collecting: haptic ecologies of kin and kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

maman

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

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

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

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

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

And I will not be ready. Will you?

She might leave me, she might leave you.

She might show you garbage floating on the surface.

She might ask you to imagine, like Stacie Cassarino:

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blur Between

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

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

One image caught my eye.

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

 

sea island met

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

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

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

 “No longer slaves but not yet free.”

A liminal state.

Caught between a divided nation,

Between time,

Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?

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

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

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

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

gwine (gwīn)


  1. Chiefly Southern & South Midland US

A present participle of go1.

[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

 

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

myth:
ic
ology
ologize

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

We talk about them all the time.

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

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

Something we see ourselves in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ancestor

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

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

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

___________

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

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

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

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

I wish to know more about movement:

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

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

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

Reference

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

 

Maneuvering the Master’s House

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

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

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

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

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

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

the tongue is the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

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

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

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

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

 English

is my mother tongue.

A mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan lang

language

l/anguish

   anguish

— a foreign anguish.

 

English is

my father tongue.

A father tongue is

a foreign language,

therefore English is

a foreign language

not a mother tongue (Philip 56).

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

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

taste as archive

taste as archive

Lisa M. Heldke has argued that food making is a “‘theoretically practical’ activity — a thoughtful practice” (1992, 203). As Rosalyn Collings Eves observes, recipes might be understood as sites of embodied memory. What we ‘know’ about food is located not just in the ingredients, but in all of the body’s senses; in Heldke’s words, “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (1992, 219).

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Cooking up a batch of raspberry jam takes me back to the mosquito-infested patch of raspberry bushes we had in the back yard when I was growing up. Even in 30 degree heat, I’d cover up from top to bottom, sweltering in the heat as I picked, my ears filled with the sounds of mosquito wings….

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Taste, these writers suggest, is never just about flavour. It is about texture, look, feel, smell, touch, sound; it is about movement; about a kinaesthetic knowledge (Sutton) located within the very sinews, bones, muscles – the very stuff – of the body itself.

How do I know which pepper to buy? What constitutes a good bulb of garlic? Who can tell me if a watermelon is juicy and sweet?

What constitutes a pinch of salt? How do I know that I’ve put in enough cinnamon? What is the exact science of mingled spices – garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric – for my curry?

None of this can be found in a book. Well, it can. But the true understanding of food making exists in the body itself.

“Taste,” writes Barbara Kirsehnblatt-Gimblett, “is something we anticipate and infer from how things look, feel to the hand, smell (outside the mouth), and sound …. Our eyes let us ‘taste’ food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell” (qtd. in Sutton 2010, 218).

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Eating pom, one of two main Creole celebration dishes, with my aunt and uncle in Suriname. Made with a Surinamese taro root, chicken, a stock mixture and orange juice, this is comfort food par excellence. Creamy, rich, flavourful. Served here with cassava, plantain and sauteed Chinese long beans. What I wouldn’t give for some of this right now….

Taste is, in and of itself, an archive of senses, meanings, histories. Consider Julia Kristeva’s visceral accounting of abjection in the form of food loathing:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it.” (2-3)

Taste, as Kristeva observes, is more than individual; it is about the self, certainly, but it is also about the social. For Kristeva, the skin floating on top of milk “separates [her] from the mother and father who proffer it” (3); taste here disrupts normative kinship; it also disrupts the intergenerational transmission of food and food memories.So, too, might we consider Fred Wah’s (1996) revulsion at the slivers of ginger floating in his dinner, even as he simultaneously acknowledges their role in his hybrid Chinese-Canadian identity.

None of this can be exactly measured. None of this can be accurately marked. These are knowledges located on our tongues, at our fingertips, in our muscles, between our teeth.

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I’m a sushi fan, but I can’t quite wrap my head around the Dutch penchant for raw herring topped with chopped onion. This is my moment of abjection. Doesn’t matter how far back I can trace my Dutch heritage (1750 last time I worked at it), I still won’t eat herring….

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Oliebollen, on the other hand…. pass ’em right over! In The Netherlands – and at our house – these donut like balls are New Year’s Eve fare. 

