conditioner

& couldn’t we be
softer? flyaways tamed,
cowlicks domesticated, &
all the scallops filed
away. we could make this world

more than His dollhouse,
remind our minted, plasticky
selves of our own
fragility – the shredding
of a nail, temporariness
of skin, disobedience
inherited
in the curl of our hair:

rebel. i go
to the salon to be so
mutinous, palms
sweating under hairdresser’s cape.
i come to be beautiful
for my female gaze, eyes seaming
gently shut, as janice

kneads my shoulders. her tagalog rattling
above my scalp, knocking
with anna’s at reception, like a thousand
little cowrie shells. maryam dips

mulchy dyed paintbrush
into a mother’s roots, her arabic basting
the hairdryer’s din. two french women toast
their hands under
hot igloos calcifying
color on their hands quoi,
c’est magnifique, look

how pretty we
arm ourselves. & nobody
but us can ever know
how it feels: “for women only”

once, you set us
apart so we kept
making rooms for ourselves, steaming &
polishing our own kilns,
where we come under
fire, but only for the pleasure
of ourselves. see, the swing

of my smoking mouth, my smooth
jazz hair – this is all mine,
ours, this space where we lacquer
& buff all the edges
you sink in our silkened surfaces: yes,
we’re the paper you toss
after glossing upon, with
all the errors of your hands.

 

 

Image by Ciu Xiuwen, documentary still from “Ladies Room”, 2000

Hungry City

My first supper in America was a bowl of ramen. It was January, and New York a freezer. Tucked into one of the city’s box-like compartments, hidden by scaffolding beneath another shop in the Midtown area, was a crowded ramen place found via Google search. My roommate and I went there together. We did not know each other or America yet. Inside the small, bustling restaurant, alive with customers, steam clouds, pan sizzle and impatience, she told me it was her first time having Japanese food. I took a picture of her slurping noodles to send back to her boyfriend in Morocco. Do you like it? I asked her. She said it was interesting, and she giggled, slightly bewildered by her mouth, as her face reddened from hot broth, and her glasses assumed the look of a sauna.

I thought a lot about ramen after leaving New York, where I initially only spent three weeks doing a jazz studies class at NYU. I didn’t necessarily think of the thickness of the broth, or the level of heat rouging my lips, or the varying satisfaction of saving the soft-boiled egg for last, but I always remembered the choking hazard poster. In every restaurant I ate in, most of which were ramen spots near campus, I was mesmerized by the often elaborate, even beautiful illustrations of an asphyxiation taking place on a poster somewhere inside the establishment. I had never seen this anywhere else before. Was there a choking problem in New York? What was so hard for Americans to swallow?

There is a boy I knew who spent a lot of time talking to me about ramen. A few years ago, I had felt that America had swallowed him, and I could not reach my arm into the country’s throat to fish him back out. I resented his foreign chatter on the phone about the “fall” season, about brick buildings and buses to Boston. They were not mine; I was unfamiliar. But I loved it when he talked about ramen. In my off-beat time zone, first in my childhood bedroom and later, my college dorm in the Gulf, the thought of him bent, often alone and perhaps thinking fleetingly of me, over a large round bowl, swollen with noodles and broth and vegetables and meat and the hot, bright happy running out of an egg yolk, comforted me a lot.

Like any complex meal, ramen is built much like a furnished house. Upon a foundation of meat-based or fish broth, the cook scaffolds with what is usually a Chinese-style wheat noodle, paints the walls with soy or miso, adds fittings of chashu (pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots) and/or other vegetables like scallions, and finally, decorates with seasonings and a classic boiled egg. Enjoying a bowl of ramen, to me, feels like investing in a relationship –  unpacking a suitcase and settling in for a bit.

