'Meeting this strangeness'
Katherine Agyemaa Agard's 'of colour'
of colour commences in an apology. Rather, Katherine Agyemaa Agard suggests her text was born out of a failure to make a film about the African diaspora “or simply our diaspora. My mother and father and brother and sister and me.” It’s come to this is the sentiment at the beginning of the text. It’s come to a textual object because another form failed. Yet from this apologetic tone comes a sense of urgency, something more like: It’s come to this because I have to say this. Agyemaa Agard cites urgency in the context of her painting practice at university, “My anxiety is urgency. It is the center of what I can make or do. It is from this place I think that I can speak” (64, emphasis in original). Anxiety over medium and form ultimately enables new forms.
Agyemaa Agard is a Trinidadian writer based in San Francisco, with an AB in visual and environmental studies and social anthropology from Harvard College and an MFA in writing from UC San Diego. (Her time in Cambridge is the source of many experiences and traumas chronicled in of colour.) Selected by Mary-Kim Arnold for the 2018 Essay Press/UW Bothell MFA Book Contest, of colour is a multimedia undertaking in the form of a contained book: an “auto-ethnography” rife with Agyemaa Agard’s verse, paintings, email screenshots, essayistic meanderings, photographs, and scraps from botanical histories in Trinidad and Tobago, among other sources. “Refusal within this work provokes invention,” Arnold writes in her judge’s note. Experimental texts are often read as undisciplined. of colour is disciplined in its arguments against discipline — both disciplinary power in a broad historical and sociopolitical context and in academic and artistic discipline. Anyone who can separate the two has likely not lived the ways in which empire shapes language, how the latter sort of discipline is shaped by questions of the former.
The pronouncement of cyclicality in of colour’s table of contents (“Choose whatever beginning is best, it all circles back”) is not so much recommendation or artistic decision as a realist claim. It is a declaration of the ongoing and inconclusive nature of colonial history and empire. I don’t know how I could not mention Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake here, given Sharpe’s and Agyemaa Agard’s similar investment in what Sharpe calls “wake work”: “a mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme with our known lived and un / imaginable lives.” A rigorous engagement with “the still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery,” which would mean to interrogate what we mean by “aftermath” and historical and life narratives altogether. Which would mean to maybe produce a narrative that can be read out of order, as Agyemaa Agard proposes, not to discount the brutally precise history of the colonial West Indies but to indicate its temporal ongoingness. “The sea need not be mentioned, nor water // And yet, the turning ocean always present,” writes Agyemaa Agard (12). A reading ethics of comfortable immersion and absorption is proven false in of colour. Not just by Agyemaa Agard’s text but through history itself. This text is unreadable. That’s not a failure: it’s just the nature of the world wherein diaspora fragments narrative progression. “There may be no forward, but there is motion” (iv).
“Surface,” the second of of colour’s four sections, most directly engages with the university context and its failures, with acerbic lines such as “I tell my teacher, ‘I wish I had myself as a teacher’” (69). At another juncture, Agyemaa Agard reminds her reader of the relationship between a lofty “Aesthetics” and the utilitarian context and parameters for their establishment. Agyemaa Agard concludes her professed “statement of my Aesthetics” with “or to underscore most crucial points / in the form of a grant application / that being the reason for which we write aesthetic statements / in the first place” (116, emphasis in original). The division between surface and interior, as Agyemaa Agard exhibits, is inaccurate when any “meaning” from this statement is generated through its grant form. This awareness of medium, however, does not detract from the text’s mythos but instead heightens its texture. Even to speak of the roughness of Agyemaa Agard’s text probably takes too smooth a form — an attraction to smoothness referenced when she writes America “needs smooth painting” (19). Readers will find themselves immersed in of colour, not due to smooth entrance but the attention demanded by its resistive capacities. “[M]eeting this strangeness,” in Agyemaa Agard’s terms, is vital.
I must confess that I research theories of reading and reading practices. Which means I’m not just reading but also thinking about reading most days. Agyemaa Agard’s text advanced my understanding of reading in a way that the most rigorous theory does, or should do. of colour’s table of contents contains some popularized terms from these debates: “Interior,” “Surface,” “Medium,” and “Marks.” By making this comparison, I don’t mean to suggest that all poetry aspires to the condition of theory, but want to position of colour as a roadmap for significant ways of imagining history and subjectivity. Like a theorist of reading practices, Agyemaa Agard is giddy at questions of intelligibility and textuality. And like the best theorists of reading practices, this interest comes from a keen awareness of the historical and psychological stakes of misreading.
The stakes of misreading — and being misread — emerge in “Surface.” Agyemaa Agard writes to her professors, receiving the response “Are you okay?” and referrals to doctors who never reply. Agyemaa Agard reaches out to Trinidadian friends who ultimately mock her emotional turmoil (60). These events, if anything, elucidate why a nonlinear and opaque text is necessary in the face of the traumas of unreadability and misreading. After “learn[ing] to see myself by seeing through how other people read me,” Agyemaa Agard elects to deny her reader an easily legible experience (x). Reading and misreading recur in of colour’s discussion of psychics, both in the opening section “Interior” wherein a psychic describes Agyemaa Agard’s aura as “black” and in her own psychic services for a predominantly White women clientele, “I read. I still need money. I’m still doing readings” (101).
