Co-edited by Sophie Le-Phat Ho & Ronald Rose-Antoinette
What are the techniques, ritual practices and hauntologies for unsilencing the ghosts and critiquing the ways racism, ableism, patriarchy, transphobia and homophobia alienate us from their and our stories?
“If something makes itself felt, known, from the zone of those of us said to be and have nothing, then the interrogation of what nothingness means is our urgent task. The nothingness of possibilities otherwise, of living the alternative.”
Ashon T. CrawleyBlackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, (New York: Fordham University Press: 2017), 197.
The past is not always or yet past.
This issue of MICE, Ghost Intimacies, is enfolded in the complexity of haunting and of our relations. It asks time and again: who or what do we want to connect and remain connected with? On the one hand, it seeks to identify the many ways in which systems of oppression survive and haunt the lives of queer, Indigenous, and people of colour. It is beyond dispute that our present has inherited logics of servitude and individuation that continue to protect the institution of white supremacy. The routinization of violence against our bodies is a sharp reminder of the current state of coloniality we endure, here in Canada and elsewhere: an imminent and immanent relationship to police brutality, state violence, everyday racism, and to their monuments (prisons, first and foremost). Forced intimacies g/host or carry such hatred in their heart, sometimes beyond the strictures of time and space.
On the other hand, this issue summons alternative approaches to haunting, in ways that seek to overthrow the politics of disappearance, forgetfulness, and even hostility toward the dead, performed by racial capitalism. If the latter—grounded in exploitation, extraction, and the spectralization of “others”—is meant to deny the complexity of life, then how do we exit its oppressive regimes of visibility and linearity? For whiteness, by declaring itself the signifier of transparency and ownership, forestalls the advent of unanticipated temporalities, of ways of living and believing in the world that do not privilege time as teleology, in order to guarantee its coherence. Such is how the racial is construed, to negate movement and relationality to a phantasmatic other. It is the vibrational materiality of Indigenous, people of colour, and queer temporalities that is repressed in the service of producing (hetero-)normative life. That is how our communities (an emphasis on those of us affected by these processes of slow or violent death) are made ghostly.
In dissent, we ask: how can the force of haunting be unleashed effectively against the politics of disappearance and separation enacted by capitalism? How do we—“those of us said to be and have nothing”—practice intimacy under duress? How do we reckon with what neoliberalism has rendered ghostly? How do we stop being ghosts? And what would it mean to end a world that perpetually brutalizes intimacy in the interest of competitive individualism, and continues to impose its view by severing the social?
Perhaps what needs to be practiced, with absolutely no constraint, is a ritual that connects us beyond what we recognize as past or dead: a critique of the normative epistemologies and ontologies deciding—that is, quantifying—when and where attachments should begin and end. That the past is not always or yet past begs our critical attention. Which is why it becomes necessary to find other ways of remembering, that is, other ways of knowing (feeling) and relating, in order to live. The process of producing this issue of MICE—an attempt at materializing the feeling of ghost intimacies or a knowledge of another kind, thriving in non-linear time—is indebted to that necessity, that of caring for haunting as a decolonial methodology.
How do we practice care or concern? Under what conditions? Who do we share an experience with? How do we feel the unseen? How are we touched by what our current epistemological order deems untouchable? But also: how do we ward off separability and loneliness? How do we outstretch our hands and cut through individualism?Fred Moten, “Bobby Lee’s Hands,” Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements, December 5, 2016.How do we practice conviviality otherwise, which is about dismissing otherness and sameness altogether?
Throughout this issue the answers proliferate in ways that do not necessarily resolve the tension between the immediacy of intimacy and the elusiveness of haunting. In fact, the intention behind the title of this issue is to foreground how complex, sometimes hesitant, and otherworldly social life can be. Such imprecision is meant to cloud the clarity or discretion of capitalistic processes.
Inherent in the theme Ghost Intimacies is an irrepressible demand: how do we preserve intimacy away from competitive, predatory individualism?
With this issue we seek to address the social poiesis of alternative gatherings, fugitive reunions, or assemblages against the imposition of individuation. We’re interested in how intimacy blurs with joy, memory, and survival. Ghosts have not only their say but also their way in the making of an otherwise sociality: an outpouring of lifeways breaking with our norms of perceptions in order to connect with something else. When the frontier of knowledge is occupied by the living and the non-living, and the human and the non-human tangle, what sort of commerce or communication arises? In a mutual inhabitance we may find new habits of entanglement. That is why we must attend to the scope and the spectre of hospitality in the form of a question. Such indeterminate connection (to come) means that the definition of intimacy is and must remain open—so one can g/host as many forms and modes of existence as is spiritually possible.
An ethics of haunting demands attunement to what is there, but also out there, to the queer becoming of desire. That is why intimacy is not and should not be about scale: when consent (to the multiplicity of being) is denied, and its sociality severed, it becomes something of a private or personal order. The indefinition of presence—as more than here, now, and one—blurs the reach of intimacy. Like a dream that belongs to no one in particular—that no one claims—but rather operates as a longing for entanglement. No matter what the distance, two friends can co-operate through the entangling machine that is the dream. This oneiric stream summons an ethics of intimacy that exceeds (though it doesn’t exclude) proximity and likeness.
This issue is an affirmation of and a leaning into nonseparable life. It’s about being able to respond to modes of life that do not necessarily conform to the ocularcentrism and linearity of whiteness; being able to feel the presence of alternative temporalities in the flesh, to become vulnerable to the complexity of life and breath.
This is a demanding task, for it asks of us to upset certain habits. The journey of decolonization can take many shapes, comprising acts of unlearning, mourning, and healing. These processes agitate what is normally understood as “intimate,” “personal,” “social” or “political”—categories that have been subsumed by the individualist regime of neoliberalism—and destabilize mechanisms passed on by institutions such as art or the academy, thus enabling us to translate and to connect with what feels at once like a loss and a presence. In order to make contact with a sociality that has been made less than alive, we must do a type of work that welcomes unforeseen (new and ancient) connections, that allows us to realize that we are our ancestors. We are not alone. In order to allow for another kind of memory, one must allow multiple voices to emerge. How does one go about editing in this context?
The wide response to the call for this issue of MICE seemed to speak to a large-scale need for collective grief. We selected proposals that emanated from a space of intimacy with ghosts, but that also were inclined towards undoing spectralization through their very making. To connect with one’s ghost(s), and ghostliness, is necessarily done in a very specific (intimate) way (to the author) that unsettles comfort zones. Our role was to facilitate that process of materialization while also carving a space for the authors’ inventions to be read by (shared with) others, as part of an emerging sociality that does not rely on or refer to whiteness.
The editorial process was also about honouring the task of preserving and opening to connection, that which is not only an act of resistance but one of love. In attuning to the demands of our ghosts we build worlds overnight. Our memory no longer speaks of a loss only, but becomes a force. The result is a collection of poetic and informal essays, hybrid rituals, everyday futuristic fictions, alternative archival collages, media works, interviews, and a dream. Within them, you will find echoes, between them, and beyond them. Perhaps friendships, past and future. We hope that their works feel each other.
We cannot thank the authors enough for pushing through with us in the face of an inhabitual and delicate task. We are grateful to them and to the MICE collective for giving us the opportunity to pursue this intimate and vulnerable journey collectively. We hope that this issue will provide some additional tools for practicing love.
Let’s keep in touch!
In January 2017, Nasrin Himada and I sat down to talk about the upcoming publication of Bla_K, the past publication of Frontiers and my thoughts on the intervening 25 years. What follows is an excerpted collage of our exchange, interspersed and elucidated by my commentary.This interview was initially conducted for the publication of Bla_K: Essays and Interviews by M. NourbeSe Philip, and a full version of it will appear in the book which is forthcoming from BookThug in October 2017.
M. NourbeSe Philip: When I first met you, you said “Interview with an Empire”Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally, ed. Romana Huk (Middletown: Weselyan University Press, 2003), 195–206.was very important to you, in terms of your own practice and thought and, indeed, it was your deep interest in the essay that catalyzed this publication of Bla_K (forthcoming 2017). I deeply appreciate that, particularly given that I have felt like a disappeared writer in Canada for the last twenty-five years. My work is much better known in the United States.
Nasrin Himada: And that’s how I even found out about your work in the first place, through the United States. I want to begin by discussing your concept of “be/longing.” Your putting the slash in be/longing opened it up for me.
MNP: The slash is important because it says so much. A lot of our struggle resides in the language I believe. Jewish people talk about the Shoah. There's a word in Swahili, Maafa, which means a great terrible tragic occurrence or event. Some people, myself included at times, use Maafa in referring to the transatlantic slave trade. I recently started talking about “The Great Scattering,” because for me it captures one aspect of what happened to us, the scattering of Africans, within Africa to the Maghreb as a consequence of the Arab slave trade, and across various lands and oceans, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It has been a great and terrible scattering.
But when I think about us, the descendants of the Maafa, it's not just the loss of the homeland and family, it is also the loss of language and culture, and the way into the latter is through the former. What makes us human and sustains us is culture and we need language for that. The Scottish missionary David Livingstone understood this, arguing that the best way to introduce Christianity to Africans was first to destroy their culture, then introduce commerce and then religion. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to start with destruction of the language. The Kenyan writer Ngũgĩwa Thiong’o, who wrote Decolonizing the Mind (1986), stopped writing in English and began to write in his native Gikuyu and has observed that Africa cannot have a renaissance until they begin to work in their Indigenous languages. How do we speak of what happened to us? In what language? Where can, or where do, we belong in any language?
I’ve found Simone Weil helpful in understanding how some of this scattering came about. In her book The Need for Roots (1949), she talks about how the European, after uprooting himself within Europe, spreads around the world uprooting all the other peoples of the world.
NH: I never thought about it that way, but that's what colonialism does, it uproots people from their land.
MNP: And their own cultures. The Europeans set out to uproot the rest of the world of their cultures. And so I see all of us caught in that net or trap. And so, for me, there's this issue of trying to find a language to rest in. And I think for me it's the fragment because there’s nowhere else to go. But then there's also this physical aspect of where do I call home? Is it possible to be/long anywhere?
NH: In a place that's a settler colonial place?
MNP: I don't want to use the word “settler.” Because they are not settlers, they are unsettlers. A mother settles her baby, and maybe it's coming from settle, as in to pacify, and that's what the Europeans did, they attempted to pacify people violently. I suppose you can pacify violently. Language affects us physically. They are unsettlers. Because they have unsettled everything around us.
In the Caribbean, where the Indigenous people were for the most part wiped out, I believe we still have this issue of "how do we belong?" Particularly as those societies remain colonial societies despite independence. So for me it has everything to do with how do we ever make ourselves a resting place, which in turn, begins with a process of undoing the process of colonialism. I turn to the Martiniquan writer and poet Édouard Glissant who talked about Relationship and how crucial that is to creating different spaces. I am reminded of Zong! (2008) and how that work is all about words being in relationship to each other. Words creating spaces to allow other words to breathe. Colonialism was not about this kind of Relationship. It was rather about power—power over.
One possibility of developing a culture of Relationship would be for us African-descended peoples and First Nations to recognize each other on both sides of that slash that stands in for the dark water, for us to see ourselves in the Other, and to see that we are really two sides of the same coin. And that maybe we have something to share with each other. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the first Africans were brought to the Americas on the advice of Bartolomé de las Casas, the sixteenth-century Dominican priest of Spanish origin, because he wanted relief against the decimation of the Indigenous people in Latin America. The rest, as they say, is history. This is what I mean about the importance of understanding the shared roots of our exploitation. Both peoples have a great deal to overcome.
NH: On their terms I think.
MNP: I’m not sure what you mean on their terms.
NH: I mean in the sense that you're saying it can't really happen until we’re able to have that discussion, where Indigenous knowledge, culture, and history are centred in how we can be together.
MNP: I understand what you’re saying and I don’t have a problem with that. What concerns me is that when African-descended peoples of the Maafa or Great Scattering are subsumed under the word “settler,” our particular and peculiar history is erased. I don’t think that white settler Canadians who now entertain liberal guilt about depredations of colonialism against First Nations people are either able or willing to entertain that. I also realize that First Nations people may not be particularly interested in making such a distinction, and I entirely understand that. It does not mean that what I know to be the truth is any less the truth—that we did not come to this part of the world as unsettlers. We came as property. In the holds of ships. I have to remember what forces brought me here. We lost everything except what we could remember. To be seen in the same way as the European settler is to do a second violence to us, the descendants of the Maafa.
