Can the political become too personal?

Rebecca Salazar on poetry and polite Canadian racism

Photo Credit: Vesa Härkönen, Courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons  

Photo Credit: Vesa Härkönen, Courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons
 

DISASTERS IN THE first world occur everywhere—it’s an attack on all of us, an attack on democracy, je suis Charlie, je suis Paris—while those in third-world countries are imagined to occur in a non-place. My reading of Anchoress, Esta Spalding’s 1997 long poem or novel-in-verse, occurred in counterpoint to the attacks on Paris, Beirut, Baghdad. I started to confuse the place-names in the poetry with those in the headlines on my newsfeed. On November 13th, Paris was everywhere, was every place. The attack on Paris was reported as an attack on the world. Je suis Paris. Most of the other attacks that occurred on the same day were barely reported by Western media—as though they were non-events. 

In Anchoress, Spalding’s characters, Helen and France Green, intervene in the attack on a Sikh man by Americans who shout at him: “fucking Arab.” It reads like November’s news reel. A Muslim student at the University of Toronto had similar words shouted at him while waiting for a bus, and was spat upon, called a “terrorist.” Someone set fire to a mosque in Peterborough. Someone else robbed a mosque in Calgary while the Imam was at a vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks. Others smashed the windows of a Hindu temple in Kitchener. Someone photoshopped a photo of Canadian Sikh writer Veerender Jubbal, and his doctored image, plus bomb vest, was circulated by European media as a photo of one of the Paris bombers. Two men repeatedly punched a Muslim woman in Toronto in her face and stomach, and called her a terrorist. She was attacked while picking up her children from school. In Ottawa, someone sent a note to another woman, Eren Cervantes-Altamirano, telling her, “Canada is no place for immigrants or terrorists. Go back home.”

I was trying to write about poetry, but instead am cataloguing a rash of hate crimes close to home. Not a rash: an open sore. A friend and colleague of my sister’s was assaulted in Toronto, on her way home on the TTC. A man shoved Kayla Christyne Gerber against a wall and shouted that she needed “to get your fucking hijab off and get the fuck out of the country.” She was wearing a scarf over her head for the cold. She is not Muslim, was not wearing a hijab, but that shouldn’t matter. 

I was trying to write about poetry, but instead am cataloguing a rash of hate crimes close to home.

There has been some positive news, always followed by people on social media celebrating their renewed faith in humanity: like when Peterborough residents rallied to rebuild the fire-damaged mosque. People love repairing buildings, and feeling repaired by it. You can’t repair the people who were attacked so easily. Not those in Syria, or France, or Lebanon, or Iraq, or here. I find myself asking why they always attack women, as though the crimes committed were only ever by men. Maybe I’m too close. I find myself reading blogs advising people of colour in Europe and North America to be vigilant around white strangers. I find myself feeling threatened by every quasi-innocent question about where I’m from, about every time in my life I was mistaken for Lebanese, Persian, Syrian, Muslim, Pakistani, Egyptian... Better for a stranger to read my brownness as ugly or “exotic” than as foreign, these days. I shouldn’t find myself feeling thankful that my sister is light-skinned.

Rebecca Salazar, Courtesy of the author 

Rebecca Salazar, Courtesy of the author 

The mother who was attacked in Toronto (she was unnamed, in the media) was told to “go home” by her attackers. Gerber’s attacker shouted at her to “get the fuck out of the country.” The note Cervantes-Altamirano found in her mail told her to “go back home.” I’ve heard this before. My parents, with their Colombian-Spanish accents, are still asked when they came to Canada, even by the kindest people. Those nice, polite Canadians. They’re always met with disbelief when they answer that it was almost thirty years ago.

