Spoken words

I like words.  I like the look and the sound and the texture of them.  And I believe they are capable of more truth and communication than most of the human race typically permits them.  How are you?  Fine thanks, and you?  Can’t complain.  Well I can, and I do.

Presenting poems that make words do what they are supposed to.

‘If Only Out of Vanity’ by Stayceyann Chin If only out of vanity text

Stayceyann Chin’s vision of who she wants to be sounds like fun.  My version is one who can finally dye her hair bright purple (or maybe green) without needing to stew in bleach for six hours.  Defy all attempts to be reductionist with reality (and magic).  Ride a bike with a trailer and bright flags (and possibly a diamond tipped pointy thing).  And cross roads with a brood that knows to look on all sides before it walks.

‘Not your erotic, not your exotic’ by Suheir Hammad Not your erotic, not your exotic text

I like a lot of Suheir Hammad’s work but this one has a particular resonance for me.  For the many times I have felt like my beauty is invisible, replaced by a mirage of almond-shaped eyes and curls.  Every day I add to my list of ways in which who I am is reduced to someone else’s version of what I must be like – a cardboard cut out could replace me without most people noticing the difference.  But some will, because they know I have the kind of beauty that moves (bonus geek points if you know who I’m quoting here!).

‘The Low Road’ by Marge Piercy the low road text

Recently, Maia posted this in solidarity with the defendants in the Operation 8 trial.  If you have no idea what Operation 8 is, this is a basic introductionthis is what wikipedia has on it, and this is the best writing I have found on the subject.  The trial is a farce (ask me how) and I believe the charges should be dropped.  Marge Piercy is one of the most accomplished writers I’ve read.  And few people can read her better than Stayceyann Chin.   I have nothing to add to what has already collectively been said.  Except perhaps to state that I would like to be counted among the thousand who have solidarity with those demanding justice for the raided, Tino Rangatiratanga and Te Mana Motuhake O Tūhoe.

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Polite protest

Last week (the 26th to be specific) marked the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788.  This has been called many things over the years – Anniversary Day, Foundation Day, Invasion Day.  It is also the anniversary of the declaration of inpedendence by India and the day on which the constitution came into force.  I see a huge qualitative difference between the celebration of colonial control and the celebration of independence from colonial control (however problematic our internal politics were).  So the idea of celebrating Australia day as a good thing makes me more than a little bit queasy.

Last week also marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Tent Embassy in Canberra.  And dear Tony Abbott took the opportunity to question its relevance and suggest that it was time to ‘move on’ because ‘“I think a lot has changed for the better since then … I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian”.  I have no expertise as to the state of first nation peoples in Australia but even I know that the inequalities that were being protested in the 70s when the tent embassy was being set up have not been ameliorated or even dealt with in any respectful way by the governments since.  The benefits to first nations people have been hard won and fought for by them.  And mainstream media and the Australian govt. have been opposing them every inch of the way.

The story being told in the media is about the ‘violent mob’ of indigenous rights protestors who put the c-in-c of the country in danger.  (Let me take this moment to not care about the dominant narrative or the security of the c-in-c)

The protestors were in Canberra to attend a convergence at the tent embassy to celebrate it’s existence, seek support and solidarity from each other and look towards what campaigns/yarns need to occur.  They were there for two days and spent a miniscule fraction of that time being pissed off at Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard.  (Dear over-inflated govt., it really isn’t about you.).  There was no ‘violent mob’ – just a lot of really annoyed protestors who took the opportunity to bang on the glass windows of a restaurant and yell.  The only violence witnessed at the protest came from the police and was directed at the protestors (what a surprise).

Which brings me what really bothers me about the way protest in general and indigenous protest in particular is constructed in the mainstream.  And to a lesser extent in more radical spheres.  As far as the mainstream narrative is concerned, protest is unnecessary in civilised countries.  The only places that protest is valid is in those backward-third-world-countries where they haven’t got it all sorted out like we do.  Even then protest is only acceptable if it is non-violent and is going to ‘achieve something’.  So people in Australia/New Zealand who are protesting a) should just shut up and realise how good they have it, b) should be sensible, rational and strategic about it and c) keep to a liberal non-violent narrative.  I find this deeply problematic.  Not the least because it makes the whiteness of the paradigm for protest so glaringly obvious.  Where I come from, we throw rotten tomatoes and eggs if we disapprove.

