adjust font size

easier reading

shofie bahalwan

That Little Tent of Blue

June 2022
graphic design and illustration: Johanna Gehring


plain text for better readability:

That Little Tent of Blue

An essay on transformative justice

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me

now to recite. Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even

transformed my art), and spin me a thread from the world’s beginning

down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

Metamorphoses, Ovid[1]

I am a monster. As such I speak from nowhere; from nowhere as in from the underworlds: the slums, the ghettoes, the favelas, the cité soleils, the camps; not from the utopias. The fact that I know that in the master’s fantasy I’m a monster doesn’t mean that I wanted to be one, or that I’m even trying to act like one. I am a monster because the master says so. It doesn’t matter what I say or what I do to change that, even if I could. The master couldn’t live with himself and ‘everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.’[2]

Whatever I’m about to write on these pages is not an attempt to become human. Far from it. It is an invitation to a place where the river of self-regard flows and every being; the stinging nettles, the squirrels, the cyborgs, the foxes, the oaks, the witches, the crows, the slaves; every being; the prostitutes, the illegals, the dead and the undead; every being and every being is free to drink from it. Including of course, the monsters. It’s an invitation into the wild; a name for home where monsters can read stories and write letters and have drag shows; a name for a body that thinks with stories and songs; a name for earth where every being has an equal vote: a vote given directly by the great calabash tree.

Whatever I’m about to whisper to you in these pages, you might think that it’s about a boy who meets a girl. It’s not. That is, of course, unless if you insist. To begin with, I am neither a boy nor a girl. That is, again, unless you insist. To begin with, this is not a story of a meeting. That is, as I said, unless you insist. This is a story of a monster who with their gnarled, nail-polished fingers collected pieces of shattered mirrors, okra seeds, torn blankets, lost stories, and twitching twigs at midnight, and when the clock struck the witching hour, assembled and stitched a heart to keep it broken, and wove a basket to hold it together.

Whatever I’m about to say in these pages is not an attempt to become like you. I know my place. The ancestors made my spirit, string by string. The okras made my body, limb by limb. The rain made my emotions, drop by drop. The mother trees made my mind, beat by beat. And the master came and sliced my being, replacing the words, draining the drops, rearranging the limbs, and attaching the strings to his fingers like a marionettist. I know my place.

Whatever I’m about to tell you in these pages is not an attempt to become human[3]. Quite the contrary.

Bring it to the Runway

I shall start with this question; What if the criminal justice system, with both its religious and secular roots, with its undying faith in reward and punishment, with its wealth valve to concentrate capital in and for the ruling class, reached its dead end? What if the problems created by these systems has grown beyond its borders that it becomes a barrier to thinking? What if all the brilliant body-minds cannot think with it without also thinking about the hundreds and thousands of deaths that comes with every problem solved through this paradigm? What if the forms of interdependence that are urgent in the times of mass extinction cannot accommodate, cannot afford, and cannot tolerate the forms of relationship that understands safety and security as rooted in disposability, disintegration, individualization, and disconnection? What then? ‘Think we must,’ writes Donna Haraway, ‘we must think.’[4] And from an act of feeling, the first act that I engage in my facilitations and mediations, I bring into my thinking other thinkers, storytellers, and more-than-human beings, objects and figures.

I shall tell you the short answer here. There is no use in wasting your time if you already know this. A monster thinking about justice, what then? Make space for conflicts, build resilience against abuse. Form a pod and ground it in these spells: One, orient towards the abolition of the prison industrial complex[5]. Two, nothing is everywhere, everything is somewhere[6]. Three, all that you touch you change, all that you change changes you[7]. Four, there is nothing so whole as a broken heart. Five, find your friends[8]. The rest are tools you can adapt and modify.

Category is: Stars, Statements, and Legends

It’s a story, as they say, as old as time. You might have heard this story before. Apollo insulted Cupid. Cupid wanted to take revenge. He prepared two arrows, one of gold and one of lead: the gold arrow makes one love, and the lead arrow makes one hate. What did Cupid do? He shot Apollo with the gold arrow, and he shot a random nymph called Daphne with the lead arrow. Apollo fell in love with Daphne. He harassed her, stalked her, chased her. She rejected him and ran away. At first, they were evenly matched in speed, until Cupid—of all the gods—helped Apollo to catch up with Daphne. Daphne asked the river god—Peneus, her father—to help her. Peneus answered. He transformed Daphne into a laurel tree. Apollo, seeing that Daphne couldn’t be his bride, took possession of her as his property.

