Correspondent Blows Deadline, Life Goes On
Forgive m—Nope! Damn it. I just broke one of my cardinal correspondence rules: never open with an apology.
How the heck are you? Me? Oh fine, just fine. Copacetic, really.
Say: is there still a pandemic going on in Dartmouth?
Yes: there is still a pandemic going on in Ottawa too.
I’m not a fan, Jamie. Not a fan.
Neither am I a fan of my writing record at the moment. I attempted NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words in November. NaNoWriJoe was just over 10,000. I’ve been reading quite a lot of good cultural criticism and creative nonfiction and expository essays by Black and Indigenous and European thinkers lately. But I have trouble synthesizing it into my own words. Work is steady but I’m not doing any freelance these days.
The writing I’ve been most ignoring however is responding to a three-page, handwritten letter on lined paper that starts with a DEAREST JOE, is dated April 5 2021, and ends with “And you should write me back I promise to not take another four months to respond. My absolute best wishes, Jamie.”
Aren’t I a stinker? It sounds a bit like you are a stinker too. So that’s fine—we deserve each other. But no, not really. You deserve an apology. And you deserve to get out of my to-do lists and my reminders: “write Jamie. Write Jamie!” I think my letter has now gone on long enough for me to ask for your forgiveness: I’m sorry for the silence and the wait.
How is your work going? I saw your great portrait of pomegranates and dried flowers for a song that came out just last week! How has the soundproofing in your new place held up?
Dude, do you remember how we met? In 2015, I knew you as the drummer for Scattered Clouds and as a working photographer. When I called you in 2016, you didn’t know me. Someone gave me your number as I frantically tried to find out the name of the bassist you’d played alongside the night before. I was under the not-completely-insignificant duress of a $15 deadline. My notes had Ben Caplan’s life partner’s name and yours but not the bassist’s. It wasn’t Phil; it wasn’t Luke. You were drumming that June night at the Ottawa Jazz Festival and his bassist was “Haligonian Jordan Stephens [who] danced with his bass as much as he played it.” You were in the band van, booming west to the next gig. Was it to the third show on a five-month-long, intercontinental musical tour for Caplan’s second album? I’m going to guess: yes.
Anyway, I found your number because you’re an Ottawa boy and I’m an Ottawa boy and I called you to get the bassist’s name and you said, oh yeah, it’s Jordan. And I guess we kept in touch. The details after that are fuzzy to me. Do you remember?
Six months later, I’m not sure how it happened, but I lured you to my house to take pictures of an abandoned maple syrup operation/training centre for a story that I was never able to write or sell. You referenced this in-person meeting in your April letter. You took many magnificent pictures of my dog. I use one of them as my Substack avatar without crediting you. (I’m a fucking stinker.) I took this picture of that time, five years ago:
It was Dec. 29. We went back to our place in Oxford Mills. We talked about art, photography, writing, civil rights, and reading. I think this is the only time we hung out, Jamie. The other moments we did meet in the flesh were brief: when you introduced me to the one and only Howard (who did all the talking) and when we saw each other at Cinqhole, in what feels like another world. I suppose it was.
In this new world, I would very much like to visit you out east and spend some more time together. Our second hang?
Here are some more pictures, of our new world:
That snowy December day in my living room: we had talked about Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin and other great Black writers. Well, listen to this. There are probably worse ways to discover someone’s writing, but it was a misquote that brought me to Audre Lorde.
During the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Phil Fontaine was speaking to an audience at the University of Ottawa and I was covering it. He talked about his life before politics and his life in politics all the way up to Grand Chief of the AFN, about his work with the Residential School Settlement Agreement, about Canada as an idea. And among the many things he said was this: “So I spent a few years in government, and in that period of time, I learned a lot: about how government operates, how politicians function within the parliamentary system that we have, and how decisions are reached, the budgetary process, how governments allocate funds, and all those important issues that had been absent in my life... And so those became useful tools for me. As they say about dismantling the master's house, right? You have to learn the tools to be able to accomplish that.”
“Shit,” I said.
