A Story of Which There is No Definition

A stream-of-consciousness post today. An unfinished rumination on how an artist decolonialises the craft and meaning of what a story is.

So I have just come out of reading Interview with An Empire, and bits and bobs of Lemon Hound magazine’s archives – and my mind is now swimming, wondering, wandering in this new sea of story possibilities; of new ways in which a decolonialised story can be made and then accepted as itself with no regard or deference to the Colonialism of past, present and future.

(Thoughts in my mind these days: ambivalence on the power of stories; the amount of care and gentleness that is demanded from oneself when we’re carrying the legacy of a dozen cultures, particularly the white colonial one because of its dangers; rowing my funny artist boat further and further away from the eyes of expectation, building my own unquestioned paradise instead, to be received and never questioned – like the artistic men of long ago, so shall this privilege be for me)

I’ve been worried for a while that Alexander Comic would be confusing (and therefore be seen as Bad), because of its particular narrative structure – which is a weird combination of my natural kishotenketsu, Ursula K LeGuin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory’, the big ambition of decolonialisation, and intertextuality (due to the source materials).

What this then looks like, or what will look like, on the page is a non-linear story that makes liberal use of flashbacks (theme: memory) and reimaginations of both myself and the storytellers before me (theme: legacy). Both memory and legacy call-and-respond to construct larger messages. Something about legacy. Something about history. Something that embodies the Carrier Bag Theory and what it says about events that inhabits space-time.

Le Guin’s carrier bag is, in addition to a story about early humans, a method for storytelling itself, meaning it’s also a method of history. But unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff.

Siobhan Leddy – in the article I linked about about the Carrier Bag Theory

So yes, I have my bag (my story). I have my stuff (my characters and my research). Despite the jumble, there is definitely an order, a system, a logic, albeilt a loose one. But, will strangers who peek into my bag recognise this? What if, instead of a bag full of stuff that describes the owner’s idiosyncracies – may as well leave it be – , they see… a disaster zone?

“Yikes look at this trash! How are we supposed to make head or tails out of this? Let’s take all of this stuff out. Lay them in rows. Maybe we will sort them according to colour? Size? Type? The lipstick here, the box of Smarties there. Voila! See? The bag wasn’t helping you at all. May I interest you in a shelf instead?”

I suppose my anxiety comes from expecting this type of response. This strange obsession of the rational (white) West to linearise, categorise, simplify everything for the comfort of their own understanding. Anything that is a little wobbly or larger than what they define as ‘right’ and ‘correct’, they hurry to confine it. If unsuccessful – they will attempt to rationalise it, either by saying the offender is bad or exotic or both. The Platonic Ideal of this type of response can be found in a WASP review of a “foreign” person’s book or restaurant. “I came here for an authentic experience. Instead I found it to be unaccomodating of – even challenging – my expectations of what this experience should look like. 2/5 stars or worse.)

I’m reminded of the British characters in EM Forster’s Passage to India, living in little enclaves of whiteness, thinking that this constructed tranquility with brown people waiting hand and foot is what India is – then they step out to actual Indian life where colonial whiteness is uncentered (as much as possible), a rest of the country where India lives on her own terms, and suddenly they become afraid. The unfictional, modern equivalent would be most bagpackers in Indonesia or Langkawi or again, India. Of course, they are free to enjoy the niceties (afterall, we intentionally crafted it specially for them, in exchange for their money), but the reality of home always lurks behind the local’s customer service smiles, and these tourists would do well to remember that crafted experience and lived experience are not the same thing.

As someone in Kuala Lumpur, I live close to this theatre of colonial voyeuristic conflict everyday. Or maybe I am part of the backdrop? Anyway – my anxiety lies in the consequences of wanting to step away from this theatre, away from the circus act of (in the POV of the local) anticipating the gwailo’s response and adapting my experiences to fit their schema. All this moving away so I can build an experience on my own terms instead.

M. NourbeSe Phillip’s interview presents stunning model to follow. It’s hilarious (if a bit awkward) to see her tear apart the interviewer, leaving no room for confining. The result is an interview full of insights. She talks about silence and consumption, about taking language for granted and how to express experiences that English as a language was not developed for. What strikes me most is how she describes the act of decolonialising as ‘decontamination’.

