Jackie Wang’s presentation (via Skype) for the Colored Bitches in a White Boy World: Innovative Others and Identity Aesthetics panel which was presented at &Now Boulder on 9/27/13
I am writing this on the subway in Glasgow, Scotland. I don’t know why I want to see if I can write this whole talk on the tube. (Perhaps I want to prove to myself that writing and life happen at the same time, that they are not separate.) There is an old woman sitting across from me. Her nose is pink. I watch her touch the band-aided thumb of her grandson while her daughter speaks to her two young children in French. I could get off at the next stop and go to the university library, but something inside me says stay. I will stay. I will stay on this train and try to figure out what it means to be a woman of color who writes. Is this what it means, this insistence on being in the world? To be integrated, by necessity. To speak from a place, always, even when I am not speaking of myself.
Last night I dreamed I made a home for myself in a beachside bungalow. As I looked out of my wide window at the marvelous ocean vista I thought to myself—my life is going to be great. I imagined that I would finally be able to feel comfortable but something stopped me from feeling comfortable. I lived in a town where people loved to throw flamboyant themed parties and though I knew I was lucky to be among those allowed to bear witness to these glitzy spectacles, I always felt weird and excluded. At one party I volunteered to be “the sober one” just to feel myself in relation to the crowd, thus making my sobriety a “duty” and not just Asian flush.
Most of my dreams can be put into two categories: dreams where I am out of place and anxious, or dreams where I am at home and comfortable. The “at home” dreams usually appear to me as touch, a feeling of warmth that fills the body when I am embraced by a human who wants to love me. Their touch makes me feel so safe I don’t want to leave. In the other type of dream everything is dangerous and threatening, or conspiring against me in more innocuous ways. The paranoid logic of these dreams can make banal, everyday situations—like eating dinner with someone else’s family—terrible. In these dreams I always find myself inside someone’s house, fumbling to figure out how things work while the residents quietly judge me for my bad manners and ignorance of house etiquette. The unnerving feeling that something is off, the incommunicable sense of being out of place: these paranoid dreams mirror the experience of being a woman of color who writes. In these dreams there is always something invisible lurking that makes you anxious: an ambient fear, an unnameable force that threatens to undo you at every turn, or even just a vague feeling that you do not belong.
I don’t remember when I started being a woman of color or a writer but claiming either has always been fraught. What is the woman of color’s system of reality? Not any one thing, of course. But for me it has something to do with feeling that you are without a world, that the world was not made for you. (And because the world does not belong to you, you do not belong in the world.) Not belonging in the world is a peculiar place to occupy for it is not a place at all but floating. It is kind of like being unable to put your feet on the ground...yet nobody knows you are hovering 6 inches above the ground because you’re always wearing really long pants...everyone just thinks you have unusually long legs!
Though I have always written, it has never been easy for me to claim the title “writer.” That is why I call my writings “traces” and not “works”: they are the remainder of a life spent in search of a place that does not exist, because the place where the woman of color lives and writes does not yet exist (she is making it all the time). As a queer woman of color I am a desiring-alien and this desire sometimes takes the form of a dream of wholeness, of home. Imagine a weepy alien who strolls through city streets with her suitcase, always carrying a suitcase because she is a go-between gal.
So many of these essays and talks are addressed to white people, in the form of a litany of grievances. But I would like to use this opportunity to address young women of color who like to write. I say “who like to write” because so many young women of color do not identify as “writers” because they feel illegitimate and unworthy.
Here’s what I would like to say to them:
Dear young woman of color who likes to write,
I too am young, so this is as much addressed to me as it is you. It is with you that I am trying to figure this all out.
It was probably obvious to you from the moment you set out to write that training yourself to not be diffident is, as women of color, as much a part of the practice of writing as the actual writing. It is a matter of making your voice louder than the voice of the proverbial white man inside you—the voice that says your writing is trivial; that you should feel bad about not making belletristic art; that you will never be Great. The cumulative space he and his system of reality take up in the world is proportionate to the loudness of his voice inside your head. Who is this white man? He is merely a stand-in for power, and we all have a relationship with power.
There are many things you can expect to encounter. In white circles you may feel profoundly misunderstood. You may be loved for your portrayals of reckless girlhood or even your rigorous engagement with communization theory but not, say, your interest in prison literature and the black radical tradition, or the nuances of your understanding of girlhood, all the ways in which it is racialized. Your literary heroes may not be the heroes of the ones who claim you as kin. You will become extremely adept at occupying spaces where you don’t quite belong, and while people may marvel at your grace and intellectual dexterity—you will dream of a space expansive enough to hold every part of you, a space where you won’t have to bracket the things that matter most to you for the sake of others’ comfort. Some people will tell you that to talk about your experiences or how you are positioned in the world is nothing more than vulgar identity politics, which should be avoided at all costs. It probably goes without say that this can often be a clever way to recenter the white experience.