Since that first winter day in New York, I have returned to the city twice more, over the summer and now for the spring. Over lunch with my friend the other day, I talked about how my experience of consuming New York has largely been shaped by Asian hand. That morning, we had gone to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink, or the MOFAD lab. They were running an exhibit on the emergence and presence of Chinese food in America; walls had been constructed out of stacked Chinese takeout boxes, an enormous fortune cookie machine stood majestic in the corner, and a whole wing was dedicated to displaying taxidermy models of the various breeds of chicken used in Chinese-American cuisine.  I was impressed by the thoroughness and thoughtful clarity of the exhibit’s curation. During my sophomore year of college, I had taken a curatorial practice class in the art department, and since then had developed a deep fascination and respect for the curator’s task of shaping a clay-like historical narrative, using both text, found objects and physical matter. I began to see curation as a similar process to writing and editing; both worked with the raw material of narrative and history. Both had to take deft scalpels to stories, which together, like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, eluded a singular truth, and subsequently perform a surgery from which a complex storied product had to emerge.

What this exhibition specifically got me thinking about was the curated chronicling of hyphenated histories. While reading up about ramen earlier at home, I had learnt that its origins lay, much like most origins do, in a migration route between two (or more) cultures. It is widely believed that ramen was actually adapted from the Chinese, and brought over into Japan by Chinese immigrants. The first specialized ramen shop was only opened in 1910 in Yokohama, Japan, after decades of history in which it was primarily a Chinese offering, sold simple-style in small restaurants and mostly at portable street food stalls catering to local workers. Today, ramen has been developed, even arguably perfected, by Japanese chefs, and is, for the most part, considered a staple and highlight of Japanese cuisine.

I initially imagine that migration route between China and Japan as a hyphen, the same kind of hyphen that lies between Chinese and American in the MOFAD exhibit’s title. I’ve been thinking about the symbol of a hyphen a lot lately, now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the US. It often seems to me that America is choking on this hyphen.  But the hyphen itself as a term can be contested, an unequal see-saw between two identities, those identities themselves clouded with ambiguity – after all, what is an authentic Chinese identity, let alone American? The hyphen hides, too, or rather sidesteps, the historical shifts and differences of power dynamics between the identities being hyphenated, and how those change once joined together by the hyphen itself.

Before arriving in New York in that snow-full January, I had never really reconciled the “hyphens” of my own existence – born as an Indian citizen, I grew up entirely in the southern African capital of Botswana, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi for university at the age of 18. I knew I had grown up and formed a slow identity while straddling more than one culture, both of which I had not really learnt to accept or love, but just sit in, perplexed into a discomfiting stasis between them. Going to America has burst that still yolk of a bubble, and I find myself thinking almost incessantly about the routes, the thread-lines, between these different locations and identities, that exist and connect simply because they do so inside me. I initially imagined myself as a collection of hyphens, but due to the slipperiness of that term in today’s age, I am forced to reconsider the structure of how the places that make me me, actually connect with each other, both within and without me.

*

This spring, I worked as an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. AAWW began in a basement beneath a Gap store on St. Marks Place in 1991. Frustrated with having to explain and unpack their work and identities to a largely ignorant mass of white literati, a small group of Asian-American writers formed a new, magical subterranean world in which they could collaborate and validate each other’s creativity and hyphenated states. Over 30 years later, the problem of the hyphen remains just that, even within this essay: a problem. But the community that carries what America has deemed for them a scar, an unhealed wound, the eternal mark of an outsider, has grown bigger and stronger.

I worked for two of AAWW’s literary magazines: A World Without Cages, which documents writing by incarcerated Asian-Americans, and Open City, a journalistic initiative documenting New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. It was quite late into my job that I sat down to read the novel that I assumed the latter magazine was named after: Open City by Teju Cole, published in 2011. Not a long read, I gulped it down quickly, in a matter of 2-3 days. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite incessantly.

Open City is really an opening into the mind of a Nigerian-German psychiatrist named Julius. I would describe Julius as a cosmopolitan. The entire book is an act of both literal and mental roving – Julius spends a lot of time walking around New York, and for a brief but powerful segment, Brussels, and lets his mind travel with him, crossing the borders of the present into the past too, which is Julius’ childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. Both these physical and intellectual wanderings are colored with Julius’ heightened intellectualisms and intense philosophizing. For instance, seeing a disabled man within the maze of New York City prompts a long-winded foray into Yoruba traditional myths and fantastical interpretations of the disabled. Because I, as a reader, spend so much time absorbed in Julius’ headspace, the act of walking through New York is shaded over with his presence ­– I become Julius. Not necessarily a biracial psychiatrist of course, but a cosmopolitan, and educated, mind. While reading the novel, an instance of eating the infamous Brooklyn Blackout at a bakery, voted the best chocolate cake of America, triggers an absurd thought of my brain itself becoming the sponge cake, eager to absorb as much sweet lushness from the layers and layers of culture and diverse narratives from the palimpsest that is the ‘cosmopolitan’ city.