This does not mean that we do not ally with First Nations people; indeed, it strengthens the reasons why we should support them in their struggles. And I believe that until they receive what is rightfully theirs, none of us is free and we are all participating in their oppression by virtue of living in the colonial state of Canada. We all have blood on our hands. But I will not take on the liberal guilt of the white European unsettler. It’s a complicated position but a truthful one for me. After all, Canada does have a history of recognizing or acknowledging the existence of different groups, such as the French, the Acadians, the Metis, and so on. I am not necessarily claiming official recognition—although why not?—but we are two years into the UN International Decade for People of African Descent. This is intended to be a period of time in which there should be greater recognition for African-descended peoples, greater social and economic development as well as more access to social justice. This UN-declared decade, however, has been recognized more in absentia than anything else. None of the three levels of government under Stephen Harper, Kathleen Wynne, and Rob Ford, during whose respective terms it was declared, acknowledged it. Which reveals a glaring issue in our communities in Canada—we have no central organization which can speak with one voice on issues such as this.
NH: When you speak that way I can’t help but think about my own positionality; my family didn't have a choice to come to Canada but they also did. They did have the privilege to apply for permanent residency, to land here, but if we go far back enough, in the sense of their uprootedness, then they really didn't.
MNP: And that uprootedness has a name and an address. There was a time when Britain had its finger in every country around the world. The sun never set on the British Empire was what they prided themselves on. And what is happening today is actually the blowback, the ripple effect. Same with the United States.
But to come back to the issue of African people here, I think that one of the things that concerns me greatly is anti-Black racism, which I think is universal and not only found among white people but among all non-Black people.
And my argument is not for special treatment, my argument is to be particular about my own memory. For me to be willing to lump myself in with the white settler is to erase my memory of how I came here.
I have heard relatively recent immigrants passing comments on First Nations people—that they don’t pay taxes and that they should get over what happened and so on. This is outrageous. First Nations people are right to have an attitude towards newcomers who come into this land and take a position on them and their memories. It cannot happen; it must not happen.
NH: And that makes total sense in exactly how you’ve described memory. It’s in how you activate a sense of self-determination in a collective way.
MNP: I have too much respect for Indigenous cultures to believe that they would be indifferent to the stranger like myself, who has washed up here somehow through the same set of events that has destabilized them and has moved us from our homeland. I am confident that there could be some sort of understanding and compassion for that kind of stranger and how that would look is up to both parties to work out.
NH: In "Interview with an Empire" you continue with this issue concerning memory but specifically in relation to language. You write, "The challenge for me is to write from that place of loss. Of nothing if you will, to make poetry out of silence." As a poet and writer, how would you describe your relationship to language? How do you see that emerge in a way by speaking to/back to Empire in the interview? In it you write, "To erase the body is to erase the memory, and while this particular Black body is here in this white space called Canada, there is memory." I am wondering if you can speak more about this relation between body memory and writing, particularly in how it shows up in your work, in your practice as a writer. I can't help but think of Zong! here as well.
MNP: The most important work that I’ve done over the last 25 years is Zong! It has been described as a conceptual work—in the same way that She Tries Her Tongue (1988) was described as a postmodern work—but it has roots deep in the ancient, oral art form oríkì, of the Yoruba of Nigeria. Again it was my engagement with language, which I talked about above, that helped me to understand how the fragment can resonate and have great power. For those of us who often have nothing but fragments of our original cultures, this was revelatory. And life-sustaining. All was not necessarily lost. The work has also moved and moved me to performance, bringing a dimension that is integral to the practice of African cultures.
Every year in November on the anniversary of the Zong massacre, we have a collective reading of the entire book. One of the remarkable observations is that although the content is tragic, at the end of the reading/performance there is a feeling of coming to rest, of peace, even. This confirms my belief in the capacity of art to heal. I also realize that I am not interested in speaking back to Empire in a work like Zong! or its performance. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be critical about the depredations of Empire—god knows it has unleashed on us all a scorched earth policy. But Zong! is its own raison d’être—although it comes out of the European archive, it is not a reaction or response to Empire. It simply is. As lamentation, mourning song, extended wake. Indeed, the title for last year’s event was “Zong!: A/Wake 5 Years,” playing on the idea of the wake for the dead, but also being awake to all that has happened—as in remembering. Zong! reminds me that we can find our lost selves in the most unexpected of places.
Jamilah Sabur considers Commodity (2017) to be a digital ensemble between herself, Ricardo Dominguez and the late Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. Sabur overlays her electronic scoring with Sumac's "Chuncho" and sings words inspired by "The Ante-Chamber of Revolution" by Ricardo Dominguez.
In Jamilah Sabur’s solo show If defined, then undefine, on view May 25 to September 10, 2017, at Dimensions Variable in Miami, Florida, one encounters plaster and burlap sculptures that feel like data arrays personified, standing indices. One finds rows and stacks of pressure-treated wood and the encapsulation of time and gravity, bits of data held in plaster drips—not pointing downwards but sideways—always in motion. The installation feels pregnant and ripe like fruit, packed with cultural and familial data. The air in the Jamaican countryside echoes from a portrait of a little girl pinned to the back of a plaster-lath burlap wall, a digitally recreated almond tree rustling inside of a computer simulation drawn from her mother's own memory banks, now not so disembodied and faint in memory, but inhabited and three-dimensional. In the abstraction of the data, the tree and the memory are no longer in Jamaica or in Miami but just streaming, running—global.
The rawness of the materials, the cultural facets, allowed me to reflect on my memories of growing up in Miami and having immigrant family members who were construction workers, electricians, or domestic workers. There is a familiarity in Sabur’s work: a feeling of a “can do make do” attitude comes through. It makes me think of the Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Haitian refugee communities in Miami that I’ve grown up around—people who can build anything anywhere, legally or not, solid or temporary, but always with improvisation and movement.
I kept returning to how the gallery space felt like the digital space in her work. The use of historical figures, degenderized,De-gendering strategies at the level of identity and IT involves exposing and stressing the contingency of the process that relates technology to gender identities, and the relationship with other types of identities such as racial, class, or sexual orientation identities. See Veronica Sanz, “Gender Structure, Gender Identity, Gender Symbolism and Information Technologies,” in Emerging Digital Spaces in Contemporary Society: Properties of Technology, ed. Phillip Kalantzis-Cope and Karim Gherab-Martin, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 299.deployed as media information. In this case Simón Bolívar is summoned. Through the digital degendering Sabur becomes the data or the computer, shifting from a man, to a woman, to a statue, to a tree. There is power in that because, even if she inhabits these forms temporarily, no one can stop her or tell her she can’t. She becomes media, she abstracts it, she can become Toussaint L’Ouverture, or Bolívar. She can become an event: like a ghost or a spirit, a temporary possession or inhabitance with and through digital technology. What remains is a trace of the passage: a plaster cast. Following the tradition of sampling, appropriation, and recontextualization, she degenderizes and repurposes both symbols and meanings that might have been used against her. She abstracts them, cuts them up, strips away meaning and power and reassigns them, like a programmer recasting a variable in a program.
We’re in a time where a lot of things need to be unlocked, degenderized, and decolonized—cutting and pasting history, memory, and historical data, recasting meaning, people, and places.
I met Sabur earlier this year in a group show we were both in at History Miami. She later asked for my help in designing the almond tree animation on view in her solo show at Dimensions Variable. The opportunity to interview Sabur came up then. The conversation below was conducted over email and expands on MICE Issue #3’s theme of Ghost Intimacies.
Juan Maristany: I would like to begin with the idea of space as I understand it but also from my limited exposure to your previous work. Right away, seeing the show up was drastic. All the negative space around the work feels like a perfect flow from your digital intervention to your physical construction. There is weight in the negative space. It feels thick and packed with ghosts. What is left unsaid, or the space not filled, still speaks. Can you tell me more about ghosts and channeling?
Jamilah Sabur: Lately I find myself in a space where I’m wanting to give to the spirits that gave for me to be. I cannot see the future but I can see the faces and the words that once were. I want to remember and honour lives of the past. With respect to channeling and summoning, haunting has always been an ontological space for me. That state of being that is always returning and unforgettable. I conjure up memories as a material form and, in this case, embed it within historical manifestations or echoes. The process of applying the plaster to the lath and burlap in the wall structures at Dimensions Variable involved a lot of waiting—musing. Gaston Bachelard’sGaston Bachelard. The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994). Originally published as La poétique de l’espace (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1958).conception of the house structure as a metaphor for the body is something I think a lot about. Bachelard is a sort of talisman. Generally, in my practice, I arrange channels between elements that belong together in order to allow interdependent co-arising.Interdependent co-arising is a term most easily described as cause and effect.I create by feeling my way through relations. The work is a system of things that belong together and that evolve out of it. It’s circular and, in this case, it creates a channel between my mother and Bolívar. My mother, who was born Cheryl Annmarie, and Simón are absolute equals and carry the same value.
JM: People leave a temporal residue on structures. I’ve always felt that there are certain tree spirits, nature spirits, everywhere. So many people have lived before us. There is no void, there are spirits standing around us. It’s crowded.
JS: My mother’s house was not up yet during Bolívar’s exile in Jamaica in 1815, but I am certain the almond tree in what became her front yard was there, which was about four miles away from where he stayed. The tree and the land were bearing witness, holding memory.
JM: Why is BolívarSimón Bolívar, by name The Liberator or in Spanish El Libertador (born July 24, 1783), Caracas, Venezuela, New Granada [now in Venezuela]—died December 17, 1830, near Santa Marta, Colombia), is a Venezuelan soldier and statesman who led the revolutions against Spanish rule in the Viceroyalty of New Granada. He was president of Gran Colombia (1819–30) and dictator of Peru (1823–26).important to you?
JS: The desire to summon Bolívar as a mediator, to speak through, came about during a trip I made to Tijuana last year, where I visited shelters. There was an exodus of Haitians leaving Brazil after the government collapsed last year. There was a policy in place in the United States, which was abruptly suspended in September 2016, that motivated Haitians to travel the brutal 7,000-mile journey. It was upsetting to realize that there was little possibility for Haitians to participate and exist as whole beings in South America. Economic inequality breaks along racial lines in such a drastic way there. And racial inequality can’t be erased if economic inequality remains. According to a recent report issued by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world.
After his exile in Jamaica, Bolívar traveled to Haiti in 1816 and, under President Alexandre Pétion, he received significant military support from Haiti in the fight for liberation from Spain. Pétion convinced Bolívar to expand the fight for independence to include the liberation of slaves in South and Central America. The racism there is a demon I am not sure can be extinguished. The high level of corruption feeds it. We are in a deep spiritual crisis. What is sovereignty without solidarity? What is solidarity without acknowledging the fullness and dignity of all human beings? The process of liberation is still in progress. How do we destroy racism at the cellular level? It is located at the cellular level. Until we create a new system to self-replicate within, these cells will continue to metastasize like a virus or cancer eating entire bodies until they’re all dead.
JM: I would like now to talk about your film Playing Possum (2012), which you’ve described as being a love letter to death. Writing about your show at Dimensions Variable, I talked about the concept of remixing and collage. I really enjoyed seeing material fragments from Playing Possum appear in the show. The flag in the film is made from the same wood lath you used in constructing the walls and your mask is made of plaster. Can you talk about Playing Possum and how it relates to what’s on view at Dimensions Variable?
JS: Playing Possum is part of a trilogy with Moon Tendon (2015) and Medical Gaze (2013). It relates to the show at Dimensions Variable in many ways, but mainly through the notion of survival. I am casting out memory. Lately I’ve been reflecting on the conception of memory not as loss but as a way of seeing the possibilities of what could survive.
There is so much in that piece for me. Elijah Rock by Mahalia Jackson was playing in the studio when I worked on that film. I truly disappeared into a state of trance. I remember bits of that moment very vividly now. So much darkness, so much sadness, so much rebellion and resistance. Within my practice, my process is a constellation that speaks to survival, improvisation, and changing speeds. I am actively zooming in and out from the personal to the structural, shifting between materialities and geographies.