In this quarrel between Apollo and Cupid, this meeting of toxic and fragile masculinities, it was Daphne who had to be the battleground. She is at once the battlefield and the trophy. Not that she had any say on the matter. The story then—despite Ovid’s sympathetic narration of the story—becomes a story of ‘conflict’ between Apollo and Daphne. It becomes Apollo’s story of unrequited love. It is easy to see how a feminist reading of the story will inevitably lead to the dismissal of it as a romance; that would effectively undermine abuse. What’s between Apollo and Daphne is not a conflict; what’s between Apollo and Cupid is a conflict. The difference between the two is power as Sarah Schulman points out: conflict is power struggle and abuse is power over[9]. What allows this feminist reading is a sensitivity to power imbalances, an alliance with survivors and a readiness to speak truth to power.

Daphne’s fugitivity is incomprehensible to Apollo, as usually is the case: people in power often couldn’t comprehend the suffering of people whom they exploit, except perhaps as a spectacle. We not only see Daphne’s fugitivity, but also, perhaps more profoundly, we sense her resistance. She became allies with the river which then transformed her into a tree: a laurel tree. In the end, Apollo managed to possess her—it has always been about possession—he got what he wanted. As they say, ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ Is it the case that the weak suffer what they must? That might be, but not without resistance. There is resistance and struggle everywhere; find it, celebrate it, and enforce it with alliance.

When I was wandering in Ovid’s Metamorphoses like a squirrel, I couldn’t help but notice how brilliant Daphne’s resistance was. In addition to resisting by becoming a tree, what Jenny Odell would call resistance-in-place[10], she made a total fool of not only Apollo, but also of the entirety of Roman emperors and generals. The laurel became a symbol of victory for Apollo. For Daphne, perhaps, it’s a symbol of Apollo’s defeat, of her shapeshifting resistance, her survival tricks, her fugitivity, and how she managed to mock Apollo by fooling him. Apollo sees what he wants to see. The monsters see what they want to see. Perhaps this is a reparative and queer reading of Daphne’s story. At the very end of the story, after Apollo declared his abusive, non-consensual masochism, ‘Laurel shook her branches and seemed to nod her summit in assent.’ I can almost hear Daphne’s silent victorious-defeated laughter-cry at Apollo. The kind of silent laughter-cry that witches do. The kind that survivors sometimes do.

In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed writes: it matters how we arrive at the places we do[11]. I arrived at Ovid’s Metamorphoses after watching Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire[12] with my partner, Ryn. There is a scene in which the characters Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie sat together at night reading the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Metamorphoses. This scene reminded me of a play by Sarah Ruhl titled Eurydice[13], which was also introduced to me previously by Ryn. I hadn’t known that it was written by Ovid until I watched The Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I remembered that Camille Paglia in her book, Sexual Personae[14], named Ovid as the first psychoanalyst of sex. Paglia wrote about how Ovid plunders these legends for magical transformations.  In the context of transformations of genders, ‘identity,’ she writes, ‘is liquid.’ Paglia then went on to name Metamorphoses a ‘handbook of sexual problematics.’

Ovid’s Metamorphoses starts with this: ‘Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me / now to recite.[15]’

It’s hard to miss the resonance between this and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, where she writes ‘all that you touch / you change / all that you change / changes you / the only lasting truth / is change / God is change.’[16] But in this resonance, there is also a difference, and I find this to be particularly significant for thinking about transformative justice.

Although Paglia posits that ‘Ovid’s complications of violation and fetishism are theory, not titillation’; nevertheless, I disagree like I disagree with almost everything she says about sexual assault. Ovid’s mood—that is, the way he said what he said—is voyeuristic. I’m not saying this in a kink-shaming way. What catches my attention is this voyeurism as a mode of thinking about something, this seeing-as-thinking, sight as a figure of thought; as compared to Octavia Butler’s sensuous and tactile mood as a mode of thinking, that is to say touch as a figure of thought. The form amplifies this. Ovid wrote an epic poem, spectacular and curiously semi-formal, whereas Octavia Butler chose for her novel the form of journal entries, intimate and fragmented. Even the opening poems; Ovid’s gods cause change, Octavia Butler’s god on the other hand is change itself. Audre Lorde’s conception of the erotic resonates with this touching-as-thinking.

We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.[17]  

We see here that Lorde disturbs the supposed separation between thinking and feeling/sensing/touching. In Poetry is not a Luxury[18], we read how Lorde further disturbs the supposed separation between thinking and speaking/writing, they become inextricably entangled, thinking-speaking/writing. Coupled together, the two essays Poetry is not a Luxury and Uses of the Erotic guide us toward a mode of thinking that is inextricably entangled with touching, feeling, sensing, speaking, writing. It is in this sense that we use seeing; seeing that is sensing, seeing that is not restricted to ableist notions of seeing, seeing as when we say to each other ‘I see you’; and not seeing in the plastic voyeurism that caters normatively to the male gaze with a nudity that is condemned never to be naked[19].