Though I don’t want to make you paranoid, it’s probably true that at some point you will encounter white women who view you as cultural capital and will try to use you to validate their projects. They want to include you, but only on their terms. If you are queer, straight women may be even more eager to befriend you because your sexuality makes you less threatening (i.e. you will not compete with them for male attention and validation, and therefore are not a rival). You may feel sincerely thankful for what they give you—adoration, publishing opportunities. But remember, you’ve giving them more than they are giving you in the form of your value as cultural and institutional capital. Having a “down” woman of color around and on your side is the best defense against the charge of racism. You may feel disgusted when you learn friendship is never just friendship in a world where everyone is trying to get ahead—that even in the small press writing world, human relationships have been reduced to professional advancement. You may be down on yourself for having been naïve enough to believe that it was all about building a nourishing creative community, for being eager and giving yourself and your work away for nothing. Your concerns were never perennial, your dramas were never central—or at least they were never as interesting as the tumultuous romantic lives of the white people around you.
When you finally become aware of the ugly inner workings of this symbolic economy—nothing will seem real. At this point you will have to decide if you want to play the game or preserve your integrity. I have no doubt that you could be an excellent player—that you may have already mastered the discourse, have all the proper reference-points and be proficient in dealing with white topics. You may have set out to develop fluency in this discourse unaware that in mastering the discourse—which is really much more like a habit of being—you are, in some way, validating it, even if you chose to reject it by writing a million angry tracts decrying the stupidity of these beloved books and political treatises. In some ways the choice is between remaining in close proximity to loci of power or resigning yourself to a nugatory existence and—if you are a lesbian—making a place for yourself in the world without having access to the material, symbolic, and psychic capital possessed by white men. You are worried that you are nothing without your white friends and on this may, on some level, be true. Their recognition might mean everything to you. It is possible that your core sense of self-worth is bound up with their approval, and not having their love fills you with pain. You may feel trapped in the terrible contradiction of both needing them and wanting to run away so as to extricate yourself from their value system—to create space for your projects, your interests—in other words, to become the protagonist of your own life.
Wounded people act out and so might you. You will be tempted to wield your victim status against those you resent for being more popular, having more publications, for winning at the game you claim to reject. You want to become them; you want to destroy them. You want the power they possess because the only power you have is to create a morality out of not having power, to talk shit about their ways of having power as though you are somehow purer or more innocent. You think that the more you hate those who have power the less ensnared you are in their way of doing and being in the world. But this just isn’t true. You covet what you can’t have and so you devote your time to trying to make those who do have power feel bad or guilty about having it. They’re never going to listen, and the closer you get to the centers of power you cannot access, the more infuriated you feel.
And you pray that nobody notices that the underlying motivation for battling these people is the desire for a few crumbs of recognition, or, if you can’t get that, the desire to wreck their blithe and jolly rise to literary stardom (and perhaps to even make a career out of calling white people out). Besides, if anyone suggested that your political interventions are motivated by anything other than “good” politics and rectitude you could just call them racist. They probably are. And you probably have a right to derail their shit, their “careers,” especially when they are at your expense or built up using your emotional and material labor. The violence you feel when you recognize your life has been truncated is real. But there are also very real ways in which resentment can disfigure and mutate your spirit. If you get stuck in this reactive mode you risk developing a dialectical dependency on the “white man” (or woman), a dependency that will prevent you from growing and use up all your creative energy. The more you hate people for winning the game, the more you will believe in the game yourself. In making the game “real” you reinforce an individualist value-system based, implicitly, on the idea that making others feel inferior or stupid indicates your literature is “good” (in other words, a framework whereby artistic genius is predicated on making people feel like shit).
The main advice I would give young women of color who are also writers: protect your souls at all costs. A little bit of righteous anger is psychologically necessary and can make life more bearable, but don’t let the compulsion to speak these self-serving truths turn you into a caricature of yourself. You’re more dynamic than that. If no one else sees this, I do. Give yourself permission to be weird. It sucks that white people have a monopoly on weirdness, while we are always forced to exist on a “rational” wavelength by virtue of always having to explain the conditions of our lives, or because we are so use to making space for and accommodating other people’s realities that we don’t know how to insert our own.
