“Or is narration its own gift and its own end, that is, all that is realizable when overcoming the past and redeeming the dead are not? And what do stories afford anyway? A way of living in the world in the aftermath of catastrophe and devastation? A home in the world for the mutilated and violated self? For whom—for us or for them?” — Saidiya Hartman, Venus in Two Acts
“Maybe I’m guilty of doing exactly that here — taking my private grievances into a public space, dragging my trans siblings through the mud, weaving my own kind of narrative; maybe I’ve implicated myself in the very problem I’m attempting to analyze. If my diagnosis is correct, then I’m a symptom of the same problem that my prescription seeks to address.” — Alex Verman, Trans Visibility Won’t Save Us
“Oh, nightingale, heartbroken lover! ask for life. For, in the end,
Green, the garden will become; and into the bosom, red, the rose, will come.” — Hafez, Divan-e-Hafiz 159 (144)
Hello and welcome to the end of 2019!
I’ve been struggling with how to end this year. I had planned to do a recap — to provide you a list of highlights from this year, snippets of my work you may have missed. But, as is (famously) a woman’s prerogative, I changed my mind. If you want to see and hear more about my work from 2019, you can do so on my website (there’s a lot there — 2019 was an incredibly prolific year for me, and I think this year’s work is some of my best yet).
In truth, I decided it would be inappropriate to end on such a triumphant note considering the mood I’ve been in this past week. Here is where it gets grim. On Sunday, December 22, an acquaintance of mine, a 51-year-old transgender woman named Julie Berman, was brutally beaten to death in her home, which happened to be at an intersection I pass by every day. Since hearing of her passing, my entire body has felt heavy. I haven’t been able to think clearly. I haven’t wanted to talk.
This is a dark place to leave you all in, I know. I’m sorry for that, but I ask that you walk with me a bit through it.
I often write about heavy things because they are important, but I worry that by contributing to a news cycle of violence and outrage, I risk rendering the events and peoples my work describes as just that — characters, plotlines, lessons. It’s easy to feel like we are doing important work — “raising awareness.” But awareness for who? And to what end?
In an article about racism and satire for Lit Hub, Nafissa Thompson-Spires asks about “the limits of [her] own responsibility” in potentially anaesthetizing readers to anti-Blackness. Zoé Samudzi, in an essay for Open Space, touches on the relationship of white consumption of Black pain and the rendering of Black pain as an extant object — something given and taken-for-granted, which can only be justified by imagining and reproducing an idea of the subject of this pain as incapable of human feeling. She writes, “[A white man] knows I can feel pain but does he know I feel pain (that I am wounded)?” In the same vein, I keep returning to an essay by Saidiya Hartman, in which she looks and works outside the constraints imposed by a dehumanizing archive in order to construct rich, emotive, interior lives for anonymized Black girls (here’s a downloadable PDF); in her introduction, she asks, “How does one revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of violence?” The question is haunting.
It would be wrong (i.e., both inaccurate and irresponsible) to extend these analyses of anti-Blackness to any other context or any other group. I am not going to do that. Rather, I want to cite these authors and these works because they open up for me vital questions around responsibility, care, and representability. In working with memory, violence, and audience, these works and channels of thought compel readers and writers to consider their place within a world of silences, statements, knowledges, and objectifications, and to move from such a place towards an emphasis on care.
I want to honour these insights; to note them, and sit with them, in order to better understand how care, love, and intimacy informs our work as writers and readers.
A digression: I recently found myself arguing with another writer, also a white trans woman, whose work I had, up to that point, tried desperately to avoid criticizing in public out of an interest in intra-communal kindness. What emerged from that conversation was a sense of deep discomfort, a feeling that’s lingered for weeks. It has since crystallized into a loaded question: Is it morally responsible to build one’s career, even only in part, on the spectacular circulation of depictions of death, violence, loss, and loneliness? Put another way, I wonder what happens when we define ourselves through the task of raising awareness, uplifting the downtrodden, speaking for the voiceless; so much of this work is done without considering how such exercises might themselves contribute to the conditions that produce such subjects’ imagined soullessness.
By this, I mean the process through which certain kinds of violence become forms of spectacle, learning opportunities, statistics, tropes, symbols, signifiers, vessels awaiting fulfillment. This cultural and economic process, this objectifying transfiguration, is how human beings become news items. There is no room for love in that process; it is an empty space.
I am uncomfortable with my own place in this process, both as a writer and as a reader. I want to evade its influence, escape its logics. I don’t want to compete with my sisters, to cater to editors and readers, and I don’t want to consume accounts of death, only to then scroll past them. I don’t want to capitalize. I want to care.
What I’ve tried to do with my writing this year is to ask how discursive trends, calls to action, and declarations broadly understood as “politics,” “revolution,” or “activism” have felt bereft of precisely kind of care. I’ve tried to be diplomatic, but firm. It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a radical, and that I think such radicalism to be necessary given our times and circumstances, but I’ve aimed to err on the side of kindness — being specific, issue-focused, full of references, refraining from pettiness, concerned with growth. I think it was the right call, and I stand by everything I’ve written. But I also worry that, in my desire to do things right, I may have left my heart of it. The truth is, my writing starts from the heart. It would be easy to read me as angry, and perhaps this is not wrong. But more to the point, I am sad, and I am sad because I am full of love and the people I love are enemies of the state. So much of what I write comes from that place of deep, honest, painful love. It is a place of hurt, and a place of healing.
And so I want to end this year by noting that place, by sitting inside of it, by refusing to work around it. I want to understand how we can build on that place, how we can work from that place, and how we can return to that place in joy and celebration.
As readers and writers, I ask you: How do we talk about violence without also abetting the violence of abstraction? How do we make the people, movements, struggles, moments, stories, and experiences that shape the lives and deaths of vulnerable communities and individuals feel real — complex, feeling, alive — and how do we do so without speaking for them as outsiders? Where does care enter our work? How might we interpret and approach “awareness” as mourning; “visibility” as remembrance; “citation” as invocation? How can we show love for those who are lost, without helping to lose them in the process? And how can we solidify this into a writing and reading practice that accounts for and centres the soul, that returns to and emerges from inside the place of love?
I don’t have the answers. Maybe next year.
Alex Verman Green