About Laurelann

Laurelann Porter is a writer, performer, director, songstress, and filmmaker.

Snow on Mt. Graham

There was snow on Mount Graham today

I decided to go old school on the way to visit my parents.
I decided not to put on my playlist or my Pandora station.
I turned on the radio. Yes, the radio. The FM Tuner car radio.
I wasn’t even sure if it still worked. It did.
I mean. As well as any car radio works on a road trip.

Sometimes I do this because I feel like when I let chance determine my playlist, sometimes it includes a message from the universe for me.

It was a Saturday morning. Early for me.
Probably not that early for folks who work the weekend.
I guess the local radio stations are turning to a new business model.
During non-peak hours they just syndicate national DJs.
This DJ was broadcasting from Maryland, or DC or Delaware or something.
A listener emailed her with a request.
She said the world is in need of some forgiveness.
She quoted some lyrics from the song – I can’t remember now which one it was.
The song or the musician sounded familiar – like I probably knew it once.
Something about these troubled times.
It was from the 60s or 70s but it was still relevant today.

Forgiveness

I thought about forgiveness as a concept.
I thought about forgiveness in my life.
I thought about forgiveness as a process.
It’s not something that happens once and you’re done with it.
It’s a journey.
I thought about the people I still need to forgive.
The journey is longer for some than others.
It’s a work in progress.
I try to forgive myself for taking so long to forgive others.

Please stay

Next thing you know I’m out of the city and into the desert.
Approaching Superior, then Globe-Miami, and then the San Carlos reservation.
That song by Jackson Browne comes on.
It starts out slow. Just him and his piano.
He tries to make you believe it’s the end of a concert and everyone has already left.
(Except the roadies of course – they’re the first to come and the last to leave).
And he sits at his piano.
He tells the roadies:
“Just be sure you got it all set to go before you come for my piano.”
And I thought of my mother.
And how her piano has been the one constant thing in her life that has given her joy.
We knew when we moved her to Safford we had to bring the piano with her.
It’s there. Waiting for her to want to play again.
There’s always some excuse these days.
Then Jackson Browne starts in on that famous chorus.
“Oh won’t you stay just a little bit longer.”
It’s not ‘til later that I realize it was another white musician co-opting black music.
Turns out the original songwriters for that famous chorus were a Doo-wop group.
Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. Never heard of them.
And then he sings it again.
“Oh please, please stay, just a little bit more.”
Somehow I know that’s what my dad is going to say to me before I go.

And now I hit the Gila Valley.
There is snow on Mt. Graham today.

I forgive my dad for his awkward moments today.
Like when he says
“I think she is … what are we supposed to call them? Handicapped?”
Or when he says
“It was like a Mexican stand-off.”
We don’t have time today to unlearn his 81 years of cultural habits.
Or when he hugs me and says “Boy! You’re becoming a woman.”
Yes dad. For a while now.
No, that wasn’t awkward at all.
“You know my son is 22 years old and I’m turning 50 this year.”
“Oh jeez! Don’t scare me like that!”

Memories are loaded.

Driving to see my mother at the assisted living facility, I see the snow on Mt. Graham again.
I meet the husband of my mother’s caregiver, Micky Reyes.
Then I meet Amy, her caregiver. Really nice people. My mom is in good hands.
My dad and Micky joke about wanting to drive my dad’s little golf cart up the mountain to go fishing.
I’m pretty sure they know they won’t ever do it.
But they joke about it nonetheless.
This is my parents’ hometown. They grew up here.
I imagine my mother looking out the window at Mt. Graham as she was a kid washing dishes.
The memories are loaded.

We chat.
They are both over 80.
They are both reminiscing about times before I was alive.
It’s sweet to hear them talk about their fond memories.
I am not really part of those memories. But it’s nice to hear them share them.
Dad put a list on the wall at his front door.
“Here are all the countries Sharon has visited. Ask her about them.”
What a great way to encourage the conversation beyond “how’s the weather.”
When I was younger, that’s all my dad and I ever talked about. The weather.

There is snow on Mt. Graham today.
Sure enough, when I said to my dad, “I’d better get going.”
He said “You know you don’t have to.”
And I can almost hear that squeally voice from the song.
“Oh won’t you stay just a little bit longer. “
But I tell him, “No, I really do have to go. I have a lot of work to do.”

Gone for good

Driving away I see it once again.
There is snow on Mt. Graham today.
I think about stopping to take a photo of it, but I don’t.
I know there is a possibility I might never see snow on Mt. Graham again.
We never know when it’s gone for good.

 

Breakfast with Monkeys (a delayed note from the field)

I originally wrote this blog post in my journal back in June.  I debated about whether or not to post it.  Here it is, finally.

Breakfast with monkeys

Five years ago I was at a turning point. I had just been accepted into 2 PhD programs and had made the decision to accept the offer to enter the theatre & performance of the Americas program at ASU. So I quit both my teaching jobs, accepted a generous fellowship and began making plans.

Part of those plans was what to do with my summer of transition. My ex had recently decided to move back to Brazil and the new custody arrangement as ordered by the DR judge said that my son needed to visit his dad for at least 4 weeks in Brazil every summer.

There were still some trust issues. People were worried that Lucas might try to kidnap him and keep him in Brazil. I was not well informed about the nuances of custody law in Brazil but I had heard that the courts privilege Brazilian citizens and not the foreigner. I didn’t want to take any chances. So I decided to fly with my son to the drop-off point in the SP airport and I would pick him up in Curitiba for the return flight.

I knew I had 4 weeks to spend in Brazil and I didn’t want to spend it in Curitiba. I didn’t want to intrude in their space or their time together and I also wanted to have my own privacy, time and space to myself. I also knew I wanted to avoid Salvador because I needed a place that was peaceful, tranquil, safe and a place where I could relax and have a mental break before beginning the PhD journey.

So I started looking online for hostels in rural coastal areas of Bahia. I looked at every place from Porto Seguro to the beaches in the north of Bahia. I didn’t really have set criteria for what I needed. I decided I would go with my gut instinct.

So I came across a place called “Itacaré hostel.” As part of their album of photos showing the place, they had a picture of a small monkey (mico) sitting at one of the breakfast tables. That was it. I decided I wanted to have breakfast with monkeys.

I knew it was a completely silly and arbitrary reason to want to be there. But a few years prior I had fallen in love with the little micos when I saw them eat right out of my hands at a park in Rio on vacation back in 2001.

So I booked the hostel stay. Booked my plane ticket and got myself mentally prepared for what I believed would be a lovely trip to paradise. Part of this stems from that trip I took with my sister and my best friend back in 2001. We had collectively decided it was the best vacation of our lives and we even began to make plans to open a business called “Gringa Tours” where I would lead Americans on the “off-the-beaten-path” tourism vacations for those (like me) who like to avoid the obvious touristy choices. I wanted to take them where the locals go on vacation, low budget adventure style. At the time we called it “guerilla tourism.” Our tagline was going to be “When was the last time you dove head first into paradise?” We were going to see if Teva would sponsor us and the poster would be the backside of a woman, naked except for her Teva sandals.

Now I look back at those ideas and those plans and realize how problematic they are – for a variety of reasons relating to the historical deployment of words like “guerilla” and “paradise” and to the realities of power structures like colonialism, neo-liberalism and tourism.

