I’m walking up the mont Royal, because I never saw a hill I didn’t want to walk up. Most of my international travelling is for work: if I want a holiday, a break, some rest, then I go somewhere in Scotland with hills and walk up them. A big part of me wants to learn how to walk up biggest and bigger hills, hills without trails and with risky ridges, that have names on lists that I can tick off, but mostly I’m satisfied just getting up somewhere where the air is clearer and I can see a long way. Anyway, I’m walking up [the mont Royal, which is wooded and has a few quiet trails and raccoons that come out at dusk, and I’m sweating a lot, because I’m Scottish and have a very fast metabolism and can’t stop buying books that I then have to carry around. I kid myself that I’m not trying to get to the summit, just following dirt paths through the woods, but of course they keep tending upwards and eventually I find myself on the pavement with the binoculars and the car parks and the big metal cross that, of course, is on top. The view is grand.
It feels good to be back in a big city. I’m from a tiny island (700 folk when I was growing up, 500 now), and big cities have always had mythical glamour for me: the places where everything happens. These days, Edinburgh is well big enough for me, but I still like being in the metropolis for a few days. Montréal, built on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) territory, has festivals, big museums, a European-style old town, a huge gay village with rainbow banners, a hipster quarter trying to take over a historic Hasidic neighbourhood, and lots of great vegan restaurants (and other kinds, but I like eating vegan here, because they do it so much better). It’s currently celebrating its 375th anniversary (i.e., 375 years since a beginning of genocide) alongside Canada’s 150th (i.e., 150 years since the major effort to legitimise land theft and genocide through the construction of a federal nation-state). Alongside the Outriders trip, I’m here for Metropolis Bleu / Blue Met, the city’s spring literary festival. I’ve performed poetry in an iconic gay strip bar (it was literally 5 minutes after the poetry until the boys started coming out), read literary smut alongside luminaries of Canadian literature (Ann-Marie MacDonald reading the censored bits of Anne Frank’s diary, George Elliott Clarke reading Judy Bloom), argued revolutionary theory with friends I met on the internet, watched brilliant people discuss important things about language and politics and life, struggled to reconcile the pleasure I’m having with the history that’s made it possible (hint: it’s unreconcilable), stayed up past my bedtime.
What I like best is being in a bilingual city again. It’s made me determined to learn or relearn a third language that’s more distant from English and Scots. I like sitting in public, and listening to people switch between languages, picking the language that can best express what they’re thinking. Often, especially on the busses, something else gets mixed in with the English and French. The longer I’m here, the more my brain tentatively switches over into my rusty French: by the time I leave, I can manage lurching functional conversations for a whole minute or two before resorting to “désolé, je parle seulement un peu français, parlez vous anglais?” What I most want British people to understand about language is that this, everywhere, is the global norm. The majority of the world’s people speak more than one language and switch between them with relative ease. Often there’s three or four; often, there’s a local language, a lingua franca for the region, and other stuff besides. It’s Britain (and to a lesser degree the US) that’s weird in being so hopelessly monoglot, a depriving situation that’s maintained by education and government policy.
The main event I’m at Blue Met for is a collaboration with the British Sign Language poet Paul Scott and the Scottish-based English language poet Rachel Amey. As part of an EIBF exchange with Blue Met, we’ve put together a performance of poems across our three languages, each speaking to the other about language, identity, and community. (Three performers, both Deaf and hearing, came to Edinburgh last year.) Our performance has a lovely and welcoming audience, mixed Deaf and hearing, with many languages of their own; I’m struck by how relaxing it all feels. The room is full of exciting language, so it’s not so much the periods of (to my hearing ears) aural quiet in Paul’s poems, but rather the space we’re all giving each other, literal and metaphorical. We alternate between performers and languages, which means that between each poem we have to move around microphones, stands and positioning of interpreters: it might look a little awkward, but it gives each poem room to breathe and the audience room to think.
We’ve planned the performance in a particular way: Paul’s signed introductions to the poems are voiced by an English language interpreter, but his poems are not; my Scots poems and Rachel’s English poems are signed into ASL by two different interpreters, but my Scots is not given an English translation. This means that the only audience who gets the full “text” of the poems is the signing audience, but as no-one in the room, not even us, communicates in all of English, Scots, BSL and ASL, no-one has full “access” the entirety of each poem in all its effects. This set-up also privileges the marginalised languages in the space over the dominant languages, with the signed languages taking the strongest precedence. In all this, we’re both attempting to address some social power imbalances and also invite the audience into our language: translation, in some contexts, provides access, but it can also erase a less powerful language, and you always have to ask who is being given access to what. We especially wanted to hearing audience to work hard to perceive the power and precision of Paul’s BSL poetry, without being given the ease of an English gloss that would lose so much of the poetry-in-motion and subtle linguistic work.