A protest can fulfill many functions.  It can bring people together, it can express rage/disappointment/joy, it can make demands, it can create space for dissent and it can show that there is no space.  A protest can come in many forms.  It can be violent and brutal, it can be quiet and peaceful, it can be invisible unless you know where to look and it can lurk in a corner for years until it finally jumps out at you.  When a group of people privilege one form of protest over another, they are revealing their own prejudices, not saying anything about the protest.  And them that thinks collective organising and community building is less worthwhile than throwing molotov cocktails are as shortsighted as them that believe that only a peaceful protest and rational argument will lead to change.

Those in power like to protect their power.  And they are not going to give it up easily.  And before someone quotes Gandhi at me, can I just point out that he’s the guy who said that inaction is rank cowardice and to be shunned at all costs.  And that the blowing up of a train containing blood money is an act of liberation, not of violence.  My point, is that protest needs must be whatever it has to be for the people there.  The protest on the 26th was an outlet for the anger and hurt and grumpiness felt by many.  And the days around it were full of orgnising and talking and planning.  So I for one am glad it all happened.

Also, I wish I had been in Wellington for Waitangi Day.  There would’ve been a tau iwi support for tinorangatiratanga bloc.  And maybe even cookies and a riot!

Twilight: racism, misogyny and desire.

I am uncertain of the wisdom of writing about the Twilight saga in any way but, like many of my other decisions, have decided to do it nonetheless.  Mostly because this article was linked to recently on Feministe and I kinda disagreed with bits of it and it got me thinking about why, which bits and how.  I have read all the Twilight books (including the unpublished manuscript for the Edward-point-of-view-version-of-the-first-book) and seen all the movies so far.  I also intend to go and see the next movie.  Why?  Allow me to explain…

My book reading and movie watching taste is varied.  I will read pretty much any kind of writing that comes my way.  This means that while I have read some excellent books I have also read several truly awful ones.  This does not bother me.  I don’t tend to decide the worth of a book prior to reading it.  I also don’t tend to assume that I will like a book based on its politics.  I think Oscar Wilde had a point when he said – “Books are well written or badly written.  That is all.”  This does not mean that the politics of the books I read are irrelevant to me… they add to my personal sense of emotional resonance and enjoyment.  And the politics give me plenty to rant about when describing them to other people.  But literary criticism goes beyond what I like.  I could talk about a number of excellent books that I truly abhor, but I shall desist.

The Twilight Saga books are appallingly badly written.  I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to pay for them.  Some kind soul had uploaded the whole lot onto their livejournal page and I got to read them in amongst writing my thesis.  It’s not often that I find the writing and pace of fiction worse than a PhD thesis on the aetiology of sex offending – but this was one of those times.  So I’m not going to engage in any conversations about the literary value of the books – whether the argument is intrinsic (the book is excellently written and comparable to Wuthering Heights, I’m not kidding, it has been said) or utilitarian (so few books make young people read – we should embrace poorly written drivel for the sake of the youth).  I am however going to engage with the feminist discourse that has surrounded the books ever since their release.

There are two key issues that have come up/come under fire in feminist discussion as regards the Twilight series.  The one focuses on the obviously misogynistic themes of the book as exemplified by the role of Bella and her relationships with other characters in the Twilight world and second is the deeply problematic portrayal of Bella’s decision to continue or abort her pregnancy.  Another point made by feminists of colour (and allies, yay for allies!) focuses on the role of race, colour and indigeneity in the books as seen in the relationships between the werewolves and the vampires.

On the subject of race: When I read the first book I actually burst out laughing when the first-nations-peoples-as-werewolves story arc was introduced – it was just such a tired formula.  Where do I begin: the werewolves were the original custodians of the land, the vampires (the good ones who don’t eat humans) turned up and called it theirs and (like all good liberal vegetarian vampires) formed a treaty with the werewolves that involved the vampires having the right to parts of the land that used to the domain of the werewolves on the understanding that they would keep to the boundary and not kill humans.  This was done in spite of the mutual antipathy these species held each other in.  Only some of the members of the tribe (sigh) turn into werewolves and turns out the werewolf (/aggression) gene gets activated when there are too many vampires around.  The vampires are white and they sparkle (I suppose I should just be grateful they aren’t blue) and are cold to the touch, democratic and stoic and individualistic.  The werewolves are warm-blooded and instinctual with a pack structure wherein there is an Alpha who is in command and the entire pack can hear each others thoughts (thereby lending weight to the Great-Wavelength-of-Colour theory).  Race relations are not engaged with in the books and the portrayal of the Quileute tribe I would describe as racist, imperialist and unforgivably unimaginative.