But these archives of taste are also political. Food is never just about the private, domestic sphere of home and family; food – and taste – cross borders, break boundaries, challenge private/public dichotomy (Sutton 2008, 160). David Sutton (2010) references the work of Sydney Mintz, for example, who links the taste of sugar to questions of political economy. Sugar, he argues, is never solely about sweetness; rather, it is intimately linked to questions of morality and politics. In Sutton’s words, “the addictive taste of sugar made it difficult to give up, and thus, a contentious item of anti-slavery boycott, whereas its taste once again led commentators to suggest it would lead the working classes into idleness and women into other desires and illicit pleasures” (2010, 212).

Certainly, foods have long played a role in questions of politics. In a letter to Samuel-Auguste Tissot, one of the most celebrated physicians of eighteenth-century Europe, a correspondent named Lavergne detailed with precision the recipe for his healthy drinking chocolate:

My drinking chocolate is made with 56 ounces of cocoa, 28 ounces of sugar, never vanilla. I distinguish between three different types of drinking chocolate: the first with half an ounce of cinnamon (instead of the full ounce I used in the past), the second with a quarter ounce; the third with no cinnamon at all … if I am missing something in order to consider this a true health drink [chocolat de santé], please let me know.”

(Lavergne l’aîné, October 1772, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, Fonds Tissot, IS784/II/144.01.07.24)

For this correspondent, food and diet were linked directly with questions of health.

As I observe in my 2015 book, Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot, this framing was integral to Tissot’s own approach to questions of public health. In his Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion, for example, he contrasts the healthy body and mind of the rural peasant with the disordered body and psyche of the “man of fashion” in the city:

The man of fashion, disturbed by business, projects, pleasures, disappointments, and the regrets of the day, heated by food and drinks, goes to bed with trembled nerves, agitated pulse, a stomach labouring with the load and acrimony of his food, the vessels full, or juices which inflame them, indisposition, anxiety, the fever accompanies him to bed, and for a long time keeps him waking; if he closes his eyes, his slumbers are short, uneasy, agitating, troubled with frightful dreams, and sudden startings; instead of the labourer’s morning briskness, he wakes with palpitations, feverish, languid, dry, his mouth out of order, his urine hot, low spirited, heavy, ill tempered, his strength impaired, his nerves irritated and lax, his blood thick and inflamed; every night reduces his health and fortifies the seed of some disease. (38)

The seductive qualities of rich flavours – cream, meats, wines, sweets – would lead inevitably to a life of excess. Unhealthy eating habits damaged not only the body of the individual, Tissot argued, but also the body of the citizen, and in so doing, undermined the health of the state as a whole.

Taste, then, is never just a matter of intimate relations; it is also a matter of politics writ large.

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Speaking of too much…. why have one pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving when you can have two? Last year we had four. With lot of whipped cream, of course. 

My students and I experienced this first hand when we considered the politics of presidential cookie baking. In those halcyon days of yore, when Hillary Clinton was but a First Lady in waiting, the Democratic Party thought up a plan to make their candidate’s wife more palatable to the American electorate.

I’m not sure how “We’ll have her bake cookies!” won the day, but the cookie bake off between First Lady wannabe’s has been a tradition ever since (worth noting that I don’t recall Bill Clinton and Melania Trump facing off over the kitchen table during the last election cycle). Taste, in these contests, is not just about flavour, but about home, family, generations, domesticity, class politics, race, religious belief, and more (I wrote about the cookie bakeoff in a post called “Arugula and Chocolate Chips”)

“Cooking,” David Sutton (2001) argues, “is not simply an everyday practice, but an attempt to reconstruct and remember synaesthetically, to return to that whole world of home, which is subjectivity experienced both locally and nationally, if not at other levels as well” (86). Taste, here, operates in multiple registers; while intimately located within the body, it cannot be understood without the larger context in which foods and memories circulate.

Taste is about gender, race, class, ethnicity.
It is about how we locate ourselves within our webs of belonging.
It is about how we remember.

