Reclaiming the Race Card

I was born in Britain at the tail end of the Thatcher era. My mother was a nurse, my father an accountant, and we moved from London to a suburban part of Essex just after I came along.

There’s a lot I don’t remember about my childhood. I don’t remember any specific toys I liked or what my favorite meal was. I can’t remember the color of my first bike or how old I was when I first learned to ride it. What I lack in specifics, however, I make up for in the memory of how certain things felt: the pride when our neighbor, David, let go of the back of my saddle and I cycled on two wheels by myself, feeling the wind brush sharply past my cheeks. The memory is only a split second long, but it is powerful.

I can’t tell you when I first heard the phrase “playing the race card,” or even when I first came to understand its meaning as a black child growing up in a predominantly white area.

I can’t tell you when I first heard the phrase “playing the race card,” or even when I first came to understand its meaning as a black child growing up in a predominantly white area. What I do remember vividly, though, is what it felt like. As an adult, the only comparable feeling is the frustration of being unable to articulate a point or argument because you are up against someone who is more confident—or at least louder—than you are. They aren’t necessarily right, but you have no choice but to back down anyway, because you’ll never be able to convince them to see your side.

In my teens and twenties, I feared speaking out about how I really felt in certain situations, worried about being branded as “playing the race card.” I didn’t want to be seen as difficult or angry—I just wanted to keep my head down and blend in. The problem is, as a black, female, second-generation Muslim growing up in post 9–11 and 7–7 Britain, blending in was never going to be possible. That’s when I really started to notice how the “race card” was being used to silence valid and legitimate voices.

In January this year, the London mayoral battle started to get pretty messy, with Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith accusing Labour’s Sadiq Khan of “playing the race card.” In terms of my personal vote, I’m not gravitating toward either candidate. I’m not even convinced that any one person is enough to be the mayor of London. If it were up to me, there would be a group of at least four people with separate areas of expertise who could each bring something different to the table—like the Power Rangers, or the kids from Captain Planet. That said, the use of the phrase awoke a frustration in me that had remained dormant for many years.

The problem is, as a black, female, second-generation Muslim growing up in post 9–11 and 7–7 Britain, blending in was never going to be possible.

The idea of a “race card” suggests a privilege. The race card is a go-to argument that everyone who considers themselves an ethnic minority is free to pull out of their pocket and play whenever they need—a theoretical free pass to victory.

Doctor: What kind is it?

Midwife: It’s a brown baby girl, doctor. Parents are Muslims.

Doctor: A brown Muslim girl? Oh dear, best give her two race cards then. She’ll need them.

But this isn’t what the phrase has always meant. Historically, “playing the race card” meant to pander politically to racists. The race card was a political trump card that could beat all others.

Following an influx of immigrants into the UK in the 50s and 60s, there was known to be a degree of racist discontent amongst the predominantly white indigenous population [and] there was an informal gentlemen’s agreement not to benefit electorally by pandering to this racist element. Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary seat of Smethwick in the 1964 General Election, was accused of using the slogan, ‘If you want a n****r neighbour – vote Labour’, in an attempt to capitalise on the electorate’s fears of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. Later, once the phrase ‘play the race card’ had become part of the language in the 80s, commentators wrote pieces suggesting that Griffiths ‘played the race card’ in order to get elected.

So to play the race card means both “to attempt to gain advantage in an election by pandering to the electorate’s racism” and “to attempt to gain advantage by drawing attention to one’s race.” There is reversal suggested here: what used to be the racist’s tool has become the ethnic minority’s asset.

The idea of a “race card” suggests a privilege. The race card is a go-to argument that everyone who considers themselves an ethnic minority is free to pull out of their pocket and play whenever they need—a theoretical free pass to victory.

What the two meanings have in common is the idea that the race card trumps all arguments and shuts down debate. Whoever holds the race card wins.

Yet who really wins, in this day and age, when one person accuses another of playing the race card? The person who does so effectively removes the possibility of debate by dismissing and invalidating the other party’s opinion. When we remove the opportunity for debate, we substantially minimize the opportunity for understanding—and when we are unwilling to understand each other, we become separated.

In the past, we’re told, white politicians played the race card, pandering to racism as a way of shutting down their opponents’ arguments. Today we are to understand that people of color hold and play race cards of their own—but in fact it is the accusation, not the “card,” that holds all the power.

