Fazeela Jiwa in Conversation with Rita Wong and Larissa Lai: sybil unrest

[June 9, 2014]

Fazeela Jiwa (FJ): sybil unrest was originally published by LINEBooks in 2008, and was just re-released by New Star Books late last year. In your acknowledgements you state that the poem began during the “fraught moment” of the 2003 SARS crisis and the American invasion of Iraq. Is there a similar contextual impetus for this new edition?

Rita Wong (RW): 10 years later, the crisis of capitalism continues, a chronic burden on the earth’s carrying capacity.

Larissa Lai (LL): 2013 was less about catalyzing events, and more about ongoing crisis, as Rita says: of capitalism, ecological destruction, human/human, and human/non-human relation. However, we also acknowledge the generous interest in our work that comes from readers, teachers, professors and writing community, and the co-operation between Line Books and New Star Books that gave rise to this new edition. As Jeff Derksen says, we are “personally happy, globally sad.” One of the things that Rita and I talk about sometimes is the concept of the “long now”, that is, that the events that affect human/human and human/nonhuman relation are often geologically slow in their unfolding, but no less serious for all that. So while writing may sometimes be catalyzed by fast and dramatic events, we try to stay attentive to slower, unfolding dynamics that often fall beneath the radar of ordinary perception, events that are not necessarily “sexy”, and not necessarily what the media needs to sell papers or draw clicks of the mouse or trackpad. Some of the faster events that belong to the long now might include the melting of polar ice, tectonic shifts as a consequence of fracking, the acidification of the ocean that leads to extinction of species. Also we are perpetually dealing with the slower, percolating outcomes of wars, governmental actions and policies of past centuries that still reverberate in the present: European enclosures of the commons, the seeking of the Northwest Passage, genocides in the Americas, slaveries, the Opium War… And also, fast and slow movements of human populations, disease, goods, cultures… These are messy, large things that can be felt out and thought out only in poetry.

FJ: The poem describes a range of complex geopolitical problems including environmental degradation, animal, human, and resource commodification and exploitation, corrupt and inept governance, and racism, among others. In the face of these tangled, multifaceted, and global issues, it seems to me that cultural discourses have increasingly taken up an apocalyptic mood (the differences in the covers of the two editions of sybil unrest perhaps being an example?). In this context, I found your consideration of inaction and complicity so moving. What are your thoughts on the condition of complicity, especially considering your self-placement as “uninvited guests on unceded territories”(123)? What does personal-political responsibility mean to you, materially?

RW: As I once wrote, “those who inherit war and colonialism cannot change the past, but what we can change is how we respond to that past, as well as how we choose to live the present.” This was in the introduction for Salish Seas, an anthology of text + image published by the Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast. Canadian citizens are born into a state where they are expected to be complicit with the violent history of colonialism, but many people refuse that dehumanizing and unethical position. To take personal-political responsibility in such a context means (1) educating yourself about the history of where you live; (2) working as an ally to support decolonizing and reindigenizing efforts, understanding that this is not only a responsibility but also a viable and desirable path to a future that materializes peace and justice, act by act, relationship by relationship, place by place, working from the ground on which we live, work, dream and play; (3) investing in economic redistribution—currently we live in a neoliberal economy that increasingly privatizes benefits (profit, etc) and socializes costs (pollution, etc). We need an economy that shifts the balance towards privatizing costs (ie. companies pay for the pollution they make) and socializing benefits (education, healthcare, etc). It is obscene that the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened so much in my lifetime. We need better ways of recognizing and valuing the shared commons.