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A spectacular dessert concoction dreamed up by a good friend and my younger son, while we were staying with these friends in London. This dessert brings me to conversations we’ve had over the 20+ years we’ve been friends, to the music we’ve made together (both serious and silly), and to evenings of laughter in the back garden in North London.

In a recent article, Lisa Heldke (2016) reflects on the memory itself as a sense, considering the intensely embodied food memories that shape her relationships to her pasts and, inevitably, her futures. She recalls her response to seeing her deceased mother’s handwriting on a recipe card, writing:

It’s not the recipe itself – the list of ingredients, the set of steps – that carries this stunning visceral power….It’s the handwriting that does it, seeing it brings the past – brings her into the present moment with me …. Of course it’s not not the recipe. Indeed, whenever I make a favorite family dish, I purposely ‘go there’; I retell myself a story about this food and its place in our family lore. I invite myself to marinate in memories of when and where and how we might have eaten this food. (90)

What memories do you marinate in?
What tastes do you hold close?

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Fresh garlic. Where would we be without it?

Food historian Ian Mosby observes that “studying the taste of history is more than just a novel way of engaging with students. In fact, it is a key tool available to teachers for opening students’ eyes to the profoundly important role that the sense have historically played in determining important changes to societies, empires, economies and environments” (170).

What might this sensual archive tell you, if you listen to what it has to say?

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Mangoes. My all time ultimate favourite fruit flavour sensation. Look at them all, just hanging there. It’s almost impossible to get a good mango in St. John’s…. 

Works Cited

Boon, Sonja. Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015.

Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, 280-97.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “My Dead Father’s Raspberry Patch, My Dead Mother’s Piecrust: Understanding Memory as Sense,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, pp. 87-91.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 251-265.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia UP, 1982.

Mosby, Ian. “Eat Your Primary Sources! Researching and Teaching the Taste of History.” Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Resaerch, edited by Jocelyn Thorpe, Stephanie Rutherford, and L. Anders Sandberg. Routledge, 2016, pp. 166-72.

Sutton, David E. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory,” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, 2008, pp. 157-180.

Sutton, David E. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 39, 2010, pp. 209-223.

Sutton, David E. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Berg, 2001.

Tissot, Samuel Auguste, An Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion. London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1771.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 1996.

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

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.”

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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! 

 

 

stitching theory

stitching theory

A considerable body of research has considered the role of handcrafts – sewing, knitting, crocheting, and the like – in the service of activism. We might consider here Rozsika Parker’s influential The Subversive Stitch (1984/2011) and more recently, Betsy Greer’s publications, Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism (2014), and Knitting for Good: A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch (2008) but also the ever-growing body of scholarly literature on contemporary craftivism and DIY culture (see, for example: Bratich & Brush 2011; Groeneveld 2010; Kelly 2014; Luckman 2013; Pentneny 2008; Solomon 2013; Springgay, Hatza, & O’Donald 2011; Springgay 2010; Williams 2011).

Embroidery, knitting, crocheting – all have experienced a resurgence in recent years. But what does all of this mean? What purposes might handcraft, traditionally aligned with the domestic and the feminine, serve? “The needle is an appropriate material representation of women who are balancing both their anger over oppression and pride in their gender,” Ricia A Chansky writes. “The needle stabs as it creates, forcing thread or yarn into the act of creation. From a violent action comes the birth of a new whole. Women are channeling their rage, frustrating, gilt, and other difficult emotions into a powerfully productive activity” (682).

20-epic-womens-march-signs-from-all-over-world-12Winter had its way with Newfoundland over the past few days. Two days of blizzard conditions have brought us 66 cm of snow, aching shoveling muscles, but also more relaxed brains and bodies, the result of forced closures. The whole city shut down: schools, government offices, the university, banks, public transit. Even the shopping mall and the liquor store were closed. And in that space of winter wind and blowing snow, we cocooned ourselves inside with hot chocolate and scones between bouts of shoveling. I should have spent the entire time writing, catching up with a number of projects. Instead, I spent it in front of the sewing machine, stitching a quilt together.