By mentioning these I hope to have achieved this: to simultaneously show and invite you to move from a moral reading to an ethical one. Ethical in Spinozan sense, that is, as Deleuze writes:

There’s a fundamental difference between Ethics and Morality. Spinoza doesn’t make up a morality, for a very simple reason: he never asks what we must do, he always asks what we are capable of, what's in our power, ethics is a problem of power, never a problem of duty... [W]hat he comprehends are good encounters, bad encounters, increases and diminutions of power. Thus, he makes an ethics and not at all a morality.[20]

Being power evasive and ahistorical, playing God-tricks, imposing maxims and categorical imperatives, in short, a moral reading of circumstances: these are stories of justice where justice is the referee in the gladiator games, the wrestling rings, the courts—pretending to be neutral and objective, ignoring that they’re nothing but spectacles for the emperors and the elites to watch from their special VIP platforms.

Whatever happened to Themis—the goddess of justice—that she would end up working as a referee in a gladiatorial contest? The church named her a false god and made her fit its purposes. Then the bourgeoisie blindfolded her, gave her a phallic symbol (the sword) and a scale to measure gold and silver, I assume. Furthermore, she is made to pose like Cellini’s Perseus when he killed Medusa, the proto-feminist. Whatever happened to Themis? She used to plot with the wretched of the earth against the gods. I suppose she had to pay rent like everyone else nowadays.

I said reading but wayfaring would be closer to what I mean. It’s not that we read to become Don Quixote crusading against the windmills. Neither it is to inspire us to find the perfect Rawlsian institution for justice or fuel us to engage in the vanilla rebellion of Calvino’s Cosimo di Rondo, the baron in the trees. Nor are these stories we read and mention as mere examples and instantiations, but these are stories we think with, and these stories think with us in return. In the words of Marilyn Strathern: ‘it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas with.’[21] String figuring with Strathern, Donna Haraway continued: ‘it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with... [I]t matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.’[22]

You enter a transformative justice process, not as in entering a wrestling ring hoping to get out with a draw, no winners and no losers, or hoping to judge who’s good and who’s bad then punish the bad, that’s not the story at all. ‘I know not whether Laws be right, / or whether Laws be wrong; / All that we know who lie in gaol / is that the wall is strong; / And each day is like a year / A year whose days are long.’[23]

Rather, you enter a transformative justice process like you enter a dream, a hope without optimism, wondering as 2Pac wondered: ‘if heaven got a ghetto’

Category is: Femme Queen Realness

One of the reasons I like Ovid’s narration of the story is where he started to tell it. He didn’t start when Apollo fell in love with Daphne, he started with the patriarchal contingencies of the story and he tells it bluntly. ‘When I fire my shafts at my foes or beasts, they’re unfailingly wounded.’ describes Apollo about his shafts, only to go on describing his arrows and how the python’s belly ‘filled whole acres of mountainside.’ Wow, I suppose. Still, Ovid started here, the abuse started with, erupted from, patriarchy. Aurora Levins Morales writes: ‘Abuse is the local eruption of systemic violence; and oppression, the accumulation of millions of systemic abuses.’[24] In its entirety perhaps we can say that Metamorphoses form some kind of proto-systemic-analysis, but I wouldn’t go that far yet. It suffices me here to notice how Ovid showed how the abuse erupted. That is one thing, the narrative: it matters where it starts and where it ends. Another thing is the space as it is narrated.

Being in my room, with its door and its walls and its windows, and the objects that found their way to call this room their home, located here in Heidelberg not 500 meters away from the Neckar river, I think with the space and its beings, and my thinking companions refuse to be rendered passive. They refuse to be innocent.

The temporal and spatial contingencies of a conflict are not to be dismissed. It matters where conflicts and abuses happen and when. Conflicts and abuse are historically and spatially situated. Different intensities and urgencies of spaces and timelines are not passive, but active participants in any interpersonal dynamic. Conflicts are often viewed from an anthropocentric perspective, in the sense that it dismisses the agency, vibrancy and historicity of matters and things. It’s almost exclusively thought with the figure of Lady Justice as I mentioned before, the blindfolded model of justice, carrying a scale that has two sides and the scale itself, that compared them, is exempt from scrutiny. Dismissing the multiplicity of actors and agents in a conflict, discounting the bureaucratic assemblages and state apparatuses, and undermining the patriarchal and capitalist relations and forces of production and reproduction all form an interdependent relation erupting in the punitive figure of Lady Justice.

