On Storytelling, Speaking Truth to Power, and Channeling the Divine: Growing Room 2020 Keynote

kai cheng 6

Who are your stories for?

Who are your stories for?

Who are you stories for?

Who are your stories for?

Who are your stories for?

Who are your stories for?

Who are your stories for?

Who are your stories for?

Who are your stories for?

 

home is the fire

by time you found our sanctuary

for witches on the run

your body was already half-burnt

 

as you stepped into our circle

clothes fresh from the rain

 

your flesh was still sizzling

your tongue was still aflame

 

when you tried to speak the ritual greeting

only the sound of crackling came out of your mouth

 

o, how we clasped our hands around you

as we sang the blessing songs

 

you covered your ears, you screamed and screamed

to drown out our singing voices

 

we filled our pool with lavender and cedar

to wash you clean with purifying herbs

 

the bathwater boiled and turned to steam

the moment it touched your skin

 

we took you to our sacred garden

your touch turned our plants to coal

 

o, how we wanted to help you, sister

perhaps it was our wanting that failed you

 

we tried so hard to extinguish the fire

we never asked what you saw in the flames

 

at night while we slept

you howled in our dreams

 

and in the mornings

there was ash on our pillows

 

our great enchantresses tried

their most potent rituals to heal you

 

they crumbled to dust, consumed

by the conflagration inside you

 

you burned and you burned

and would not stop

 

and with every day passing

there was less of you

 

and now, all these moons later

your bones are still burning

 

and i am here to try

once again to save you

 

my hand inside your rib cage

my ear pressed to your skull

 

as my flesh starts to smolder

and my hair goes up in smoke

 

whispering the magic question

how do you save a burning woman?

 

and as my skin is set ablaze

as my body begins to scream

 

i can finally hear your answer

echoing deep inside your bones:

 

you must embrace the flames within yourself

without fear of being burnt

 

you must not try to heal her

because you fear the sound of her pain

 

you must remember, she chose the fire

so that she might know love

 

Hello everyone.  Thanks to the Indigenous caretakers and defenders of this land, the festival organizers, staff and volunteers, fellow writers and festival guests.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be here with you, to share space and words with you.  I am grateful for the faith you have put in me to hold this space and to hopefully impart some kind of “wisdom” – because goodness knows, that’s not always faith I have!  I’m always kind of like, [nasal voice] who put this tranny on a stage? What’s she saying? Why – oh my dear lord – why is she doing that? Someone tell her that she doesn’t have a singing voice.

 

But here we are!  Someone among the organizing committee had the bright idea of not only putting this tranny on a stage, but of making her a keynote. Which means, basically that you have to listen to everything I say, ha! You even have to listen to me singing.  Which is basically my whole childhood dream, you know?  Forget this writing shit, I wanted to be a famous singer.  But transmisogyny and racism and “being tone oblivious” and “not having the singing voice of a throat-damaged crow” got in my way, and so here we are.  Raise your hand if you also wanted to be a famous singer or actor but then the patriarchy got in your way…

 

And actually, now that I think about it, that is the whole plot of trans femme extraordinaire Vivek Shraya’s latest one-woman show, except that unlike me, she actually can sing (extremely well, actually).  Go see that show!

 

Anyway, here I am, talking away, so I guess we’ll just see what happens…

 

The truth is I really am always somewhat reluctant to do these sorts of events – though not completely, because as should be evident by now, I possess a desperate thirst for attention.  I am reluctant, though, because for me, a trans woman of colour, there is always the expectation that whatever I do is political.  That my story, my body, belongs to the public for its education and consumption.  That as a trans woman of colour, my storytelling work can never stand on its own, independent of my flesh and blood and – let’s be honest – genitalia.  My body of work is fundamentally intertwined with my living body, my soma.

 

There is a fundamental violation in this. As the trans woman performance artist and genius Nina Arsenault once said, “I believe you can be witnessed to death.”   This is a constant, unyielding pressure: To be political.  To be profound.  To be wise.

 

Trans women of colour artists and storytellers can never really escape this pressure.  We can never be “just” storytellers, producers of art and story for their own sake.   Our work is caught up in the fate of our bodies, in the fate of our sisters, the fate of our communities.  And do you know, I feel some grief in saying that, because there was a girl in me who wanted to write not memoir, or protest poetry, or even magical realist memoir, but fantasy: High fantasy.  Stories about places and people that didn’t exist, an escape from an imperfect world. That girl didn’t want to write about “trans people” or “feminism” or “overthrowing the neo-Imperialist colonial government in order to establish a utopian anarchist society.”

