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Meeting the Inappropriate/d – The Liminality of Justice and Reconciliation in Canada

Meeting the Inappropriate/d – The Liminality of Justice and Reconciliation in Canada

Bayo Akomolafe

Keynote Address [Bill Reid Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada / Organized by Simon Fraser University and the City of Vancouver]

May 5, 2016

 

Just as my wife, Ej, finished putting my box together for this trip, our two year old daughter, Alethea, came to her and asked her where I was going. “Dada’s going on a plane to a country called Canada, dear”, she replied. Alethea asked her if she could come, to which Ej replied that I wasn’t going to be away for long – and that both of them would have lots of fun doing other things while I was away. “Can Dada take my sister?” she continued, vicariously offering Ej her little crazy-haired doll she had christened ‘Addie’. Ej, smiling, gently placed her in my box, and later told me that Alethea – just before going to bed – wanted me to promise that I would speak with her everywhere I show up.

“I promise”, I said.

So I am showing up here with Addie and with a slight sense of loss: it’s hardly been 2 days, but I miss my daughter already. I miss home. As I descended into this enrapturing country, coasting past snow-capped mountain elders and large swathes of land, meeting a grateful Eritrean taxi driver who found a home here 30 years ago, and knowing your hospitality and warmth, I felt deeply honoured to be here. I feel this now. It is like meeting oneself anew. I still find myself sighing though, feeling the inner workings of grief, knowing the pain of distance.

At least, I will return to my home – my wife and daughter. But there are many here in this country that will not hold their daughters again. There are many loved ones that have walked into the forest, and the path they followed has been swept away by a thick mist. There are many whose lives have been interrupted, who now live in boxes, whose breathing is a long-drawn sigh, whose questions and yearnings are for a deeper participatory abundance and for a more ecstatic enactment of country. They are the inappropriate/d. The First Nations communities – citizens of borderlands. The human and nonhuman peoples who feel the dispassionate scientific/politico-economic reductionism that construes nature as a reified realm for economic exploitation and aesthetic instrumentality – cutting them away from full, embodied lives. I speak with these ones tonight. I sigh with them.

The late Nigerian storyteller known as Chinua Achebe tells the story of one of such disaffected peoples, Okonkwo, in his first book, ‘Things Fall Apart’. Proud and stately, Okonkwo’s back has never touched the ground; at 18, he is the only wrestler from Umuofia that has thrown Amalinze the Cat, earning the respect of all the other Ibo villages. Okonkwo is a strong father and husband; his feet are firmly planted on the earth. He knows his yams; he knows how to clear away the weeds that disturb their gestation.

Okonkwo’s security in the scheme of things is however suddenly upended with the arrival of the ‘white man’, who comes with his religion and a curious way of educating children. Okonkwo’s cohorts have forgotten their old strength, how they used to mock the white man’s nasal manner of speaking. They are now speaking of development and school and church. In fact, it seems everyone has gone raving mad.

Unable to tolerate this any longer, unable to bear the shame of rejection, Okonkwo hangs himself on a tree; his feet – once in rhythm with the land – are now estranged from it, dangling in mid-air, no longer at ease.

While in school, ironically the very institution Okonkwo would have been outraged by, my friends and I debated whether it was Okonkwo’s excessive masculinity and unyielding hubris that led to his downfall. Some of us insisted that he wasn’t malleable enough or open to change; he was set in his ways. He should have winged it, we argued. He didn’t. So he died.

But exiled in the colonial bubble we affectionately call modernity, it is easy to miss perhaps the most crucial point of Chinua Achebe’s story. The tragedy of becoming inappropriate.

To be inappropriate or to be inappropriate/d is to be interrupted. It is to be silenced and rendered an ‘other’. It is to speak to a mountain and not hear it reciprocate your affections. It is to meet a dead rock where once there was a friend – an ally in this cosmic ecstasy of entanglement. It is to be italicized or parenthesized – as if one is an afterthought or not really crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Katherine Anne Porter reminds us that “the past is never where you think you left it”, and perhaps that’s shocking enough to remind us that colonization wasn’t a neat moment in time that ended with treaties and declarations of independence: it is the ongoing exclusion of bodies, stories, and worlds; it is the repartitioning of the sensible, even of time ‘itself’.

