My mother tells me that there are three phases of a woman’s life. Her voice carries like a whisper amongst the buzzing wind as she turns back to tending to her garden. I thought she was not going to say more but then I realize, she was thinking. The silence lingers, and I wait, not sure if I should stay. I can tell she was thinking very carefully about what she was going to say next and if I wasn’t such a deviant young girl, I would have left, knowing it’s disrespectful to contemplate her claim. Somehow she knew I was going to say something, so she continues, “a woman’s life consists of being a daughter, being a wife, and being a mother”. She tells me this because she thought I should know - from this moment on, she does not have a roadmap to help me. I was leaving for college in two weeks. I will be leaving the boundaries of my family for the first time, and it was not to become someone else’s daughter or to take on the role as a wife, and certainly not to be a mother. I never forget how the sun felt that day. The sun was hanging low against the pastel hues of reddish-grey and dancing specks of blue. I thought about how somewhere in the past, my mother stood under the same sky at the age of seventeen. She was probably still married to her first husband and expecting her second child, all the while fleeing the wrath and remnants of the Vietnam War. I thought about how maybe me leaving, being the first daughter to leave the house under unconventional circumstances, this was somehow scarier than her life at seventeen. It’s weird to think that my mother somehow saw me courageous in my decision to go to college but yet the same courage is reflected in her at the age of seventeen. And somehow in the displacement of time and space, we are more alike in our uncertainty of the future then we are different in our places in life.
I thought about this when I went I confronted displacement. In Trinh (1989) explanation of “infinite play of empty mirrors”, she says “here reality is not reconstituted, it is put into pieces so as to allow another world to rebuild (keep on unbuilding and rebuilding) itself with its debris” (p. 22-23). So, when I say I went to confront displacement, it did not exist in a space or a place, it took turning around to embrace a familiar shadow. This shadow, stretching itself throughout generations, it is something old and ancient. It knew my mother, and it knew my mother’s mother and her mother’s mother. Piecing things together is nothing new in women knowledge for the women in my family. In this culture, we share generational displacement. Hence, rebuilding with debris is both lonely and beautiful because it has remnants of what once was and never to be again, and traces of new and transformative possibilities.
And in the attempt to rebuild from the debris, I have discovered something that should have never been mine but have always belonged to me. My hands have not only adopted the visual traditions of my mother but now, I have also stolen the skills of the White man. Trinh (1989) explains “Learned women have often been described in terms one might use in describing a thief. Being able to read and write, a learned woman robs man of his creativity. “ (p. 19). So, as I left home at seventeen, I took the next four years to steal something that was not mine, but I would argue always belonged to me. I challenged the composition of Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, painted the frivolous colors of life in the high courts of French Baroque art, traveled to meet the gothic architecture of Medieval Europe, and held the same brushes as Monet, the painter of light. After all of this, only to learn, you see, that being an artist at the very core is about feeling/seeing/understanding the world.
Feeling the world, belongs to me, I couldn’t have stolen it? Yet, many patrons who have met me has been confused that I am a woman. They ask who I try to imitate. They question why I dabble at the boy’s table. They challenge, why so bold and unforgiving with your colors. Because as Trinh said, this is writing through the body. I have learned through the eyes of my oppressors but my body remembers the traditions of my mother. And back and forth, like something existing in an echo chamber, I search to piece together which part of me comes from my mother, which part of me comes from my great-grandmother, and which part of me is the reflection of the White man. Entangling, fighting, fusing, sometimes I am surprised by what becomes of it.
Stealing works like an insidious bargain, especially in this society where things and people have prices and ownership. I remember my mom saying, even a tree rooted to the earth can be given away at the request of man’s will. But from whom does he steal from? I say he doesn’t steal because you can’t steal something that belongs to everyone. I say he bars people from it. Thinking to Cecelia Capture whose story broke my heart this week, I am confronted with the question of whether dislocation is being empty of something or being removed/barred from what makes us whole. Not knowing how to answer this train of thought, I offer a different story. This reminds me of planting new seedlings with my mother. She always spaces the seedlings apart even though I explained to her that according to math, she could work less and grow more if she fills the gaps between the seedlings with more seedlings. She explained to me that overcrowding actually makes the plant weak and room is needed for this particular plant to grow. I suppose some of us feel the need to fill the empty spaces in between and some of us prefer the space as it is for new and transformative possibilities.
Trinh, T. M. (1989). Woman, native, other: Writing postcoloniality and feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Hale, J. C. (1987). The jailing of cecelia capture. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.