philips, Chuck. “The Uncivil War: The battle between the Establishment and supporters of rap music reopens old wounds of race and class.” Los Angeles Times, 19 July 1992, pp.2, http://articles.latimes.com/1992-07-19/entertainment/ca-4391_1_uncivil-war/2.

@therealelp. “on the bright side rap music is about to be even more awesome in 2017 now.” Twitter, 9 Nov. 2016, 1:12am, https://twitter.com/therealelp/status/796211401513648128.

Notes to Be/Longing

maptothedoor

A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (2001) by Dionne Brand

 

A Poem to Belonging:

Notes to belonging

Are

Notes to be.

For belonging

We

Long

To be.

And one’s belonging is

Another’s note

To be/

longing.


 

When I start a new book, I like to examine the book as a text before I go any further. How is it presented for me, the reader? What kind of clues can I find on the cover that might enhance my reading experience?

Just looking at the cover of Dionne Brand’s book, A Map to the Door of No Return(2001), I notice a few things.

Firstly, I notice a map.

But of course! “Map” is even in the title of the book. I am not surprised to see a map on the cover. Moving on.

Next I notice the subtitle: “Notes to Belonging.”

At first glance, this seems straightforward. The title A Map to the Door of No Returnis quite cryptic and poetic in itself, so perhaps the subtitle merely helps describe what the book is about. In this case, belonging.

Speaking of poetry, next I noticed the testimony on the cover, which declares Brand’s “true home is not Africa, the Caribbean or Canada, but poetry” (“The Ottawa Citizen”).

Home: Not as place, but as poetry. This idea was quite intriguing to me and it is with this thought that I delved into the actual text.

Fast-forward a few hours of reading later and my mind is swirling with Brand’s beautiful storytelling and language, and shaken by her provocative exploration of identity, cartography, and belonging.

The poetry has permeated the pages.

Suddenly, I am seeing the cover of the text with fresh eyes.

Brand’s thematic connection to cartography is made quite clear just in the title of the book alone: A Map to the Door of No Return. However, Brand takes us on a journey to help us see maps beyond cartography.

 “There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartography after cartographer, refined from Ptolemy’s Geographia to orbital photographs and magnetic field imaging satellites. But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location” (Brand 2).

Brand acknowledges that maps are most commonly perceived as visual renderings of a physical place. However, she wishes to dismantle this cartographic dominance of maps. Interspersed throughout her writing are several sections titled, “Maps”. The first one of these describes the rufous hummingbird, a curious little bird that can travel thousand of miles between “summer home” and “winter home” just through the instincts of its body (6). As Brand puts it, “it knew its way before all known map-makers” (6). From this, Brand is showing us that there are other ways to navigate the world. Maps are not the only way to know, to represent, to navigate, or to imagine the places we call home.

Moreover, perhaps they are not the most accurate either. In her survey of mapmaking history, she discovers that people need not visit a place in order to produce a map (18). She determines that maps are indeed as fallible as memory itself (60), and “in order to draw a map only the skill of listening may be necessary. And the mystery of interpretation” (18).

I look again at the cover of the book. Now the image of a map does not seem so natural to me. It has become ominous, in a way.

For Brand, maps signify a kind of dissonance. Dissonance between the experience and representation of place; between history and memory; between home and nation; between borders and belonging.

For Brand, she negotiates this dissonance through writing.

Thinking again about the quote on the cover page, if Brand’s “home” exists not on a map, it exists through “poetry”.

In a way, Brand demonstrates how poetic language can help traverse complex notions of identity and belonging.

Brand’s approach is similar to Fred Wah’s in Diamond Grill (2006). Like Brand, Wah uses maps to foray into his story by saying, “Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges” (1). Wah uses this to describe his style of writing, namely, his conscious decision to disrupt the linearity of traditional memoirs (181). Wah uses ‘pods’ of writing to structure his narrative, allowing him to jump back and forth in time and place.

Brand too uses this type of approach to the structure of her narrative. She jumps between different points in her life, from her days as a young girl, questioning her Grandfather on their origins (16), to waking at 4:45 in the morning as an adult, pondering notions of belonging (85). Her story is not constrained by temporal or narrative linearity, and this includes not only her life, but also the histories and experiences of others, in and before her time. It is through this careful threading of the personal, historical, and political where she really draws the poetry out of the prose.