It is true that I often feel a kind of desperate hunger to understand any cosmopolitan city I inhabit. There is a strange urgency in me, like the persistent press of a full bladder, to visit every single neighborhood, to understand the inner workings as quickly as possible, and to feel the security of knowledge, of yes, I know this place, I know the subway routes and the odd stories of a local or two, I may even have written it down and immortalized it, and therefore, I can lay a claim of belonging to it, somehow. This logic is faulty, of course. But although I have become aware of this, and learned to curb myself, the hunger itself still stays. It is a hunger to resolve the tensions of differences, sometimes so disparate to the point of inconsequential or bizarre, within my own brain. Or in other words, I seek for hyphens to make connections between things that don’t reconcile within my head. In this way, I also become Farouq, the Moroccan clerk-cum-political philosopher that Julius meets in Brussels. Farouq is enchanted by Edward Said, and his fantasy, or dream, is to figure out how people from different places can live together while keeping their own values intact.

Near the end of Open City, we learn of a disturbing ‘plot twist’ and our perception of Julius, and the thread letting us dangle as marionettes within his brain, is suddenly, violently snapped. It feels as if I cannot trust my own mind and its machinations anymore. Because I realize I have become not Julius or Farouq but the cosmopolitan experiment, and in one small shocking instant, it has failed. A sour, almost metallic taste fills my mouth, such a vivid physical sensation, as if to counteract the abrupt mental upending that has just occurred. As the sun spills onto the Bowery, as if from an upset jug, I walk down the street combing over the entire novel in my mind, simultaneously using and questioning the critical toolbox I carry with me, one constructed and afforded by elite education, the same kind that gives Farouq and Julius their Paul de Man, Said and Derrida. Farouq and Julius, to me, are failed cosmopolitans, and seem to mask this failure with the very theoretics that enables their cosmopolitanism to take shape. And if they are failures, I re-arrive, finally, at the question that keeps frothing inside me since I’ve come to this country: what am I?

Open City is also a novel full of silences and gaps. Recently, my friend Jiun, who is a history major, wrote a piece about how stumbling upon the history of mi koo buns, her Malaysian childhood breakfast dish, prompted her to think about how people, and bodies, carry layers of both loud and mute history, and are thus, archives. What was to her just a nostalgic traditional food, actually carried a violent history: “Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.” The palimpsest of historical meaning within the “mute mi koo bun” has led her to a research process that reveals more silence and censorship than she could have initially imagined. And she is recognizing how much this silence speaks about our failures in history. In Open City, Julius spends much time discussing the histories that are both literally and metaphorically buried in New York City: Wall Street sits atop a mass grave of African slaves – an event an academic friend describes as a “double burial.” Another day, I learn at a poetry reading, where I have come to engage with a specifically literary, creative-critical crowd, that that site of the Bowery Poetry Club sits on Lenape land, forcibly taken from Native Americans, another buried history that Cole mentions in his novel.

Open City sees Julius discussing how everyone views their own selves as the center for calibrating what is ‘normal; in other words, we are the heroes of our own stories. It reminds me of the Rashomon tale and our inability to arrive at, or simply the non-existence of, truth when there are multiple narratives of the same thing that all regard themselves as the center, the right, the truth. If I am trying to become a cosmopolitan, to string my hyphens together into something meaningful and ideal, and accepted first of all, then how do I reconcile the Rashomon effect with my quest? How do different people who all think they are right and splinter in the face of difference, live together successfully while still retaining the shifts and differences in their identities all bumping together constantly? How can my cosmopolitanism work when it must face history, and engage with the violence that is so often silent, so often buried, within that history? How does cosmopolitanism not worry itself to death when history is always hovering over its neck?

