Monday, March 3, 2014

There is a ghost inside the words of a book, waiting to jump out at you

Once one of the monks with Saint Francis asked if he might own just one book. Francis replied, "No, if you have a book, pretty soon you will need a bookshelf for your book. Then you will need a house for your bookshelf. After that you will need a lock on your door to protect your book from thieves breaking in and stealing it. 
I have some beautiful photos of the St. Francis of Assisi cathedral in Cuetzalan Mexico, but they are on a jumpdrive somewhere which I have to locate.
If you want to get at the pun of the title of this post, jump to the bottom of the page and read Natasha Trethewey's poem. 

I have a terrible problem: I love books and I buy books. Yes, books become part of the stuff we collect and to which we become attached, creating problems that tie us down and make us complicit in accumulation. As well as being a fire hazard when you have books piled up in every room because there is no more space on your book shelves. I have not counted all my books, but most likely I have more than 1000. I have slowly begun to give away some but every time I go to my shelves to find a few, I end up reading parts of them with wonder and saying to myself, "This is so interesting. I need this book." Then I put it back on the shelf.

I need books around me for comfort, to remind me about ideas, and to make visible the messages and knowledge inside of them. I could never store all my reading online or on an e-reader. Yes, I also read online texts; these too are irreplaceable. Yesterday, for example, I found a very interesting website that has a 3 volume e-book on decolonizing, reconcialition and the way forward in Canada called Speaking My Truth, which has a lot of interesting chapters by writers such as Waziyatawin, Ashok Mathur, Melissa Phung, Sylvia Hamilton, George Elliot Clarke, and Heather Igliolorte (who was just in TBay and gave a curator talk for the Decolonize Me exhibit which was recently at the TB Art Gallery; if I find a minute I will tell you about that, too), among many others. However, online books and articles or websites cannot replace actual books that have a look, a texture, a presence, a feel, and a language that jumps out at you, i.e. its title.

I just received Natasha Trethewey's latest poetry book Thrall (find a review here) in the mail. In this book, Trethewey, who is currently the Poet Laureate of the US, not only writes poems about her personal and family history but also takes a critical poetic eye to visual representation of mixed peoples. Specifically, she writes poetic musings on the Casta paintings from colonial Mexico. 

I have become fascinated with ekphrastic poetry, that is, poetry that responds to visual arts such as paintings or photographs (or other creative arts) since doing a close reading of Trethewey's earlier poetry book, Bellocq's Ophelia. In this book, using poetry she writes a book-length narrative that makes a history for some of the women posed in Bellocqs' early 1900s glass plate photos of mixed race sex workers in Storyville, New Orleans. 

Aptly, Trethewey ends Thrall with a musing on the enthrallment of books, a poem called "Illumination" (see below for the text).

Enthralling and illuminating, who can resist books? 

Now I am waiting with anticipation for the other books that I have ordered to arrive at my doorstep:  
 Hopefully, I will find the time to tell you a bit about each book! 

Trethewey's closing poem, a reflection on the magic of books: 

Always    there is something more to know
    what lingers    at the edge of thought
awaiting illumination         as in
    this second-hand book    full
of annotations        daring the margins in pencil
a light stroke as if                  
    the writer of these small replies
meant not to leave them     forever  
    meant to erase
evidence of this private interaction      
    Here     a passage underlined    there
a single star on the page
    as in a night sky    cloud-swept and hazy
where only the brightest appears
    a tiny spark        I follow
its coded message    try to read in it
the direction of the solitary mind
        that thought to pencil in
a jagged arrow         It
    is a bolt of lightning
where it strikes
    I read the line over and over
as if I might discern
    the little fires set
the flames of an idea     licking the page
how knowledge burns     Beyond
    the exclamation point
its thin agreement     angle of surprise
there are questions        the word why
So much is left   
        untold         Between
the printed words     and the self-conscious scrawl
    between     what is said and not
white space framing the story
    the way the past     unwritten
eludes us    So much
    is implication         the afterimage
of measured syntax        always there
    ghosting the margins that words
their black-lined authority
    do not cross          Even
as they rise up         to meet us
    the white page hovers beneath
silent      incendiary    waiting

Sunday, March 2, 2014

galloping past skyscrapers

“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own language, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues trashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers.”

