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Searching for Meaning in the Borderlands

In Creative Writing, Geography/ Spatial Justice on February 14, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Five months after taking the plunge that landed me on the other side of the country, here I am: a newly-minted academic in a place that, for all intents and purposes, is diametrically opposite that of my Brooklyn barrio.

I live in what can be described as an intersection between a large public housing structure dressed in light brown and yellow hues, and a prototypical, suburban cul-de-sac overlooking undeveloped valleys and chaparral. The view outside my building itself suggests the nature of this place: nothing but the ever-busy I-5, a six-story parking structure, and five- and four-star hotels are in view.

La Jolla may as well be as far away from Sunset Park, Brooklyn as Pluto is from Mars. In a time and place wherein U.S. cities are witnessing the invasions of all forms of gentrifiers and speculative capital, and wherein the suburbanization of poverty has reconfigured the age-old dynamics of urban space and race, La Jolla stands out like a relic of an artificial past—a stubborn bastion of old money and white supremacy in the borderlands.

Of course, when looking at the natural beauty that is La Jolla Shores, it isn’t surprising why the rich would choose to build their mansions here. But the irrepressible question: what is this place? Given the extreme artificiality of the landscape, a quiet cookie-cutter spread of white, beige, and yellow boxes, is this even a place at all?

La Jolla Shores

A view of La Jolla Shores

It’s been five months since I moved to San Diego to pursue a doctoral degree, and as usual, I’m at a loss for words. I came here to study space and race—and San Diego, for numerous obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, is a prime location for such research.

The military, the border, the shameless Anglo coloniality in former Mexican tierra that was itself stolen from the Kumeyaay. The wounds in this place are immeasurably layered. And when I think about the larger picture: really, what am I doing here?

What did the Universe have in mind in bringing me to such a place? Being an expat New Yorker wouldn’t be so freakin’ hard if I didn’t bring a chronic condition with me across country. Would it even be this hard had I come here with the security of at least a few close friendships?

But, no, I keep reminding myself—this was the point. The point was to start over. The point was to try living in a new space that wasn’t so indelibly branded with the knotty memories of twenty plus years, spread throughout the various nooks and crannies of a city at war.

So now I’m a transplant in another people’s land, another people’s city, and for what? What is my presence here accomplishing? Was I pushed by an ennui of “more of the same” in New York, or was I pulled in by relaxing promises of a city by the border? The question of agency, and displacement, never goes away.

I honestly don’t know how to approach these thorny questions other than to wrench agnosticism and humility and conscientiousness about where I stand. I feel clueless being so unanchored from place (by definition, a space imbued with cultural signifiers, with life and meaning).

Yet this experiment in graduate school placelessness–a feeling of zero gravity in a haze of detached theories–reminds me of why geography matters. Space and place matter. The land we occupy matters. And there are spatial epistemologies we have yet to illuminate.

But right now, I feel the intensity of this uprootedness and the swirl of possibilities.

Five months in, and still, I can’t decide what this place is to me.

LaJolla5

Sunset in La Jolla Cove

The Overwhelming Present: On Having Too Much To Write About

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Creative Writing, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Intersectionality on May 26, 2014 at 12:55 PM
"It burns the thing inside it. And that thing screams." - "An Agony. As Now." by Amiri Baraka

“Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes. Flesh,
white hot metal. Glows as the day with its sun.
It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton
you recognize as words or simple feeling.”
– “An Agony. As Now.” by Amiri Baraka

 

Over the past year I’ve come to realize that my constant hesitation to write emanates not so much from anxiety or deep-seated insecurity, but from an overwhelming sense that there’s way too much shit to write about. If you’ve ever had to make a list of all the possible topics you could speak, write, or blog about, then you might have a sense of what I mean here.

Just the other day, heading back home from work in an hour-long trek from one part of Brooklyn (Bushwick) to another (Sunset Park), I was engaged in my most common activity: sitting, thinking, dwelling on issues that seem insurmountable. Even indescribable. Just the thought of putting these experiences and thoughts into writing was exhausting.

******************

For me, there’s an almost-insurmountable catatonia that comes with writing about the struggles of the everyday. Where to begin? After all, the elusive present is hard to understand without an acknowledgment of history. Do I cherry-pick old historical events, like the wave of destruction that swept over the Arawaks of the Bahamas when Columbus landed his avaricious gold-seeking feet? Do I speed through Manifest Destiny and slavery-fueled industrialization? Or the reproduction of urban savagery a lá Robert Moses and red-lining and… Or do I begin with what I’m seeing right now in 2014: the drastic efflux of white (with the ever-so-often black, brown, and yellow-hipster) faces walking past me at the subway stop near my job.

