That’s how it goes. I write words down; I catch
the men red-handed- I should feel like the director
casting roles and doling out the good lines-
But instead I think of my literary foremothers
who swam deep into a foreign text- All that churned-
open water; and they like white caps making
One stroke at a time; one breath, one self-
bestowed permission, then the next-
An excerpt from Cuba Journal.
Two things happened to me recently that made me reconsider the turbulent vastness of language that can be spoken, scratched in dirt, bloodied onto walls, written, stuttered, laughed, gestured, sung. The first event was misreading a sign hammered into a tree in the gully behind Julie’s grandparent’s place. I read No Writing
The only time I was forbidden to write something was in grade 5 during my stint as a murder mystery writer, which my mother vetoed. “If your father knew what you were writing he’d kill you.”
Since grade 5 I’ve learned that people are killed for what they write. That there exist countries and times in which certain kinds of writing are ¡Prohibido! Or simply unusual. In small Cuban towns, for instance, where writing in public is startling, odd. Where signs do not advertize the building’s purpose nor the names of streets. No paint jazzes up the old colonial buildings, colourless in the midday heat.
I haven’t been persecuted for what I write, but I’m female and therefore part of the population that inserts itself into a language that has been dominated by the powerful few, the privileged, the patriarchy. Language has a long history of being exclusionary.
In the gully, sun slants through the trees and over the No Writing sign. I look down. There’s a pen in my hand, a journal on my lap. “I’ve found the birthplace of the gully,” says Julie. “I’m taking you there.” Her words fill the air, my journal. I write down gully, I write down cleft, cornfield, southwestern Ontario. I write oxbows and a muddy bank.
I imagine those words. They thrust me into the world they dictate. The word gully, for instance, could be a mound, a marker; it could harbour an underground spring. Writing-them-down sounds like hammering, like I’m nailing down their meanings. But there are layers of meaning like waves—one pulled over the top of the other—that make up language. Push-push-pull. Push-pull.
But even under threat, language, like the ocean, doesn’t lose heart.
No Hunting was what the sign really said. You know the kind. But it might have said No Writing. There’s a history of such times, such places. We all have signs to dismantle, names to undo. The second thing that shook up what I knew about language was falling into the ocean. Not diving, not walking, but arms-raised collapsing into the folding water like the lucky child into a father’s arms. Arms that hold, and hold up. I’d just arrived in Holguín, Cuba.
One of those last-minute travel agency sell-offs. Twenty-four hours to pack. Bob took care of the travel details, arranged the transport of the bicycles we took. Arranged to have Ernesto, a 24 year-old linguistics student whom Bob met on an earlier trip, meet us the first day. I thought travelling with Bob would be okay; I thought he was my friend.