It has been four years since we moved to this home we have in Florence. Four years—more or less—since we set up my parents’ dining table from the flat in Dubai. Four years since we hung above it, the four seasons my mother made us carry back, from that family vacation to the Philippines.
(So much else too. Like later in that first year of Florenceness, when Andrew took my grandmother’s tick-tock-wind-up alarm-clock to be repaired by the man off Piazza del Carmine, and for a few days we let it tell us time, until we both agreed, reluctantly, that the ticking was too loud. Ever so much too loud.)
It has been four years and mostly nobody died in them, at least not literally, at least not whole people. (I am thinking, of course, of the way a relationship can die. Like a plant you do not water, a plant you over-prune, a plant you pull apart leaf by leaf with your bare hands, or sometimes someone else does.)
Nobody died even though I watched for it. (I am always watching for it.)
And then suddenly there was Ismail Mama, in September. Or suddenly anyway, there wasn’t. And suddenly I had no one I needed to remember to call every day after lunch while we brewed the coffee.
And now there is Shahida Phupo. Isn’t.
This week at the Poetry Foundation, we are doing a session on ritual. We talk of it as a thing that one does many times (like a prayer), or a thing that many do once (like marriage). Of ritual as practice and of ritual as play. Of ritual as a circle that may or may not intersect with habit. (Of habit as a thing you cultivate. And habit as a thing you wear.) Eventually I get to thinking about something Darwish said, or something anyway that one of his translators said he said, in the introduction to his Memory for Forgetfulness. Something like something about a poet being a poet in all the places in his life. Not just the places with line-breaks and not even just, I like to think, the places on the page. I go back to find it, and of course it’s a little different (and anyway I have told of this before), but along the way I find some other things, as usual and of course. Like when Darwish talks of wanting a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness, and the translator, Ibrahim Muhawi, points out that the Arabic root meaning “bearing witness,” shahida, also produces “gravestone” or “epitaph,” sha:hid, and “martyr,” shahi:d—words that echo throughout the work. Here, writing is history’s witness, its epitaph: both sha:hid.
I knew already, about the ways in which the martyrs and the witnesses walk so closely together, in the shahid of Arabic and Urdu.
And I knew too, though Muhawi does not mention it here, about the Persian... How does Agha Shahid Ali put it? He puts it like this:
They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, listen:
It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.
But I did not know about the gravestone.
This week I try to explain to a friend, one particular way in which this is hard, this losing of an aunt in another language. You leave the house and meet someone you know in Florence. They are Italian, of course. They are white. You tell them you have lost your aunt. They are sorry. They offer condolences. They are of course, truly sorry. But you can see in the space between where they stand and where you stand, both here on a street in Florence and in a dozen windblown verandahs across Karachi and Islamabad, that they have no idea and that you have no way to tell them.
Even as you say the word in English, it feels to you like a failed attempt at communication.
It feels to you like a cold and brusquely empty, echoing amphitheater of a word.
An aunt is not a khala, with the way the word serrates your tongue in the saying, mouth open anyway to the softnesses of those two long ‘ah’ sounds, like the softnesses of a mother’s sister.
An aunt is not a phupo, with the breezy cushion after that first p, and the stress on the second like a lollipop, like something that only a father’s sister is allowed to spoil you with.
Lindsay, when we lived together in New York, would tell me when I came home, “your aunt called.” Then she would try: “She said to tell you it was — [here she would pause to look at the Post-It, on which she’d written it out phonetically...] — ‘Shahida Phupo’. Did I say it right?” And when I would laugh and tell her she’d said it right, more or less, she would tell me what a fun thing it was to say. Like it was a name designed to be delightful in the mouth of a small child. Or some lovable and protective character in a bedtime story, all wrapped up in a hug. And I would think (maybe not exactly but in looking back I like to hope that I would think...), that I was lucky, or anyway special. For I had a Shahida Phupo, and a Shahida Phupo is not only, not even nearly only, an aunt.