An eruption of this kind is what I observe in Jo Phoenix’s gender critical comment that ‘there is a contest between trans rights and sex-based rights, and we see that particularly in prisons.’ This comment dismisses prisons as active agents in this perceived conflict by rendering prisons as neutral, natural and passive spaces in which conflicts happen. The prison is not a place in which conflict happens, but rather it is the figure of a myriad of relations that creates and maintains abuse. The comment itself, as an enforcer of the supposed neutrality and normality of prisons, is demanded to be exempt from scrutiny under the disguise of free speech, despite it being an active agent in this conflict in itself. In a transmisogynistic society, the comment upholds the status quo, there is nothing new or critical about that. Not to mention that the statement is a statistical dishonesty at best. This is abuse in disguise and conflict is not abuse. Prison abolition is trans rights, not only by alliance and association, but also directly, since prisons—as an institution that upholds private ownership of the means of production and reproduction—are active actors in transphobia. What justice can we demand for our siblings other than the abolition of that cruelty, that place about which Oscar Wilde laments: ‘I never saw sad men who looked / with such wistful eyes / upon that little tent of blue / we prisoners call the sky, / and at every cloud that passed / in happy freedom by.’[25]

Both the narrative-space and the narrated-space matter. The absence of social orientation and a larger—even global—context of power relations, of narrative-space, undermines a transformative justice facilitation and mediation. Criminalization, stigma, socialization and pathologizing further undermines the process by introducing a misleading context that disorients a practitioner, leading to the adoption of simple moral maxims instead of leading a process rooted in the critique of systems and a mode of non-innocent care that is sensitive to textures.

Far from the figure of Lady Justice, the figure of transformative justice for me is the figure of compost and mycelium, not an easy figure to call into our minds. It reaches and contracts and changes and within a night it blooms mushrooms. Sensitive to the textures of the ground and the needs of the soil and the trees. Tentacular, considerate, nurturing, porous, leaking from one layer to another.

What Category are We on Right Now?

You’ve been reading and thinking for a while now, friend. Where are you? Can you feel your body? Can you sense the ground that holds you, the air that hugs you, and the beings that nourish you? May the earth love up on you! Peace be upon you! Are you comfortable? Do you need a pause? Are you breathing, dear one? Do breathe.

Do breathe in your listening: breathe like you care about freedom. Breathe like you’ve been missing to love: breathe like you’ve been loving to miss: do breathe like a free bird’s orgasm in the sky—don’t let them suffocate you. Breathe until you’re out of air breathing: breathe until you’re panting like a thirsty dog: breathe until you dig a hole in the air—just to be filled by the ocean. Breathe like you can breathe underwater: breathe like you can run from where the sun rises to where the sun sets: breathe deep like the mountains: breathe raging sandstorms until their guns, their tanks, their planes are corroded back to dust: breathe racing streams until their institutions are eroded to gardens and canyons—trust we’re here to see you breathing in joy and grief. Do breathe with the daffodils and dandelions like you never had to pay for respiratory support. Breathe with the whales: do breathe! Breathe trees that revolt against the pavements like the trees are blooming the air you breathe—side by side. Inhale. Exhale. Our people are free. I’m here to breathe with you. I’m here to breathe with you.

And whenever you’re ready, ‘keep on keeping on.’[26]

Category is: Green, Green Crown, Roots Underground

More often than not, transformative justice leaks to mutual aid and healing justice. This leakage is often seen as a misunderstanding, a mistake, but I beg to differ while maintaining the loose and porous distinctions between transformative justice, mutual aid and healing justice. Donna Haraway writes: ‘nothing is connected to everything, everything is connected to something.’[27] These three interdependent components of community accountability, driven by a constant struggle towards social justice cannot be neatly separated into distinct categories without undermining the radical roots of each one of them. In practice, the distinctions between them are more about accessibility to different methods and tools than they are about categorization. Disoriented from social justice and decontextualized from decolonization, mutual aid becomes a saviorist charity project, healing justice a therapy session, and transformative justice an agreement on a piece of paper. But transformative justice cannot be a bureaucratic piece of paper with agreements that maintains a liberal humanist conception of harmony and as such maintains the status quo. It actually disrupts the status quo. In fact, the disruption of the status quo is exactly how it transforms harm. I understand the process as Staci Haynes writes in Ending Child Sexual Abuse, as:

[A]ctions that shift conditions within a family, community and society. Getting involved in social and climate justice can be healing and can change the social and economic conditions that perpetuates violence in many forms.[28]

In addition to compost and mushrooms, I would like to bring the figure of mosses as my thinking companion. The wonder that there are rocks on which no moss can grow, there are rocks which accommodate only one kind of moss, and there are rocks on which you find multiple species of mosses almost sparkling with life. If ‘diversity’ is what we want, perhaps we can seek guidance in and from the forests. Thinking with mosses, I would follow the question formulated by Robin Wall Kimmerer in Gathering Moss, namely, why is it that ‘on one rock ten or more species of moss may comfortably coexist, while a nearby boulder, outwardly the same, is completely dominated by just a single moss, living alone? What are the conditions that foster diverse communities rather than isolated individuals?’[29] Hence, answering the question about the relevance of understanding the conditions of (im)possibility[30] for ‘diversity’, I say what Robin Wall Kimmerer said, ‘there is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.’[31] What are the conditions that foster communities to be able to cast away and abolish the political and socioeconomic conditions that perpetuates and ensures and guarantees abuse to occur?