These subjects come up in the post-performance discussion, along with many others, animated brilliantly by Daz Saunders. The previous performance took a different approach, integrating the three artists into one show rather than weaving back and forth between them. But each played with how their works could provide points of access: poet and sound artist Kaie Kellough placed a speaker facing the floor so that vibrations could be felt; one poet, Pamela E Witcher, voiced a scream for another, Tanya Evanson, along with many other effects. Kaie described this as “opening and closing different doors for different people”. I agreed, trying to express something I’d been feeling for a while, saying: “I think universal access is a bit of a myth. Not everyone can access everything. Different people have different abilities and rights of access. And what English is, what European nation-state languages are, are universalising attempts to enable everyone to communicate with everyone about everything, to make all knowledge and experience open to everyone. But what that actually does is flatten things out, erase many types of language and knowledge, and disguise the face that many people are still left out. When i talk about access, I don’t want that: I want an approach that recognises the vital differences between us, not trying to close those gaps, but just to bridge them.” (I didn’t put it that fluently but.)
I was influenced in saying this by an event that I’d been to the previous day, the award ceremony for the First Peoples Literary Prize, won this year by the Ojibwe novelist David Treuer. He said several things in the discussion with Duncan McCue about his work that struck me powerfully. One was describing a previous novel in which he’d argued with an editor to keep vital sections of dialogue in Ojibwe without an English translation. “If Joyce can use Latin and Mann can use French, I can use Ojibwe,” he said. “If readers want to know the dialogue, there’s an easy answer: they can learn Ojibwe. It’s for my readers to come to where my novel is.” He also returned several times to his refusal to become what he described as a “Native Informant”, not wanting to be the white/colonising world’s window into indigenous cultural practices, not wanting to have to explain himself and his culture to that audience. “I don’t describe ceremony in my books,” he said. “That’s for us.” There are limits to what I have access to, to what I can know, to what I have a role in.
I carry these words while visiting museums in Montréal. The Musée de Beaux-Arts advertised recent work it had done with indigenous communities on the curation of both its Inuit and its early settler Canadian art collections. The Inuit art exhibition is very beautiful and diverse, interpreted with sensitivity, giving cultural and historical context to carving and print-work from the last century, both contemporary and traditional and blends of the two. In particular, the interpretation discusses the economic role of Inuit art, how it consciously negotiated between traditional practice and commercial demand, and how it has in part been shaped by the economic effects of colonialism, with art becoming an essential economic practice for many people. There are similar strains to be found in the beautiful Ashukan Cultural Space, an indigenous-run nonprofit space in the old town with excellent exhibitions. I find myself wishing that European and settler-American contemporary art were as conscious about its relationships with money: too often we don’t face up to the face that our practices are enabled, supported and shaped by concentrations of wealth. There’s a continuing false belief that art is supposed to be special and separate from commerce and business, which belief allows, essentially, rich philanthropists and central government policy to dictate what art gets made. By admitting your dependence on finance you can take a more conscious role in finding agency in your art, I think, and also know more clearly what it is you want and need to keep to yourself and your community, away from outside eyes and money.
The approach taken in the “Founding Identities” exhibition of early settler-Canadian art is to juxtapose these pieces by contemporary art and commentary from indigenous artists. These given critical insight into the (often highly colonial) work in these displays. A similar approach is taken in the Musée McCord, a cultural history museum with a significant collection of indigenous life and artwork from across Canada: the displays have been developed in consultation with indigenous communities, and are given critical context by contemporary indigenous artists. This is in line with new approaches to museum curation, sometimes called decolonising. (See, e.g. Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums.) I appreciate the approach, but am not in a position to judge its effectiveness. At its best, it seems crucial to bringing vital historical understanding to the art, craft and life of the colonial period (which is ongoing), as well as cultural sensitivity in what is displayed; more cynically, though, it enables white people like me to enjoy consuming the art and artefacts and knowledge while feeling a bit less guilty. I’m not trying to say it’s one or the other; it may well be both. When thinking about such things from my own political perspective and identities, I don’t think these questions are ever settled: the move is part of a process, and how much good that process does depends on ongoing organisation. (This insight in particular is drawn from Dr Darcy Leigh’s work, Post-liberal agency: decolonizing politics and universities in the Canadian Arctic, which has also extensively informed my approach throughout this project.)