Goddamn. In a mere six years, the social landscape of this neighborhood has changed at a terrifying pace.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). Neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). The multi-story condo to the left was opened just a few years ago and already suggests near-full occupation. Indeed, neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

 

In a world with too many wars to fight, to many colonnades to dismantle, reality is jarring. And at the end of the day, here I am…sitting inside a train. Zig-zagging my way out of Brooklyn, then back again. Joining up again where the political meets the personal.

I still have to deal with soul-crushing limitations. Trying to live like a revolutionary in a neoliberal age, my mind slumped after a night of teaching in impossible circumstances. And as much as I wanted to scream, a bourgeois sentiment in me also wanted to make demands and compelling critiques. But the number of topics I could potentially write about (that were also personally embroiled) were staggering:

  • I can write about gentrification, urbanization, and settler-colonialism in the United States. Using the example of Bushwick or Sunset Park to demonstrate how gentrification—a term that has been popularized in the left and right to the point of losing considerable political valence—is really just another iteration of white supremacist, urban colonization. Even in cases where the gentrifiers and the gentrified come from similar ethnoracial backgrounds, a similar logic of invasion, plunder, and proselytization operates, often with indirect repercussions to communities of color.
  • I can write about the linkages between police brutality, mass incarceration, and the reciprocal relationship between carceral regimes and capitalist development (including criminalization and its association with gentrification in Brooklyn).
  • I can write about the struggles of adult education programs, or the constant struggles and physical and cultural violence experienced by my transnational, multi-status immigrant students. The unique, indescribable experience of being a teacher at the crossroads.
  • I can write about the insidiousness of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), its ableist romanticization of long hours, commitment, and passion. Its coercive management of dissent. The funneling of revolutionary momentum into the rat race of data-driven bureaucracy.
  • Then there’s the fact that I often feel like I’m being ping-ponged between the NPIC and the (bio)medical-industrial complex. As if I wasn’t already drowning in paperwork and numbers, I also have to keep track of my co-pays, premiums, medications, and insurance policies. I have to manage a deeply crippling, mysterious condition (chronic pain) layered upon another (multiple sclerosis). I have to deal with doctors’ racisms, insensitivities, and general misunderstanding. I have to deal with pharmacists and insurance reps and union reps and social workers and disability lawyers. More days than I can count, I am filled to the brim with sadness and fury and hopelessness.
  • I can write endlessly about what it’s like to live with pain, all forms of spiritual, existential, psychological, physical, collective, or intergenerational pain. And the wisdom that pain provides.
  • I can also join the graduate student-blogger bandwagon and write about my detachment from academia (here comes another industrial complex: the academic IC). I can write about my alienation as an economically precarious “millennial,” or write about intersectionality and identity through the lens of a crippled, queer cisgender working-class man of color.

For me, it feels like the possibilities are endless. I can write substantially about any and all of these things—not simply because they seem fascinating, but because they are integral to my everyday material experience. But unlike those who have the luxury of waging war in one or two battlefronts, I’m living in sheer and utter political cacophony, living with the threat of debt, hunger, and detonations of pain. I’m forced to deal with an amalgam of interrelated injustices, not simply an isolated cause or issue of the moment.

******************

Fact is, no one embodies single-issue politics; but for some, the layering of oppressions is too adamant, too imperious, to conveniently omit in any writing of personal experiences. For how have I become the sort of subject, the sort of human that I am today were it not for a constellation of experiences that is simply more than the sum of its parts? While disembodied scholarship coercively tempts us into partitioning our lives like specimens under a microscope, life teaches us how beautifully, sometimes agonizingly, complex and unpredictable the world must be.

Glancing back at this list, I am reminded of how overwhelming it all is. It is overwhelming to be alive today—and most of us ignore the telltale signs (sometimes out of necessity). Living through the tyrannies of a globalized capitalist order, sensing that the orderliness of modern civilization, urbanization, and economic development is actually more mythology than a worthwhile endeavor. Putting our bodies through cruel regimens of poorly cooked, chemical-ridden foods and substances while working until we literally drop. Or resorting to a jaw-dropping level of consumption of entertainment, drugs, and alcohol to deal with the pain of isolation. Or lest we forget the weight of ruptured, dismembered, or even annihilated communities and histories.

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Reflecting on the obstacles to produce through writing, I recognize how frighteningly obvious some of the “internal” ones are. With my eyes looking straight ahead to an impending life in grad school, I’m reminded of what Andrea Smith has written about with respect to the academic industrial complex:

“A phenomenon that results from academia’s myth of meritocracy is that scholars feel an undue burden to prove their brilliance. They can never take short cuts. They cannot publish anything unless it is perfect. Consequently, it takes many scholars an inordinate amount of time to finish their work because they suffer from excessive anxiety attacks as to whether or not their contributions are going to be sufficiently brilliant to warrant their publication.”

