“I originally wanted to write about the mind and thinking:
but more than write about thinking, I wanted actually to think it, do it,
while writing, to the extent that that was possible”
I want to start everything in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is not where I lived nor where I was born, but it is where I remember most things. Ann Arbor, Michigan was the place I fell in love with a girl for the first time and the place where I decided it was okay to buy chocolates and eat them and the place where I learned how to read a poem with voice. I want to start everything in a place where it is summer, two summers ago exactly, and then I want to start everything now. I want to rebuild the layers that helped found me because there is something so beautiful in seeing the structures you have made of yourself. So I could start in Toluca, Mexico, where I was born, or I could start at Harvard, where I am living, but I want to start in Ann Arbor, Michigan, because this is a story of becoming a lover.
When you taste your first poem, there is nothing more blue-fuzzy-naked in the world. There is nothing more concrete or vague or sparkled and dusted and float. When you taste your first poem, you taste the poem saying to you that she knows nothing and everything about you. When you taste your first pome, you taste the way she laughs and the way she will peel an orange and the way the orange will crush in her mouth like a foreign fruit. When you taste your first poem everything will be foreign; she will be foreign, you will be a stranger within a line that eats another line. But the poem will not worry that you are a stranger, and if you listen, she will tell you with her hands that she would like to let you be her lover. And that is how it all begins. In Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And now we are sitting again in a circle, one familiar to the one I learned to know so well, and we are reading and discussing and learning and loving all over again. We, as students knowing nothing until we have first felt everything, will go home and draw or write or sculpt, and we will wonder what exactly this finality is. Until we have felt everything. The process of creation is the felt-everything; the finality of creation is to understand. From early September, I learned that Ann Arbor Michigan was really just a name for a place where I would learn to listen. I want to start in Ann Arbor Michigan because Ann Arbor Michigan happened again to me, and this time I learned to use my first piece of charcoal and listen to my first verses of a Quran and eat my first sweet piece of candy from Iran. It happened just as the tasting of the poem happened— with the peeling of the orange fruit, the crush, the hands of the narratives telling us that we could be their lovers. I am in a place, I am starting in a place, that is all, I will read this story again, all the hands in the world will lock together from far away, and I will taste this story again.
“Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look
the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity”
—Simone de Beauvoir
An important part of creating an art portfolio is keeping it— I think that though time is scarce, it is always a matter of allowing oneself to feel inspired. I think that the main object of “keeping” an art portfolio is to constantly search every surrounding and narrative for another piece, and whatever that piece should be, or wherever that piece should fit into, it means allowing yourself to be aware that these pieces are important. What I absolutely loved about keeping an art portfolio was that I felt like I was constantly on the lookout for clues to something I did not completely understand, but it felt so wonderful to explore and gain small bits of knowledge and input. What started happening was that I started searching for the truth in every narrative, but rather than becoming disappointed when the truth of one narrative clashed with the truth of another, I realized that this was part of the “fundamental ambiguity” that makes up our reality: narrative layered on top of narrative, story unfinished after the end, past told through the present, lives relived. Only through truly understanding the narratives that we read in class in raw light was I able to extrapolate from them — they were not my truth at this moment, but they were somebody’s truth at some moment. For example, the narrator of Persepolis had a completely different experience living in Iran than did the narrator of Jasmine and the Stars, but at the same time, that made neither experience more important than the other. It only made the reader’s understand and interpretation of Iran a multi-lateral one; an understanding which is grounded by two narratives and by the over-arching concept that even these two narratives have not done a whole country justice. And for that reason, they make up the collaborative truth of all our people, our people being those who have lived on this Earth and those who will live on this Earth. I do not think our collective truth should exclude anyone, not based on gender or race or culture or religion.
I was proud to be a woman in a class of women reading stories by women because the woman’s voice has often been the minority, the forgotten, the underrepresented. But it was equally as important for me to be a woman in a class with two males reading works by male authors because these voices also make up the societies we live in, and they are voices that are conscious and aware of their surroundings. The consciousness of the narrator only further provokes the consciousness of the reader who must understand that each story is another piece, another fragment of something worth noting.
We make up this collective truth, and we are keeping it, through art, through re-tellings. All we are is Ann Arbor relocated in the middle of somebody else’s heart, an orange peel turned yellow turned fluorescent, circling around this earth so someone will pick us up and take what we have to say as valid. And I think that every single story we read in this class, regardless of its literary merit or contextual expertise, was worth all the validity in the world. For this reason it is so crucial to “keep” the portfolio, to constantly give justice to that which has found the strength to share its voice with us.
“I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do
and as they have to do”
— Gertrude Stein
Creating these art pieces was an experience that reminded me of my poetry workshops two summers ago, but this was a much more independent experience, one where I was fully responsible for finding the time and materials to complete my art pieces. I was at first very alarmed because I knew no form of artwork besides written work; though I admired paintings and sculptures, I had never ventured to pick up a paintbrush, much less more complex materials. I thought that I could portray everything through words because I found it truly fascinating to see what words could do, I liked to let them take control, to say what I wanted to say their way. Words do things, and I knew this before I entered this class.
What I did not know when I entered this class was that my hands can do things, too, that a story told through words can be told again through charcoal lines and that both stories, if told with importance, will be just as important. What I did not know when I entered this class was how amazing it could feel to say something without words. I want to talk about my experience with creating two of my favorite non-prosaic pieces.
