Born at the Edge of an Arrival:
Reflections on Trauma, Travel and Testimony
I was raised in a Caribbean household where every complex question was met with the same answer: “I will tell you when you are older”. My immediate family is primarily Afro-Caribbean women who arrived to Canada from Trinidad & Tobago via Brooklyn, New York. They immigrated in alternate years as a sisterhood of teachers, nurses, a domestic worker and, my mother, a social worker. As a family we occupied conflicting spaces: outside the home we shed parts of our ‘Caribbeanness’, joining Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, in our own covert attempt to subtly fit in; while inside the house we maintained a very distinct Afro-Caribbean culture. This means that as a child when my grade school teachers asked my favourite food my immediate response was “pizza” despite the fact that I admittedly wanted to say “roti and curry goat”. Amongst the range of socio-cultural cues my mother had to absorb and relay back to us children, being African-Caribbean-Canadian also meant that somewhere in between those twin hyphens I had a confusion about my history. I did not understand what it meant to be African, Caribbean or Canadian. My mother and aunties were often too busy, or perhaps thought it was too complicated to spend the time teasing apart my confusing questions to get to the root of what I was asking. With time I, like many others, became dependant on conflicting and dateless stories coming from school, church and the media. I was left, like many of my friends, asking questions to each other, inventing answers to fill the gaps and relying on BET, USA pop-culture and traumatic , violent movies about slavery to ‘educate’ us on our history. In order to not repeat this cycle of non-knowing, I wanted to understand how we (my family) arrived to Canada. This, in retrospect, would have missed the larger question of why we left.
The brief history and context written above informs the basis of my class performance— to create an ‘arrival myth’. This reflection will provide the principles on which my performance depends and answer the question, ‘under which at conditions might testimony and performance be reparative for a family?’ I suggest that by engaging in a praxis of process-evaluated work, where the voices of those testifying is honored in the way in which they conveyed their testimony, testimony and performance can mitigate the violence of ‘retraumatizing’ and begin the work of reparation.
An arrival myth is a concept similar to a creation story; however, here it is specifically that of Afro-Caribbeans to Canada. As a medium, mythology is important because it explains cultural ideologies in magical ways, it can invoke imagination where facts once were and can enable trauma to be transformed into victory. This work fills a missing piece in stories of Afro-Caribbean-Canadians in that it creates folklore unique to the immigration process of this group. Initially the performance Born at the Edge of an Arrival, a bio-mythology, was to tell a story I had never been told, one of survival and triumph. Bio-mythology, informed by Audre Lorde’s Zami, is a story mixing mediums that play in the realm between truth and fiction, individual and universal. It allows me to tell a story that shows my past, future and immediate existence as a part of a larger political, historical, social and spiritual context, all of which inform my very being. As I began to ask my aunties why they left Trinidad, I was met with answers like, “I don’t remember things like that”, “Some things must be forgotten” and “Don’t ask me that. Don’t ask me why I left there.” I was ignorant to think that it would be appropriate to transform their stories from “trauma to victory” when the leaving was no victory and the push was no triumph. I was asking the wrong questions. I had focused on what I needed to know i.e. Why am I here instead of what pushed these women out of their homes. Nourbese Philips captures it well in Zong! where she reminds readers repeatedly that this story, “must be told by not telling” (190).
Philips created a text wrought through committing to the struggle of process in order to honor the victims of the Zong massacre (If you are not familiar with Zong, I suggest you look into the work of Nourbese Philip, Youtube is a start). In the retelling of violence she employs several techniques to avoid a new assault. She uses the text as a distortion of truth. While the words are unchanged, by manipulating their order, blanking and blacking out pieces of the text she challenges the validity of what is there, almost as if on behalf of those murdered, she pays a final homage to their truths. Additionally, she moves beyond representations of what was projected to meet the slaves in the New World, had they all survived, by disrupting notions of order through creating disorder and verbal chaos. In effect she does, through literature, what the slaves were restrained from doing. Intentionally in this act, she resists a projected ideal of the New World by refusing to order a situation that could not have been ordered. She says ordering it, would mean committing “a second violence, this time to the memory of an already violent experience” (197). For Philips, since no immediate living individuals are attached to this remembering, it is primarily the ‘memory’ which could be dishonored or re-assaulted. For me, these are immediate women’s stories and it is important that I carry their words with the same consideration that Nourbese carried the text she fractured. In the final chapter, “Nortanda” Philips expresses the challenges she faced by sticking to her process, but reflects on its necessity in bringing dignity to her work by describing the new text as a “tombstone, the one public marker of the murder of those Africans on board the Zong” (194).
