Strange City, Day Six: a surprise invitation during a month-long visit.
In this whitest of American cities, the women are friendly and warm to me and I’m told I have a Canadian accent. I am white enough in a room full of white women and enmeshed in a naturalized pallet: “Whiteness …scans as invisible, default, a form of racelessness. ‘Color blindness,’the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.”
The leader of Saturday’s historical architecture tour kindly writes to invite me to attend his noontime talk at a private women’s club in a 1920s building that is on the US National Registry. Designed by architect Folger Johnson, the impressive structure, now almost a century old, is filled with carved ceilings and elegant rooms, handsome wooden engravings and fantastical wallpaper. The website promises “a women’s private club where friendships are nourished, dignity and graciousness are expected and beauty has been preserved.”
(Note a working paper in progress – expanding & editing apr 18, 2017…pardon errors)
At what point should Boyden’s identity quest have been identified as no more than a desiring machine?
I pose this question to myself as someone who has been teaching and writing about Canadian literature and culture over more than thirty years. Joseph Boyden perpetually posed as part Indigenous, an improvised status that afforded him access to advice, teachings, prestige and awards reserved for Indigenous persons. This is misguided and wrong.
I take little pleasure in part of this public debate. The talented and accomplished writer Joseph Boyden is suffering a serious and damaging and humiliating public critique. But I remain unflaggingly sympathetic to those who write about the losses within the Indigenous community when someone inauthentically takes up their space in the public sphere. To those writers and thinkers who already suffer the perils of a colonizing and racist nation state, the marginalization and the damage endures. And I understand the intensity of these critiques especially by those whose community identities or personal influence were particularly exploited. (The list of those active in this debate include Marilyn Dumont, Daniel Justice Heath,
While writing my dissertation during the 1980s, I worked on Sounding Differences, my collection of interviews with Canadian women writers. I called them “oral essays” to indicate the way this generative exploration project worked to empower a chorus of voices – a notion . While infused with differentiated power relations, the collectivity of women I interviewed revised the canon beyond the distinguished female triumvirate of Margaret (Atwood), Margaret (Laurence) and Alice (Munroe).
My thinking was not original – but shaped by this earlier second-wave notion of difference as generative of “difficult conversations that can be life-saving” in Sara Salem’s words.
I was inspired by feminist film critic and art critic friends who introduced me to Trinh T. Minh-ha whose theoretical and cinematic work remains an inspiration. In Woman, Native Other (1989), she wrote:
“you and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in awhile, but you may also be me while remaining what you are and what I am not.”
I may be on another hill further away. But this distant nearness of our “intertwine” is an implication acknowledging the interior diss-identification of an origami fold. A cutting, a grafting that takes.
Mothering, interracial, adoptive,
an origami fold,
of our undying days,
live-long years together,
this rapport between
a 65-year-old mother and
an 18-year-old daughter unfolds.
the wear and tear of
in our bones
On a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort
thinking of boredom of deluxe indulgence
of the first tourist t-shirt
glimpsed on arrival –
(without the punctuation)
on the beach
turquoise pools meander between
clipped fuschia & chartreuse
bougainvillea hedge funds
a watery lipless horizon
acres of white empty plates
groan stainless steel and
porcelain bowls of luscious
ceviche, salsa, guacamole,
chocolate chicken mole
delicately tied tamales
steamed to perfection
ice creamed bins, farting
triple layer cheesecake
artful bamboo hidden Japanese sushi rolls
black tureened lobster bisque
careening carnivals of carved fruit
secret fish today, a sea bird tomorrow,
all day every day rainbow hilled
chopped pineapple, papaya, mango, melon
before bed an 8:30pm performance of Michael Jackson lip-syncing,
Aztec psychedelia and swirling moebius looped Mexican skirts
late night drunken songs of weddings
sand between their ears
and everywhere top heavy chef hats working
alongside friendly name-tags of aproned maids
wandering smiles of mojito-laden waiters
all for tips, given or taken away
generous with their time
in conversation, the give and take of
my stilted Spanish the limit case of
we know and not
meanwhile from our fake 1%er perch
atop a white wrought iron fenced stone wall
a man in a bathing suit motions to the air along the shore
hand-woven blankets, t-shirts that name this place
for almost nothing.
Thinking this in response to our few mother/daughter days together in bliss and in irritation, the back and forth of our closeness, as we lie on a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort.
Where a young man drowned today of a seizure or a heart attack.
The American couple at the next table, shocked by their loss, tell us the story of his last words in the ocean. On the way back to the boat. About feeling unwell.
The shocked couple at the next table tell us about the guilt of the young male survivors, all friends, the fruitless attempt to return for him.
His lifeless body. His friends who could have done nothing to save him.
The story unfolds as though it cannot not be told.
Over and over and over and over again.
The couple at the next table tell us they are in plumbing and heating. They travel here to this resort annually. In the company of forty of their employees.
They tell us over again and then apologize. And we squeeze their hands. And they tell us again of the telephone call to the forty-year old deceased man’s parents.
That impossible conversation about drowning.
And we listen and talk in this fragility of being here now.
To sit together straining between tables at dinner talking of loss and death and love and compassion….
All tonight’s writing started with this reading thanks to a colleague. The text made me think about the necessary and irritating and incommensurable inconsolable chasms of misunderstanding and pain that are occasioned in the gaps between us.
“This generation is told that diversity is a good thing, it shows that we don’t need radical politics anymore because equality is near. Ultimately it has acted as a very depoliticizing tool. Through certain institutions and people, including the university, the idea of difference was de-radicalized, sanitized, and turned into the neoliberal-friendly idea of diversity. Many feminists have written about the problems with diversity as a concept, including the amazing Sara Ahmed. Diversity can never be a radical notion, or even a political one. But I had never noticed this particular genealogy: that those using the idea of diversity in feminism probably drew directly from these feminists of colour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s who spoke of difference.
But when these women spoke of difference, they spoke of it at two levels: the differences between women of colour and white women, which are, as Minh-ha, writes, awkward, difficult, fraught with tension. And then there are the differences among women of colour, or women of colour in the West and Third World women, or lesbian women and heterosexual women, and so on. In other words, there is a binary at play here that distinguishes different levels of difference. Not all differences are equally valuable. And not all differences should be treated in the same way. Differences between women of colour are very real, but these can act as a source of energy and inspiration. These are the types of differences that propel movements forward, that lead to difficult conversations that can be life-saving. In other words, these differences are very valuable.
This is not to say that differences between women of colour and white women are invaluable, or only cause harm. I have always believed that these differences are also important to discuss, interrogate, try to unpack. But this must be done while bearing in mind that there is a specific hierarchy always there, and not necessarily in the background. And when it is a material and ideological hierarchy, rather than simply vertical divisions, it can be difficult to unite and struggle together for the same causes.
The point is that they saw difference in a very positive light because they understood difference differently than we do today, where the term has been repackaged. Differences between women had to be acknowledged, because they were responding to first and second wave feminism that insisted on universal sisterhood. Difference was therefore something productive, a way of uniting to create a different type of society. This was never framed as something easy, or based on simplistic notions of quotas or tokenism. It was always based on radical political struggle and change. Today we have learned to assume that difference is accepted, and that it is not political. But it seems to me that returning to this more radical understanding of differences could act as a very important source of energy for critical, radical, decolonial and postcolonial feminists today.”