In the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, but also privilege and how those things are not only embodied, but are also historical. Violence is reproduced and passed down through generations, through history.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what my body is built upon and what it means to try and bring that history into the space of a dialogue. How do I get other men to reckon with that history of violence? How do I get them to understand that some people embody alienation, marginalization? How do I get them to sympathise with that? Is there a way to tap into their histories, to tap into the labour that was done by someone else so that they didn’t have to do it? With my reflections on embodiment, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the materiality of oppression and violence and how they can be seen in our bodies. In scars, in callouses, in bruises. Here’s a piece that I wrote responding to all of that.
A Women’s Work by Eliza Bennett
In 1916, British colonial administrator, Richard Winstedt, traveled from British Malaya to the American-controlled Philippines to document the system of vocational, domestic, and agricultural education in the colony. He was particularly interested in colonised Philippines’ domestic education programmes and handicraft schools for girls and women. In these programmes, Filipino women and girls were seen to be ‘modernised’ within their idealised traditional roles as mothers, housewives, and handicraft artisans. They received education on how to properly sanitise their kitchen, feed their children using Western baby foods, and create marketable crafts.
Both American and British administrators sought to keep women in the private sphere, limiting their propensity to possibly revolt against the colonial powers.
Predictably, the stories of these women never get told, the voices of these women never get heard. I wish to hear their voices but am unable to find them in History—be it historical texts, archives, or resources. I search and search and search on the Internet. I visit my University’s library. Nothing. It’s as if I’m chasing after a ghost, trying to find something that has disappeared. I start doubting myself, doubting these fragmented bits of information that I’ve scavenged; if I can’t find anything, did they truly exist?
I know they do. Because my body is built upon these women. Women who have laboured in silence. Women who have been sidelined. Women whose dreams were trampled on by the cruel pride of men.
I wish to hear their voices because I am sick and tired of hearing the same historical points of view. I wish to hear their voices because I want them to shout back, to answer back, to take back whatever they gave away.
But I know I can’t re-write History.
It is a machine too big for this brown Singaporean boy to dismantle. I don’t have the arsenal and neither do I have the privilege of centuries.
But I can explore histories. I can access the stories of these women through my body, through my identities, through my histories.
To the Filipino women, to the Malayan women: The labourers, the handicraft students, the artists,
In the year 2014, London-based artist, Eliza Bennett, produced an art piece titled A Women’s Work. The art piece is neither a painting, nor is it a sculpture that she constructed out of scrap materials. The art piece is her hand. She sewed strings of coloured thread into her palms, creating patterns over the wrinkles and folds.
She has publicly stated that she was moved by the amount of labour women like you all put into handicrafts, especially the labour of your hands. As such, she decided to apply the process of sewing to her hands, to make them appear calloused and worn out. To reproduce, onto her hand, the violence that is enacted on you: People who are made to engage in such physical, manual labour. It is her intention to present to her viewers the shocking circumstances in which people like you live your daily lives just to maintain the status quo of existing power hierarchies. Where the rich luxuriate in being able to afford expensive handicrafts and where the poor toil and suffer in physically and emotionally harsh conditions to make those goods.
Eliza states that the process of piercing her skin was not overtly painful. Since she was only stringing the threads through the first few layers of skin, there was only mild discomfort for the initial split-second when the needle came in contact with the skin. By the end of the process, Eliza’s hand was taut, her fingers instinctively curling up, wanting to clench into a fist as the thread pulled on the bends.
The sight is immediately quite grotesque. Eliza’s hand is lumpy, the stitches looking like tiny boils protruding out. The violence is visible.
The piece does not convince me. All I see, all the viewer sees is the finished product, after the violence has been enacted on her hand. All that we receive is the suffered.
Not the suffer-ing.
Suffer-ing remains invisible. That remains locked in the forming of every small knotted stitch, every split-second when the needle first came into contact with her skin.
It is easy to consume a static moment of violence. It is much more difficult to watch the process leading up to that moment of violence. In A Women’s Work, Eliza’s sewn up hand does nothing to redefine violence. It does not show us how violence is produced. How you all experienced the production of violence, how you all experienced violence as a process.