This is a passage by the omniscient narrator of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, who moved to the US when she was 18 to attend college. We Need New Names is Bulawayo's debut novel. The story is one of coming of age and of exile. Like Bulawayo, the protagonist is Zimbabwean who then moves to the US.  The story is told through the eyes of a 10 year old girl, Darling, who recounts her hardscrabble days with her friends in a Zimbabwean shanty town and then relates the everyday Americanisms she encounters and experiences first in Detroit and then Kalamazoo. 

Suzy Feay summarizes some of what Darling experiences:

 Each chapter focuses on a dramatic incident: the children find a hanged body; NGO workers arrive with food parcels; a murdered activist is buried. When the action moves to America, the incidents are more banal but if anything more disturbing: Darling, now a teenager, watches unpleasant porn with friends, runs wild in the mall or goes to clubs where simulated sex on the dance floor is the norm. And then there’s the food; for a child accustomed to going to bed hungry, American food culture is overwhelming and guilt-inducing.

Understandably, when Darling moves to the US, her language changes, as the opening excerpt suggests. The success of Bulawayo's book, however, reveals Bulawayo's ability to unfold the language that refuses to lay trapped inside the experience of exile.

Read a summary of Bulawayo's novel here.

Bulawayo credits her father's storytelling for leading her to words. Her name "NoViolet" means "with Violet," Violet being the name of her mother, who died when Bulawayo was a baby. Read an excerpt of her novel here. 

Bulawayo is the first black African woman writer to be short listed for a Man Booker Prize.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Joseph Boyden in Thunder Bay

This coming week Joseph Boyden will be making a number of appearances at Lakehead University. Along with being the guest speaker at a Literature of Canada's First Nations class, on Wednesday night, March 5th, he will be giving a talk "The Past and the Future are Present: Race Relations in Canada." His talk focuses on the historical research that he did for his latest book, The Orenda, which is a Canada Reads contender.
At Quill and Quire, Kamal Al-Solaylee summarizes the characters at the heart of The Orenda:

The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois ....
The book is not without controversy. At Muskrat Magazine, Hayden King explains that although he wanted to like this book and while its three voiced multiple narrators tell the story from different points of view in hopes of achieving the effect of making ambiguous dichotomous boundaries of good guys vs bad guys, in the end, its story reinforces a narrative that is does not disrupt the familiar settler colonial story of history, hence making it palatable to Canadians:

The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization. The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined happen.
["Orenda" means, as Al-Solaylee explains, "the life force that, according to the Hurons, belongs not just to humans but to 'every last thing' in the natural world."]

Both reviewers point out the vivid descriptions of violence and torture in the book; Hayden calls the violence "excessive," and Al-Solaylee explains it  as "unspeakable cruelty and, yes, savagery – human on human, human on animal, and animal on animal" with ritualistic torture emerging as "orgiastic." Waubgeshig Rice writes that "The book is violent, with scenes of warfare and torture between the Huron and the Haudenosaunee people. Some critics take issue with Boyden’s portrayal of the latter, who are the novel’s antagonists. These issues have grown louder on social media in the lead up to Canada Reads."

I am wondering how Boyden's writing of violence and torture can be read in the context of the explicit and descriptive torture that is so central and popular today in mainstream American movies and TV shows such as Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland, and Django Unchained, all children of American torture, such as at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Black sites, and everyday military acts throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, since 9/11. Other narratives, such as the non-mainstream movie 12 Years a Slave, also make torture part of one's vicarious "entertainment" reality. Where does Boyden's narrative of extreme violence fit in this historical moment of fascination with torture? While in the dominant power relations, white men torture brown bodies (as well as some brown men taking up the military, political, and economic interests of the white dominated American corporate/government), in Boyden's novel, among the purveyors of extreme violence inflicted on others is that of brown men torturing other brown men in the context of colonialism in in that part of Turtle Island which became Canada. 

I am sure the discussion period after Boyden's talk will be lively! 

You can read chapter one here at the Penguin Canada website.