That first trip to Itacaré 5 years ago was delightful. I fell in love and cried when I had to leave. On that first taxi drive from the airport in Ilhéus to Itacaré I marveled at the beautiful natural landscape of beaches and Mata Atlântico. The taxi driver told me how much of this area was a protected rain forest and people were not allowed to build. He touted the ideals of ecotourism and I believed him. For a few days. I saw the color-coded trash cans on the street and thought “What a great idea!”

Then I realized that the color-coded trash cans (for metal, glass, plastic, paper and organic material) were always empty. I knew something was strange and I thought perhaps my dissertation might be on the topic of “Performing Paradise” and the ways the façade and charade of eco-paradise are constructed and performed. I fell in love with the people, the climate, the slow pace of life and the natural beauty of the place. But I knew something more was at play.

I filed all that information in the back of my head and prepared to begin my PhD program. In the mean time the hostel owner’s husband said there was a local university that didn’t have a theatre program and I should see about getting a job there. I looked into it, found the website, learned there was a research nucleus dedicated to Afro-Brazilian culture, visited, sniffed around. Met a couple of people and began making connections that I hoped would pay off someday.

Each year on my summer vacation I returned to Itacaré. The second year I brought one of my best friends with me. He fell in love with the place as quickly as I did. We dreamed of purchasing a little piece of land somewhere for a retreat of healing arts. The third year I brought my partner with me. It was the first time he had ever been out of the country and I knew I needed to take special care to make sure he didn’t suffer from culture shock. He enjoyed the trip but he helped me question this idea of paradise. He has never been the kind of person who falls easily in love. His rational side still controls his life. We balance each other. But he was the one to point out to me the parallels to Erie, PA where he grew up and how the lack of industry resulted in what he was seeing as an economically depressed area. Sure, it had an incredible natural beauty, but he saw it as potentially a very depressing place to live if one had no opportunities for making a viable living. Of course I knew that there were economic and racial inequalities. Of course I knew that the people who worked in the tourism industry were paid well below what they are worth. And of course I knew the options for growth were limited, especially when career options revolved around service – a reinscription of the histories of this region which began as sugar and cocoa plantations operating on the basis of slave labor, through the age of coronelismo where white land owners operated their cocoa plantations in a mode not unlike sharecropping in the southern US to today’s tourism industry where mostly white landowners and politicians make obscene profits off the backs of underemployed bodies of color. But the comparison to depressed blue-collar towns in rural US hadn’t occurred to me before.

In the mean time my dissertation research has changed so many times it is almost not worth following the train of thought that brought me here. Needless to say, the prospectus that was approved in April of 2013 has already become almost completely irrelevant. All the book learning I did and the abstracted information I gleaned about Umbanda and healing and women fighting for social justice had to take a back seat when I followed the methodology of my mentor where I needed to be present and listen.

If a researcher tries hard enough, he or she will, of course, see what he or she wants to see. Classical scientific inquiry: set up a thesis question, enter the field, and prove it or disprove it. Immersion ethnography is different. It is also potentially more chaotic and more difficult because of the flexibility required for adjusting the research question to fit the realities of observed rather than manipulating the data or only selecting data that serves the research question. It has felt messy and chaotic. But the method requires we keep diligent about entering the field, utilizing thick description to try to see details we might normally miss as a casual observer and continuously question any moments where we might come to facile conclusions.

Lo and behold, as much as I thought I was not going to try to write about the constructions of the idea of paradise in the imaginations of the visitors, the theme keeps forcing itself into the work. Perhaps this is because I, myself, have had to question my own notions of “paradise” in order to question my own presence here, in this beautiful place that does not belong to me, and a place to which I do not belong.

In the mean time I am a performer. I make theatre and study theatre and performance. They are deeply engrained in my ways of knowing and being in the world. So I have done what I can to always be engaged in performance projects while here conducting this ethnographic fieldwork. I am now realizing these things are all woven together. I am here, fully engaged in this performance of paradise as a spectator, co-producer of meaning, and even a performer of what it means to be a foreign visitor here in a place that still reads as “paradise” under certain limited definitions.

Cut to: June 2, 2014, morning. As I was sitting on my front porch, on a beautiful Sunday morning, drinking coffee and enjoying my café da manhã, three micos decided (finally!) to come visit me. After five years I finally got to have breakfast with monkeys. Did they come sit right at my table? No. They remained at a safe distance while the neighbors downstairs fed banana da terra to them in the tree. Will they ever come right up to me with the ease and familiarity of a domesticated pet? Probably not.

Somehow I feel like this breakfast with the monkeys has brought a sense of closure to my journey through paradise. Does this mean I will never return? I hope not. I am still in love with Itacaré. But the honeymoon is over. It is a town full of problems. But now that my eyes are more open to the problems she faces…

Yes I refer to my beloved town as “she” I could lie and say it is because the word for cidade in Portuguese is feminine. But I’m afraid it’s because there is still a very problematic residual trace of the etymology of virgin lands being referred to as feminine bodies to be explored, exploited and perhaps tamed. I know this is a problem and I still think of her beauty and presence as feminine.

Now that my eyes are open, I have a strong desire to continue my relationship with her past the honeymoon stage. She is like a second home to me. There are people who live here who I think of as family. But I’m still an outsider. I know it is not my place as an outsider to try to come in with external solutions. It’s not even my place to question why. But I will do whatever I can to continue a committed presence: to listen, to offer help whenever and however I can when it is desired or requested.

As I reflect on yesterday’s breakfast with monkeys I realize that that desire to eat with them stems from a very problematic desire to gain some sort of intimacy with a complicated notion of paradise. Perhaps the monkeys were helping me say farewell to these notions of paradise. Or perhaps because I am looking toward the end (I’ve been here 4 and ½ months and have 7 weeks left) I am thinking of the ways to bid farewell.

For 2 years my advisors and committee members had been asking me why this place was so important to my research. Why there? Why those women? And for those two years I had tried to find external reasons that merely coincided with my desire to be here. But the true reasons is that I have grown an attachment to this place. It feels like a second home. It feels like a place where I want to be present.

In the Kàwé office there is a sign that says something to the effect of “Before you try to go out and save the world, walk around your house three times.” Perhaps my real reason for choosing this place was because I needed to question the touristic desire (and there is plenty of touristic desire for this place).

It takes a long time to establish trust and a relationship with a community. But I have realized I have done very little in my own home town of Tempe, AZ to establish trust and a relationship in my own community. Here in Itacaré I had to just go out on the street. Pound the pavement and just go talk to people. Just be present. Perhaps that is the most important thing I learned here. In order to be present I need to go out and pound the pavement. Take walks in my own neighborhood. Get to know my neighbors. In suburban sprawl this is a challenge. But perhaps it is the challenge I need.

Cheguei Chegando, Notes from the field #2

Cheguei Chegando.

I learned a new phrase this week.  Cheguei chegando.  Literally translated it means “I arrived, arriving.”  Doesn’t really mean anything by itself, right?  That’s why I barely noticed it when she said it.  She had to ask me if I knew what she meant when she said “Você chegou chegando, né?”  So she explained it to me.  When someone arrives in a setting, with fresh energy and brand new ideas, a vision, and plans to realize those visions and plans, they say “ela chegou chegando.”

 When she said it, she said it with a bit of a smile/smirk.  Not quite a compliment, not quite ridicule.  She seemed to be acknowledging good intentions while still making fun of the ingenuity of it all.  Then I realized why I have been so anxious to get started.  I was making plans based on a US American structure and system of getting things done.  In the states I always have several irons in the fire and I know how to get them done.  I always forget how things just move to a different rhythm here.  Yes, the hips sway in those samba, forró, and pagode rhythms frenetically, but life and business move at a much more relaxed pace.  No one is in any hurry to get things done or to help me get things done.  And why should they?