It does not account for all the times your parents invalidated your aspirations.
For all the times you were made to squat over for hours on end, handling dry pieces of rattan that would slowly file away at the skin of your fingertips.
For all the times that you had to walk long hours home to care for your several children.
For all the times you were belittled and mocked by your husbands, brothers, fathers.
That is where violence lies. That is what the viewer must see.
In the year 2018 I read about anger. I read about how it is a constructive force that can be used specifically and particularly for the fight for equal and equitable rights for all women and other gender minorities. In 1981, Audre Lorde, an eminent Black Feminist scholar, gave a keynote speech about anger. It is the transcription of her speech that I read:
Anger is loaded with information and energy […] If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy. And yes, it is very difficult to stand still and to listen to another woman’s voice delineate an agony I do not share, or one to which I myself have contributed.
[…] It is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment. I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivialises all our efforts.
As I read about the kinds of structures that were in place that limited the rights of women, the rights of locals in colonial Philippines and even my birthplace Malaya—structures that funnelled women into specific forms of labour that would prevent them from becoming political agents that could usurp colonial power—I become angry. And like Audre Lorde believes, I see my anger as productive, as necessary, as important to throw out into the world.
But I wonder if you all had the time, the space to see anger as such, or to even use anger. Where did all that anger go? Did it slowly melt away along with all your sweat? Or did you all channel it into your hands? Did your work become your anger?
I imagine you all squatting on sand, weaving rattan chairs in a small hut. As you finish each chair, before sending them off, you dig your nails into the base, prying out a few random strands. Small strands that go unnoticed unless the buyer pays incredulous attention. But strands big enough that they prick into one’s ass. The hard bristles of rattan that stick out don’t hurt, they don’t really pierce. But they definitely irritate the person sitting on it, making them constantly shift in their seat, not knowing where the itch is coming from.
You all know exactly what those small strands jutting out will do. You all know not to create the most polished of chairs.
After you all are satisfied with the number of bristles pried out, that is when you send those chairs away. Anger is indeed loaded with energy like Audre Lorde argues. And those chairs become imbued with all your energies. All your anger.
In the year 2017, I was invited to act in a two-person play about mental health. In the play, my co-performer had a line that went, “Do you think it’s possible for a person to be born in the wrong body?”. I remember the first time I heard that line and how numb and cold and limp I went. It was as if someone had reached deep into my being and pulled out my darkest secret to parade around. I felt naked. I felt bare. It was as if my co-performer knew my thoughts.
For years I had been wondering what it would be like to cut open my own skin and peel it off so that the real me could step out into the world, untarnished by the shame that my skin had perpetually felt. I see myself as inadequate. People stare at me and I think it is because I look abnormal. Because my brown skin sticks out in a sea of East Asian beige.
But this shame, I know, did not originate from me. It was not something that my mind, my body, had one day decided to conjure up.
Instead, I have received this shame from my mother.
My mother has told me stories of people rejecting her from jobs—even the most menial of jobs—because she could not speak Mandarin and was not Chinese by race.
My mother hates her father because he has given her this ethnicity she cannot escape from.
She does not think she is good enough. So I do not think I am good enough too.
When you are marginalised, when you are made to feel small. You pass that sentiment of insecurity down to your children, who pass it on to their children, who pass it on to their children, and so on.
It is not my mother’s fault that I feel shame. I do not blame her.
It is not her fault she feels shame. It is not really her father’s too. It just happens.
What do you think has been passed down to your children? What has the constant toil and perpetual ridicule and chastising done to the knowledge that has been transmitted when you converse with your toddlers, upon returning home from work?
What do you say when you are tired? When you are exasperated? What do they see when they see you?
Just as privilege is tied to lineage, so is suffering.
So is violence.
So is shame.
It is not your fault. Your children will not blame you.
It just happens.
I wish you comfort, I wish you power. I thank you for your work. I am who I am because of all of you. I am who I am because of all your work.