The joys of Amstel Park, where Bambi and I often spend hours. He hates the bees and loves the flowers, how ironical, how can one exist without the other. In the park they have a toy train that goes inside what we like to call “the deep dark woods” (a nod to Julia Donaldson). We have not spotted any Gruffalos yet, however, we have spotted butterflies, cows, sheep, goats, llamas, emus, turkeys, hens, roosters, peacocks and peahens, pigs, ponies, birds, rabbits, buffalos, and bees, lots of bees, and some mosquitoes.
Poem: “Conversations About Home (at a deportation centre)”
Poet: Warsan Shire
Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on my face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.
I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.
I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.
Why this poem (in one line) – Going to break the format for Shire because I love her so very much:
Is this even a poem? I like the manner in which it breaks that boundary to speak about boundaries. What should a poem look like on paper? Should it be indented like a river in the middle of reams of white? Or is this it, this big chunky mass of words? And, it is personal, like Adrienne Rich always said, this is her story, this is my story, and the story of many women. I find it strange when the public, the professional, and the personal are not on the same platform. As though these water-tight compartments are created to not know about the other. We are making colonies out of our lives. Indra Nooyi’s interview, her comments about women and motherhood, have been floating around my Facebook page – what is this all? Who wants this all? Is this all a monolithic singular structure? It saddens me at multiple levels – on having a mother that tells you to leave work at work, and at home be you, is that other you – not you, and why does that have to be a mask, a role. There is a gravitation towards a non-organic way of being.
My favorite poem by Shire “Ugly”:
Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and sea water.
They said she reminded them of the war.
On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope
and smoke it over burning frankincense.
You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said
macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell
of lonely or empty.
You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her,
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
What man wants to lay down
and watch the world burn
in his bedroom?
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
doesn’t she wear
the world well.
© 2013, Warsan Shire
From: teaching my mother how to give birth
Publisher: flipped eye, London, 2011, 978-1-905233-29-8
I am learning some of the most profound lessons from my son (age 7).
This morning I tried on an outfit for work, I looked at our massive full length mirror,
A: What does this look like?
B: It looks like you.
A: Do you think it is too much for work.
B: Yes and it is beautiful.
Today, off I go to work wearing my office coat with pure cotton, bright, block prints pants especially brought by Visha. Visha who says, “I found myself in the gaps between the written word and the unexpressed” – I am lucky to have found her there while poking around for wood-worm.
What are you working on these days? I am trying to memorize the seven steps to nothing. I have pieces of my heart wandering around – one bit in the south-east towards the sea, the other on an island, another in the mainland, another sitting at home playing on his iPad. Some day I won’t have tides on my forehead looking for the message in the bottle, “Tell me you are safe.” Till such time it is turning out to be quite challenging to note that really there is no manual to life, and there is no one path to the right (anyway I tend to be way left) (that was my attempt to divert towards humor – that I have learnt is a mechanism) (and that I over-analyze) (but I work in research). End of post.
“Is it summer yet?”
“I think so.”
“How would you know?”
“Well it is that time of the year.”
“What if you did not have a calendar?”
“It is warm, the sky is clear, the ducks are having ducklings, the flowers are out, and the trees have leaves.”
“That’s just a good day.”
“When you have a series of such days then I guess you can safely assume that it is summer.”
“So then summer is a series of such good days.”
“I think so.”
“I wish there was summer in winter but, then I do love the snow and when it is really cold.”
“Any other questions sir?”
“Yes, how many days till winter?”
“How many minutes?”
“Way too many.”
“Give me numbers.”
“How about the number 7.”
The Netherlands Research School of Gender Studies had their research day conference on 26th May 2014 in Amsterdam. The day was titled – Doing Gender in the Netherlands: Feminism in Transition (Activism, Institutions and Canons). I was there to present a paper: Tumbling Wall: Adrienne Rich Dismantles a Male Form. My paper spoke about the ghazal, Ghalib, and Rich, focusing on the 60s, in America, the coming together of poet and poetic form.
It was pouring. Water dripped from the corners of my coat leaving little pools wherever I went. My boots squelched. Rain drops made concentric circles on the canal water. Everything looked so grey and grim. Inside the aged buildings of the UvA, underneath original beams, sitting on freshly draped white linen chairs, over cups of coffee and generously made butter cookies we talked of contrasts and constructive confrontation. It was a day when stillness was questioned and ideas stirred. I wrote some notes and made some drawings. Of which the notes I am going to share with you.
Dr. Rachel Spronks pointed out how feminism needs to be transformative and transgressive. She explained in detail how these two aspects in feminism are interlinked for exchange and action. She said that where we find ourselves today is not a post-feminist era; for there are new forms that we see feminism in. The hierarchies in feminism – gender, race, class – and what do we land up with – activism, art and scholarly debate. The purpose of the day was to solidify efforts, navigate – truth; and landscapes – twin topics – gender + sexuality, personal + social – the co-relations and the interaction. These are always viewed as institutions and paradigms but it has interdisciplinary potential – an academy of thinking through culture that includes:
- Interdisciplinary umbrella of interactions – commonalities, pushed to undo comfortable truths
- “Less convinced about our own truths” (RS)
- Revisit canons of critical agency
- Reorganizing gender studies
- Undoing told, undoing the shackles
- Coming out narrative – coming out as a feminist
How to respond to contrast.