In these days after, I look at old photographs. One comes across my screen, in which she is standing, newly remarried, in my parents’ living room in Karachi. Behind her on the wall, I can see the four seasons my mother made us carry back, from that family vacation to the Philippines.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 25 gennaio 2021 ore 21:02:05] [¶]
Yesterday, a good long talk with a friend in Germany, about capitalism, race, identity, belonging, and books. (Also about Fireman Sam, little boys who like to wear barrettes, and a recipe for meatballs.) We get to talking about Eula Biss, first by way of anti-vaxxers, then by way of capitalism, and finally by way of whiteness. I mention something I’d read in Biss’s Notes from No-Man’s Land years ago, about Biss trying to talk, both honestly and gently, to her very little boy about whiteness—his whiteness. And about her little boy’s despairing response—something about not wanting to “be on this team.” This morning, in wanting to send the excerpt to my friend, I go to look for it in my copy of Notes. But when I open up the book I find that this must have been one of those rare times I was reading without a pencil in hand—there is hardly anything I have marked up. (So, I think, tangentially. I must read this again...) In the end and anyway, it’s Google that sets me right. That conversation with her son was not in Notes from No-Man’s Land, but instead in “White Debt,” an essay that Biss wrote for the New York Times in 2015.
(Hard to see that “2015” and not marvel at that world, that year, that place. Remember 2015? Before Trump, before Salvini, before Brexit and Charlottesville. Before Floyd and Cooper and Schulz. Remember?)
This is the excerpt:
When he was 4, my son brought home a library book about the slaves who built the White House. I didn’t tell him that slaves once accounted for more wealth than all the industry in this country combined, or that slaves were, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “the down payment” on this country’s independence, or that freed slaves became, after the Civil War, “this country’s second mortgage.” Nonetheless, my overview of slavery and Jim Crow left my son worried about what it meant to be white, what legacy he had inherited. “I don’t want to be on this team,” he said, with his head in his hands. “You might be stuck on this team,” I told him, “but you don’t have to play by its rules.”
I have read this essay before. (Heck. I have even read some of the 644 comments...) The last time was likely somewhere in late 2017 or early 2018, after hearing Biss talk to Krista Tippett, about the essay itself, and about lots else around whiteness. About anger and trust and discomfort. About complacence and culpability. About guilt and responsibility.
We just cannot be silent on this subject.
But it’s been a while. (Like I said, remember 2015?) So today, I read the essay again. I come eventually, to her thoughts on Rachel Dolezal, and to this line:
If giving up whiteness is a privilege, what do you call hanging on to it?
I think of an epigraph to a book of poetry—Even this Page is White, by Vivek Shraya—that I read a few weeks ago:
if whiteness gains currency
by being unnoticed
then what does it mean
to notice whiteness?
Small world that it is, that line—If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness?—is a line from a paper by Sara Ahmed.
Small world that it is, that paper—“The Phenomenology of Whiteness”—was a foundational text for the very first project to come out of Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, On Whiteness.
I have been wanting for a couple of weeks now, to write about Shraya’s Even this Page is White. I stumbled upon it via the Sealey Challenge in August, but it was December by the time I finally ordered the book. Which was maybe a good thing, a perfect thing. Throughout the book, Shraya writes about what she calls “this year”—she is talking about 2016. But for me, reading her words at the end of the year that was 2020... Well, see for yourself. This is from Shraya’s prose piece “conversation with white friends” (because white people listen to white people):
One of the things that I’ve really struggled with, especially in the past year, is that in my social media feeds brown and black people are often posting links or commentary about racism or racial violence in the news but there is a kind of white silence.
...I do feel resentful when white people do or say nothing at all...
And this is from Shraya’s poem, “a dog named lavender”:
did you say that because
do i respond
how do i respond in a way that you will hear me
how do i respond without making you angry
(maybe it’s good for you to be uncomfortable)
And this is from “the truth about the race card”:
when you hold the cards keys gavels
unravelled, brown is not a barrier you are
and when you say don’t play the race card
you mean don’t call me white.
