Audio of the first leg of Word and Colour’s Summer Reading Series at Cagibi on June 24th, MC’d by Dena Coffman!
Readers, in order of appearance:
See more photos of the reading via @wordandcolour
Audio of the first leg of Word and Colour’s Summer Reading Series at Cagibi on June 24th, MC’d by Dena Coffman!
Readers, in order of appearance:
See more photos of the reading via @wordandcolour
When I was a child, my father would rake leaves in the front yard and when the pile was big enough, he’d pick me up and throw me (almost callously) into them. My father was wild in his younger days; he rode a motorcycle and played bass in an underground funk band. He settled down though, when he married my mother. He had a daughter, and found work as a cashier in a record store of dubious structural integrity but impeccable cultural acumen.
He killed himself when he was sixty-one.
There’s something slyly atavistic about the way the leaves, dried out now since they’ve fallen, feel against my hands as I rustle them gently. From behind the mountain, a small line of smoke stretches thin across the setting sun. Smoke signals at sunset, he says.
We’re quiet after that, for a long time. Uma Thurman had it right; you know you’ve found someone really special when you can just shut the fuck up and sit comfortably in silence, if only for a minute. Silence is a rare thing, and people don’t bother to make time for it anymore. How could they? There’s too many distractions, too many addictions. Screens everywhere, and sitcoms and internet dating websites, reality TV shows and political debate shows and the horrid, overwhelming cascade of contemporary pop music. There’s education and employment, no alternatives, and you’re left to choose between an outdated, meritocratic institution or the dreaded 9-5, an existence that’s so alarmingly mundane it’s turned an entire generation into alcoholics, assholes who waste their weekends on outrageously priced booze and horrific hangovers so as to forget that they owe their time, their lives, to companies who speak only in terms of profit. There’s internet pornography, advertisements and an endless supply of empty entertainment, assailing our senses and undermining our character, our concentration and our connections.
It’s all a joke, a joke with a vicious punch line that relies on the inherent irony of a situation whereby the most connected civilization in the history of humanity is destined to die alone, each and every one of us connected to the internet and nothing else. Where in this hilarious chaos can one be expected to sit and think on the endless potential of the universe, or even the endless potential of the self? I look again to the man beside me, and I tell him I’m afraid that not even the autumn leaves can save me from my vices, from my addictions both good and evil.
Don’t worry, he says. We’ll take refuge in the wilderness.
Don’t worry, he says. Once you’re unplugged, everything will be alright.
CW: trauma, child abuse
The end of March smells like fresh wounds.
I wake up with wasps in my lungs, thorns at my feet,
the heat bleaches through my window
and I am back there but I am not back there.
It will take ten minutes of stillness
before the threat of the sting ceases,
before I can ease the air to my lungs.
In that nervous quiet,
I was born a week too soon, the only on-time I’ve ever been.
You are rushing down the hall to get this shoe and that card —
“Come on, can’t you help me here?!”
My small fingers stretch over the table, clamp around your purse strap, and I pull
until the sack lurches and thuds and spills.
You are in the doorway, noiseless and on fire,
I am on the floor, tangled in handles.
“Are you fucking kidding me? What the fuck are you doing?
Look at this fucking mess! I can always count on you!”
In my uncle’s car, he is laughing. “What took you so long?”
“Well, you know this one,” you say, waving at me.
I was fresh skin and tripping rocks,
wholly infant, tender and wild,
what did I know? what did I know?
A shower is just a shower until a shower is
a white noise sanctuary
to drown you out, to drown me
until you become thunder
banging at a cracking door,
muffling demands, shimmying
a steak knife through the lock mechanism
to get me, to get my attention
again and again
23, I forgot.
24, I remembered.
I am fourteen and I am asking why you hate me.
You are hurt, indignant, asking
“when am I so horrible to you?
when I buy you clothes? when I cook you dinner?
when I let you have friends over?”
I am fourteen and you are right
and it’s only me, ungrateful.
(I am ungrateful still
and maybe I should be better.)
and when we fight, you are saying “let me guess,
you’re going to make me the big bad wolf,
you’re going to twist me into a monster
when you’re the monster!”
so I am being quiet
and I am on the floor
and already my skull is a pulse in a spin cycle,
bleached for nine more years.
A recurring nightmare started at six:
me and several others, shadows creaking,
trapped in a house we couldn’t leave.
A monster slips and slithers the halls
while I hide in low corners.
Sometimes, someone disappeared
and the courtyard statue would bleed.
Sometimes, people would visit the outside
and I would scream from the upstairs window.
They never heard.
School pictures, grade four. I am ten.
You are showing me how to put on concealer
because this is what happens when I won’t stop crying.