One day at the AAWW office, my fellow editorial intern holds a ramen night to use as research for a piece on the significance of instant noodles in contemporary life. A bunch of us, each carrying purses of different hyphenated identities, bring in a variety of noodle brands, from Mama to Maggi, and sit for three hours boiling water and exchanging bowls of disintegrating noodle bricks. The office sputters with the hissing of kettles, and the slurping of broth. Over discarded plastic packets, strewn books and stray chopsticks, we talk about the role ramen has played in our lives. I tell them Maggi was an occasional childhood luxury whenever I visited India, and that I lived off ramen when I ran out of all my money while living in Paris. I had spent several days in an utter daze, thinking only of food and the want for filling myself. Later as I go home on the 6, lips scarlet from heat, I realize that, in a way, my hunger has never left.


Photo by Aditya Romansa

The Joy of Jollibee

Jollibee is more than just a Filipino fast food chain. It is to me what McDonald’s is to many of my friends from other places—a staple. I have known Jollibee, both the chain and the mascot, since I could barely eat solid food. I’ve attended birthday parties, caught up with family and friends, and reflected on my personal growth with Jollibee. This bee might even have brought me closer to God. When I was in grade school, my sister and I convinced our religious mother that Sunday lunches should be at Jollibee. Her conditional “yes”—Sunday lunches could not always be at Jollibee—was the motivation we needed to wake up and get out of bed early for the 10:30 am Sunday mass at a Catholic church that was an easy walking distance away from a Jollibee outlet.

Last Sunday, I followed a similar itinerary, except this time, I was not with my mother and sister, but my friend; we were not in Cebu but New York; and Jollibee was, due to the weather, not an easy walk from the church. I had no need to convince my friend to grab lunch at Jollibee because, as she pointed out, I had mentioned the place to her in a previous conversation in Abu Dhabi, which is where I study. Some days when the craving for crispy, juicy Chickenjoy alongside a gravy-covered hill of rice—my personal twist—comes on so strong, I leave campus to find a Jollibee, however far away it is.

The only Jollibee outlet in Manhattan is in Times Square. As my friend and I walked there, we dealt with an added challenge—our limited knowledge of the area. I knew, however, that one must only look for a red-and-yellow-striped bee in a blazer, bowtie, and toque. I told my friend this detail and we soon found ourselves approaching my favorite bee. Standing in front of the store, I noticed the cultural sandwich that Jollibee is a part of. On one side stands IndiKitch, a casual chain that serves Indian food; on the other side is Arby’s, an American fast food sandwich chain. Across the street there is Kung Fu Kitchen, a restaurant serving Chinese staples.

What stood out more to me, however, was the absence of Jollibee’s statue outside the store. In the Philippines, a Jollibee statue always stands outside by the door. Its smile is big and camera-ready. Its arms are kind. It gestures people to come inside: Everyone is welcome here! One day, in the summer after my sophomore year, I laid my hand on the wrist of Jollibee’s extended hand, pressed my face close to his, and contained my excitement in a smile. A friend captured the scene in a photograph. I moved to check how I looked and another kid immediately took my spot. I was home. In the Manhattan outlet, the same statue exists, but it stands inside the store, by the waiting area. I guess Jollibee, too, could not stand the cold weather.

While my friend and I stood in line to place our orders—two 2-piece Chickenjoy with a side of white rice, pineapple juice for me, water for her, please—my worry outweighed my excitement, wondering what she would think and say about my favorite Jolly meal. When we finally got our food, we sat ourselves a table away from the Jollibee statue. Then, to her prompting, I showed her my way of eating Chickenjoy: with bare hands. She did the same. At some point, I was probably too obvious with my concern because she commented that people tend to want others, especially their family and friends, to at least like what they love. I still kept asking her what she thought of the fried chicken.

