In the nightmare I wake up in the middle of the night, to a quiet rustling. At first, I think it must be the glimmering remnants of a dream, the edges of an animal video I watched before falling asleep, charming and affirmative in its antics. But then it is chattering and a stain appears, turning the opaque sheet clear. I sense there is a squirrel and the wetness is piss. A light is attached to my eyes and I swirl it around the room. But the movement is not in sync. The front door is open, outside it impossible to see, and hard white flood lights and hard white pebbles line the ground. No wonder the animals came inside.
Friends have joined me to lure the animals away, with each animal they touch, my debt grows. In a wide-mouthed vase of water, a duck sits motionless, a few hummingbirds float on the surface next to her. I go outside to the dark side of the house, to dump their bodies out. I want to keep the hummingbirds, they almost fit perfectly into my cupped hand. It’s strange how much larger an animal seemed when their circumference came into contact with domestic proportions. Hummingbirds swell to be just right.
I wake up in the dark. No bodies move here. I’m relieved. I check my phone, and in the glow, I can see the room contains no animal remainder. Just some dirty dishes, a full hamper of laundry. My body seems to disappear behind its symptoms. And there are no warm bodies there, I’m not cold exactly, but my hand cups into the shape of a hummingbird.
My unconscious life is circular. No wonder I want things to burn. Burning has a beginning and an end.
Am I doomed to have a shitty time at holidays because I didn’t celebrate any growing up? I fear I don’t approach them with an open familiarity that would invite the universe’s auspicious and festive graces. I’m spending Thanksgiving in bed, sick with a bad head cold. It’s not the holiday that tugs at me, but wanting to see Melissa and write together, as we try to do. She’s the one who suggested that I write about Gail Scott. I gravitated to the novel Heroine, but periodically I glance at the stack of other Gail Scott books wondering if I will read them too. Then, I could talk to Melissa about them. This is a driving motivation for many books I read, they become touchstones for friendship, for triangulating what is or isn’t shared between us.
I remember a rare Thanksgiving at my great uncle’s house and eating bulgolgi and watching a Lord of the Rings film. My great uncle used to be a billboard painter, until forced retirement, and he started doing portraits at the mall. Light filtering through their curtains, a picture of him in front of a billboard, flower patterned things. Immigrant aesthetics—sort of late 70s meets grandma meets dorm room logic meets vaguely “executive” looking objects.
All my memories are getting mixed up, in particular the living rooms which orient my sense of interior space. These living rooms like books help place my relations. My parents never really furnished their living rooms, all my memories are of laying on the floor or sitting on office chairs. In the old house the carpet was a bright ugly mauve. All over. Like a muddied Pepto Bismol pool. That’s all over these memories too, like a disturbing puke. I spent a lot of time on it, I think it’s permanently soaking things.
What if all my desires are illegal.
It’s not even thin skin, it’s the feeling of having no skin at all, a monstrous creature, socially made. We are all made from society’s shit. Yet to get on with life you learn to deal. Society offers a skin. A projection surface. A suture spot. Hold still, let it happen. Stabilize a sense of self, narrate a map, act generously on the assumption what you need matters. But you get obsessed at the suture, pick at it. Bend into several skins at once. To be this way you take up and give up many disciplines. You are used to being penalized, it almost becomes a skin of its own, and more a way of being. Fidelity is rewarded, an Anglo-Saxon sense of balance. Your sense of balance is more about burning things. Flames pass easily through your not-skins, or through the many skins you keep bending into, they burn easily. When crisis surfaces it feels like finally, other people feel the skinness of skin. How nothing really adheres. There’s a flapping sound of air passing in the gap.
In immigration narratives, to speak about feeling in-between becomes a cliché and one must find a way to make it interesting. Performing in-between too much or too little will be a problem.
I keep returning to Rey Chow’s book, The Protestant Ethnic (the title makes me laugh, the way I do when the speaker admonishes herself in Heroine with don’t be such a Protestant):
If an ethnic critic should simply ignore her own ethnic history and become immersed in white culture, she would, needless to say, be deemed a turncoat (one that forgets her origins). But if she should choose, instead to mimic and perform her own ethnicity in her work—that is, to respond to the hailing ‘Hey, you!’ that is issued from various directions in the outside world—she would still be considered a turncoat, this time because she is too eagerly pandering to the orientalist tastes of Westerners. Her only viable option seems to be that of reproducing a specific version of herself—and her ethnicity—that has, somehow, already been endorsed and approved by the specialists of her culture. It is at this juncture that coercive mimeticism acquires additional significance as an institutionalized mechanism of knowledge production and dissemination, the point of which is to manage a non-Western ethnicity through the disciplinary promulgation of the supposed difference of its literary and cultural tradition (117).Similarly, Vassar Kaiwar writes in the essay “What is Postcolonial Orientalism and Why Does it Matter?” (2010), critiquing academic subaltern and postcolonial studies apolitical positioning:
One becomes, by default, a living representative of one’s community, either properly authentic—which in the immigrant context of the USA means advocating the stock positions of postcolonial studies, including notions of hybridity, in-betweenness, place-based specificity, untranslatable into any higher terms of political solidarity—or somehow inauthentic to the extent that one still thinks in terms of structural contradictions, and the terms that are now derided as defunct and passé.So this is the rock and the hard place the “ethnic” navigates and perhaps hopes to not to get hopelessly trapped in between (haha). There exists a consistent possibility for both self-betrayal and self-exotification, and for either mistake the ethnic critic/writer will be scrutinized.
