We keep seeking signs of intelligent life in distant galaxies, despite Stephen Hawking’s sensible remark that ‘[w]e don't know much about aliens, but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilisations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced.’ What makes us so keen to encounter the extra-terrestrial other? Our tendency is, so often, to bristle when confronted with the human unknown, the foreign, or merely the dissimilar. Toni Morrison interrogates that instinct in her 2017 nonfiction book The Origin of Others, blending personal experience with an examination of the whitewashed, overwhelmingly male American literary canon. ‘What’, Morrison asks, ‘is the nature of Othering’s comfort, its allure, its power...? Is it the thrill of belonging…?’ Curiosity and genuine empathy, one hopes, are stronger than the competing impulse to adopt a defensive crouch and surround ourselves with the familiar and safe, the tried and true. Aliens could press ‘delete’ on our entire civilisation, or—we hold out hope—teach us invaluable tricks we are (literal rather than figurative) light-years away from discovering on our own. Either scenario is idle fantasy, and yet thrumming within us is an ability to be thrilled and inspired, for a change, not by what we can see and hear, but by what we cannot. The unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, of course. But it has much to teach us—and that’s as true of mundane things on terra firma as it is in outer space. What Voltaire said of the act of appreciation applies here: it ‘makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well’.
For the American poet Jane Hirshfield, reading the work of Paul Celan, Federico García Lorca, Czeslaw Milwosz and their contemporaries, as well as the experimental poets of California’s Bay Area in the 1980s and early ’90s, ‘expanded my comfort with less-spelled-out domains’, as she told an interviewer. Scandinavian, Eastern European and South American poets gave her ‘a more surreal imagination on one side and, on the other, in the kind of [poems] I think of as “pebbles”, poems that hold small, particular, somewhat stony chips of experience’. Hirshfield’s eight books of poetry include Given Sugar, Given Salt, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and After, shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize; she has also co-translated the work of Japanese classical-era women poets and written several volumes of essays. Her own poetry, attuned to themes of social justice and environmental awareness, and voraciously seeking common human experience, rings with clarity. The aforementioned Nobel Laureate Milosz praised her ‘profound empathy for the suffering of all living beings’. Hirshfield has a longstanding interest in biology and physics, and last year organised a Poets for Science contingent to participate in the Washington, D.C., March for Science, where she read ‘On the Fifth Day’, a poem that sounds an alarm in response to the removal of scientific information from the websites of U.S. federal agencies on 24 January 2017. Less confessional than universal, her poems embody the feeling that we are in it together. ‘In steep simplicity’, Hirshfield has said, ‘you can begin to feel inside your own skin the lives of others—other people, birds, fish, the bowl in your hand, the trees, deep time, the unstable and flammable earth. Boundary becomes a more provisional thing.’
Sapa, a trekking base in northwest Vietnam, is a conduit to some of the highest mountains on the Indochinese peninsula. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, where Fansipan, the country’s tallest peak at 3143 metres, pierces the clouds; terraced green and gold rice paddies quilt the steep valley walls; and trekkers thread their way through a profusion of raindrops. To get there, you can take the evening express from Hanoi, which deposits you in Lao Cai in time for breakfast. Then it’s 30 kilometres to the town of Sapa, which used to be a French colonial getaway and now hosts a mix of international tourists, local Vietnamese and hill tribes. The town has a bustling central market where textiles are sold cheek by jowl with actual cheeks and jowls at the wet-market. Hikers would do well to hire a guide from Sapa Sisters, a trekking business owned and run entirely by local Hmong women. Chi, Lang Yang, Lan Do and Zao know the region’s trails, bamboo forests and waterfalls intimately. Sapa Sisters also coordinate with area families to offer rustic homestays. Mountain-stretched muscles are grateful for simple bedrolls, mosquito nets and home-cooked food—and enquiring minds for the opportunity to glean an insight into the lives and perspectives of others. Hill tribe cuisine is a nose-to-tail affair, with many smoked and cured meats served hot and cold, chased by a tumbler or two of homemade ruou, a potent rice-based liquor.