Female part-time work – undercurrent of patriarchy
Pivotal dilemmas: social equality + inclusion
Engagement of critical agency
Vibrancy of contemporary feminism in civil society
“Continuum” (RS) (I was so reminded of Adrienne Rich – this term I first discovered through her works) of feminist production, she urged us to “go, do gender, and enjoy” (and I sat there and asked myself – why? – why was I there? And where I fit in – or didn’t – in this community, or whether his was indeed a community).
In many of the discussions that day I noticed the importance given to the body. The physical body, where it is placed in research and what role does it play. In most academic work – we are in a three-way didactic relationship – positioning of the researcher, the text and the author and where are ‘you’ physically placed, location. The ability to do the research, the consent, the permission, the ethics, we are in many ways studying a body as well – and how do we deal with intimacy and privacy issues. I thought of the many times I face these dilemmas and what my purpose was. To be intuitively aware of what truths are told and who they are told through. I also thought of how sometimes, the body is there, it is present but then it is not bodily enough – it is much more elusive. The discussion lead us towards the work of Elizabeth Grosz – corporeal feminism, Foucault on autonomy, framing of people on gender.
Another fascinating research was on the nature and nurture role of the brain: the plasticity of the brain; brain sex; biological materiality of the body and the role of environmental influences. I discovered that there is an entire movement on how sexual orientation can be changed (no, not in the Middle Ages, apparently today, I had not realized how bullish some of these groups are or can be) – homosexual and heterosexual – “train the gay away” – what is wrong with us? In India, they are trying to criminalize homosexuality. Really, again, what is wrong with us? There are differences made in research as well between male and female – we talked about how sex works as an independent variable in research. Gender and the brain – does gender decide the brain or brain decides the gender – this is not just a neuro-scientist issue. Slowing down science. Resolve and dissolve – not important – but map them. The researchers call this the trojan horse of real issues, to use it to take away rather than actually have impact. So how does feminism change the sciences? We spoke about post-structuralism and the female scientist and subjects – and the male weight. Queering neuro science. And then there is also transexuality, transgender, Judith Butler – ambiguity of identity, and boundary objects. To learn the art of tolerating the ambiguousness. And how can we use this to see things, use of objects as a lens – to get a focus.
Can institutions dismantle/reorganize queer theory. One of the researchers Marieke van Eijk spent years working at a gender identity clinic. Mid-western American, international standards, expensive – class based – access to some, with mandatory counselling – removal to have access to treatment. Sara Ahmed’s “Strange Encounters” – historically grounded ß this was questioned. The study examined the role and character of private organizations in the process of political globalization. Recognition of diversity – not one way of being (I thought of how we had been reading Astrid Erll’s and she had mentioned: robust plural identities). To put these matters into perspective we analyzed – monolithic entities – heteronormative ideas – we are forced to rethink and how all of this (today) had created a bunch of cascading questions, one opens up into another.
I discussed Alison Bechdel (oh how much I love her), Dr. Donald Winnicott’s theories of mirror and children (that we had already studied with Dr. Lewis Krischner and Prof. dr. Dawn Scorczewski in their Master Class at the VU), Romania’s latch-key generation and communist symbols of nostalgia by Codruta Pohrib (who is also working on Erll), feminism in South Africa and Coetzee amongst many other intellectually stimulating debates and discussions.
I loved talking to Anja Meulenbelt, her speech was inspiring and funny, she blogged and took some lovely pictures of the day: http://www.anjameulenbelt.nl/weblog/2014/05/27/een-dag-academisch-feminisme/ (including a few of me – sounds of dripping water need to be imagined as you view my picture so please do the needful).
There were people there, who summarized many of my thoughts in enviable vocabulary, and sometimes I caught myself questioning what was being said – that does not sound right, or where is this headed. Sitting at the edge of the seat, nodding my head, looking, waiting, listening, watching the rain, the words that bounced, rooms that opened and closed, people who came and left, mugs of half-finished coffee, crumpled paper, hangers. I came home late, my head was throbbing, at home hot food and a warm bed were waiting. I snuggled into familiar arms, my mind noting, highlighting and remembering – this is indeed a gift. I am, and will remain, one of the fortunate ones.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
a stumbling block
for the fall
in to the
towards the bottom
a bottom I never reach
tumbling and tumbling
pools of prepositions
hills built of adjectives
conjunctions swirling overhead
a sun that turns pink and purple
movement like mortar
on yours and not yours
a ladder leaning on the wall
words in boxes
words in letters
words given away as gifts
spaces between words
Escape I say
Here take some money
A plastic bag full of clothes
and an old picture of me
so you don’t forget
Where you are understood
Jeet Thayil’s ghazal on Malayalam and Nilanjana Roy (who I think I have an academic crush on) speaks about poetry. Also on her blog are some lovely articles on Agha Shahid Ali. A must read.
An excerpt I loved:
“I like choosing theoretical homes, but the idea of “settling down” is pleasurable only in the abstract, a little disconcerting in the particular. People in Delhi are always settling down: into jobs, marriages, old orders, new regimes, rented houses, and finally, into the grandeur of “own homes”. The title of Shahid’s poem was comforting, reassuring, and those lines– “A house? A work in progress, always.” — gave me permission to never settle down, or in. These days I have squatter’s rights in that capacious place, the writer’s house, a subtenancy of sorts, and that’s mostly enough.”
- Nilanjana Roy on “Rooms Are Never Finished”