Eventually, as I watched the transient inhabitants of the place I called Jollyland, my worries ebbed. Like in my local Jollibee, I was surrounded by couples, kids, students, and workers—people from various walks of life. The difference, though, was that they were all eating a piece of my home. Jollibee, after all, represents Filipinos’ resilience and unapologetic love for our culinary culture. Some people say that Jolly Spaghetti is too sweet. It is, but in such sweetness I remember happy memories of eating meals at Jollibee and seeing the look of satisfaction on my older sister’s face. The generous sprinkle of cheese atop the ground beef-garlic-onion mix always elicits a contented sigh from her. Traces of the tangy sweet banana catsup-tasting sauce frames one side of her mouth, sometimes both. Beside her, mama slices her moist beef burger patty into bite-sized pieces using disposable cutlery that bends and breaks usually before she gets to taste the first chunk. She pushes her sliced gravy-coated button mushrooms to the side. My sister and I take it as a cue for a brief fork fight, although we usually end up splitting the already small portion into half.       

The sweet-style spaghetti, too, represents Filipinos’ resistance at a time when sugar consumption was restricted to the upper class by the upper class colonizers. The Philippines’ Spanish, and 333 years later, American colonizers enjoyed the abundant sources of natural sugar in the land. As a result, several Filipino desserts were named by the Spanish or the Americans. When the mass production of sugar began, which meant cheaper costs, the Filipino people started adding sugar to recipes. Now, many Filipinos tweak dishes to suit a national predilection for sweets.

Despite my nostalgia, I did not feel completely at home in that Jollibee. The atmosphere was different. Perhaps I was too aware of geography and my status within it, or I was still being bothered by my tendency to please.
The second time I visited, I was alone. I felt as if I was inside a bubble looking at life as it unfolded outside the window.  For a while, I felt invisible. It took three gushing women wanting a picture with the Jollibee statue Uy let’s take a selfie! and an equally excited crew member, who suggested different poses to them Okay 1 2 3 Say cheese! for me to remember where I was. A wave of something warm crept into my system at the familiarity of a language I had not heard for a month now. When I looked back from my seat, my eyes met those of the manager, and he offered me a smile that recalled the image of a father, kind and hard at work. It was an acknowledgement. I am not at home but there are pieces of it wherever I go.    

Artwork by Bobby Doherty

Noxchi Eats Galnish

Today, we are having galnish. My dad, giddy like a child, teases my brother and I, while laughing at YouTube videos and simultaneously WhatsApping them to his friends, accompanying voice note explaining why exactly the video is funny. We all love galnish; I loved it more as a child, when I didn’t have to help clean up the kitchen afterwards. But I confess, there is something special about helping my mother out in the kitchen. Intuitively, I know what utensil to hand to her before she asks, or when to give her the salt or to check that the heat isn’t too low or high. I feel useful, and hungry.

Garlic, heavy salty bone broth, steaming pasta-like galnish and tender lamb: the way to any Chechen’s heart. Nothing feels more like home than galnish heaped high onto plates, with thick broth served in earthy mugs on the side. The galnish are skewered onto a fork, two or three at a time, and dipped into a garlic sauce which stays in the hollow center of the galnish. The slightly chewy texture of the galnish, the spice from the garlic and the hearty broth create a pleasant fullness and comfortable warmth in the stomach.

The meal is not even ready yet, but we are aware that for the next week, the garlic smell will linger. It will stain our hands, clothes, breaths. Just like a cloud of hotpot smoke stalks you home, or the stench of burnt popcorn persistently haunts dorm kitchens, anyone whose food demands submission to olfactory power knows there’s no point in trying to conceal the…fragrance. You learn to embrace the acridity, and possibly, love it in secret because it will mean you have eaten well.

Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Abu Dhabi. I will find it in Paris during my semester abroad and wherever else I live after that. Galnish is delicious, yes, but it represents something deeper. Eating galnish and speaking Chechen are the two most consistent acts of rebellion that almost all Chechens incorporate into their daily lives. Holding on to such ancient traditions is open defiance against three centuries of attempted colonisation of the “free people” in the Caucasus, oppression that includes Joseph Stalin’s horrific mass deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan from 1943-1957, which the European Parliament declared as a genocide in 2004. Speaking Chechen is becoming harder and harder with subsequent generations of diaspora dispersing across the globe. Thus, cooking galnish is the most powerful way for Chechens to reconnect with their homeland.

As my mother recounts her university days in the nineties, I peel the garlic. Apparently, all the residents in the Moscow State University dorms instantly knew when Chechens were cooking – when the smell of crushed garlic seemed to invade the entire city. But the Chechens did not shy away –  they owned it. This smell became a vital link to a home that, at the time, was being bombed and depleted of every source of sustenance.

