A Positioning, Not a Question
by Nasrin Himada
Knowing I am from a place I’ve never been makes me into you. A settler in Canada.
The backdrop is always there – behind me. Palestine is there.
“You keep following me,” I imagine saying under my breath.
But Palestine is also beside me: always a thought in fruition, like a companion for life.
And sometimes I feel as though it is in me, creeping up from my stomach, getting caught in my throat. Palestine is pain.
At times, Palestine is facing me. I see. There is nothing there. Too much is there.
“May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth.”
(Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme)
That is the way I live Palestine – as a memory to come, as a memory in the making.
Memory is where I come from.
Palestine’s story is summoned through enunciation:
Through what I see, how I read, what I say, how I say what I say. There is rigour in performance:
“The great potency of potentiality.”
(Clarice Lispector, Água Viva)
This is pre-personal.
Uttering the words, “I am Palestinian,” is an act of love.
Uttering the words, “I am a prison abolitionist,” is an act of love too.
Sometimes I confuse the two.
After all, it is in practice that counts:
“Could it be that what I am writing to you is beyond
(Clarice Lispector, Água Viva)
The practice of saying what is me, in the actual, realizes a you.
Palestine is you.
Beginning From The Middle
A year ago, I repeatedly watched Ana Mendieta’s filmed performance Body Tracks. It is a performance/painting/film shot on Super 8 in a gallery space in 1974. The film is one minute long, in colour and silent. Mendieta’s back is to the camera; she is standing up against a white wall, her arms extending up and outwards in a V. She starts to slide down the wall, slowly, methodically, her arms coming closer together but never touching. As she slides down the white wall two red streaks follow from her arms, her arms moving with the rest of her body all the way down to her knees, at first marking red curves on the white wall, and then straighter lines down to the floor, all in one continuous movement. Mendieta then gets up, off her knees, looks at the tracks she made, what her arms made, her sleeves soaked in (steer) blood. She turns and walks off-screen.
I am reminded of the concept of prearticulation that philosopher and dancer Erin Manning came up with to express “the feltness of language in the moving, before the saying, between the words.”1 Mendieta’s film is all but one minute long, but the effect of the movement that results in these tracks is haunting and at the same time comforting. The act/performance/painting is extraordinary and I am left with an enduring sensation. One I am not able to name or express in words in any language I know. The effect of pre articulation ensues, as if under a spell, and with no words to describe the experience of the feeling or sensation I am compelled only to return to the piece again and again. In this way, the video creates a constitutive relationship with the sensation of prearticulation. This is material in the sense that it’s felt in the body. Thinking is what is going on here; thinking as sensual experience. I return to the piece. It has me entrapped in the prearticulation of a thought; Mendieta’s Body Tracks has a hold on me.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I wrote to a friend: “I keep thinking about Ana Mendieta, about all the blood, the violence in her work and in her life, how they are entangled with earth, the Rape Scene piece, her fucked up husband who probably killed her. I am freaked out and can’t sleep. For real, I had insomnia last night because I kept thinking she was going to appear in my dreams.”
The intensity of the hold is activated through the compulsion to return to Mendieta’s work, the instant of which is felt in a prearticulated state. This feeling is un-nameable. But, I also refuse to try and describe its logic, analyze its intention, read it as a representation – as something that stands in for something else. The red of the blood is not the art object. Mendieta’s body is not its subject. Neither are we – the audience, the viewer.
Brian Massumi writes on the encounter with art, “We never just register what’s actually in front of our eyes. With every sight we see imperceptible qualities, we abstractly see poten- tial, we implicitly see a life dynamic…because something has happened: the body has been capacitated. It’s been relationally activated. It is alive in the world, poised for what may come.”2
How then do we examine a situation from the point of view of its possibility, its life dynamic?
What is Body Tracks helping me think?
In watching Mendieta’s filmed performance, I decide it is a poem. I decide it helps me think of the power of the poem. Our bodies give life to expression that resists containment in articulation. They resist making sense. The power of poetry resides in language, specifically in how language is used to register the experience of the inexpressibility of thought. The power of poetry also resides in the image, in the composition of an image, what breaks perception open. For this reason, I read Body Tracks as a poetic event. Its duration felt in intensity expresses the breakdown of category.