This resonates: I can be a perfectionist and hesitate to print or publish anything that doesn’t conform to a standard I’ve created for myself. I am also fearful of being “too public” with my thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and fear their resultant social repercussions. I fear being stigmatized, or analyzed, or romanticized and co-opted by well-meaning liberals. I also fear not articulating myself in a way that reflects how I truly think or feel—something that becomes particularly salient in my life with chronic fatigue. Even as I write this, I am constantly redacting my statements, cognizant of the critiques (feeling more surveilled than an object of the Panopticon state)….

Of course, the joint effect of these fears is to avoid writing altogether, with only an inkling that perhaps one day I can do so at a difficult convergence of free time, good health, good energy, and “feeling inspired.”

******************

So, to what extent are these barriers psychological/individual vs. systemic? And to what extent are these barriers that I have agency over? I don’t think I’ll ever develop a satisfying response to those questions, but I’m very much aware of how I’ve come full circle since my very first blog post on overcoming writing paralysis.

I still believe in the importance of writing, and speaking out against all forms of violence. I even see the importance of writing within political projects, even if those projects cannot be reduced solely to an ideological exercise.

But it’s fucking hard to put all the pieces together, to synthesize an amalgam of experiences that often feel too disjointed and irregular and incredibly messy. Sometimes it’s too much work to synthesize and create a story that fictionalizes a union of the world’s haphazard parts.

And while it’s generally hard for most people to find the time and space to write, the challenges are exponentially worse when you have to struggle with pain, fatigue, and brain fog.

Yet, none of that is to render invisible a more basic conundrum: There is too much shit going on in the world. There is too much shit going on in my life. There are too many fucking things to write about.

Yes, there is way too much shit. 

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.  What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.
What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

James Baldwin on the Nature of Dreams

In Creative Writing, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 2, 2013 at 5:15 PM

baldwin_criticism_america
Today, on the anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth, I felt a need to say something about a man who is indisputably one of Amerika’s most influential writers. Although he was a queer black Amerikan who was so disaffected with Amerika that he expatriated france, his writings have had mass global appeal–a fact that speaks to his incredible finesse at capturing the struggles and hopes of black lives. For better or for worse, his writings still resonate with the racialized Amerika of today.

Since he’s one of my favorite fiction writers, I don’t think I can do any justice speaking for or about him. His novels, and his life more generally, encompass too many themes to adequately address here. But as someone who’s recently reflected a lot on the meaning of dreams, the necessity of dreams, I was particularly moved by an excerpt from one of his novels. As always, his wisdom diffuses past the page and into your soul, revealing the this ineluctable, blurry wall between fantasy and reality, hope and unease.

The world he describes is almost too real to bear. But that’s just how it is.

“The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters. He encounters, because he must encounter, those people who see his secrecy before they see anything else, and who drag these secrets out of him; sometimes with the intention of using them against him, sometimes with more benevolent intent; but, whatever the intent, the moment is awful and the accumulating revelation is an unspeakable anguish. The aim of the dreamer, after all, is merely to go on dreaming and not to be molested by the world. His dreams are his protection against the world. But the aims of life are antithetical to those of the dreamer, and the teeth of the world are sharp.”
– from Another Country (1960)

No Words for Trayvon

In Creative Writing, Racial Politics on July 15, 2013 at 7:01 PM
justice for trayvon

We took the streets and shut down Times Square the day after the “not guilty” Zimmerman verdict. Photo (c) by Stacy Lanyon.

No words.

No words for
a jury
of five white women
and one Latina
that ruled
a black boy’s murder
as “defense.”

No words for
the media
that humiliate
and denigrate
a young black woman
who listened
as her friend
was followed
moments before
he’s gunned down.1

No words for
the brother
who scorned us
by saying he fears
for the murderer’s
life.2

No words for
the juror
that signed a deal
to profit from
a verdict
sealed. 3

lady justiceNo words for
the general attorney
whose devilish smirk
opened the gurney
for Justice gone berserk4

No words for
the laws
bankrolled by billionaires
that will
justify killings
of blacks and browns
because
“stand your ground”
is morally found.5

No words for
the white woman
whose hatred was foist
on the mother of a dead child
and rejoiced.6

No words for
the twenty year
sentence
of a black woman
who killed no one
while a murderer
gets back
his gun

No words for
an age-old
Amerikkka
whose justice is not justice
and stand your ground
means shots all around.

No words for
the old man
reviled and hit
because he wrote
a song for
our new Emmett.8

trayvon sit-in

Time Square Sit-in for Trayvon, taken from my smart phone.

No words for
the youth of color
who know
Jim Crow
has writ
their lives are shit.

