Under the Deep Blue of Moonlight

If, like me, you are interested in film, then you have probably already seen Moonlight. If you haven’t, then I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about it in the near future – and not only during awards season, but in years to come.

Moonlight chronicles the life of a young boy named Chiron (nicknamed “Little” and “Black” at different points in his life) as he grows up in a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in Miami. In three chapters – from childhood, adolescence, and finally, adulthood – we see Chiron tread the murky waters of identity and isolation, navigating his differences as he tries to find his place in the world.

Visually stunning and poignantly poetic, Moonlight already has a few things to be proud of, including: box office success, top ratings, and several awards.

Some say it is a film of many ‘firsts‘: The first Black filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (Barry Jenkins), the first Academy Award nomination of a Black woman for film editing (Joi McMillon), and some say, it could be the first ‘LGBTQ’ film to win Best Picture, not to mention a ‘Black LGBTQ’ film.

While these are all impressive achievements and certainly indicate a step in the right direction for (American) award ceremonies (re: the #OscarsSoWhite outrage just last year), I do not wish to dwell too much on these formal declarations of excellence, but rather on the cinematic artistry and social underpinnings that are really at the heart of Moonlight’s achievement.

Moonlight is more than a “queer love story” or a well-done “black movie,” as it has been labeled in headlines and award season chatter — though it is also very much a well-done black, queer love story …

“The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story” (McCraney quoted in Anderson, “L.A. Times”)

Moonlight was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

This title also works its way into the film’s dialogue, spoken by a drug dealer turned father figure to young Chiron, or “Little,” as he is called during this chapter of his life. It was a line that stuck with me long after I left the theatre.

In moonlight black boys look blue.

It’s probably under the moonlight that we see that black boys can be blue, can be sad and sullen and intimate … It’s under starlight that we see them differently, or that we get the chance to.

Because we rarely see ourselves in those hues or under that gauze. We see ourselves in the harsh police light or the amber of street lights, but what is it when the reflection of the sun in the moon is sitting on these bodies. What beauty can we see? (McCraney in “L.A. Times”)

Bodies under light. Bodies under watchful eyes.

The body is the place of captivity (Brand 35).

In thinking of bodies, I think again to Dionne Brand, who says, “the Black body is one of the most regulated bodies in the Diaspora” (37).

How then, does moonlight affect this bodily captivity? How does it reject regulation?

As McCraney argues, Black boys are used to seeing themselves under the flashing lights of cop cars, or under the urban artificiality of street lights. But what of the deep, natural, blue of moonlight? Can this help ‘denaturalize’ the overregulation of Black bodies?

Under moonlight, bodies change. Beings change.

In the film, some of Chiron’s most pivotal moments occur under moonlight. In a way, it is when Chiron is under that cloak of blue that he really starts to accept himself. He can begin to embrace his differences while defying other people’s definitions and expectations of who he should be.

Whether he is “Little,” “Black,” or “Chiron,” under the moonlight, he can just be.

This self which is unobservable is a mystery. It is imprisoned in the observed. It is constantly struggling to wrest itself from the warp of its public ownerships. Its own language is plain yet secret. Rather, obscured (Brand 51).

What I also noticed, however, was that where there was moonlight, there was often water. The beach, for one, becomes a particularly significant setting for Chiron’s personal growth.

The beach: where water meets land, and where man is caught somewhere in between. Between the rolling waves and the sinking sand, it is a transformative space – between beginnings and endings, there are becomings.

In a way, moonlight reflects most strongly alongside bodies of water. Blues become bluest between sky and water, away from the neon lights of urban life.

And blue, too, are bodies by water.

I’m thinking of one particular shot where we see “Little” standing alone, shirtless, staring out into the water. The blue of the moon reaches from the sky, tinting the waves as they roll forwards and backwards, and finally casting its cerulean colour across Chiron’s bare shoulders.