On Thursday, March 6, from 1 - 2 pm, Boyden will be the special guest at the Bannock and Tea hour at the Aboriginal Student Lounge; students are invited to drop in. I have asked my class of Anishnawbe writing students to bring their copy of his deeply inspiring and hopeful speech "Walk to Morning" which we discussed in class, and get it signed by him!

You can hear Boyden tell his "Walk to Morning" story here (10 m.) or read it here. [pdf]

Boyden uses the metaphor 'walk to morning' to mean walk towards hope; although his story is directed specifically to teens and young adults struggling with emotional distress, he  has a healing message for each reader: no matter how difficult things get, you should tell someone about your pain. Walking towards the light of morning can bring small unexpected pleasures that remind us that each day is a gift and we never know what wonders will come our way. Joseph Boyden almost walked into another history and I am not the only one who is glad that he failed at that one. You have to read or listen to his speech to find out what, thank god, he failed at.

When he first gave this speech in 2012, Boyden explained that
This is a very deeply personal thing I’m going to share with you today...It’s not an easy talk to give. I’ve reached the point in my life where I’ve been blessed with some success and I have been afforded an audience who I hope is still willing to listen to me. I don’t want to squander the opportunity to speak just because it would be easier not to. I’m one of eleven children after all and I know how easy it can be to simply fade into the background even when your gut is telling you to raise your voice. And so allow me to raise my voice this afternoon.
This short speech of his is a gift that can inspire many young people. I hope it is shared, read, and listened to widely.

The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. - See more at:
The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. - See more at:

The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. - See more at:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Is This The Future of Art?

source photo by Hrag Vartanian. This mylar site-specific 'artifact' was put up on the wall of the Guggenheim in Manhattan on Sat. Feb. 22 by protesters taking up civil disobedience to draw attention to labour injustices that are part of contemporary museums.

The cited passages below are from Vartanian's article "Protest Action Erupts Inside Guggenheim Museum" published Sat. Feb. 22, 2014 on Hyperallergic, a website that explores art and its discontents.Thanks to my friend Diana McCarty for posting the article on FB.

Specifically, the various groups that banded together ("a diverse group of artists, professors, students, and activists loosely affiliated with Occupy Museums, Gulf Labor, and various NYU-related groups"), staged this action at the NYC Guggenheim to draw attention to the unjust working conditions of migrant workers who are building a new Guggenheim museum, Louvre-branded museums, and a NYC-affliated university in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The museum/art activists link the exploitation of migrant workers with the rising debt that artists today incur and question the forced complicity that this then produces between artists and exploited labourers, which benefits elite museums and universities and their power structures. This intervention is an example of students and professors taking their words out of the academy, working with artists and activists, and putting their words into action in the community, that is, taking up education to help make social change.

Sociology professor Andrew Ross, who was part of the intervention at the museum, explains that

We’re trying to make a connection with chains of debt that are transnational, and in the various locations we’re looking at, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi, NYU, and the art world, there’s an enormous accumulation of debt in each of these places, and the money is getting extracted by the transnational creditor class....And artists are more and more [in debt], and in order to practice art, you’re required to take on a big debt burden … so there’s a connection across many continents.....Artists should not be asked to exhibit in museums that have been built on the back of abused workers … that’s what it boils down to. When you’re acquired by a museum that does that, that’s unfair. Your complicity is being bought along with the artwork.

Expanding on the links between museums and the conditions of exhibiting, and the importance of opening a discussion on the politics of exhibiting, artist Natasha Dhillon explains that the action was “a call for solidarity and a call for museums to do the right’s important for museum goers to understand what kind of system they are participating in.” Her comment makes clear that part of the goal of the action was to interrupt the viewing practices of museum goers, to disrupt familiar ways of looking and interpreting what is in a gallery or museum, what makes up that space, where do the walls of a gallery or museum actually end, and what exactly makes up the contextual field of "the museum" or "the art gallery."