 I looked back at all my plans and goals for this period of 6 months and realized: “Oops.  Wow.  What was I thinking?”  She told me to relax, it’s summer vacation right now.  She suggested I wait til after carnaval to start my research.  I felt my jaw drop.  Wait until mid March?!?!?!  Then I went home and thought about it.  Took some time to write some reflective notes.  I sat there on my front veranda while two people I care about very much sat and painted with the cool evening breeze and some mellow electronica music giving us all inspiration to keep going.

 Then I made a list of all the things I had hoped to accomplish while I’m here.  Honestly, if I get only one thing on the list done it will be worthy of celebration.  But, of course, I am ever the over achiever.  I will always aim for more. 

 The next day I met a friend of a friend at one of the local watering holes.  She said he was a Canadian filmmaker.  So we sat and chatted.  I said “Marcela mentioned you are a filmmaker, what kind of films do you work on?”  He said “I don’t.  I’m retired.  I’m a recovering workaholic.  Work is a dirty word for me.”  Flash forward to me, 10 years from now.  Oh God, is that going to be me?  Here I am, chegando, chegando.  Will I ever just arrive?  He says when he comes here to spend three months he comes to do nothing … with a capital N.  I can’t think of a better place to do nothing.  He instructs his team of support people not to ever ever contact him by phone or by email unless the world is absolutely ending.  And even then, maybe not.

 So while I try diligently to get as many things on my fieldwork “to do list” done, I am also remembering something my dissertation co-chair has tried to teach us over and over again.  Be open to the situation, to what I can learn, and allow the work to emerge.  Don’t try to know in advance what you are going to learn before you even get there!   It’s difficult to try to let go of the idea of “getting things done” or “accomplishing” something.  I really just need to take things one day at a time.

 Can I even continue to have ambitious plans in this setting?  If so, what is the best way to act on those plans?  By what criteria should I judge the outcome?  And how do I best proceed in a way that doesn’t impose my beliefs and worldview onto a setting where those beliefs and worldviews might be irrelevant or even worse – damaging to the ecology of this social system?

 If I think back to Bateson’s Ecology of the Mind I remember that is the space BETWEEN things or the relationship between people and groups of people that holds the key to understanding how best to foster the healthiest ecology of a social system.  For now, I will just take things one day at a time and be grateful for each experience that offers me new insights about this particular setting.

Ever faithfully, em busca do axé.

Trans-Torno (Notes from the field #1)

Trans: Across

Torno: (Portuguese) I return, turn, go or come back; I give back, I send back or repay; I reply, answer, retort, translate, transform, render, change or convert.

Transtorno: (Portuguese) upset, disappointment, perturbation, confusion, trouble, derangement, adversity, misfortune.

Please don’t misunderstand the choice of words.  Things are fine.  But at the moment of the transitional journey from airport through Salvador to my final destination of Itacaré, there was certainly an upheaval, a confusion, and some perturbation all as part of the journey.

The drive from Salvador – it wasn’t until I described the drive to my partner in an email that I realized what a nightmare it was.  It started out pleasant enough.  We took the waiter’s advice and went along the coast to get from Piatã to the ferry station.  This, of course, meant we avoided the chaos of the city center and spent most of the drive admiring beautiful scenery in some of Salvador’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

Then the chaos hit.  As soon as we hit Mercado Modelo, where I thought I knew the rest of the way, where I’ve walked many times, the chaos entered and the panic crept in.  The signage in Salvador is horrible.  I’m sure there are plenty of other major cities across the globe with similar problems, like Boston.  If you don’t already know the way you shouldn’t be driving.  In this case it meant that one wrong turn means you are suddenly on a wild goose chase trying to get back to somewhere that looks familiar.  OVER and OVER and OVER again.  It also involves being ballsy and rolling down the window at every stoplight or slow spot in the road to yell out at anyone – another driver, a sober-looking pedestrian, a delivery man – how to get to the ferry boat station.

I had made wrong turns several times already, repeated at least 2 stretches of the journey twice and was finally on the correct road.  I found the ferry station.  I was frazzled, stressed, and jumpy.  But the line was long.  If I had slipped in behind the last car my tail end would have been in traffic.

So my sister suggested I “play the dumb card” and pull into the second lane which was completely open.  Apparently the dumb card, which has worked for me in the past, led to the greatest transtorno of the day.  When I pulled up to the front where the guards were letting cars line  up to get on the ferry, I stopped and asked where I was supposed to go if I wanted to get on the ferry with my car (which was a rental I had already endangered about a half dozen times). He said I was supposed to get to the back of the line.  I asked “But where?  There is no space.”  He said “Você vai ter que dar uma volta.” “But how?”  He guided me through backing up to get into the exit lane.  So I drove down the exit lane thinking there would be a space to slide right back into the entrance lane at the end.  No such luck at all.  And cars behind me were already honking.  But the thought of getting back into Salvador’s traffic to try to go all the way around the block nearly left me shaking.  I asked the moto-taxi dispatch guy in his yellow traffic vest what I could do.  He said “Você vai ter que dar uma volta.”  “Uma volta inteira? Ali?”  I pointed to the main traffic and the city block I’d have to circumvent again.  He looked around, skeptical, but just crazy enough to suggest it.  (Meanwhile cars behind me trying to exit were honking even more fiercely).

He said “ou … você vai ter que dar ré!”  Oh shit.  He was really suggesting it.  “Eu vou acalmar o trânsito, e você dá ré.”

Oh shit.  Never in my life do I need to relive those few moments.  It was probably only 30 seconds but it felt like 5 minutes.  I pulled a teensy bit into traffic then put the car in reverse; the car behind me still following closely behind nearly hit me.  As he skirted around me he yelled “Onde você tirou sua carteira, sua maluca!  Porra!”

Then I slowly reversed, in heavy Salvador traffic, the few yards backwards it took to get myself in place at the end of the line of cars waiting to get onto the ferry.  I was terrified but I wasn’t about to drive all the way around the block again.  “Yes, that just happened,”  I thought. A pedestrian walked by (presumably witnessed the whole thing) and I swore I thought I heard him say “… vai ter que pagar depois.”  Did I just inflict bad karma on my dissertation fieldwork?  I can’t think that way!

I’m not sure but I think at that very moment I might have reached into my pocket to grasp my blessing charm given to me by my dissertation co-chair and a group of awesome women fellow PhD students.  I decided to believe it was a blessing I got through it without killing someone and I offered a silent prayer of gratitude.

This wasn’t the end of the travel trans-torno.  In fact, it was just the beginning, unless of course you consider all the airport hassles to be the true beginning.  Why, why, why in the world did I imagine for a second that any connection in a Brazilian airport would be smooth?  But I digress…

Apparently the reason the ferry line was so long was because the 10:00am ferry had problems.  So they cancelled it and all the 10:00am cars were waiting for the 11:00am ferry.  We were told we would have to wait for the 12:00 ferry.  It was about 9:45 I think.  I asked if there was a safe place to park our car, thinking we could go walk around, maybe do a little sightseeing.    All of our luggage was piled up in clear view of anyone who might have had designs on our belongings.  He said “right here is as good a place as any.”  I took a deep breath and said to my sister and her partner “Are you ready for the news?” Yes.  I broke it to her that we were going to have to wait 2 hours in the hot sun with our car and I explained why.  She asked “Was there any good news?”  No.