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“Little” (Alex Hibbert) in Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016

The sea would forever be larger than me. My eyes hit only its waist. I saw a wave’s belly looking backwards. I saw froth rolling toward my feet as the sea moved into my spot on the beach. It always came in a jagged circle, frothing and steaming. It reduced all life to unimportant random meaning. Only we were changing and struggling, living as if everything was urgent, feeling – the ocean was bigger than feeling (Brand 11-12).

Against the sea, one life might seem small, perhaps powerless, in comparison. But when you see “Little” standing along the shore, he is not diminished.

Although the sea is at once threatening, it is also transformative. It holds potential – both positive and negative. Caught between the sand and the waves, Chiron acknowledges the formidable nature of the sea.

Formidable, but not insurmountable.

Chiron’s place in the world might not be clear – caught between acceptance and isolation, between protection and persecution, between conformity and conflict. But one’s life is never truly little, even against a seemingly endless saltwater horizion. What is one’s life, if not for one’s becomings? There is no destination without a journey. And in Moonlight, the journey becomes the destination (Brand 203).

Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water (Brand 6).

Under the deep blue of moonlight, we see bodies differently.

We see beauty.

Or more importantly, under moonlight, we get the chance to.

 

Sources:

Anderson, Tre’vell. “Before the buzz began on ‘Moonlight,’ the coming-of-age story           started with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-moonlight-playwright-tarell-mccraney-20161017-snap-story.html.

Berman, Eliza. “Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First.” Time, http://time.com/4656493/moonlight-barry-jenkins-interview/.

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

Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016.

 

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

silky: formlessness/otherness/wetness

My search for trans histories in Newfoundland runs rampant. Something like yearning, reaching, performing. I look for them in the dark, shifting narratives, water. I imagine them as a means to cope with isolation, splitting, the abyss. To keep myself afloat.

I feel something similar to Dionne Brand when she remembers how the ocean surrounding her island home laid at her feet “a sense of leavings and arrivals” (2001: 74). As I have grown on this island, I have watched the ocean carry things away: men from my hometown, kelp, fish heads, plastic bags. Most of the men came back, the sea didn’t swallow them. It was generous when it wanted to be. Somehow I knew my body was connected to water and earth, its materiality climbing over land and seascapes. Years later I would find out that we were all made of the same stuff.

I saw myself in them.
I talked to them.
I learned from others.

As a researcher, interviews and oral history sessions are my main methods of inquiry. Even so, my background in folkloristics has further enlivened a relationship with archives. A few weeks ago, I was fumbling through Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative when I happened upon a photograph that has sent me flying through erased and imagined histories, trying to make sense of my present – remembering how I got, and stand, here at this location – while writing myself into the past. In this way, I have felt the rush of temporalities meeting and touching. I have understood, again, how “memory is a research project, an archive (‘a referral to birth’) of connected pasts and others” (Hall 2008: 238).

The photo and the weight it carries meet me at this point in my life without warning. From here I am unfixed and transfixed, locating the scattered (wayfaring) parts of my corporeality I know as hybrid. I am not made one way so I cannot think one way. Like Barbara Bridger, “I am the opposite of single-minded, I work constantly with fragments” (2009: 344). And at once these fragments lay bare: foremothers, hair like silk, fish scales.

The ocean was generous once more.

mermaid_in_st_johns_harbour

Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Newfoundland Images. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/singleitem/collection/cns_images/id/0/rec/13

I am putting forth the potential to observe trans womanhood in Newfoundland as viscous and amorphous – a collection of representations between colonizer and colonized, between human and other than human, between material and discursive, between water and earth, liquid and solid. I see the mermaid as a maternal prototype for trans women working through the thickness and wetness of hybrid identity and corporeality on this island.

In order to work through this idea, I am combing over seven years of intimate movement / transition / turning. A personal archive of my transition(ing). I am simultaneously traveling through histories of mermaids and selkies, writing our lives coactively: “writing which is constant annotation, writing which takes place in the spaces between, writing over the lines, round the edges, in the interstices” (Bridger 2009: 346).