I believe some poets begin from a position where they take language as a given. Others, like myself, have a profound distrust of language. This may seem like an extremely odd position—it’s like an artist distrusting colour, a sculptor distrusting stone, or a musician distrusting sound. With one difference. Neither the painter nor the sculptor nor the musician needs his medium to function on a daily basis. We all need words and language to function. We are told it is what makes us human. But in its day-to-day use this very language is very much devalued coinage. This is the same medium that is used to sell us goods we don’t want and, through political half-truths and lies, to convince us that what we know to be the truth is not really the truth. In general one of the most insidious uses of language is to separate us from a sense of integrity and wholeness. Essentially what I’m saying is that the potential seductiveness of language is dangerous. I believe many of those poets who are described as language poets begin from this premise. But for me there is another layer of distrust—historical distrust, if you will. After all, this was a language that the European forced upon the African in the New World. So that the exploitative plantation machine could be more efficiently run. It was a language of commands, orders, punishments. This language—english in my case, but it applies to all the languages of those European countries involved in the colonialist project—was never intended or developed with me or my kind in mind. It spoke of my non-being. It encapsulated my chattel status. And irony of all ironies, it is the only language in which I can now function. And therein lies the conundrum—“english is my mother tongue,” but it is also “my father tongue” (She Tries her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks).2 I begin from a position of extreme distrust of language and do not believe that english—or any European language, for that matter—can truly speak our truths without the language in question being put through some sort of transformative process. A decontaminating process is probably more accurate, since a language as deeply implicated in imperialism as english has been cannot but be contaminated by such a history and experience.

Which is true – when I am engaging in decolonialisation, what I am doing is akin to the act of decontamination. I am taking out whitewashing, imperialist propaganda, Orientalism, binary thinking, the monomyth, Great Man Heroics, the idea of sin, and countless embellishments. I take out these filters so I can decategorise, delinearise, dismantle everything. But it’s also crucial to note that I’m not doing this with the goal of uncovering a Fabled Pure Untainted Past (which is colonial, fascist thinking btw). What I want instead is to see blemishes, confusions, complexities, contradictions, dirt. The big jumbled mess of stuff.

Maybe instead of decontamination, restoration is the word. To see the object as it should be treated in consideration of its context, and to respect it by removing the ‘corrections’, leaving it honest.

Or maybe it’s decoupling. Separating the colonial grit away from the object. Though I’ll perhaps leave the threads of glue visible, to show that they lived in three phases: once separated, once conjoined and finally separated.

(One of my friends on the Historical Comics Discord server said something to this effect: rather than focus on returning to a glorified past — to perhaps a system that may not necessarily be better than the present one — , it’s perhaps more productive to understand what we had before and what we have now. From there, we can think about how we move forward to a better future. Basically, it’s a shift of attitude from longing for the past towards hope for the future.)

But I’ll have all this stuff lying over the place. In the case of Alexander Comic, it’s a lot of stuff. Too much. So what I have done is put them in a bag, so they can exist together in the meantime. Reach your hand in it, like you would a sack of beans. What you will pull out will be unexpected. And your hands won’t be clean.

And that’s fine.

And that’s the joy of it. The beauty and pleasure and splendour of it. Accepting and relishing in the experience on its own terms.

And if in the end, you don’t enjoy it? That’s fine too.

I’m reminded of a tweet from long ago, aimed at Westerns eating non-Western food (or outsiders eating another culture’s food) for the first time:

In Thai, when we eat something that’s not to our taste, we don’t really say “I don’t like this” or “this is bad”. We say “I don’t know how to eat this” (กินไม่เป็น) Just a big tiny difference.

“I don’t know how to eat this” implies that no food, no cuisine is inherently bad. It leaves open a possibility that maybe, just maybe, if we learn how to appreciate it properly, we might even end up liking it. Might not be such a bad idea to start saying this in English too?

Pim Techamuanvivit (@chezpim), Nov 25, 2019

A story of which there is no definition is a story that resists categorisation. There are bits of different genres here, different influences there. It contains a mish-mash of whatever the artist wants to include in the work. It’s not neat. It’s not clean. It’s not necessarily for other people’s consumption either. Language, especially English, lacks the words to define it, to call it a name.

But it is in this inability to define it that worries a language like English. If they can’t define it, they try to beat it into a shape that resembles a pleasant word they are familiar with. If not, it’s Bad. Exotic. Savage. In English, there’s no room for the ‘I don’t know’.

I think learning to embrace the lack of… hm, easyness? definition? in Alexander Comic has been vital in not only decolonising its story, but also my authorship. That’s not to say I’m going to forsake all good writing — just that I’m going to completely dedicate my craft and knowledge into making a book that doesn’t politely mold itself to any understanding of Western storytelling.

This here is the difference.

It’s not Bad because some people may not immediately get the work. It’s simply what it is, and it can be as simple as them not knowing how to appreciate it yet. That’s fine.

There’s a lot to explore in this realm, I think — which is why this post is called an unfinished rumination. Maybe it’ll never be finished at all.

And so it shall be.

Hello, hello

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.

Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur

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