Meanwhile, it appeared that the feira de São Joaquim was open, and it was right next to the ferry station.  I decided to get out of the car, asked my sister and her partner if they wouldn’t mind staying with the car while I walked around the feira.  They didn’t mind.

So I took a stroll.  The ritual objects for sale. The beautiful, ornate ceremonial clothing and fabrics for sale. The herbs. The grains. The statues with giant phalluses. The clay pots.  Everything.  It all felt oddly comforting to me – that amid all the chaos there was this place where the attention to detail in ritual could be accommodated.  I remembered my dear friend Augusto and thought about how he introduced me to this feira.  He said I couldn’t leave Salvador without going to the feira.  I almost felt he was strolling with me for a moment.

I reached the outdoor area and the vibe shifted.  It was mostly food vendors I saw: vegetables for the festa feasts, okra, onions, lots of different kinds of peppers.  And then a man approached me.  His eyes were reddish, sort of bloodshot, or maybe soaked in alcohol.  “Eh, filha de Iansã!  Vem conversar com a minha mãe! Ela tem uma carta para você!”  He seemed friendly enough but I was leery.  I didn’t feel confident that the red eyes were trustworthy.  I wasn’t sure what he was about.  I was fairly certain that they would want money to do a card reading.  I was certain I looked out of place, the word Gringa practically tattooed across my forehead.  But I told him “well, you’re not the first person who has said I am probably filha de Iansã, but I don’t think I want a card reading today.”  He said “Oh are you de Umbanda?”  I said “Well, I’m not confirmed in anything.  Thank you anyway.”  As I left I thought “Is that the card reading that would have told me who I had to pay for the trans-torno incident?”  Then I second guessed myself and thought maybe I was supposed to see through the card reading offer to avoid a window to something dark.  I’m not sure I’ll ever know but for now I seem none the worse for wear.

I went back to the car and suggested that my sister and her partner take a stroll through the feira.  This is probably the one and only time in their lives they would be able to see this place or anything like it.  So they did.  Cheryl had a really hard time passing the meat section.  She said the smell made her nauseous.  She couldn’t understand how all those dead animal parts could be just sitting out in the open air.  I hadn’t remembered the smell bothering me.  I wondered why her sense of smell was more acute than mine.  She talked about how weird it was to go outside and see all the live goats, rabbits, and Guinea hens for sale.  I hadn’t made it that far apparently.  She asked what people would buy them for.  I told her it was my understanding that they were purchased to be prepared for the ritual meal.  I likened it to Thanksgiving, only they kill the animal themselves instead of buying it prepared at a supermarket.

I wasn’t sure how true that was or how fair the comparison was but I felt strongly that I needed to dispel any notions of ritual goat’s head images they might be conjuring in their imaginations.

I knew she had enjoyed costume design in college and I asked her if she saw all the elaborate clothing and fabrics.  She said “well, I passed by one section briefly but it was right next to the meat so I didn’t linger.”

I wasn’t sure if I was perpetuating the exoticization of Candomblé and Umbanda or if I was helping to dispel stigma.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever know.  In any case we made it onto the 11:30 ferry and got to Bom Despacho on the island of Itaparica at about 12:30.

There is more to the story of the journey of transition into place – the 4 hour drive that was really 6; the “brand new highway” that was some of the worst driving conditions I’ve ever been in (what the heck must it have been like before?!)  But I’ll stop for now.  Suffice it to say there have been ample opportunities already to reflect on things like social access to infrastructure, my own implications of privilege and all that I take for granted.

Peace to you all as I remain faithfully em busca do axé.

Laurelann

A response to “Hôte Cuise”

Generative Reflections

Laurelann “Laurinha” Porter

wine

One week after my trip to Portugal (and one week back into the frenetic pace of life as a grad student) I sit over coffee and reflect on Generative Indirections at the Convento das Saudações in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.  These moments of generative reflections are crucial for my long term memory of the event to crystallize.  In the middle of the night on the first night of the conference I woke up at 4:00am, perhaps due to jet lag or perhaps because my own mind and body knew I needed a reflection of that first night more than I needed that extra couple of hours of sleep.

In that 4:00am delirium I made notes about conversations I had that I didn’t want to forget.  But now, one week later, I am wishing I would have made more notes on all the nuances, a little more thick description perhaps, because I find the details already fading from my mind.  This text is a humble attempt to retrace the experience in order to help crystallize the memories of the event and perhaps even generate reflections which will help me digest the tidbits of knowledge I was able to taste that night, and that whole week.

First and foremost, I must admit that I was received with such warm hospitality that I felt as if I was an honored guest even though I was “merely” a participant.  In addition to the friendly face waiting for me at the airport, the people who welcomed me at the convent seemed genuinely happy to meet me: great big smiles, eyes that seemed truly interested in knowing what I was about.  These small gestures helped establish what I felt the entire five days, a sort of anti-hierarchy hierarchy. Invited guests and participants all ate together, gathered together, drank wine together, and shared stories, thoughts, reflections, and possibilities for new ways of thinking.

In preparation for Hôte Cuisine, a “performance-dinner” curated and directed by Chef Rø, participants and guests were all invited to help in the preparations.  It is my understanding that a core group of generous helpers spent hours in the kitchen while an equally generous Teresa Fradique drove me into the village to try to find and purchase some essentials to get by until the airport delivered my lost luggage.  When I finally arrived in the kitchen area to help, sporting my new flip flops from the supermarket and freshly cut T-shirt out of the airport’s emergency overnight kit, the kitchen and dinner areas were abuzz.  The wine was already open and folks were indulging.  After more than 24 hours in transit through various airports, I wasted no time asking one of the participants to pour me a glass while he was at it.

I have cooked for large dinner parties before but never on the scale of Chef Rø’s Hôte Cuiusine event.  He organized this dinner, and lunches for the rest of the week, for more than 50 people.  And there were leftovers after every meal, a sign of a successful meal in my book.  When I entertain in my home, my goal is never to let anyone go hungry, to always have plenty.  Plenty here means abundance, not the plenty that merely means “sufficient.” Chef Rø produced abundance beautifully.  This act of hospitality helped continue the feeling of anti-hierarchy hierarchy that I felt when I first entered.  So, while I did not specifically make a note of who helped in the kitchen and who did not, I never felt exploited when I offered to help nor did I sense that there was anyone shirking responsibilities.  There was almost a feeling of camaraderie among those of us who volunteered for the “dirty work” of cleaning the guts out of the sardines for one of the main dishes.  Yes, our hands reeked of fish by the time we were finished, but our cheeks were warm from wine at the same time.  Somehow, the wine never ran out.  I’m not sure if some hidden messiah was in a back room of the convent transforming water into wine or if the conference organizers simply did a great job of estimating how much this group of scholars and performers would imbibe.  In any case, the event was produced as an act of hospitality and abundance.