LL: For the new cover, an image of the Delphic Sybil was considered, but it looked too weirdly European/Classical to really work for this book. Besides which when we say “sybil” we also mean “sibling”, “syllable”, “silly”, “civil”, “civilization”, “citizen” and all kinds of other things. And also we think of the 1973 book Sybil about the multiple personality /dissociative identity disorder of Shirley Ardell Mason. What I like about the new cover as it was eventually produced is that you can’t tell if the sun is rising or setting over those darkly industrial train tracks. Regarding your observations about the apocalyptic mood of contemporary cultural discourse, I would say that, for me, it is really important to hold the biblical story of the apocalypse (aka Revelations) in tension with other narratives about the flow of time and relations among actions and events. Certainly we are living in perilous times. And I agree with Rita that the ones with power largely listen to the ones with money to the detriment of the lives of beings and the planet. One of the things I really love about Rita, both as a writer and as a person, is that, perhaps more than anyone else I know, she thinks about ethical practice and does her utmost to live by the code she describes above. In my own pragmatic mode, this is a code that I largely agree with. For me, however, agreeing with this code is inflected by a recognition that I, and many well-meaning people have been wrong in the past, and have acted with conviction only to find later that they were mistaken in some crucial aspect. And that the mistake has been damaging if not deadly to self or others. So I try to hold uncertainty and flexibility as part of a practice of attention. My uncertainty means that I weigh out the possible outcomes of my actions, the dangers of my blindspots, and the unpredictable consequences of my actions as they intersect with those of others. For me, both the self and its intentions are profoundly unstable entities. What is called for, then, is the deepest possible attention one can give to the fast, medium and slow movements of the world. Sometimes it is better to keep quiet and listen. Sometimes one needs to act. There’s that old proverb about the wisdom required to know the difference.  Insofar as I am “me”, I mourn my complicity and work to undo the horrors of capitalism and colonialism. Insofar as I am part of forces larger and smaller than the self, I listen and wait for the serendipitous moment in which it is possible to act or speak in order to make a difference.

FJ: You allude to the role of spectacle and distortion in our late-capitalist culture, where media participates in creating a “utopia by distraction” (18). Can you speak more to this? What are the relationships between your use of the terms utopia, i-topia, and dystopia?

RW: I feel a distrust of mass media, the manufactured consent that Noam Chomsky has given voice to, and a need for media that builds from the ground, addressing people’s common interests instead of manipulating or orchestrating the late capitalist propaganda machine. The internet is a tool that could be even better used to connect people in their everyday contexts and concerns, depending on how we use it.

LL: We are living in a historical moment in which the utopian dreams of the past have not borne the fruit once imagined. The dream of a real communism became the totalitarian horror of Stalinism, the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge. The dream of industrial abundance has become capitalist emptiness plus ecological disaster and corporate cronyism. I do think that utopian thinking is as necessary as ever in the moment in which we live, but we can’t afford to be naive about it. We need to take lessons from history, even as we understand the specificity and unpredictability of the present. For me, i-topia means remembering the complicity you asked us about in the last question. It means recognizing that we don’t stand outside of any system but are integrally a part of it. i-topia is, of course, also a play with the products of the Apple corporation. We have eaten from the tree of digital knowledge and are an integral node in the flows of digital information. Though I recognize the self as flickering and unstable, there are still instances when I have one. So “i-topia” is also a utopia of the self–  the Enlightenment dream of subjective coherence required by capitalist and activist utopias alike. Whenever we say we want to take responsibility for a historical wrong in which we are complicit, for instance, that’s an “i-topian” statement. We take responsibility as though we actively chose to commit the horrors of history, even if we weren’t around yet. We say we have benefitted from the brutalities of the past. This may be true, but the form of those benefits are oddly unpredictable, and our relationships to them hauntingly and surprisingly collective. The “I” that takes responsibility is an “I” that belongs to time out of joint– a neoliberal, postmodern “I” attached to a strangely perpetual present that can’t quite get its agented, deliberate hands into the past in the way that it would like. The illusion of choice is a neoliberal illusion that depends on an overdetermined “I” or even “i”, that doesn’t exist. The “i” is interpellated and interpolated across time and space in impossible ways that somehow we must work out materially. The danger of this overdetermination is that there is an imagined return to the past built in to it. But we can’t go back and undo what was done. The only way out is through– all of our multiple i’s and eyes, skittering unpredictably through “we”, “here” and “now”.

FJ:  One of the delicious aspects of this poem is the plethora of cultural references as varied as KFC and the B52s to Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler. I found it surprising and a little sad how many references were intuitively familiar to me; it made me consider the porousness of my “I” and how much my knowledge is shaped by consumer culture despite trying hard to avoid it. As you say, “if you don’t play, you’re still playing” (112) – what does this mean for individual agency? What are the implications for meaningful critique and action?

RW: Yeah, I also have that feeling of why do I know this stuff I don’t particularly want to know? It does mean there’s lot of raw material (one might think of the analogy to so-called “junk” DNA) to work with, to detourne, to torque, on the one hand, or lots of dead weight to avoid being determined by, on the other.