Perhaps no other situation haunts this country as its alarming history of suicides. When I read about the recent attempts by children, teenagers, to take their own lives – daughters like thirteen-year-old Sheridan Hookimaw from Attawapiskat, who in October [2015] ended her life by a river, and the hundreds of near-misses that have followed in the wake of that tragedy – I feel a deep grief that wants to be met. I wonder what kind of world my own daughter will grow up in. I cannot know how it must have felt for a thirteen year old girl to be pressed down with the existential weight of her own mortality. My education as a clinical psychologist wants me to look in the vaults of my expertise for answers – to see these incidences of mass indigenous suicides as just that – a psychopathological instance triggered by disturbing politico-economic conditions…something that can probably be addressed by not only urgently coordinating the delivery of mental health services to the First Nations communities facing this threat, but by providing basic amenities that improve the living conditions in these communities.

But a more terrible spectre walks here – something old and unspeakable. I suspect the chalice of intergenerational trauma – spilling through time and space, connecting the children camped in those old residential schools[1] and the broken adults of today in one single loop of despair – will not be emptied or bottled up with ‘better amenities’ or ‘suicide’ hotlines, however well-intentioned and helpful these are. There is no convenient solution here.

As some psychologists might affirm, when a potential suicide victim cuts herself or himself, it is an attempt to localize pain, to reduce its amorphousness to a dimension that can be named, labelled and dispensed with. It makes sense then that closing those cuts is hardly an adequate response. In fact, closing wounds – though bringing temporary relief – can accentuate the pain. Healing is not the closing of the cut, it is the grieving with the knife. In the case of these indigenous suicides, the pain of being dispossessed, the pain of being left out, of being treated as substandard because one is different, the pain of being cordoned off into safe distances where one’s madness can be fixed, is not one that can ever be met with detached, bureaucratic convenience.

No. This is a monster of a situation. And to meet monsters, one must be prepared to be dismembered, to be troubled. One must touch one’s own liminality – entering a space between spaces where old categories dissolve, and clarity becomes a mangled knot of non-sense. I learned this when I met ‘Hope’[2], an in-patient at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, in Enugu – where I interned in 2008.

Hope’s case file was handed over to me by my supervisor. My job was to treat her. To heal her. To render her useful to society.

According to her story, Hope had been sexually abused multiple times before she knew what was happening. When, now in her adult years, a once promising relationship left her a broken shadow of herself, she turned to an opioid analgesic drug to numb her pain. Soon she found herself trading her mother’s jewellery to fuel a growing dependence on the drug – a situation that ruined her relationship with her mother. Hope’s mother died, her bitterness unresolved, and Hope’s dreams of reconciliation shattered.

During one session with her, I thought I might have helped alleviate her deeply felt emotions of guilt and ruin. Hope sat facing an empty chair, which I placed in front of her – inviting her to address it as if her mother sat in it. A gestalt strategy I recommended to the psychotherapy team. With tears I will never recover from, Hope unfurled before me and my supervisor. We sat, stoic, fulfilling the requirements of professional detachment, as she became a compost heap of tears, memory and garbled yearnings.

Hope gave me a gift that day. Amidst congratulatory back-rubs and handshakes, I met my ‘self’, as if for the first time, on the undulating surface of her tears. I recognized I was a fraud. I was infected by her vulnerability, and became contaminated as it were. Somehow, I was made keenly aware of the privilege that came with being an ‘expert’, a ‘healer’ – and how this disproportionate arrangement of power was a subtle form of colonization/subjectivization.

Hope’s gift to me was to disrupt the convenience of my identity, and to challenge the ground upon which I maintained an exclusionary definition of sanity. She might very well have spoken to me with the words of Susan Stryker, a trans-woman, who in response to accusations that she was ‘unnatural’, wrote:

I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine.[3]

What Hope ‘said’ to me, in a sense, was ‘don’t fix me’. Don’t act like you are natural and I am an aberration. Don’t try to heal me, without noticing how you and I are complicit in this suffering. I do not need your saving.