Which makes it all a bit of a joke — or makes one wonder how seriously to take the practice of reading. Absurdity of historiography and academic discourse is part of this narrative, too. Agyemaa Agard asks, “Do these words mean something to you?” before clarifying her goal: “I’m just trying to get you to take me seriously. / Or rather, I’m trying to get that money” (117, emphasis in original). Forget surface reading, forget your Sedgwick, forget the political unconscious and symptomatic reading — of colour seems to say — and lighten up. “LOL,” the section ends. Agyemaa Agard exhibits a resistive streak reminiscent of Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless: “Humans are packs of wild dogs. When they speak, their teeth are new razor blades. Their institutions are crimson chain saws.” The institutions of which Agyemaa Agard writes are crimson chain saws, even down to the crimson, blood-like color which appears throughout the text.
Yet Agyemaa Agard balances absurdity with an earnest attention to and affection for language. “I will always remember that language is a strange tool,” Agyemaa Agard writes in the first pages of of colour. “And that meeting this strangeness is the pleasure of reading. Of getting so, so, so absolutely lost on the way to which it gestures” (ii). What would it mean to meet strangeness? To really meet it and to find oneself truer, or at peace, or just stay there, in that strangeness? I love those three so’s. Maybe because they imbue the page with the very strangeness of which Agyemaa Agard speaks — a little two-letter hack we use every day but that can become strange through repetition. I, too, remember learning language. I remember being pulled into the corner at age five at my inability to discriminate between capital and lowercase s’s in our handwriting lessons. How strange, to take language so seriously, and yet how strange — Agyemaa Agard reminds us — that we ever forget that strangeness. “The computer generated alt text says / image of a river / but I say” (160), Agyemaa Agard continues later on. That “but I say” is urgent and profound. It’s a reminder that writing, at its best (or maybe all writing), emerges from a corrective (“but”). To say “but I say” is perhaps always the refrain, or intervention, of any queer, Black, or historically disenfranchised speaker.
“What is the word for how we must approach the archives of slavery (to ‘tell the story that cannot be told’),” Sharpe asks in In the Wake, “and the histories and presents of violent extraction in slavery and incarceration; the calamities and catastrophes that sometimes answer to the names of occupation, colonialism, imperialism, militarism, or humanitarian aid and intervention?” Sharpe provides her own word (“aspiration,” as in air and breath), but I want to consider what word of colour elects.
of colour both answers and opens this question. For one, Agyemaa Agard challenges the need for a singular “word” through her acknowledgement that “the spelling of color and colour changes throughout the text” (195) in her endnotes. Even when Agyemaa Agard offers a word, she pushes back against its authority. Take her discussion of the word “akosua”: “Akosua is the word I remember to mean this. Blood. Bloodline. But I know it is not the right word. I cannot Google it to find out. But I know it is wrong from its sound. Ah, the mouth inhaling open. Kay, posing for a smile with teeth. Su, the lips puckering for a kiss. Ah, the mouth preparing again to take in breath. This cannot be the word for blood” (iii). of colour derives its status as an “auto-ethnography” from moments like this one, wherein logic is generated by the corporeal experience of reading. And finally, Agyemaa Agard challenges any word in this text through reminding us that language was a last resort after failing to make a film or painting. In her words, “THIS IS A FILM WITHOUT A / CAMERA for I was not allowed. / This is me dancing the flower, / again and again, / from all posi- / tions” (182).
Dancing the flower from all positions: that abundant “all”ness brings us to the question of hope in of colour. Agyemaa Agard explicates: “Without evidence, there is hope. We can imagine. However grotesque … possibility” (163). There is something grotesque, sometimes, about hope. Maybe something grotesque in that people can love or build lives in the face of what seems like an unlivable and grotesque world. But love and language persist. People — those who endure the most brutal conditions — would not be here otherwise. “But I must live here, since I am, I would like to make some road ways. I would try to clear the rivers. I would try and guard the assemblage, the shifting layers of death and dying that might return to the soil and not be stolen” (172).
So it comes back to the question of language and reading. How bad is hate, if it lies one letter away from hat? (As Agyemaa Agard writes in the prelude [i].) This question is not glib but poses an essential ontological claim. If hat and hate share a linguistic relation, perhaps it becomes easier to speak about the latter. Perhaps it breaks or ruptures — literally, linguistically — hate. To not only read but declare “I am reading” is to render oneself alive. There is a doctrine — endorsed by Agyemaa Agard — that says: if you feel it, it’s there. If you hear years as yours, it’s yours.
2. Agyemaa Agard’s text is described as an “auto-ethnography” on her Bocas Lit Fest website entry.
7. Having recently written an essay on the relationship between play and what I called Louis Zukofsky’s poetics of “all”ness, I see Agyemaa Agard’s work as reminiscent of Zukofsky’s own botanical poetics in 80 Flowers.