But in feminist narratives, or a certain kind of feminist narrative (I suppose I’m implying whiteness), doubling is even more interesting when paired with boredom. The everyday life of a feminized person can be dragged out into infinity. I feel my complaint rising, and wonder if it is interiorized misogyny. I love this writing but I am too torn apart to take a bath. In the shower I make the water run as hot as possible. I rub the dirt off my skin and remember the intimacy of going to the neighborhood bathhouse with my grandmother. She would scrub my back and it was always surprisingly dirty. I would scrub her back in return, her back seemed spare and odd. Like a nun.
Resentment makes one ugly, that’s a recurring motif in Heroine. The speaker strives to be beautiful, but resentment is built into her position, into the power plays between so-called comrades, and resentment happens because she is attuned to things, and makes herself vulnerable to them. In the process, she gets hurt, and then resentful. The beauty she wants is a fantasy; she projects confidence onto other women. Her sensitivity to this confidence is not exactly a lack in herself, but an understanding of how her qualities become undermined, skewed by attempts at male attention. That is, her confidence is displaced and replaced with a different object.
But am I resentful of her ability to write resentment? Her resentment confirms small moments of unhappiness at parties, or in moments of a fading romantic connection within the context of an incestuous political scene or art community. It confirms the abject realness of those moments and links them up into a chain of affect. At the very same time, these other chains of affect appear as shadows, the ones that cannot be aestheticized to be ugly-beautiful.
I might have a political stake in insisting that some of these chains should not be aestheticized in such a direct way. I want to think through experience with troubled, not easy relation to representation. I want to be very clear that representation is not an end goal, and not even a particular effective means towards the things I want to see happen in the world. I keep writing into anonymous projects, but this too is not really point. The world doesn’t have room for the kind of existence I want. What I want will sound too utopian, too post-human to spell out. Does it matter? For now, political commitments remain in the real space of pushing up against the bare limits for what we find ourselves dealing with—so often that real is very brutal and contorts us with the absence of the people we need, the basic material needs, access to life.
I keep wondering if it is enough to be aware of one’s complicity, and to treat this performance of awareness as a critique that is adequate. I keep wondering about the figure of the Black tourist in Heroine. When he finally speaks, we still hear it from the speaker’s point of view: “The Black tourist says: ‘You tell me: How would you treat me in a novel? Among other things, I bet at every mention you’d state my colour” (78). His engagement in the text still serves to bring the narrative back to her novel in progress. He exists as a kind of zero in the text, a visual figure that represent both radical negation and distance. He is a perspective point. He is a built in critique that puts into relief the politics of the F-group, their gaping blind spot. But this is mostly utilized to bolster the much more fleshed out critique of their gender and class politics as they are lived in everyday life. They are perhaps so segregated that one assumes whiteness as a unifying and universal basis. After all, national liberation may not include immigrants, the ethnics, and indigenous peoples. But as “revolutionaries” they are interested in white people from other countries who share a condition of the oppression of the left.
“It was a stupid thing to say. But I was trying to control the darkness so I wouldn’t do something terrible” (26).
There is a great desire to weaponize language, because it is so effectively utilized and manipulated and gendered, it seems right to get revenge. But with great desire comes risk. What I mean is
Cathexis: my own sticky spot has become this figure of the white woman artist. I can’t be her. I don’t want to be her. It’s a secret shame because I think it is facile and beyond my politics. But that’s how jealousy and resentment work.
You see what I mean when I say it is dangerous to get too caught up in your resentment, you give power to it—you absolve your own work and life of serious questions.
But maybe it is in part, that resentment, and the recurring embarrassment that helps drive me away from myself. A necessary thing to begin. Even if later you say: look how far I am from my site of resentment!