My friend Joohyun just got on the train. When she saw me she started laughing and said, “Why are you still on the tube?” We left the same place, but I left much earlier and so she was surprised to see me on the train, typing on my iPad. I said, “I am trying to write a speech about being a woman of color who writes. I thought writing it on the tube would give my writing...a sense of motion.”
Since I cannot field any questions at the panel session you can tell people they can email me at loneberry at gmail dot com. If there is time you can read the poem I attached below, which I wrote today. It is called, “I Found my Soul at the Bottom of the Pool.” THANK YOU DEBBIE HU AND JOOHYUN KIM FOR YOUR LOVE AND INPUT ON THIS ESSAY.
I FOUND MY SOUL AT THE BOTTOM OF THE POOL
i found my soul there
i found it at the bottom of the pool
no i saw
no she saw
no i saw
i saw my soul vibrating at the bottom of the pool
i saw my soul just out of reach
i saw my soul go for a swim
i found my soul in rainbow diving sticks at the bottom of the pool
i found the years i lost to sleep at the bottom of the pool
i found my mother’s womb at the bottom of the pool
i found my mother’s watch at the bottom of the pool
i found my focus in chlorinated water
i found a feast spread out on a dining-room table at the bottom of the pool
i found 2 cups of coffee and waking up at 6am at the bottom of the pool
i found the world at the bottom of the pool
there is water at the bottom of the pool
there is a comfortable bed at the bottom of the pool
there is skin at the bottom of the pool
i found the continuity of dust and mommy at the bottom of the pool
i found my manuscript at the bottom of the pool
i found centuries of strangled mirrors at the bottom of the pool
i found a cop looking back from the mirror at the bottom of the pool
i found the first day of my mother’s fall from grace at the bottom of the pool
i found unnamable deities at the bottom of the pool
i found particles of my past repeating themselves at the bottom of the pool
i found Nietzsche at the bottom of the pool
i found directions on how to say no to your tongue and walk away at the bottom of the pool
i found the reason why it is so easy to forgive everyone except myself at the bottom of the pool
i found the mystery of gravity at the bottom of the pool
i found myself untamed and inside the feeling at the bottom of the pool
at the bottom of the pool there is a basket of loneberries
and the pool is the spreading-out and becoming-full of the pool
the pool is tautological
the pool is at the bottom of the pool
the pool is a hum that settles blood and everything terrible
at the bottom of the pool there is the choice to get mad or just be a silent witness
at the bottom of the pool there is a house that can’t get rid of the stench of animals
at the bottom of the pool there is a body that inhabits itself without the fear of being common
at the bottom of the pool there is a rocking chair and an old woman in it, waiting for her friend to return
at the bottom of the pool there is a way back to the fever pitch of receiving your letter
at the bottom of the pool there is a way back to the joy of writing and the discovery of eyes you never knew were hiding beneath your hair
at the bottom of the pool there is an eye opening for the first time, a furry creature prodding its babe alive
i am creaturing at the bottom of the pool
at the bottom of the pool there is a cocktail of all the best drugs
at the bottom of the pool there is here
at the bottom of the pool there is a way to be here
at the bottom of the pool there is a toilet and the toilet is a portal to heaven
the Haymarket oracle whips her hair to the beat of the bleeding toes
we are as we should be, she says, even after swaths of our inner topographies are swept away by the flood
be quiet and admire the way other people strain to exist
let there be nothing inside your head except the image of women walking into the sun
you’re looking for a fancy way to shoulder the night while knowing nothing of the night you wish to speak, the way the undertones chime like the voice of a distressed woman on the phone
the woman on the phones says the red dress crumpled and limp on the wet street is what it means to suffer as a daughter suffers, 14 hours a day
her phone is not plugged in
and on she goes about how she would like to crawl into the dress and sleep and sleep and sleep for a fierce arrival tomorrow
“i am a blackberry covered in spider webs” she says
but all you take away is a passing impression of being caught
“i am a shrill bride anxiously anticipating the moment of negation,
which is also the moment of being made into someone normal enough to be a lawyer”
what do you know of the way lawful people count the days left to have a baby?
or the way people devote themselves to being vegan or a poet because they’re not normal enough to be a lawyer
let them laugh a little because they are sick and need to feel unrestrained
the sun is rising over the hill and there’s no question about it, you have reserved your tenderness for the WRONG people!!! for the people who deserve it least
oh Haymarket oracle, will you be a reason for me to take note of where i am?
he’ll never love the crack and the way the world flows out of it
as blood spurts from the mouth of the one who is a little too excited after having spoken to God!!!!!!!!!!