Liquid into liquid,
we resist emulsion.

Must be written together.

M/other and child.

Polybiographic.

I mull over John Hall’s belief that,

any genealogy that is also in part autobiographical is both an inquiry into and an act of specific ontology: this is who I am and this is how I know it. It is I who speaks thus, with all these others lined up behind and around me, including all those others who are part of the temporal ensemble of my I-through-time and of those various sets to whom I can belong as ‘we’ (2008: 232).

How convenient to jump into the archive, uncovering something precious that can force me to think through moving/mutant bodies.

Yet, I stumble upon and ask this question, once more, 22 years later:

“For who is it in these times who feels dislocated/placeless/invaded?” (Massey 1994: 165).

And another:

“What does a genealogy ‘do’? Is ‘we’ both an augmentation of ‘I’ and a way past it?” (Hall 2008: 233).

Like my graduate research, this theory materializes out of a personal quest to tie together trans affect, resistance and histories specific to this island. In many ways, it is about kinship. In Splittings, Adrienne Rich asks, “does the infant memorize the body of the mother and create her in absence?” (1974: 76). Am I doing this too? Naming the mermaid as mother, as the root, and route back home. One more: “Does the bed of the stream once diverted, mourning, remember wetness?” (76). How can I be sure? How far back can I reach into my “ancestral hybrid zone” (Lexer and Stotling 2011: 3702) before I come into contact with something I don’t want to know?  Should I want to know it?

There is an ache that pushes itself out of genealogical research, especially the metaphorical kind. One comes face to face with borders, ends, locations and relations that wear away. One recognizes “contiguity,” and all things “esoteric…disparate…peripatetic” (Mac Cormack 2003: 59). Yet, if I see parts of myself in the mermaid, I must know how she makes sacrifices, how she is “willing to pay the price and endure the pain of knives and swords for a body that matches the internal identity she claims” (Spencer 2013: 117). I must be comfortable with piercing movements through history, learning to view “movement as a place itself so no motion is homeless” (Mac Cormack 2003: 28).

This is what I’ve wanted. To have a glimpse of, and to touch ambiguity. Marika Cifor writes, “archival touches should be unavoidably intimate, provoking difficult and celebratory experiences and feelings reflective of the intimate and sometimes painful history and memory that made us who we are” (2015: 647). It is performative and unforeseen, “forming a queer connection that transcends normative bounds of space and time, changes both the artifact and me” (Cifor 2015: 648). Think about what happens in the process of revisiting. Think widely, through mutations.

As I continue to look at this photo, I shift locations, from island to ocean: each time I make this trip, I get the queer idea that this is what is waiting at the end of time (Hoagland 2013: 50).

Echoes:

once a selkie has returned to the sea, it will be seven years before he or she is seen again (Heddle 2016: 2).

I started claiming my womanhood seven years ago. Can you see me?

References

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

Bridger, Barbara. 2009. “Writing Across the Borders of the Self,” In European Journal of Women’s Studies, 16 (4): 337–52. DOI: 10.1177/1350506809342613

Cifor, Marika. 2015. “Presence, Absence, and Victoria’s Hair: Examining Affect and Embodiment in Trans Archives,” In TSQ, 2 (4): 645-9. DOI: 10.1215/23289252-3151565

Hall, John. 2008. “Karen Mac Cormack’s Implexures: An Implicated Reading’,” In Antiphonies: Essays on Women’s Experimental Poetries in Canada, ed. Nate Dorward, 227-47. Ontario: Willowdale.

Heddle, Donna. 2016. “Selkies, Sex, and the Supernatural,” In The Bottle Imp, 20: 1-3. http://asls.arts.gla.ac.uk/SWE/TBI/TBIIssue20/Heddle.html

Hoagland, Tony. 2013. “Crossing Water,” In Ploughshares, 39 (1): 50-1. DOI: 10.1353/plo.2013.0059

Lexer, C. & K. N. Stotling. 2011. “Tracing the recombination and colonization history of hybrid species in space and time,” In Molecular Ecology, 20: 3701-4. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05246.x

Mac Cormack, Karen. 2003. Implexures. Sheffield, UK: West House Books.