This is perhaps what reconciliation ‘means’ to me in these days of perpetuated exclusions and exterminations: when you gaze at your reflections on the river of tears gushing from Attawapiskat, from Neskantaga; when you meet this trauma, not with the intent to fix it, but staying with its trouble, and investigating your own nature, you might come to know the alarming misfortune of a globalizing modern culture that has forgotten how to grieve, how to die, and how to listen to the vibrancy of the world.

You might see a world shaved of its significance; a culture that has turned to the myths of economic development and progress to escape its hollowness.

You might come to question why we moderns work so hard at getting connected, and yet feel disenchanted and so alone.

You might wonder how a time of purported information and technological sophistication could coincide with escalating levels of hunger, poverty and ecological genocide.

You might understand why Okonkwo was beside himself with anger – and how painful it is to be thrust into a world where abundance is no longer gift, no longer a material kinship with the nonhuman world, no longer the bonds that tie me to my community, but money. Accrued property. Ownership. Treating the environment as if it were a natural resource put in place to support our quests for transcendence. 

We can no longer legitimately claim the resting grounds of nature as foundations for our preoccupations with hyperconsumerism and productionism.   

***

So what does a politics of reconciliation look like? Where is justice? How should Canada respond to a persistent crisis, one that doesn’t seem to be going away soon? And what might economic development – our imaginations about a just world – look like within the context of reconciliation?

I think a politics of reconciliation (or justice) looks like nothing we know, nothing we can control, ordain or fully anticipate.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action[4] serves as a well-intentioned, exhaustive articulation of reconciliation as policy shifts and radical reforms that restore friendships after a period of estrangement, which the State, under the right political atmosphere, can make happen.

But this ‘discourse is only one mode of articulation’[5]. I think the proposals are not weird enough. And I cannot bring myself to fully trust in the modern apparatus of the State to be response-able to the energies of this time. States are beholden to the narrative of redemption or the dynamics of representation, and this is likely to play out in such a way that compels the State to impose its own bureaucratic timelines, to want to try to ‘fix’ the situation and force closure, to want to preserve its own way of seeing and producing citizens, and to objectify problems in reductionistic, unilateral ways (much in the same way we tend to think of climate change as an enemy we can get rid of). States are already invested with epistemic privileges that exclude indigenous worldviews from mattering. Somewhere between official memos, papers and black stamps on white paper, a cycle of sameness completes another exhausting revolution.

This is not to say the TRC proposals are not worthwhile or crucial. I think they are – but that they are at best partial and produced by an ethics that is vulnerable to reproducing the same kind of inequities, not inviting radical difference. It will thus take a different kind of arrangement to notice (in the words of Donna Haraway) that we are all enmeshed in stories of endangerment; that Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals alike are now at the borderlands, where the air is alive with rich proposals where ‘new kinds of action and response-abilities can gestate’. Where new cultural imaginaries, the contours of which are beyond discourse, can emerge.

First of all…reconciliation with what? If it is simply about putting economic development and our yearnings for permanence (or the modern fear of dissolution and liminality) within indigenous capsules, then we are merely mollifying oppressor’s guilt. We are trying to be the good guys – and until we meet that guilt, the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about, we will continue to act like saviours and healers, where co-mourners and playmates are required. It is important to see that even the way we frame reconciliation sustains our systemic privileges as epistemically superior to the ones we are trying to redeem. Reconciliation has to address the fact that more economic development, more commoditization, more money, means less inter-dependence and community. Where this is the case, we have no need for each other. We will exclude seeing the planet as gift and an ally in our co-becoming, and instead see her as a dead, mute, expanse of tools we can exploit for our transcendent notions of arriving.

