Category: Writer in Residence — Published:
This is the first in a new series of texts by Whitechapel Gallery Writer in Residence Sophia Al-Maria (b. 1983), an artist, writer and filmmaker based in London.
The following is a version of a text read at an event on February 8, 2018.
Let’s fashion a bag according to our needs.
Some bags have handles.
Some are able to stand on a shelf.
And some bags have a load-bearing gusset.
For me this text is a bag.
It will be a weeping receptacle, a sort of spittoon for projectile tears, a sling for carrying bad blood.
When it is full up I will study this swill of sadness and the history of heartbreak it tells.
I am making of this bag a body.
A crumpled one ‘wrapped in plastic’.
A basket filled with bones, muscles and fat.
The subcutaneous and the visceral – the kind what cushions your organs.
Even the vestigial ones.
Let’s make a single-use carrier to collect our worst thoughts in.
A sad sack for sick songs.
A Pandora’s pouch with some kinda ugly coiled up inside.
Whatever it is, it can’t take its beady little eyes off of you.
Those eyes welled-up with a wetness after huffing a tiny bottle of methylated tears.
Let’s have a good cry for something
– everything you ever mourned.
Re-entering ‘the States’ feels like returning to a serial killer’s lair. I’ve escaped, but someone I love is still trapped inside.
I approach Homeland Security in a cunning disguise.
It’s an experiment.
A Blonde One.
White hair bleached in to show shock.
And sure enough, for the first time ever, I am not pulled aside for extra screening.
No thick black ‘X’ over my face.
No pie-eyed cartoon death.
No questions asked as to my authentic Americaness.
For once the meathead with a buzz cut doesn’t slow mouth my middle name. “Mo-ham-ed?”
Before I know it I’m standing on the threshold of this homicide house I no longer call home.
I haven’t lived here since the nineties.
My memories of the dark kingdom belong to that antediluvian time of Dolly the Sheep and dial up – before the flood of an ugly, uncertain, unAmerican future came along.
Since before Y2K and the myopic march into the 3rd Millennium.
A thousand years which promise, among other things, to be the stage of human extinction.
The great retribution.
The silence glaev.
The return to nothing.
What a relief.
Before all of this.
Before I was betitted and broken by early onset pubescence.
Before the piss of millions of women hopped up on synthetic second generation hormones started changing the sex of the fish. Before all reproduction was rendered faulty and false. Before the deal was sealed and climatologists and activists threw their hands up in despair and walked away from the world. Before all that, before that which is coming, comes… it’s important to remember things were always fucked up.
Our town has a separate but equal school on the reservation. Early on our public elementary was whitewashed to only include the non-native, of whom I was a member, most frequently mistaken for Mexican.
I had an over-enthusiastic endocrine system stoked by food stamp food and subsidized hot lunch.
Sloppy Joes, Sunshine Sandwiches, free and frequent Milk
This was a pubescence triggered by an excess of BPA, an industrial oestrogen imposter polymerized from crude oil.
I was crippled by an undiagnosed disease of the sexual organs, prematurely aged and sprouting a silver streak from pain, lying on a wet piece of plywood by a railroad track wracked with some kinda obscure punishment on my rupturing reproductive parts.
Every one of us has a chronic disease. I used to blame the half-life of the chemicals our white grandfather sprayed in the volcanic dirt we grew up in.
Fertile topsoil stolen from the ones he called ‘lazy young bucks’.
The ones our mother colourfully imagines as meth-heads lurching around the casino parking lot past midnight.
She thinks this in spite of the fact it is her father who poisoned her brown daughters. Her father who let the irrigation ditch run off into the river to poison the salmon run.
Her father who kept a white mask sewn into the top of a suitcase if the Clan came calling. Our grandfather, offspring of Daniel Boone, who shot our grandmother in the belly one night – a man who we never knew.
Now I know it’s not the pesticide that did this to me.
Even though every one of the eight of us grown on this turf have autoimmune diseases.
I’m convinced it’s not the traces of DDT but the hormone disruptor currently present in plastic.
The thing that floats on the air like pollen and in the sea like foam.
The thing that makes us the best bags.
When I find the one I love.
The one I left stateside.
She is laughing hysterically. And crying at the same time.
Eyes unfocused, wandering, mad.
Libra is giddy with guilt.
Half-crazed from the campaign of torture that is not leaving visible scars.
From the insidious violence that holds this matrix together.
Lucky that Libra has a sense of humor.
Because she is having one Britney Spears’ 2007 of a time.
Libra is a teacher in one of the largest tribal schools in the United States.
The school and reservation we grew up adjacent to but rarely entered. An occulted place that we as brown kids also belonging to a tribe (albeit one half the way around the earth) felt a kinship with, but separation from.
