Novena: A Theatre Project Interrupted

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Novena was a capstone project that was to be performed at NYU Abu Dhabi. It was the result of more than a year of preparation and four years of education. The project was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

I’m a stranger in my own soul
I’m stuck in a deja vu
I feel like a ghost visiting my body in the past.
I’m homesick from my old self but I’m feeling at home
Sometimes I tell myself I want to go back to normal, but this is my new normal

Novena is an autobiographical performance piece exploring the impact of religious social scripts on the performance of the female body. Drawing aesthetic imagery from Catholic performance practices and rituals, Novena depicts a recluse bride who imprisons herself in a church to atone for her sins. We watch as she processes her feelings of transgressional guilt in contention with her instinctual pleasures.

Exploring the impact of religious structures on a woman’s coming of age through prose, song, and dance, Novena questions the process of outgrowing and interrogating institutional beliefs ingrained in the female psyche.

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Photographs by Daniel Rey

2020.03.07_Bernice Draft Photos14 (2)

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Serenading a Wild God

By Jon Terranova
kenton nelsen charitably inclined
I passed through valleys
and fields
that swept with
golden glint,
They’d been developed
from indifferent sun rays
that kept us still

Oh! the things we forget
when we stir nerves in flux
the nonsense of day to day
bread ensconcing us numb.

the distractions, the passive
life, the bourgeois boredom
the petty holidays where they ski
and slurp,
shooting down slopes
like smirking berks

We’ve cancelled the fumes
and the arrogance of man
‘I’m in charge of my own destiny’

No, you’re not, my children
for I am!

I’m serenading a wild God
whose wrath is Cain’s blood
running through the ruthless force
of nature, and why these things
happen they ponder…?
Whilst continuing their
own selfish pursuits of
pleasure.

I’m serenading a wild God
and free will
is done
through his son, who
when frozen on a wooden cross,

before the spear split his side
let
out a cry
eloi eloi lama sabacthani!

May these dark
and hopeless times remind us
that we are not in control
and that hope lurks
only in the blood Of Christ

 

Artwork by Kenton Nelson

THE AMARITUDO OF THE PORT-ROYAL HERMITS

By Colin James

degas.rehearsal

Everything echos in here.
Vespers incant, thank phlox.
My cell brotherless.
The view through the stone slit
is a bit sparse.
Just make out some white cloth,
linen fluttering.
I gravitate to the winery where
we are storing more than ever
since our daily allotment was reduced
due to some off key dirgers.
The Abbot is a stickler
tense as a varicose conundrum.
South is the confessional of the moment
the sun here a conformist’s grey.
That’s my Mercedes in the arbor.
I’m off for Cannes via Elderado.

 

Artwork by Edgar Degas

“Atomic Andy” a Collage Series by Emmanuel Laflamme

Emmanuel Laflamme recycle avec humour l’imagerie populaire et crée des scènes fortes de sens qui mènent autant à sourire qu’à réfléchir. À l’image des surréalistes, il conçoit des représentations dont l’impossibilité manifeste capte l’attention du spectateur. Il crée ses œuvres un peu comme un publicitaire qui n’aurait rien à vendre. Conjuguant les références culturelles, il détourne les mythes anciens et modernes pour nous servir son regard sur le monde, à la fois tendre et critique. L’absurde est son terrain de jeu, l’anachronisme est sa spécialité. Emmanuel est né en 1984 à Montréal. Artiste autodidacte, il a travaillé comme designer en dessin animé et collaboré à des projets de publicité, cinéma et jeux vidéo.

Emmanuel Laflamme recycles popular imagery with humour, creating scenes with strong meaning that lead us to smile and think. Like the surrealists, he develops representations with an apparent impossibility that captures the viewer’s attention. He creates his works like a creative director who would have nothing to sell. Combining cultural references, he diverts ancient and modern myths to serve us his perspective on the world, at once tender and critical. The absurd is his playground, the anachronism his specialty. Emmanuel was born in 1984 in Montreal. A self-taught artist, he worked as a designer on animated series and has been involved with the advertising, movie and gaming industries.  

