Sunday morning in Zaandam, just two train stops out of Amsterdam. Last night, I’d planned for a quiet morning of reading before a train trip into Leiden to the university library.

This morning I woke to the sound of running water and thought to myself that the apartment owners (who live upstairs) were having a lovely, long bath. That was before it occurred to me that many Dutch homes don’t have a bath. And before the frantic knock on the door and the apologies from the owners (as I stood there in my pyjamas with my hair in all directions). And before they opened up the door to the cellar and discovered a few feet of water with ever more spilling in. And before they walked past all the handwash I had draped over every available surface.

Something had obviously gone wrong. Time to call the plumber. So much for my quiet Sunday morning.

Before their arrival, I was thinking through photography, identity and ways of seeing. More specifically, I was reading through this book, The First Photograph from Suriname, which I picked up at the Rijksmuseum on Friday.

On the cover is a photograph dating from 1845, of a young couple at their engagement: Maria Louisa de Hart, the daughter of an Jewish Amsterdam merchant and later major Surinamese plantation owner (with 500 slaves) and a Surinamese Creole slave, and her betrothed, Johannes Ellis, son of Abraham de Veer, the Dutch governor of the African Gold Coast, and his concubine, a Ghanaian black slave named Fanny Ellis. Here’s a shot of the photo in full, as taken from another website.

oudefoto

It’s a fascinating historical artifact that tells us much, not only about the history of photography – the author notes that the daguerreotype process only emerged in 1839 and had, within six years, already made it to the tiny jungle colony of Suriname – but also about the complexities of kinship in the globalized world of Dutch colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, where “family” moved well beyond the nuclear model so common in Western societies today. When this photo was taken, slavery and the plantation system were in decline, but the institution of slavery wouldn’t be abolished for another 18 years, and even then, it would be followed by a ten year transition period. Following this, the plantation owners would rely on four decades of indentured labourers drawn from China, India and Indonesia.

The family histories of the couple captured in this photo span three continents, and mark many kinds of journeys across the Atlantic Ocean – the journeys of a moneyed elite travelling for work and leisure, and those of enslaved peoples, on whose bodies the wealth of the de Hart family was based. The photo itself also functions as a time capsule, revealing dress, hairstyle, posture. And more than all of this, it opens us to what John Berger would call a “way of seeing” – it teaches the viewer about the eyes that took the photo.

The oldest photo in my collection is a copy – a modern reprint of a photo taken in 1911 of my grandmother, then a baby, in Suriname. She’s wearing a white, lace-trimmed dress, her brown toes sticking out the bottom. Her mother – presumably – is holding her, her face serious, her pose stiff. Both are posed in front of an idyllic pastoral painted backdrop that resembles no photo of Suriname I have ever seen. It’s a wonderful, curious photo that’s filled with stories I have yet to discover…

We met in 2008, all of us new faculty members. And we decided, right then and there, that we’d meet for lunch. Once per term, we’d get together to chat, laugh, dish, complain, and worry. And we’d support each other. It was a loose plan, but it was a good one. Over the past six years, we’ve managed (sometimes just barely) to meet every few months just to be social together. We are the lunching ladies, the ladies who lunch, and our time together has been vital to our continued well being at the university.

We’ve supported each others’ writing. We’ve talked through challenges. We’ve laughed at things. In six years, three of us have had five kids (and I already had two). One of us (me), now has a teenager. One of us has a newborn. We’ve published books. We’ve been awarded grants. We’ve achieved tenure. We haven’t slept (or we haven’t slept enough). We’ve graded more assignments than we can count and laughed our way through particularly entertaining essays (“expanding gender rolls” remains one of my favourite typos). We’ve shared many stories together, and worked through the frustrations and the joys of parenting and of our careers.

And last week, together with several other fabulous colleagues, we wrote a letter.

I’ve made no secret about my commitment to reproductive justice on this blog. You can read about it here and here and here and here. Reproductive justice is a key concept in my teaching and I always introduce students to the fabulous work of SisterSong. They define it like this:

The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments — is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions is important for women of color.

It represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.

Reproductive Justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny. Our options for making choices have to be safe, affordable and accessible, three minimal cornerstones of government support for all individual life decisions.

More simply put: reproductive rights + social justice = reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice allows us not only to think through things like abortion and contraception (the most visible facets of the reproductive rights movement) but it also asks us to consider such issues as involuntary sterilization (in Alberta from 1928-1972 and BC from1933-1973. See the case of Leilani Muir), the residential school system and the 60s scoop, among other things.