Chechnya’s situation has changed but the largely unwelcome scent of garlic has not. And neither has our food, which is still trailed by a potent odour. This stubbornness mirrors our love for our shared identity, and how confidently Chechens identify themselves as such, especially as a minority in Russia, where garlic in cooking is used with much less gusto.

Living mainly in the mountains, Chechen tribes used to perceive snakes as a serious threat, and believed that smelling like garlic would help deter the slithering predators. The garlic represents our national pride in that it does not come from a place of arrogance, but rather self-preservation and communal protection. The Chechens at my mother’s university were a diaspora, one of many navigating  potentially hostile environments, such as their university or perhaps Moscow in general.

Unfazed by the ignorance or racism of outsiders, they focused instead on the beauty of their culture, despite it seeming dangerous, or unwarranted, or unbelievable to those around them. They played eshars on car radios at full blast, did the traditional dance, lezginka, in the metro, and they ate galnish. Many Chechens were forced to leave their home, but they refused to bow their heads or allow themselves to be belittled.

I turn the stove on as my mother kneads the dough with assured pride. Making galnish counts for me as a religious process, partly sanctified by childhood sentiment and partly due to the awe I feel when watching someone make dough. The biblical example of Jesus transforming water to wine does not seem so far-fetched after having witnessed someone take flour and water then miraculously make a wholesome meal out of it, seemingly from thin air. I let the dough set. My mother rolls every fat little finger of dough into a gal. I imagine how many generations of women have cooked this recipe with their daughters.

Dinner is ready –  after hours of preparation, when the chefs (read: women) are all but about to collapse. We begin by serving the eldest guests. Respect for our elders is a cultural cornerstone, which could also be gleaned from seeing me trying to watch television at a relative’s house. Every time someone older than me enters the room, I must jump to my feet and wait until they are seated or I have been told to sit down. Although resembling an unnecessary exercise to the untrained eye, it is actually a traditional exercise of memory. It demonstrates the value we place on respecting our elders.

Respect also extends to our ancestors and their struggles. One difficulty that we thankfully no longer face is famine. It was not that long ago, however, when a working man’s daily wage included a mere glass of milk and crust of bread, as my grandma recalls. Or when under Stalin, my great-uncle remembers working at a flour mill, no longer able to bear his neighbours’ starvation. He ended up stealing all the flour and bread he could, and distributed it in his community, for which he was imprisoned for twenty years. The struggle of our ancestors is given the utmost respect, which can be witnessed in our kitchen. The traces of dough that form on our wooden table are scraped off with a knife and added to the rest of the flour –  not a single speck is wasted.

Memory is important. Our language has been butchered, the books burned down and land-mines placed in our mountains; the construction of collective amnesia is centuries in the process. We hold on to whatever we can.  Such as the story of Chechenits, a Chechen painter who was raised by a Russian general after his family was killed, the boy who despite his bizarre upbringing and lack of memory about his roots, held onto the threads of his identity, renaming himself Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenits. Chechenits is the Russian word for the Chechen; my last name, Shishani, also has the same meaning in Arabic.

When I was little, I would wish off the fuzzy dandelion heads, before blowing away the seeds to scatter elsewhere. I often feel that my family and other waynakh are like those wispy white dragonflies, having been blown to different corners of the world. One way back to our roots is though our food.

I am finally seated. I look around the table and I am grateful for what my parents have taught me about what it means to be Noxchi. I dig my fork into the galnish and dip into the garlic sauce. The first bite is always the best; a wave of doughy goodness and warmth . We enjoy the taste, but there is also a sense of responsibility within –  to eat it often, and to always remember where we come from.

what kind of city is florence?

