Really excited and lucky to be reading with Sally, and with Vidhu (and Kearny Street Workshop). Come out and see me at either one (or both) of these!
We discussed the responsibilities & risks of creating art from the margins, the burden of representation, how to find recognition among one another, & more.
It is a long one but a good one.
“The first precarious works were not documented, they existed only for the memories of a few citizens.
History, as a fabric of inclusion and exclusion, did not embrace them. (The history of the north excludes that of the south, and the history of the south excludes itself, embracing only the north’s reflections.)
In the void between the two, the precarious and its non-documentation established their non-place as another reality.”
— Cecilia Vicuña
What Cecilia Vicuña calls “the precarious” or precario covers everything from what has been laid to the wayside by colonialism’s pruning shear, to what capitalism’s “machine of greed” deems as waste, to be discarded.
Jena Osman describes this precario as representing “the belief that “maximum fragility” can work against “maximum power.””
I am never sure enough if there will ever be a functional schema that can detain the totalitarianism of “maximum power,” but I’ve always found Vicuña’s works on environmentalism to be encouraging. She reminds us that the heart of ecological preservation must pump out the blood of colonialism (and its displacement of peoples).
If colonialism is the thirst for expansion of power, then (ecological) preservation must work to deter its (colonialism’s) reach. This means elevating people — all people — displaced people, undocumented people, discarded people, colonized people, poor people, uneducated people — to the same status and urgency afforded to ecology.
I recently saw National Geographic post a photo of consumption of bushmeat in African countries. The post, captioned with a voyeur’s ferocity, fully exploits the ignoble savage narrative: “To me it was horrifying to watch how its once lustrous fur was singed and its limbs chopped off, and how, slowly, this once magnificent animal became just another piece of meat.”
This caption is bursting with pathos. It cries out for the animal, and is hashtagged to advocate for the preservation of our world’s biodiversity. It’s a kind of advocacy that offends no one “reasonable.” One that flattens power differentials. Green imperialism.
What of the history of an entire continent’s displacement through colonialism and slavery, using the eerily similar rhetoric (to save the savage locals from a degrading and brutal life)? The pillaging and abject poverty that ensued? How did these lead to a subsistence hunting/game diet, that then expanded into commercial hunting and slaughtering?
Why couldn’t Nat Geo include these notes into the same post?
Because this line of questioning would switch the discourse from “rescue” or “preservation,” to “reparations.” Or at least blur the line.
It is also a sweet fantasy to imagine “saving” a depopulated (third) world, whose wellbeing refers to only flora and fauna and not actual human beings, where one imagines “the world” as a pristine and healthy greenhouse, accessible as if it werein one’s backyard, and preserved, contained, and exhibit-able as if it were one more prized collectible to show one’s visitors.
What kind of a world is that?
Is this tension what Cecilia calls “the precarious”?
There is, after all, immense precarity in breaking open the category of “ecological preservation” to include ANY discourse on power. It is discomfiting to identify oneself to the one causing disharmony to nature.
We mostly do it in a neoliberal-harmless mannerism of “oh dear I consume and create so much trash,” or “I must try to offset my carbon footprint.” In this version, nature is faceless and people-less.
I see Cecilia Vicuña pushing us further inward, to see ourselves in everything in nature, to see other people in everything in nature, and in return see our debts and obligations to other people when we see “nature.”
“As a child I played on the beach, my hands and feet blackened by oil. // One day I felt the wind encircle my waist like a snake; I turned around and realized the sea, the sun, and the wind were aware. // Undone by the living awareness, I melted to the ground. // I picked up a stick and planted it in the sand. // El palito became the Buddha, / and I became debris, / a basurita on the beach.”
— Cecilia Vicuña
The basurita, little rubbish, on the beach, instructs us to look for who is doing the discarding and deeming something as “a rubbish,” who is picking up the rubbish in a rescue effort, and who is failing to connect the dots between the two parties.