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

Rich, Adrienne. 1974/1993. “Splittings,” In Adrienne Rich’s poetry and prose: poems, prose, reviews, and criticism. 2nd edition, eds. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, 76-7. New York: W. W. Norton.

Spencer, Leland G. 2013. “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid: From Andersen to Disney,” In Communication Studies, 65 (1):112-27. DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2013.832691

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

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.”

slanting1

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.

slanting2

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 possibilites 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

Minding the Gaps: Reading for Refusal

While the funding for this project officially began in 2015, the thinking and preliminary groundwork began much earlier, with seeds being sown in Fall 2013. It was just a glimmer, then. A hint of a possibility.

But here we are. I spent Friday organizing all my computer files, Saturday making notes, and Sunday labeling and organizing 35 moleskine notebooks.

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It all looks neat and tidy. This matters because I am, at heart, a spreader. Tidy is not usually a word in my vocabulary, as you might gather from the photo below, a real live picture of my desk taken a couple of years ago.

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Right now, everything  feels fresh and new.

But part of me wonders if what I actually engaged in was a form of procrastination, if this was nothing more than busy work distracting me from the bigger picture. I had a friend who used to wash her shower curtain and alphabetize her canned goods when she needed to procrastinate. Another is really good at baking (I’ve used this approach to good effect as well).

So was it just busy work to make it seem as if I’m progressing, when I’m actually not getting very far at all? It’s a fair question. And perhaps, there’s something to it.

But I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking.

All this

stuff

All of my reading, my writing, my analyzing, my walking, my travelling. What am I going to do with it now? How do I best represent the journey that is this research? What responsibilities do I hold in relation to those whose stories are only available in the crumbling pages of colonial records? How will I tell the stories of shadows, of hauntings …. How will I tell the stories, yes, of glimmers that have never fully flared into light?

ckrabfrvaaew7md-jpg-large

I’ve been reading Jennifer Sinor’s The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary in preparation for next month’s #storypast Twitter discussion. As with other #storypast books, it’s arrived at just the right time, and it’s given me much to think about. Sinor’s book is about the diary kept by her great-great-great aunt, Annie Ray, a diary that she struggled to work with, struggled to make sense of, struggled, as she put it, to story. The problem, she found, is that the diary is not extraordinary writing, it is ordinary writing, and, as she puts it:

I want to suggest that what separates ordinary writing from the other (more valued) writing is largely the fact that it does not story, meaning it does not tell a story. Because it is unremarkable – does not mark an event or narrate an idea – it also remains unmarked, unnoticed. (6)

For Sinor, the value of Annie Ray’s diary comes from its “dailiness” – from “the act of writing in the days rather than of the days” (17). Indeed, diaries, she observes, are fundamentally open-ended. They don’t – they can’t – have a narrative arc because they have no beginning and the author doesn’t know if they’ll have an end.

Sinor’s book (and I’ll admit I haven’t yet finished reading it) has made me think a lot about the kinds of stories we leave behind, and how those that come after us will interpret them. But it’s also made me think a lot about the stories we don’t leave behind. The stories we choose not to leave traces of. The stories we choose to destroy. The stories we aren’t allowed to tell. The stories we are forced to tell. The stories that nobody wants to listen to at all. The ones that people throw away, burn, and otherwise destroy. The silences. The absences.

And it’s made me think about how I, as a contemporary teller of stories, might approach the complexities of the past, and not just of ‘The Past’ generally speaking, but my pasts. Because this current research project is not only about mouldering archives of random individuals who lived one, two, three centuries ago, it is about my past. And because of this, it’s also about my present. And my future.