That theme of hospitality came up several times over the course of the week.  Ricardo Seiça Salgado referred to it in his introduction to the next morning’s plenary.  He referred to it as “hospitality as practice, as a mode of being; the practice of being, doing, and relating.”    The first night it came up in my conversation I had with Maria Paula Menezes while we were waiting for the gazpacho to be served.  While the aromas of the kitchen tantalized our senses, we spoke of flavors as a way of knowing.  We spoke of cooking and eating as the most effective ways of understanding other cultures.  In her plenary the next morning, she spoke of cooking as an act of love.  She commented that taste, touch and smell are senses that have been ignored by academia.  I remembered back to my first year in grad school where I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, to write about cooking as a metaphor for translation.  I thought perhaps I wanted to write an article (or even my dissertation) about trying to make the Brazilian dish, moqueca, for my US American friends, about how some ingredients are simply not available here and are therefore untranslatable to the palate.  They must be tasted and felt as they travel through the human organism.  Azeite de dendê is, after all, notorious for causing digestive trouble among people not used to its richness.  Perhaps the idea is not so brilliant.  Or perhaps others have written of it.  Or perhaps one day I will find a way to publish flavor.  Until then, my dissertation is on a different topic.  But the metaphors of cooking, flavors, and hospitality continue to influence my way of thinking.

fruit

As I sit here and try to remember the dinner and all of its courses, I am drawing a blank.  I certainly remember the gazpacho.  It was the first “course” of the sit-down portion of the meal.  I remember the delicious olives which had been marinating in garlic and oregano.  I remember thinking “oh so THIS is what Portuguese linguiça really tastes like!” when I sampled the sausage appetizer.  And I remember how beautiful the plate of fruit and cheese was.  The whole spread of appetizers made me feel as if I had, without a shadow of a doubt, arrived in a Mediterranean setting.  This, combined with the centuries-old setting of a convent in a castle almost gave me a sort of nostalgia for a time period I have never experienced.  A group of artists occupying a convent.  If it weren’t for the wifi, I might have felt as if I had traveled back in time.  Thank God for the wifi.  Nothing like constant access to the Internet to make us relinquish romanticized ideas about the past.

I know that there was a schedule set for the event and there were specific times delineated as when things were supposed to happen.  But this event was not meant to run on schedule.  How could it?  This is Portugal.  That night I understood where Brazil’s reputation for lateness came from.  But this event was not late.  It simply had a more relaxed relationship to time.  My dinner parties at home never run on time.  Why should I expect this one to do so?  I’m not even sure exactly what time it was when the gazpacho was finally served.  But I remember thinking that I probably didn’t need to eat any more after the soup.  But more courses were on their way.  I think I may have overheard a sarcastic comment from someone about how long it took to change to the next course.  But I don’t think anyone was actually bothered by it.  The event was produced to have a relaxed feel.  This is not New York.  Maaike Bleeker even commented as much in her plenary at the abandoned train station the next day.  Maria Paula Menezes, in her plenary the next morning emphasized the need to understand the possibilities for epistemologies of the global South, particularly in relation to time and productivity.  Boaventura Sousa Santos, in his “Epistemologies of the South”,  asks us to consider that possibly we need RearGuard theories instead of (or in addition to) VanGuard theories.  I know from my own experience that I easily get caught up in that frenetic pace of my workaholic life, always seeking to outdo myself in terms of productivity.  I was glad to be reminded that sometimes (or perhaps even most of the time) it is equally important to take these moments to have generative reflections on these experiences in order to be able to taste them fully, digest them, and have something come out the other side that isn’t just shit.

Ode to Augusto Omolú

Ode to Augusto Omolú

PART 1

June 4, 2013.  I read the news today …

A sketchy notification – on Facebook.  Could it be a hoax?

High off a joyful and inspiring writing retreat, happy to have been unplugged from the net for a few days.  I finally came down.

In transit – from one mountain retreat to another.  I landed in a little mom & pop taco shop in Show Low, Arizona.  It would be a good place to eat lunch and check emails.  55 emails waiting in my inbox.  It was $1 taco Tuesday after all.

Start at the bottom.  First in, first out.  I was very methodical.  Facebook.  Someone mentioned me on Facebook.  It was Tiago.  Boy, I haven’t heard from him in a while.  “…Augusto has been found dead this morning…”  No.  It had to be a hoax.  I wasn’t even sure Augusto was famous enough to have a hoax made about him.  The news sank quickly and deeply.

My dear friend, my mentor, my teacher, my collaborator … minha guia … was dead.  Murdered.

Just like that.

Waitress.  Food.  Can’t talk.  Can’t eat.  Choking.  I forced myself to figure out how to eat this food.  I’m sure in another world it tasted delicious.  Tears in my enchilada sauce – not bitter.  Not salty.  Not … anything.  Nothing.  I tasted nothing.  I kept wiping my tears away.  I didn’t want to make a scene.  But my tears had other plans.

I texted my lover.  I didn’t know what to do.  How could I drive through my tears?  I still had about an hour left to drive.  Somehow I thought if I could just make it to the New Mexico border I’d be ok.

Mike suggested I put my emotions in the corner for a while – just to get safely to my sister’s place.  I tried to imagine my emotions in the corner, sitting on a stool wearing a dunce cap.  No use.

I finished my food.

I paid.

I went to the restroom.

Washed my face.

I was determined to drive.

Just focus on the road.  Drink your red bull.  Make sure you don’t speed.

Focus on the road.  Drink your red bull.  Make sure you don’t speed.

It wasn’t the tears that were difficult to see through.  It was the pain in the solar plexus from the effort my psyche went through to keep the tears at bay.  I was determined to push on through.

Just focus on the road.  Drink your red bull.  Make sure you don’t speed.

45 minutes.

Springerville.

I was determined to push on through.

Just focus on the road.

Drink your red bull… but I finished my red bull 20 minutes ago.

I look up at the sky to the east, toward New Mexico.  Escudilla Bonita looks … bonita.  The clouds gather.

I reach my turnoff.  It’s a dirt road and the weather is so dry today.  Another car pulls off before me.  I hang back so as not to eat his dirt sandwich.

I focus on the destination. Drink in the scenery.  Make sure I don’t slide.

The clouds to the east are hovering.  They look like they are trying to cry.  But the tears just don’t quite reach the ground.  Just like my tears.  I wonder if my tear ducts are damaged.

I focus on the destination.  Drink in the scenery.  Make sure I don’t slide.

The road is bumpy, dry, dusty.  I make it to the New Mexico border.  Fire danger is high in Coyote Creek today.  The locals pronounce it KAI-oat.  We all hope the rains come soon.  I can’t wait for my tears to flow.

I focus on the destination.  Drink in the scenery.  Try not to slide.

Cheryl is not there but Paco is.  He asks me how I am and I can’t respond.  I manage to eke a hug out of him but Paco has never really been good at dealing with emotions.  I tell him I got some really sad news.  “I just heard a friend of mine in Brazil was murdered.”  Poor guy.  I don’t think he knows what to do with me, blubbering away about someone he doesn’t know.

“Oh, that’s too bad.”  He says in his quintessential Paco deadpan delivery.  He asks if I know the details.  Suddenly the details seem important.

They live off the grid, you see.  Internet is sketchy.  Cheryl comes home.  We hug.  I cry.  We spend a long time trying to get me online access.

I read about how he was found in his underwear Sunday morning by his empregada domestica.  I read about the facadas and the blood all over the house.

Cheryl asks “Are you sure you want to read this right now?”

I focus on the facts.  I drink in the details.  I try not to fill my heart with anger and hatred.

I remember the time when I was in Salvador with Augusto for a 3 week intensive dance seminar.  My debit card was cloned and they stole hundreds of dollars of mine before I could stop them.  I was fuming!  I told him there was no way I could do the work today.  Augusto told me to use that energy to harness Ogum.  He said today especially was the day I should be dancing the dances of the Orixás.  These are the times when the body and mind most need it.