Last week, we learned that the university chaplains, the Christian Medical and Dental Society and the Counselling Centre were sponsoring a visit by Dr. Martha Shuping, a faith-based anti-choice psychiatrist. All well and well and good for campus faith-based organizations to support her visit; however, we were very troubled by the Counselling Centre’s support.

A few emails and Facebook messages ensued. Well, make that 60 emails and 10 Facebook messages. A number of people were able to attend the talks. And in 24 hours we collectively wrote, revised and edited our letter, which we sent to the Counselling Centre, the Associate Vice-President (Academic) for Undergraduate Studies and The Muse, the university student newspaper.

One of us later met with the Head of the Counselling Centre, who was just as disturbed as we were (see his response here). And another wrote a column for a local paper:

In short, while she presents herself as an advocate for women, Shuping’s work and affiliations add up to a program whose default approach is not just paternalistic—women can’t be trusted to make their own choices; they need “experts” to protect them against decisions they might later regret—but would outright restrict the availability of abortion.

We haven’t met for lunch in the last several months. One of us is on parental leave, one has a busy life with a baby and a young toddler and two of us are on sabbatical leave. But together with a group of like-minded women, we were able marshal our collective energy towards something more important this fall.

Here’s to you, lunching ladies, and to our next meal whenever that will be.

 

 

From Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (book):, a wonderful description of the materiality of memory, and the stories embedded in everyday objects:

“Some of the people who were children in the house in which I now live were very sorry to have it sold out of their family. I understood their feeling so well that I told them they could come back and see the house any time they wished, and I also told them that if we were ever to sell our house we would call them all, the children of the Woodworths, the grandchildren of the Woodworths, and offer to sell it to them first. We, my husband and I believe that we shall never live anyplace else, certainly if we can help it, but we can’t really tell what we will be able to help or not help, we only know that we believe we shall never live anyplace else. When the Woodworths were clearing out the house after it had been sold to us, different people took things that meant something to them. One grandchild took a bed that she had slept in when she came to visit her grandparents; someone took fireplace implements because they were unusual and because of some special memory. I do not know who took the reproduction of an engraved print depicting the Puritan legend of Miles Standish and Priscilla Alden. When we were dismantling Mrs. Woodworth’s kitchen, someone asked us to look for recipe cards that might have fallen behind her old kitchen counter; they remembered something with meringue and kept asking us if we were sure when we said we had found nothing. Someone took cuttings of Mrs. Woodworth’s roses because they had come from her mother’s garden in Maine many, many years ago. I cannot believe that my children will return to this house shortly after I am dead ( I do believe that I will leave here for the rest of a very long life) and ask the new owners … to try to retrieve the copy of Edna Lewis’s cookbook from which our family have enjoyed the recipe for corn pudding and fried chicken and biscuits; nor will they ask for the four volumes of Elizabeth David’s cookbooks, in which are recipes for food our family have enjoyed, not the least being something called Summer Pudding, a dessert made of currants and stale bread, the berries foreign to me until in my adulthood I have grown them, and the bread distasteful to me, though only through the memory of my own childhood; ore the perpetually leafed-through but never actually used Mrs. Beeton’s Guide to Household Management. I cannot imagine my children will actually want to admit that they came from us and did not fall out of the plain blue sky, which is just what I used to wish when I became aware that to have me, my parents actually had sex.  Just the other day my husband overheard my daughter say to her friends as he approached and some other girls all huddled together, ‘OP, here comes my dorky dad.’ He was humiliated to hear himself referred to as a dork, and so he said to the other girls,’ Hi. No, do I look like a dork?’ and instead of saying in unison, ‘No, you are the most wonderful father we have ever had the good fortune to meet,’ all the girls simply looked at the tips of their shoes in what he interpreted to be silent agreement. But our children are still children, one is six and the other is ten. They perhaps think we will live forever, they perhaps think we will never go away, that they will never be able to be themselves without our reminding them of their own helplessness, their own dependence on us. Perhaps pies with a meringue topping and summer puddings are missed only when they can never be had in a particular and exact way again.” (22-23)

Not long after my arrival in St. John’s, I discovered two short stories by Tryphena Duley. “A Pair of Grey Socks” and “Mothers of Men,” written and published between 1916 and 1918, were designed to bolster women’s home front support for the soldiers fighting as part of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. As literary works, they’re not particularly amazing. Rather, they are conventional in form, tone and structure.

The first intertwines the stories of a young Newfoundland woman knitting socks for soldiers on the home front and an Irish soldier stationed on the battlefield next to the Newfoundland Regiment. Predictably they get married and produce two lovely children. At the end, the family is gathered around a tattered grey sock and presumably, they live happily ever after.

