Growing Room Festival
Where Does the Page Stop and the Body Begin: Writing the Body
l-r: Casey Plett, Samantha Nock, Amber Dawn, Mallory Tater, Kim Clark
Moderator: Mallory Tater
This weekend, while I was busy with Growing Room Festival here in Vancouver, and indeed listening to this informative, intelligent panel, above, two other womxn in my sphere made disclosures that blew me away. Not because I wasn’t familiar with the bones of what they needed to say, because we are social media friends and have intersecting bios, and they’ve talked about these disclosures in other ways over time, but because of the unique and brave ways they chose to bring sensitive information into the public.
Sometimes I can only stand back, jaw dropped. Wow, you two. I want to have half your courage when I grow up. I thank you with all of my being.
Thinking about this panel, above. When I read the phrase in the program “Where does the page stop and the body begin?” (a play on Amber Dawn’s poetry collection title) I wondered not for the first time where the page does stop and my body begins, and then I imagined the pages of my writing as a kind of external skin, a body suit I can climb into (is it always ill-fitting? Do I never get the seams sewn tightly enough? Was I smart to use a reinforcing stitch? Is it going to unravel anyhow?) Where does my body stop and my page begin? [And is that creepy? Can you stalk your own writing? If you text it too many times, will it stop responding? If you get in there with a scalpel, is it going to faint? Can you kill it? What if all you can bring back from your body is a translation, an approximation, a waned hope, a cataclysm?] Where do poems live? Do they live there, in your spleen, in your arteries, in your thyroid, in your ignored middle toes? I mean, Do you fuck your heart? Do you even have the ability, ever, to write your heart? What if your heart wasn’t born now? What if your heart only makes cave drawings? What if your heart is a crabbed ugly dessicated thing? What if it’s thick and messy and too hot? Where do poems live before they appear? Where do your characters live in the globe of your brain? Do they hang out in the right, left hemispheres? Is that an outmoded way to think about creativity/creation/the formation of theory? In the parietal lobe? In the pons, in the medula?
Seriously. What delimits us?
What is our personal scaffolding? Poverty, education, racism, homophobia, ableism? Wealth, white skin, straight skin, an able-body. How have people treated us? How have we treated people? What is behind our scaffolding? What is our skeleton? How was it made? With generosity, banquets, kindness, bequeaths? The opposite? When we are composing poems, or essays, or novels, or stories, are we stripped bare, are we under our scaffolding, are we in our bodies then, are we in all of our bodies, are we in the parts we’ve never thought of, that small vein that feeds our baby finger? Deep? How deep? Real? How real? Is our marrow sucked clean? What survives?
I’ve been fighting my own cowardice for years. I’ve been using alternate means to tell stories slant, hinting around the edges, disclosing fragments, being circular and allusive instead of immersive. I’ve let people who’ve terrorized my time with them continue to terrorize my time after them.
This panel and the panel that followed it at Growing Room Festival, What Binds Us: Sex, Bondage, and Fetishes, with Amber Dawn, Kim Clark, Lydia Kwa, Samantha Nock and moderator Sierra Skye Gemma, were fascinating. These are intelligent, probing authors who have thought deeply about such matters for decades and have translated much of their thought into literature and, with the help of good, well-prepped moderators, knew how to communicate the act of having done so. The audience members too asked questions that probed for deep answers.
I’ve been excavating childhood experiences, putting mud on the wire structure of some of them, or building the structure under the wire of some others. Trying to pin the Jello of distant memory into words that will stay the course. In this process, I’ve also been trying to find a deeper understanding of metaphor–as a lyrical author I’ve worked with metaphor for 35 years–as a language I can open to parse experiences I’ve had down far inside systems such as ableism, such as homo and transphobias, such as rape culture/misogyny. I’ve been using braids for my exploration. My writing, I see, gets increasingly experimental and fragmented as it goes forward.