The first of these pieces is a series of brown tiles sketched with charcoal. I chose here to focus not so much on the role of a woman, but the role of the body in forms of a woman, which I find to be completely different. When laws are put in place to restrict the clothes a woman wears or the actions she is allowed to take, these laws are not enforced to restrict the woman, but to restrict the body; and the manifestation of the body takes its form from the idealization of what the body should be in the eyes of those making rules. Hence, the body becomes the body of the woman. In this piece, I began with a line, the first part of a body, and progressed until I had a person fully concealed. The objective of creating this piece would not have been clear to me if I would have chosen to write. The objective of creating this piece was to show how easily it is to find differences between bodies, to say what is normal and what is abnormal, to ostracize and to include. In this piece, the persons I created did not have eyes and could thus not be identified— but they had bodies, and could thus be universalized. This gave me as an artist an incredible amount of power. At the same time, it also allowed me, with some political motive, to give power back to those bodies that are stripped of agency.
The second piece that was important for me was my final piece, a collage based on photographs and posters of activist movements and activist women who truly motivate me. I suppose that this could be considered a “feminist” collage of some sorts, but I truly created it in response to the novel Madras on Rainy Days, where so many relevant topics truly motivated me to create a piece of art that could show the importance of these themes. I did not so much want to say “I believe that gay rights are important” or “I believe that women should have the right to choose,” but I wanted to say “look at all these people, these bodies, coming together to protect each other’s rights to solidarity.” To me, this is love.
“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country.
As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
― Virginia Woolf
A lot of my art pieces focused heavily on the narrative of a woman. This could be perhaps because I identity as a woman. Though I do not necessarily identify as a white, cis-gender woman, I am still a woman, and I still find my position as a woman one of the most powerful and vulnerable ones to exist in. For this reason I felt that it was just to explain why I chose to take a feminist perspective on some of my art pieces, and I would like to explain how it is not so much that I have created art that explains being a woman, but I have, through the voice of a muse or an artist, created a woman to explain art.
First, I would like to acknowledge that the quotes I have included in here are all by women, not to discount men of their incredible contributions to quote-giving, but to give merit to the women who have truly inspired me in my life. This is all personal bias and personal choice. I do it not with the political motive to spark distrust in men and their sayings, but to broadcast words by women who I believe are not as well-regarded or well-known as their male counterparts (for example, most everyone nows Jean Paul Sartre, but how many people read Simone de Beauvoir)?
Furthermore, I believe that I began creating more general art, but as I look back now, I realize how interestingly woven-in the feminine figure of my art-pieces truly was. For example, my first piece is a story of lovers, but in this story of lovers, I allowed the beloved to always be a female. This is how the Quran was explained to me in the first reading — as a female — and interestingly, I did not choose to challenge this view. Perhaps if I had challenged this, I would have created a different story, one of a woman trying to understand a man, and I wonder how different this would have been. Would it have been different?
I think that as my art progressed, and as I began to read more narratives, I also chose to frame my art as my story told in terms of another. I stopped attempting to mimic the idea of somebody else’s narrative, and I stopped forcing myself to summarize their ideas, but instead I took a foundational principle, one that stood out to me, and I used this principle to guide my pieces. For example, near the end, I wrote a short piece of prose about the character Zunaira and what happened to her after the end of the book, The Swallows of Kabul, wherein her fate was left ambiguous. I had truly attached myself to her character, not because she was a woman, but because she had so much agency, and I wanted to, after the end of the story, continue to give her this agency. This is when I simultaneously began to weave in my won story. I allowed Zunaira the possibility of falling in love with another woman, which is what I did in Ann Arbor, which is what I have done for two years, which has been truly the most wonderful experience of my life. I wanted Zunaira to fall in love because she is a human being, and I believe that in being somebody creating art that depicts the life of another, there is a form of love in being this artist, in using a muse. And I wanted her to be able to love without the restriction of being able to love only men. Herein is where I believe that sexuality can be fluid and that love is the most fluid of all — so why would I restrict part of my art from also experiencing the same fluidity which I so firmly believe in?
“We are amazing beings, Geryon is thinking. We are neighbors of fire.
And now time is rushing towards them where they stand side by side
with arms touching, immortality on their faces, night at their back”
In ending this reflection, I want to talk about the people in this course, who gave me the honor of listening to their narratives every Tuesday for three months. I will forever remember these people, their responses to literature, and most of all, their responses to every day life and occurrences. I have learned through this class to listen, and I am so grateful that learning to listen has brought me so much closer to these wonderful people. Thank you for a wonderful experience.
I will return to Ann Arbor again in December, though I have been there all along. I have been there and back, and I can taste the oranges following me. It’s funny how things work. How the body of the poem follows the body of the artist follows the body of the reader. How the body takes its power in the narrative, and how the narrative takes its power in the collective truth. “We are amazing beings, Geryon is thinking.” We are amazing stories. They are the first poem you’ll ever taste. All over again. In the summer two years ago, they are the first girl you fall in love with, and the love you learn to see in everything else after that. We are amazing stories, and I am thankful for the story and for the we. I am thankful that place can follow place, but I am mostly thankful that it does not have to.
I want to finish with Anne Carson because I started somewhere else: “And now time is rushing towards them where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces, night at their back.” After the tasting, after the hands, after the immortality of the narrative told-shaped-retold ten thousand times, I want to start everything again.