She just wanted to tell stories that would make people as happy as the stories she read made her. But life, and the world that hates and fears trans women, had other plans.

 

And we could pause there for a while in the story of that little Chinese trans girl’s grief, I imagine.  It’s a story that we know well, a story that you have probably heard in various iterations, a story that some of you have probably lived in your own way: The marginalized writer who can never escape the fact her work will always been seen through the lens of her marginalization.

 

But because it is a story we know so well, I suggest that we move through it, to the story that lies beyond: What happened to that little girl?  What happens to women born under unbearable pressure?  I think you know the answer to this too: We become burning lava.  We become the enraged and enduring earth. We become diamonds.  We change because we have no choice.

 

As the Black, feminist visionary sci-fi author Octavia Butler wrote: The only constant is Change.  God is Change. Butler, always light-years ahead of her time, explored the impact that irresistible power, domination, and conquest has upon the soul.  Her protagonists – often powerful, morally complex Black women – reshape themselves again and again as they navigate the balance between temporary surrender and long-term resistance.  And though they often pay a heavy price for their struggle, they do not lose sight of their ultimate goal: Freedom.
My fellow writers, storytellers, feminists, friends, I pose to you this thought: In the face of the irresistible political power of late-stage capitalism, the domination of a regressive regime of political leaders the likes of which have not been seen in half a century, the ongoing Imperialist conquest of Indigenous lands – what are we becoming?  Or rather, what will you and I choose to become?

 

In the recent months and years, our so-called “CanLit community” has felt the impacts of systemic sexual violence in academic institutions, ongoing anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism in the form of cultural appropriation and discrimination, and the tacit support of transmisogyny – hatred towards trans women – in public libraries.  The broader world is undergoing no less than the early stages of total environmental and social collapse.

 

I believe that the time has come for us all to reclaim the power and possibility that comes with being storytellers: To reconnect with the political, ethical and sacred imperatives of our calling. To accept that all our work is caught up in the fate of our bodies, of our siblings, of our communities.  And that means, I think, giving up the imperatives of commercial success and individual celebrity-making.  It might mean giving up the kind of identity politics (gasp! I know) that has led to gossip, bullying, and infighting among us.  It means giving birth to a whole new way of being a storyteller – rebirthing the old way of being a storyteller.  Remembering who we are: Keepers of the sacred.  Speakers for the dead.  Dreamers of the revolution.

 

What gods do you speak for?

 

What gods do you speak for?
What gods do you speak for?

 

What gods do you speak for?

What gods do you speak for?

What gods do you speak for?

What gods do you speak for?

What gods do you speak for?

What gods do you speak for?

A few weeks ago, I was here on the West Coast, embarking on a breathwork journey:  For those of you not familiar with the term, breathwork is the somatic practice of using a rigorous pattern of controlled breathing to induce a state of mild hyper-oxygenation and, thereby, a non-ordinary state of consciousness.  It’s essentially a trip on oxygen.

You know, as one does.

(I should note that I really don’t recommend that any of you try this at home without an experienced facilitator.  Please!  Do not hyperventilate, expose yourselves to injury, and then report on the internet that Kai Cheng Thom told you to do it.)

Breathwork, like most somatic practices, comes from an ancient lineage, can be found in many cultures, and is used for many purposes.  In this case, I was using it to seek inspiration and connection with sacred purpose.  You know – sacred purpose?  That thing that capitalist culture seeks to deprive us of?

And I have to tell you that while I may do all this Gwenyth Paltrow, woo-y, holistic wellness stuff, I take it all with a boulder-sized grain of salt. I’m actually very much a “science” girl.  My mother is actually a doctor, you know (yes, you should be impressed!).  I have a great deal of skepticism whenever it comes to the popular queer and feminist pseudo-science like “astrology” and “tarot cards” and “processing your feelings by talking about them honestly.”

But always, of course, there is a part of me that has sought out the divine. I think most of us who have suffered oppression and trauma seek the divine, whether or not we admit it.  Why else would we be drawn to the telling of stories – to the beauty and mystery that only art, and not science (take that, Mom!) can express?