My frustration at Zac Goldsmith’s words extends so much further than it being a turn of phrase that irks me. These are not words that can be ignored and brushed off: these are words that are being used every day to ignore and silence people who are attempting to voice their frustrations.

I’m now thirty years old, and I’ve been trying for years to put into words how and why race is such a huge deal to people of color like me. The closest I’ve come is this: being able to exist and not have to think about race issues is a privilege. I always felt that until I could say something helpful, different, and poignant on the subject, I may as well keep quiet. The trouble with this “race card” thing is, I just can’t sit quietly while a prominent public figure perpetuates a term whose use results in people being shut down—people like me, who are people like everyone else, whose thoughts and feelings are equally valid. People like me, who have grown up experiencing first- and second-hand what it actually feels like to exist as a minority in a world where the playing field between those who are white and people of color is not level.

These are not words that can be ignored and brushed off: these are words that are being used every day to ignore and silence people who are attempting to voice their frustrations.

To me, the “race card” is not a card at all. A mere card couldn’t possibly fit all of the reasons I need to challenge and call out racism. My reasons for speaking out span the three continents that form a part of me and hundreds of years of colonialism, immigration, and experience. My race card is not a card: it’s the lives of my ancestors distilled into speckles of my genetic makeup. I’ve accumulated a “race book” full of experience, of bittersweet memories and difficult-to-process feelings, and I stand ready to explain to anyone willing to listen why I will no longer sit down and accept the dismissal embedded in this phrase.

Next time I’m accused of playing the card, I’m throwing down the book.

top photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Sociohistorical Fiction; or Morrison in My Life

The best I continue to have, to enjoy, and to love is Toni Morrison. But I don’t read her: she reads to me.

The power in her narrative, the pain she digs out of your insides, the metaphorical genius that cuts through the literal mind and forces you to search for her meaning, the unmatched concision of her speech—with not one misplaced thought or misdirected angle, not a single sentence overrun or a phrase understated.

She is the reason I write. She is the reason I embrace my own pain and attempt to transcribe it into words.

My relationship with Morrison began in my freshman year of high school, over a decade ago, when I was required to read The Bluest Eye. I had never read anything so figuratively convincing before. I had never read something that addressed the most intensely personal situations and deep-rooted conflict from the eyes and mind of an eleven-year-old girl.

Upon reaching the conclusion of Bluest Eye, I remember having a tiff with a classmate about whether the color of Pecola’s eyes changed. My argument was that the color of Pecola’s eyes changed because she believed it, and no further explanation was required. A “what is real to me versus what is actually real” debate commenced ,and it was fantastic. Morrison’s style is so poetic, symbolic, and majestic that she eliminates the distinction between the two, and as a result, what is real to me is actually real.

Morrison transformed my way of looking at the world. She changed the lens with which I viewed my surroundings, and this transformation felt incredibly emancipating.

Morrison transformed my way of looking at the world. She changed the lens with which I viewed my surroundings, and this transformation felt incredibly emancipating.

I began to delve past the façade of pasted-on facial expressions and rehearsed laughter for that deeper meaning behind closed eyes and mute tongues. I am that person who wants to hear your story from beginning to end: I gasp, ooh and aah, I tear up, I become angry when you become angry, I smile when you pour your heart out, I feel the love you declare.

I always enjoyed listening to people’s stories, especially those of the elderly and the traveled. Morrison taught me to find the pain and struggle in the untold parts of their stories, to piece together the meaning of their incredible journeys, and, finally, to tie it all back to the unbelievable strength of the individual.

When learning about the sequence of events that led up to major conflict across borders, involving key political figures and nations, I wanted to travel back in time to ask the people of that time and place how they felt. I wasn’t solely interested in the decision-making process: I wanted to have a lengthy conversation with a layperson and his or her family.

I am a bit of a history buff. Even now, my DVR is overrun with History Channel pieces. This interest in history led to my discovery of sociohistorical fiction. When learning about the sequence of events that led up to major conflict across borders, involving key political figures and nations, I wanted to travel back in time to ask the people of that time and place how they felt. I wasn’t solely interested in the decision-making process: I wanted to have a lengthy conversation with a layperson and his or her family. Sociohistorical fiction allows an inside view of the social impact history had on families, kids, lovers, and leaders. Although some literature and personal reflections have been preserved, we don’t have social media, blogs, and limitless creative expression from people of other time periods. Without these sources, it is nearly impossible to fathom the feelings and sensations of a people through uprising, turmoil, political upheaval, famine, disease, and loss. These unknowns spark such an interest in me. I want to do the research and be the historian. I want to be able to feel, somehow, or get even the slightest glimpse into those minds.