In watching Mendieta’s piece as a poem, I am moved by Denise Ferreira da Silva’s conceptualization of Poethics: “A Black Feminist Poethics becomes here in a World imaged as endless Poethics: that is, existence toward the beyond of Space-Time, where The Thing resists dissolving any attempt to reduce what exists – anyone and everything – to the register of the object, the other, the commodity.”3
At times, I am not moved by your solidarity. You don’t know, and you will never know how anti-Palestinian racism is felt or experienced, what that does, how it apprehends the body. And it is in this not knowing that separates me from you, and makes me different than you. Our difference is marked: politically, bodily, emotionally and intellectually. Upon acknowledging this difference I understand that solidarity is not about unity. It’s about the dissolve that Silva speaks of. That is why I write, “Palestine is you.” The power of poetry for me, the power of writing, is the power of expressing what feels impossible to express in language. How do we move beyond modes of representation that deem the object/subject as readable? I want to write away from what I think I understand. The power of the poem resides here: in making felt the process whereby an expression is coming to terms with un-thought.
“The act of writing is the act of making soul, alchemy.”
The poem expresses fleeting instants that make me and unmake me. Sometimes the instants undo a sigh, other times they fire up rage; mostly, in urgency, they are quick to leave the body. I read and write poetry as a practice. I think of writing as a practice that honours my process, my experience, as it continuously changes in the instant: the Poethics of process as practice conjoins words to life, to how we live in a body.
In how I experience time, giving time to time, time to appreciate the ways in which in bed we lie in difference, in separation; we lie in between what comes to be touch. And that gesture bears no repetition, that’s what we get addicted to. How it can never happen the same way twice. Going back for more is probably what we want to call love. But it’s affection in its purest form and that’s what we take for granted, touching someone we want to touch us lets us let go, give in to what’s real in the world. We’re then really part of the misery and it’s all that we can do to remind ourselves that we have a body.
Palestine, A Haunting
Palestine is what I return to each time I write, and in returning to it, another proposition is made: What next? For me, having never been there, Palestine is more an apparition than a place. An apparition that keeps me in check, that reminds me of where I come from, that shows me there is always possibility in many returns. Palestine has attached itself to me. It does not belong to you. Palestine is a positioning, not a question. It is definitely not your question. “The Palestine question” is not a question, and certainly not one that needs your probing, or is interested in your investigating, or your scrutinizing. It is not an object that names your politics, radicalizes your research, glorifies your genre. How about instead: “The settler question.”
I am committed to Palestine because it grounds me in something felt, a lived experience, where memory is formed, that is part of how I constitute a history, even a fantasy. When I call it in, Palestine appears. And that is what informs my practice. It is heritage-based so as not to forget that Palestine is a place that is of the body. My commitment to Palestine is in not forgetting that there is power in honouring lineage in the flesh. And it is through the flesh that memory is created, activated, released, expressed and thought. It is through the body that I write Palestine; its appearance is a haunting. A haunting because for me Palestine is always there in thought. This haunting is what keeps the possibility for thinking alive. Writing brings me closer to thinking, and hence, my capacity for expression is renewed.
Feeling Palestine in proximity helps me consistently question what I do.
Talking to a friend, she asked how, as an immigrant, do I think of myself as Canadian? I simply replied that I don’t. I said: “I don’t ever say I am Canadian. It’s not only that I am not from here; I don’t want to be from here. This is not a place to be from. I am Palestinian, and my position as such is one that refuses the politics of settler colonialism. So as long as I live here and not there I am responsible for giving this land back to the people to whom it belongs. That is the responsibility I carry here, to give the land back.”
Feeling Palestine in proximity helps me think about decolonization.
Decolonize Or Die
The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG) is an anti-racist, anti-colonial poetry collective that has written many manifestos and critiques against the on-going racism and white privilege in the conceptual poetry scene. Most recently, they ran their own Twitter feed campaign to denounce Vanessa Place’s Twitter project, where she tweets racist language from the awful book Gone With The Wind using a photo of Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played Mammy in the film, as her avatar.4
Before the call to denounce Place was visible on Twitter, MCAG had already written a beautiful manifesto directly connecting conceptual poetry practices to white supremacy. This manifesto, “The Mongrel Coalition Killed Conceptualism,” was published online shortly after Kenneth Goldsmith performed “The Body of Michael Brown.”5 This is an excerpt from MCAG’s piece:
_For those of you defending, indifferent, and silent – we are shouting at you. We see you. Your silence does not protect you from judgment; it secures the legacy of your fathers.
If you feel surprised – and shout – “we didn’t know” shout only now
“this isn’t okay” – do us a favor and stop performing the masquerade of innocence.
KG, VP, the Imperial “conceptualist” approach is not surprising. It’s racism downloaded and updated for our times. It’s always been racist. The film of cream cheese.