Maximum fragility to counter maximum power.
[All photos taken by me at Cecilia Vicuña’s About To Happen exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans.]
In Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, Lucy asks this question right after Mariah, her rich white American mom employer, makes a particular announcement (p41):
Mariah says, “I have Indian blood in me,” and underneath everything I could swear she says it as if she were announcing her possession of a trophy. How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?
I now heard Mariah say, “Well,” and she let out a long breath, full of sadness, resignation, even dread. I looked at her; her face was miserable, tormented, ill-looking. She looked at me in a pleading way, as if asking for relief, and I looked back, my face and my eyes hard; no matter what, I would not give it.
I said, “All along I have been wondering how you got to be the way you are. Just how it was that you got to be the way you are.”
Some time ago I was G-chatting with Ginger about our usual suspects of writing hot topics (mothers, migration, postcolonialism) and she sent me looking for Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. The book is deceptively thin. Nothing conspicuous about mothers at first. A young woman leaves the West Indies for America — the stuff of postcolonial lit.
Lucy leaves her mother(-land) and finds a mother figure in her employer, Mariah. Lucy is a live-in nanny for Mariah, who insists the two be friends. Mariah exudes the ineffable sincerity of the privileged. Everything she does is in earnest. Of her four children she says, “I have always wanted four children.” She wants to be friends with her foreign nanny to eliminate the discomfort that comes from the palpable power differential between them. Lucy is disdainful of Mariah at the same time that she is awed by her. She studies Mariah like a bird does a house cat, and Mariah tries to take Lucy under her wing as if Mariah was a (mother) bird too, and not a cat.
The main “themes” of the book are reducible to so many words: First-generation immigrant from a former British colony encounters the blithe genteel whiteness of upper class Americans. It is coming-of-age. It is a clash of values and class. It’s a “culturally relevant” work, to quote a recent New York Times Instagram post where I first encountered that phrase (I am marveled each time the zeitgeist comes up with a new code word for “non-white” without directly naming whiteness).
The problem with reading according to “themes” is it assumes too much empathy between reader and the story. It distills a story into a set of self-similar core elements, and reading becomes an automatic filing process. Power differentials are flattened into insipid categories.
From a Goodreads review, a disappointed reader failed to find the redemption so promised by the “themes” of the book:
Touted as a “coming-of-age” novel, I don’t see that it deserves the accolade. There is no growth here: just a bitter and cynical young woman who carries a chip on her shoulder the size of the island she just left behind. Neither does she look to leave it behind, grinding the same old axe at the same old wheel…I found it to be lacking in depth of emotion — especially for a young woman who is out on her own for the very first time. She speaks as if she is dream-walking through her life and everything that has happened to her is just a passing footnote in her history. I doubt very much that humans react in such a way, unless they are exposed to deep and prolonged trauma. From what the story reveals, Lucy experiences no such trauma: or at least not any more than any one who has had a passingly difficult childhood.
The reviewer is right. Lucy is apparently going nowhere and incapable of leaving things behind. All the trappings of an unlikable protagonist who failed to overcome the themes of her story.
But the reviewer misses how Lucy’s trauma unfolds. Lucy is so embroiled in her trauma she cannot disentangle from them and let them spill freely onto the page, the way Mariah does. Mariah has a bottomless depth of emotions the way Lucy appears to have none. Mariah the sincere employer. Mariah the sad friend. Mariah the hurt wife. Mariah the tired mother. Mariah the self-sacrificing white woman eager to conserve wildlife and celebrate diversity.
Where does all this leave Lucy? In contrast, Lucy is cold, unaffected, and stuck.
Susan Sontag once described European and Latin American fiction as a “neutral, reserved kind of writing,” “a style that holds back, that aims at neutral transparency,” in comparison to American writing that is “strainingly clever and bouncy.”