I have found a spiritual existence in the state of nothingness. When I think of the vastness of the universe, where Saturn can fit in 764 Earths, I have an agency that allows me to get inside of all of this, where exploding moments into static bits becomes possible. I talk about the idea of portals and overlapping history. I manipulate time within the work. Time collapses and I dissolve into time, and then burrow and extrude through endless dimensions. I’m in a perpetually shifting state of matter. When a possum is under threat, it plays dead to avoid getting killed. I was exploring a lot of Butoh at that time and found a language that helped me articulate some of my thinking. To search within my body, in Hijikata’s words, for “the body that has not been robbed.”SondraHorton Fraleigh. Dancing into Darkness: Butoh, Zen, and Japan (University of Pittsburgh Press), 1999.In Playing Possum, I became a body underwater on the moon.
This is the first dream I would like to write down after coming back from Colombia. I was sick for a while and just recovered, with full energy. Before bed I had a meeting with Koichi, Rit, and Tew at a Chinese restaurant about the upcoming soundtrack album. For dessert I had Ginkgo Biloba, which I think contributed to this vivid dream I had. There were two stories stitched together.
In the first one I found myself in a monkey colony in a setting that was half forest, half city. I was there with a mission but I don’t remember the details. I knew that human and monkey territories were separated. I was protected by a monkey without whom I would be attacked by the other monkeys. It was at night. I was asleep in a large warehouse in the forest. In my sleep I knew that the monkeys loved to drink pens’ ink. I had all kinds of pens with me, ballpoint pens, gel pens, etc. The monkeys would attack you to steal the pens and suck the ink from them. In my sleep I knew I had stashed two valuable black-ink pens inside my polo shirt, on my chest, behind the buttons. In the middle of the night I sensed that there were monkeys in silhouette crawling along the ceiling’s beams above me. My monkey protector was not there. As they came closer they shone a flashlight at me. I woke up. They turned off the flashlight. I tried to lift myself up but I couldn’t. I couldn’t open my eyes. It was a struggle with myself as the hungry monkeys were approaching. Finally I called out my friend who was sleeping beside me, “Raymond, Raymond, Raymond!” I repeated his name many times but no one answered. I woke up. In the dark I saw that I was sleeping alone. It was 3:35 am. I was exhausted from the dream and the jet lag. I tried to go back to sleep but I couldn’t. The monkeys’ presence was still there. Then I remembered that at dinner Tew told me that Rit, her husband, often had nightmares that made him shout in his sleep, violently. My shouting might have happened due to this information.
After I fell asleep I had a second dream. I was also on a mission in a Colombian jungle. I trekked to different villages to murder several mafias. I was accompanied by a man who was a top-rate assassin. But our mafia targets were expert killers as well. The numbers of their kills flashed by—100 people killed in this village, fifty people killed there. But the numbers also included something like twenty people killed by landslides. Then we were joined by a woman killer. She said that she hadn’t slept with a man for eight years and to feel free to sleep with her. Then I was told that the mafias travel in gangs and about twenty percent of them were gays who slept with one another. We arrived at the outskirts of a village full of trees. I was looking for a spot where I could shoot. But I don’t remember the rest of the dream except that it was all about looking for the places to shoot, or for hiding spots. There was not really any action taking place.
The next day a friend emailed me:
“I dreamed about you last night (a dream!). We were talking on the phone. I was using a traditional payphone inside a booth on the side of the road. The noise of the traffic was very loud and a bus swerved along the curve and its engine drowned out what you were saying and I didn’t hear what you said. I asked you and you didn’t reply but said we should have dinner to talk about it. I can’t remember what the topic was, but it sounded serious.”
At the 2017 Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference in Vancouver, Jeneen Frei Njootli spoke on behalf of the Indigenous feminist arts collective Rematriate about burnout and community care (or lack thereof). “I'm running on empty,” said Frei Njootli, “Because that's what's expected of us.” So, when I say, “I’m exhausted,” I am one of many Indigenous women, gender variant, and sexually diverse peoples who have burned out on the community of institutional Indigenous thought (academia, publishing, and art), and who have worked themselves to a point of exhaustion because of the emotional labour that is expected of us, especially by Indigenous men.Anne Riley, “Indigeneity and the Work of Emotional Labor,” Anne Riley, MICE no. 1, http://micemagazine.ca/issue-one/%C4%AFladzeee%CC%81-pulse-wrist.
Don’t get me wrong: I know how lucky I am. “No people of colour, except a handful of men, are making a living off writing in Canada,” someone I respect deeply once said in a workshop. It’s true. But does being lucky mean that I’m not allowed to have boundaries with my time? My intellectual and emotional labour? With harmful Indigenous men, whose names we can only whisper over wine or in the offices of our most trusted women, gender variant, and sexually diverse colleagues? And if you do speak up, even if only to respond, you’re a rabble rouser and a troublemaker—a bitch even (such a self-fulfilling prophecy, to go from special ordering Bitch magazine to my small town as a youth, to a bitch writer in the flesh).
Even though mama Sarah Ahmed taught me that “when you expose a problem you pose a problem,”Sarah Ahmed, “The Problem of Perception,” Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/17/the-problem-of-perception.I wasn’t prepared for the reception of my writing confronting toxic masculinities and masculinist historicization within Indigenous thought, and the conflict that would result. I wish I could say that it was just men. Of course, I’ve been on the wrong side of what can only be described as a crisis of masculinity within Indigenous thought. But some Indigenous women, gender variant and sexually diverse people have also been perpetrators of scarcity-driven cruelty and obsession towards me—in-fighting, stalking, projections upon my personal life, colleagues, associates, and relations because of personal vendettas, and other general intensity. And I know I’m not the only one.
Institutional Indigenous thought—here referring to Indigenous knowledge production that emerges from Western institutions such as, though not limited to, publishing, art, not-for-profits, and academe—emerge from their respective Euro-Canadian individualist, egoist, and scarcity-driven economies. In turn, Indigenous scholars, writers, and creators can easily adopt the capitalist and neoliberal principles of our fields. We work our bodies until they break, putting in hours of free labour for the movement, and out of love for our communities. We work ourselves to exhaustion for our careers because, as millennials, we live in an economic wasteland left to us by the baby boomers, who also convinced us that we have to work numerous unpaid internships, edit our university’s art publication for free and/or show our art for free, if we are ever to even be considered for a job. We practice anti-relationality—viewing one another as competitors in this neoliberal race towards what we are told are limited opportunities—rather than kin, which can lead to lateral violence and intracommunity bullying, often undertaken online.
My intention is not to be cynical. Indigenous feminist networks of care like the auntie networkErica Violet Lee, “I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly,” February 5, 2016, https://moontimewarrior.com/2016/02/05/im-concerned-about-your-academic-career-if-you-talk-about-this-publicly/.have helped me survive the white-dominated spaces of CanLit, the academy, publishing, and art. But I have also been exhausted by this same community that I call home, which is not a value-laden statement—it just is. I’m not interested in evoking a hierarchy of values to make judgements about the tactics we choose to use in order to survive colonial institutions. Nor do I think that Indigenous thought is an inherently harmful space. Rather, scarcity-driven economies breed lateral violence, fatigue, and mental health duress on the body.
If it’s the community that has exhausted me (us), how can I (we) ever derive legitimate care from it? As a kinship-based person, where could I derive community care, reciprocity, and identity from if not from those I thought were my kin?
The Non-linear Queer Body of Colour
Julie Nagam has written that time, space, and place (the land) are intrinsically bound, and our bodies are the materiality that anchor us to this continuum of spatialities associated with being in the universe.Julie Nagam, “New Ground,” Canadian Art, (Winter 2017).While much of the universe is unknown to me, I do know that I have a body. I’m not interested in getting into a Phil bro 101 argument about Descartes here, nor in pandering to some ethicist’s po-mo fantasyDiane Bell and Renate Klein, “A Po-mo Quiz,” in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, ed. Diane Bell and Renate Klein (Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 1996), 558–-61; Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Postcoloniality (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000).or deconstructuralist jack-off about being post-bodies (and always conveniently post-race, non?). In fact, I know that race, class, and gender do exist because I feel the penetration of colonialism from the world that surrounds me, on and in my body.Erica Violet Lee, “My Ancestors Survived Colonization and All I Got Was This Lousy Eye Twitch,” Moontime Warrior, August 20, 2016, https://moontimewarrior.com/2016/08/20/my-ancestors-survived-colonization-and-all-i-got-was-this-lousy-eye-twitch/.But our bodies here on present earth, here on Turtle Island, are bound by what David L. Eng has called an “aesthetics of the present,”David L. Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 196.one composed of white European and Euro-American historiographies—an ethnographic sampling that encompasses ideologies of dominance, genocide, and terra nullius, and events as fixed points on a linear timeline that moves only forwards.
Jolene Rickard has spoken critically about Indigenous thought’s emerging futurity narratives,Lindsay Nixon, “Visual Cultures of Indigenous Futurisms,” GUTS, May 20, 2016, http://gutsmagazine.ca/visual-cultures/; Initiative for Indigenous Futures, Concordia University, Montreal, http://abtec.org/iif/; Lou Cornum, “The Space NDN’s Star Map,” The New Inquiry, https://thenewinquiry.com/the-space-ndns-star-map/.arguing that “for the Haudenosaunee, the world began as a provocation in a dream, in the sky world … the time of the dream isn’t constructed on a linear visual … it’s a narrative.”Jolene Rickard, 1st Annual Future Imaginary Symposium, May 2, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwY1FFDKXFw.Through engagement with their traditional technologies, as Lou Cornum coined it,Cornum, “Space NDN’s Star Map.”Indigenous bodies generate refusal towards the linear passage of time. Bodies that are affected and affect correlate with a diverse entanglement of relations, teachings, philosophies, and sciences, which place their bodies in never-ending connection with the cosmos and all their relations within. Bodies that evoke the ancestors in their every action and are inextricably linked with their descendants forevermore—a circle of connection that links all its parts. How could bodies like these be anything other than time-fluid and space-fluid?
The non-linear queer body, then, is one that inhabits not only physical space, but spatial and temporal dimensions that encompass psychic realms, as well—such as the dream world, or aspects of ceremonial life. The non-linear body is one that doesn’t fit neatly into a dominant paradigm of linear time, instead embodying non-Western relationalities hardwired into its physicality like an advanced technology—early binary code, as Rickard saidRickard, 1st Annual Future Imaginary Symposium.—that disrupt Western ways of being in physical and temporal space.
What makes the non-linear body of colour especially unique is its connection with ancestral memories of gender-fucking—embodied rememberings of the fluid, plentiful genders that did not fit into Europe’s colonial gender binary, and thereby were cruelly diminished, controlled, and disciplined. If white people can’t dance because whiteness is a traumatized state of embodiment and colonialism has impacted the way we move our bodies,Tada, Hozumi, “Why white people can’t dance: they’re traumatized,” Selfish Activist, http://selfishactivist.com/why-white-people-cant-dance-theyre-traumatized/.then for the queer of colour, the body is the anchor through which we incite the spirits, and call forth our gender variant and sexually diverse ancestors of the past.
The non-linear queer body of colour is an embodied form of refusal towards inscriptions of linear time that attempt to colonize non-Western ways of understanding body and self—a calling forth of ancestors and ancient teachings, and a projection of these knowledges into a space-time continuum that, for kinship-based peoples, is held together by a never-ending chain of relations and relational responsibilities.
k4k (Kin 4 Kin)
“Thank Creator for music, dance, fashion and all other forms of art/culture I experience with my body before my intellect.” – nîtisân, Sasha SimmonsFacebook post, December 16, 2016.
In a 2017 photoshoot with Kinga Michalska, Phoebe Heintzman Hope attempted to visually capture their voice, movement, and choreographic practice Womb Cxre. As Michalska photographed them, Heintzman Hope distorted and moved their body, and that which lived in its deepest recesses, until it was shaking under the weight of mindful engagement. They had wrapped their body in gauze to create a mummifying effect, and smoke billowed from their mouth to show the intentional breath that paired with their movements. Smoke also rose from the ground, accumulating from a nearby smoke machine, and it was as if Heintzman Hope was an apparition—ephemeral and genderless, evoking the sensualities, pleasures, and embodied love of the ancestors. This is a body that is stuck both in the past and in the future, presumed extinct and unmodern,Scott Lauria Morgensen, Spaces Between Us (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).and yet somehow still here—the living, and loving, dead in death worlds.Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003), 11–40.