So it was both ironic and deeply unsurprising that on this breathwork journey, I had a vision – or perhaps, was sent a vision – of a transsexual goddess.  Yes, you heard me: A transsexual goddess.

(And this is where I start to lose people – I see you, there in the back, surreptitiously going on Twitter!  No doubt Tweeting about how Kai Cheng Thom has started raving about visions and transgender angels. I’ll be cancelled by noon tomorrow.)

It’s funny, because we never think of the trans feminine as sacred, do we?  Unlike the cisgender feminine, which feminist tradition has long associated with celestial bodies like the moon and the earth, with the ocean and life itself.  In colonial heteropatriarchy the cisgender feminine is natural, is beautiful, is fertile, while the transgender feminine is artificial, is repugnant, is barren.  The cisgender feminine is archetypal, while the transgender feminine is incidental.

But I am here at this feminist literary festival to tell you – the transgender feminine is divine.  We are ancient, and eternal, and we bring endless bounty to this world.  Think about that.

(You may have noticed that this entire keynote is structured around what we can learn from the archetypal trans feminine.)

The transsexual goddess that I saw in my vision was nude (don’t too excited folks, it doesn’t get racy). She had breasts and a penis, and was flanked by a lion and a lamb.  In her hands she held sacred fruits, and she said to me: Never fear being alone, for I see through your eyes and speak through your lips.  You and all your sisters are my children, and I sent you to this earth that you might teach the work of love.

Love.  Revolutionary love.  Unyielding love.  Sacred love.  What Black feminist philosopher and theorist bell hooks identified as “The will to extend one’s self for the spiritual growth of oneself or another,” developing on the work of American psychiatrist Morgan Scott Peck.  What does that mean?  To me, it means that we must be willing to transform in order to reach our greatest potential, and to nurture that potential in others.

To me, the work of love among storytellers is seeking the revolutionary vision of our ancestors, and building our vision of a revolutionary future.  In her novel Psycho Nymph Exile, trans fem writer and game maker Porpentine Charity Heartscape writes, “I wish there was a world for us.”  She is speaking here of the seeming impossibility of a world in which trans women are not demonized, exploited, and disposed of.   To me, the work of love is finding a world in which we can all live, love, and be loved – even despite our transgressions, our failures, the harm that we have done.

To me, the work of love is about transformation – about transformative justice.  The kind of justice that leaves no one behind, that forces us to confront, integrate, and overcome our worst impulses: Our greed and thirst for validation, even when it comes at the expense of honesty.  Our fear and cravenness, which prevents us from speaking out when we know that what is happening is wrong.  Our hypocrisy, which has us making self-righteous posts on social media about other people’s behavior when our private lives do not live up to our own standard. And our valid anger and thirst for revenge, which is all to frequently misdirected into lateral violence and petty squabbling.

In the past year, I’ve traveled across this land to artist and activist communities to talk and teach about transformative justice.  It isn’t something I’m an expert in, or that I’ve really ever dreamed of doing, it’s something I did because I needed transformative justice and instead experienced abuse in my community. I wrote a book about it, and here we are – this is how it goes.  Every time I talk about transformative justice, I ask the audience to imagine a different a world: A world where transformative justice not only exists, but is central to how society works.

They struggle with this, of course: We have all lived for so long in this bloody, awful world, where violence is our first and last response to everything.  Punishment is the organizing principle in our society – punishment not just for doing wrong, but for being wrong in the eyes of the colonial heteropatriarchy. Punishment and violence order our world. So of course, it is difficult – even frightening – to try to imagine outside of it.

Still, they always manage, somehow, the people that I talk to.  They always do, if only here and there, in flashes.  And so I am asking you, storytellers, you whose life and occupation and calling is the visioning of visions, the dreaming of dreams – can you do this too?  Can you imagine a better world, one where my body, where the bodies of trans women and racialized women and disabled women and sex working women, can exist without violence?  Can you imagine what it will take to get there?

I have seen the transfeminine divine.  I have worn all her faces: the witch, the warrior, the healer, and the whore.  Storytellers, the power of the prophet runs through you, runs through us all: who speaks sees through your eyes?  Who speaks through your lips?  Why and for whom do you tell stories?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

What ghosts do you speak for?

I believe that the sacred duty of storytellers is to remember the truth of the past, to reflect the truth of the present, and to envision the possibility of the future.  We cannot do one without doing the others.  We have already spoken today about the present and future, let us turn for a moment to the past.