The second is much darker. Published sometime after Newfoundland’s stunning losses on July 1, 1916, it is the story of a mother trying to come to terms with the death of her son. As she drowns in her sorrows, she is taken to the a heavenly space where her son is happy and fulfilled. The story is about loss, despair, grief, and resignation, yes, but it is also about hope, redemption and living once more. It can’t be a coincidence that the story appeared around Easter.

Both stories can tell us much about the experience of war, particularly on the home front. They open the spaces of the imagination, allowing us entry into the culture, language, thoughts, hopes and dreams of women on the home front. As I note in an article I wrote about these stories:

Jane Potter’s aptly titled Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print … expresses the idea that women experienced war vicariously and through imaginative fiction, much of which was authored by women. These works might be best understood not as literature, but as cultural artefacts (4). As Potter observes: “Novels that exploited the Great War … were part of the public’s fantasy investment in the War … there was a continuing demand for stories that brought order where there was chaos and allowed the reader vicariously to experience life as she would like it to be lived” (91). Such works not only comforted women at home, but also often functioned as propaganda designed to foster support and commitment to the war effort.

I am, at a a personal level, much more drawn to “A Pair of Grey Socks” than I am to “Mothers of Men.” Perhaps it is the hopeless romanticism, the naive belief that everything would turn out all right and that nothing would change after the war. There is an innocence in this story, and perhaps that’s the result of the wilful blindness necessary to survive the uncertainties of the wartime period, and the sorrows that were certain to follow. Happy endings were necessary – vital even – to the success of the war effort on the home front. If a happy ending wasn’t possible, then why were we fighting at all?

In one of the central scenes in “A Pair of Grey Socks,” a young woman named Mary, encouraged by a friend, places a photo of herself, together with a short verse, in one of the pairs of socks that she has knitted for the soldiers. She chooses a large pair, for “she didn’t like small men” (!). This photo finds its way to an Irish soldier stationed next to the Newfoundland Regiment, who carries the photo near his heart as he continues the battle. Mary’s smiling face and gently flirtatious words sustain him through the darkest days of the war. But they also serve to support and encourage his adherence to wartime masculinity: looking at the photo, he imagines that Mary is “just the kind of girl who would want a chap to be a man.” Of course, the two later meet and marry and in the final scene of the story we see them together with their children – a son and a daughter, natch – congregated around the tattered grey sock.

Imagine my delight, then, to see this story about a wartime message sewn into a Scottish kilt during World War I:

A secret note has been discovered hidden in the folds of a kilt destined for a soldier heading to the front in the First World War.

Economic historian Dr Helen Paul, of the University of Southampton, found the hand-written message when she was removing the packing stitches from the kilt, which has been passed down her family over decades.

The message reads: “I hope your kilt will fit you well, & in it you will look a swell. If married never mind. If single drop a line. Wish you bags of luck, & a speedy return back to Blighty.”

Underneath was the name of Helen Govan, of 49 Ardgowan Street in Glasgow.

How many young women put messages and photos in the garments they crafted for the soldiers on the front lines?  And how many soldiers carried those messages with them in the trenches? There are still so many more stories waiting to be told.

At the final banquet of the International Auto/Biography Association conference in Banff earlier this year, we were all invited to write a six word memoir. It could be about anything. Ourselves. Our research. A celebrity. Whatever. Modelling ourselves after our students, we moaned, griped and groaned, but then diligently set to work. After overthinking the project I came up with something unique, erudite, and suitably esoteric based on my doctoral research. The perfect academic’s memoir. (and, conveniently, also something that would work on lolmythesis.com, if I so desired).

Right after the dinner, however, I realized that I should have written something much simpler:

Come From Away: Newfoundlander By Choice

That about encapsulates the conundrum of living here, I think.

“Biology recapitulates geography; place becomes an island in the blood.”
Fred Wah, Diamond Grill, 23.

“We were not from the place where we lived and we could not remember where we were from or who we were. My grandfather could not summon up a vision of landscape or a people which could add up to a name. And it was profoundly disturbing.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 5.

“As a mestiza I have no country…yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creating of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.  Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that which not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meaning.”
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 48-49.

“The door is not on this map. The door is on my retina.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 89.

“Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges. Some frayed and hazy margin of possibility, absence, gap. Shouts in the kitchen. Fish an! Side a fries! Over easy! On brown! I pick up an order and turn, back through the doors, whap! I pick up an order and turn, back through the doors, whap! My foot registers more than its own imprint, starts to read the stain of memory.”
Fred Wah, Diamond Grill, 1.