I don’t have ordinary writing to work with. If my ancestors left any writing of their own, it’s long gone. And so I am left only with the colonial archive, and the violence that it enacts. And there’s the rub: how can I research in and write about colonial archives – whose contents include the stories of my own ancestors – without contributing to and/or perpetuating the violence that they enact?

Dutch colonial archives relating to the Indian indenture period in Suriname (ca. 1873-ca.1916) include details about indentured labourers’ bodies, enumerating not only the expected – although contested – categories of age, sex, and place of birth, but also such categories as skin colour, bodily markings, and scars. These are often the only records that remain of those who travelled more than halfway around the world to work on contract in colonial sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations; they are the only stories on which families and researchers might draw in order to recover their histories. And yet, read as a unit, these records can contribute to a dismembering – and, indeed, dehumanizing – of colonized bodies. Is it possible to re-member the past differently? More provocative still: although some of these records concern my own family histories, what right do I have to tell these stories, even if they are the “very [me] of [me]” (Tuck & Yang, 234)?

Not all stories, Tuck & Yang argue, should be told. Not all stories have a right to be told.

“Tissue samples, blood draws, and cheek swabs are not only our own; the DNA contained in them is share by our relatives, our ancestors, our future generations ….This is equally true of stories” (Tuck & Yang, “R-Words: Refusing Research,” 233-4)

And they are right. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s yours to share. Just because you’ve lived something doesn’t mean that the story is your own. Stories are webs. And jiggling one side of the web can – and will – affect all other parts of the web. As my father used to say, you can’t just pee in one side of the pool. Sooner or later, the whole pool will be affected.

But if, as Saidiya Hartman has argued, stories might be understood as “a form of compensation or even as reparation” (4), then how do we tell such stories? How do we approach the archive differently, when archival fragments are the only bits that remain? What other stories can these materials tell, and how might we equip ourselves to listen for them?

As Hartman asks, “…how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?” (Hartman, 3)

Tuck & Yang offer a model of ethnographic refusal, an approach to writing and researching that, in their words, “shifts the gaze from the violated body to the violating instruments …. Thus, refusal helps move us away from thinking of violence as an event and toward and analysis of it as structure” (Tuck & Yang, “R-Words: Refusing Research” 241). They offer Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Erased Lynchings”  series as a model for how such an approach might work. In this collection of historical photos of lynchings, Gonzales-Day writes that he has:

“removed the lynching victim and the rope from each image … [in order to] redirect the viewers attention away from the lifeless body of lynch victim and towards the mechanisms of lynching and lynching photography, to allow viewers to see the crowd, the mechanisms of the spectacle, the role of the photographer, and even the impact of flash photography, and their various influences on our understanding of this dismal past.” (http://kengonzalesday.com/erased-lynchings/)

Canadian writer and actor, Lorena Gale, performed a similar act in her acclaimed autobiographical dramatic monologue, Je me souviens. Confronted by the spectacle of lynching while browsing in a Montreal bookstore, she focuses first not on the lynching victim, but rather on the celebratory atmosphere and all the people who came to watch:

“It’s not the smouldering remains of what had been a man that shocks me. His once-Black features charred beyond recognition. It is the twenty or thirty White men that stand behind their pyre, proudly arranged like graduates for a class picture …. Their triumphant smiles Their self-satisfied demeanour. Their total unconcern for the life they took, for that life was of no value to them except in macabre sport. Their shameless hatred. They didn’t even bother to wear their hoods or robes.” (43-4)

The Caribbean poet, writer, and essayist, M. NourbeSe Philip, undoes the logic of colonial language in all of her writing. In her poem, “Discourse on the Logic of Language” (1993), she tangles her tongue in the words, moving from language to anguish. In its structure, too, the poem resists logic. There is no narrative, no clear move from A to B, beginning to end. There are only fragments across four pages of text. The poem has no clear beginning and no clear end. Any fragment can follow any other fragment. And in each reading, each telling, the tongue tangles and struggles.