 

The story of the nation-state we now call Canada is littered with ghosts: The ghosts of Indigenous people targeted by colonial genocide, of Black people impacted by the legacy of slavery, by Asian communities exploited through indentured servitude and excluded through racist immigration policy – like my own family.  The storytelling project of “CanLit” is in many ways a kind of evil magic – the same magic that colonial forces have always resorted to in order to justify their imperialist legacies.

 

Such storytelling is a perversion of our sacred calling: It willfully forgets, rather than remembers.  It spreads lies rather than truth.  Colonial storytelling erases and disguises atrocities, it renders whole histories and communities invisible.  The divine transfeminine, in its many forms and names, was erased by colonial storytelling.  Like so many other sacred things, it was stripped away, recast as marginal, evil, an illness to be cured.

 

Colonial storytelling expresses itself in the language of racist histories, eugenicist philosophy, the language of the courts that condemn people of colour to lifetimes in prison while letting wealthy white murderers and rapists go free.  Colonial storytelling emerges in psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, labelling queer and trans people as insane, and neurodivergent people as defective.  Colonial storytelling manifests in so-called Canadian literature when it ignores or appropriates the stories of the marginalized, when it justifies the oppression of the society we live in.

This much, you know already.  I am not telling you anything new. The question is, how can we maintain our vision, our truth, in the midst of such powerful and confusing colonial stories?  How can we stay true to our purpose, when the world seems to be crumbling around us?

I think we need to remember our ghosts: The ones who come before us, who infuse our lineages.  Here again, we can learn from the archetypal transfeminine: She who is marked for death, who carries the dead.   Whether we want to or not, trans women walk among ghosts: the ghosts of our ancestors, mothers, and sisters.

There is not a trans woman alive who is not immersed in stories of the dead: Women like us who were killed or driven so mad by discrimination and violence that they lost themselves.  I have known many such women.  They walk behind those of us who still live, a line of ghosts stretching back through time. Their pain and their voices pass into our bodies, so that we might scream their screams and tell their stories.

This is integrity in storytelling: Staying true to your ghosts.  The ones who walk behind you.  Whether you like it or not, each of us carries a legacy, and we must ask ourselves: How do the stories we tell honour and heal our ghosts?

In colonial society, in “CanLit,” the profession of storytelling has only just begun to reckon with its ethical, ancestral, and sacred responsibilities – though these responsibilities have long been kept alive in Indigenous and racialized communities.  This discrepancy between colonial and traditional storytelling is, I think, the heart of the rift that we are starting to see in literary communities worldwide.

The white, Eurocentric tradition of storytelling places the (usually white, cisgender, heterosexual) storyteller on a pedestal and gives them free rein to narrate the world as he sees fit.  But traditional storytelling is relational; it acknowledges that stories are born out of relationships between the storyteller and the community.  The storyteller is accountable to an ethics of relationality, an ethic of care, an ethic of love.
This is not to say that all of our stories need to be serious or tragic or even factually true.  And I think it would be a mistake to try and measure literature solely by its ethical or political value; this is the direction that overzealous identity politics and censorship would take us.  What I am saying, though, is that we as storytellers must grow for the love of our art and for the love of our world.  We must remember what it means to have integrity – which is staying accountable to ourselves and to our lineages.  We must remember what it means to have honour, which is staying accountable to our communities.

So there you have it – a long and rambling keynote speech in which I sang off-key, openly admitted my insatiable appetite for attention, and talked about seeing visions of transsexual goddesses.  No doubt some of you came here for simple answers to complex questions, and look! I have given you nothing.  No concrete strategies, no clear definitions.  I have not solved the problems of late-stage capitalist society in this keynote speech.

But there again, I suppose, is the dilemma, the grief, the tragedy, and the power of the archetypal transfeminine: She cannot escape from the fate of her politicization, the pressure to educate and edify.  Yet nor will she solve your problems for you.  Her body resists and exists for its own purposes.  We can learn something from her.  She reminds me, reminds you, reminds us, that the work of the storyteller is to invoke the sacred mystery of the human spirit, to provoke self-reflection and transformation.

Friends, feminists, colleagues. Storytellers, spellcasters, co-conspirators.  Witches, warriors, healers, and whores.  I honour you.  I invoke you.  And I ask you to remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

Remember who you are.

 

And sing / the story / of what we could become.

Of what we could become.

Of what we could become.

 

 

 

 

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