She presents perfected characters with their socially labeled “imperfections,” an underlying civil issue sets the tone, and she brings in perspectives from the old and young, the brave and the forgotten, the now and the then.

Although I read some historical fiction prior to Morrison, her style was unlike any HF I had encountered to that point. What is magnificent about her way of writing is her ability to tell a story within a story. This is where metaphor meets sociohistory. The exploitation and dehumanization of blacks throughout history, and still to this day, is the backdrop of her novels. She presents perfected characters with their socially labeled “imperfections,” an underlying civil issue sets the tone, and she brings in perspectives from the old and young, the brave and the forgotten, the now and the then. It is literary brilliance the way she agilely impels the reader to come face to face with the grueling catastrophes of black history, from slavery to torture to rape to liberation, seclusion, domination, and debasement.

I’ve cried many times during a good read, but this was the first time I actually had to close the book about halfway through and put it away. I was solemn for days and could not get myself to pick it up again and finish. Never before had words stabbed at my soul so deep.

For me, the literary agony in Beloved was unbearable. I’ve cried many times during a good read, but this was the first time I actually had to close the book about halfway through and put it away. I was solemn for days and could not get myself to pick it up again and finish. Never before had words stabbed at my soul so deep. I tried finishing it later that year, yes, I tried many times that year. Peeking at the next page, skimming it over to see if the bad was gone and some good was on its way. I read a few lines but felt the wounds reopening. I had to close it yet again and reshelve it until I was at a different, more mature stage in my life, about eight years later—at a point when I had seen and experienced a little too much, but enough to solidify my spine.

My familiar tears resumed, my heart stiffened and clenched through to the very last word. It almost felt like I was holding my breath through the remainder of the book. Upon concluding this masterpiece, when I could breathe again, I was ready to write.

It’s extremely difficult to put into words exactly what Morrison did for me. She awoke a silent, creative part of me. She encouraged me to unscramble a not-quite-perfect sentence to make it right. She pushed me, in a complex, tenderly firm manner—she pushed me outside my comfortable boundaries and stood me up to face, internalize, and express. She navigated me to the darkest corners of my inner self and helped me find peace with everything hiding there.

Most importantly, she has taught me to embrace all that is good and all that is me.

top photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

I Will Make Beautiful Memories

In October of 2004, my mom picked me up from my college dorm and drove me about twenty miles up Interstate 79 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where we pulled into one of those perfect, Desperate Housewives-type neighborhoods with the immaculate lawns and minimalist traditional houses just a few inches too close together.

We parked in the street in front of one of these houses; the driveway was too packed with minivans and station wagons for us to fit. Also, I got the impression that my mom didn’t want to be trapped. If she felt the need to flee, street parking would enable us to up and go without any awkward car shuffling.

My mom had brought along four grocery store bags filled with photographs and memorabilia from our recent vacation to England, and we hauled them up the walk to the front door, which was opened pre-knock by a smiling woman in a red tracksuit and white athletic socks. Her grip on the doorframe made it look as if she’d slid to a stop Risky Business-style.

“Ginny! Hey girl!” this woman said to my mom, who was not a “Hey girl!” type of woman. She turned to me and smiled. “You must be Mike. I’m Mrs. Costa. Come on in!”

We followed her into her perfect home. The color scheme was light blue and cream, and the walls were adorned with photographs of a perfect family unit. She advised us to remove our shoes and led us to a door on the far side of her open-plan kitchen. We descended a set of stairs and emerged into Scrapbooking Narnia.

My mom and I gazed up at the shelf-lined walls like Belle in the Beast’s library, dazzled by rows upon rows of glittering books, sticker packs, paper sets, and collections of colorfully gripped razor blades arrayed on surgical trays.

Rows of tables were arranged in the center of the basement, accessorized with clear plastic discard bins hanging from the edges. About a dozen middle-aged women were seated at the tables, gabbing and crafting like Santa’s elves while sipping wine coolers.