For Wah and Brand, the poetry lies not necessarily in rhymes or stanzas, but through figurative language and provocative structure. Poetry in this sense allows one to break with form and negotiate the complexities of identities that are not necessarily easy to ‘map out’.

 “Art, perhaps music, perhaps poetry, perhaps stories, perhaps aching constant movement – dance and speed – are the only comforts” (26).

Returning once again to the subtitle on the cover, I would like to end with some thoughts on belonging. You might have noticed that I included a poem at the beginning of this blog. In analyzing the cover, I found myself playing with the words in the subtitle: “Notes to Belonging.” They seemed so straightforward, but when juxtaposed with a very poetic title, I couldn’t help but read (and write) poetics into it.

What does belonging entail? Can we ‘be’ without belonging? Is there a longing to belong? How is the exclusion of others disguised in the idea of belonging?

… Can we map belonging?

 

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The Baltic Sea. October 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

 

Sources:

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Vintage Canada, 2001.

“The Ottawa Citizen,” quoted on cover of Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Vintage Canada, 2001.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 2006.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016

Back to School

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“Back to school” at the University of Manchester. September 2013. Photo: Lesley Butler

With the ‘back to school’ air of September, I can’t help but think about the many years spent in grade school. For me at least, sometimes it feels like a different life from my days as a university student. However, what I learned in those formative years has undoubtedly impacted my higher education experience.

My experience with geography stands out in particular.

Throughout elementary and junior high school, we didn’t have geography class. Instead, we had “social sciences.” In high school, however, “social sciences” diverged into separate “geography” and “history” classes, and we had to choose one or the other. One day, our school principal spoke with our class about planning our high school courses. He advised that the more “advanced” students take history, and the “weaker” students take geography.

This sounded absurd to me.

Was it not more important to pursue something you are interested in, rather than something that will give you a convenient grade? Not to mention having grown up with a geographer as a mother, I thought his statement was both incorrect and insulting.

Although most of my friends switched over to history, I decided to stand my ground with geography, both in support of my mother’s career, and in rebellion of our narrow-minded principal.

From my understanding, geography was a complex, changing subject that involved critical thinking.

In other words, geography should not be “easy.”

Now that I am a graduate student reading from various theoretical perspectives, I keep thinking back to this scenario. (Isn’t it interesting how we can reinterpret our memories through theory?)

Specifically, feminist and indigenous theories of geography have helped me reinterpret why I felt uncomfortable and angry at the idea of geography as an “easy” subject.

The works of feminist geographers such as Doreen Massey (1994) and Linda McDowell (1999) have opened my eyes to the patriarchal traditions that are deeply rooted in geography as a field of study.

In short, Massey challenges the largely ‘masculine’ elements of classic geographical epistemologies in order to decenter dominant, contemporary western modes of conceptualizing gender (12-13). Similarly, McDowell attempts to deconstruct and denaturalize assumptions of gender divisions through transnational, geographic, and feminist frameworks (31-32).

Mishuana Goeman (2013) has also been particularly influential in helping me understand the colonial origins, and reverberations, of traditional geography on indigenous women in particular.

Drawing largely from the theories of feminist geography, Goeman confronts traditional geographies as largely masculine and colonial endeavors (22). For example, she argues that the “mapping and invention of America” required (if regrettably so) the heteropatriarchal forms of slavery, colonization, and the ideologies of orientalism, all of which are “gendered forms of violence” (22). Furthermore, she argues that traditional maps have been crucial to colonial projects, and are therefore complicit in the spatial violence inflicted on Native communities, and on women more specifically (14-19).

With this introduction to feminist and indigenous perspectives of geography, I find I am able to trek back through my memories, using theory as a light to reexamine my experience.

Perhaps it was not my principal’s dismissive attitude of geography as a whole that should have angered me as a teenager. In retrospect, I think the real problem is how this kind of simplistic attitude might keep geography from becoming the intersectional field of study that feminist geographers are striving for.

If we think of geography as easy, how will we challenge the undeniably difficult issues of colonialism and patriarchy that are rooted in the history of geography itself?

 

Sources:

Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Massey, Doreen B. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity, 1994.

McDowell, Linda. Gender, Identity and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016