LL: I don’t mind knowing so much. It’s better to know that not to know. You have to know the conditions of your present before you can change them. I might wring my hands, but I don’t want to wash them. They are made of dirt right to the bone. To wash them might be to wash them away entirely, and so abdicate the possibility of action. What this means in terms of meaningful critique and action is that we must think and act from inside the machine, as part of it, not from the outside, looking on in horror. It means being attentive to mutations and interactions as much if not more so than cause and effect.

FJ: Multiplicity is a prominent theme in sybil unrest, specifically the multiplicity of subjectivity. Throughout the poem, you alternatingly trouble s/he, we/oui, they, and various speakers (not necessarily human) identifying as “i,” working toward what you say is “an unstable, flickering sort of subjectivity that throws the Enlightenment individual ‘I’ into question” (124). I underlined the lines “stubborn rodents/gnaw neigh keuih day” (11), punning on the Cantonese plural pronoun for s/he/it. Why is the flickering, multiple subject a more accurate representation of subjectivity under capitalist consumerism? Can you tell us about some of the stories and/or thoughts that brought you to this understanding?

RW: This takes me back to the things I know, whether or not I want to know them. The scripts and roles that we’re interpellated into are often reductive or impoverished. We can and do enact more complexity than an institution or a state or a market is capable of recognizing. Aside from the official histories, the unofficial histories & places are where the energy, the life, the contradictions abound.

LL: Capitalism is constantly calling us to buy not just its products, but its whole schtick. Each time it hails us, it shows us an idealizing mirror, but one that always distorts at the same time. In one ad we are the debonair drivers of high end cars, in another, athletic bleeders into sanitary pads. We become who we are in relation to the products we buy. I suspect, however, that the instability of the subject precedes capitalism– that it is a problem in language at a much deeper level. The word “gnaw” in the lines you quote above is a homonym for “I” in Cantonese. A secret: these are Rita’s lines. I really like her suggestion that we get to have a self only by gnawing away… at what? The Other? Or the impositions of cultural hailing that always misrecognize us? Stubborn rodents chewing on the wires that turn out to be our own long and entangled tails!

FJ: sybil unrest’s wordplay is described as “delirious” on the back cover. Why did you choose to use puns and humour to speak to the horrors that the poem engages?

RW: Sometimes it’s better to laugh than to cry. Often the body needs to do both, as a way to process and release what’s coming at it, instead of holding it in, toxic and festering.

LL: For me, there is beauty in the horror. Rita, for instance, is in the horror and is still beautiful. And also, I think that play is a really important mode for finding our way to another place. It was seriousness and monologic thinking that brought about so much of the horror of the present. Capitalism converts experiences, things, lives, work, energy, water, love– so many different elements of existence– into one thing: money. Veering, careening, and zigzagging seem productive modes to undo the drive that wants to monetize everything.

With regards to punning in particular, for the longest time I did not allow myself to pun because I thought it was cheesy. I realized, working with Rita, that Cantonese culture is a very “punny” culture– so much of its fun and intelligence derives from the fact that it is rife with homophones. Even though I don’t speak my mother tongue, I feel as if that relation to language comes out when I play punning games with Rita.

FJ: Your paronomasia involving multiple languages is incredibly effective, especially considering the lines “old empire’s well-trained subjects/hood predicate’s ironic reversals/speak better in their english/ than they do” (36). What are your thoughts on writing in English?

RW: The anthology, Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, put it well. Every language has potential—even the language of colonization, commerce and coercion can be cracked, re-aligned, shifted. For those of us who work mainly in English, this is necessary work. That said, it’s also important to remember there are syntaxes, perceptions, philosophies, ways of being that are better conveyed or materialized in other languages, which I’d love to learn.

LL: Yes to what Rita says above. I really mourn the loss of my mother tongue. What we know and how we perceive is profoundly embedded in language. When languages are lost, so are whole epistemologies. The body itself gets lost, or morphed– body-snatched. English is the only language I speak fluently, and yet I’m always running from it. I like Roy Kiyooka’s idea of “ing-lish”– always in process and open for shifts, re-alignments, subversions and diversions.

FJ: sybil unrest is a collaborative poem that you say was started in the “renga spirit” over email. Do you have thoughts on collaboration as an ideologically motivated method? What are the dis/advantages? I ask this in the context of groups like CWILA who are attempting to engage with less hierarchical or authoritative methods of literary criticism and academia by using strategies like collaboration.