Atomic Andy
Ammu-nation
Hegemony
Sky’s the Limit
Escathology
Veneration

Check out more artwork by Emmanuel Laflamme here

Good Love is Hard to Find

Granny has been in the shower for three hours. Her groans and whimpers pierce through the thin walls as I rummage through my closet for a white bra to match my white dress. Mother and I are late for church, but Granny will finish when she finishes. The bathroom will be occupied till then, but Mother is incessant.

“WE’VE GOT CHURCH, MA! MAAAAAAAAA!!!” Bang bang. Bang bang bang!

Despite Mother’s repeated pleading, Granny stays inside, heroically. The more persistently Mother bangs, the louder she moans. When she starts moaning in staccatos, I stand in the hallway and wait.

Granny emerges. The steam wafts out like clouds at heaven’s gates. She leans against the doorway, panting. There are water droplets on her forehead. I am sure that they aren’t from the shower. She holds a towel in one hand and her new vibrator in another. It is neon pink. Shaped and sized just like a toddler’s arm.

Mother glares at her. Granny glares back, still panting.

Mother turns and stomps away. Granny wins this one.

“I’ll start ordering these for my store,” Granny says, turning to me once she finally catches her breath, “Holy balls of god!”

~~~

The evening service is already in full swing. People sway and sing to the band onstage. Father Francis rocks side to side to the increasingly upbeat music, like a boat in distress. His palms open to the fluorescent ceiling and his eyebrows knit together as he concentrates hard on communing with the creator. As the music hits fever pitch, he shouts, crescendoing, “OH JESUS CHRIST, OH GOD, OH JESUS!” The congregation responds with equal enthusiasm, “OH JESUS CHRIST, OH GOD, OH JESUS!”

There is a new convert. He is given the name “John.” John Zhang, The Born Again. He is quiet during the ceremony. Usually, eager to prove their worth, the born-again’s roll their eyes back and fall to the ground, spasming and mumbling incoherently.

The only time I managed to convince Granny to come with us to church, she burst out laughing during the baptism. She took her phone out to record the scene, “Seamus would absolutely love this, darling.” Seamus was a bandana-wearing, piercing-laden, gun-owning biker who owned three Chihuahuas. Too bad Granny got bored of him. He still sends me photos of his dogs in tutus. Mother, who refused to sit next to us that day, turned around from the front and gave us her death stare. Granny mouthed “Sorry,” but turned to wink at me.

Today, Mother is annoyed at John. I can tell, because she goes up to greet him afterwards.
“Welcome, brother.” She smiles her tight lipstick smile, gives him her tight church dress hug.

John is wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a blue striped shirt. His hair is parted on the side. Also, khaki slacks and brown oxfords. He looks like Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, if her was never bitten by a magic spider.

As they talk, I notice that mother listens to him with her head slightly tilted. She is also laughing.

Afterwards in the car, I tell mother I like the John guy.

“He works in insurance.”

I wait.

“He just moved back here from Singapore. His father is sick, so he came back.”

I wait.

“I invited him to book meet tomorrow.”

That is all the confirmation I need. I need to alert Granny.

~~~

Mother declares that she is going to bed as soon as we get home. She is still furious with Granny. Granny is unremorseful. She is contentedly parked on the recliner, watching Golden Girls, clad in her red bathrobe. Her eyebrows are dark brown caterpillars, and her lips still stained pink. I take off my bra and sit next to her on the couch.

“Date tonight?”

“Mhmm-hmm.”

“The one from wine and paint night?”

“Mhmm-hmm.”

“How was it?”

“He got scared when I told him I own a sex toy shop.”

I remember the wine and paint night. It was mother’s birthday and Granny had booked us a session as a surprise. About half an hour into the session, mother had started giggling uncontrollably, and Granny had caught the attention of the man next to her.

He was very tall, probably in his 40s. Granny loves men in that age group. She says that they are “well-aged, but still have a firm grip.” The man had a tangled mop of beard and hair. It was hard to tell where the beard began and the hair ended. He was lanky and had really big, hairy hands. Much to my annoyance, he wore flannel, like a Hipster Big Foot.

“I’m more of a whiskey kind of guy usually.”

“Mhmm-hmm.”

“But sometimes I drink wine. I do like to paint though. Usually I use oil, I’m not an acrylic kind of guy.”

“Sure, honey.”