Blending dance, movement, physical therapy, and somatic practice, and by grounding therapeutic and personal development techniques associated with bodywork, Womb Cxre uses the body as a space of emotional excavation. As a self-described mixed-race diasporic alien baby, Heintzman Hope prioritizes making Womb Cxre available to other people of colour who can similarly draw from a space of racialized queerness, and creates a space wherein the non-linear body of colour can live. Intentional movement and performance becomes a space wherein we can speak the unspeakable, as Charlotte Townsend has written about Rebecca Belmore’s work,Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Rebecca Belmore: The Named and Unnamed (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2003).a space wherein we can contest colonial violence inscribed on our bodies.
Though bodies of colour are often presumed ancient, extinct and as inhabiting ghost worlds, Womb Cxre works to reanimate the queer body of colour by evoking alternative sensualities, tenderness, love, and pleasure. In fact, these body memories contend with colonial affect on the body, the uneasy aesthetic present, by drawing from the personal narratives and ancestral memories that live within the non-linear queer body of colour as an alternative to dominant historiographies.
Womb Cxre combines voice, movement, and choreographic practice to place bodies in conversation with their own unique histories, and contends with the aesthetic present by drawing from personal narratives and ancestral memories to create new worlds.A reference to Billy-Ray Belcourt’s robust scholarship and literary work around “worlding.”While the relation between body, space, and time can be violent, complex, and agitated, Womb Cxre wills us to recognize that queer bodies of colour aren’t simply walking wounds re-enacting unending trauma, but vessels for unique happiness, love, and joy, as well. Mantric statements—writhing, vocalizations, utterances, and guttural sounds—are a central component of Womb Cxre, used to heal bodies through the deepest personal intimacy and care. Womb Cxre pushes its participants to connect to their own body goals, centering on their personal knowledge of and relationship with their bodies, in order to speak to and pay attention to those parts of the body that need tenderness, care, or even shock.
The outcome of Womb Cxre isn’t to become a better dancer or to produce work that culminates in one final production, but a kind of anti-production instead. Womb Cxre breaks from a clinical, controlled, and obsessively conditioned choreography characteristic of forms of performance that emerge from a place of Western production, such as ballet’s capitalist and somewhat manic Black Swan-esque rigidity, and adherence to formality that pushes the body to its limits. Womb Cxre makes space for bodies of softnessA reference to the Plains Cree relational philosophy of “being soft,” which means essentially to speak and act with gentleness, and never from a place of anger, even if this means the process will be slower.that confuse the confrontationally masculinist and never-ceasing hustle and bustle of Western production.
I’m not sure where the tendency to disassociate from my body and the way it holds pain came from. Perhaps it’s a distrust of the Western medical system compounded by a simultaneous disconnection to my own medicines, or just a general affect of shame and fear of being stigmatized? Or maybe I’m just doing the colonizer’s work and inscribing my body as unworthy of care, and as inherently unhealthy, diseased, and degenerative? Maybe I’ve internalized racial uplift and the Cartesian divide by posturing intellectualism’s reverence of a strong mind over supposedly lesser important principles of bodywork that could help heal my trauma-ridden body. My bad shoulder that was sprained by a dirty Edmonton cop and never fully healed because I received bad health care, my tension headaches from years of anxiety about living in the city, and my back pain from years of slouched posture, as if I wanted to make myself disappear: what else could this be, if not some form of trauma induction on the body?
Womb Cxre taught me a language for the body I had been dissociating from for decades now. Of course, I recognize the extreme privilege of access, class, and institutional support that allow me healing supports like movement therapy in order to work through daily racism on my body. But I’ve been blown away by the vulnerability that was immediately apparent in my body when I started taking up space in new ways with my body: not diminishing myself by disengaging my core, for instance, focusing on my pelvis to ease shoulder tension, and rolling my hips to exercise sensualities I was taught as a hypersexualized “fat girl” weren’t mine.
Womb Cxre has become a space of refuge for me. As an urban Indigenous person, queer kinship, like that which I’ve developed with Heintzman Hope through their practice, has provided me with the care and tenderness I need to attempt healing my body, and to continue in the aesthetic present. Though not without their problems, spaces that have come to be labeled as QTBIPOC (queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) in Montreal, meant for all us children of the diaspora trying to find our way home, have been the collective spaces I have fled to when I was shielding myself from individualistic and harmful spaces that can exist within Indigenous thought—though to reiterate, do not define Indigenous thought as a whole, which also holds spaces of care and tenderness. These communities have offered me the reciprocity that I crave as a kinship-based person—a fluid, bound kinship beyond the limits of space, place, time, or production.
PANG! Went the pan into my back as a sharp pain traveled upwards in my spine and into my head. I stumbled to turn around to face a woman who grudgingly exclaimed,“You think your negro cunt holds all the magic in the world don’t cha.” Panting for air I looked around the mess that made up the kitchen. There was flour spread out on the floor, broken glass shattered everywhere, ripped curtains barely hanging on to the windows, and a screaming kettle echoed the ringing in my ears. Standing on the other side of a table that separated the two of us, the woman continued, “KEEP OPENING YOUR LEGS FOR MY HUSBAND AND THE GOOD LORD SHALL STRIKE YA...” Her voice became a murmur as I started to notice the lavish details of her French Creole fashion. My gaze was immediately brought to the attention of a letter spread out on the table between us, dated 1751. I became appalled in the midst of her rage. Next thing I knew I was falling backwards… Was I fainting? Or was I being pulled back into reality again? In a strange way the two felt similar.
“Woiii!!! Jistis, where you go this time?” my sister inquired.
“Same place. 1751,” I mustered as the room spun. “This time the Mistress hit me over the head with a soup pan, talking about how I open my legs for her husband and all kinna ting. If you could have seen the white lady Priscilla, bloodshot eyes and all—”
“What di bumbarass?!?!” she fired. “My girl is being taken from 2017 and brought back to the olden days slavery,” she went on in disbelief.
“You could imagine my surprise. Hopefully, soon Gwanmanman is going to be h—”
“Relax!” she insisted, snapping at the mention of our grandmother.
The hairs on my back stood up as I sensed something threatening my being with another spell. Since my sister and I moved into this house I’ve felt oppressed by these visions. My memories before here have become hard for me to remember. It’s as if these visions have replaced my memories, making themselves at home in my consciousness.
My attention was soon caught by my sister’s necklace as it shone with familiarity when she moved towards the kitchen. Ignoring her question, I asked, “Pris, where did you get that necklace? It’s so beautiful and oddly eccentric.”
“Ocean gave it to me. Man said I’m the apple of his eye. Could you believe that!? He is pure papisho.” She laughed as she walked off into the kitchen. The necklace had some kind of energy attached to it, pulling me in and pushing me out again.
As I tried to stabilize my thoughts I heard some thuds at the door, “Ouvri pòt la!!”
“Pris, it’s Gwanmanman!! I’ll get it!” Running for the door in all my excitement for my grandmother to work her obeah on this spell I tripped over the mat. Priscilla’s feet were suddenly in front of me walking towards the front door whilst passing me straight. Before I could ask for help I hit my head on a giant vase. Unconscious, I could hear Gwanmanman’s light feet sweep the foyer of our old house. As she spoke her voice had a certain edge to it, different from when she was outside shouting as if she owned the home like every Caribbean mother does. Priscilla’s voice was going in and out softly in response. However, with every syllable a sinister twist hijacked the natural calibre of her voice. Something was off.
“...Priscilla…” Gwanmanman paused, “my child, where is Jistis?”
“Gwanmanman, moi la! I’m here!! I’m here,” I mumbled as I tried to push past the painful breathing in my throat. I don’t know how she did, above Priscilla’s nonsense rambling, but she heard me.
“My baby, what happened to you?” she gasped as she kneeled to my aid. She then leaned in and whispered in my ear, “That is NOT Priscilla. It is a very dark presence that has attached itself to her trying to get to you.” She began to speak faster: “As soon as I step foot in the house I sensed it.” She continued, “I do not mean to scare you but I can see the shadow of the presence attached to her energy.”
I slowly tilted my head to see the truth in Gwanmanman’s face. However, behind her the most terrifying yet familiar eyes penetrated my soul. These eyes did not belong to Priscilla, yet they moved like they were born with her.
Just then Priscilla raised the handle of a machete above grandma’s head. —BOOP! Went the sound of grandma’s body. As the machete hit my grandmother's skull I heard a crack and her body fell to the floor. I shut my eyes tight quick. Play dead Jistis, play dead!
Play dead Jistis. Play— “Sara, baby open your eyes and take off your dress,” he gently commanded. I opened my eyes and the words flowed out of my mouth on their own, an instant response to such a bland name that nobody has ever called me outside these visions. “But Massuh, yuh lady say—”“Shhh... shhh... she’s dying from the miscarriage and not nearly as beautiful as you are.” He continued, “You fathered me three children and still not a crack in that smile of yours.” With his hand groping my waist and lips kissing my neck I could recall the last flashback I had with the Mistress and the look of her bloodshot rageful eyes. I never asked for this. Massuh always comin unto me with his old breath. “I have something for you, my beautiful Sara.” Just then he pulled out a necklace and put it around my neck. I acted surprised and, in awe, cracked his favourite smile. When I glanced at the pendant it looked all too familiar. That was Mistress’s necklace. *GASP* “Priscilla!”...“I beg your pardon?” Massuh responded in confusion as I felt my consciousness being pulled back into the house.
I awoke to my unconscious grandmother lying next to my stiff body. Through the window I could see the deep orange Caribbean sun starting to go down on my sweet St. Lucia, sealing the existence of yet another day. Quietness stole my breath as my head ached with pain. Remaining laid out on the ground, I lifted my head to look around the room. I wondered where Priscilla was. With the help of Gwanmanman and her obeah senses I now knew the truth. Life with these spells was finally starting to make sense. It was not Priscilla in my sister’s body. It was the Mistress from my former slave life. But what did she want from getting closer to me?
Just then I saw something move in the shadows beside the curtain. The beams from the sun made it difficult to focus beyond the light. It was blinding just like the Mistress. But there she was staring through my soul with her own soul. As she moved closer to me her necklace caught the light. As I struggled to get up to run, she threw me against the wall and pinned me down by my throat. Her grip was strong. “My my oh my, now we can finally have a formal reintroduction,” she said as she laughed. “The sheer fact of knowing my husband was fucking you kept me barren and sick, childless and unmotherly...” She pressed against my neck, gradually blocking my breathing, then she swallowed hard and held back tears. Her eyes got darker and blood tears began to stream down her face as I gasped for air and my body jerked. The room got blurry and her voice got rough as her aura began to shift. I could taste the sorrow and dreadful misery that made up her eighteenth-century white womanhood climbing down my throat like a sandstorm in a desert. She was possessing me. My body was to be her slave once again. I could feel my consciousness tighten and fall back, making space for her intrusion. My body: a vessel for her own immortality, a Machine.
I was smacked in the middle of a sugarcane plantation. The hot sun was beating on my back. Sweat running down the sides of my face. The world in a sugarcane field looked the same at every corner. Negroes everywhere. Cutting sugarcane. Whips beating Black skin. Blood. Screams. Sunset. Massuh touching me up. Sleep was miniscule. Same damn pattern everyday. This was a loop, not a life. I had to find a glimmer of salvation. But what? I told myself, “LOOK UP JISTIS while Massuh is distracted. What do you see baby girl?” I see broken souls, ghosts of the past, present, and future. All their faces, erased. Bodies mechanical. “Try again!” I demanded of myself.
“Who do you see? What do you see?”
That sun hat looks familiar, I thought. Shouting the word “Gwanmanman” made time stop. It was nice to see her familiar face look up from the sugarcane. “How are you here?” I mouthed. “I have been looking everywhere for you,” she mouthed back as she made her way closer. When she came close enough, she whispered with a mix of sadness and happiness, “My child, oh how I’ve missed you.” “I missed you too mawmaw,” I replied as tears dripped down my face, becoming one with my sweat. As she wiped away my tears she gently informed me, “Sometimes in order to go forward, we must go back.” She further explained, “You’ve had many past lives my child, this is not the only one.” I slowly began to catch on. “Gwanmanman, this explains the loop I have been living in!” I said in deep realization. “Indeed, baby girl, and you must recognize this wretched existence of enslavement as an interruption to our true and complete Indigenous African presence upon this earth.”
I AM my ancestors, I thought. This recognition felt so warm and fuzzy, like a calm fire burning within me. My thoughts echoed into the universe as if I had said them out loud. The world began to convulse and my sight was altered by an odd intensifying pixelated view of life on the plantation surrounding me…
“SHIT! She’s waking up! Quick, retrieve the tranquilizer! She knows too much!” one man panicked.
