Columnists

Coming to Voice

By Carrianne Leung

tired runner

I worked on this piece while at a residency for BIPOC writers in the fall of 2017. I did not pick it up again when I returned. While workshopping it there, I was not convinced it captured what I was trying to say. Trying to articulate what it means to arrive at “voice” as a racialized writer is something I am not sure I am skilled enough to do. At the residency, I met a group of writers who have come to sustain me in their work and support. Their generosity and work gave me more clarity on the labour required to be a writer in this moment, on this land. My understanding of the relationships between my body and language and my project of writing silence has sharpened. 
While this piece began as a writer’s reflection in solitude, it ends as conversation and engagement with other BIPOC writers. In this year, I have learned that I am writing in companionship, and I am also only able to write because others came before and others will continue to come after. I write to join them, their voices, to meet and create relations sustaining new and ancient visions of who we are and our becoming. I am still not exactly sure this piece satisfies, but I offer it to you and hope you can take some thing from these frames.

 

Frame

As a kid in Scarborough, I discovered that I was a fast runner. I made every track and sports team that I tried out for. Even though I was a tiny child, I knew how to bolt. Sometimes, I felt as if my legs had a mind of their own. I imagined myself a bit like roadrunner from the cartoons, my legs like a wheel rolling in a blur.

One day, during gym class, the teacher pitted me against the most popular girl in class. S was a long-legged swan of a girl. Golden haired and golden-skinned, she wielded that kind of power that is hard for us now as adults to articulate. That kind of power – her prettiness, her whiteness, her wealth, her smartness, the affection of the teachers and other kids who fawned over her – was weighty, and she moved through all of us like the parting of the red sea.

I knew S was also fast. Often, the other kids said she was the fastest in the class, and we all accepted this as fact. One day, in gym class, the teacher announced that S and I would race the 200 metres against each other, I was overcome by an apprehension that I understood without the language to understand. I remember that I trembled, as I took my mark on the gravel track. I remember the kind of day it was – a cool late spring day. The sky was full of giant fluffy clouds, the kind that blew across the sky revealing and hiding the sun in quick intervals. I remember the teacher standing at the finish line holding a stopwatch in one hand and a silver whistle hung around his neck. The 200 metres required us to take a curve around the track.  The 200 is a short distance, but it’s long enough to determine some stamina in the runner. When the teacher blew the whistle, we both leaped from our starting stance. We were neck to neck, and I quickly knew that she was not as fast as I was. I knew this within 50 metres that I could easily take her. And yet, I chose to run beside her, as if this was a race between equals. We took the curve, and I had the opportunity to race ahead, and again, I did not take it. As we closed in on the finish line, something in my child’s body registered that I couldn’t win. I let her go ahead just before crossing. The teacher clicked on the stopwatch and declared S the winner. S jumped with joy and her cluster of friends jumped around her. They looked like joyous fairies. The teacher patted me on the back and said it was only a three second margin between us.

I have thought about these three seconds a lot. It is painful to think of. I think about the child I was and ask myself why? How was it that in my tiny body and heart and mind that I learned to be put myself back in place? These three seconds have come to mean many things to me: the rules of whiteness, how I learned to survive in whiteness, how I learned to diminish myself faced with the impossibility of my own brilliance in such a place and such a time.

I’ve been trying to reconstruct the scene many times and years ago, I wrote a flash fiction about it entitled, Three Seconds. I have revisited the Scarborough of my childhood in two books to do an anatomy of the scene. I excavated the place and unburied the dead to find the traces of breadcrumbs that I had left myself to lead me back to that track, that child that was me, and to those three seconds. I ask myself why.

 

Frame

I will have to tell you this in fragments. All my life, I have tried to make myself coherent, and I am now asking the price one must pay in attempting to be coherent in this place and time.

This telling will be necessarily stilted, inelegant because this is what it requires. My utterances are breathless in execution because air has not yet been found to sound them.

 

Frame

Our work is sometimes the site of war. Some of us were never meant to be able to bend this language meant to erase us, and so, our narratives are a rallying cry of love and violence. Both these things are conditions of war.

 

Frame

I experienced my first writing block in May 2017. It occurred in the wake of what has been referred to as “appropriation gate”. 

I sat for days on my couch nursing a migraine that spread like sheet lightning in my head, my words frozen by a lethal cocktail of fear and anger. I was the first to tweet out the Equity Task Force’s statement on social media on behalf of the group, and I received the predictable smattering of hate messages -- form letters of racism, if you will, and nothing particularly interesting. It wasn’t the first time that I have extended myself in a fight and been the recipient of backlash, and at least there were no death threats. But still, I couldn’t write.