“I’m here to support my sister… it’s her first class. She’s been looking to teach for a while, this is a temporary thing. We’re happy so many showed up though.”

Granny softened. At the end of the night, Hipster Big Foot walked us to the taxi.

At 65, my grandmother is still very much herself. People of all ages, all genders, and all shapes come in and out of our house often. It has been like this for as long as I can remember. Mother does not condone her appetite, but she accepts it. Occasionally, however, the delicate balance snaps. Like when one of Granny’s guests ate all of our figs. Or when Mother offered to give Father Francis a ride home from the store when his car broke down, and ended up coming late to a party. Or when Mother found the large stash of condoms that Granny gave me for my birthday.

On days when they unleash their ferocious roars, I lock the door to my room and curl up with some Billie Holiday. Sometimes the floorboards rattle as one of them punches the wall or slams a door or throws an unfortunate piece of décor at the other. When the house quiets down enough for me to sneak out for a snack, I usually see the two defeated behemoths slumped on the couch, speechless and in tears. All would be well again. Jesus’ portrait in the living room stays hanging. And the Kama Sutra prints.

In the dim light of the living room, I notice how beautiful my grandmother is.

“So… Mother might have a crush.”

Granny raises her eyebrows.

“Been a while.”

She shifts.

“John. Has gold-rimmed glasses and parted hair. Insurance.”

“Interesting.”

“So, we wait and see?”

“You know how your Mother is. We stay hands off.”

I nod. We keep quiet for a while.

“So, what about that boy you met yesterday?”

“He did not trim his fingernails.”

“The boy before that?”

“It was great, until he told me that I’m not like the other girls he’s been with.”

“And the one before?”

“Too much tongue.”

She reaches out to gently stroke my head. I doze off to the soothing hum of the television and her gentle touch.

~~~

I wake up to a ticklish sensation at the bottom of my feet. There is some shuffling and hushed laughter. I should have remembered. It’s Wacky Wednesday. The third Wednesday of the month. Granny warned us well in advance of this monthly get-together. I prepare myself before opening my eyes.

Sitting at the end of the couch is a human-sized bird. Or bird-like man. The costume is gorgeous. Blue, purple, green, turquoise. Shiny too. He is wearing a pair of mother-of-pearl earrings. On top of all that, a golden beak. He blushes at my awestruck stare and flutters his long eyelashes.

“Don’t mind him, he’s shy!” a naked woman with the biggest belly I have ever seen plops down across me. The rest of her body is slim. Stretch marks patterns her breast and thighs. She smells of lemons. Goddess.

I apologize to bird man, who only blushes harder and says nothing. I turn around to see another person making eggs next to Granny. He gives her a kiss.

He is petite and fat, body quivering as he giggles to Granny’s whispers in his ear. His big eyes are lined with kohl; his nose is wide set and majestic. He has a well-trimmed beard as well, a feature I know Granny appreciates. I appreciate it too.

“This is Bob,” Granny smiles at me with a twinkle in her eye, “he doesn’t talk much, but we love him.”

Granny loves everyone. Granny fucks everyone. Wacky Wednesday is about to get wacky. Time to get out.

~~~

Classes do not start till the afternoon. I think about my recent adventures as I wheel my bike into the parking area. I was not interested in sex until college, when a drunken night of fooling around with my best friend made me realize that I like it very much. I have been updating Granny constantly ever since. She is excited that we now have another thing in common.

It is reading weather. My favorite tree sways gently to the breeze as I sit beneath it.

“Hey.”

I look up from my book. It’s Ali from yesterday, with the untrimmed fingernails. Oh no.

“Please… I am so sorry about yesterday.”

“Go away.”

“Let me buy you coffee. We can walk around?”

“It was a hookup, Ali. And it was bad. I think that’s the end of it.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“You didn’t even have—”

“I thought you would have—sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed.”

“You really didn’t know what you were doing”

“I did try following what you said—”

“And you still failed miserably. ”

“It was bleeding, and I freaked out, I’m sorry.”

“You couldn’t even find my… “

“We could try aga—”

“No.”

“I’ll go down this ti—”

“No.”

“Let me at least buy you coff—”

“NO.”

He hangs his head and apologizes one last time before leaving.