It’s impossible to talk about accountability without talking about racism and it would be wrong to say that the queer spaces upon which we want ‘diversity and inclusion’ to grow is neutral and all moss can grow. And it would be wrong to say that it is accommodating for Black, indigenous, and people of color. That would ignore and dismiss the present lived reality of racialized people. It is in fact hostile to Black, indigenous, and people of color. So much so that even the very conception of this as diversity and inclusion is born out of a deep misunderstanding and a form of continuation of the acts of exclusion performed by the dominant group. How it is hostile to Black folks lies in a quote by James Baldwin:

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.[32]

Indeed, to say that the construction of Blackness as a construction within the human is a forgiving statement. It is far more hostile than that. In Becoming Human, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson writes: ‘Slavery’s archival footprint is a ledger system that placed Black humans, horses, cattle, and household items all on the same bill of purchase.’[33] It is being in a thick and present history of bestialization, thingification, and imposed plasticity in which the Black body is transmogrified simultaneously into superhuman and into subhuman.

It would also be a mistake to think that this exclusion is a passive exclusion, due to a lack of incentive or lack of interest; or worse that it is a lingering effect of the past, or some spillover from the Americas. It’s not. Aph Ko in Racism as Zoological Witchcraft writes that ‘we keep referring to white supremacy as just a ''system'' or ''institution'', rather than a living, insidious, expansive colonial force that works to ''get inside'', consume and destroy.’[34] Indeed, it is rather an active, ongoing, violent, relentless exclusion embedded in the very structure of your safety, security and wellbeing. Far from some accidental ‘Nature’, the blueprints that outline the structures of our feelings are intentionally and meticulously constructed so as to maintain its affinity with what benefits the rich, the white, the man, the cisgender, the straight, the (en)able-bodied, and the neurotypical over and above the others.

Category is: Muddy Like a Blessing

I want to be entangled with the poems of the streets, in the stumbling and fumbling of my memory, in my stalled breaths, the breaks and pauses of my body, and with thinking companions, within the all of it. Instead of purity and objectivity of understanding, I want a mossy, entangled, partial, impure, slutty and muddy understanding, taking Mary Oliver’s advice: ‘I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.’[35] And instead of an intensity that makes me disappear, I seek an intensity that makes me appear, always with care, always with my kin. Never alone, always with; not kinship as a fusion, but kinship as a spacious intimacy.

Therein lies a muddy entanglement, simultaneously complexifying and simplifying our endeavour as facilitators and mediators.

Where transformative justice diverges from liberal humanist conception of harmony and pacifism is in the boundary conditions, that is to say, the places where accountability fails, resistance follows. And resistance is the domain of art and critique as articulated by Toni Cade Bambara: ‘as a culture worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible.’[36] Boundaries are needed, but not as one solution fits all. It is a useful tool, not a moral maxim. I’d rather think with riverbanks than with boundaries, like when Daphne made an alliance with the river Peneus.

Why? Because effectively, the sum of boundaries which at the end of the day can only be held and enforced by the more powerful, although every person can name their boundaries, will result in concentration of the capital, both social and material, at the hands of the dominant group. This is where boundaries and borders are synonymous. This is where boundaries and riverbanks differ. This is why I think of and with riverbanks. You know your riverbanks are corresponding with your ecologies. You know you can’t always enforce your riverbanks, you know some will ignore them. Riverbanks are always already there in the world.

What exactly can we do as a group of friends? What exactly does a council do? Abuses reveal structures more than executors. Not psychological structures. Not individualist structures. Not one-dimensional structures. More than that, abuses reveal simultaneously the political, social, and economic structures that condition these pathologizings, individualisms, and one-dimensionalities in the first place. They reveal the entitlements before the entitleds. They reveal the privileging that comes before the privilege and the privileged. What a mistake it was to think that in the beginning there are identities, and the collection of these identities make differences. Far from it. In the beginning there is difference, and the division, the categorizations of this difference make identities. Like chaos before it’s named chaos. Like a dark night before it’s curated to appear terrifying. Like bodies before we are baptized humans, beasts, savages, things, and monsters. Tracing who benefits and who suffers reveals the creation story of these structures. The council of friends’ first task is to find this story and to change it. What a mistake it is to think that it’s easy to hear these stories! Isn’t the condition for truth to allow suffering to speak?