Khairani Barokka, a London-based poet, visual artist and activist who was raised in Indonesia, tells a vivid and arresting story in her illustrated poem Indigenous Species. The style almost defies description: lines of poetry follow a bright ‘pink-orange-blue-green’ river that snakes through turquoise pages, one of several collage-like visual elements (the book also includes photographs, traditional motifs and 'glitch art'). Barokka’s tale is about a young girl abducted and smuggled upriver through a landscape scarred by polluted water, rubbish heaps, deforestation and blight. Her kidnappers are taking her into the deep jungle, a place they may not realise is her indigenous homeland—and therein lies her secret advantage and chance at escape. Barokka is interested in ableism, consumerism, habitat destruction and the toxic legacy of colonialism. Indigenous Species’ publisher, Tilted Axis, produced two editions of this incantatory text: one for blind readers featuring raised Braille and tactile, embossed imagery, and another for sighted readers that reminds them of an everyday blind spot by placing a ghostly, unraised, symbolic ‘Braille’ stamp on every other page. Themes of presence and loss are interwoven in every detail that is seen or unseen, felt or unfelt. As a child, Barokka witnessed rainforests burning across Indonesia; a decade later, one of her first jobs was to record sound effects for a BBC production in Kalimantan, the Indonesian territory on Borneo, where her equipment picked up the incessant whine of logging saws. These experiences inform Indigenous Species, whose array of visual and verbal tricks speak to the pain of erasure, whether it applies to treasured trees or female bodies. ‘I’ve always loved trees and rivers, being around them, trying to speak their language’, Barokka told Electric Literature. She wanted ‘a kidnapped young woman, tied up in a boat, to be powerful, to tell her own story.’
The Australian musician, composer and singer Evelyn Ida Morris released a self-titled album in April this year, having established a name and a dedicated audience, and having recorded four volumes of experimental pop under the name Pikelet. Newly divested of the moniker, Morris—a multi-instrumentalist who doesn’t identify as male or female—created a major work that expresses the vulnerability and celebrates the complexity of being non-binary. In their twenties, Morris played drums in the Melbourne punk bands True Radical Miracle and Baseball, ‘expressing a masculinity that I simplified to heaviness and toughness and aggression…the predominant simplification of masculinity.’ Meanwhile, the music Morris made as Pikelet felt ‘like a really simplified version of femininity. It’s pretty and it's delicate and it’s layered and harmonic’. Evelyn Ida Morris, distributed by Milk Records, is at once more cautious and more luscious—a suite of compositions for piano with rich chord structures described by the label as recalling Debussy and Ravel. One of few tracks with lyrics, ‘The Body Appears’, showcases Morris’s appealingly honest voice and tender yet frank wordings (‘How can my home be foreign?’ they sing. ‘How can my home be so lonesome? How can I call it my home?’). It is exemplary of the album’s complex, unresolved melodic flights, which hurtle forward with a sense of charge and momentum.
Raphaela Rosella is an Australian artist and documentary photographer whose work dismantles stereotypes of disenfranchised communities. The Brisbane-based Rosella grew up in Nimbin, New South Wales, where she witnessed overdoses and drug violence on the streets of her small community. ‘While there certainly was hardship, chaos and dysfunction’, she told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘I also experienced a strong sense of belonging.’ She often chooses as subjects her close friends and family, focusing on young women and young mothers, capturing moments of struggle as well as joy. When Rosella’s twin sister, then a teenager, revealed she was pregnant, Rosella told her to get an abortion. ‘I thought she could have a “better life”. But I soon questioned—what is a better life?’ Her work unflinchingly grapples with the reality that ‘for many disadvantaged youth, becoming a parent young may not be a “failure of planning”, but instead a tacit response to the limited choices and opportunities available to them...I guess I felt the need to investigate this issue, as it was a path I was expected to take.’ In 2015, Rosella was the recipient of a prestigious World Press Photo Award for portraiture, and in 2017 she was awarded the inaugural PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant. The intimacy of her pictures is earned, and can be felt, even in two dimensions; it collapses the cliché of the young mother as irresponsible, piteous and poverty-stricken, and offers instead a compassionate and clear-eyed witnessing.
The Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, who died in 2007, was known as the father of modern African cinema. He was nearly 40 when he started making films—before that, he’d been a popular novelist—and his 1966 feature debut, Black Girl, is a tight, strong story shot on a minimal budget. Beautiful young Diouana, played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, lives in Dakar, where she cares for the children of a wealthy white family. They want her to stay with them after they move to Antibes, and she is excited for a chance to explore ‘the mother country’. But when she arrives in France, she finds life there dull and dehumanising. Where her employers had a large staff in Dakar, now there is only Diouana, who is expected to pick up the slack and work as an all-purpose maid and cook. Madame tells her off for wearing high heels; she prepares and serves a meal for guests, and is ogled by one of the men; she leaves the apartment only to go to the market—without regular wages or days off, she can’t travel much farther. The film is a devastating portrait of postcolonial racism and psychic bondage still very much in effect. Madame remarks neutrally to her husband that their maid seems to be ‘wasting away’, but they make no attempt to alleviate her suffering. Sembène went on to make other notable films about African women and girls, such as Faat Kiné (2001) and Mooladé (2004). But Black Girl is the one for which he is best remembered, a pièce de resistance about the erosion of innocence that unfolds like Aeschylean tragedy.
The experimental German choreographer Sasha Waltz and 14 dancers will soon take over BAM in Brooklyn with a short run (2–5 November) of the electrifying Kreatur, which debuted in Berlin in 2017. Waltz’s Continu came to BAM in 2015; now she returns with choreography at once disciplined and explosive. Dancers’ upper bodies are entangled in pliant silvery nets that look almost like oversize pads of steel wool. They contend with shiny sheets of black plastic, manoeuvring around and underneath. They wrestle with and balance on a narrow plank and climb a roving, rotating set of stairs that resembles an analogue stairmaster churned by human hands. Kreatur examines the human body’s fraught relationship to power, and dichotomies that resist easy resolution, in life as well as in art—authority and subjection, self and other, self-love and self-hatred. The work is amplified by remarkable collaborators: the costumes, by the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, combine traditional craftsmanship with digital technologies to produce sculptural pieces of wearable art that sometimes cling to the body like a second skin, sometimes protrude like a futuristic suit of armour. Lighting design is by Urs Schönebaum, who has created environments for Marina Abramović, Michael Haneke and Robert Wilson. Finally, there is an industrial, atmospheric score by the Berlin- and New York–based trio Soundwalk Collective.
Carolyn Gaiser’s ‘Differences’ (1967) is a very short story about an unnamed young American couple living in Rome. The man is Jewish, his girlfriend is not, and she smarts at her exclusion from the shared experiences of his cultural identity and upbringing. ‘Without his glasses’, she thinks of her lover, soft in repose, ‘he seemed accessible, someone who could be talked to with understanding, without self-consciousness’, but his first words of the day are sharp: ‘What in Christ’s name do you think you’re doing?’ (She is warming her clothes over an electric heater.) She never regains her equilibrium, second-guessing all her thoughts and remarks as they make their way to breakfast at the Piazza del Popolo, where they regard ‘the obelisk with that proprietary admiration of people who have lived in a foreign country for more than a year and no longer feel obliged to react to every monument with lavish enthusiasm.’ She’s girding herself for his departure the next day to Israel, where he plans to work on a kibbutz. Over cappuccino and a stale bun, she assures him that she knows what it is to be Jewish: she went to grammar school with mostly Jewish kids; they were all richer than she was, taking horseback riding, piano and ballet, hosting parties in finished basements where they drank cream soda, and receiving extravagant bar and bat mitzvah gifts. Not surprisingly, this petulant speech fails to alleviate the tensions between them.
Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber
‘Those who are awake all live in the same world. Those who are asleep live in their own worlds.’