We introduced ourselves and joined them at the tables, where Mrs. Costa proceeded to take us through the basics of scrapbooking. She started with the essentials: tape runners, corner cutters, die-cuts, stickers, journal boxes, paper, paper, more paper, and of course, scrapbooks. Then she showed us how to add pages to scrapbooks and how to tape paper onto the pages. We learned that nearly any mistake could be corrected with the right combination of patience, tape, and the magical fix-it tool (which is basically a piece of plastic – rounded on one end and pointed on the other – that allows for the scraping up and pressing down of tape and stickers). She showed us the best way to edit photos, both for page aesthetics and for the photos themselves, enabling us to crop bad angles, cover unwanted rumples with stickers, and make our complexions dazzling with the right color of mat.

Thus instructed, we got to work. As we did, Mrs. Costa brought my mom a wine cooler and me a Diet Coke, and we casually chatted with the other scrapbookers. Mrs. Costa herself didn’t scrapbook; instead she bopped around, helping to cut photos, choose stickers, cover pages in protective plastic, or offer any other scrapbooking assist. The majority of the other ladies were working on books about genealogy or Disney World, and generously provided us with tips and examples.

Though the typical scrapbook looks like it’s constructed page by page, the reality is that a lot of work should be done before the first photo is placed. Photos should be organized into the order that they will appear in the book, then grouped by potential page, then cropped. Paper for backgrounds needs to be pre-chosen, particularly if you plan on matting your photos before actually putting them into the book. (You should.) Supporting materials – brochures, menus, stickers, journal boxes, etc. – need to be chosen ahead of time and also cropped and/or shaped.

This all felt very overwhelming the first time. My mom and I were slow, careful croppers. We obsessed over potential color schemes, eventually choosing pink and green to accentuate the colors we’d experienced in English gardens. We looked around at the other scrapbookers’ immaculate pages, so vivid that I could practically feel It’s a Small World’s artificial river lapping at our feet, and felt jealous and inadequate.

Despite the friendly atmosphere, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was a nineteen-year-old boy in a group of scrapbooking forty-plus women. An obviously gay teenager in the heart of Republican Americana. What could be more traditional than women gathered around the crafting table? And there I was, an interloper, the opposite of traditional, bringing the stain of maleness (the double stain of male-on-maleness) to this dainty female gathering.

On the other hand, scrapbooking represented everything that a formative gay male was supposed to reject. Online dating sites were filled with guys looking for masculine guys only. Gays were supposed to be breaking stereotypes, doing manly things, not picking out stickers with our moms.

But as we cut pictures and listened to stories about football games, unbelievable Disney deals, and local politics, a Zen-like relaxation overtook me. Every group of matted photos was an individual memory, curated by my mother and me for an audience of ourselves.

We went back the next week, and as we progressed from cropping and organizing to placing background paper and arranging our pages, my feelings of relaxation turned to subtle joy. Part of this was the simple pleasure of being in a group whose only connection was shared creative expression.

But more than that, the joy began to flow from the scrapbook itself. It started as a stirring in my stomach, a giddy excitement achieved by trimming what had mostly been a lousy day trip to Dover into a beautiful one-page ode to the city’s famous white cliffs. Eventually every piece of our trip fit into the book like a piece of our own intricate jigsaw.

That giddiness grew as we found the perfect places to stick the menus, brochures, business cards, and even coins that we’d squirreled away on our trip. Scrapbooking solved some sort of organizational compulsion that I didn’t even know I’d possessed, and the ability to make the useless useful was intoxicating.

When I look at that English scrapbook now, it’s hard to see beyond the book’s flaws. It is a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch pale green canvas book with a simple metal plaque adorning the front cover. The plaque consists of reliefs of dainty pink and yellow flowers. Very English. It opens to a garish title page, dominated by laser-cut, doily-like stick-on letters spelling out “ENGLAND” across the top. Beneath, a cutout from a brochure showing a rail map of Great Britain is sandwiched between bright red words – “Mike” on the left and “Mom” on the right. All of this lay atop a Pepto-pink background and surrounded by stickers of airplanes, flowers, hedgehogs, and, strangely, a giant watermill.

Our stickers are placed unevenly, we failed to mat about half of the photos, and we stuck our journal boxes in the book before we did the actual journaling, which forced us to squeeze too much or stretch too little text within them.