How do we change these stories? We call in; we write up; we reach out; we resist and assist; we center and decenter; we prevent and intervene; we adapt and change. We turn this world inside out. We hold us accountable, we hold them accountable, they hold us accountable, making cat’s cradles and string figures that love the world enough to assume response-ability for it. We live wayward lives, we make Odd-kin not God-kin[37]. And in our fugitivity and weaving, we keep close Octavia Butler’s advice: ‘Kindness eases change / love quiets fear.’[38] The council of friends’ second task is to figure out what makes accountability so scary and turn it into something lovely. Lovely as in full of love, full of butterflies that quiet fear. The way cocoons taught. The way mother trees taught. The way bell hooks taught. The way Maya Angelou taught. The way Aurora Levins Morales taught:

Love is subversive, undermining the propaganda of narrow self-interest. Love emphasizes connection, responsibility and the joy we take in each other. Therefore love (as opposed to unthinking devotion) is a danger to the status quo and we have been taught to find it embarrassing.[39]

Thinking with Sarah Ahmed in The Cultural Politics of Emotions[40], I come to believe that the sentiment for revenge, the sentiment to punish and to reward individuals or groups, the feeling of what constitutes fairness, is a constructed sentiment; a manufactured want; a constructed affect;  the force of encounters and the encounter of forces that if left unexamined and unclaimed will be shaped by the interests of the ruling classes. Since the criminal justice system is based on reward and punishment, it’s inevitable, then, to see the ways in which justice is understood and enforced in alignment with this belief and in close affinity to the group that produces this paradigm of thought. That these sentiments and affects are constructed and socially enforced is important for transformative justice practitioners to keep in mind, not to minimize other’s pains, but rather to consider seriously the social and material context in which conflict is understood as such. How feelings emerge in their constructed forms and to what use are questions that fill my journals. How they change? What space they have? And under what conditions? These questions matter and the answers usually elaborates the forms of the feminist fractal: the personal is political.

Take it to the Runway

In Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire[41] that I mentioned earlier, there is a scene which provoked in me a curiosity regarding the intimate relationship between justice and love; can we talk about love without talking about justice? In particular, the shift that it induces in understanding bell hooks’ declaration that ‘without justice, there can be no love.’[42] To give the context of the movie, I’ll follow one line of articulation of the film: a painter, Marianne, is commissioned to paint the daughter of a Comtesse in Brittany. Marianne travelled to the residence of the Comtesse and her daughter to stay for a few days in order to paint. When Marianne arrived, the Comtesse told her that the daughter, Heloise, must not know that her mother commissioned a painter to paint her—Heloise is to be painted without her knowing. Marianne then learned that the reason Heloise doesn’t want to be painted is because the painting will be sent to her suitor, i.e. she is being forced into marriage. After several encounters, Marianne and Heloise fell for each other. In the scene, we see Heloise liking the portrait of herself that Marianne painted. Marianne, for reasons not yet revealed, said she wanted to destroy the painting and draw another one. Heloise was angered by Marianne’s suggestion to destroy the painting. Not any madness, but a particular and a deeper anger that at first seemed to erupt out of nowhere. ‘You blame me for my marriage!’ said Heloise, before challenging Marianne to say what burdens her heart. In the movie, the conflict is resolved by Marianne apologizing to Heloise.

There is a certain similarity, or rather a deep resonance, between the conflict depicted in this scene and what I observe in conflicts in queer spaces. If conflict—as described by Sarah Schulman in Conflict is not Abuse—is a power struggle, what this scene emphasizes as an aspect or a particular figure of a conflict is that this struggle takes the form of a friction, almost a grating of a sense of self in a confined and narrow site of possibility—specifically, the possibility of making decisions for one’s own life. In other words, this power struggle doesn’t occur in an open field, but rather it becomes a struggle due to the choking confinement imposed on Heloise and Marianne. To be stuck and to be confined, would then be the figurations of the conflict here. Marianne’s apology only resolves the conflict in the sense that it adds a padding or lubrication to ease the friction. The apology by no means resolved the conflict. The apology doesn’t expand the confinement, it doesn’t get them unstuck, it doesn’t break the walls that limit them, although it makes it bearable for a while. The conflict leaves a trace, a bruise, of the power imposed over Heloise, and as such, its ghost remains lingering, appearing as a heartbreak sometimes, and other times as bursts of anger that seem—as the scene brilliantly depicted—out of nowhere. A facilitator whose aim is to make one person or the other apologize, is at best doing the work of lubes. Further, such facilitation would be reducible to a decision-making problem: ultimately, ‘who needs to apologize?’, the logic of which is prone to be hijacked by some moral discourse, ahistorical and power evasive.

