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.”
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.”
[Janice Williamson writes….] Like many others, I’ve long been a fan of American writer Janet Malcolm’s writing: her excellent nonfiction essays were often published in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books before shapeshifting into book form. Her elegant style, fierceness of spirit and her interest in psychoanalysis attracted me as a reader and a writer. Malcolm has much to teach us about the genre.
In The New York Review of Books, Malcolm writes about the ethics of quotation in nonfiction writing:
the invention of the tape recorder surprisingly revealed—our actual utterances are usually couched in a language that urgently requires translation into English when it is transferred from oral to written speech. As we listen to each other speak, we make the translation automatically and thus think we are hearing English, but, as tape transcripts demonstrate, we are not. As we speak, we seem to be making constant stabs at saying what we mean—thus the redundancy, hesitancy, fragmentation that surround the occasional complete grammatical sentence we form and the occasional mot we get off. To publish a person’s tape-recorded speech verbatim is a little like publishing a writer’s rough drafts.
You can find more links here, and archives of her essays at the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Her books are wonderful. Try The Silent Woman about Sylvia Plath. Or read her fascinating explorations in the Freud Archives….
Why the glistening luminescent pomegranate red seeds? Why the three-chambered pomegranate that morphs through time and space?
In Persia, it means fecundity.
In Greece, the fruit is smashed on special occasions.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the myth of Demeter and Persephone pivots on the seven pomegranate seeds that bind the kidnapped daughter to Hades’ underworld for six months of the year.
For poet Evan Boland, the myth of “The Pomegranate” mutates through time as the reader enters the words as daughter, then mother, or — not mother.
The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
The poet ends the poem muses on the inevitable separation from the maturing daughter and reflects
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.
I first encountered Persephone in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a book I read in a Greek mythology class with Jay Macpherson, Governor-General Award-winning poet and specialist in Romantic literature and classical mythology. The other half of the class featured the renowned critic Northrop Frye teaching about The Bible, a series of lectures that would become The Great Code.
In a small gallery across from the AGO in Toronto, I found a small engraving of a girl asleep in an underground cave and she became an image I carried with me, a reminder of what it takes to come up from under in order to make your voice heard.
I write this four decades later from another place. In Ovid’s story, Demeter’s grief-stricken journey to search for her daughter Persephone is interrupted by an encounter with an older woman named Baubo. Without introduction, Baubo lifts up her skirts and laughs out loud. Demeter laughs too.
At twenty or so years of age, I didn’t get the joke. At almost sixty I clown along with Baubo’s laughter, taking pleasure in her ribald buffoonery in the face of Demeter’s loss and despair.
(First published in AlbertaViews Jan/Feb 2010, this won a Silver Medal in the 2011 National Magazine Awards and was a finalist for the Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Prize in Alberta. This is a slightly revised version of the original publication.)
The Turquoise Sea
What are we whole or beautiful or good for but to be absolutely broken. Phyllis Webb
As though nostalgic for his Manitoba boyhood, my father points to his beloved hunting rifle. Transforming his fingers into a silent trigger, he touches his temple and says, “Sometimes I want to take that gun off the wall and blow my brains out.”
My father’s eyes are hooded and dark as he shows me how the skin peels off the back of his hands. “Stress,” he explains modestly, his face lined with sleepless fatigue. I feel awkward in an unfamiliar living room. On this my first visit to the suburban house where my father lives with his new love and her two children, I enter his new domestic life like a visitor to a foreign country. Lost in the limbo of in-between, my father is caught in a long look back. It has been two years since my parents’ separation after decades of intermittent misery. Confused and ambivalent, he refuses to grant my mother a divorce.
Later he’ll call to tell me he loves me, but this morning he’s enmeshed in what ails him. New American owners have bought out the Quebec manufacturer that supplies snowmobiles to his Ontario distribution company. He predicts this change will shut down his business since local distributors become redundant when ownership is transferred south of the border. My father doesn’t tell me he has become a useless middleman. But I’ve studied political economy and know he’s another statistic in branch-plant Canada. Continue reading “Janice Williamson writes “the turquoise sea”: a personal essay on suicide and survivors”→