“Though the hyphen is in the middle, it is not in the centre. It is a property marker, a boundary post, a borderland, a bastard, a railroad, a last spike, a stain, a cypher, a rope, a knot, a chain (link), a foreign word, a warning sign, a head tax, a bridge, a no—man’s land, a nomadic, floating magic carpet, now you see it now you don’t. The hyphen is the hybrid’s dish, the mestiza’s whole wheat tortillas (Anzaldua 194), the Metis’ apple (red on the outside, white on the inside), the happa’s egg (white out, yellow in), the mulatto’s café au lait.”
Fred Wah, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity, 73

“That logic of nationality was accompanied by behaviours that have always been unbearable for me. The French nation was colonial. How could I be from a France that colonized an Algerian country when I knew that we ourselves, German Czechoslovak Hungarian Jews, were other Arabs.”
Hélène Cixous, “Albums and Legends,” in Rootprints 204.

“To live at the Door of No Return is to live self consciously. To be always aware of your presence as a presence outside of yourself. And to have ‘others’ constantly remark on your presence as outside of itself. If to think is to exist, then we exist doubly. An ordinary conversation is never an ordinary conversation. One cannot say the simplest thing without doubling or being doubled for the image that emerged from the doorway. At a party you remark enthusiastically that you have been away, someplace where the sun has deliciously deepened the shade of your skin, and you look up from your bronzed shoulder to bewilderment …. Every space you occupy is public space, that is, space which is definable by everyone. That is, the image which emerges from the Door of No Return is public property belonging to a public exclusive of the Black bodies which signify it. One is aware of this ownership. One is constantly refuting it, or ignoring it, or troubling it, or parodying it, or tragically reaffirming it.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 49-50.

“Between You and Me There is an I”

Between two stools
The hyphen lies
The eggs and the nest
The blind and the fold
The hinge of the city
The door and the jamb
The map and its edges
The wars I’ve not fought
The life and its lease
The rope but which end
The brink and disaster
The bank and the laughter
The spike below Chinaman’s Peak
That spot where the two rails meet

From beneath two stools
Hear the silence rise
The smoke ‘round your neck
The tongue and the dash
The cat and the cradle
The dog dead in the creek
The slash and the burn
The shadows of NAFTA
The head and the tax
Rock bluff and river
The laundry its mark
The height and the trestle
Cata and strophe
Not caboose but what’s after
Fred Wah, Is a door, 73

“The word ‘entredeux’: it is a word I used recently in Déluge to designate a true in-between – between a life which is ending and a life which is beginning. For me, an entredeux is: nothing. It is, because there is entredeux. But it is – I will go through metaphors – a moment in life where you are not entirely living, where you are almost dead. Where you are not dead. Where you are not yet in the process of reliving. These are the innumerable moments that touch us with bereavements of all sorts.. Either there is bereavement between men, violently, from the loss of a being who is a part of me – as if a piece of my body, of my house, were ruined, collapsed …. When an event arrives which evicts us from ourselves, we do not know how to ‘live.’ But we must. Thus we are launched into a space-time whose coordinates are all different from those we have always been accustomed to. In addition, these violent situations are always new. Always. At no moment can a previous bereavement serve as a model. It is, frightfully, all new: this is one of the most important experiences of our human histories. At times we are thrown into strangeness. This being abroad at home is what I call an entredeux. Wars cause entredeux in the histories of countries. But the worst war is the war where the enemy is on the inside; where the enemy is the person I love most in the world, is myself.”
Hélène Cixous, Rootprints, 9-10.

“There is a story – a tale. And I am the one who speaks it. That she, the one with the flying cheekbones that speak of yet another trace, was part Carib. Born in Arima – home of the almost-extinct Carib people. She! with the eyes of a tiger. And a skin so fine. I have no words for its colour: a genealogy of silences. The language helpless to describe our usness. To say her skin was ‘tawny’ is to stray into the Frank Yerby world of mulattos, octoroons, and quadroons. To say it was brown is to leave as much unsaid: it was also yellow and black and even red.”
M. NourbeSe Philip, “A Genealogy of Resistance,” 12

Are origins magnetic lines across an ocean
migrations of genetic spume or holds, dark
mysteries within which I carry further into the World
through blond and blue-eyed progeny father’s fathers
clan-name Wah from Canton east across the bridges
still or could it all be lateral craving hinted
in the bioplasmic cloud of simple other organism
as close as out under the apple tree?
Fred Wah, Breathin’ my name with a sigh, Talonbooks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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