RW: I find myself being more drawn to collaboration over time, not just because I believe we need cultures/practices that are more capable and skilled at cooperation than competition, but because it’s fun. As I ask my students, what are your own interests, and what interests do you share with other people? We often share a lot more than we realize, and we need to get better at coordinating ourselves around this.

LL: I am really interested in forms of consciousness that emerge from entities other than the self, and collaboration is a way of engaging this. Rita and I know things together that we might not know individually. This is political because it gets away from the Enlightenment self, the competing self, the consuming self and so on. Not to mention the academically productive self… It is fun, and empowering too.

FJ: The form of the poem intrigues me. There are so many examples but I will limit myself to two observations: the line breaks and formatting start to break apart halfway through the poem from a left-aligned pattern to varied other patterns. Also, the three part structure is marked by –, =, and ≡, which Sonnet L’Abbé reads as i’s turned on their sides in her article in Canadian Literature. Before I read her interpretation, I assumed the first dash to be a minus sign to signify a section in which you describe “dystopia by subtraction” (19), the equals sign to signify a conditional equation, and the triple bar to signify an unconditional equation (which in mathematics is called an identity!) Can you comment on these aesthetic choices, or any others that you particularly enjoy?

RW: Wow, what a reading. Basically, those are the Chinese characters for one, two, and three. I like your reading way better. I like how simple choices can be read in ways I hadn’t predicted – the slipperiness of the moment, of the signs as they bump up against different readers in different contexts, has a playful and productive dynamic I enjoy.

LL: Yes! Love your reading. We did, at one point, consider using characters that looked brush stroked, but decided on that ambiguously minimalist font, to leave the reading a bit open. It’s very cool what both you and Sonnet have done with it.

FG: One of the reviews of sybil unrest suggests that it departs from traditional avant-garde poetics because rather than focusing on cultural and aesthetic elements, it includes political and social commentary. What are your thoughts on the role of politics in art and the role of art in political action?

RW: Why should artists narrow their gaze only on cultural and aesthetic elements, when everything, including political and economic systems, shapes their everyday lives? Self-imposed supposed depoliticization is like looking for your keys under the street light at night, when you left your keys in the unlit alleyway or by the banks of the river. If we’re looking for entries into life, into society, into a future worth living, we’d better look everywhere we need to be looking. It’s just a practical thing.

LL: There’s more than one avant-garde, and many of them include social and political engagement. I claim kinship with Negritude, and with South American, Middle Eastern and Chinese avant-gardes which are interested in social and political questions in addition to formal and aesthetic ones. One might argue that there would be no European avant-garde without the encounter with Africa and with North American Indigeneity. I don’t think politics is separate from art, though many practitioners have recently forgotten the relationship. It’s time to start remembering those connections and histories again.

FJ: Both of you play multiple roles in your professional lives as artists, critics, and educators. What are the connections, if any, between your creative and critical works and your pedagogy?

RW: In the way that I value readerly agency, I value student agency, and dialogue.

LL: At their best, these seemingly multiple practices are all of a piece. I may use different voices, but I listen with the same ears. For me, it’s the listening that matters. All three practices are about making dialogue, all three are interventions in the public sphere. They might differ in form and also in how immediate they are. But they are all part of the same project.


llLarissa Lai (1967- ) was born in La Jolla, California and grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. Her work brings her interests in feminism and Asian-Canadian identity together with her science fiction/fantasy imagination. Her first novel, When Fox Is a Thousand (1995) was shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Among her works are a a second novel, Salt Fish Girl (2002), and a solo book of poetry, Automaton Biographies (2009). She holds a PhD from the Universty of Calgary.



RitaWong-slideRita Wong (1968- ) grew up in Calgary, Alberta and currently lives in Vancouver, British Columbia where she is an assistant professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. She is the author of two books of poetry, monkey puzzle (1998) and forage (2007). In 2011, forage won the Canada Reads Poetry Competition. Wong’s work investigates the relationships between social justice, ecology, decolonization (the dismantling of structures of power imposed by one set of people on another through colonialism), and contemporary poetics. She is especially interested in what she calls “the poetics of water,” and works to educate her community on human interdependence with local water systems. She holds a PhD from Simon Fraser University.


biopic-2Fazeela Jiwa is an educator and writer. Her thoughts usually spin around the intersection of race and gender in the context of official and alternative art, politics, activism, and histories. She writes for independent and mainstream media, academic journals, creative anthologies, websites, spoken performances, zines, pamphlets, and walls. You can find her here.