It’s clear where Lucy falls in this binary. Yet even as the voice of the unlikeable narrator is reserved, it is also immensely open, rhetorical, and bouncy. The moment Lucy keeps asking Mariah, “All along I have been wondering how you got to be the way you are. Just how it was that you got to be the way you are,” is an easy proof of bitterness. But who would cling to bitterness for bitterness’s sake? What lies behind Lucy’s condemnation? An inherited loss, and envy — of the ease with which Mariah moves through the world, of Mariah’s inheritance from her mother, from whiteness, from an entire existence that is used to receiving validation for every single felt emotion — everything that was not how Lucy got to be the way she was.
Bitterness is foreign. Unflinching steadiness is foreign. Lucy is an easily misread character. Even as she becomes friends with Mariah and comes to be able to return Mariah’s affection, Lucy never ceases her questioning of Mariah, and this tension enriches Mariah while it confines Lucy.
This is the “growth” Lucy experiences as a character: to deeply internalize the inequality of her existence next to Mariah, and to move through that confined space accorded to her, while accepting that Mariah will fail to see her (Lucy’s) confinement.
Easily Lucy has become one of my favorite books.
“I particularly detested the past-perfect progressive tense, which I called the Annoying PPP: a continuous action completed at some point in the past. I felt giddy every time I heard the Annoying PPP; I just couldn’t understand how anyone was able to grasp something so complex. For example, my grammar book said: “Peter had been painting his house for weeks, but he finally gave up.” My immediate reaction, even before I got to the grammatical explanation, was: my God, how could someone paint his house for weeks and still give up? I just couldn’t see how time itself could regulate people’s actions as if they were little clocks! As for the grammar, the word order “had been” and the added flourishes like “ing” made my stomach churn. They were bizarre decorations that did nothing but obscure a simple, strong building. My instinct was to say something like: “Peter tries to paint his house, but sadness overwhelms him, causing him to lay down his brushes and give up his dream.””
— Xiaolu Guo
I used to always say I was raised with Chinese as my emotional language, and then grew into English as my intellectual language. It’s a shoddy binary, sure, but this quote above is sewing the two worlds together for me.
Think of the many crafty ways temporality is embedded into language, which in turn constructs our idea of how the world works. If the English language really is so temporally motivated, with its entire grammatical structure built upon concepts of past, present, and future, then is it any wonder why there is seemingly a large gulf or void of truly understanding one another, even when we are communicating? Because time in and of itself is meaningless, yes?
In the example above, the English grammatical structure allows for a (seemingly) perfect logic even when no character motivation (aka actual logic) is revealed. Peter had been painting, then he simply stopped. That was what happened. A factual occurrence. An event.
It is almost impolite to inquire beyond what is laid out by the sentence. This is something I feel often in my real life interactions – I have a morbid curiosity about other people and their inner motivations. Then I feel I have breached some etiquette. If we are point blank talking to each other, understanding each other perfectly, who am I to decide I am still in need of more information?
What does it take to translate that Peter-painting sentence into Chinese? By default it would have to carry a bit more more circumstantial information in order even to make sense. As seen in Xiaolu’s example. You inject a little bit of the surrounding when, why, how, and so on. Or else the sentence would fail to stand on its own, as evidently the English version could.
The little things I have to stop myself from asking when conversing in English, I suppose, while screaming on the inside But it doesn’t make sense! I don’t understand what is happening! I need more info!
In English, there are hints. Ominous. Foreboding. Peter had been painting…but he finally gave up. The “but’s” and the finality (also delineated by time) of “finally.” What is happening??
Yes I know it is uncareful to generalize an entire language in this anecdotal way. Though that doesn’t stop me from wondering how much of the emotional barrenness or ambiguity in my English writings is a conscious craft decision, or a casual byproduct of the language itself.
Like these two shots I took last night of that blue hour at dusk (ISO 3200, for anyone interested):
Language, communication, leaps of faith across informational gulfs, and so on.
And oh, yes, to summer dusks that stretch almost hour-long.