That is not what “they” say. Shit. I couldn’t use what I thought was going to be a good quote. Just to be sure, I Googled: “the master’s tools the masters house” and the name Lorde came up. I’d never read her, but I knew the famous name of her famous speech turned essay: “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”. (Never is the key word here.)
Just to be safe, I downloaded the audiobook Sister, Outsider and I listened to it as I did dishes.
Well. Jamie. I’d been missing out. Because Audre Lorde was a titan.
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she wrote in 1979. “They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
I discovered in reading Lee Maracle and Taiaiake Alfred and in listening to last Thursday’s Canadaland Shortcuts with Ryan McMahon and Pam Palmater that Phil Fontaine meant to say what he did. He misquoted Lorde but he was saying what he believed to be true. He wanted to change the system from the inside, which is one way of doing things. He entered the establishment in the 1980s.
There is a history, most wonderfully told in Arthur Manuel’s Unsettling Canada, of how the U.S. civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s was instructive to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples north of their border in their own struggle from oppression. There is a great stepping-stone essay called “Learning from the 60s” by Lorde in which she describes how the civil rights movement evolved and helped other movements in her country in the 1970s. This stuff is all connected, because I think the great thinkers aren’t afraid to look far and wide for clues, stories, and instruction.
In the 1970s, Audre Lorde was establishing her own house and with her own tools in a time and a place that were aggressively hostile toward her: a Black, lesbian, warrior, poet doing her work. She saw no point in playing the games of those in charge. (She always lowercased america, which is excellent.) Her poem “A Litany for Survival” is about those who are systemically oppressed and excluded and who are then blamed for not being able to succeed:
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
If there’s one essay I’d recommend you read, Jamie, it’s 1997’s “The Transformation of Silence in Language and Action”. It’s in Sister, Outsider and in a new book called The Selected Works of Audre Lorde.
“Of what had I ever been afraid?”
she wondered, having been diagnosed with cancer and examining her life, seeing the things she regretted most were her silences.
“To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence…
“I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…
“And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, ‘Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.’”
(Her daughter seems like a boss too.)
“For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us.”
That’s what I’m doing here, Jamie.
“But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.
“And it is never without fear—of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgement, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective.”
The emphasis in italics there is mine.
Much of her writing seems perfectly geared to helping women, especially women of colour, so I feel somewhat strange in writing about it. This is a barrier I put in front of myself—and certain aspects of society have put in front of me too—for not writing about her. Why is this white boy talking about Black women’s matters? By thinking this way, I have boxed up my thoughts and boxed up Lorde’s and put them on different shelves, in different rooms.
Luckily, Ms. Lorde cut right to the core of that:
“...where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own. For instance, “I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing—their experience is so different from mine.” Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?... And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.”
“All the endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.” These are some of the words I’ve been looking for, especially to “examine them in their pertinence to our lives.”
It reminds me of that late adolescent search that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in Between the World and Me as he dove into libraries looking for a new history that doesn’t describe Black people as caricatures, as “beyond civilization”, as inferior. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” was the perfect example of what he was up against: it’s a “quip”, a “theory”, what the kids call a micro-aggression. It says ‘where are the great writers, the great poets and thinkers, of these black people? How can these inferior bodies produce anything that would be as important as the West’s White Father Leo Tolstoy?’
This “theory” was one of the endless ways in which Coates robbed himself of himself, because he spent a long time looking for “his Tolstoy”—he had accepted the premise of white supremacy. Luckily, he did finally find the proper response to the “quip” in an essay by Ralph Wiley: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus—unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”
Oh, and I just read this yesterday, from a library book that’s now 12 days overdue:
Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me. —Zora Neale Hurston
I could go on about dismantling the master’s house in my own mind, which is a real project I’ve been undertaking, but I think I’ve gone on too long. Thanks for reading.
You know, this was written as a letter to you but that’s really just artifice—this was a letter to me. Forgive me for that too. Okay. As soon as I hit publish on this newsletter, I’m going to print it out and comment in the margins with a bright green pen and mail it to you. The correspondence continues, perhaps more privately. Write me back, please.
My absolute best wishes,