“Doctor, I thought you said that the mental collapse is enough to—”
“I said what I said, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t loopholes. The computer simulation program is soon to be updated with a hardware that restricts awakening and we will soon be able to resolve the issue,” he said as he adjusted the incubator on my brain. “Come next year, 2050, we can…” His voice faded out as my ears started to ring.
Restricts “awakening”? Year 2050? As my eyes fluttered open, bright lights burned my sight. Once I was able to see beyond the light I could see that I was in what looked like a laboratory. Millions of see-through cubicles existed beyond the glass walls that surrounded me. Doctors in a frenzy. Blood splattered all over the glass levels, floors, and walls, tools flew everywhere, and Black people were breaking free. What was going on? As I twisted my head to look around I saw straps holding down all four of my limbs and my blood streamed from a needle in my forearm into a nearby machine. What were they doing to me? I was way too weak but I knew I had to try to fight it.
Just then, a white woman entered the cube. “Is my fertility injection ready?” she inquired. *GASP* Mistress?
I started to pull and tug at the table violently and one of the doctors proceeded to hold me down, but before he could stab his fat needle into my neck, a single bullet shot exited the Mistress’s forehead. My eyes widened in disbelief. As her body hit the floor, Priscilla’s presence with a firm grip on a gun was revealed in her place. The doctors’ bodies hit the floor just as quickly.
“PRISCILLA!” I shouted excitedly.
“Priscilla, what is going on?” “GURL!!!” she sighed and continued, “No time to explain sis, we have to run or we may never get another chance to break free.” As she cut me loose before running off, we paused. Our tears of joy bound our hug in the midst of the chaos. It wasn’t long before a loud siren went off and lights flickered red throughout the building, reminding us to get our legs moving. And just like that our search for a door to freedom in these winding glass halls transitioned us from ghosts in a machine to fugitives of the future.The essay “The Real Ghosts in The Machine” by Ricardo Guthrie inspired the title of this short story. The ghostly intimacies that Jistis, the protagonist, encounters during her reincarnation, hauntedness, and computer simulation is illuminated by the metaphor that is “the ghost in the machine.” This is intensified by the ways in which Jistis’s positionality as a Black person, more specifically an Afro-Caribbean woman, is implicated and rendered ghostly in the machine that is whiteness and colonialism in the different temporalities (past, present, and future) that she experiences throughout the story. Jistis’s soul represents the “many ways [in which] race fills … space as yet another ‘ghost’ in the machine.” "The Real Ghosts in the Machine: Afrofuturism and the Haunting of Racial Space in I, Robot and Detropia," in Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-blackness, ed. Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones (Lanham: Lexington, 2016), 47.
From what I knew, Wang Ying had sleek black hair pulled back with grease, mostly appearing with a centre part and a sideways glance. And when her glance entered my field of vision, I would no longer feel my feet beat upon the road. In my darkness, only she would respond to my call.
My name is Hua and my first break as an actress came along this dark road. I was eleven years old and had survived my family, was mortally alone and my brain was doing tai chi underwater. Having worn various masks throughout my career, I realize my only aspiration ever was to be closer to Ying.
A Shanghai-based actress from the 1930s, she first made her name playing roles in films such as Goddess of Freedom (1935) and Sai Jinhua (1936). She won the latter role over the future Madame Mao, who would persecute her in the Cultural Revolution. In prison, Ying was called Prisoner Number 6742. When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke, she toured in China with a politically charged street theatre troupe. The play list included Put Down Your Whip. Outside of films, she also appeared in paintings.
For this edition of Put Down Your Whip, Ying had prepared a weathered snakeskin whip and a sash of sturdy red silk. They lay on a bed of green lawn, which happened to be the most irrigated crop of the whole United States. I couldn't discern why these objects would choose to lie beside each other outside of one being a tool to enact pain and the other, pleasure. Once upon a time, both the whip and sash were more animate, invested in the bodies of slender desert snakes and fat mulberry-eating worms.
Ying finally arrives with a much older man. A small crowd of men in suits are gathered here today, one of them President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. Ying was introduced to him and ended up here—the first Chinese actress to perform for an American president. From the second lives of snakes and silkworms, the study of ethnic specimens experienced a migration to Ying’s body.
With intention, she extends her right leg, pointing her toe toward the White House. Arching her back, her arms reach beyond her head like a feline with cramps. As she barely holds on to gravity’s temptation, I imagine her succeeding in these acrobatics. She was a fast-falling painting. If we followed her toe’s line, we would end up inside the White House.
Ying stumbles onto the green, and jumps back up again gripping the red silk sash. Ying plummets to the earth. Snap, goes the old man’s whip. We cry out, but only Ying’s mouth makes a sound.
It was broad daylight when they received the call. She had been declared missing since 1954, only to turn up in Hong Kong in 2007. This rare sighting cost an anonymous collector 11.7 million Canadian dollars.
The collector has his two arms raised at a ninety-degree angle to the rest of his body. His wrists are limp and his hands superfluous. From 1954 to 2007, he possessed the oil-rendered portrait of Ying with the red silk sash in Put Down Your Whip. Xu Beihong painted it and the work was the most expensive Chinese painting ever sold at that time.
Ying could render herself transparent and opaque at will. I always suspect that the Mingxing Studio, most active in the 1930s, rolled up her skin when they packed her bags to the United States, relegating her to a life of disappearance and reappearance through media.
Ying told me that from 1956 to 2009, there were 78 mentions of the painted skin in the People’s Daily. These types of painted skin took the form of political forgeries, the whole USSR, and product scams. The term came from an eighteenth-century story published in a collection called Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1740). In Pu Songling’s tale of “The Painted Skin,” there was a beautiful woman, a Daoist priest, a foolish scholar, and arguably, his foolish wife. The foolish scholar falls in love with the beautiful woman, who later reveals herself to be a horrible demon. No one knows what she was after.
The Daoist priest ends up attacking the demon. The demon puffs up in black smoke and the priest rolls up her skin. I imagine the priest trying her skin on at home, as he avoids the black smoke of future pollutants. The scholar’s wife sacrifices herself to save the foolish scholar’s soul. Years later, university types would react in outrage, wondering why she would save that worthless man.
The painted skin is an empty vessel. It is something a demon can put on and take off. It always takes the form of a beautiful woman hiding dark sorcery. And it is the boundary between a reality governed by physics and that of the supernatural. Usually, we think of painted skin as white female skin, like the body of Scarlett Johansson. Notably, she plays an empty vessel in Lucy, Ghost in the Shell, and Under the Skin. Johansson is the Keanu Reeves of our times.
The collector had the pleasure of rolling up the canvas of Ying’s image to prepare for transport. A successful hunter, he would display his find to an elite few. Who else desires to roll up Ying’s skin?
The feminized stars floated above the parquet floor, as if they had strong magnets embedded in their feet repelling them upwards. They gazed about in sophisticated makeup masks with fine silks hung on their bodies. Sparkling in diamonds and jewellery, each starlet shone brighter than the last. Foreign dignitaries littered throughout the social provided sheets of negative space in their black and white suits.
Ying arrives in a neck-to-ankle jacket, cut in thick velour. Her gaze follows the length of her arm as she peels off her outermost skin. Underneath, she is wearing naught but a crude blue cloth. Silence descends like mythical locusts, scattered at first and totalizing at last. No one dares meet her gaze except for Ai Xia. Reportedly, she was the first Chinese actress to have committed suicide. Later, her death inspired the film New Women (1935), starring Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide as well soon after the film’s release.
If I were to build Ying a museum, I would fill it with her nail clippings and loose hairs. All the refuse of a manicured film star I could transform to a meaningful existence as entrails. There would be an audio guide. It would tell the tale of Ying’s life from beginning to finish, from genesis to revelations. As there are barely any photographs left of her, we would work from other images. I would program newspaper plays based off her writing as a political columnist, and imagine the fury of Madame Mao at having the misfortune of being the acting rival of a face that held eyes of ground ink.
Ying asked, “How many hearts and how many brains one must have, just so to be alive in China, to be alive as an ordinary Chinese, to bear the cross of the times?” With a crude blue cloth to go ballroom dancing, Ying divided herself into live action films and stills. As the pathway between what were the separated worlds of nature and supernatural, her skin enveloped her. It was too difficult to make it as a human.
In these four vignettes, cruising and space-time are connected by spectrality. In both the form and content of this essay I hope to model an ethics of haunted cruising in which the ghost (the undead revenant as well as the ghosts of colonialism) is the figure of the uncanny space and the untimely rhythms of cruising. We do not cruise in spaces with total agency and self-possession, for we are cruised by spaces themselves, which have their own disturbing magnetisms and seductions.
Figures of Cruising in Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn shows us that history never says what it wants of us; its ghosts are never so explicit. An ethics of haunted cruising demands attunement to the minute gestures, sometimes imperceptible, of the history of a space and its inhabitants. The slowness of Tsai’s camerawork opens this possibility in the visual field, allowing our gaze to cruise the screen and its details to cruise our attention in turn.
Cruising is an eroticized sensing of space. The layout of the long shot gives us access to the goings-on of the cruising ground. Extending down a diagonal line of depth, the viewer has visual access to three zones in the ecosystem of cruising: the bathroom stalls, behind which cruising is “consummated” (and we are startled when a hand reaches out to close a stall door a long minute after the other cruiser has already left, making time feel discontinuous); the sink and the exit door, which constitute the border demarcating cruising’s territory; and the urinals, the prime site of cruising’s manoeuvres. Individual desire circulates in this space, notably so in the second man (whom we shall call, as shorthand, the “protagonist”); but as viewers we are treated to a geometric matrix of desire’s drift, interpersonal but also—insofar as it makes a network with wood, fluorescence, ceramic, the sound of water—non-human. Cinema dissects for us the hyperawareness of spacing that is central to cruising: the intention-laden space between three bodies compressed at the urinals asymmetrical against three consecutively empty urinals; the personal space intruded upon when the man reaches over the vulnerable pissing man to grab his cigarettes from the countertop. The fluid schematics of desire are traced onto, and etched into, those more static objects of the space, offering us an impressionistic cartography of cruising.
Cruising is durational. The temporality of cruising is waiting. When cruising in the public sphere people find an activity that covers for their cruising: an implausibly long piss, or a two-minute handwashing session. Tsai’s meditative shots translate cruising into cinematic form: we sweep the scene and install ourselves among these patient surveyors. In Tsai’s mise en scène, the cigarette becomes the object that expresses each cruiser’s idiorrhythmy: the pace and beat of their unique experience of time, of breath. Waiting is cruising’s mode of chronomorphosis: bending time out of shape and away from cause-and-effect progressions. This temporality is distinct from the cruising that occurs in spaces specifically designed for anonymous sex, such as the bathhouse or the strip club, where the music sets a regular rhythm and dictates the speed of the space, dragging the cruiser’s tempo in its tow.
Cruising is the negotiation of the awkwardness of asymmetrical contact. In the bathroom scene, not once is a glance exchanged; one party looks upon another body while that body pretends to be preoccupied. When the protagonist finally approaches the consummation of cruising with the Japanese man under the guise of needing a light for his cigarette, eye contact is made but desires pass each other entirely by. Cruising is the negotiation of this awkward imbalance, and what distinguishes master from amateur is how gracefully they handle desire’s duds and flops.
Cruising is a matter of death. Tsai wants us to take the ghost literally. Amidst all the surface movements of ordinary life, the film throws us a dramatic twist when the handsome Japanese man tells our protagonist “你知道这戏有鬼” (You know… there are ghosts here?), a question inflected as though it is a matter-of-fact statement. This revelation opens a rift in the film's reality. As the film never tells us who the ghosts are, nor what any of the characters are cruising for, it leaves the entire epistemological surface of the film suspended in ambiguity. By unseating our epistemological certainty (for surely in our spectatorship it’s not odd to assume characters are alive) this utterance doubly recasts how we watch the film. First, it makes all characters flicker in the ambiguous half-light of are they ghosts or are they not. If the ghost is understood as a forceful post-mortem attachment to space (we imagine that these ghosts are cinephiles melancholically attached to the dilapidated theatre), then the ghost figures history’s haunting, its self-remaking as a palimpsest of traces of the past and present: nothing is fully lost, nothing is fully there. Second, it reinstates the death that was always fundamental to the act of cruising: death concealed in the legacy of disease vectors, but also our mutual exposure to the possibility of each other’s violence. In his own cheeky, understated way, Tsai asks us to take the ghost seriously as what is neither irretrievably lost nor properly accounted for in the official records of history.