In the Never Apart Centre, an LGBT+ and social justice-focussed gallery in the north part of the city, I find another approach again. One of their current exhibitions is Two-Spirit Sur-Thrivance, featuring a range of work from indigenous Two-Spirit artists. The exhibition is full of sex, subversion, mourning, anger, trauma, self-care, recovery and beauty. I walk around and around it loving and thinking. In particular I’m drawn to Kent Monkman, a multimedia artist known for large-scale canvasses in a traditional style which feature deliciously and wickedly subversive details, and to Dayna Danger, whose sexually-confronting work also displays an extraordinary will to care. In a split-screen video featuring strap-on caribou horns, I’m most struck by extended and not-particularly-explicit scenes of neck massage. My neck hurts. Here, the artwork is restlessly contemporary, and connects directly to communities I’m part of, while also highlighting the differences and intersections of race and marginalisation.
Back at Blue Met, I’m thinking through these questions again during a panel discussion on queer pasts and presents with Ann-Marie MacDonald, Kai Cheng Thom and Nick Comila. They each discuss their own practice and history, but conversation regularly turns to the role of art and literature in resistant communities, and the complexities that involves. In particular, queer or LGBT+ art is now at an odd cultural moment where it is, at least superficially, welcomed and often celebrated, though many (particularly working class, radicalised and disabled LGBT+ people) are deliberately left out of that celebration. Ann-Marie said, “What are you supposed to do, when everyone now loves you, but you still hate yourself?” — a hate that has come in part because the world hated you. And, loving this insight, I asked “What are you supposed to do, when everyone supposedly loves you, but actually the world is still trying to kill you? When you still get the impression that everyone still wants your people dead? And what do you do when you’re given a little bit of cultural space, but you know that’s all you’re getting, and it might reinforce those structures that want you dead?” One of the many wise things she said was, “You take that land you’ve won, you dig in, you build your bulwark there, and then you start to expand your territory.” Kai Cheng agreed and added, “And if that’s not working, you can take out a grenade and put it on that land and blow it up.” Similarly, a bit of wisdom I’ll treasure is Ann-Marie saying, “We need good manners or else we’d all just be stabbing everyone in the eye with a fork. And one of the great things about manners is that they give you time to work out who’s a friend and who’s an enemy.” Again, Kai Cheng agreed and added, “And then if you need to you can stab them in the eye with a fork.” In relating this, I don’t want to set up a false binary between the two speakers: they both agreed with and complemented each other, sharing the needed learning.
I want to bring to the surface what’s probably already clear: I’m trying to find ways in or parallels to decolonial politics from my own experience. I’m also trying to reflect back on the situation I’ve chosen in this project: to be a white writer travelling in colonised land and trying to learn about decolonial politics, to try to do something decent with that. To be driven by a desire to know and to be unsure what or how I can know. This is perilous business and I fully expect to make bad mistakes. And what I’m not trying to do is to say that different political struggles are the same, because they’re not. I remember something that Katherena said in one of our many wide-ranging conversations, that people coming from different political struggles can draw on that as a place of empathy. Not a way of claiming someone else’s struggle as our own, but of recognising shared difference and the necessity of solidarity. This is an old insight that many have won in different ways: it’s worth reading more of John Donne’s meditation on solidarity beyond the famous epithets:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.
(from Meditation 17)
When listening to Layli Long Soldier discuss her book WHEREAS, which among many other things talks about the role of apology in the world, and about good and bad apologies, she suggested that what she’s looking for first from the colonising world is “freedom from denial”. I find this useful and necessary, this conception of freedom, and for me it ties into an insight that comes up again and again in different political struggles: that no-one is free until we are all free, and that my freedom depends on yours. To see and to try to heal the parts of my life which take life away from you is to work for freedom for myself; to struggle for my freedom is to struggle for yours, when that struggle recognises shared difference and the different things we share. But this work doesn’t end, and the answers aren’t that easy, and there’s always mistakes to apologise for and new learning to do. And it’s not for any of us to know everything.