Because our tribe’s story is Manifest Destiny II: 20th century redux.
Our clan, also an indigenous group knocked off ancestral land by American oil barons (and their allies in the Saudi royal family). Prone to alcoholism, diabetes and the poverty brought on by displacement.
But the pale faces who came to the Arabian peninsula had learned from their mistakes in the ‘new world’. They learned from their disastrous folly with the Oglala, sat above vast oil reserves in Oklahoma.
Yes, this time – the time of my grands – they would use soft power, imperialism Lite, colonialism diet formula – to get what they came for.
The deal was done with a scowl. King Saud catching a whiff of Brimstone from Dammam No. 7 and wincing from the stench. So much bile dragged up from the belly of the earth. Petroleum to polymerize.
And our tribe was left behind. In often deadly poverty. Dying of thirst, TB and industrial accident.
It is hard to put a name to an invisible enemy. Or to an act of violence rendered in geological time – and so – difficult to justify to those who claim human-caused global warming to be a hoax.
Libra is learning the nearly extinct language of the tribe.
She is teaching it simultaneously to the children she works with.
This is a hopeful glimmer in a pile of horrors the year has wrought.
She has started to hope things will get better.
I tell her they won’t.
I tell her she needs to learn to fight and sing.
I tell her I know that because this is America – all bomb bursting with an evil red glare.
This is America – with a rot so bad it’s smelt around the world. A nastiness that’s spreading, with foundations infested with hateful liars, collapsing into the mulch of its own mythos of lies.
I tell her not to cry.
There is a new firearms section in the local grocery store.
It wasn’t there before.
A bank of erect rifles stand pronged between the stationary aisle and frozen goods.
I notice a Chester Arms ‘Pink Lady’ revolver is a steal at $409.99.
The part of my brain that invents taglines for imaginary 80s horror films squawks
“Clean up on aisle gore.”
There is a person in a Seahawks sweatshirt and army fatigue pants mumbling to themselves nearby.
I accidentally make eye contact and this invites them to ask with inexplicable urgency, “Have you seen them?”
I shake my head and take a few steps away pretending to be comparing the price of fishing tackle.
“Well they’re always there in the parking lot. Over at the Emerald Queen. I’m surprised you haven’t seen’m.”
“I’m not a big gambler.”
“Well it’s eating away at them you see? Eating away at the joints. It’s horrible. Just horrible. You can see it! You just have to look. There’s holes in the knees of their pants.”
I dare to look up again and see this person is strung out. The fatigues make me think they’re a veteran. There’s a lot around here. Now that weed’s legal the trade has boomed to treat PTSD.
“It shoulda killed them by now.” They conclude.
”Have a nice day. OK?”
I turn a corner and don’t look back.
Then a voice comes on the grocery store’s intercom. It’s all gurning and breathless. “Attention Shoppers, the next three customers who find our American Eagle mascot receive a $20 Store Giftcard and a surprise gift! ”
It’s true what they say, you can hear it if someone is smiling.
That’s when I see the kid in the eagle costume who is about how old I was when I worked in this store. They’re wearing glasses, a thick ponytail scrunchied beneath the beak of a helmet. They are standing hip-deep in a cage of what I assume are ‘special gifts’ which turn out to be emoji plushies.
“Congratulations, you’re the first one to find me! Choose an emoji!”
I look down at what they’re standing in – a swamp of upturned yellow faces.
Faces deranged with feels.
They try handing me a giftcard. I wonder aloud how many bullets I could buy for 20 bucks. “A box of 50. Over in Sporting Goods.“
I think about taking the ROFL w tears face but instead I take a poop.
I like it because it’s got the biggest smile.
A shit-eating one.
They smeared shit on J‘s jersey and locker. J was the only black kid on the Junior Varsity football team. Evening News did a report on our school after a ‘race-riot’ broke out at 7am on a Tuesday.
The story ran under the quizzical subheading “Is this High School the Next Colombine?” Everyone took issue with the reference to the murderous dyad, Dylan and Eric. A few weeks later, K – a white quarterback on J’s team – committed suicide with his stepfather’s shot gun. Grief counsellors were brought in.
A few days later another suicide, this time someone called T. Again, a parental unit’s gun. The school shut down every time a Tacoma ‘gang’ supposedly called ahead to warn of a ‘driveby’ but didn’t seem to mind so much when the KKK started coming around passing out flyers door to door.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I revisited this period of my life in preparation for writing my first book, which would begin there. I spoke to a journalist who had covered the ‘diversity issues’ our school was having at the turn of the millenium. Columbine came up. They told me that Eric Harris’ diary had been released online a few years back. I looked it up.