I look around the university grounds. Most people are paired up or in groups. Laughing, kissing, eating, or just sitting quietly together. My tree sways and drops me a leaf.

~~~

Granny is already cleaning up when I get home. From the unforgiving scent of antiseptic and the way she is aggressively rubbing at the surfaces, I can tell that she has had a good day. I hug her from behind.

“Everything okay, love?”

“Yeah.”

I hang on, inhaling her deeply.

“Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“That’s alright.”

We let the silence sit for a while.

“I want a boyfriend.”

She turns around. Eyes all soft. She strokes my cheek.

“Are you sure?”

“Not really.”

“Good love doesn’t come easy. Not from men, at least.”

“Father was okay.”

“Yeah. Yeah, he was alright.”

We hear the key turn. Mother walks in with some grocery bags. She is wearing her yellow dress and eyeliner. Radiant.

“Rendang tonight? I also got stuff for prawn sambal and ulam!” Perky.

My favorites. Book meet must have gone well.

“How was your day?” Granny asks innocently.

“Good, good.” Is mother blushing? She avoids Granny’s gaze as she starts unpacking the groceries.

That is all we can get out of her for now. Good enough for me. Granny mouths “hands off.” I giggle. The room glows.

Artwork by Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon, “Mother of God, it’s a girl,” 2016.

Queer Body and Soul

As a child I was taught that my body was not
My own that it belonged
to the Church, God, and Jesus be
like the Virgin Mary
Carry the children who will
Carry the Church

I was told my body was a vessel
A sanctified womb
Protect at all costs
From men, from myself
Because I am ‘worth waiting for’

Sex is for marriage, for men
For babies
Don’t linger at the edge
I never learned how my body worked
Or what I wanted outside
of children

Without Catholic babies
Ignoring the blueprint
Owning myself
Ignoring old
Men behind pulpits
Or red hats marching

To the Church my body
Malfunctions
Because ‘God doesn’t make mistakes’
Without procreation
My love is null and void
An unholy marriage

But my body is mine and
mine

Alone

Artwork by Marcus Fessler “The Boy Who Raised Poisonous Snakes II” h

Al-Mala’ika

By Nada Al Mosa

At the age of seven, Hala lost her best friend. “We’re soulmates,” Reem
said. “Because God tied our spirits together before we were born.” Reem
was confident that they shared the angel that had breathed into their
mothers, like how the angel Jibreel breathed into Mariam, the mother of
the prophet Isa. They are connected forever within the foundations of their
soul. In the distant future, Hala will envy the thoughts of children, which
often produced the most profound worlds.

Hala sat at her best friend’s wake, surrounded by crying women. Wailing
women. She was quiet. Her feet, wrapped in shiny black shoes, didn’t
quite reach the floor. Reem’s aunt came around, passing out copies of
the Qur’an to each mourner. These were paid for by Reem’s father, in
hopes that those who read from them would pray in Reem’s name, so that
her hasanat will be added upon while she rests before judgement day.
Hala’s mother said that hasanat are good points that an angel on your
shoulder keeps count of.

Her mother had told her that Reem was in an accident, but did not tell
her more. Did not want those images in her daughter’s head. But Hala
heard fleeting words floating around her in hushed whispers. “Poor girl,
the hit must have made it a quick end.” “They found the car, it had been
abandoned.” Hala began to imagine what Reem’s body might have
looked like after the accident. But women do not look at the deceased
body. The familial men have carried her casket to the graveyard. Women
are not allowed into the cemetery.

There is no doubt that Reem will make it to janna, heaven. I can see her
turn into a songbird and flying. I can also see her eating all the chocolate
in the world, without ever getting sick. Hala knew that Reem would do
this, because they had told each other what they would do in heaven after
they died. Hala wanted to have a bouncy castle made of jelly. It would be
green. She also wanted to have the same exact home she lived in now to
be in heaven, so that she could be with her family, so that she could still
be neighbors with Reem.

Hala looked up from her shoes and to the women in the room. Many of
them were veiled, in long dark dresses. She couldn’t tell one from the
other. Except for Reem’s mother, who had torn off her scarf and was now
working on tearing off her hair. From the corner of her eye, Hala could see
another woman walking into the room. Veiled. By her side was a girl who
looked to be just as old as Hala.