What would a conflict resolution mean in this context without confronting the heartbreaking reality that ‘without justice, there can be no love’; without orienting ourselves to what Chela Sandoval calls oppositional consciousness[43], isn’t it easy to forget that these conditions of (im)possibility are constructed by patriarchal heteronormativity in the first place?

There are scenes in The Portrait of a Lady on Fire where the ghost of Heloise would appear behind Marianne, echoing Ovid’s Eurydice following Orpheus to get out from the underworld. And like Orpheus, Marianne would look back to see Heloise. Orpheus had managed to persuade the gods by his songs to allow him to lead Eurydice out from the underworld. The gods conceded on one condition: ‘to walk in front and never look back until he [Orpheus] had left / the Vale of Avernus, or else the concession would count for nothing.’ And what did Orpheus do? He looked back. Marianne too looked back. They both looked back; but one had a choice and the other, Marianne, doesn’t really have a choice. I was talking with my partner about this and they said, ‘Marianne looked back because it was impossible anyways.’ It was and still is. It is impossible for queers to love under heteropatriarchy. ‘Without justice, there can be no love.’

Heloise’s exclamation, ‘you blame me for my marriage!’ is seriously significant for at least two reasons: first, who should resist? Second, who is to blame?

What could Marianne have done? What could Heloise have done? Nothing. They could only do as the character from Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, Fred Holt, does: ‘Everything ruined and wrecked, made old and garbage before its time. He picked his way carefully through memories to keep from tripping over one that might cost him too much.’[44]

And what can you do, as an individual? As individuals, the only work we can do is community building. Tell stories, listen to stories, check in with our friends, start an accountability circle, form a council, organize, struggle in place, go to parks, invite someone to tea. As an individual, there is nothing you can do but build trust, be in right relationship with the land, build community. As a community, and only as a community, perhaps accountability is not as scary as it might initially sound. As a community, perhaps, we can start, as Mariam Kaba said, to fumble towards repair[45].

As soon as you try to do this, you will immediately be confronted with the friction that Marianne and Heloise faced. The Afro-Brazilian author who lived most of her life in the favela, Carolina Maria de Jesus writes, lamenting the constant abuses between her and her friends and neighbors, ‘the only thing that does not exist in the favela is friendship.’[46] The abuses that erupted in the favelas cannot be resolved in the favelas. There are chambers in the towers of exploitative corporations far away that collect the magma for these eruptions. Therein lie the keys that can transform power over into power struggle. It is up for us to decide between walking on eggshells or expanding the confinement. To abolish these conditions of (im)possibility we need our friends; and to make friendships possible, we need to abolish these confinements. Start wherever you can and dance around this circle in expanding spirals like a maelstrom of deterritorialization: ‘between the bricks, / we’ve spread a million seeds / and one day we’ll all bloom together at once; / With certainty, your wall will have to fall.’[47]

Category is: Realness with a Twist

I shall end this account where it began, for no other reason than to offend the master and his fantasy, to emancipate myself from his mansion; for his endings and beginnings are nothing like mine. Where a story begins and where it ends is like the master’s drinks. He chooses them. Always to his liking. I shall choose my own drink when the clock strikes the witching hour. That is of course, unless if you insist on the master’s choice.

The animals had been troubled. The birds were restless, the snakes sleepless, the elephants impatient. The crows and screeching owls divined omens to warn us monsters and faggots. The animals had gone in all directions. I heard a rumor among the monsters, and although I believe in monsters’ rumors more than the masters’ news, I riddled the sphinx. The sphinx affirmed it. There has been a rupture in the crust of the earth. Not the first and not the last, no matter how hard I cast spells for it to stop. The imploded eruption near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street on 25 May 2020 has suffocated the soil of the Dakota and Anishinaabe land. The master made sure of it. It lasted the entirety of four hundred and one years in nine minutes.

Like the animals, the ground beneath my feet was restless. It trembled until the pebbles quivered and cracked, the grass shivered and fissured, the trees fluttered and snapped, and the rivers convulsed and crashed. The ground trembled until the basket that held my heart unravelled as the pieces spilled through my eyes. The tremor of the blanket that decided to be with me ended up loosening the master’s marionette strings. You would think, if you’re a human, that it was a natural disaster. It wasn’t. It was the masters’ doing. You seem to believe that disasters are natural. I’m telling you that’s not the whole story. That is of course, unless you insist.