I read all this at the end of the year that was 2020. A year for me in which white silence—the white silence of my co-editors at the literary journal where I worked, the white silence of a close friend, the white silence of my own boyfriend in a conversation with his brother-in-law—all of it became a kind of deafening.
This has also been the year when I have been saying to white friends, it’s not enough to not be racist, I need you to step up.
Some days in 2020, it felt like all I could hear, and all that I had been hearing, for years now, was white silence.
Back in the Biss essay, there is this:
Nietzsche has the kind of disdain for guilt that many people now reserve for ‘‘white guilt’’ in particular. We seem to believe that the crime is not investing in whiteness but feeling badly about it.
Like many white people, [Nietzsche] regards guilt as a means of manipulation, a killjoy.
I think about this crime of feeling badly about whiteness. Of how much white people seem to hate to have to feel badly about whiteness. Their whiteness.
how do i respond without making you angry
How they seem in fact—or anyway in the fact of my experience—to become enraged at having to feel badly about whiteness.
you mean don’t call me white.
I have written about some of this already, in a shelf post about Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible. (I know, I know... How did I manage to talk race around a book by Elizabeth Strout? What can I tell you? Anything is possible.) I have written about that white friend of Claudia Rankine’s—the one in Just Us—who simply didn’t want to. The one who shrinks, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, from scenes where I’m asked, personally or generally, to feel bad as a white person... The one who resents being asked to feel shame, guilt, to do penance, to stand corrected, to sit down chastised.
And I have written about those white students in Toi Derricotte’s graduate and undergraduate poetry classes—the ones in The Black Notebooks—who feel isolated, excluded, bombarded, when diversity begins to be expressed. The ones who describe feeling defensive and determined not to be made to feel guilty, responsible, or ashamed.
And I have written about those white women in Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger”—the ones who hear a racist remark, resent what has been said, become filled with fury, and remain silent because they are afraid. The ones whose unexpressed anger lies within them like an undetonated device, usually to be hurled at the first woman of Color who talks about racism.
I have written about all this, before.
What would it look like, if I tried to diagram the ways in which white silence, comfort, and discomfort do and do not connect, intersect, and overlap? (And by comfort and discomfort, of course I mean theirs. But I mean ours too.) How would I lay Nietzsche’s guilt across or over or under this picture? And then Biss’s?
What I wanted to say when I first came here, what I wanted to think through, was how good it felt last night, to talk to a white friend about whiteness, and feel her turn towards the conversation, rather than away. Maybe it is because her husband is not white, and so the little boy that she is raising, is not white either. (Or at least and anyway, half-not.)
Maybe it is because she has read Robin DiAngelo and Ta-Nehisi Coates. And Baldwin and Evaristo. And so many others in between.
Or maybe it’s none of those things. Or not only those things.
Back in Vivek Shraya’s lovely book of poems, there is another epigraph. It comes before the line from Sara Ahmed. Though it’s not really an epigraph, now that I look at it. More a dedication. In at least one sense, it was the reason I bought the book:
for anyone who has lost
from saying the word
Earlier in the day yesterday, I spoke to a cousin who lives in Norway. We too, got to talking about race. I was interested to hear how it felt to be a brown person living in Oslo, and how similar or different it felt, to being a brown person living in Florence. Especially a brown person who, like me, had grown up in a world—Ali in Bahrain and me in Dubai—that was so racially and ethnically diverse that for us, it was white people who were the rarity. For us, it was white people who were the wondered-about, vague and veiled ‘other.’ They were still at the top of the totem pole, of course. (Like every other country on this planet, Bahrain and the UAE are absolutely defined by the effects—past and present—of empire, colonialism, and white supremacy.) But still. Over there, it was them we could have asked each other about, with a version of that question:
“Do you even have any white friends?”
Anyway. At a certain point, Ali and I were talking about what it feels like to be in a group—a meeting or a party or whatever—when everyone is white, except for you.
“Sometimes—maybe even most times—I don’t notice it,” Ali says. “It feels fine.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “Until it doesn’t.”
“Yeah,” he says. “That too.”
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[mercoledì 13 gennaio 2021 ore 21:01:14] [¶]