florence is the kind of city that sells postcards / and plastic david statues near the checkout lanes in the grocery store / the kind of city where every leather shop is named after a great artist / and every hotel has a botticelli ceiling fresco / florence is the kind of city where art looms high above like the duomo’s dome / and grows out of the cobblestoned cracks / the kind of city where you have to blink twice / not because of the jet-lag / but because you have studied these churches these piazze these streets before but only / in books / and here you are touching these pages of history / made solid stone / it feels almost holy / like praying in san miniato and hearing the gregorian chants echo in perfect harmony / like having ghiberti’s gilded gold doors right in front of you / a mere piece of clear glass separating you from the gates to paradise / like standing in front of michelangelo’s last pieta and tracing the curve of jesus’ body / the grief on nicodemusslash-michelangelo’s hooded face like a grand question / what use is art? / asks perhaps the most famous artist in the world / what use is art? / asks the traveler-student who nevertheless / cannot stop herself from delighting in a city brimming with it / florence is the kind of city everyone in the english-speaking humanities world seems to know / the kind you feel a bit self-conscious of when you check into the city on facebook because florence is for those / who can afford to feast their eyes in the galleria dell’academia and the uffizi / for those who can afford vineyards and the stars above them / who can afford to walk wherever they like and keep warm in the winter / florence is for the flourishing / or at least the idea of florence as a kind of european city / the renaissance city / is for the privileged / and you know from studying art history / it is beautiful (whatever that means) / even if there are cities rising from deserts and cities built on islands and cities in tropical rainforests that are just as / beautiful / but florence is the kind of city that makes everyone jealous / where a small secret part of you is compelled to worship what you see / a litany in your head that goes / city of michelangelo / city of da vinci / city of brunelleschi / city of botticelli / city of donatello / city of giotto / city of masaccio / city of vasari / city of ghiberti / city of cimabue / yes / something very like / worship / walking the via ricasoli like the faithful going down the nave of a church for communion / and you know part of this wide-eyed wonder is conditioned / from centuries of european domination / from learning to speak english and not tagalog or hokkien / from being able to distinguish romanesque and gothic architecture but / knowing next to nothing of south east asian art / from visiting the kitsch ‘european’ fantasy area of disneyland as a child / and dreaming of castles on clouds / but part of this wonder comes too from your catholic self / which took on the name scholastica out of her own volition / who can murmur the our father even if it is said here in italian / whose eyes grow wet when she sees a magnificent painting of the virgin mary her mother in christ / you did not realise before how this self could feel so strongly / how much like home a church in a country you have never been to before could seem / and you let this wonder touch you completely without doubting its origins / you walk around florence / both for the first time / and for the thousandth time / you have seen so many pictures of these places / that now these are places of pictures / you are learning how cities could foster art and be art / how cities could create the theater and be the theater / as mumford might say / hearing it daily in the toll of the church bells / like an announcement to the audience-citizens that the show is about to begin / and in the gurgling of the piazza fountain where people of all kinds pass / like water flowing down the arno / florence is the kind of city that makes you feel undeservedly blessed / like hesitantly unwrapping a too-expensive gift / the kind of city that makes you wonder how you ended up here / starting a new year in an apartment blocks away from the real statue of david / when your grandparents have never been to europe / so when you unpack your luggage, sit in the kitchenette and feel the chill night air blowing in / you think this is the kind of city where you will try to write poetry to make sense of it / this city where rich black truffle oil and slabs of tuscan ham line hearty schicchiata bread / where you feel full in so many ways / how does that bible verse go / my cup runneth over / how to reconcile this heaven of art with the hell you read of in dante’s inferno / of corrupt florentines and popes who abused their office / how to see past the peeling paint / to demolished jewish quarters and feuding noblemen and the scorched poor and their burned-down houses / (would it be worse for man if he was not a citizen while he lived on earth?) / how to force yourself to look away from the baptistery and consider the gypsy woman who begs for a few euros / the nigerian men selling flashlights on bridges / is this the height of civilisation / (what use is art?) / florence is the kind of city that inspires you to crave monumental definitions of yourself and the cities you carry with you in your memory / city of singapore / city of manila / city of abu dhabi / city inside you

Artwork by Botticelli “The Birth of Venus”

The Internet Saved My Queer Soul

Francis Picabia Hera.jpg

The internet is weird and scary, but it is undeniable that it is one of the most important tools for shaping the LGBTQIA+ community and culture.