That night, with the marionette strings loose, I ran to the river and I faced the moon. I howled to call her. She heard my cry. I know I couldn’t outrun the master. Sooner or later he’ll find me. So, I turned my back to let the moon cover me with her embracing light until I was blue. Before me lay my shadow. I kneeled and with a twig I cut away my shadow from around my feet. They rose up and stood facing me. They were crying just like me. I took the basket from my chest and held it to my eyes to gather the teardrops until I cried my heart out. Then I stitched the teardrops together, resuscitating a heartbeat. When the broken heart started to sing, I gave it to my shadow. I told them that I love them. Then I told them to run and keep my heart singing. They took it and I saw them ran with the trannies and the dykes and the bulldaggers and the faggots and the fairies and the bad girls and the rest of the wretched of the earth who appeared out of ‘nowhere’. I smiled under the blanket of moonlight. I know they are going to make a place

where mosses grow and monsters dwell / the ferns unfurl like waves in wells / enchanted by the autumn leaves / erasing, as it lines, its maps / a living space where living dies / and dying lives, like mushrooms / between decaying autumn twigs. / it’s not a place to occupy / and not a name or soul to claim / a home beyond the house / a shell in which we dream / that hums like the ocean / and sings the songs we scream / with howling trees / as slow as ferns unfurl / as wild as waves in wells / the things we do for love.


Works Cited

[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (London: Penguin, 2004).

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire next Time, 1st Vintage International ed (New York: Vintage International, 1993).

[3] Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, Sexual Cultures (New York: New York University Press, 2020).

[4] Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Experimental Futures: Technological Lives, Scientific Arts, Anthropological Voices (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[5] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Open Media Book (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003); Angela Y. Davis et al., Abolition. Feminism. Now, The Abolitionist Papers Series (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2022); Mariame Kaba, Tamara K. Nopper, and Naomi Murakawa, We Do This ’til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, Abolitionist Papers (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021).

[6] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.

[7] Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2019); Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Talents (London: Headline, 2019).

[8] Nick Montgomery and Carla Bergman, Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017).

[9] Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016).

[10] Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019).

[11] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

[12] Céline Sciamma, Portrait de La Jeune Fille En Feu, Drama, Romance (Lilies Films, Arte France Cinéma, Hold Up Films, 2019).

[13] Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice (New York: Samuel French, 2008).

[14] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, 1st Vintage Books ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

[15] Ovid, Metamorphoses.

[16] Butler, Parable of the Sower.

[17] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, Calif: Crossing Press, 2007), chap. Uses of the Erotic.

[18] Lorde, Sister Outsider.

[19] Distinction between nudity and nakedness from John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin on Design 1 (London: Penguin, 2008).

[20] Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza, Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988).

[21] Marilyn Strathern, Reproducing the Future: Essays on Anthropology, Kinship, and the New Reproductive Technologies (New York: Routledge, 1992); Marilyn Strathern, The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia, 3. paperback print, Studies in Melanesian Anthropology 6 (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2001).

[22] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.

[23] Oscar Wilde, Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, 5th ed. (with corrections) (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003), sec. The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

[24] Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Integrity, 1st ed (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998).

[25] Wilde, Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, sec. The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

[26] Song by Curtis Mayfield, Keep on Keeping on, released in 1971

[27] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.

[28] Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2019), chap. 10.

[29] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (London: Penguin Books, 2021).

[30] José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Cultural Studies of the Americas, v. 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[31] Kimmerer, Gathering Moss.

[32] Baldwin, The Fire next Time.

[33] Jackson, Becoming Human.

[34] Aph Ko, Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide for Getting Out (Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books, 2019).

[35] Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Reprint edition 2004, vol. 1 (Boston: Beacon press, 1992), chap. Rice.

[36] Salamishah Tillet, ‘Make Revolution Irresistible: The Role of the Cultural Worker in the Twenty-First Century’, PMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 130, no. 2 (March 2015): 481–87,

[37] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.

[38] Butler, Parable of the Talents.

[39] Levins Morales, Medicine Stories.

[40] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Second edition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

[41] Sciamma, Portrait de La Jeune Fille En Feu.

[42] bell hooks, All about Love: New Visions, First Perennial edition (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001).

[43] Sandra G. Harding, ed., The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies (New York: Routledge, 2004), 195–209; Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, Theory out of Bounds, v. 18 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Carla Mari Trujillo, ed., Living Chicana Theory, Series in Chicana/Latina Studies (Berkeley, Calif: Third Woman Press, 1998), chap. Mestizaje as method: Feminists-of-color challenge the canon.

[44] Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters (Penguin Books, 2021).

[45] Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan, Fumbling towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2019).

[46] Carolina Maria de Jesus, Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, trans. David St. Clair, 1. Signet Classics print, Signet Classics (New York: New American Library, 2003).

[47] My translation of Bunga dan Tembok from Wiji Thukul, Nyanyian Akar Rumput: Kumpulan Lengkap Puisi (Jakarta: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2014).