When I first read Adrienne Rich’s “Notes Towards a Politics of Location,” I thought it was incredible.` Then I carried on reading Gloria Anzaldua’s “Speaking in Tongues,” and I fell irreversibly inspired. It was a time when I was puzzling through this seemingly invisible power between women. I had just found the word “feminism” as a flexing container for my politics, young, fresh out of my first proper job in a women’s rights shelter and NGO. So I couldn’t understand how I could feel so strained and shrunken by another woman who shared the same flexing container as me. And then I looked around me, when my world slowly expanded, and I found the same kind of invisible threads everywhere. So I needed to figure this out.
And somehow, in my small life growing up, books were my doors to another terrain of thoughts embedded within layers of time, miraculously preserved between covers. So it became a habit, and I read up, and became a bit obsessed. Long conversations over coffee arguing over this text and that. Pulling apart this notion of power. Pinning it onto spaces, histories, structures, bodies. Burning them up. Then turning them into water. My thesis was all about power. The first paper I presented at an academic conference was about the “Performance of Authenticity.” Again, power. And how that is linked to identity. And how some identities are obliterated into a costume, a name, an image. And I was thinking of the (racialised/gendered/aged/classed/sexualised/insert-what-applies-in-my-life) other.
I haven’t really kept up with “the news”. Because I made a promise to quit the habit of feeding the machinery of making monsters through my own incessant consumption. Sometimes the only way to resist the machine is through deliberate pausing. A refusal to continue in engagement. But yesterday/today was impossible to resist. Because I received pictures from friends in their placards and huge, determined smiles from different parts of the world. Because the placards were so fucking smart, and funny, and truthful, and full of fire.
“It’s so bad that even an introvert came out to march.”
“Obama dropped 26171 bombs in 2016.”
“I’m so angry I stitched this just so I can stab something 3000 times.”
“Assume you will come out and march for #BlackLivesMatter.”
“Grasp THIS Trump. LGBTQI, Ppl of Color, Muslim, Migrant, Women’s Rights = Human Rights.”
“Hands of ma pussy. My body. My choice. My rights.”
And so on.
And then I went on Twitter, and clicked on a link to an article that read, “Women of color are being blamed for dividing the Women’s March — and it’s nothing new.” And it had a tone of thinly veiled outrage. Even as it tried to present all perspectives to the argument. And then I see that some Malaysians have also jumped into this thread of argument. And I thought to myself, “Fuck, when will we ever get out of here?”
First things first. Of course identities matter. The entire world is constructed out of identities. Dissected into a delicate series of order through torture, theft, rape and murder. Woven through mythologies passed from tongue to cinema. Embedded into the flesh and liver of human agency and autonomous action. To say it doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t matter, is just fucking stupid. Or resolutely ignorant.
And if you’re concerned with politics, and the labour of making things a little less shittier, then you’re concerned with power. And of course power is stitched to identity. Just see what we had to do to get here. So to be lazy in the work of pulling apart the politics that is embedded in the identities that we inhabit in this encounter, is to be lazy in our politics. So don’t discount the work here.
But to use this as the place where we claim our power, then we are choosing the ground in which we are hoping to shift to stand from. And that is just bad physics. Or silliness. I started to type, “we can’t stand on the things in which we have been oppressed from, to the ones who have been oppressing us,” then I caught myself – can’t we? Maybe for awhile, because even injuries have scars. But not for long. Because then we become too invested in reconstituting the ground we stand on, even as we’re breaking them to pieces, just so we can stand for a little longer.
And I have seen how this fucks us over. Everytime we privilege a “subaltern” voice – even if it is our own – we recite a silencing, and silence another. Everytime we make space, we make invisible walls carved from rusty chains of power. Everytime we feel anger, it is the kind that seeks a target, it is the kind that needs an “other.” Everytime we seek a connection, we are confronted by our own self-sculpted alienation. Because that is what gives us power.
Adrienne Rich says, start from the body. Donna Haraway says, start from the political kinship. Gloria Anzaldua says, start from the borders. Audre Lorde says, start from the anger. Why don’t I have more names ready in my head. I’m participating too much in the machinery these days, clearly.
But again, I’m also falling into the trap. Asian names. Brown bodies. More legitimate.
I think we need a different language. One that doesn’t start from identities. Or location. Or skin. Or even experience. Because what is experience but that which is embedded within identities, location or skin?
It doesn’t mean it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. It matters a lot (see above). But it shouldn’t be where we start from. And it shouldn’t be where we end up.
So where do we start? I’m not entirely sure at this point. It needs a lot more chewing. But it’s 6:24am, and my neighbour opposite just did their daily morning routine of coughing out their lungs as they stick their toothbrush too deep into their mouths, and the morning prayer is well on its way, floating thinly to me through the microphone.
But at least I know where to not start from, and end up. For now.