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shovelling, day 2

I’m not an expert quilter. My current project is only my second. I’m awkward around the machine. I can’t always sew in a straight line. The material bunches in funny places. Sometimes the machine won’t go at all and then I curse it and all things fabric.

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fabrics gathered from family, pillowcases, Ikea, and at thrift shops and….

But the rhythm of the machine also gave me room to think. And what I discovered, after two days of stitching and thinking, is that quilting time is ideal thinking time. Rhythm. Touch. Feel. Sound. Colour. Texture. Routine. All of these worked together. My quilting time wasn’t just about the quilt; it was about all the stuff that’s rattling around in my brain. After several hours together, my fabrics, my thread, and I had worked through not only a quilt, but also the larger ideas that underpinned my research. Together, we told stories. Together, we massaged ideas. Together, we made theory.

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squares. and more squares.

In her essay, “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice,” Lisa M. Heldke argues that “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply “in my head” but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (219). Theory, here, is profoundly embodied, located in touch, smell, taste, and the body’s memories. Foodmaking, she says, is “theoretically practical” (203; see also Heldke 1988).

As I worked my quilt through the machine, I considered the potential of quilt making, too as a space for embodied thinking, processing, knowing. Of making theory in a material sense. What stories can 400 squares tell? And what new stories emerge when I join them together into a whole?

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the only spot big enough to layer the quilt…

While, as Parker observes, “embroidery and a stereotype of femininity have become collapsed into one another, characterised as mindless, decorative, and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content” (6), it doesn’t have to be this way. Leanne Prain reminds me that “unexpected” embroidery causes us to pause and think anew. After all, “embroidery is a means of communication, the stitches, like handwriting or drawing, make marks. A stitch,” she writes, “can form a mark of love, a mark of hate, or simply indicate, ‘I was here.’” (18).

This ethos is the whimsy that accompanies yarn-bombing, for example, or guerrilla cross-stitch. It’s also the impetus that underpins the Pussy Hat project. A colleague on Facebook admitted to not quite understanding that project until she saw photos of the Women’s March; the sea of pink hats made a bolder statement than she ever could have imagined. But I wonder if the power of the Pussy Hat project lies not only in the final performance, but in the process itself. What spaces for thinking did the process of making the hat enable? How did knitting make theory possible? What theory emerged in the stitches themselves?

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done!

Three years ago, my fourth year students, my colleague Beth Pentney, and I – together with a crew of other volunteers – created a giant bikini bottom as a knitivist commentary on the politics of women’s bodies and the politics of art in Newfoundland and Labrador .

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Knitting accompanied our weekly readings and our seminars. It accompanied all of our thinking and all of our discussions. As one of the seminar students, Mary Germaine, said:

When you knit and you’re with other people, there’s nothing else to do but talk – nobody’s checking their phone when they are knitting . . . in class we are looking at things that are hard to talk about, like what happens to women in Sierra Leone. We’re not socialized to deal with that sort of information. Having our hands busy helped to play out the discussion in a physical way.

 

Knitting made a space for thinking and for working through challenging ideas. Knitting made room for theory. And because it was part of every class, knitting became part of our theory making process: together, we knitted our theory into being. In the words of Betsy Greer (2008):

By allowing our minds to work through what we’re feeling while our hands follow a familiar and comforting rhythm, we allow our emotions to sink in and work their way throughout bodies – from the reluctance of letting our negative feelings settle and root to acceptance of the outcome and the discovery of new paths we can take to make things better …. Knitting creates a safe space in which to sit comfortably, whether with our uncomfortable thoughts … our anxieties … or … our joy. (p. 42)

 

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Handcrafts are ideal vehicles for storytelling and storymaking. As Leanne Prain observes, “textiles can help us learn about ourselves and those around us” (2014, 11). From button blankets to story quilts to embroidered maps and more, the artists and craftspeople profiled in Prain’s Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles demonstrate the myriad ways that textiles can tell stories, often without words.

Textile work makes meaning through touch. The material is the story, is theory.