 

She takes these ideas even further in her work, Zong!, her re-writing of the Gregson v. Gilbert court case, the only written document pertaining to the killing of around 150 enslaved Africans, who were ordered to be thrown overboard from the Zong for insurance monies.

“There is,” NourbeSe Philip writes, “no telling this story” (196).

And so instead, she undoes the story, reducing the violence of the colonial text to sounds, rhythms, spaces. Staging the fragments across the page, she’s imagined waves and oceans, the individual bits and pieces floating against, beyond, and through one another in the carnage of transatlantic slavery.

“I deeply distrust this tool I work with – language. It is a distrust rooted in certain historical events that are all of a piece with the events that took place on the Zong. The language in which those events took place promulgated the non-being of African peoples, and I distrust its order, which hides disorder; its logic hiding the illogic and its rationality, which is simultaneously irrational.” (197)

Like Tuck and Yang, NourbeSe Philip performs refusal. She will not tell the story that the court case determined for her; rather, she will engage in a much more subversive project, a ‘not-telling’ that, in its telling, challenges the very nature of logic itself:

“The not-telling of this particular story is in the fragmentation and mutilation of the text, forcing the eye to track across the page in an attempt to wrest meaning from words gone astray….the resulting abbreviated, disjunctive, almost non-sensical style of the poems demands a corresponding effort on the part of the reader to ‘make sense’ of an event that eludes understanding, perhaps permanently …. In the discomfort and disturbance created by the poetic text, I am forced to make meaning from apparently disparate elements – in so doing I implicate myself. The risk – of contamination – lies in piecing together the story that cannot be told. And since we have to work to complete the events, we all become implicated in, if not contaminated by, this activity.” (198)

NourbeSe Philip suggests that none of us is innocent, that we are all implicated in the violence that begot the massacre on the Zong. As soon as we engage with the text, as soon as we struggle with it, we become part of it. There is no escape.

 

And so, as I muddle my way through my notebooks, my photographs, and my random jottings, I think of the stories that need telling. I think of the silences that need preserving. I think of the stories that are my past, my present, my future, and of the way such stories link me, inevitably, to others. And then I think of the archives and how I might read them differently.

 

References

Gale, Lorena. Je me souviens. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2001.

Hartman, Saidiya, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12.2 (2008): 1-14.

NourbeSe Philip, M. Zong! Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

NourbeSe Philip, M. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1993.

Sinor, Jennifer. The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.

 

With thanks to my colleague, Max Liboiron, who, during a talk entitled “How to Titrate Like a Feminist,” introduced me to the work of ethnographic refusal.

 

Photographs and text © Sonja Boon, 2017. (sboon @ mun.ca)

thinking with things

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Mai, part of the Baba and Mai statue honouring the British Indian indentured labourers who arrived in Suriname between 1873 and 1916. Photo: Sonja Boon

Thinking about intra-action, entanglement, actor networks, agency, and trans-corporeailty….trying to work through the relationships between bodies and landscapes and histories and memories.

A few quotes from two different readings:

From Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker’s “Weathering: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality”

 “Weathering, then, is a logic, a way of being/becoming, or a mode of affecting and differentiating that brings humans into relation with more-than-human weather. We can grasp the transcorporeality of weathering as a spatial overlap of human bodies and weathery nature. Rain might extend into our arthritic joints, sun might literally color our skin, and the chill of the wind might echo through the hidden hallways of our eardrums. But not coincidentally, the idea of weathering also invokes a certain perdurance—a getting on with, a getting by, a getting through.” (560)

From Jane Bennett’s 2010 book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

 “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies? By ‘vitality’ I mea the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” (viii)

“If we do not know just how it is that human agency operates, how can we be so sure that the processes through which nonhumans make their mark are qualitatively different?” (14)

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The Fisher’s Wife statue, Vlissingen, The Netherlands. Photo: Sonja Boon

References:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

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

 

(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2016.

