Wednesday, July 21, 2010

“The Art of Living” – Womanist edition

This is a guest post from Tassja

 I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

This piece was inspired in part by a conversation with an amazing feminist ally and a wonderful friend, Jennifer S. I was also heavily influenced by Audre Lorde’s amazing words in ‘Sister Outsider’.

When I enrolled in Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies classes, I felt reawakened, I felt a palpable and poignant connection to the world. It was this sense of rejuvenation and connection that echoed in my soul and solidified my trust in anti-oppressive struggle as valuable, necessary and a path to living more fully. But, for over a year, I closed myself into a cocoon vision of feminism and social justice. I was just untangling myself from a sexually and emotionally exploitative relationship, and I sought refuge in a bubble of radicalism, plunging myself into intense post-colonial/ feminist theory and aspiring to an almost ascetic ideological purity. My heady intake of anti-oppression theory pushed me dangerously close to self-righteousness, and instead of engaging with people by acknowledging the many contradictions and challenges inherent in social justice work, I resorted merely to critiquing perceived privilege and using my observations to justify an unyielding anger.

I am aware of the empowering and liberating potential of anger. For women of color, acknowledging the source of our pain, woundedness and rage is the first step in a long journey of decolonization. But the anger I clung to had outlived its purpose. The enclosure I needed to heal and regroup had become a restrictive illusion of separatism that rejected the challenges of lived womanism.

I raged, I criticized, I lost patience, I shunned challenges. I thought I had all the answers.
I’m not sure what exactly it was that nudged me out of my cocoon. Possibly it began with my trip to Sri Lanka, my first in five years. As always, I was moved beyond words by the beauty of my small island nation. After over 30 years of war, we were finally ‘at peace’. People were hopeful and exuberant. It was impossible not to delve into the inexplicable beauty and warmth my country radiated around me. I would wake up in the morning and walk outside to collect sepalika blossoms from the ground. The delicate white flowers with their hearts of fire and heavenly fragrance, bloomed at night and fell to the ground by daybreak. 

I felt a wholeness I couldn’t name. What could my esoteric theory offer the nineteen year old soldiers standing by roadsides, armed with rifles far bulkier than their slender shoulders? Or the tender-faced girl with an infant in her arms, enduring the blast of tropical noon to beg on the sidewalk? Or my cheerful grandmother Indrani, who had lived through the breadlines and the rations and the endless power-hungry politicians and soldiers and curfews, who said simply “All I want is peace in my country”, who still listened intently to my anger at the human rights abuses and genocide of our government.?

I had to at last acknowledge that while theory is powerful, engaging with life is even more so.
I started to identify as a Womanist. I began thinking more deeply about what it means to inhabit a flawed world as a flawed being, while simultaneously striving for a richer, more sustainable, more life-giving future for all. 

I fell in love.

I listened to these lines by Suheir Hammad over and over:
“…as we lay and love/ our touch is not free/ it comes with responsibility”.

I resolved to reach out to people, even people who didn’t identify as feminist or womanist or anti-racist. People who are just doing what they know is right for themselves and their communities. Sometimes this means I get hurt and disillusioned. Sometimes, I’m so overwhelmed I need to go to the thrift store and pick out a terrible, terrible romance novel with a title like “Snowed in with the Boss” and just laugh my ass off. Other times, I’m touched with a hope that rekindles purpose.

When I heard the amazing Karen Diver speak a few months ago, she reiterated the importance of self-care, of remembering that social justice is but a part of our multifaceted identities. I am a Womanist, and I’m also a daughter, a writer, a partner, a sister, a Tolkien geek, a city girl, a Sinhalese woman, a Gulf baby, a transnational woman. Social justice can enrich and inform these other parts, but sometimes I just need to honor them for themselves. Sometimes I need to talk about wedding saris with my mother and grandmother. Sometimes **shudder**, I watch Paris Hilton movies with my brother.

What I’m driving at here is that ascetic purity is only one way to live your truth (and I’m not even sure it’s high on the how-to list). We inhabit a world ravaged by unspeakable, human-created evils: poverty, genocide, colonization, environmental degradation, rape, murder, violence. We who insist on envisioning a different world, who must insist against desperate odds that yes, a different world is possible, we need to also create beauty, tenderness, melody, and redolence around us.

We need to fill our daily lives with material glimpses of what we are fighting for.
How can we arm ourselves everyday to battle the dragon of racist, sexist, colonialist capitalism, if we have no gardens to return to? 

For a long time I was incapacitated by anger and an inability to move past my privileges. Because of my guilt at being heterosexual, cisgender and middle-class, I was convinced that I should indulge no sensory craving, because the beauty I crave is built on the backs of my sisters and brothers in the global South. But I was only envisioning a small piece of the picture: the piece was consumerism. What I needed to do, was what Audre Lorde laid out many years ago in her essay “Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power”, when she said:

“The aim of each thing we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible”.

Now, I must relearn to use “the erotic as power”. I say ‘relearn’ because it was never unknown, only forgotten, despised, suppressed, abnegated.

I must learn, not only to see the world, but to touch, taste and breathe it. While I decolonize my mind, I must also locate resistance in my body. Because resistance comes not from shunning the world and using anger as a shield between myself and the necessary realities of living – but from everyday choices, both personal and political, that refuse to disown a world despite the toxicity of oppression permeating the air. Choices that insist on our rights to love, play, laugh, dance, eat and seek pleasure. Choices made in the fullest possible consciousness of our interconnectedness.

Choices that affirm human comfort, human joy, and human pleasure as a RIGHT, sacrosanct and immitigable – choices premised on moving towards a future where basic human dignity is not the privilege of a few built on the backs of others, but the inalienable birthright of all.
Audre, Audre, Audre it’s almost as if I can feel your presence, your hand on my shoulder. Your truth and mine are not identical, but your voice echoes deep enough to make my bones shift, as if relearning the frame of my flesh.

These choices look different for each of us, because they are formed out of the incredibly beautiful multiplicity of human experience. But for each of us, they are as necessary and life-giving as air

Speak your truth. Live it. Reflect on it. Love it. Understand its nature and texture, like lips on a lover’s skin. Relearn its imprint on your body.

“Now hold me, a little while longer
Just a bit
Cos we gotta get up soon
There’s a war on outside
C’mon now baby.
We got work to do.”
    -Suheir Hammad