Interestingly, the action for public education on museum practices coincided with the Futurism exhibit and Carrie Mae Weems retrospective at the Manhattan Guggenheim, both which raise discussion on the connections between museums, art, and the politics  and power relations of exhibiting; as Vartanian explains: "Futurism sought to combine art and politics, while Weems is a champion of those who have been historically excluded from museums." The intervention then broadened the context of interpretations that the exhibits had opened up. Weems work intervenes in the historical silencing of African American art and ways of making meanings; the museum protest intervenes in excluding migrant labour workers from the understanding of what constitutes museum space and practices. In the UAE, migrant workers who come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India are racialized and subordinated through hierarchies of race, ethnicity, class, and nationality; they comprise a large percentage of the total 7.8 million migrant workers in the UAE in 2013 (While this number also includes highly-skilled workers, I am not sure if it includes teachers and "expats," a term linked with Anglo and Western white-collar workers that hierachizes and grants race-privilege to non-native workers in higher paid/status jobs, who benefit from the exploitation of racialized migrant workers.)

Making the ideological connections between Saturday's intervention and the two exhibits currently on display, artist Amin Husain,  who has contributed to No Debt is an Island, as part of the art project 52 weeks by the arts collective Gulf Labor, explains that "the context is really appropriate, because they [the Futurists] talked about restructuring the universe, so clearly the museum is giving that some thought at this moment, and we want to talk about restructuring the universe without fascism and without slave labor.” What Husain's words suggest is that museums like the Guggenheim are in some sense showing themselves to be interested in opening up "the Grecian urn" to larger discussions, including the political and the economic, and the intervention last Saturday pushed open that door a bit further.

The action also included a collective chant (see Vartanian's article for the whole chant), which included a challenge to contemporary institutional practices of museums, exposing their embeddedness in an unequal transnational capitalist economy aka neoliberal globalization and questioning the future direction of museums but also asserting that museums need to address justice and take up action towards it:
Museums Should Protect Their Workers,
Museums Should Stand Up For Human Rights
Museums Should Be Raising Labor Standards, Not Lowering Them.
Is This The Future of Art?

photo by Hrag Vartanian. Museum visitors reading the manifesto tacked to the wall beside the introductory text to the Italian Futurism exhibition.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

the tree of life on my morning path

The other day I went for a morning walk upstream McVicar's Creek. I went with my friend Lilian Mattar Patey. I first bicycled to Shuniah Knox United Church, where Lilian is interim minister, to meet her. We then walked north through the neighbourhood, behind Balsam Pit and along Margaret Street to reach the trail by the creek. Along the path, we saw a bunch of marsh marigolds ringing a swamp. Swamps always catch my eye as 'swamp' or 'bog,' which translate to 'suo' in Finnish, is in the very name of Finland in the Finnish language: Suomi. A few steps later on our path, we saw this amazing tree in someone's backyard. It was shining in the morning light; there was no missing it. The tree reminded me of the comforting and desirous beauty of the Tree of Life. It's sheltering arms, perfect symmetry, expansive canopy, circular space, and dusting of white flower petals caught our eye.  
Continuing on our way, we saw this pile of huge stones. I told Lilian that in Suomenusko, the old Finnish beliefs before Christianity came to Finland, stones as well as trees were seen to have spirits. People conversed with stones and trees for healing and for wisdom, going out into the forest for the medicine of trees and stones. Of course, stones and trees have been symbolically important to many peoples and cultures. I told Lilian, well, I don't need to tell a Palestinian like you of the importance of stones. Today stones are the remnants of the Palestinian houses that Israel has destroyed and demolished. Palestinian youth take up stones as resistance against occupation. Indeed,  a new documentary called The Stones Cry Out uses the metaphor, reality, and spiritual strength of stones to tell the story of the ongoing Nakba of Palestine, focusing on its Christian population and heritage.
Lilian's family story is part of the larger dispossession of Christians from Palestine. In the short 6 m. video above you can hear Lilian tell some of the story of her family's displacement from Palestine. She was born in Haifa, but because of the Zionist militia takeover in 1948 her family was forced to flee and found refuge in Al Quds / Jerusalem; however, they eventually met more tragedy. By telling her family's story, Rev. Mattar Patey hopes that people will broaden their understanding of the Palestinian heritage of what is now called  Israel. In 1948, Jerusalem was designated an international administration zone yet, as Lilian's story is an example, since 1967 Israel has taken large parts of it by force and today by demolition and the continuing displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Since burying her father, Lilian has not been back to her home.