Despite those flaws, I have nothing but appreciation for the book, and that’s because of what isn’t physically within it. The invisible feelings and details that aren’t on the pages but nevertheless still live inside the scrapbook. There is something about scrapbooking a moment that traps the events and details around that point in time. I don’t know whether or not those details are the truth or in fact just another facet of the scrapbooking illusion, but every page still takes me back into who I was then.

The first picture in this first scrapbook is of me, looking relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, wearing sunglasses and leaning against the doorframe of the hotel my mom and I stayed at for our first few days in England. The picture itself isn’t that significant outside of enabling us to remember the name of The Ridgemount Hotel. Instead, the picture is significant because the person in the photo didn’t exist.

At nineteen I was horribly self-conscious. I was tormented by a combination the fear that came with growing up gay in a rural area and the insecurity of an effeminate, formerly obese teenager. I wasn’t someone who could “pass” for straight, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

But this picture on the first page is the first I can recall of myself looking relaxed and at ease. I didn’t even realize that I’d felt so different until we began creating the scrapbook and I saw myself in those photographs and relived the memories.

Scrapbooking revealed to me that I’d felt like my real, true self in London. This made sense – it was a place where I could be myself in public without attracting unwanted attention. Later, I would move to London for this very reason.

Scrapbooking is like a Ouija board for nostalgia. Usually this ethereal force that alternately warms and stabs our hearts, nostalgia is harnessed by scrapbooking into a kind of total recall of events. To an outsider, a beautifully constructed scrapbook might look like a Photoshopped version of events — a postcard memory. But scrapbooking allows for the opposite, at least in my experience. The process of scrapbooking allows me to fully reflect on every angle of an experience.

This reflection is hard. Like most LGBTQIA+ people, I have a lot of pain in my past. Pain suffered at the hands of bullies, of society, and of myself. Pain that often made very little sense at the time of its infliction. This is where scrapbooking can help. It allows for reflection to be coupled with action. The act of sorting through memories, painful or not, is empowering. It may seem symbolic, but it’s more than that because an actual document — an artefact – is being created in the process.

For example, I have a scrapbook my time spent studying abroad in northeast Australia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, this part of Australia was also at the time quite socially conservative, and gay activity was restricted to the Internet and a few gay clubs. In building my scrapbook I thought back to hurled slurs, having my boyfriend (who was closeted) deny my existence, being called “Gay Mike” by everyone, including my closest friends.

Unlike my trip to England, I did not feel at home in Australia. Scrapbooking, though, allowed me to control how I remembered Australia. It may sound as if I’m putting a rose tint on the past. But pain can’t be erased with the cropping of a photograph or the addition of stickers. Pain, shame, fear, and embarrassment are all tattooed on my skin. But scrapbooking my Australian experience allowed me to declare what I wanted to take away from Australia. I fell in love. I was independent for the first time. The nature was beautiful and I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I frolicked on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and saw some of the world’s weirdest animals. My brother visited, and we had an absolute blast.

Those are the things in my Australian scrapbook, and I look back on that time with joy. I don’t forget any of the bad things, but my scrapbook has allowed me to keep those bad memories at bay, to prevent them from smothering the good ones.

Beyond what scrapbooking gave me mentally, it had tangible benefits as well. The actual skills associated with scrapbooking have aided me countless times in my career, most significantly in the field of advertising.

Work took me around the world, and I spent 2007 to 2011 living in London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong. In the fall of 2011, my husband and I made the decision to move to the United States, specifically to New York. I just had to find a job. New York City’s advertising field is notoriously competitive and overflowing with eager job hunters with endless reserves of creativity and technical skills.

I arranged a series of interviews and arrived in New York from Hong Kong with a briefcase full of résumés and a portfolio of great international clients. However, it felt like something was missing. When I got to my hotel in Manhattan, it dawned on me what I could do to set myself apart. I called my mother and had her run to Mrs. Costa’s and get me the shiniest scrapbook she could find. She overnighted it to me along with a heap of supplies. Luckily I’d given myself an extra day to recover from jetlag before my interviews, and as soon as my things arrived, I set up shop in the hotel’s business center, printing, cropping, and sticking my working life into a silver, star-adorned scrapbook.