And he was right.  I remember tearing across the dance floor with the moves of Ogum, Augusto yelling to me from across the room “Isso aí, Laurinha!  Pega aquela ladrão!”

We head to my niece’s house for dinner and to spend the night.  I need a drink.  I need a few.

On the drive there I cry silently while Cheryl tells me “Don’t let them take your joy away.  If you do, then the ones who did this to him will have won.”  She reminds me that life is about the living – that Augusto wouldn’t want to see me uncontrollably sobbing.

I reluctantly agree.  I hear Augusto in my head yelling “There is no cansaço!  There is only axé!” whenever I thought I couldn’t go on.  I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.  Who knew Sam Beckett and Augusto Omolú would connect in this odd way?  I imagine Augusto and Eugenio Barba traipsing around the near-dead tree, waiting for a Godot that will never come, bickering about how best to transform the world through theatre.

We get to my niece’s house and the wine begins to flow.  I am so grateful to be with them right now.  Their unconditional love is strong.  They try their best to cheer me up but they understand if I need to cry.

I focus on my family.  I drink my wine.  I try not to cave.

I try to get comfortably numb, but every once in a while I can’t control it.

In my mind Augusto was an invincible warrior.  I always felt safe when I was in his presence.  His family always made me feel safe, welcome, loved … as if I was a long lost cousin or something.  His name was Augusto Omolú.  Omolú: the Orixá of sickness and disease.  But in my eyes he was really Ogum – the warrior.  And I suppose he died a warrior’s death – riddled with knife wounds.  How could someone so strong, so invincible, so much at peace – with himself, with his community, with the universe – be taken down like this?

I focus on my family.  I drink my wine.  I try not to cave.

We eat.  We drink.  We enjoy each other’s loving presence.  We listen to music and dance with wild abandon.  Augusto would be smiling at our drunken revelries.

I focus on my family.  I drink my wine.  I try not to cave.

He was my dance teacher, my mentor, my friend, the one who introduced me to Afro-Brazilian culture, dance and religion.  His work on this earth was not complete.  My work with him was not complete.  I know I can still work with him in the spiritual realm but it hurts anyway.

In my logical mind I know he needs me to move on.  I know the grief I feel is for me and not for him.  But it doesn’t make the pain go away.

I spend time on the phone with my lover.  He lets me cry through my words.  He lets me moan about how wrong and unfair it all is.

I focus on his love for me.  I drink in his voice.  I try not to … I try to … I just try.

Day 2 was easier.  The pain was still there but the emotions were stable.  I owe it to Augusto to move through the grief and honor his memory by continuing the work I began with him.  I didn’t realize it at the time but there were several moments when he was with me at the retreat.  I am grateful that I unplugged for the retreat.  The news of his death would have prevented me from accomplishing the work that we did.  The work was inspiring and I believe Augusto was presiding.

I focus on the work.  I drink in life.  Make sure not to shirk the details.

These are the lessons I learned from the retreat.  And I believe these are the lessons Augusto is trying to teach me as I move through the grief of his untimely death.

Focus on the work.

Drink in life.

Don’t shirk the details.

Axé!

PART 2

The Work

I first met Augusto in 2005.  I went to a workshop he was teaching in Bristol, England.  Apparently I misjudged the distance between the London airport and Bristol.  I thought I could arrive in the early morning and catch a quick train to Bristol to catch day 1 of the workshop.  I thought “England is an island!  It can’t take THAT long to ride across it!”  So I arrived late and waited outside the dance studio at the Tobacco Factory.  The sounds coming from the studio were intense: the sounds of drums beating, bodies moving frenetically, and an occasional voice yelling out brief instructions.

When they finally opened the door, the workshop participants looked winded, sweaty, exhausted.  I was a little intimidated.  I entered and waited for an appropriate moment to approach him and introduce myself.

I told him I was there for the workshop and I apologized for missing the first day.  He smiled.  He seemed pleased I spoke Portuguese.  He told me it was his ritual to have a cold beer after a 4 hour workshop and asked if I’d like to join him.  I beamed.  In those brief moments I went from feeling intimidated by his imposing physical presence to feeling welcomed – as if I had found a long lost friend.  He, his wife, his translator and I shared a beer and laughed.  Actually we did this every day after the workshop.  Others often joined, but the four of us were the constants.

The next day my body was introduced to his version of the dances of the Orixás.  And I’ve never been the same.

I had the advantage of not being sore from the previous day’s work so I was able to keep up with all the others (mostly).  The work was intense physical work.  Through this work I was able to push myself further than I ever had before.  Every day was exhausting and painful.  There was even a moment where I had a strong sensation – in the middle of dancing across the floor – my body stopped responding to my brain’s signals.  My brain kept telling my legs to rise, to jump, to move.  But I couldn’t move.  AT ALL.  For a moment I thought I was dying.  The translator asked if I was ok.  I don’t even remember if I responded.  But after a few moments sitting and a few sips of water, my synapses began firing again.  I went back for more.

Every day after the workshop we would chat about the nature of the work over a beer.  Yes, these were moves from ritual dances, but they could be used in a secular setting as long as the proper respect was paid to their origins.  This was the first time I had encountered the Candomblé religion or anything from it.  I was fascinated by its guiding logic and how that logic could be applied to both theatre artists and to our social world.

In Augusto’s work, he explains that any human being can display attributes of any of the Orixás, the divine entities of the Candomblé religion.  As source work for performers it offers an entire language of embodied symbols which can be called upon to influence one’s characterization depending on the role being played.  Augusto calls this the “Dramaturgy of the Orixás.”  From a religious perspective, my memories of the conversation led me to believe that any human being could be influenced by any spirit entity at any time.  But the key to a healthy, fulfilling life was to understand which Orixá is the “dono da sua cabeça” and find ways to make sure your life is in balance in order to satisfy the Orixás and to avoid leaning too far in any one direction.  At the heart of this was the understanding that any human being is capable of both good and evil deeds.  This is where I developed my firm belief that this can be applied socially.  By understanding that all humans have the capacity for BOTH good and evil, we can begin to reach a deeper level of understanding for our fellow man.  It is very easy to demonize someone.  It is much more difficult to try to really understand someone with a completely different viewpoint.

If we understand a person’s destructive behavior as the result of an imbalance, we can begin to help others find the kind of balance which will reduce or eliminate the destructive behavior.

My personal goal in my work is to find the ways these ideas can be applied in my own particular flavor of socially embedded artistic praxis.

Augusto and I agreed wholeheartedly that his work needs to be brought to the US, and to Phoenix in particular.  But alas!  His physical presence will not be able to be part of the work.

After 5 intense days of grueling physical work and rich conversations over beers, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the time I spent getting to know Augusto Omolú.

PART 3

Continuing the work.

The second time I took his workshop I took the three week version in Salvador, Bahia.  One of the most intense three weeks of my life.  When I arrived at h is beach house in January of 2008 (the same beach house where he was so brutally murdered) I met the workshop organizers and the other participants, mostly Italians.  I was a day late because I missed my connecting flight in São Paulo.  I was able call him to let him know I would be delayed (this was the one and only time my cell phone ever worked in Brazil).  And it was such a joy to hear his voice “LAURINHA!” with such joy.  Was he this generous, warm and kind with all his students?  Perhaps.  But as the group was trying to determine where everyone would sleep, he made it clear “No, Laurinha vai dormir no meu quarto.”  And he gave me the key to his master suite.  He was staying in his family home in the city – closer to the workshop location.  I shared the suite with another one of his repeat-workshop students.  Maybe he understood how much we must appreciate the work to come back for more “punishment.”  Did I mention the work was physically intense?