But then again, things like this keep happening:
at a poetry reading a white woman asked me to get a glass of wine for her, the room was crowded but also clearing out, i was closer to the table by about three ft
“if i pass you my glass can you pour me some of the pink wine” she said and i looked at her blankly
“pink wine?” i stared at the table like i couldn’t fathom wtf pink wine could possibly mean in this context
she stared at me and said “never mind, i will get it myself”
“sorry” i said and shrugged, like i had developed an inability to pour pink wine, but had made peace with that and was totally ok with never doing it again
I’m over-reading another micro-aggression. Discussion of micro-aggressions and the focus on them can be a kind of class indicator, to align oneself with more life and death oppression, without necessarily sharing the same risks. (Like that entire story is about wine).
Or maybe it is a rhetorical strategy to talk about but around the shadow stories. The other stories, the shadow stories weigh on me here. There are stories I have no right to write, but they bear on my life nonetheless, through proximity of pain, fear, imprisonment, death, injury, and betrayals I cannot fathom
The moment stuck with me, not just because it was a moment of putting me in my place, but because it really heightened the way the entire room felt. For all the talk of poetry community and its openness, the room was very overwhelming white and the readers were overwhelmingly white. This was at the East Bay Poetry Summit. Subsequent narrativizing of the incident, which involved me laughing about it had my friends asking me “Who was it? Can you remember?” Which seemed to me a little beside the point. I even felt ambivalent about their show of support. What I was trying to indicate was my ambivalence about being in that room, even with all these people I thought I could trust, also mingling and drinking the pink wine. But this is how relationships go sour, instead of directly communicating this (for what reason, with what demand?), I continue to tell you these stories with a dash of wry humor to take some of the edge off. The ambivalence is also about what is built around that room, who its keeps out and under what circumstances that room is meant to be soothing, psychically un-painful and sheltering.
Later I conclude it is better not to pay too much attention to this room over many other rooms. Yet, I might be upset if there are chilling effects to not paying attention to the room. Resentment might be about the desire to have it both ways.
I’ve fallen again into the loop of describing scene politics. I wish I could stop doing that, but reading Heroine made me remember it all. The communist-anarchist political scene was a kind of home, into which I was ushered in and inaugurated by sexual violence. My involvement in interventions into the poetry scene also seem to consistently be about gendered violence.
Many of the political people I met are poets, and some of the poets come over to the political meetings and street demos. There continues to be cross pollination, and as the politics died down, the poets had many political things to say. But again I feel a kind of ugly resentment. Some of them were not around very much, but they describe events like they were in the thick of it. These descriptions are romantic, they aren’t dragged down with skepticism and sorrow, but the joy does not seem precise enough either. Our joy relies on illegality, and to some extent, destruction. And the destruction doesn’t only occur in the thick of things but continues to unravel in the days when less people are watching.
I don’t want to fetishize the joy part. Comrades go to prison. People break down. The joy is in spite of this. Because we are already being destroyed. But I want care to resonate as well. Care: long term support and mutual aid to each other. Not in opposition to destruction, blockades, and other ‘adventurist’ actions, but continuous and parallel with these actions and ways of being. The shared intimacy of these actions and care cannot be ignored, they inform and conspire together. Thinking and planning around care, or reproduction of ourselves, is also a way out of a nostalgic relationship to real events. When do work through the aftermath, and must continue into a kind of futurity (not necessarily a stable, but futurity with room for contingency and change).
The weight of wanting this intimacy between action and care often gets translated into or appears as exhaustion. In Heroine, the speaker seeks both romantic love and collective solidarity but finds blocked entrances at every turn:
We’re not scared. Just exhausted from wanting to change the world and have love too. Anyway, a heroine can be sad, distressed, it just has to be in a social context. That way she doesn’t feel sorrier for herself than for the others. We’re all smarting from retreat. Two steps forward, one step back. The trick is to keep looking towards the future thus cancelling out nostalgia (84).In her present moment, writing the heroine is the narrator’s access to futurity. She feels betrayed by other women almost as much as she feels betrayed by her male lovers. She is alone in the bath, and dealing with her pain mostly alone or with a therapist. There’s that wry sense that the insistence of the group over the individual may simply mean the isolation and abandonment of the individual. Attention drawn to mishaps takes on a collective sense of failure, the shared fate of accomplices, and that this collective model of might point to a future that “cancels out” a wounded attachment to the past.
During the aftermath of the sexual assault which inaugurated my entrance into the radical scene, a group of future comrades and some that I already knew, many who knew and had been friendly with the perpetrator, worked on a letter to him to listing their grievances. The decision to write this statement had been decided either during or soon after a very confusing and awkward meeting I had with the group, during which I had to recount the story to a group of mostly strangers, and someone asked me if I wanted a “support group centered on the survivor,” and most of the meeting was a discussion of his patterns of his behavior and psychology. The letter was a placeholder and midpoint between doing nothing, and pursuing some kind of revenge. As it happens, sometimes the placeholder becomes the thing itself. I decided to stop attending the meetings and was assigned a liaison who would check in with me. After many weeks and several meetings with the liaison, during which I stressed my desire for a collective response (not just a letter), that is, a real change in the gender dynamics in the scene moving forward—I was sent a draft of the letter.