I didn’t know whether I would be successful, but I was relatively sure that no other candidate for a senior role in a New York advertising job would have a scrapbooked résumé. One of the lessons that scrapbooking had given me over the years was that personal moments count far more in a scrapbook than the generic, no matter how stunning that generic moment was. As beautiful as the Eiffel Tower is, everyone has seen a picture of it. Scrapbooks are for showing yourself posing with a stranger in front of the Eiffel Tower, eating a dozen croissants, or looking awkward in a beret.

So I focused my scrapbook résumé on the personal. I had my education, agency experience, and client list, of course. But I also showed myself sitting fireside with my boss on retreat in South Africa’s Karoo desert and eating spicy soup on a business trip to Shanghai. I included pictures of myself running the London Marathon and posing with friend on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars.

I got the job and took that scrapbooking experience to the agency with me, advising colleagues on how to creatively present work to clients and how to pitch for new ones. And I kept scrapbooking for myself, which helped me not only to remember what I loved about my life but helped me reflect on what I didn’t.

Which is also how I ended up leaving advertising. In focusing my scrapbook résumé on the personal, I also identified what it was that I loved about my job. I loved the travel and the people, the new experiences. What I didn’t love was the work. In looking back at the scrapbook now, the signs are all there. I reflected on educational experiences warmly and thoroughly and skipped over entire years of actual work experience. Most tellingly, I included a page in my scrapbook about how I dreamed of being an author. Who applies to a job by telling potential employers they want to be something else?

Eventually, I left advertising and went back to school to be a writer. I now teach, too, which is another area where scrapbooking knowledge proves to be a helpful arrow in my quiver, though a young male teacher telling a group of millennials that he scrapbooks is also a recipe for instant criticism.

Which doesn’t bother me much. In learning to scrapbook, I learned to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes what’s really important is cropping your midsection or ex-boyfriend out of photos. Sometimes it’s adding a hundred stickers to a page to emphasize the importance of an event. Sometimes it’s holding on to the smallest memento of a person or place. And sometimes it’s choosing to let something go.

top photo by Vladimir Proskurovskiy on Unsplash

The Poetry of Excel Spreadsheets

So, the news is out.

A spreadsheet that circulated online for a very short time, that named names, that filled in details ranging from harassment to assault, that warned about men to be wary of, to avoid, that utilized the clean formatting of cells and color-coding, as a kind of organized and efficient clarion call, has had its original maker named. Moira Donegan named herself because she had to – because rumors had begun that she would be named, because she received a call from a fact checker, calling to check the “fact” that she created the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet.

It was true, sort of. The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others. Women added names, added details and situations to names already there, added categories of behavior. If a man was accused of physical sexual assault more than once, his name was highlighted in red. Concerned about the way anonymity could allow for false accusations, Donegan added a disclaimer at the top of the document. The spreadsheet’s clean lines, tidy columns, organizational format allowed for the document to grow to encompass all its authors — a community — writing of their experiences, warning others, bearing witness to the kind of interactions they navigate on an often daily basis inhabiting their bodies and identities in this world.

The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others.

What does this have to do with poetry? Fair question.

The poet Isobel O’Hare has been creating erasure poems by blacking out the statements and/or apologies of celebrities accused of sexual assault and harassment. So many of these statements are lacking — full of misdirection, qualification, what-about-ism, conveniently faulty memories, long-winded sentences that never track back to what it is they’re supposed to be addressing . . . all in the interest of avoiding/distancing/distracting the reader/listener. O’Hare strips them down to an essence, finding a mystery message of a phrase within the expanse of text crafted by handlers and publicists. These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words. O’Hare’s erasure poems will be collected and published this February by University of Hell Press, titled all this can be yours (with proceeds going to RAINN and Futures Without Violence). Additionally, O’Hare is editing an anthology/manifesto of feminist redactions. As with the spreadsheet, once O’Hare shared their work online, it engaged others and led to a continuation of that work.

I imagine O’Hare, not unlike Donegan and the community of women who created the spreadsheet, using the tools of the office (the world of work) to create a poetry from these most unpoetic of materials: picture them grasping Sharpies, giveaway pens with corporate logos, and printed text from press releases, and uncovering what is there – what is really there, beneath the surface.

These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words.