The deeper challenge of reconciliation (which I reimagine as a becoming-with, not a coming-through or a reaching-for or a getting-out) is resacralization. This is reconnecting with our own wildness – the primitive scream we try to stifle by going through the motions of modern indifference; resacralization is conversing with the nonhuman world, the mass of things that no longer matters – thanks to our Cartesian premises. Meeting the inappropriate/d, not forcing them to be intelligible within our regimes of meaning, is the crux of the matter. Meeting the monster…which, according to Judith Halberstam, author of Skin Shows, ‘always represents the disruption of categories, the destruction of boundaries, and the presence of impurities…” is recognizing and celebrating our own monstrosities. This is the great promise of entering into a field of disorientation: we are afforded the opportunity of resacralizing and reconfiguring abundance, wellness and participation.

By resacralization, I do not mean that we should try to return to a fixed notion of some indigenous and romantic past – nor do I want to suggest that our economic order of hyperconsumption is a form of denaturing we must try to circumvent in order to arrive at the ‘real’ natural world. I am however asking about the possibilities for living we have excluded by co-producing a certain form of nature. I am highlighting what is at stake when we continue the monologue of neocolonization under the guise of charity and state-mediated concern. I am hinting at the spontaneity of a universe that is wittier than our most detailed models of causality – more promiscuous than we can think. Yes. Other spaces of power are possible. Other ways of arranging how we live are possible. We do not need to live in binary societies that pretend to be meritocracies but are instead oligarchic conveniences for the initiated.

We need to make room for grieving, for the inappropriate, instead of rushing headlong into fix mode. We need to fall apart, so that new configurations can happen. Therein lies the promise of grief, the promise of monsters and dead-ends and impediments and confusion: they are the cosmic protocol for alterity. The grief of this moment is not an invitation to an already articulated justice; it is a challenge to the degrading, exploitative epistemologies that silence nonhuman agency and have fostered an economic monoculture that no longer serves. Nothing honours the interrupted like coming to the edges of our own skins, where a stunning commonwealth of beings await an earthy alliance. The deeper reconciliation is coming home to our bodies, to the genius of grief and the deep loss we have not made space for; it is a coming home to our fragility and complex relations within a web of life, to the agency and vitality of the nonhuman world, to our brokenness. There is an inescapable mutuality between colonizer and colonized, between victor and vanquished – and for radical differences to happen, we must linger in the riddling grounds between…in the space of the hyphen, at spontaneous frontiers, in meeting places and new collectives where there are no fixed/predetermined roles or final solutions, where we can trouble ourselves, where the healer becomes the wounded and the wounded, the healer.

My people say, ‘the times are urgent; let us slow down.’ A different urgency is called for in these moments. A broadening of the spectrum of action. A humbler articulation of our place in the world. Our place with the world. A different kind of accountability – one which knows that love is not a bridge, love is a hyphen. Different provocative questions are suddenly alive right now: What would a politics of many streams, and not just the mainstream look like? What needs to shift in order for genuine inter-cultural and inter-species dialogue to happen? How can we forgive ourselves without diminishing our complicity and entanglement in oppressive systems? In what ways do schools perpetuate an accepted form of violence on our children and an exclusionary notion of education? What strategies could help us assume postures of curiosity into the mysterious lives of human and nonhuman ‘others’? What if this trauma of being inappropriate/d has something to tell us? What if we are stuck in a Cartesian iceberg, and the quantum leap we can make is from asking how we can change the world to how we are what the world is doing? What keeps stressing our lives, and what if these irritants are allies we have not yet met?

I sense that Sheridan Hookimaw, Hope, Okonkwo and a host of finer bodies will continue to haunt us, electrifying the air with charged proposals for radical difference. They are right now articulating a different call to action, one which is a pagan insurgency, one which is bound in entangled breath. Their grief haunts our normal. And if you listen closely, you might hear the rumbling sound of a justice still in the making: a sigh.

Thank you for making space for me…and Addie.

 

[1] As reported in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission executive summary document. Available: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf

[2] Not her real name.

[3] Susan Stryker, ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix’ (1994)

[4] http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

[5] Donna Haraway in The Promise of Monsters

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Falling might very well be flying – without the tyranny of coordinates.