I stop crying.
One of my exes stopped coming over the day you threw a plate at her.
“I was aiming for you” you told me,
and “What’s the big deal? It’s just a plate”
so I told her the same.
The ashes I have become
will carry, will scatter,
will soot all they touch.
I’d been moved for months before anything came out,
before “that’s just my mother”
became “oh” and “wait” and —
Now I am mechanisms, symptoms.
Now I am “what else have I forgotten to remember? what else have I? what else?”
Some scars have exact stories,
others appear in the morning, throbbing without explanation.
Do you remember the time
you and Dad removed the training wheels
and I, overexcited, took to the sidewalk,
sped up and down the street from one corner to another?
Hot July sweat tickled, stuck the hair to my neck.
Black leaves willowed against one another in the sun.
The spokes whizzed and my legs churned
until I hit the rock.
The handlebar seized, I flipped,
and you came running.
You cradled me
while I held my scraped palms to bleeding knee.
Soft, warm tears.
You rocked me back and forth, pet my hair, sang to me,
and Dad rummaged for the First Aid.
I wished I could scrape my knee every day.
If I remember you are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
will I forget the skies are grey?
The end of March smells like fresh wounds,
smells like eggs cracking and butter on toast.
In the midst of the spatter, I am shivering.
My hands are not my hands.
I am the nest, the keeper of the wasps, only the container,
the bodily visceral memory
that I can’t remember,
I can’t forget.
I am crying over eggs and I don’t know why.
The child waits,
drawn with shaky fingers
the thick lines of a blue whale’s eyes come into focus
out of the abyss of the great white ocean
the form is coaxed into being
and with the life ink has given stretches its fins
scratchy and ruthless the strokes of the pen dig into the paper
tearing tiny holes into the surface of the water
the whale grins as bubbles tickle its thick heavy body
the sound of thudding boots on carpet makes its thunderous arrival outside the door
and still the child waits
shoulders hunched around ears
eyes trained on the figure
silent in the middle of the page
a splinter of sound against the door
the pen lifts, the child listens
thrashing in the stagnant water
the whale gasps for the breath of true life
begging for movement
the pen smashes down against the eye
and in desperation, blots more black against it
willing it to see, to see, to see
and for a moment out of the blackness
there is a hazy figure, blue paint, red carpet, pictures shaking against the wall
but then suddenly the pen digs too deep
and the whale sinks
deeper, deeper, deeper
until neither can see
I didn’t taste a mango until early adulthood. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a problem of mango availability; I just didn’t like the idea of them. They were messy and sticky and watching someone eat that orange flesh was grotesque enough to put me off it entirely. Juice would dribble down their chin and then the sucking and slurping would commence. As a child, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My mother, long and sinewy, with skin as dark as polished wood, would offer me half of her mango. Usually, this would happen when she was barefoot in our garden, patterned fabric draped over her shoulders, a look that was very unusual in our Canadian suburb. Each time she offered I would shake my head no. I would feel a pang of embarrassment in my gut, even if no one was there to see. Over the years, she persisted despite my resistance. By my teenage years, all she had to do was reach for a mango for me to dismissively utter No thanks. I now recognize the sadness that would cross her eyes each time I would refuse a piece of her fruit, requesting an apple instead. My mother loved when mangos became available in stores, they were the only product she would splurge on because they reminded her of home.
I first visited my mother’s home, Martinique, when I was in my early twenties. It was strange seeing her in her element like that. She seemed to glide across the sand, her luminous hair flecked with silvery strands, fastened with a flower. I tried to mimic her, but my feet weren’t used to the uneven terrain of sand and my hair seemed to reject every flower that tried to nestle between its curls. When I tripped for the fifth time, my mother smiled and sat down next to me. I was clearly frustrated with my lack of grace and I think my mother sensed that. We sat in silence for a moment watching the waves. My mother reached into her tote bag and extracted a mango. Carefully, she sliced it into halves. Tentatively, she offered me a half. For the first time I accepted, happy to share something with my mother.
‘See you later,’
I say to you
as I leave you for the last time.
I do not know it yet, but when I return
our pool will be dry.
There will be no evidence
of our glorious summer days
soaking in the sun;
nor remnants of our gin-soaked laughter,
as we trudge through the snow in the winter.
You are gone; I wish I were.
I see telephone lines as they reach through the countryside,
searching for you,
and I feel your voice vibrate through your body,
while I rest my head on your chest.
I see the curve of an arch,
and I remember how miraculously our bodies fit together.