“Artists may have many reasons to work with textiles,” Prain writes,

but often, their love for the medium of fabric has to do with the sense of touch. Through the nap of velvet, the slight roughness of linen, or the silkiness of angora, fabric can evoke memories. Our childhood memories are filled with fabric, from the blankets we were wrapped in to the scratchy sweaters we were forced to wear to school. Quilts, embroideries, and weavings can hold remembrances both personal and collective, and artists can use them to create biographies, autobiographies, genealogies, and memorials. (2014, 103).

My first quilt, created out of a range of fabrics I bought during the course of two research trips to Suriname, is rich with stories. Stories of my family’s histories, stories of a nation’s histories, stories that haven’t yet been told.

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As I stitched this second quilt, I recalled a Maroon sewing machine displayed in the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo. Carved out of wood, with intricate detailing, the machine was purely ornamental, but its very presence suggested the relevance of sewing to Maroon cultures.

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The anthropologist Sally Price, who has lived and worked with Maroon communities in Suriname for many years, points to the importance of strip quilts as part of Maroon culture. In a more recent online piece, she links this piece work to larger histories of women’s art, considering in particular a politics of collage – termed femmage – that could “[turn] the detritus of earlier…projects” into new “aesthetic wholes.”

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Today, such work might fall into the realm of assemblage theory, or, perhaps, into actor network theory, both of which consider how it is that individual elements gain meaning through their ever-shifting encounters with one another. But I wonder about the lowly patchwork quilt and the work that it has done – and continues to do – to make meaning.

Needles and thread, my two snow days tell me, are not only good to stitch with; they are also good to think with.

 

References

Bratich, J.Z. & Brush, H.M. “Fabricating Activism: Craft-Work, Popular Culture, Gender.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 233-60.

Chansky, Ricia A. “A Stitch in Time: Third-Wave Feminist Reclamation of Needled Imagery.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, 2010, pp. 681-700.

Fields, C.D. “Not Your Grandma’s Knitting: The Role of Identity Processes in the Transformation of Cultural Practices.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014, pp. 150-165.

Greer, Betsy, ed. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.

Greer, Betsy. Knitting for Good! A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch. Trumpeter, 2008.

Groeneveld, E. (2010). “‘Join the Knitting Revolution’: Third-Wave Feminist Magazine and the Politics of Domesticity.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, pp. 259-77.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Hypatia, vol. 3, no. 2, 1988, pp. 15-30.

Kelly, M. “Knitting as a feminist project?” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 44, 2014, pp. 133-44.

Luckman, S. “The Aura of Analogue in a Digital Age: Women’s Crafts, Creative Markets and Home-Based Labour After Etsy.” Cultural Studies Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2013, pp. 249-70.

Moore, Mandy and Leanne Prain. Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Grafitti. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009.

Parker, Roszika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. I.B.Tauris, 2011.

Pentney, Beth Ann. “Feminism, Activism, and Knitting: Are the Fibre Arts a Viable Mode for Feminist Political Action?” thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory and culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2008. Retrieved from http://journals.sfu.ca/thirdspace/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/pentney/210

Prain, Leanne, ed. hoopla: the art of unexpected embroidery. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011.

Prain, Leanne. Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.

Price, Sally, “On Femmage,” E-misférica, vol. 12, no. 1, 2015. Retrieved from: http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-121-caribbean-rasanblaj/price

Solomon, E. “Homemade and Hell Raising Through Craft, Activism, and Do- It-Yourself Culture.” PsychNology Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, 11-20.

Springgay, S. “Knitting as an Aesthetic of Civic Engagement: Reconceptualizing Feminist Pedagogy Through Touch.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 20, no. 2, 2010, pp. 111-123.

Springgay, S., Hatza, N. & O’Donald, S. “‘Crafting is a luxury that many women cannot afford’: campus knitivism and an aesthetic of civic engagement.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 24, no. 5, 2011, 607-13.

Williams, K.A. “‘Old Time Mem’ry’: Contemporary Urban Craftivism and the Politics of Doing-It-Yourself in Postindustrial America.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 303-320.

 

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