 

Bordering the Ocean

Bordering the Ocean

I have been thinking about borders. It is hard not to think about them when a presidential candidate is talking about walling off the United States from Mexico and Canada, and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

I have also been thinking about them because I have been reading Gloria Anzaldua‘s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. It is a semi-autobiographical book discussing the ideological borders between men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, and Latin American and non-Latin American, and the physical border between Mexico and the United States.

Anzaldua describes a border as “a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge” (Anzaldua, 1999: 25).

Borders give the impression of defining and dividing the edge of one thing and the beginning of another. They clarify difference, United States as different from Mexico and Canada, male as different from female, land as different from ocean. However, most of these borders are not visible, and there are people, places, and things that do not fall easily on one side over the other.

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Maben’s Beach, Bamfield B.C., Summer 2009, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Is the border between men and women the difference between a XY chromosome and a XX chromosome? Is the border between Mexico and the United States what defines Mexican and American? Is a coast line the border between land and water?

 

“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (Anzaldua, 1999; 25).

I like the visual image of a coastline as a metaphor for borders and borderlands. Can we define this border as the difference between solid and liquid? Wet and dry? Sand and salt water? One can see the border on a map as the black outline that edges countries and continents, but the line is not so fixed when standing on the actual coast. The tide comes in and goes out, soaking the sand, carrying driftwood, and creating tidal pools where life grows.

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St. Ives, Tide In, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

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St. Ives, Tide Out, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

At any given moment, the border between water and land shifts. In St. Ives, it can leave boats immobile, tilting on sand, but people expect it to happen because they know the tide will go out. They know that it is a vague terrain that alters with the time of the day, yet they still use it.

And when people go to a beach, they spend most of their time standing in that borderland, letting the waves wash over their feet. They stand both on land and in water.

People, places, and things that are not easily defined gather in the borderlands. It is a place where culture, ideas, characteristics, and people, ebb and flow. It is where things meet, and it is a place where new things are created.

“Living in a state of psychic unrest in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create” (Anzaldua, 1999: 95).

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016

The Islander

The Islander

I am a Newfoundlander, born and bred.

Or at least that’s how the song, “The Islander” goes. (Written by Bruce Moss, this song was made popular by The Navigators and Shanneyganock. Check it out if you can!)

Often featured at kitchen parties, weddings, and festivals – this popular ditty is something that many Newfoundlanders have grown up listening to. And with the catchy, gritty, and chant-like tune, it is easy enough to get swept up by its nostalgic, nationalistic sentiment.

When I moved away from Newfoundland and found myself surprisingly homesick (see my first blog post), I sought out the music that reminded me of home, and that included “The Islander”.

However, with my newfound ‘expat identity’, I was starting to defamiliarize and deconstruct my own ‘Newfoundland identity’.

I actually listened to and processed the lyrics in the song: “I’m a Newfoundlander born and bred and I’ll be one till I die.”

For the first time, the words made me cringe rather than swell with pride.

The words “born and bred” just felt so calculated and restrictive to me. It is as if to say your level of Newfoundland identity is directly linked to how long your ancestral line has been confined to the shores of the island.

Isn’t there more to being a Newfoundlander than just being born on this island?


Susan Tilley has written extensively about being a Newfoundlander and the often “troubling” and “complicated” process of identity making (127). Citing her own experiences as a Newfoundlander living away from the island, she says, “I claim, as many other Newfoundlanders do, an identity that evolves out of hard-felt connections to the concrete, material land and sea, to the island. I make claims to a home that is a fixed geographical space, a home that is solid, touchable, and able to be seen” (128).

She compares this personal experience of home with James’ (2005: 248) more theoretical interpretation, which argues it “is not a fixed entity, space, or place with boundaries and/or borders, but is a fluid construction that is informed and mediated by an individual’s life-stage, context, and situation” (in Tilley 128).

On the topic of Newfoundland nationalism Shane O’Dea (in Bowering Delisle, 2013) states: “over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more people came to be permanent inhabitants and, more importantly, descendants of permanent inhabitants, the sense of person-linked-to-place which is the essential for nationalism, grew into being” (18).