If I haven’t mentioned it before, the work was intense.  Four hours a day again.  But the commute to and from the beach house was nearly 2 hours by bus – an hour by car on the days we rented the van as a group.  But the van was R$10 per person and the city bus was only 1 or 2 Reais.  Many of us were on tight budgets so we opted not to do everything on the basis of the “coletivo” and do some things on our own.

We were warned repeatedly by numerous people how dangerous Salvador was, especially at night, especially in Buraquinho where the beach house was.  But in reality, there was no one PLACE that was safe.  The safest “place” was during the day with a local as a tour guide.  Even so, at least 2 members of our group were mugged in broad daylight.  And one of our guides, a chocolate brown Baiano with green eyes – SWOON – said “Nem eu andaria sozinho a noite aqui em Buraquinho.”  And indeed, the news report I read of Augusto’s death indicated that the night Augusto was murdered he was out having a few drinks at his favorite local barzinho in Portão.  Then presumably he walked home alone and probably was followed.

He took me to that little bar a few times.  It was one of those humble, simple barzinhos like they have all over Brazil: a simple concrete storefront with a few metal or plastic tables and chairs on a sort of makeshift patio.  Nothing special but Augusto said it was his favorite bar in Salvador: his favorite place to hang out with friends; drink umas cervejas ou talvez ums “uisques” (whiskey).  I’ve walked from his beach house to this particular corner.  It takes about 30-40 minutes walking.  And by day no one ever bothered me.  But I was always warned never to do it at night.  If anyone could walk that path at night safely it would have been Augusto.  But even he was not safe.

When I visited him again in 2011 with a friend, Augusto and I talked about Buraquinho and Salvador and the increase of violent crimes in the area.  He said once upon a time Buraquinho was a humble little area – no urbanization, home to local fishermen.  And when you stroll the beaches of Buraquinho you can still feel its humble beginnings.  But too many people, too many real estate agents started building closed condominiums – making Buraquinho a target for crime.  When money comes in, thieves follow.  He lamented this shift.  He seemed conflicted.  On the one hand, there were improvements he wanted to make so that his Italian wife would be willing to move there and live with him.  But on the other hand, he had suffered several break-ins in the last few years and was unsure whether the money invested in improvements would be worth it.  And indeed from 2008 to 2011 the house was so different.  Windows were broken.  The back guest house was no longer habitable.  (The roof was caving in; doors were broken; and moss had taken over).  The front house was in mild disrepair.  Mosquitoes everywhere.  In fact, that’s where I picked up dengue fever in 2011.  I stayed there for about 10 days, sometimes alone, sometimes with him and his wife, sometimes with a party of dozens enjoying the company of Augusto and his generosity.  At the end of my stay there I felt like I had come down with some kind of cold or flu.  It wasn’t until I got to Rio that the urgent care center doctor told me I had dengue.

My friend Cary who was with me on this trip sensed right away there was something not quite right about Augusto’s house and felt uncomfortable staying there.  He was uncomfortable surrounded by barbed wire.  It felt like a prison to him rather than a means to keep the criminals out.  But it was more than that.  I think Cary sensed something about the place that wasn’t quite right.  He always has had a strong sense of intuition like that.  The chaotic party that lasted three days was really fun … for a while.  But after the first 24 hours he felt like he just didn’t have a space to feel safe and secure.  I totally understood his decision to leave and go to a hotel.  Ironically, of all the places I have been to in Brazil, Salvador is the only place where I felt like I needed to be on my guard.  For a while I thought it was because I was so obviously a “gringa” but I think there is more.

During the three week workshop in 2008, I came to understand a little more about Augusto’s life in Bahia.  He had a family home in Cidade Nova that he helped build.  He took me there to visit on the first day of Carnaval at the end of our three week intensive.  Once again, everyone said it was “so dangerous” there.  But I felt like it was a warm, loving community.  Augusto took me up to the rooftop to see the view and told me how he had brought Eugenio Barba up there years ago.  Apparently Eugenio looked out over the chaotic rooftops in this makeshift, unzoned residential area and said “This is what the work is all about.  THIS is beautiful.”  It wasn’t a slum or a favela.  But you could tell that there was very little municipal zoning responsible for residential construction. It was controlled chaos.  Very active in its visual aesthetic.

Eugenio Barba was born in Italy and spent the bulk of his adult years working out of his base in the tiny secluded town of Holstebro, Denmark.  This community in Salvador, Bahia was the antithesis of his life and background.  It was very urban, very dense, very exposed, and very much Afro-Brazilian – all qualities that I imagine had little to do with Eugenio Barba’s life and background.  This may help to explain why Barba has remained so dedicated to the idea of intercultural theatre and to his concept of “pre-expressive” gestures and universal truths.  I understood, at that moment, Eugenio’s desire to forge new understandings between Europeans and historically marginalized others.  When I was asked to write a response about intercultural theatre and Augusto’s work as part of my take-home question for my doctoral comprehensive examination, this was the moment I kept in my mind as I navigated the heated discourse and politics surrounding intercultural theatre.

For those so inclined – here is a link to my take-home comps question essay.  It will help contextualize my desire as an academic to continue the work I began with Augusto.  http://www.academia.edu/3784838/Intercultural_theatre_-_Comprehensive_Exams_take-home_question_essay

To this day I have never seen Augusto perform live in a full production, not his Orô de Otelo nor any of his other work with the Odin.  I’ve seen him in workshops.  I’ve seen his work demonstrations. And I’ve seen him dance joyfully at one of the Muzenza events he took us to that glorious year in 2008.  He told me how much he loved Muzenza (one of the blocos Afros of Salvador’s Carnaval).  And I could see his devotion in his dance.  So when I read of their solemn performance at his funeral I could not hold back the tears.

I still have my Muzenza costume from that year when we danced with them during Carnaval.  I almost threw it out the other day because I never wear it.  Now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.  Mine was a modified costume.  I had the woman’s skirt but the man’s tunic and hat because I was too busty for the female costume.  That was the Saturday of Carnaval and I was so bummed I was going to have to leave early.  My flight left at 2:00am and I had to take a taxi at midnight so as not to miss my flight.  At midnight things were just getting started!  But Augusto had arranged for his friend, a taxi driver, to meet me at a particular location just off the path of the parade.  He already had my luggage.  To this day I can’t remember how that all worked out or how I found my way there.  But I was so sad to leave that place – that magical, mysterious, and yes, even a little frightening – place.

I want to go back but I don’t think I can do it alone.  This is a good motivator to continue the work in a spirit of collaboration with some of the wonderful people I met in Bahia as a result of knowing my Mestre, Augusto Omolú.Image

Radicalisms

Radicalisms

Yesterday was a challenging teacher-lady day.  I was responsible for leading a discussion on feminism(s) in theatre and media.  I hadn’t thought this would be such a challenge.  I teach Women in Film at a community college and felt that I could easily translate my techniques from that institution to the discussion section in dramatic analysis at the university where I am a Graduate Teaching Assistant.  I have always tried to approach discussions about feminisms in a non-threatening way.  Yet I also believe that some provocation is necessary in order to get people to really begin to question their handy, tidy, comfortable belief systems.  It’s a delicate balance and it doesn’t always come out the way I would like.