Consider Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes: Gentileschi painted her own face as Judith, her mentor Agostino Tassi as Holofernes. This is an old old story. Tassi had originally denied the accusation, denied ever being at Gentileschi’s house. Later, he admitted proximity, claiming he’d visited to safeguard her honor. He’d been accused of previous rapes, was suspected of the murder of his wife. He was found guilty of raping Gentileschi, sentenced to two years, but the verdict was annulled and just a year later he was free. Gentileschi painted this painting a few years later, her second version of this scene. She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.

She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.

What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded. What is more of a challenge to that than the very notion of author, of “I”? Collaborative texts, intertextual texts, and anonymous texts kick the legs out from under the very notion that a text can be owned and controlled. It’s why when Moira Donegan was going to be outed, so many women responded online with #iwroteit; it’s why the erasures Isobel O’Hare began, inspired, and is now collecting are so powerful – they take the words of others and incorporate them into the poetic project, creating a hybrid text where the boundaries of ownership are blurry.

Poetry is also about form, which is another reason I’m drawn to erasures – they uncouple ordinary language from syntax and grammar, summoning a dream-voice from the carefully constructed language of (often, in this case) not-apology, from rationalization. In doing so, they allow to speak the words that have power but were heaped with watered-down, corporate-speak, passive-voice nothingedness; they separate the power of language from the uses those in power often coerce language into. Erasures are an act of resistance — subversive. Gentileschi too worked within a form: a biblical story, an oft-painted scene, working in the vein of artists like Caravaggio and her own father. But she makes some important changes even working within this existing tradition — including the much-younger maid (a warning there); including her own face, her own rage; calling out the identity of her rapist and mentor, ensuring he’ll be remembered for all time for that . . . for what he did, and for that scene of her imagined revenge.

What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded.

Spreadsheets are useful to keep track of submissions, threads of story, dates and details for character developments. I remember when I realized that they were more than just elegant-looking tables, but rather something I could use — an organism to be crafted and tamed. They could do my bidding, they could morph, they could serve my needs and desires. A well-wrought spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, even when what it tracks is pain. Think of the possibilities for poetry — think what could be tracked within those cells, how to de-couple language from syntax, how to weave language and pattern and power. Thank you to all those writers who added their voices, who painted themselves into the picture, who took the sad pseudo-apologies and fixed them. Thank you to everyone who communicates in words, in a touch of the arm, with the safety of their presence, with a whispered warning, a too-long holding of eye contact — from whisper networks to the more formal spreadsheet, we need to take care of each other.

top photo by Umanoide on Unsplash

What I Want To Trace

In 2010, my father and his siblings discovered Ancestry.com, that website that allows a person to search birth, marriage, military, census, and death records to construct a family tree.

And because an Ancestry.com tree becomes more accurate as users add more relationships to it, my father and my uncle and my aunts sent me, my sister, and my cousins email invitations to add our own families to the growing tree.

I opened the tree and studied it with growing resentment. According to Ancestry.com, I was a divorced single mother of one daughter, but that did not describe my actual life at all. My daughter was adopted from Ethiopia, with a family tree all her own, difficult (or impossible) to trace because her biological parents’ births had not been recorded in any official way. And I was not technically a single mother, since I lived with Ali, my partner of three years, and her two children.

I opened the tree and studied it with growing resentment.

With a few swift clicks, I added Ali to the tree as my spouse, though same-sex marriage was not legal in Alaska at the time, and Ali had never been interested in marriage, anyway. Another click: I added Ali’s two biological children. With my divorce branching off in one direction and Ali branching off in another, I tangled the neat lines of the Hahn family tree.

When Ali died a year later, I did not have the heart to update the Ancestry.com tree. I barely had the heart to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Then, this past June, the Vikings led me back to Ancestry.com. In June, I learned at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum that one of the Vikings’ major trading settlements, Hedeby, was located in today’s Schleswig-Holstein, a state in northern Germany from which half of my ancestors (all of my father’s side) emigrated in the mid-1800s. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why the sight of the Oseberg ship jolted some familiarity in me (is that why I’m so drawn to spirals?). When I started asking these questions, my uncle Jim, our family archivist, sent me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com, and, out of curiosity, I logged in to the website again.