Last spring, I was reading about the Harper government’s Bill C-24 over breakfast, while visiting friends. Bill C-24 would allow the government to strip away Canadian citizenship from anyone convicted of terrorism or crimes against the government if they are dual citizens, or even if they are simply eligible for dual citizenship. I am eligible for dual citizenship, because my parents were still Colombian citizens when I was born, but I have only ever held Canadian citizenship. My friends and I tried to joke about it: imagine if Harper got wind of the environmentalist undertones of my doctoral thesis. Imagine: my thesis as treason. Imagine: I could actually be exiled. What a laugh.

That summer, I was filling out a change-of-address form at a Service New Brunswick counter when the attendant asked where I was from. I answered that I was only changing apartments within the city, that I already lived in town. He insisted: “no, where are you really from?” When answered, “Ontario,” he persisted. I left my forms unsigned, half-finished.

“Go home,” was the subtext. “This isn’t your real home.” I’ve never known another home. This is home. I’m thinking about the people who weren’t born here, about my parents, about other immigrants who hear this question and don’t have the luxury of my too-ready defence: my birthplace. I’m thinking about the people seeking refuge here. About the opposition they already face. There’s that political cartoon floating around: a father, hijab-wearing mother, and young boy are stopped in their path towards the page’s left margin by a large hand symbolizing Europe and the West. At their backs, digging into the mother’s back, a cartoonishly curved sword labelled, simply, “IS.”

 

IT’S REDUCTIVE, MAYBE, but I wonder why women are being attacked—Syrian women, Canadian women, women from anywhere. As though women are too easily assailable. As though women are easier to blame. As though women with hijabs or brown faces are fungible for whatever faceless enemy the public imagination feels it needs to strike. Are women really more susceptible to being attacked?

My partner and I rarely fight. We’re both averse to conflict. A few weeks ago, I made an off-hand comment about not wanting to go to an event because I was afraid to walk alone at night, and he asked why. What began as a discussion of the way women fear and are taught to fear rape became more personal. He knows me. He knows I’ve felt threatened, been threatened, but couldn’t understand how it could affect me so much on a regular night, so long after the fact. How it’s common for girls to learn to walk home with their keys in hand, in case. How I still find myself suspicious around men I trust, men I know, men I don’t know. How exhausting that is. How it can come back, any hour of the day, that feeling of being less than human. “But you aren’t less than human,” he argued, “nobody can take that away.” He couldn’t understand how easy it is to stop believing that. To make someone stop believing it.

It’s uncomfortable: reading about the Paris attacks, reading about the hate crimes being perpetrated against Muslim Canadians and other people of colour in Canada, reading about Canadians objecting to the government’s plan to bring 25 000 Syrian refugees. I keep reading the opinions of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers on social media. I can’t bring myself to broach the topic in person. I’m afraid of what I’ll hear.

Recently, an excerpt from a book was published on the blog of one of the literary magazines I edit. The author of the book referred to rap music and African American culture as “degenerate.” The excerpt named several unarmed Black boys who were killed by police, and called them “thugs.” Disgust quickly gave way to worry. Why would my colleagues choose to publish this? If the people I work with might agree with the racist beliefs in the blog excerpt, how might they think of me? Could I still feel safe? Or could I pass through safely, not being Black?

I can’t bring myself to broach the topic in person. I’m afraid of what I’ll hear.

After emailing another editor, I was relieved to be wrong. The blog post was taken down within hours of being posted. Apparently, my fellow editors had only skimmed over the book excerpt before posting it, not suspecting anything would be amiss. There was a public apology. Still, I find myself wondering about it. I’m angry that I had cause to doubt the integrity of people I know and respect, even if I’m not angry with them.

Say it: I’m overreacting. Say that nothing really happened, so I should just do my job and get over it. Tell me I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Should I feel lucky that this is only the first time I’ve been made aware of my race in the workplace?