Barthes in Morocco: Cruising Coloniality
Roland Barthes, the twentieth-century French semiologist, lush stylist, and consummate aesthete, offers us a verbose counterpoint to Tsai’s reticent images: here I stage their incongruous encounter. I had read Barthes with the utmost devotion for half a decade, and when I came upon his cruising diaries, I swallowed them up wholesale, orientalism and all, too deeply identified with his gaze to pay enough attention to how he turned bodies of colour into ghosts, unreflexively phasing them out of history. As a colonial artifact, Barthes’s diaries are a matrix of attractions (desire’s spectral identifications) and repulsions (colonialism’s willful blindnesses).
1969, Morocco. In the pages of the posthumous diary-essay collection, Incidents (1987), Barthes cruises for the love of hustlers; money enters the scene of cruising. Where sex happens it’s mediated by Barthes’s particular intellection, beholden to the erotics of meaning as any lover of signs must be: “I enjoy Amidou’s vocabulary: dream and burst for get an erection and have an orgasm. Burst is vegetal, scattering, disseminating, not moralistic, narcissistic, closed off.”Roland Barthes, Incidents, trans. Richard Howard (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992), 29.
Barthes brings out cruising’s erotics of the nuance even as he spectralizes the ghostly figures of the boys who are spoken for. He draws a private delight out of the Moroccan boys’ awkward French-as-a-second-language semantics; he translates their speech into his own systems of desire. As a reader, I am aroused by the clipped textual condensations of sex—“Mustafa is in love with his cap. He won’t take it off to make love”Ibid., 19.—and charmed by Barthes’s writing, which makes these incidents (incidents: a euphemism for paying for sex) into spectral traces, faint afterthoughts of cum on soil.
Raised in stark relief throughout are the power relations that mark the difference between the white man of means who cruises, and the Moroccan boys being cruised. The boys’ agency and desire become an effaced spectral trace, unreadable beyond how they are codified by the context of culture and religion—a culture that is trespassed by Barthes’s sex tourism. As a trained semiologist, Barthes is unmatched at understanding the furtive codes that appear in cruising (a furtiveness lost in the heterosexual context, which never needs to develop an underground shadow-language); he lets the world cruise him with generosity and openness to its miniature surprises. But much as he takes delight in little missed translations of signification, and in the gestures of the boys who transport him away from oppressive environments of Paris, he fails to consider the knotty colonial power that allows him those pleasures in the first place; he consigns those boys to spectral representations, outlined by colonial force.
Ten years later, it is cruising that will make Barthes give up on desire, never having learned the lesson about trying to pay for what he wants (love) by buying the wrong thing (sex). In this scene, Oliver is the indifferent “last” hustler in Barthes’s cruising diaries: “Then I sent him away, saying I had work to do, knowing it was over, and that more than Olivier was over: the love of one boy.”Ibid., 59. Hyperaware of his aging body, hustling fails to satisfy Barthes’s despair over his encroaching and absolute unloveability. (Perhaps despite myself, I empathize with his misery.) It is Barthes himself who has become a ghost to the hustlers, recognizable (as a man of means; as the master of a financial transaction) but no longer seen by the light of love (love being that which exits the considerations of any economy). Unlike the hapless protagonist in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, cruising for Barthes is wrapped up in the power of money that makes it easy for him to consummate a cruise, but it cannot fulfil the desire for the amorous commitment that is not achievable through economic exchange. We are left to answer the question in our own ethical practices: how can we pursue Barthes’s erotic attention to spatial and cultural details without losing sight of the systems that define and delimit our erotic investments?
Learning from Bathhouses
I cruise in a Taiwanese bathhouse, startled by the flatness of my desire while surrounded by the sight of all these bodies that looked like mine. It was here in this mirror maze that the whiteness of my desire was laid bare, rooted in reams of history: my accelerated assimilation at age four into the Western world, and a whole diet of culture that fronted the sexiness, and sexual power, of white bodies. Here was an internalized racism whose expression was not self-hatred but self-indifference: desire could find no purchase in bodies “like mine,” and even this invocation of likeness indicated a foreclosure performed on the grounds of race: do not look too much like me to fuck.
To be haunted by your own body, the body you’ve carved away from yourself through a powerful turn of abstraction, blanching, bleaching, repressing what you know too well is already open for all to see.
The bathhouses in Toronto I always visit with a close friend. The thrill of transgression lies in the attempt to bring intimacy into a place whose express purpose is primarily grinding sex out, this shared intent nearly machinic. A different sense of homelessness pervades here (in the city I call home where people ask me “where I’m from”); I feel unmoored from the tendernesses that sustain my living. I make a provisional list of semiotic codes operative at the bathhouse. States of being: at rest and open to sex (reclining, but wide awake); at rest and closed to sex (sleeping); restless (cruising for a thing desired or for desire itself); touching oneself; fucking or about to fuck; cleaning oneself. Above all, a profound boredom, the hypnotic circulation of passing and repeating bodies that grazes the sublime.
Taking The River Back to Dragon Inn
In Tsai’s 1997 film The River, father and son both visit the bathhouse seeking reprieve from the banality of their family life. One night, their desires overlap—in the same room, with each other:
This is as close as Tsai comes to spectacle, and this vision of cruising—filmed such as the bodies are flecks of illumination in an otherwise abstract pitch-darkness—is the antithesis to the expansive spaces of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. In this scene, in this momentary burst of corporeal comfort, both father and son seem possessed by each other, fucking with total abandon, yet held apart by a blacked-out distance of a non-recognition soon to be disintegrated. Instead of the geographically mapped diagram of cruising’s zones: a formless void renders the father and son in a sealed and unanchored space. In place of the cover of anonymity that allows cruisers to go unidentified, unnamed: an intense recognition that re-establishes kinship at its most fundamental level, that is, the familial in its uncanny form as incest. Sometimes what haunts you in your spaces of pleasure is too alive, too close to you. Not only does cruising slip away from attempts at defining its essence, it is also capable of inverting into the very scenarios and subject positions it tries to escape.
The violence at the end of this River scene—the father towering over his collapsed son, his seething anger, the impossibility of avowing what has just taken place—reminds us that, of course, power differentials both subtle and explicit exist even in lieu of the casual colonialism that characterizes Barthes’s diaries. Cruising is no such utopic vacuum of relationality outside power. As the movie theatre in Goodbye, Dragon Inn closes for good, the operator of the theatre attempts one last time to catch the attention of the projectionist by gifting him with a half bun, peach shaped, almost explicitly the symbol of romantic love à la Aristophanes. We watch her watch him leave with the bun, and then leave alone in the rain, to the sounds of Yao Lee’s 留恋 (Nostalgia): it’s half bitter, it’s half sweet, year after year. The spectral cruising that explodes the heart of the film boils over into the world outside the theatre and then into our everyday sociality. Cruising is the haunted figure of the missed connection, the tempo that stumbles out of sync, the ordinary unevenness of desire. We learn from Barthes that to expect romantic affirmation and amorous unity in cruising is to make space for your own disappointment. We learn from Tsai that, despite—or rather because of—its disappointments, failures, and foibles, cruising names the practice of attuning oneself to the strange desire-lines that cross the scene of a space and its time.
The large building you see in this photograph is a mall located in Casablanca, Morocco. The complex known as the Casablanca Twin CenterThe building was commissioned by a private corporation; the Groupe ONA (Omnium Nord Africain). Founded in 1919 by the powerful French businessman Jean Épinat, the conglomerate played a crucial part in the consolidation of French colonial authority in Morocco. In 1980, ONA was bought by the Moroccan royal family and merged in 2010 with the monarchy-operated SNI (Société Nationale d’Investissement).was inaugurated in 1999 and stood only a few blocks away from my childhood home.
I don’t have any memories of the towers prior to the events of 9/11.
For almost two decades, and until conducting factual research for the purpose of this piece, I strongly believed that the mall had been inaugurated in September of 2001, on the same week as the World Trade Center attacks.
The twins always emerge abruptly in my recollections. They are built swiftly, overnight. As a child, I may have ignored their existence because I found them ugly and it may have taken the overwhelming emotional and political impact of 9/11, and the subsequent war on Afghanistan, for me to start seeing them.
Most importantly, preceding 9/11, I did not know of the existence of the New York World Trade Center itself.
But I remember this. Following the attacks, I took on studying the World Trade Center at a local cyber-café. The American towers glimmered, as if silver-forged, and commanded. I learned that they were over 540 metres high. These numbers, as well as the plethora of panoramic photographs that supported their claim, rendered our twins, with their mere 115 metres, petty, maquette-like and irrelevant.
A second inauguration
Following 9/11, Casablanca’s towers ceased to live as mere replicas, which is probably why I started seeing them and took interest in their story. With the disappearance of the skyscrapers they were modeled after, Casablanca’s twins had to disappear as well. They also had to come back, casting upon their return a much larger shadow. They wore their sisters’ stigma and threatened in their stead. It was common understanding that this ubiquitous association had turned them into standing menaces and prime targets for potential terrorist attacks. The mall was cursed and Moroccans take curses very seriously.
For most of the first decade of its existence,The city’s relationship to the towers has developed considerably since. They now harbour a luxury hotel and several businesses. That being said, the complex has never ceased to cause fear and disquiet.the building’s basement and ground floor were the only sections accessible to the general public. A number of businesses had decided to opt out of the complex while many among the city’s population dreaded walking into the building. When they did, either out of curiosity or necessity, they never stayed too long within its walls. They also knew well enough that they weren’t missing out. Except for a gloomy supermarket located in the basement, the few luxury stores that remained open were beyond the means of the average visitor. Deserted, the place felt like a brand-new ruin, too white and too clean, odd and hollow, which is maybe why teenagers were drawn to it. The towers had a frightful kind of hospitality to offer them, one that amplified the thrill found in skipping class, and welcomed several episodes of adolescent (and often working-class) intimacy. This was a novelty. For decades, American cinema had been feeding us images of rebellious white youths wandering in suburban malls and, there it was, our very first mall, the pride of Africa.
But this accomplishment, far from triumphant and prideful, had a bitter cost, at once economic and spiritual. It cost us our future. As a teenager, I believed I was looking at monuments to subaltern belatedness when in reality the towers actualized the idea of futurelessness.I derive this term from an excerpt of French orientalist Alphonse de Lamartine’s Voyage en Orient (1835) in which colonial subjects are said to be “futureless.” Edward W. Saïd, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2003 ), 178.
And indeed, it was easy to feel futureless facing the twins while navigating an increasingly merciless neoliberal economic climate in a time of globalized war.
But futurelessness is assigned, not chosen. It is the place you are sent when your future is confiscated. To be futureless is to live like a lonely ghost and to be instructed that you have nowhere else to go, and no one to travel with.For many, the endeavour of migration often seems like the only way out of this state.
Most importantly, futurelessness is a façade. It demands more than monuments and dwells in constructs of its own, ruins that require constant maintenance through the deployment of violence.
With the Bush administration announcing the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, student riots erupted across the Muslim world and Morocco was no exception. My own school, Chawki’s High School for Girls, had the special misfortune of facing Casablanca’s Central Police Station. When on a grey morning we announced a general strike and decided to occupy the facilities, a substantial riot squad showed up almost immediately at our steps (they basically crossed the street). Beatings took place outside the closed gates while teenage girls held their school like a fortress. We threw chairs and tables at the cops over a tall fence from which the twin towers could be seen and ultimately, those of us who escaped ended up hanging out on the steps of the mall. I’d never seen anything like that before, such angst in a moment of collective clarity–and yet the next day classes resumed as per usual.
Today I understand this: we rebelled because we wanted all of our futures back. The mall was no refuge, we were (we are still) the refuge.