I thought about this loss of words a lot on that couch. It wasn’t the usual anger and frustration of being unseen yet hyper-visible that made me collapse into myself. I have felt that too. This time, it was the other side of the coin – I was overcome by the labour required by generations of marginalized and racialized people to bring forth voice amidst these hostile conditions that caused my rage, my sadness and rendered me wordless.

 

Frame

The sky is huge. The sky is puny. The sky does not exist. How to reckon with the disavowal of one’s own deep knowing?

 

Frame

What I know is this – when pushed against the ropes, my voice become oppositional. Worse, language becomes monosyllabic protests of what should be rich, nuanced, complex prose and not blunt instruments. This is the trap of speaking back to whiteness. In the moment of speaking, our actions and insistence on our humanity as racialized people are dismissed as “identity politics”. Some days, this does not touch me at all. Other days, it cuts into my skin, and I fall into silence.

Silence is an active historical practice against BIPOC bodies. Silence has a lineage, if you will. Silence is also its own language. So you see, silence is many things – both our oppressor and our craft. This is the tricky thing about a colonizer’s language.

 

Frame

On this paper, in this garden of my own growing, I will walk around this silence, examine it with all my sociological training, my writer’s attentiveness and mine the memory of this familiar silence. I will do this as a way to come back to voices.

quiet young student

Frame

In the 70s, I was a tiny Chinese kid in Scarborough, quiet to the point of mute. Teachers asked my mom at parent meetings if I was being abused because clearly something was wrong with my statue-like presence in the classroom. I wasn’t just silent, I was also dead still, afraid to move, afraid to take up any space.  What was my mother supposed to answer in front of these white teachers?  I do not know how she felt about it all, as much of the shock that we experienced upon immigrating to this place was not communicated between us. These shocks came to us when we had no shock absorbency. She told me years later and laughed about it. This is a gift in my family – laughing at what is most painful.

 

Frame

I am not interested in making readers comfortable even as I shift uneasily in my chair or have to leave my keyboard to cry in darkness before more words can come to articulate the fog of what living in whiteness has done to me and my ability to craft in language.

I am stricken with this inability to articulate my vulnerability. If not my vulnerability, then what do I have to offer?

 

Frame

My grandmother was a writer. Did you know? That in the 1930s and 1940s, Hong Kong women wrote.

When she was already old, and I was a child, I would file her nails and inhale her -– the smoke from her menthol cigarettes, the camphor of the White Flower Oil and the talcum powder that she liberally sprinkled on her skin after a bath. She was a woman trapped in a Scarborough house in the late 70s, captive by a language she didn’t understand and white faces that did not give a damn if she was lost in the maze of streets with identical houses. But at night, I was at her side, and I inhaled her to keep her inside me, to become her, intuitively knowing that I would need this woman’s ability to give no fucks in order to grow up and take my own place in the world.

She died on my 30th birthday. She was in Toronto, and I was in Macau. When I called back to Canada to talk to my mom, she told me. Poh Poh had been hanging on for months at that point. But that she chose to pass on my birthday didn’t escape my mom or me. I had read somewhere (even though I know little about the philosophy) that Confucius says at 30, one must take a stand. I knew my grandmother was sending me a message – the most important one, and so this gold thread is what knits my spine together.

 

Frame

Writing has always been my dreamtime. Writing is living in a trance where I am more real than I am in real life. Writing is rain on my face. Writing is the storm in my body. Writing is making myself appear like an image on paper in the dark room. It’s magic and alchemy.

 

Frame

I spend a lot of time trying to find language. The words need to be exact and yet open, dynamic and yet heavy like anchors, so that I would not be moved when challenged. They have to be sharp like the points of arrows and beautiful too, like sparks of light on a lake.

But sometimes, it’s not the words, not their careful craftsmanship, arranged precisely in intricate patterns. Sometimes, it’s not the words that are at fault for why they don’t land where and how they should. At times, the reader will simply not let the words pierce and settle. The reader will not approach the words with the respect in which the writer attended to them. The readers are sometimes locked in their own world of mythology, and this narrative that arrives from your body may already be at odds with this mythology. This is metaphoric war. This is metaphysical war. There are victors and losers. There are colonizers and colonized in the terrain of CanLit.

 

Frame

What of beauty? I hear you asking this, and I do not know. I am scared of forgetting beauty too.

 

Frame

This notion of “voice” may float like an empty signifier these days, but I want to make it salient. I want to show the heavy lifting and carving into stone without machinery, the battle scars where one side walks away unscathed and denies there even being violence, the finding one’s place in the long road of other voices.