Now about gender roles: The roles outlined for Bella and her two suitors are typical and banal.  It has been said that Bella is a strong character and what makes her so attractive to readers is that she goes after what she wants and gets it.  It has also been said that the things that she goes after are part of her false consciousness under a patriarchal framework.  I don’t think that there are many feminists who would suggest that the world that Bella inhabits is not a misogynist one.  However, so is this one, so Bella’s decisions are made in a bounded world that has shaped her desires as well her decisions.  The only saving grace I can find is that, on one level at least, what Bella wants is equality.  She may want to be a vampire so she can live all her unlife with her boring controlling stalker of a boyfriend, but she doesn’t want to be the weaker part of the equation that is pitied or protected.  Plenty has been said on the stalker score – anyone who needs to know what should happen in that situation please watch this video of Buffy Vs Edward – so I’ll just skip past that.  Bella’s desires are not revolutionary – they are the desires of a person trying to get the most power they can within an unjust system.  The key point is that they are her desires and if I have to choose between a Bella whose desires fill me with horror and an Edward who acts as gatekeeper to her desire with a driving need to ‘protect’ (cough control cough) her  – I pick Bella every single time.

Oh and about the politics of pregnancy:  I don’t care what Stephanie Meyer’s personal politics on abortion are.  The book presents the abortion as necessary and Bella as being entirely opposed to having one.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bella making the decision to continue with her pregnancy even when ‘science’ and other people are telling her that hers is the wrong decision.  Bella has heard what they have to say (she’ll die, she’s being irrational, she’s being selfish and leaving Edward alone etc.).  Pregnant people always make their decisions in a context, and if the context is untenable the solution is to make the context less skewed, not to tell the only person who has the right to make the decision about their body that their decision is wrong.  It has been suggested the world of Twilight is a subversion of the real world because it is the men in her life who’re urging Bella to abort her pregnancy rather than the ones pressuring her into continuing.  Do I need to point out that the issue is not to what purpose the pressure is being applied but the fact that pressure is being applied?  And that in our non-Twilight-world, I have met many men who’ve pressured women into aborting pregnancies when they would rather continue?  Edward wants Bella to abort the pregnancy because the baby is killing her.  I have heard this argument.  I have also heard that the guy is in medical school and doesn’t really want to deal with having a genetic link out in the world even if he does not need to take on any parental responsibility.  Bella (and anyone else who’s pregnant) is well able to make their own decisions based on whatever yardstick they  happen to employ.  And if I don’t like the decisions being made then I have work to do on changing the context (so it is no longer life or death/the odds are improved/whatever the hell else) and live with the fact that other people having agency means that their decisions will be their own.

So that is my rant.  Thoughts?

Visual ode to stupid things people say

The rather problematic ‘stupid shit girls say’ (I refuse to link to it on the grounds that it’s offensive) has fortunately spawned a slew of insightful critiques and hilariously poignant counter videos.  I call that a partial win.  Some of my favourites of the kind where I stand in solidarity rather than smack centre are linked: stupid shit people say to (black girlstrans peoplearab girls).  Oh the cringe.

This week has been a bit of a whirlwind ride for me.  And of course that has entailed more than its fair share of people saying incredibly stupid things to me.  So here is my joy for the same period in the shape of smart people saying things about stupid people saying things to them.  Thems that apply to me.  See?

1. I really hate defending bollywood.  And it annoys me that it seems to be the one thing people know about India.  And don’t even get me started on Slumdog Millionaire.  Or that a friend once told me that she couldn’t believe I was from India (she’d just finished her obligatory spiritual journey there).  And meant it as a compliment.

2. Everything on this list I’ve had addressed to me at least once.  Most several times.  After a point I just start getting snarky.  Okay, not really so much of the after.

Do you have a list of stupid things people say to you based on their own ignorance?  Feel free to share!

Looking for marigolds

I like resistance.  And in a world where every day I have to deal with injustice and stupidity I take comfort in the pockets of resistance I find.  This often means that strange things make me happy; seeing a stencil peeking out of foliage, yarn graffiti, graffiti in general, a community house, a picket line, news of a strike, a union building, badgemakers and the mythical monuments specially for me.  It makes me happy because I can see them, and it makes me happy that despite all efforts to erode, eradicate and erase; they’re still there.