I find myself doing extra mental work while editing: any time a poem has contentious racial or gendered material—forget the idea that poetry is all nobility and beauty—I feel compelled to critique the poem’s politics, in addition to its skill or merit. I no longer feel that I can choose not to. Ideally, I would like to know I’m not the only person doing this mental work. The onus to do so should not be on the only person of colour in the room. But poetry is hardly an ideal world. It’s frustrating; I don’t want my only contributions as an editor to be about the politics. I don’t want to feel compelled to re-educate the people I care about, at work or elsewhere; I want to trust that they will educate themselves. I also don’t want people to feel the need to pussy-foot around me, because I might be offended; I don’t have time for that. I want only to do my work, to do it well, and to enjoy it. I don’t want to feel obligated to be the angry feminist, the angry woman-of-colour, but I will speak when nobody else will.

 

IN SPALDING’S ANCHORESS, Helen Green sees the world burning during the Gulf War. Those around her seem unaware of it until she, too, burns. She takes on the trauma of war victims. The narrator, her lover Peter, commemorates mainly Helen’s pain. Her suicide becomes symbolic, poetic. Is it wrong of me to find it cloying when an unnamed character cuts Helen free from the flag pole to which she tied herself, and wraps “her electric body/ in the flag”? If I stop reading headlines long enough to become wrapped up in Anchoress, the lushness of its poetry, I find I’m critical of Helen. This is not to say that Spalding is uncritical of her characters, but the book’s narrative structure demands Peter’s bias in the telling. True: Helen’s depression and her final act of self-immolation are compounded by intergenerational trauma: her mother’s early life spent in hiding as a Jew during the First World War in France. But even Peter wonders why Helen chooses to answer violence with more of the same, loss with more loss.

Is it narcissistic to feel hurt by war, at such a remove from it? While sitting mostly secure, continented by privilege and safety? I have qualms that Helen’s pain and death in the narrative eclipse the pain of the war’s direct victims, that her gesture and its poetry fill too much of the space that could have been given to those people, their voices. I have qualms that my own feeling hurt, feeling threatened, is a waste of thought when I could be listening to those who are not whole, not safe. That my writing this is stealing space from someone else.

 

LESLIE JAMISON’S ESSAYS in The Empathy Exams suggest a line, or at least an ambiguous gradient of difference: “empathy or theft.” A difference between empathizing with the suffering of others and appropriating it, making your own pain about their pain so intense that it upstages theirs. Can the political become too personal, is one of my questions. Another: why are lines and boundaries drawn where they are: between home and not home, between citizen and outsider, between poetry and reality, between safe and unsafe. Between political and personal. Between empathy and theft. And are these merely, either-or? Or are they questions of degree? I’m trying to think intersectionally, but how many intersections must a consciousness of crisis engage with at one time?

In Anchoress, Helen’s sister France is a mirror to the events of the war. France is a skydiver, “sewing a great/ red robe to cover the lie / of the blue sky,” all while shouting at the sky to remain blue, “furious as she falls.” She has to know she will land, that she will stop falling, but this does not deter her. Her fury counters her exhaustion.

The onus to do so should not be on the only person of colour in the room. But poetry is hardly an ideal world.

I keep reading lists of reasons Canadians should not accept Syrian refugees. Security concerns, public health concerns, “don’t spend my taxes on them” concerns. “Go back home” couched in varying degrees of rational bureaucratic discourse and overt xenophobia. Still, so many people want to do good. So many are signing petitions, volunteering, making their own arguments against xenophobia, racism, and anti-religious sentiment, and canvassing for agencies to which one can donate to help new refugees. So many people want to do good. It’s inevitable that any kind of social theory or activism, in application, will be limited by the capacities of those applying it. This is often difficult to square with the juggernaut-ing openness of the intersectional, interdisciplinary version of political consciousness I want to enact. I can only do so much. It might be idealistic to think I can be so inclusive. Or, even, that the country I live in is ready to do so.


REBECCA SALAZAR edited the Fredericton instalment of The City Series (Frog Hollow). Her poems have appeared in Lemon Hound, CV2, and Room, and her first chapbook is forthcoming with Anstruther. She is currently a Vanier scholar at UNB.


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