a word vibrating in the body is way to know God
a gold coin glowing at the center of a damp street
or the way you knew, at the end of the night, that the truth of God was to be simple and kind to yourself
the gift of the word has been given to women who are not afraid of the rapture of turning themselves inside out
you weren’t afraid of dying but only of being ejected from your life while alive
don’t let yourself not be in your life
let there be nights spent at your desk, howling ecstatic
howling—oh Haymarket oracle of pithy mystery!
oh trains! oh how many people carry the hideous Metro rag!
oh spectacles of bodily disfiguration!
oh nose grown on the forehead of the one who weeps for a new face!
when the body is undone, some words are released
inauguration of a state whose book grows cosmic in scope
in a cup that says “relax” there is the juice of life
i’ll be near God, from now on the pieces of the world will spring luminous into this vision
the way karl marx’s words sprung luminous into the mind of the drugged-out jewish boy
you’ll know yourself not afraid and so confused you know everything, finally!, which is to say nothing at all
there was always a bible in the silence of the room
pursue that state until it becomes dream and you are a young man on your way to study abroad, top hat and valise
eyes huge with money
what the desert did to your dreams
what the desert did to you
never had you felt more true to the state of waiting
when i look in the mirror now i think, the desert aged me
i feel this haunt in my neck bone, where i carry everything left behind
i said, “dimension”—i want to know life in all its dimensions.
come down and see me
witness my slaughter oh world felt in a gilded instant,
when we step out of unhappy rooms
into the sun we are shredded into our sons
tell him we will become what we never thought we’d have the courage to become
tell him the sky is waking up to the finitude of tomorrow’s coming
and we are to receive the memory of our childhood bedrooms
i remember the room, the way it bent down to meet me in my sorrow
and how many nights spent in bed drowning because, i don’t know where my head is
i don’t know where i am
there are two ways of drowning in fire and i am the way of blood
i am the tiredness of this room, its low lighting
the way i bent down to meet the room in its sadness
you are the hypocrisy of light when your soul is dark
the sanguine countenance that betrays your inner disorder
together we dreamed of drifting down the river
and because it is a day, we are this miracle of day
the way we kneel and beg the day to shine its mercy on us
i was drawn to what i believed was his self-possession
and i used this to punish myself
because i will never be a man—
i’ll return to Caspian Sea with a book on how to begin
out of this we are born
we are born on the train
watching the morning spread out across the earth
i like the way the frumpy girl wears her headphones and never takes off her jacket
i like everyone and everything
i like you
i like my life, my whacked-out way of being
but i can’t say for how long
and when i didn’t care about being smart, it was easy to just you know kind of be a person and there was the love i wanted to be and i had a mission i wanna oh how to be, did my emotions go flat? no no, there was the desert but um i think that that was more sad than euphoric but there was psychic yes i am losing my psychic powers because i dont remember the dream, and the dream has nothing to say to me when i am not bending down to meet the dream in the creek. what there was: profound appreciation like crying because the world wakes every day even though you are never ready to be in it. or how the ocean makes an infant of you, or the moon becomes “i appreciate your big hands” because of the way they remind me of the moon remind me of a pale heart remind me of the butt in Butt Magazine remind me of the cheeks of my father or a passing cloud
soon it will be cold. there are too many directions inside you. finish your books. be an amorous dolphin. remember the way everything fired at once but you have some pills to curb your mania you have jolts of awareness you have a way of un-stating everything that matters. you have a way of sitting on the floor, falling asleep you are sad on the train because you remembered the way you’d weep on the train at the beauty that was the feeling that life was coming rather than receding. now, only the feeling that life is falling away from you, like clumps of hair fall from an unnourished body. yes there was the swelling and a way of being more and more in the space until you were the space while at the same time you could see every little thing that constituted the space, in that moment and beyond. mistakes were exciting, inroads in the art of unknowning. the rush of not rushing, of just being, how marvelous!, this appointment: to be alive.
let your mistakes be a way of remembering what it takes to be free.
in the dream i discover the origins of the film
i return to where i began, in pitch black, at the bottom of the pool
i return to feel life coming
i return to where there is still someone waiting to meet me and be changed
to where the mystery of lost objects is audible
yes i live inside the feeling of embarking
and i have finally come to terms with the fact that i will never be the kind of person who can read on airplanes
accepting this, i let myself daydream of inverted skies
in transit the world is too large for demands to narrow my attention
my life becomes distinct and spontaneous
i go to the place where i become pure transmission
transforming, sensual and holy
at the bottom of the pool