Excavate your lives, memories, “art” – do not let go of the fissures,
the echoes of colonial pillaging you inherited
“But he always did this”: Exactly. And where were you?
We call for this facade of “art” and “poetry” to be forever de-legitimized, dismantled and archived (do not forget or forgive).
because it has been made clear that only some bodies will be granted life because the white colonial fantasy sustains a war against black and indigenous life
because the imaginary of white supremacy exists to suppress our incantations (how else could it survive?)
and the only defense they give is defense of their right to bear arms we are impatient and mongrelized and will not rest without
FULL ACCOUNTABILITY AS OUR VENGEANCE
full accountability as our vengeance
We invoke you to claim your place on one side of the tracks get the fuck out of your white supremacist togas
No more cowering under the liberal cry of “too much yelling.”
No more cowering under “I don’t believe in public shaming.”
YOUR PUBLIC SHAME WILL NOT ECLIPSE OUR (PRIVATE) PAIN. DECOLONIZE OR DIE._
I first encountered MCAG when a friend in Los Angeles sent me a link to this manifesto, which is published on the group’s website. Upon reading it, I instantly felt protected, engaged, like someone had my back. The adamant refusal to accommodate, to forgive, to give excuses, to let artists and poets get away with utter racist bullshit – there is no space here for that. Like MCAG writes: “because the white colonial fantasy sustains a war against black and indigenous life.”
This is as serious as it gets, but the thing is, it is never taken seriously enough. What is at stake – in how we position ourselves, how we do and say what we do in art or poetry – is life itself. How do I contend with this as a writer? I am in agreement with poet Kenji C. Liu when he writes about MCAG’s manifestos as opening up possibilities that push us to ask, “What is a mongrel poetics?”
MCAG employs the strategic use of high intensity critique to interesting effect. In my view, it’s a recognition that more polite forms of engagement often go unheard. Politeness and respectability are the entry fees to middle-class whiteness, preconditions one must meet before whiteness deigns to listen. It’s a privileged refusal to listen unless the other submits to civilized (colonial) terms of conversation. mcag is a refusal of that refusal, as well as a firm, sharp poke into the nest.6
I am in support of MCAG. I am in support of refusing the white refusal to listen to voices that don’t conform to colonial standards of politeness, etiquette and approach to conversation or confrontation. I think it’s necessary to do so frequently: to put into practice a mongrel poetics. But I also know I get exhausted “by the body load of speaking up.”7
This is when I turn to art, and to poetry and to writing. To release this exhaustion into something else that can still express the refusal of that refusal. In a way, that is why Mendieta’s filmed performance became a point of return for me. That performance refuses something that I feel in affinity with, in its wordless expression. Even if I don’t know. Even when I am not in the know. When I write that my practice is heritage-based, lineage in the flesh, I am referring to struggle in its iterations of expression: what a body lives with, and how a body lives. In writing through/with/for Mendieta, I am gathering my people close, I am reaching out for help, I am choosing my allies. Mendieta is one. mcag is another. In writing, especially in writing about art, I know I feel less alone. In reading, and especially in reading poetry, I know I am less alone. Writing is how I know I am not alone in struggle. The art of poetry, and the poetry of art, help me live in proximity to those who know that a body knows. And it is in the body that I feel knowledge form, and it is from the body that I want to continue to shout, “This isn’t okay.” Because I know.
When MCAG writes, “DECOLONIZE OR DIE,” it is just that clear: DECOLONIZE OR DIE.
The act of speaking up is an act of love; it is a practice of abolition in the everyday. At the same time, I understand that, given exhaustion, remaining silent is an act of love as well, an act of self-preservation. But my intention is to practice speaking up in the various ways that I can, specifically through writing. The violence of racism is real. Its effect is more than palpable. It seems obvious but bears repeating. This is trauma on the body that lives in the flesh. This is the difference that separates me from you, my white friend. Even if you’re in solidarity with whatever, the concern should be with you.
In the words of Fred Moten, this is what I mean: “the ones who happily claim and embrace their own sense of themselves as privileged ain’t my primary concern. I don’t worry about them first. But, I would love it if they got to the point where they had the capacity to worry about themselves. Because then maybe we could talk. That’s like that Fred Hampton shit: he’d be like, ‘white power to white people. Black power to black people.’ What I think he meant is, ‘look: the problematic of coalition is that coalition isn’t something that emerges so that you can come help me, a maneuver that always gets traced back to your own interests. The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?’”8
With that, I say: Watch out. There is a mongrel amongst you.