The girl moved from one woman to another, kissing cheeks and repeating
the same words her mother had told her to say to those who mourn.
When she reached Hala, she sat beside her. “My name is Malak,” she
whispered. Hala nodded, and they sat quietly for the remainder of the
evening in the living room where she once spit Coca-Cola on the carpet
and Reem took the blame. Lying was a sin, but are all lies bad? Hala grew
anxious, thinking of Reem’s hasanat, in fear that by taking the blame,
she might lose her place in heaven. She later asked her mother, whose
eyes immediately drew tears. She planted kisses on Hala’s face, and
reassured her that little girls always go to heaven. This placated Hala,
until she remembered being told that children of Adam and Even cannot
decide who goes to heaven or hell, but only God can. Did this mean her
mother was in trouble for saying that Reem is in heaven?
Hala prayed in her bed for forgiveness for them all that night.

When all had left the wake, Hala and her mother stood up to leave. Malak
waved goodbye to Hala, and Hala waved back.

It was another month of scorching heat before school began. Third grade.
The first day of class without Reem. Hala sat at the desk with her name
taped onto it. Beside her was a girl who was scrawling intensely on a
paper, her hair covering her face. When Hala’s chair scraped against the
floor, the girl looked up. It was Malak. A large grin broke across her face.
“Hello, Hala!” Malak giggled at her own words. Hala noticed that no name
was taped onto Malak’s desk.

Malak began to follow Hala everywhere. Hala supposed they were friends
now, which she did not particularly mind. Sometimes Malak irritated
her, because she never played the games Hala enjoyed best. Cops and
robbers, or tag. Malak would not let Hala brush her hair like the other girls
do either. But they found other ways to play.

It was a semester later when Hala’s mother sat her down at home and
asked, “Why aren’t you making any friends at school?” This puzzled Hala,
because she had been with her newfound friend every day since classes
began. “Don’t lie to me, your school called to ask if you are well, because
you always sit alone.” That was when Hala became afraid. She told her
mother about Malak, and her mother grew pale.

Hala watched her mother as she called the school and enquired about
a “Malak.” She asked her daughter if she knew her last name, and Hala
shook her head. Hala did not hear what was said from the other end of
the phone call, but when her mother hung up, she held Hala’s arm firmly.
“Don’t lie to your mother, are you making up this friend?” She watched
her mother’s face begin to scrunch up and turn red, and then tears fell
again. “It’s okay to make friends. Reem wouldn’t be mad at you.”
Reem.

The name ricocheted off the back of Hala’s mind, and soon enough, she
began to cry too. She embraced her mother, calling “Mama, mama,”
before she fell into an exhausted sleep.

At school the next day, Hala marched with purpose. She walked into
class, stepped up to Malak and commanded, “Why are you here if you’re
not a student at my school? Why would you lie to me? I thought you were
my friend.” Malak looked at her, quiet. She reached out her hand but
withdrew it. They ignored each other for the rest of the day. After school,
Hala was walking into the car park to meet her mother. She heard her
name and turned around to see Malak running to her. Angry, Hala turned
away from her and began to run out onto the street. Her ears were too
full with the sound of her raging heart to hear the honk, honk hooooonk.
When it was loud enough to hear, it was too late. She froze. Then, a hand
pulled harshly at her collar, onto the pavement. Hala lay there, and saw
a face shadowed by the sun. Two souls tied, too close. And it was gone.
The wailing of a mother, her mother. “Hala!” She fell to her knees and
embraced her daughter, then took her home.

Hala did not go to school the following day. Her mother was brushing
back her hair when Hala asked, “Mama, how did you run to me so fast to
save me?” Her mother’s brows came together, her hand stopped moving.
“Albi, my heart, what do you mean?” She heard the sentence again, still
fresh in her thoughts. Two souls tied, too close.
Malak.

She ran to school the next morning to the unnamed desk. No one was there.

Hala’s mother taught her that every child of Adam has ten guardian
angels, al-mala’ika, who would protect their person from any harm and
evil intentions. Hala asked her mother if two people could share guardian angels. Her mother smiled, “Maybe.” That night, she dreamt of holding Malak’s and Reem’s hands, lying down in a green jelly bouncy house.

Image courtesy of the author