At the beginning of class I asked how many people consider themselves feminists.  Only a few did.  This didn’t actually surprise me.  But I was surprised to see that most of the hands that went up belonged to men.  I smiled inside.  I was glad to see that men are willing to openly identity as feminist.  I was optimistic for the discussion.  But, alas!  I should have been more cautious.

We discussed the backlash against feminism.  We discussed the differences between some of the various flavors of feminism: liberal feminism, cultural or radical feminism, and materialist or Marxist feminism.  I, perhaps unfairly, described – as a tenet of radical feminism – the strategy to acknowledge that there may, indeed, be some “essential” differences between men and women.   And that “P.S., female qualities are inherently better!”  That was where things started to go south.  Rather than acknowledging that a patriarchal system is inherently flawed and must be dismantled, the class fixated on the concept that women believing they are better than men is the same as sexism, only in reverse.

We discussed the term “feminazi” and its pejorative nature.  But I don’t think the majority of the class appreciated just how wrong, unfair and offensive the term is.  One student said he knows someone who all his friends call a feminazi because “she always tries to belittle men.  She is always putting them down.”  I asked the class what that would be called if the situation were reversed?  They all said “He’d be an asshole!”  What I had WANTED someone to say was that this is how things actually are for most women.  All the time.  Everywhere.  And it was happening right in front of me in my classroom.  I found out later that the loud voices and opinions from the male members of the class overwhelmed some of the voices of the women in the class.  The men were complaining that it wasn’t their fault and that people should just ignore the media and do what they want.  Everyone was agreeing that feminazis are bad.  The tendency for everyone (including women in the class) to want to play devil’s advocate apparently left at least one student frustrated and angry that so much blatant sexism and misogyny could exist in this classroom:  the very classroom where critical questions are supposed to be asked about how representations in media might affect the real lives of the public that consumes this media.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  I am a provocateur by nature.  I love to stimulate difficult conversations because I feel like those are the only ways people can be forced to look at themselves and really examine what they do and believe that might be comfortable, habitual, or might be a reflection of unrecognized privilege.  And quite often, people don’t really enjoy having their belief systems shaken up a bit.  It’s weird and uncomfortable.  And it should be!  But I believe that it is in those weird, uncomfortable moments that the seeds of real change can be planted.  I’ve tried most of my life to work other ways.  I’ve tried to tell people they were being ignorant and to just open their eyes and look around.  That doesn’t usually go over very well.  I’ve tried to show statistics and figures that prove my point.  But people are stubborn creatures.  They will stick to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  And of course, I’ve tried yelling at people I thought were stupid or ignorant, and, when that doesn’t work – just walking away.  None of those tactics has ever been particularly productive or useful.  So I provoke, instead.

Now, here is where it gets fuzzier.  The discussion has been on my mind ever since I left the classroom yesterday.  And the fact that one of the brightest and bravest young women in the class felt belittled and unsafe is only the beginning of why I can’t quite wrap my head around what is really wrong with the situation.  I ran through the script in my brain.  Where were the nuggets of evidence that might offer us ways to comprehend what was really at play?  It took me several hours.  And in fact it required sleeping on it.  But I think I figured it out.  It’s the radicalisms.  The overwhelming notion that “Radicals are bad, … mmm kay?”

Much of the conversation revolved around how radical feminists are in the extreme minority and therefore should not be linked to other women who merely want equality and safety and social justice.  Merely.  As if those are such tiny achievements.  We barely even got to the point of being able to talk about radicalism as an effective strategy.  The resistance to that concept was huge.  There was hemming and hawing.  There was shuffling and fidgeting.  And then I posed a question for which I miscalculated what the response might’ve been.  I asked “so, if you believe that radical actions are not the right way to handle injustice, what do you think of Malcolm X?”  Oh boy.  I opened a can of worms.  I can’t even remember how these underinformed young white men went so quickly from “Malcolm was too radical” through an uncritical comparison between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., to the flippant question “Wasn’t Malcolm X linked to those radical groups that wanted to bomb places?”  Another student chimed in with “You mean the Black Panthers?”  AAARRRGGHGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

I think that might actually be what I said.  Maybe not so loud.  But I almost had a panic attack.  I asked them if they even had ANY idea what they were talking about.  (Clearly they didn’t).  I told them the only reason the Black Panthers had that reputation was because that’s how they were portrayed in the mainstream media.  I didn’t even get a chance to say that the true name of the Black Panthers was The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense or that their main motivation for organizing was to provide for their communities which were generally either ignored (at best) or persecuted (at worst) by the official power structure.  I did ask them “So, you don’t think it was a legitimate strategy for Malcolm X to say “Hey white people, your structure isn’t working for us so we’re going to create our own structure over here, which will be better for us?”  I can’t remember what the responses to that were.  Maybe it was just a wall of blank stares.  Maybe they were still trying to determine how radical could be good.  Naahhh.  I don’t even think I can give them that much credit.  Maybe I’m a pessimist.  But there was sure some damn strong unrecognized privilege floating around that classroom.

Let me get back to the main point: the assumption that radicalism is, by its very nature, bad.  Pretty much everyone in the classroom, male and female, openly proclaimed to espouse the noble ideal of equality for all.  But as soon as the word radical came into the conversation, no one wanted to embrace it as her own.  One student even asked if we could stop referring to it as radical feminism and use the alternative term: cultural feminism, because it has fewer negative connotations.  It’s softer, right?  It implies women are willing to stay in their place if push comes to shove, right?  What does it imply, actually?  Does it imply that we are going to dismantle hegemonic patriarchy little by little?  In tiny steps?  Seductively, so it won’t be painful for the men?  And why didn’t I proclaim loudly and proudly in front of the whole class that I have been, and still am a radical feminist!  Why am I?  Because no meaningful change will EVER come to fruition by working within the system.  I think the last 40 years are a testament to that.  But I didn’t say that.  I didn’t think quickly enough on my feet.  Or maybe I was afraid of being seen as that angry, militant, bald, fat, ugly feminist teacher lady.  Shame on me.  Really.  Shame on me.  I’m supposed to be the role model, right?

This morning I asked myself “Why didn’t I think of Wonder Woman?”  Wonder Woman is pop culture’s most famous radical feminist.  Just look at Paradise Island.  Hello!?  Men weren’t even ALLOWED on the island because they were such a bad influence with their wars and their anger and their pride and their aggression and … well, you get my point.  But Wonder Woman is not considered a threat because she runs around in star-spangled underwear and a golden bustier.

I could go on.  But I’ve got work to do.  I could go on about the conversation surrounding the concepts of “slut-dropping” and “slut-shaming” but I won’t.  I could bring up the awkward assumptions behind the questions “Why do we have to spend TWO WEEKS on feminism?” or “Why do I have to listen to someone’s view if I don’t agree with it?”  Instead I’ll just quote Samuel L. Jackson from his latest meme.  “Wake the Fuck up!”  Radicalism is not negative.  It is not evil.  It is not automatically bad.  In fact, I would bet money that if you looked back through every single successful movement for social change in the last 100 years or so, it was the radicalists who actually got shit done.  Today is 10-11-12.  It’s coming out day.  I come out as a radical, gender-fluid, “smart-is-sexy” feminist woman.  The revolution begins today.