Beyond providing Casablanca’s young with a deserted mall to hide in, the economic fiasco of the towers delivered concrete proof that repeating Western ways meant carrying (into the future) the potentiality of Western demise. For every time you laid eyes on the twins, the prospect of progress through imitation was instantly canceled, it collapsed. The towers themselves collapsed. When they seemed to stand, they only did so as an elaborate joke, as a pied de nez to capitalism. If we looked at them hard enough, we could see that Morocco’s independence was never completely achieved. We saw an ever-collapsing structure. Ever-collapsing because the scope of devastation called for by colonial ventures is so totalizing that it is always met by resistance, hence unachievable. But also because whenever questioned as arbitrary, whenever subjected to deconstruction, colonial canons and structures are swiftly, but never completely, put back together. The maintenance of white supremacy is above all a (utopian) process of perpetual restoration. This statement isn’t meant to seem hopeless or resigned. When I say ever-collapsing, there is a moment of lucidity dwelling between the two words “ever” and “collapsing,” as well as a margin of manoeuvre. Every short-circuit suffered by the continuum of white supremacy is an opportunity to break away from its narrative, making possible other ways of relating to knowledge, to the Earth, to the future, and to each other.
A future that happened in the past
In her 1974 essay Visão do Esplendor, Clarice Lispector remembers her visits to a freshly inaugurated Brasilia. In her recollections, the futuristic metropolis is genderless, unreal to the point of being uninhabitable, beautiful and frightening at once. Lispector’s Brasilia “is a future that happened in the past,Clarice Lispector, “Vision of Splendor” (Visão do Esplendor), in The Complete Stories (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2015), 582.the city is already haunted, carrying mnemonic traces of the millennium to come. She writes, “In the year 2000, there will be a celebration here.”Ibid.She also writes, “I wouldn’t be shocked to run into Arabs in the street. Arabs, ancient and dead.”Ibid., 575.
In this passage, the aforementioned Arabs aren’t necessarily Arabs. The Brown ghosts encountered by Lispector may be simply, and unknowingly, ambassadors of all that she isn’t; they live by (and for) contrast. Their seemingly odd invocation is absolutely indispensable as it renders evident the specificity of utopia as a white progress-driven construct. These Arabs are the ruins that make the future possible–and futurity, in its totalizing modern-colonial expression, demands a spectral other. In fact it cannot do without a spectral other. But there is more to it: futureless in a futuristic place, these diasporic ghosts exist in Brasilia, but only as ancestors. I have immense sympathy for them, as I too understand what it is to show up unannounced and be greeted like an ancient. The University has never failed to make me feel this way,The University is nonetheless “a place of refuge” (conditional refuge) that leaves us with no choice but to “abuse its hospitality.” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2013), 26.nor did Casablanca’s twin towers.
Ricardo Bofill, the Spanish architect behind the design of the mall, deemed it perfectly reasonable to sell the concept of a smaller duplicate of the World Trade Center to an African nation. But why is that, when he could have created something site-specific and completely new? The answer exceeds the simple argument of plagiarism or even that of laziness. It is precisely because the New York twin towers were understood as canonical that the need to re-enact them was felt. We, Moroccans, were the ruins that made the future (Bofill’s future) possible. In this situation, as often happens, the architect was merely instructing a Third-World population on progress. As a recipient of this education, you are taught and then erased, erased and then taught, and your removal from the future is at once the prerequisite and the outcome of this process. The canon can only operate as long as it is a spectralizing instance.
Where do we go? Intimacy as survival.
I am grateful today for the failure of Casablanca’s twin towers. They have ceased to haunt me as they did for years, and maybe it is me who now haunts them.
In Western culture a clear distinction is made between the ghost and the spectre. The ghost is a potentially vengeful acquaintance from the past. As a known unknown, the ghost is fearsome exactly because it is supposed to be gone (unseen) for good. The spectre is, unlike the ghost, expected; it is defined as “the idea of something unpleasant that might happen in the future”“Spectre,” Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017).(this is when we ask: unpleasant to whom?). The ghost shows up unannounced while the spectre hovers, looms ahead. The ghost returns from the past (or maybe it simply decides to stay) while the spectre keeps arriving from the future. These distinctions are necessary to the maintenance of the canon as they are drawn to justify the policing of the past and the future into a steady succession of presents.For Jacques Derrida, it is the encounter with the spectral that allows for doubt in the face of the reassuring succession of presents. Spectres de Marx : L'état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale (Paris, Galilée, 1993), 72.They make knowledge adhere to time in a certain way, one that forbids the mobility of the said spectral or ghostly entities and one that is incompatible with the ways of hospitality.
When operating outside of the canon, there is no need to tell ghosts and spectres apart. This is when Lispector’s Arabs are received as friends into the reader’s intimacy.
But what would it mean to mobilize hospitality as methodology? Where do we go? How do we encounter the certainty of Indigenous and diasporic survival everywhere and at all times? Maybe the shape of study to come is as much decanonizing as it is decolonizing. We are already (our own) ancestors and we are already out of time. Our forced removal from the contemporary is no curse as it allows for the study of self-determined time travel technologies and the perfecting of hauntological shape-shifting. Simultaneously, this means exceeding white understandings of contemporaneity and intimacy alike through the acts of welcoming our ancestors and ourselves (as ancestors) into the future.
with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowningOcean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2016), 8.
When we thought of Viet Nam, we always suspected that it was more than an origin. We felt that there was no transparent trajectory from the homeland to us. We knew our parents had arrived and are still arriving through a devouring ocean, through holding hands with ghosts of the war.
Viet Nam is known as “the theater of wars and destructions,”Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Elsewhere, within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (New York: Routledge, 2011), 19.as a narrative of loss.Lan P. Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), 6.
A woman interviews my parents about the war for a film project. She is trying to document a victim story, but somehow it feels off. My parents tell her about how they each left the homeland one night and talk about the wrongs that were inflicted on them. I am not sure if I am supposed to be in the living room. Soon after witnessing this narrative of loss, I notice the shape of others in our daily life. My mother talks about sweet little nothings and those left behind.
For a while I just kept replaying this image and wanted to treat it as a referent. Here is where my father’s life altered, and so my life began. Still, there is more to this image than an originary event that I cannot bear witness to. The image feels like an echo, traversing public and personal experiences, surrounded by disaster and grief. Out of a felt concern for this image, I attune to the reality of this grief.
Does being haunted mean feeling this state of overwhelming grief? We try to imagine all the deaths that birthed our existence in the Vietnamese diaspora, and realize we can never give them a worthy funeral. What would have happened had our homeland not felt so defeated by the war and not flung itself into a strange communist capitalist society model?
If allowed to stay together, I told my aunt, we could have incorporated ourselves into a respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, … sufficiently collective to elect our own representative to the Congress and have a voice in our America, a Little Saigon as delightful, delirious, and dysfunctional as the original, which was exactly why we were not allowed to stay together but were instead dispersed by bureaucratic fiat to all the longitudes and latitudes of our new world.Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2015), 69.
Before Paris by Night decided to head for total entertainment and become the live show musical that it is known as today, it featured lengthy sequences of Viet Nam before the war. These briefly resurfaced for the thirtieth anniversary episode, opened by Khánh Ly.Paris By Night 77: 30 Năm Viễn Xứ, produced by Thúy Nga, 2005.As she was singing, I saw that my mother was crying. It was only then that the war coincided with her silence.
We spent long nights consuming nationalistic images of the army and labouring women, sentimental images of water and earth, interspersed with melancholic exile songs.
Somehow the conversation had taken a turn from Saigon and songs to the fall of Saigon, which was not surprising. Most of the songs the exiles listened to were soaked in melancholic, romantic loss, which could not help but remind them of the loss of their city. Every conversation about Saigon eventually became a song about the fall of Saigon and the fate of those left behind. They’re dead, Bon now said.Nguyen, The Sympathizer, 243.
There is something so crucial that it is in the now, that Bon asserts how those left behind are dead. Perhaps here lies a difference between nostalgia and melancholy. Both express a desire to connect with the past. However, nostalgia operates under the assumption that the past is cut off from the present and can be retrieved. Melancholy is feeling the past as present and simultaneously feeling it as loss. A melancholic knows they will never get what they desire and it is this fact that causes them grief. We know we cannot ask for boats to devour oceans. We know that some of our ancestors were not only denied a worthy funeral, they also disappeared in the fissures of history. They died twice.
Two living rooms in a state of grief
Bà nội and I are walking in a market. The cheap plastic bag that she is carrying embarrasses me. How she differs from the crowd makes me feel even more different. A few years later, I cannot make it to her funeral. My father tells me the living room is full of flowers. I cannot bring myself to face this image. And so through my shame, she dies again.
On the night of the US elections I stay up late, and as I attune to grief I am drawn into the colours of Bà nội’s disappearance. She is with me, and I devote labour to carving out a space for her in the present. This year I write about carrying ideals in a cheap plastic bag and surround myself with flowers. I invite her to my living room.
Still, inviting Bà nội to our living room does not resolve the haunting. A narrative of loss is not reclaimed when we replay our loss as a narrative of appearance. Haunting incites a dangerous documentary impulse that reproduces the logic of knowing and not knowing. We should be suspicious of the images that promise an impossible presence and pretend to stitch the fissures of history together.
Ghosts thwart dreams of innocence, amnesiac legacies of freedom, and failed promises of equality. Ghosts point us to the context of their deaths which is always connected to “a something that must be done.”Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 168.
Simultaneously ghosts refuse to be mere witnesses of a new history. It is not as if past wrongs can be restored when we repeat the image within a victim story. We must avoid the naive endeavor to reclaim a “native” Viet Nam counter-narrative. Instead we elicit our complicity and question the Vietnamese dream: we confront national nostalgia, anti-communist convictions, and the classist obsession with France. We remember how the war killed three million Laotians and Cambodians.
Listening to ghosts means choosing care over both ignorance and innocence.
This care veers us to “a loss that is truly inarticulable between mother and daughter—a loss that extends beyond inevitable, expected parent-child losses to whole cultural, national, and historical losses that the mother has herself endured, is herself barely processing, and has in fact passed on to the daughter.”Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 86.
A melancholic feels a mother’s grief as a narrative of maternal-material offerings. Melancholy and matrilineage coincide: they emphasize a desire for sensuous knowledge.Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 205.Let us embrace the imaginations that are neither essential nor illusional, and witness how women relay life.
As much as haunting can render us full of grief, it is within this haunting that we share an intimacy with the dead and form a community. In clinging to us, ghosts make their shadows fall upon our ego. We realize we are not alone.
I could not believe what I did when the camp official called out my family’s name. I ran out to the beach in no time to soak up myself. I screamed and I told my mother, who died on the fourth day when our boat was hit by a storm, that we were accepted to go to Canada. Then, I thought I heard her voice from the bottom of the sea telling me that she was happy too … She must have done something right for us …Lawrence Lam, From Being Uprooted to Surviving: Resettlement of Vietnamese-Chinese “Boat People” in Montreal, 1980-1990 (Toronto: York Lanes press, Inc., 1996), 92.
Ghosts invite us to talk to the sea and to think of our agency as communal agency. When we finally let go of the futile isolation of a singular identity, we trace the echoes within us and the colours surrounding us.
A mother singing a melancholic song in the living room
Words refuse to elucidate
Their clans of urgent meaning
After they kiss each other goodbye—
They disperse into a field of nonsense
Or into a cliche
Many words enter a queue
Collaborate with one another
To form an allegiance
Of melancholyVi Khi Nao, The Old Philosopher (New York: Nightboat Books, 2016), 63.
If we are willing to listen, we hear in the silence of labouring women the disarticulated grief, and can imagine a tear in the world.
In Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) we are offered an insight into women’s pleasures of storytelling. First, the women perform a reconstructive narrative “as women in socialist Viet Nam, as women in the diaspora, and as women subjects interpellated by both nation and community.”Duong, Treacherous Subjects, 135.Strange and partial translations of their heavily accented voices displace any desire for a referent. The camera plays with our impulse to look at a speaking mouth and lingers on moving hands and shadows instead. After, Trinh T. Minh-ha interviews the women as they critique their performance of memory. Haunting insists on subjects that betrayIbid., 2–3.hetero-patriarchal discourses, sing into silence, and collaborate to make meaning and sentiment converge.
Trinh states: “Interview: an antiquated device of documentary. Truth is selected, renewed, displaced, and speech is always tactical.”Ibid., 128.
She does not disregard the idea of an interview, rather she emphasizes that the interview form is suspicious and fractured. Daughters do not seek a truth, rather, they desire to articulate a difference.
Perhaps resistance needs to be located not outside of a cultural relay (that is simply not possible ...) but rather within that relay …Cheng, The Melancholy of Race, 159.