But how had I stressed that desire for a collective response? And to what ends? Was it ultimately interpreted that I cared more about their political scene than my well-being? What I meant was that my well-being seemed now, against my will, to have interwoven destiny with the collective response of the scene.
I read the letter. I read it several times and the letters blurred. I didn’t cry. But reading was hard. I didn’t find what I was looking for, and it became immediately clear in its absence that I was looking. I was hungry and looking for food. Finally, I had to ask them to say something about the impact of his actions on “the survivor’s life.” The letter was mostly about how his actions really impacted them as a group, their ability to organize with women of color, etc. I signed the letter, already feeling sorry for making them edit the thing after so much effort. Later, my own sorry feeling came back to haunt me, to be the seed of resentment.
Yes, the comrades had worked hard.
Yes, I still felt resentment.
It was the feminist comrades that allowed me my resentment, didn’t let me drown in it. I learned kindness and care. I learned paranoia. I heard so much gossip that I wanted to vomit, as if I experienced a kind of vertigo from seeing things too quickly. Everything took on the appearance of bruises. We dyed our hair together and ate noodles from the Chinese restaurant below my apartment, the one that the perpetrator told me our comrades went to after the riot. I was living in his apartment; I had taken over the lease. I lived there the whole year and tried to fill it with different memories, different affect. In the feminist friends I was looking for heroines who did not represent futurity, but cancelled out the past’s constant return with their present support.
I don’t want to over idealize this part either, as the years passed, there would be many times that the comradery and trust I put in feminists would be betrayed, sometimes in crushing ways. Waking up with bruises on my face where her hand had made contact. I would learn new resentments, and at the same time these moments opened up new forms of contact. Each time I was injured and filled with resentment I tried to find hidden chambers, and eagerly I would allow the meeting of strangers to lean again toward friendship, though at the same time the sealed off chambers also grew into their own vast kingdom covered in a terrible mist.
It’s not that the complaints aren’t real, but do they fulfill a genre expectation, a gendered expectation, a racialized expectation, to be such an individual who embodies self-respect they must be buoyed by complaint. Some people are allowed to not complain and their words are allowed to stay still for long time on their own legs. Sometimes a complaint will come along and kick those legs.
The complaints are real. I wanted stop speaking for a while and wait until finally the words came to me, wading through the texts, scanning history, parsing the decisions. I want to point at the invisible spot on the film we have been watching all along. I want to project the film into some weary possibility, hidden marshlands and seascapes at night that refuse to speak. My hands want to grip the complaint; my eyes fill up instead with the burst of sidewalk glass.
Let me be unpeaceful.
Lobna msgs me, saying I made her cry with some words, in the middle of Cairo traffic.
“But I love you.”
And look, that’s my unpeace that finds some stillness in me.
I needed an addressee. Virgil, Melissa, and I talked this morning about our writing habits and the importance of having an audience or a clear addressee. The importance of an audience is very palpable in politics too. This leads some to comment on the performativity of political acts, sometimes towards gains in an individual’s or a group’s social capital. Heroine certainly contains this critique. From the very beginning of the text, the narrator tells us about the middle-class comrades who dress up as sex workers to be in “solidarity” against their criminalization. Meanwhile, they are simultaneously flirting with the radical men in the bar.
It’s hard not to cringe while reading this book.
It seemed right, writing into a space that would make me cringe. I want that cringe to be more than a kind of recognition of complicity. When we address someone or an audience, what do we want to see happen? I think about the problems of empathy, of reproducing a subject position, with all the weird details of a life or an event that can’t possibly translate. A text can fail when it fails to transmit. A letter can fail when it doesn’t know who it is addressed to.
What is the difficulty of writing, in the absence of communities of care, or how can you find your “affinity group” when you feel alienated? How do you write for an audience that doesn’t quite exist yet, or is no longer present?
How to break out of the traumatic loop?
How to write in and out of the traumatic loop?
How can there be new collective bonds, which don’t just replicate the loop?
How can the loop become exploratory? How can the loop contaminate, and rove wildly?
Experiment (with other people)—
1) Rewrite your biography, the story of yourself that you tell yourself, or to others
2) Write the biography of the desired space of future collectivity, or a space where your rewritten self could live
3) Share/exchange these writings, pick one
4) Find ways to take care of the writing, its contents, questions, body, and narrative—whatever that might mean