At the same time, this relationship between identity and place is interrogated further by Jennifer Bowering Delisle (2008) as she argues: “Newfoundland identity is not dependent merely upon place of residence, but is rather a more complex affiliation involving nationalism, genealogical kinship, cultural heritage, collective memory, and feelings of marginalization in relationship to other Canadian identities” (68).

We can see from such discourse that there is an ongoing fluctuation between the fixed and the fluid on our sense of identity. While the connection to the land and borders undoubtedly have an influence on the personal experience of Newfoundland identity, we cannot forget the driving forces of more social and political forces such as nationalism and collective memory.

We can even see a similar dissonance between the ‘fixed’ and ‘fluid’ experiences of Newfoundland identity in our title song. From the opening lines, it is claimed that being a Newfoundlander is something you are born into, but at the same time, it is also a state of mind – one that is as “free” as the wind and the waves.

The song also tackles geographical and political borders as grounds for Newfoundland pride:

“In Montreal, the Frenchmen say that they own Labrador,
Including Indian Harbour where me father fished before;
But if they want to fight for her, I’ll surely take a stand,
And they’ll regret the day they tried to take our Newfoundland” (Moss, 1982)

Although the song is titled, “The Islander,” and thus confining such a ‘provincial identity’ to the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador, there is still a staunch political statement about the geographical and political ownership of the land of Labrador. Furthermore, designating a ‘Newfoundlander’ as purely an islander, leaves Labrador out of the picture altogether – that is until it comes to claiming stakes to the land.

The politics behind the boundaries between Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec are beyond the scope of this particular blog post, but it does make me think about the ownership of land as a basis of nationalism and subsequent identity formation.

For a song making claims of ancestry and land as grounds for provincial pride, I would feel amiss if I did not point out the fact that the majority who claim to be Newfoundlanders, “born and bred,” are descendants of European settlers. What about the people that were truly indigenous to this island? Where do the Beothuk and other indigenous groups stand in the experience and expression of Newfoundland identity?

Although individuals may feel as though their identity is deeply rooted in the physical landscape, this does not mean that it is completely fixed and devoid of political meaning. The very fact that we can call a land our ‘home’ is political in itself.


As an undergraduate student here in St. John’s, I volunteered as an English as a Second Language conversation partner. When I was just starting out, I read through some of the resources for international students and came across a section on Newfoundland culture. It praised Newfoundlanders as being friendly, but immediately warned that they have a tendency to be cliquish when it comes to welcoming newcomers into their peer groups. I was disappointed to read this – and not because it was untrue.

We have a tendency to immediately designate non-Newfoundlanders living in Newfoundland as “come-from-aways,” and to label non-Newfoundlander Canadians as “mainlanders”. It would seem that ‘our’ islander identity creates a kind of knee-jerk reaction to consistently differentiate ourselves from anybody not originally from this island.

Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves: what really makes a Newfoundlander? Is it how we sound? How we look? Is it in our blood, as “The Islander” proudly claims? And at what point can one become a Newfoundlander, if at all?

Clearly, what constitutes a “Newfoundlander” is becoming increasingly complex. Or maybe it has always been complex, and only now are we beginning to see through the clouds of nostalgia and sift through our muddied past.

Sources:

Bowering Delisle, Jennifer. The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-Migration. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.

Bowering Delisle, Jennifer. “A Newfoundland Diaspora?: Moving through Ethnicity and Whiteness.” Canadian Literature 196 (2008): 64-81.

James, C.E., ed. Experiencing Difference. Halifax: Fernwood Press, 2000.

Moss, Bruce. “The Islander.” Quay Records, 1982.

Tilley, Susan. “Re-Searching Ties to Home: ‘Troubling’ Notions of Identity.” Despite This Loss: Essays on Culture, Memory and Identity in Newfoundland and Labrador. Eds. Ursula A. Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman. St. John’s: ISER Books, 2010. 127-136.

 

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