When I was in Chicago a couple of years ago I went looking for Haymarket Square (I was there on the anniversary of the massacre and wanted to go pay my respects).  Most people I talked to had no idea what I was talking about, much less where it was.  Interestingly, the people who did not know anything about it were white.  The only white folk I found who knew what Haymarket Square was were two history teachers in their late 60s.  On the other hand, every black person I met on the street knew what it signified.  When I walked to the general location (I looked it up on the internet, the socialists were having a picnic there but had failed to mention the actual address!) an old man on the street told me I was in the right general area.  He also told me that he was too drunk to help with directions, but that if I asked any other black people they might be able to help.  I asked a girl in a bakery, she didn’t know where it was but she did know that her grandmother knew it ’cause she talked about it a lot.  So I got help from the grandmother, and two guys on the corner of the drug rehab centre.

I did finally find the square and the monument that had been built to replace the racist one that had been built there to begin with.  That was the highlight of my trip to Chicago.  And what it highlights is this: people with privilege don’t need to learn about things that don’t concern them, and people who are oppressed have to work to remember/forget their history and learn the history of their oppressors.

20th of November was Transgender remembrance day.  Another year of bigots and fools perpetrating violence against people they can never hope to equal.  I spent the day hiding from the world and thus missed going to the remembrance held by A Gender Agenda but I looked up the videos (go look/listen).  Which brings me to marigolds.  Not because I’m particularly fond of them as flowers.  I like tube roses and narssici.  But thanks to AGA’s project they are now going to be part of my mental map of transgender remembrance day.  AGA was giving away marigold plants to each person who was there as a living marker of the people who have lost their lives to transphobic violence.  I’m going to be walking around this city looking to find tiny little marigold spots of solidarity that mark out the memory of the people who should be here.  And what makes me really happy is that I know I won’t be the only one.

I hope that when someone sees the little marigold I’ve planted outside my office window they will know they aren’t alone in remembering what they remember.  And that we’re still fighting, we’re still here*.

*Luna Lovegood is smart.

A window to the Australian landscape

A few weeks ago my mother and I went to watch a play about the artist the world has come to know as Albert Namatjira.  I have been trying ever since to articulate my reactions.  I think this is as clear as it is likely to get.

Even before you entered the performance space, the scene was set.  Paintings by the artist were papered along the outside wall.  The stage itself was a collaboration of spaces.  The background for the stories to be told was set by a continuing landscape in chalk being worked on by the living family of the artist.  The foreground was a portrait of the actor playing the artist being worked on as the audience found their spots as spectators.  The performance spaces with music and desert were the landscape on which this background and foreground were based.

There were amazing things about the performance.  It was undertaken by the Namatjira Project and it was clear that the play itself was part of a much wider project supporting indigenous rights.  The acting and storytelling was compelling.  The telling was unapologetic and for the most part saved from being preachy by the humour with which it was told.  And it left me wondering how different the story would have been if it hadn’t been written to be heard, seen and understood by white people.

My ignorance about the history of colonisation in Australia is almost total.  Everything I know comes from drawing connections between other histories I’ve heard.  So I learned an awful lot from being to the play.  But I still don’t know the artist’s name.  I know he was Elea of Aranda country.  I know his Father’s name sounded like Numentjirja to me (but I’m probably mangling it horribly).  I know Missionaries approximated this to Namatjira and named him Albert.  And that he signed his paintings Albert until it was pointed out to him that he needed to have more than one name, from which point on he signed Albert Namatjira.

The paintings of Albert Namatjira have always been for the consumption of the colonial eyes.  What he painted for a constant compromise between what he saw and what he could make his customers see.  There was a beautiful part in the play where he (played by Trever Jamieson) talks about places that he sees.  And places that are not his to see.  Places that are for women, places that are sacred.  It made me wish that the colonisers had that much insight in to their own world.  A little less arrogance about what is seen would have made for much more interesting history.

It makes me curious what the people in the audience thought they saw.  The theatre was full to brimming and we were up in the gallery.  I didn’t see a single person of colour there other than my mother.  And given the demographic of Canberra generally and the fact that we were in a quintessentially middle-class setting, this didn’t really come as a surprise.  But I was saddened by the reactions of the audience.  The uncomfortable giggle that broke out when talk turned to the appropriation of indigenous names was pretty much par for the course, as was the general hilarity of seeing a man dressed up as a woman.  The things other people find funny I can’t laugh at.  Or even about.  And so I wonder.  How different would the play have been if not meant for middle-class, white people?

The play does what it needs to.  And continues the tradition of Albert Namatjira.  The tradition of walking a fine line between two worlds to make enough money from the white world to be able to do the work that needs to be done in their own.  The paintings will be sold, the play will be seen, and I will learn to be here.  Perhaps eventually, I’ll find a space where I can hear the stories that are meant for me.