Nationalist histories try to suppress the shadows of those left behind so that we stay dispersed. If we allow the hurting-healing, we will feel how images breathe both disappearance and appearance. Tensions between public and private narratives should not cease. We must align “all the fantasmatic attachments inevitable in any act of reconstruction,”Ibid., 145.and twirl around what can be seen as real.
A melancholic gathers the fragments and resists referentiality. She honours the relay: fragments are surrounded by what can be only felt and never simply known.
Haunting points at a wavering present that desires our care. Ghosts demand our refusal to side with either the living or the dead. We see that the state of overwhelming grief does not ask us to kiss our ancestors goodbye; as a matter of fact, it teaches us to invite them to our living rooms and embrace their shiny shadows. All those left behind appear as disappearances and deserve to be remembered. Even losses that have no referent live through singing women.
The images that have been circulating in the Vietnamese diaspora offer us more than a counter-narrative. A melancholic realizes that collaborating with women can bring a performance of memory that is more colourful than nationalist histories. We choose to draw up rituals together so that we can face ignorance and innocence. Melancholics gather the fragments and expand communities.
Thinking of Viet Nam, we take up the impossible and urgent task of listening to our ghosts: we displace images: we relay history.
In aisle nine of Btrust Supermarket, an Asian grocery store in North York, are rows of joss paper between the sections for pet food and toiletries. Often made of rice or bamboo, joss paper are sheets of spirit money and prayer folios burned as offerings to pay tribute to a generational bloodline. Central to Chinese ancestral worship, the practice continues to thrive and adapt over millennia, keeping lines of communication to passed ancestors as conveniently accessible as buying a toothbrush. My father, who accompanies me to Btrust, picks up a package of dried fish, some soap, and a set of joss paper.
“Let me pay for the joss paper,” I offer at the cash desk.
“It’s special. And I want to keep it.”
“It’s not special” he scoffs, “and it’s bad luck to keep things that belong to the dead.”
“Look at this gold tint. It must be special.”
With fatherly candour he rebukes, “You don’t know anything.”
I regret the truth behind the statement he so often utters to scold and lament the acquired orientalism of his Westernized daughter. I ask, “How do you burn paper for the dead?” After a contemplative pause while I anticipate his words of wisdom, he replies, “Go ask your mom.”
Joss paper is indeed not special. Sold in the supermarket among household necessities, joss paper participates in the mundane rituals among the miscellany of my father’s purchases: wash, eat, worship. To engage with the spirits of the dead is to incorporate their presence into the everyday. In a conflation of the domestic and the supernatural, ancestral worship involves a quotidian intimacy with the dead in a heaven that approximates the earthly. The space of ancestral prayer is a medium for affection and continued care for family. The similitude of the kingdom of the dead and the proximity to its inhabitants, however, are often obfuscated in the Westernized spaces of the diasporic subject. The ephemera of eternal affection are media of familial communion for the observant as much as they are confrontations with the ghost of failed memory, disconnected ancestors, and lost lineages for the diasporic. “What ensues,” as María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren note, “is a consideration of intergenerational trauma as a haunting force, where the notion of haunting, as site of comparison, clarifies both the temporal and spatial aspects of the affliction, while its resolution is described as the phantom being successfully exorcised.”María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, “An Introduction: Conceptualizing Spectralities,” in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 8.This proposed solution, however, presents a double negation in a haunting of cultural loss. As nocturnal phantoms take the place of diurnal ancestral spirits in the diasporic landscape, the proposed psychoanalytic cure of the Westernized psyche is a cultural exorcism of Eastern orthopraxy. Eradicating the spectral body from the diasporic is a flawed resolution if not a perpetuation of trauma. Perhaps what is needed is not an exorcism, but an act of heeding to the haunt, a process in pursuit of ghosts that does not attempt to clarify aspects of affliction but to reconcile with what is lost.
The assortment of merchandise at Wing Fong’s specialized joss paper shop in Toronto’s Chinatown Centre is overwhelmingly diverse. Among stacks of different currencies, from American dollars and Chinese Yuan to Hell Bank notes (the official heavenly currency), is an equally multifarious array of paper clothing, jewellery, cigarettes, passports, iPads, laptops, and other replicas of the necessities of everyday life. Traditionally performed at home during the first and middle of the lunar month, the ritual of burning paper gifts and money engages prayer as a transaction between the living and the deceased. In an afterlife similar to the earthly world, ancestors receive goods transformed through fire in exchange for blessings.Janet Lee Scott, For Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 1–41.I admit to Fong that while the merchandise captivates me I am entirely ignorant of how to use it. Unsurprised by my confession, he says this is common among the jook-sin Canadian-born Chinese of my generation. Jook-sin is a pejorative Cantonese term used to refer to the Westernized Chinese subject born in North America. The term is defined by a loss of cultural heritage and language through processes of assimilation. I ask Fong what gift would be appropriate for a “beginner” and he hands me an ornate green package containing a set of traditional clothes and joss notes.
Across town in the city of Markham, the selection at Far East Arts Co. includes newer imports from Hong Kong like paper dim sum sets, name brand shoes, luxury cars, and suburban houses at slightly higher prices. During my visit, Richard Hew, the owner of the shop, shares his personal accounts of Hong Kong’s ostentatious cult of the dead. In Hong Kong, he tells me, the annual Hungry Ghost Festival and Lunar New Year are occasions for private prayer to be performed publicly. In a spectacular immolation of abundant offerings, families invest generously in stacks of joss paper along with extravagant and practical paper gifts. The local joss paper markets eclipse the volume and demand in Canada, providing everything from paper facsimiles of Prada handbags to rice cookers. The materiality of ancestral liturgy is intrinsic to understanding the eschatological complex to which they are tied. Contrary to the transcendental heavens of Christianity, the Chinese afterlife resembles a heavenly bureaucracy that administers the dead in the same way taxes administer life.Wolfgang Scheppe, “In Effigie: Representational Magic in the Supermarket of the Dead,” in Supermarket of the Dead: Fire offerings in China and the Cult of Globalized Consumption, vol. 2 (Dresden: Dresden State Art Collections, 2015), 7–22.Spirits in this realm are subject to a mystified version of feudalism and continue to participate in a system of commerce. The place for the dead in the Chinese cosmologic map is not sublime but banal. The dead need to eat, pay debts, and upgrade their iPhone models the same way the living do.
This banality is perplexing in a Western secularized society haunted by the chimera of Christian eschatology. Karl Löwith’s secularization thesis suggests that notions of progress in modernity are not divided from theology but merely subsume Christian conceptions of “fulfillment and salvation.”Rodolphe Gasché, “The Remainders of Faith: On Karl Löwith’s Conception of Secularization,” in The Multidimensionality of Phenomenology, ed. Babette Babich and Dimitri Ginev (Switzerland: Springer, 2014).The “modern” West’s obsession with the production of the future is predicated on the problem of empty, earthly time in Christianity, where salvation is deferred until a future date in anticipation of the Second Coming: the return of Jesus Christ. The question of what to do with time on earth asked since the Middle Ages has construed life as more or less a state of Beckettian waiting. Modernity in the West merely replaces the destruction of the earth for a kingdom-to-come with the production of the future in the likeness of a Christian paradise. In the language of science and humanities, progress as envisioned by modernism eventually reaches a point of social perfection in the promise of the future. Time and space in both Christian and modernist doctrines operate in linear trajectories, where the future represents the realization of ideal forms.
Time in Chinese cosmology engages an entirely different set of metaphysical principles. To grasp them requires a reorientation of the epistemological frameworks that underpin Western consciousness. If infinity is experienced linearly in the West, the Eastern conception of eternality is cyclic. The dead are not emancipated from sin nor do they promise to return at a future date. They simply exist in the matrix of everyday life. What perplexes the West, and by extension my jook-sin generation, is the spiritual world’s contemporaneity. Attending to the sustenance of ancestors through the medium of burning engages the deceased in a habitual relationship. They exist in a continuum with the living and are addressed in the present tense. Chinese ancestral worship situates the spiritual in banal spaces like the home, the supermarket, and the Asian shopping mall, perpetuating a sense of familiarity and closeness in a contemporary context. They become “othered” only when we try to understand them in the Western framework of futurity haunted by deferred salvation. The West’s preoccupation with the narrative of progress cannot accommodate the spirits of the past. Rather, the exotic spirits of the East that seek to intervene in Christianity’s-cum-modernity’s conception of the past and the future, or the place of original sin and the site of salvation, are rejected as a terrorizing force, a horrific disruption, a traumatized “other” that needs to be exorcized.
Standing in aisle nine of Btrust Supermarket, in Wing Fong’s shop, and in Far East Arts Co., I am captivated by the vertiginous variety of gifts and animist magic they employ. What perplexes me is not caused by my ignorance of the practices, but the uncanny likeness of the underworld to the living world. In a state of both wonderment and fear, I am confronted with reflections of myself in the material desires of the dead. The sameness presents a challenge to my diasporic identity, asking me to see in the paper replicas of everyday necessities my own desires and needs. As Fong explains to me, buying a gift for your ancestors is the same as buying a gift for a friend or for yourself. In the deceptively simple gesture of gifting, I am compelled to embrace an eschatology that prioritizes intimacy and kinship over salvation. The gift is an expression of love and devotion, a quotidian intimacy with the dead who are not that far away. Affection generated by the maintenance of permanent kinship takes precedence over the fear and awe of a monotheistic god. In this context, there is nothing enigmatic about the eternal care for family. The dead continue to feel love and affection as long as we continue to express it. Burning joss paper is an act of remembering as much as it is maintaining connections beyond the grave
Ancestral relationships in the diaspora, however, are not carried across continents without incidents of disconnect. To engage in rituals of remembrance for those whose ancestral links are severed by exile, silenced by cultural trauma, or assimilated into erasure is to be haunted by a lack. In the fragmented landscape of the diasporic subject, the benevolent Eastern spirit becomes an eerie Western haunting. Evocations of historical and cultural lineages filter through discontinuous frames of reference to a time, space, and people that are familiar yet estranged. What is kindred is instead experienced as a loss. For the diasporic subject, the ancestral occupies the border of knowledge, hauntingly, as Collin Davies describes, “[like] a wholly irrecoverable intrusion in our world, which is not comprehensible within our available intellectual frameworks, but whose otherness we are responsible for preserving.”Collins Davies, “Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms,” French Studies 59, no. 3 (2005): 373.
The challenge of maintaining connections with ancestors beyond the grave proves to be easier than it is across the Pacific. My reflection in the gold tint of a sheet of joss paper is obscured by the conflict between my Western consciousness and my Eastern amnesia. My bewilderment over the arcana of ancestral worship is short-lived and met by a mocking refrain. I recognize the sound as my father’s voice, whose father, and his father and his mother and sisters and brothers before him, begin to creep facelessly along the precipice of my perception in a chorus of echoes: you don’t know anything. What follows is a wave of sadness after realizing that my ignorance of these practices stems from my ignorance of my ancestors. Rendered nameless and faceless by the silence following my parents’ exile from their homeland, the parade of ghostly figures continue to taunt me, presenting a mirror reflecting nothing. The empty reflection pierces deep, puncturing the foundation that holds my own identity. As Stuart Hall (1900) reminds us, “identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within the narratives of the past.”Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 225.
In North York, my mother leads me to her garden in the backyard. She sets up a small kettle grill on the ground next to a cup of rice. She hands me three incenses and tells me to clasp my hands and pray.
“In English?” I ask.
“Yes,” she replies.
“What do I say?” She chants a few Cantonese words for me to repeat that I do not understand. “What are you saying?”
“I’m calling your grandpa and grandma.”
“But I’ve never met them.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says, “they know you.” After the chant she directs me to insert the incense into the cup of rice. “Our ancestors died a long time ago and so far away in China and Vietnam,” she says in broken English. “We can't go to their graves so we pray for them at home, under the open sky.” She takes a ream of joss money and the pre-packaged gift that I bought from Wing Fong. The night before, we carefully opened the oversized envelope to glimpse the delicate crafted paper hat, slippers, trousers, and shirt set. I surprise myself by saying aloud, “I hope they like it.” My mother sets the package on fire. “Here is a gift from Annie,” she says, “please look over her and give her lots of projects to do.” We attend to the fire with joss papers and prayers until the flames are starved by our silence.
“That’s it,” my mom says, covering the grill with a lid. “OK, clean up.” As we make our way back to the house my mom asks if I will send her paper gifts when she passes.
“Yes,” I reply, “of course.”