 

Frame

When I write, I must equally let the world in and keep it at bay. The brutalities and even the joy, I must hold back with one hand, so it does not enter me. Instead, I lean on it like a wall, let it whisper into my ear.

 

Frame

In my undergraduate years in the late 80s, my consciousness was raised by the political struggles of the day – anti-apartheid movement, feminism, anti-racism. For the first time, the silence, the invisibility, the three seconds of my childhood formed some saliency, became objects that I had the tools to analyze. I acquired language – hard words, solid words and words that cut to the heart of the matter. I remember a conversation with other students in the women’s centre at my university. We were a small group of women of colour who gathered to try to articulate the intersections of gender and race. I remember being astounded by their articulation of experiences and theory when really, the words were still only crude tools. When it became my turn, all I could share was that I learned how to swear the first time someone in the grade one schoolyard called me a “fucking chink”. Fuck and Chink. Two words entangled for me, two words twinned and aimed at my heart.  This couplet could not be called unrefined. I felt its potency and its poetics, as it was triggered at me. I had never heard either word before, but I recognized its resonance and intuited its history, worn smooth like river stones and because of this, I thought it therefore must be true. I always trusted words until I didn’t.

 

Frame

I did not do my graduate work with a decision to be an academic. I am like a moth to light – I needed to spend 10 years trying to understand my place in the world within contexts of history, social, cultural and political frameworks. I did a PhD in race to know how it operated, so I would not go insane. I was like a person who wanted to know time by taking apart a clock.

 

Frame

When I was asked to try my very best by my parents, by teachers, by the mot de jeu of the 70s, I did not do that. Instead, I learned the subtext, the real rules of engagement to know my place, and to recognize my voice as outward silence and inward turbulence. What writing demands is not just honesty. Honesty can only do so much. Writing, the writing that I value the most anyway, requires me to offer my vulnerability, and this is the very thing that living within whiteness has taught me never to reveal. There is too much at stake to give up my vulnerability, and even as I write this, I recognize that I am using the phrase “give up” as if this is arsenal that will be used against me. And this is precisely it. More than winning that race, if I were to offer the self-betrayal that I felt in that frame of those three seconds, I would not be understood. I would be rendered incoherent. And so, my whole life up to this point has been to find the words to make sense of those three seconds to myself.

 

Frame

Let me tell you how my grandmother died. It was a long, stretched out desert of a death. Parkinson’s Disease robbed her abilities one by one. First the tremors, so she could no longer make me her perfect sunny-side eggs or crochet me another scarf. Then she couldn’t play mahjong, then she couldn’t walk. And then, she couldn’t talk. The doctor said her mind was fully there, as if this was mercy. I looked into my grandmother’s eyes to tell her that our silence is language, and that I am still listening.

 

Frame

I know the limits of empathy. I know the limits of bearing witness. And even so, I know it’s a necessary effort to engage in these imprecise words and gestures to move towards one another.  I want proximity to you, not in power but in our vulnerability. In the end of it all, isn’t our vulnerability our humanity?

Is this the labour required in producing literature in this time and on this land? This work performed as an excavation, a fine touch, an attendance to ghosts and a submission to hauntings? Is it a reckoning with all our relations, showing our wounds and bearing witness?  It’s a walk through fire and surviving a thousand paper cuts. I am unsettled and settled into new knowledges and narratives that are re-organizing my bones and making my blood run hot and cold. I want to face you and hope you will show me yours. What comes in this facing – this spectrum between coherence and non-coherence, this admission that we will never be able to completely understand, this space where no words can bridge us but we try anyway – this is perhaps where the healing may begin. This is where the literature will come.

 

Frame

I didn’t know how to end this. But last night, I was at Dionne Brand’s double book launch of THEORY and THE BLUE CLERK. All around me, I saw familiar faces. Faces that I love, a convergence of writers and scholars and artists. Faces like water, giving me life.

I am thinking this. I am not certain yet, but I’m moving towards something like this: Perhaps, we are all claiming back three seconds in our own way, finding ourselves in the multitudes, fragmented and whole. And somehow, along the way, we will look up and trace a new constellation in the sky, heavy with silence, loud with love and rage.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Carrianne Leung is a fiction writer and educator. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and Equity Studies from OISE/University of Toronto. Her debut novel, The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications) was shortlisted for the 2014 Toronto Book Awards. Her collection of linked stories, That Time I Loved You, was released in 2018 by Harper Collins Canada.

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