Brother Bird alights on the silver birch, branches siphoned off from the moons with the frazzle of leaves. Golden leaves that lace the night, and the crinkly coins of the newcomers seem mawkish compared to these yellow hands coursing with veins and sugars. They wave incomprehensible at the new hands, which are different, all white and papery, pockmarked and brine-stained after a journey in a strained wooden frame. These hands are weaving into the woods uncouth and unwanted, gesticulating with the urgency of papers that make crisp noises as they fall into neat stacks on a knotted wood desk. They are dizzying themselves amongst these leaves that are falling from the birch. They are blanketing the grounds in smooth white words all flat and stark. The leaves are browning and returning to the earth. Winter is setting in.
Brother Bird thinks the spindly limbs of the trees seem ethereal from way up in the vapour. The white sheets with marks blackened by some unfortunate quill feather read like an ambiguous pattern. And the voices, which nest among the trees, seem strangely silent. Brother Bird thinks he sees tracts of smoke creeping westward from the shores, though the gales of wind are moistening his eyes and humming auspicious in his ears. The season of snow is bound to pass, says Brother Bird, giddily to himself. The air is brusque and flapping papers up, loose from their death grip on the grounds. They dissolve within the frail wisps of sunlight hitting Brother Bird’s head.
Centuries passed and the smithy whiteness blew through the trees, prying the bark back with all the soft power of snowflakes. Sap soldered with this milky presence, which poured all its white ink into etching the soft underbelly of the trees. There are new names now and the first peoples are dogs that bark. Or stoic like the trees, so the papers say. Then a white paper descends from some federal courier and is acclaimed for its difference. This paper ought to be peopled with leaves from when the first storm blew through. Pulling the pressed leaves out of dusty yellowed spines of books and planting seeds in the margins. But the paper that is published offends like blots of lead, or clammy hands in a handshake. White hot rage settles and Brother Bird swallows another bitter seed.
this short story, “White Paper, was written by Keah Hansen
and inspired by Juan Travieso’s “Endangered Bird #131”
from the author: “I wrote this piece about the White Paper Act of the Trudeau government of 1969. I was inspired by different modalities of expression, represented in the layering of the artwork. The layering of the artwork also made me think of erasure and censorship, which occurs when cultural worlds clash, and the irony in a paper literally titled the ‘White Paper’ that was intended to give representation to Indigenous peoples.”
This article contains references to a variety of forms of abuse.
I do not have the privilege to consider discussions of violence as intriguing places to display my intellect. I do not have the privilege to enter these talks as though it’s a game, to ‘play’ and say things in the tone of a dramatized television series politician before leaving the ideas behind when I exit the arena.
Instead I teach and I speak and I read and I write and I talk and I laugh and my body is still injured by the lazy romanticizations of violence from people who consider it meaningful because of its perceived deviance and sense of foreignness from their experiences, like the teenage boy who thinks he will become a man the first time he has sex. I am patient and I learn and I speak to paid listeners and I meditate and I fight and I exercise and I control addictions to substances or work or hobbies or people and I am still haunted by ghosts and still I react to conflicts in public that others have the luxury to laugh off.
Look at the people around you. Whether you are on the bus or at work or in line or in class or at the gym or in a library or in a grocery store or on the sidewalk many of the people around you do not have the luxury to ponder the presence of violence because they are hurt, trying to heal, about to be attacked again.
I often see groups of people who have not been injured ruminating among themselves over how violence feels or should feel or if it exists at all. Never do these talkers consider to ask the person with the snapped rib if their pain feels real. The argument seems instead that it is impossible to break a bone if the person speaking has not had their bones broken.
Whole cities, planets, must not exist to these people.
Survivors of violence do not have the luxury to engage in such conversations about the illusory nature or impact of violence because we are busy tearing off band-aids and pouring peroxide over wounds or wincing as wrists are pulled and re-broken. We do not consider to ask one another for proof because we have seen the x-rays.
Right now, you likely can’t tell which person around you is surviving violence because we have learned that hiding the tangible evidence of the faults for those who have attacked us is more important than our well-being. Complicated by the fact that Canadian society prefers to punish those who have been attacked than to address those who attack others, we blend. Because so much violence is also not as tangible as a bruise, hiding it is easier than you might think.
While many of these survivors around you listen to the opinions of those who have not been hurt about the proper ways to heal, know they do not take them seriously when they choose to philosophize about the existence or impact of violence. Let’s say a few volleyball players who have never played hockey suggest that hockey should be banned from television because it is too violent. In the least, they suggest, remove all checking from the sport. As a hockey player, how seriously do you take their opinion?
“I often see groups of people who have not been injured ruminating among themselves over how violence feels or should feel or if it exists. Never do these talkers consider to ask the person with the snapped rib if their pain feels real.”