“I hate the fucking world, to many god damn fuckers it in. To many thoughts about societies all wrapped up together in this place called AMERICA. Everyone has their own god damn opinion on every damn thing and you maybe saying “well what makes you so different?” because I have something only me and V [Vodka, Dylan Klebold] have, SELF AWARENESS. Call it exortenstiolism [existentialism] or whatever the fuck u want, we know what we are to this world and what everyone else is. We learn more than what caused the wild war and how to simplify quadratic in school. We have been watching you…”
It’s a real testament to the American public school system that a highly intelligent psychopath like Eric Harris had such a terrific grasp of spelling and grammar.
They are saying now, while military parades are being planned by a despot that America is the world’s first rich failed state. I used to find this ugliness interesting. The myth-making of an American nightmare. Now I find it grotesque, repellent, unforgiveable. It physically hurts me. As if I have a touch of the hyper-empathies, a disease I believe exists beyond the science fiction of Octavia Butler.
That last year I never went to school on time. Opting to linger as long as possible in front of Sailor Moon with it’s early half-hour slot before school and then heading straight to the library to download Chibi gifs onto floppy disc and memorizing the transformation rites: Moon Crisis, Make Up! Shine Aqua Illusion! Dead-o Scream! Petals of Stars, come to me! And so on.
The outer senshi were beautiful and menacing and so distant. I spent hours hiding in the library reading exposition and synopsis of episodes I’d never be able to watch in America because of nudity or openly gay characters or themes of matriarchal utopias that obviously made network television queasy.
Sailor Neptune’s and Sailor Uranus’ precog back-to-back fights, their eternal love for one another.
Sailor Pluto – the pretty soldier with three taboos stationed eternally at the door of space-time.
And Hotaru, my beloved Sailor Saturn – with a fluttering black bob holding the closest thing to chaos. It was her ability to destroy entire galaxies to reset evolution that I most wished I could possess.
I barely made it through the school year.
When we got to the 1950s in US History we learned about the threat of nuclear war but not Jim Crow or the civil rights movement.
I failed every test.
Every entrance to the school already had a metal detector after Columbine but now we had routine code reds.
My last day of school in America was spent in the Art Supply Closet after someone reported seeing a suspicious person in black wandering the campus with a large duffle bag.
We had been having a free day in class and I had been working with my friend A on a series of Sailor Moon shirts.
Mother was pushing me to join the military to pay for college.
A lot of kids I grew up with did just that, including A who thankfully didn’t make it through boot camp but tried nonetheless.
We were the class of 2001.
That summer I left America and little Libra forever.
I was 16.
16 is a good age to stage one’s own apocalypse.
One which did not require a gun.
I can see now that I was lucky to know there was a world beyond the hills of that cursed valley.
Because I knew my father came from somewhere else, somewhere ‘over there’.
All I needed was a ticket out.
You see, as poor as we were, raised up by that solo mama, damaged and with the big brindled dog of mental illness breathing at the door –
Knowing one’s heritage in the USA is a privilege.
And it shouldn’t be.
It’s a privilege denied every person whose generations and genealogies and geographies have been erased or are being erased.
Whether due to the brutality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade or to the laziness of Ellis Island bureaucrats. The void is still there.
Whatever the cause – knowing where I came from and where I was going counted and still counts to me as privilege.
I remember that the first superpower Sailor Moon discovered in S1 E1 (American dub) was her tears. These were window-shattering, monster-exploding, super-sonic grief attacks. She used them sparingly.
So know that these are magical tears.
This is mystical lacramentation.
Just like Sailor Moon’s tears would heal the earth of an unknown ecological disaster in the Silver Millenium, spreading love across a glittering galaxy expanding with grief.
They say American Civil War widows used elaborate and expensive unguentariums, or weeping bottles, to collect their tears while in wait for their dead husbands return.
These bottles were a luxury.
A show of wealth.
No vessel, not even all the oceans of Neptune, with its “multitudinous green seas incarnadine with blood” could contain the tears of the colonized, the enslaved and the dispossessed. The millions run off cliffs into historical obscurity for a homestead, or the many lynched by angry mobs when a white woman’s dignity had been besmirched.
“White Woman Tears” – a definition from Urban Dictionary.
Largely seen when the topic of racism is brought up and the white woman refuses to admit that something they said or did was wrong so they cry hoping that people will feel sorry for them instead of comforting whoever they offended.
Imagine seasoning a thanksgiving meal with the liquid amino of antebellum tears.
Now it’s Thanksgiving in America and the child comes home with a papoos made of construction paper.
I open the flaps and find a poem pasted there on the belly of the smiling baby.
Where we walk to school each day
Indian children used to play-
All about our native land
Where the shops and houses stand.
– Annette Wynne, 1905
I ask Libra, “WTF? Would they teach this in your school?”
We write a letter of complaint to the school district.