A family tree hides as much as it reveals. I “cleaned up” my part of the Hahn family tree by deleting the fake marriage to Ali and adding the real, legal marriage to Meredith. I added Mitike’s legal adoption by me in 2008 and her adoption by Meredith last December, and I added the names of Mitike’s birth parents. I traced Meredith’s family awhile, out of curiosity, discovering that one ancestral line zigzags all the way back to the 1500s in Alsace, France. Then I studied our section of the tree, noticing how our marriage is an end to our two lines in our families, how the appearance of Mitike as the daughter of two mothers could confuse someone who failed to notice the adoption records. How disconcerting, the reduction of entire human lives to small rectangles that contain only a first, middle, and last name, a birthdate, and a death date.

How disconcerting, the reduction of entire human lives to small rectangles that contain only a first, middle, and last name, a birthdate, and a death date.

What does that branching tree explain about me, about Meredith, about Mitike? What does it reveal about Rachel Banta, my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, who was born in 1780 in Pennsylvania? What does it hide about my wife’s grandmother’s great-great grandmother Charity Brewer, who was born in 1805 in North Carolina? How much does it refuse to explain about Mitike’s ancestors, who weathered a struggle between Muslim settlers and Ethiopian Christians in the early 1800s, and who witnessed battles between feudal kings?I am still dissatisfied with the story Ancestry.com tells, but I appreciate now that it is one place to begin.

Lesbian historians like Lillian Faderman (especially in Surpassing the Love of Men, 1981; and To Believe in Women, 1999) have argued that lesbians must discover and build their own sense of heritage. That means that Patience and Sarah, that wonderful straightforward 1969 book by Alma Routsong about a lesbian pioneer couple, is as much a description of my ancestry as my genetic map is. That means that discerning the truth of historical relationships — Susan B. and Anna D., Virginia and Vita, Eleanor and Lorena — is as crucial to understanding who I am as the 1847 passenger list of the ship that carried my ancestors Wulff and Gretje from Hamburg to New Orleans.

Lesbian historians like Lillian Faderman… have argued that lesbians must discover and build their own sense of heritage. That means that Patience and Sarah, that wonderful straightforward 1969 book by Alma Routsong about a lesbian pioneer couple, is as much a description of my ancestry as my genetic map is.

On Ancestry.com, the self is the first rectangle. Click the green plus sign, add a relationship. Connect. Add another relationship. Intertwine. The lines seem to tangle, but they barely whisper the outlines of deeply complex stories.

This summer, I began creating a new book — part trail guide, part history — on the 60+ Colorado peaks and lakes named after women. I’m calling it “Remember More Than Their Names,” and I’m blogging about my hiking and research discoveries at http://remembermorethantheirnames.blogspot.com/. I think of these historical women as my ancestors, too, though we only have our gender and Colorado in common. Determining the identity of each woman has been surprisingly difficult, since maps have traditionally used only the first name of a woman honored. Again and again, it has been Ancestry.com that has given me the outline of the story. Then it is up to me, the storyteller, to fill in the rest. For example, Ancestry.com told me that Helen Rich of Breckenridge, the namesake for Mount Helen, died a single woman with no children, but local records and her own papers reveal that she lived for decades with the poet Belle Turnbull. In Turnbull’s poetry, I found reference to forbidden passion, to domestic bliss. And the two women are buried together. Another piece of the heritage told.

I know the danger of looking backwards too long. I know that it is as important that I live my life now, in 2017 Colorado, as it is for me to discover and tell the stories of these women who lived in the past. But I believe I can learn to make of my life something deeper if I can pull these stories from the shadows. This other way of tracing and building heritage matters as much as the genetic map of my bloodline.

This other way of tracing and building heritage matters as much as the genetic map of my bloodline.

When I stood gazing at the Oseberg ship in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum in June, my blood thrummed with the familiarity of the curves of the ship, the intricate carvings, the spiral on the prow. I touched the silver spiral I wear at the base of my neck, and I leaned closer to my wife and my daughter. What did I recognize? Maybe Ancestry.com would deny a genetic connection between me and the two women — one 25–30, one 50–55 — who were buried together, in state, in the Oseberg ship in 834 CE, but I am certain they are part of my heritage, too, if only because they were women. Maybe the elder was a queen (some have suggested she was Queen Åsa of the sagas) and the younger was a sacrifice. Maybe the elder was a völva, a seer, a holy woman, and the younger was her lover or her apprentice or both.

We will never know. But with each fragment we find, we discover ourselves more deeply. The mystery is my heritage. The seeking is what I want to trace.

top photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash