A reader’s digest, complete with digressions.
Everyone knows the link between reading and writing. As Nora Ephron says, “reading is grist, reading is bliss.” If you want to be a writer you have to be a reader; it’s reciprocally enriching – you are what you eat. But sometimes I have a case of the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. The more I read and listen and watch, the more the paralysis sets in. Everyone has said it; everything has been made so knowable, and in such an elegant or ironical or lyrical way. I can’t possibly contribute – all I feel is fog.
Something has to change. Because when it comes to reading I no longer believe that you are are what you eat. All eating has done is usher in moments of recognition followed fast by fogginess and bloating. Instead I now commit to this: you are what you digest. So here is my reader’s digest, complete with digressions. I am chronically distracted; I cannot adhere to a straight line or a straight review. But let’s see what lines emerge from my tumble of media consumption. I don’t place books above other forms of media. Books are beautiful but articles, lectures, interviews, films, tv, poems, and podcasts are fair game for digestion, too. Of course part of me knows that this insistence on the quality of media sources other than books is a self-soothing kind of permission slip. Academic or investigative articles may be brilliant but often come to me via Twitter accounts or email newsletters: excellent selections or plugs from people that I trust and admire, but such curation comes to me most often via distraction and addiction and the abandonment of the little life of my own work. Even when I’m not at a screen trying to get work done I don’t always let myself stretch my legs and get off the media train. Podcasts keep me company a little too often when I am cooking or walking. I need to get back to enjoying just hanging out with my own mind. It is my tentative hope that future instalments of this Digest/Digress may contain less internet-based media. Not because such media possess inferior quality, but because I yearn for a different, if not superior, quality of life.
It has been a big week in Aotearoa New Zealand for sexual assault stories. Perhaps even more traumatic than the trauma inflicted (impossible, utterly impossible, but almost) is the poor apportioning of consequences to the perpetrators. I am not for prison as a solution, but I am for responsibility and acknowledgement and apology and transformation. To witness remorse is a healing thing. To know that the harm will not transmit, transmute, mutate into the next iteration of pain is an even greater peace. But we’re not doing well on any of these fronts. This week I’ve read excellently reported stories of the Roastbusters and terribly reported stories of (hastily retired) Massey University Head of Journalism Grant Hannis. My skin roils with an infestation of dis-ease: the kind of disgust that telegraphs us back to our own moments of violation. I tell myself it’s good to be informed; that reading these stories is almost an act of solidarity with the survivors and victims: if they can’t opt out of their nightmare then why should I have that luxury? But that almost is important – it is not solidarity. Information is not action. Can words count as action? I know, for sure, that the absence of words can signal inaction, as in the terribly bleak case of Lyn Dawson. Missing, most likely murdered, but not spoken for. No one agitated for her. No one spoke aloud their misgivings. Maxine Beneba Clarke has just become the poet laureate for The Saturday Paper in Melbourne. Her brief is to write a poem in response to the world at her feet each week. Her first contribution makes me feel that words might matter. Melbourne has seen its own fresh hell of violent rapes and murders of femmes, and Clarke makes the point that so many of us suffer at home, in the dark, without spotlight or mourning. But Clarke’s words came on the same day that I learned of the public vigil for Xi Wang. Finally named; finally remembered. Naming is powerful. But there have been other times this week where, despite reading powerful testimony to the contrary, I lost my faith in the potency of calling things by their true names.
On Saturday, in a perpendicular fold at the waist, I half-stood-half-lay at the bed as a familiar dull throb of something like depression sat in my throat. Ryan entered the room and sat near me on the floor, saying nothing. He waited long enough that my numb little thrum turned to pins and needles. Like a tentative blood supply returning to pressed nerves I started pricking and picking out threads from the knot of nothing. Not nothing, after all, but something. Isn’t depression a reasonable response to witnessing pain and suffering and creeping environmental oblivion and systemic racism, I asked? Isn’t it rational to become numb after feeling so much? After feeling and trying and failing and feeling and trying and failing and feeling and try-. I listened to Robin Diangelo’s lecture on the Wheeler Centre podcast last night in the bathroom as I combed oil through my hair. Everything she said sounded familiar, except the part where she (a white lady – a white, progressive lady) said out loud and with full, personal pronoun-filled, active voice: “I am racist.” Not because she feels superior or performs aggressions or cruelties or personal slurs, but because she benefits from systemic racism. I suppose that utterance is what must have pressed down onto my sensory nerves. Not a fragile, knee-reflexive denial but a whole-hearted, open-palmed YES – me too, that’s me. I am the nice, informed, empathetic, well-worded, service-minded, yet inexorably racist person, too.
The pressure of that hypocrisy – the knowledge and inchoate acceptance of it – must have started to press on my nerve endings (fragile, after all). I live in a borrowed house on a heavily white-populated island in a gulf that was peacefully and productively and meaningfully occupied for centuries before I came to be here. In conversation with Toni via Instagram’s DM backchannel I realised that each day I visit the little promontory near our house and look out at the bay in order to swap my personal wavelets of worry for those soft sea swells. How dare I critique settler-colonialism when my own heart and health rests upon the knowledge of the sea; when my own shelter and residence rests upon the title of the stolen land. I’ve felt like making myself small and dialling down my voice – my loud, privileged, racism-enabled voice – and started questioning the merits of language. In another Instagram DM backchannel Betty talked about words as acts: that using words to unsettle fellow settlers is a legitimate contribution, increasing understanding and awareness and rippling outwards. I was sceptical but when forced to think about my own ways in to colonial consciousness I had to admit that they had all come from reading the writing of settler-colonial theorists and poets.
My next concern, though, is why that consciousness matters – what can we do with it; how can we mobilise our understanding and shame and horror and curiosity toward liberation? Even though my privilege (my racism) allows me day-to-day freedom, I am not truly free until all are free. The I is not what matters, anyhow. Any priority placed upon an I not only centres me and my privileged experience, but it centres human beings – all those beings that occupy an I as they traverse their tiny speck of time on earth. We (all of the I‘s) should not be the units which matter most. Decolonisation is nothing more and nothing less than a new-old (past, present, future) world order for the overthrow of anthropocentrism. Last year my thesis supervisors listened to some of these themes and commented that I seemed to have let myself get caught up in an ethical tangle. One of my weaknesses is that my first reaction to appraisal is often one of incense. But their words have stuck with me and my first reaction abides: isn’t is necessary to be in an ethical tangle? Is there any other way to be? I am scared of people who do not sit with tangles and tension – scared of those who attempt to extricate themselves from their necessary ensnarement in nets of ethical concerns. The trick, of course, is to avoid becoming so tangled as to become unable to move or act or think or give. But that disavowal of I, the simple demotion of people from the podium of importance might be the way. If I am not important, then my shame and horror and guilt are not important. I can act and contribute because the I-on-a-pedastal has died. The heart-head knowledge of the sea and the safety-shelter of the land have to work for everyone. We can’t transcend a people-first mentality if we’re still not recognising the personhood of all people. We need to take up as little space as possible – and by that I mean in the sense of domination. Expression is different: there is space, enough, for expression and words and earnest (yet ever-tangled) acts. Infinite space. So perhaps we need words to chip away at domination over our fellow I’s and over this earth, in this small corner of space. Infinite space.
There’s always the possibility that this bigger-than-human logic is just another self-soothing free pass.
But I digress.