To Whom it May Concern:
According to historian Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz, “One of the most potent ways that violence of erasure is deployed in US society is through education. A body of scholarship identifies the ways that Native children have for generations been miseducated under deliberately repressive federal policy. And a substantial body of research also identifies the ways children in public schools are miseducated on us and native history.”
I experienced this as a student in this school district and this very thing is still happening in my child’s school this Thanksgiving. The poem they have learned imparts to the students that native Americans no longer live here. It contributes to the continued campaign of erasure of indigenous cultures in the United States. This is particularly egregious given the fact we live in an area where indigenous culture is very much alive and thriving. These are lesson plans and activities from the 1950s. We are in the 21st century and we cannot afford to continue to teach our children a false history of this country if they are to grow with dignity and a sense of justice in a world which is increasingly unjust.
The school district gives us no response.
Libra asks if I want to have children.
I think about the year 2050 when this hypothetical spawn of mine might be my age. Starving? Killing? As things deteriorate in some new valley of pain as the present violent hell spreads to infect the geolocations of my births.
I remind myself that the apocalypse happens every day.
And still. Libra picks up on this familiar descent into despair.
“Isn’t it better to have lived?”
I have no response.
The first time I saw the cover of Surf’s Up, I did not believe it was real.
A rain drenched painting of a person of the plains in defeat – an image evoking an American horror story still in motion and harkening back to the trail of tears. And even more darkly, were such a thing possible: unacknowledged and ongoing genocide.
The origins of the image is The End of the Trail, a statue “depicting a brave hanging limp (perhaps in rigor, slain in a battle) as his horse comes to an abrupt halt just prior to momentum carrying him over an unseen precipice.”
How could this bleak image encase such a sugary set of sounds?
The sculpture was made by a man whose own blood legacy was of a father traumatized from recovering the remains of the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Little Bighorn. There he saw the wages of Custer’s folly. Bodies mangled by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Of course Fraser Jr. wished to cast, forever in bronze,the figures who stalked his father’s nightmares as ‘limp braves’.
Why did the apex of patriotic plastic pop use this?
I think the answers are in Brian’s lyrics to Surf’s Up.
Brian, in his own words, explains the song from a barbiturate haze, toes deep in Pacific sand:
“Empires, ideas, lives, institutions; everything has to fall.”
“Columnated Ruins Dominoooo”
Now I think what they saw on my last day of school in America was probably a ghost.
The apparition of an angry white boy with fantasies of extinction.
This is the same angry white man that still stalks America today.
The jilted lover seeking revenge for a prom date refusal.
The same kind of drag-knuckle troll who stalks your internet.
The kind what dresses his crypto-fascism up in ‘exortenstiol’ philosophies that are the white boys secret wank to everywhere. A thing the empathy-free secretly believe but won’t say aloud, at least not to us.
This unspeakable thing is attached like a parasite to the guts of this pig. It’s in the entrails of this non-consensual reality we are being passed through. And it’s coming out of a shit-hole called the U.S. of A.
This blood-sucking ‘thing’ is what led Scorpio, my closest maternal relative, to vote for him.
Scorpio, who is an accelerationist evangelical .
Scorpio, who is a boomer that believes she might witness the end times in person.
Scorpio, who prays with a fervor so intense that she speaks in tongues.
Scorpio, who wants him to ‘bring on’ the apocalypse as if it were a live concert.
A live concert she wants a front row seat at so that Jesus might notice her in the crowd.
We have a fight about it.
And I tell her, if the good lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise – maybe we can meet in the middle someday.
But the rain shows no signs of stopping and America’s heating up.Its glaciers are melting, gorging the banks of every river running through it with a primordial flood.
But the muscular tide is coming in and we are on opposite banks.
Neither can ford the dirty river between us.
We share the same blood but no longer the same tears.
She just says she’ll pray for me.
And the high water mark’s already several feet under.
And the flood will reach our nostrils soon. We will fill our lives with tears.
And it will become a deluge.
And it will undulate in kilometre high waves.
A salty tsunami ripcurling for mockturtles and walruses and carpenters and sailor moon and the beach boys.
All to surf to the end of time.
I wanted to let you know I’d been thinking about Le Guin’s carrier bag theory a while ago, in relation to the idea of Gilgamesh as hero in the original piece of literature, in relation to autocratic rule and the space for women in wartime to be heard. So thank you for reminding me and sending me back to that text, while connecting it to so many other wonderful ideas.
And I thought you should see this image from the SFMOMA collection – Robert Colescott’s ‘End of the Trail’. I’ve taught this work before to college students and toured it with older people and it’s kind of amazing what people come up with when you start a conversation around it.
Whitechapel Lates: All exhibitions free from 6-9pm today!