I connect to Zong! because, like the story I want to tell, it is about movement, though the agency in the moving subjects are different. Born at the Edge of an Arrival differs in that it occupies a complicated space between intentionally willed movement and the non-consensual push-pull force of immigration. The socio-cultural study of social movements neglects to include the physical act of migration as a ‘mass-movement’ and the often silences what immediately results from it.
T.V. Reed’s The Art of Protest defines a movement as an “unauthorized, unofficial, anti-institutional collective action of ordinary citizens trying to change the world” (1). This happens once a collective concern is exposed and involves a certain scope of action and response. Through the case studies offered in the text, what is moved is political, social and cultural but often intangible and certainly, according to this definition, has little to do with bodies. I argue that the very gendered process of racialized women migrating, often without their families, in efforts to attain something seldom guaranteed is the epitome of a movement. In labeling it as such, it collectivises the struggle and can bring a form of healing by moving from the individual to the global. Honor Ford-Smith extends on this: “…creating Letters seemed an obvious way to mourn its personal and social costs while building a dialogue that rejects moralistic blame and attends to the global nature of the issue” (11). Further, the act of honoring this form of movement as cultural, political and social change is important as it acknowledges the impact of arrival on the masses who have arrived, those who have been left and those who are confronting the arrival. What Reed neglects in movement discourse is the silence that often ensues after these bodies travel. This silence is a result of the busyness necessary in making a total adjustment, it is the due to unfamiliarity of the political systems in order to even resist it, it is because of an inability/lack of desire to organize because of time placed on economic, social and cultural survival and is perhaps even because of a fear of ‘slapping the hand that feeds you.’ As a part of recounting stories and sharing testimonies, which are memories of violence and trauma, it means doing justice to the all nuances of the account. Perhaps with this interpretation these bodies would be honored as the head of a movement and different narratives can arise.
Acknowledging the nuances of testimony while honouring the voice of the testifier is imperative to make broader connections and memorialize all actions involved in their story, whether physical and silent or political and organized.
I am then left with a final question of reflection for myself: what is my role in this as the performer, as the recipient of the legacy of these testimonies and as a witness?
Cathy Caruth, author of Trauma Explorations in Memory, talks about witnessing in three different stages: the first is witnessing as the self, witnessing yourself listening to these testimonies; the second is witnessing by participating in retelling the story, in this role I bear witness as a performer and as someone who is toiling to assemble a process of telling; and the third is how the process of witnessing is then also being witnessed, which would be the audience. I would further that for me there may be an additional complication to the act of witnessing, and that is witnessing as responsibility, as a form of validation to my family. Ford-Smith speaks to the process of witnessing as a deliberate step towards reparation. She argues that when traumas are brought public and there is a collective opportunity for mourning and grieving, it can bring to the forefront a necessary political attention. She furthers, when the scope of this is magnified, becoming global and interconnected it has the force to be reparative.
In conclusion, under what conditions might testimony and performance be reparative for a family? Under the conditions that process is prioritized, testimonies are explored for global reach, there is an opportunity to witness and a family wants to repair.
I will continue to further question myself as I delve deeper into the research, interviews and begin the writing for Born at the Edge of an Arrival. Question that I am still asking are: What right to I have to hear/uncover/tell these stories? How do I involve my family in the process and/or the process of process making? How will I perform this work? How to I honour both victory and trauma without minimizing either?
Caruth, Cathy. Trauma, Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1995.
Ford-Smith, Honor. “Local and Transnational Dialogues on Memory and Violence in Jamaica and Toronto.” Canadian Theatre Review (2011): 10-17.
Jordan, Anique. “Performance Log.” 2013.
Philip, Nourbese M. Zong! Middletown: Wesleyan University, 2011.
Reed, T.V. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights movement to the streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005.
Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. Alexandria: Alexander Street Press, 2003.