These panels (and other events) took place this year in the ambient light of Me Too and Times Up. Over the years, I’ve worked behind the scenes (as disability and circumstance allowed) to change things for the next generation, all actions that are in their own way brave, some of them shading into foolhardiness. Last year, I named one of my rapists, a man who raped me in Ontario when I was 18. If I had named him then (and hadn’t been laughed out of a police station), how many womxn could have been spared rape? One of those women would have been my mother, because some years later, he attacked her, too, in an attempted rape. The act of naming him has been interesting and anxiety-provoking. Of course I have questions about what my responsibility is. If it was (is) my responsibility to name him to save others, isn’t that downloading his criminality onto me, blaming the victim? Yet always the pit of my stomach churns (has churned) at the idea of others.
I’m old, I’m feeble, I’m done like dinner. I have more recent offenders, both a batterer and a rapist, I don’t name. I am shit-scared to associate their acts with their names. I refuse to stay silent about violence–the acts were illegal and remain illegal. The blame for the violence belongs to the criminal. I’m sure they both just got on with their lives, wiping the old slate clean, while the repercussions for their actions bequeath to me.
Why am I so scared? I don’t even know. I fear financial annihilation? But I have physical evidence. I have contemporaneous accounts. In court, these two would lose–lose something, I don’t know. Status. Money. Freedom. Perhaps everything. It would offload the burden of their crimes to them. It might feel great, the shucking of lodestones.
But, still. Still.
I am a feminist, and I don’t name them. I don’t believe I have the resources to fight them. I believe fighting them would kill me. Figuratively? Literally? I don’t know. I only know I’m scared, so scared, every day I’m scared of them. When people have proven themselves happily vicious, it’s hard to stop worrying they’ll go there again.
I watch the womxn I mentioned in the first paragraph name their offenders. I watch these acts of great or foolhardy courage. I ask myself whether these womxn are somehow protected by their education, by their literary or career success or other things I don’t know about? Are they less protected by other things I don’t know about? Are they just fuck brave fuck wow? Wow. Wow. Wow. Would they have been disbelieved two years ago? Does Me Too give them protection of a sort? Do we believe them now? Do more of us believe them now?
I want to live in a world where womxn are not silenced, where being the victim of an assault is given priority over the sensitivity of the offender. I hope someday I get to.
Lately, I’ve been watching high schoolers Jack and Shay in Ontario who started this initiative which may become viral across the country, changing our literature forever: Rethinking Diversity in CanLit. I’ve been watching the kids in Florida and more widely in the US be brave and insistent–and make change. I’ve seen how doggedness and anger can be forces of great good. I’ve watched disabled activists storm DC, I’ve watched water activists, watched Black Lives Matter, watched WOC take apart white feminist bullshit.
I bow down to the power of womxn and men and youth to reshape the dialogue and change the reality. Thank you, thank you. I salute your courage and fortitude and wisdom. I imagine sometimes that you don’t know you are cherished, so let me say that: In this faulty heart, you are cherished. I say this to the panelists from Growing Room, as well: You are cherished, for your work but for your abilities, also, to talk to the deep and dark sides.
You make me know my small pieces of intersectional activism are worth it. The fight is still worth it, that the fight is indeed the only thing that ever brings about change.
Lately some focus for me has been disability activism. Disability activism is hard because its practitioners are ill and disabled–health concerns intercede. Actions equal stress equal months of physical repercussions.
I am weak and I am flawed and I am uninformed and I am clumsy. But within my capacities and lack of capacities, I’ve been analyzing, and working in, disability activism for a year or two. I’ve started to excavate my 32 years disabled–what I’ve experienced, what happened to me because of my condition in the medical community, but also at home and with friends/family, and in my career. I’m rooting out my tumour of shame at being disabled (which stems from when I was a bald and bullied six-year-old), and replacing it with solid political analysis.
I understand, as I have since the early 80s, while I write essay after essay, and novel after novel, and poem after poem, and short fiction after short fiction, that the personal is still political. If it is not my personal, but rather a character’s, it is nevertheless political.
Always and forever.
I hope the womxn who performed in and/or experienced Growing Room this weekend are about to write with all the power and strength of their minds and hearts and blow CanLit open. But I also have wishes for you, if you’ve read this far: I send you courage. There is a fight ahead. If you are new to activism, I welcome you. If you are not new, then every one of you political feminists made my life more bearable. Thank you, thank you, thank you.