When people broadly talk about how the internet is the bane of their existence, I immediately think of  pre-teen gay kids living in towns of 500 people or less. What physical community exists for them? Would they have access to a GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) or accurate non-bigoted information in their physical space? Realistically, sometimes the only place to see people like them who are living happy and fulfilling lives, is online. There is plenty of terrible information on the web, but the only way to learn about the many facets of their community is to log on. Information on queer health or history is not so accessible anywhere else.

GLAAD, a non-governmental monitoring organization for LGBTQIA+ representation in the media found that of the 109 releases from major film studios in 2017, only 14 (12.8%) of them included characters that were LGBTQ. This represents a significant decrease from the previous year’s report (18.4%, 23 out of 125), and the lowest percentage of LGBTQ-inclusive major studio releases since GLAAD began tracking in 2012. Not one of the 109 releases had  transgender representation.

It is painfully isolating not to know anyone else who is gay or trans. It is excruciating not to have the vocabulary to define yourself. Representation is still so difficult to find in mainstream commercial media, and when it exists, it tends to be drowned in stereotype and tragedy. Access to indie shows, books, art, and music that is created for and by the community needs greater importance. Storytelling is a way we can explore ourselves and our identities and have the power to speak our truths.

The internet amplifies stories and the practice of stories. People become able to look up the historical figures absent from their history class. They can find books that never got a chance to be assigned in a high school syllabus.  They can create and share things that are typically discarded as different or abnormal, and find similarities, celebrate differences.

The positive impact of internet culture on the queer community is quantifiable. While there aren’t many studies on queer youth’s online interactions, scholar  Leanna Lucero has explored the “the numerous ways that multiple marginalized LGBTQ youth use social media as part of their everyday experiences, in an attempt to safely navigate their lives through learning, participating, engaging, communicating and constructing identities in digital spaces.”

She explored participants’ accessibility to social media and the frequency of their activity on various platforms. Her data-driven analysis suggests that social media can be a safe space for LGBTQ youth to delve into the complexities of their sexuality and gender in more nuanced ways.

Obviously, the internet is not always a safe haven. Harassment, bullying, and death threats plague online spaces, and can be especially directed at the queer community. Sometimes negativity and harassment even comes from within the community. But without it, so many of us would feel increasingly isolated, only hearing hateful or ignorant voices from whichever ‘real world’ we happen to be situated in.

But the internet isn’t going away. Social media will continue to evolve beyond our imaginations. It’s important for us to make sure that the internet becomes more of a shelter for queer communities. In small towns and high schools, people don’t always get to see a reflection of their identity in a positive way. Comfort and acceptance can be found in everything from Autostraddle to queer barbers on Instagram. Learning identifying words from folks can make you finally feel at home with yourself. Technology can be our weapon and our shield against the world, and we must continue raising and practising awareness of this power and responsibility in the digital age.

 

Artwork by Francis Picabia “Hera”

 

Used to be’s and not any mores

Scraping the flesh from a coconut with a straw.
The translucent taste shook with the subtle crunch, the unsatisfied whines, the bump in the road.
Echoing in the hollowness, there’s not enough to spill past the brim, but it’s still there sloshing around.
White flesh seems sand-colored but I know it’s white because it’s supposed to be.
Color seeps into the jeep, already filtered into the sky.
Worked into my retinas, stamping them. Don’t trust the imitators that lie between the hills.
So far removed, they lifted us up, have taken us away, moving backward, the past in the present.
Continued scraping, the amusement in being wrong every time, the reward in sitting mindlessly.
Mind unable to catch up in the chase, knowing it would catch up eventually when there is more than just asphalt like a reel of film rolling and rolling in an empty theatre.
Passing the not-quite withered, not-quite alive ghaf tree that stands its ground alone, my father speaks its name to hear it roll off his tongue.
How long had that been sloshing around in its shell.
A decision: to turn and make sense of eyes the shape of aviator shades, or to the tinted window from which the tree had already escaped.
Neither.
Tired of scraping, I hum instead.
Words that never marry a response transform into ghosts and there were enough.
At the phantom farm, the gate needed to be reminded that it was not a wall.
It creaked painfully, but that’s my opinion.
If only the sand could fill the cracks, instead it populates every surface in sight and my father sits outside.
“No one left,” he says, as if all worth is lost.
We are the same, he forgets.

 

Artwork by Alexandra Levasseur