No words for
the many
already shot
whose names
we’ll never know

No words for
the many
who’ll die
like flies
blood on concrete
and all alone.

No words for
a people
in revolt
showing us
there’s hope
beyond the
vote.

No words for
the anger
of a nation
filled with
righteous rage
knowing that war
is right to wage.

And no words
for you,
Mr. Zimmerman:
forever now
your black violin
will play
the sound
of your
hateful sin.

A People’s Revolt or a Military Coup?

In Creative Writing, The Revolution on July 4, 2013 at 8:41 PM

On the ontological necessity of hope, revolution, and dreams of a not-so-destructive-and-shitty apocalyptic future

ImageEgyptians’ successful overthrow of their neoliberal oppressor, Mohamed Morsi—the same man the mainstream press claimed was “elected” in a fair, informed democracy—has me feeling ambivalent. As far as can be seen from hours of Reuters videos of Tahrir Square, there is a palpable air of festiveness that radiates even thousands of miles away. It seems to have the carnivalesque feel of a true people’s revolt. But is it?

The toppling of Morsi (and of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood) brings up a renewed sense of hope that the revolution, far from being coopted by U.S.-led global capitalism, will continue the struggle against corruption and greed that were at the heart of the first upheaval against Mubarak. Following the onset of revolts in Brazil and Turkey—also central nodes in the worldwide regime of the New Economy—I can’t help but feel a palpable sense that the revolutionary momentum that was prematurely and violently suppressed in 2011-2 is surely (if not more cautiously) re-igniting.

Despite their ostensible differences, the three revolutions were all suffused with the righteous indignation of an exploited majority against a self-annihilating elite. Whether communcating in Turkish, Portuguese, Arabic, or English, the people usurped the technologies of dubious amerikkan “cyber-libertarian” origins (i.e. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter) and used them for an unprecedented subversion of the state. And despite the aggravating management of dissent that occurred at the hands of global elites in the first wave of revolutions, this new current seems to carry the lessons of hard-fought rebellions.

That these struggle continue is a testament to the ontology of hope. It is a hope that the hideous inequalities that capitalism has bred is not destiny. Perhaps this is all testament to how the contradictions of capitalism are finally causing it to fall under its own weight—the long-sought culmination of an untenable Marxist dialectic between the relations and forces of production. Perhaps this is the TINA (“there is no alternative”) principle of neoliberalism being irrevocably shaken, in a manner hardly seen outside the quasi-leftist democracies of Latin America.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps this is yet another military-led upheaval that will succumb to the same fate as the last overthrow. When, after all, has a military coup led to the liberation of its people? How can something like a military—itself the production of a world we no longer want—lead to the formation of a free society?

Given how this has played itself out over and over again, I wonder what conversations are fueling the people of Egypt right now. I wonder what sharing of vision and reprimands of caution will take place in cafés and public squares tomorrow.

And then I’ve come to realize that dreaming is not a bad thing. Not at all. It is an essential part of the revolution. Of course, right now it’s confusion that reigns: it’s unclear whether this is indeed revolution, upheaval, or regime change. But there’s something beautiful about the confusion of a moment that has an uncertain future. In a time when we have good reason to believe we are on the verge of spiritual-existential disintegration, if not downright collapse within an irremediable climate apocalypse, uncertainty at least brings with it an air of possibility. And what I hope for, trying to maintain respectful distance from a movement that is not mine to determine, is that the people at least have a vote. An actual vote not tampered by a conditioned notion of “elections.”

I confess that I harbor a hope that the currents of life-affirming anarchism within this latest installment of “revolution” in Egypt actually produce something the rest of the world can aspire to: a complete demolition of gods and masters.

After all, rather than forecast the rise of an Orwellian state commanded by Predator drones and cyberattacks, biometic surveillance systems and genetically engineered cyborgs, why not dabble in a dream that actually sustains the human species?

Image

Will a Marxist proletarian revolution be the telos of civilization? Or will the revolutions of the future traverse new cartographies unimaginable?

And rather than be witness to a chess match of competing dictators, war heroes and vulture capitalists, why not entertain the hope of a leaderless revolution?

Or hope that the people will begin that inevitable, if utterly anticlimactic, Sisyphean feat of dismantling walls and money-clad cages?

Or hope that the people dissolve the chains of interpersonal and internalized oppressions that undermine growth, love, and community?

Or hope that the people tap into the neurophysical possibilities of a boundless creativity and imagination, thus helping us all steer futures that actually make sense?

Or hope that the people seek liberation, not to overcome the constraints of history and geography, but to attain nirvana in the elusive, overlooked present?

Or…

Perhaps revolution is really just a dream. And in a world of grim realities, that would be a good thing.

Image

Tahrir Square on July 2nd, 2013.

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