1. The first glaring flaw of the anti-trigger warning speaker is that they believe their opinion to be binding. How seriously do surgeons take the advice of people who have never studied medicine?
2. The weakest and least creative arguments use violence as seasoning. Ask a survivor how much violence improved or ‘exoticized’ their life. How appreciative they were for the growth provided by the experience. The impulse to use trauma tourism as an attempt to expand the perceived depth of one’s personality or work is a mistake. Put in the work or do not touch the subject.
3. The laziest flaw of anti-trigger warnings is a confused connection to censorship. This is the volleyball player who, when a goalie asks for a helmet, suggests that goalies should not wear helmets because they won’t play if they wear them. Besides ignoring the request, this reaction is based on a bizarre logic and seems inspired by a fear of complexity, more designed to rationalize intellectual laziness than to resolve an urgent problem.
“A few volleyball players who have never played hockey suggest that hockey should be banned from television because it is too violent. In the least, they suggest, ban checking from the sport. How seriously do you take their opinion?”
4. The thin foundation of anti-trigger warning advocates is the suggestion that it is possible to speak about a topic without being political. That language has the capacity to be objective-as though omission and history and socialization are separable from experience as a socialized person speaking a language. This is particularly embarrassing to hear when the people are speaking English. Ask nations across the world how they came to learn this language.
5. The person without a history of violence who resists trigger warnings suggests that the bodies around them do not matter as much as the protection of their isolated beliefs. Neurologists have demonstrated that memory of pain and language registers in the same part of the brain as does immediate physical pain.
The last objective of any serious critical discussion should the impossible attempt to exempt ourselves from complicity through passionate defenses of laziness in order to avoid fixing a critical problem. Passive inaction is required for many forms of violence to continue. Don’t be an accessory to murder because your ego was too threatened to adapt.
To the anti-trigger warning camp: grow out of the lazy philosophical presumptions of being able to speak for ‘all’ and ask how to become the accomplices of survivors in your classrooms, in your workplaces, in your romantic relationships, and among your friends, who may not have felt comfortable sharing their history of trauma with you. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t probe. If they do, help them to destroy the insecure ways of socializing people that has normalized and required violence to exact legitimacy (see: mass incarceration; we’re legitimate because we attacked ______ to keep you safe). This philosophy of power has trickled into the structures of our social relationships.
These models of social power relations are outdated and will be crushed. What side will you be on when they are history? The side furiously suggesting that they were not affected by words? Or the side that acknowledged the humanity of those around them and who worked to dismantle the violence that they internalized, from where their luxuries were drawn?
“The last objective of any serious discussion should be the impossible attempt to exempt ourselves from complicity through passionate defenses of laziness in order to avoid resolving a critical problem.”
I want to conclude with a complication of the “survivors” I’ve been using in this piece. I am referring to survivors of violence. I am a ‘survivor’ of child abuse. I do not aim to speak on behalf of all child abuse survivors. We are nuanced. The last time I checked, for example, a cousin of mine was abusing women in the way that he was abused by a woman as a child. I would likely be doing the same should I have lived through his exact conditions because conditions are largely responsible for the development of abusive behaviours (to avoid pain). I fail and I have failed others and I continue to fail for a variety of other attacked groups. Accepting the imperfections of my attempts because of my status as a nuanced human being seems vital to moving forward, toward healthier and less-violent ways of organizing and relating to each other. Protecting self-assessed conceptions of my illusory perfection through passionate defenses of laziness does not.
If you are unable to move past the guilt, and you are not a person dealing with trauma, know that we do not take your tantrums on violence seriously. You may threaten us. You may even attack us. Know that these reactions prove that our society relies on violence when it does not want to do the work of fixing a complex problem. Aligning yourself with passionate laziness is a bad look. Engaging with complex issues requires patience, and we are ready for you to learn how to be an accomplice and join us in the fight. Know that we will also be complete without it.*
The colour, “bla bla bla,” was provided by illustrator Marie Mainguy, who does not necessarily endorse the opinions of the author
Recommended works that continue this discussion
Siede, Caroline.”Sarah Silverman Sides with College Students in the Great PC War,”A.V. Club, 16 Sept 2015.
What’s The Deal With Trigger Warnings?, PBS Idea Channel, 16 Sept 2015.
Ahmed, Sara. “Against Students,” The New Inquiry, 29 June 2015.
Carter, Angela. “Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy,” Disability Studies, (35), 2, 2015.
Livingston, Kathleen Ann Livingston. “On Rage, Shame, ‘Realness,’ and Accountability to Survivors,” Harlot, (2), 2014.
Mate, Gabor. List of articles
Mate, Gabor. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Vintage Canada, 2009.