Family and Things Like Family: A Writerly Conversation
What does it mean to be related?
We can begin with family, which is a relationship of bodies: either shared genetic material and/or some kind of ongoing mutual partnership. When I think of family, I think of pregnancy; the way babies begin as part of the maternal body and then separate from it. I remember high school biology: the desperate race of the sperm towards the egg; the mesmerising dance of the DNA as it reconfigures at conception. I think of how the physical functions as a metaphor for the social and the spiritual: the dance of the DNA at conception is about shared material and connection: literally, viscerally. We all know that family does not have to be biological, but when we say family, or kinship, we mean something like that dance of the DNA: shared material, ongoing mutual connection.
Sometimes, biological, social, and spiritual family have a high degree of congruence. The kind of poetry or art that comes out of this type of kinship has its own resonance, like the complex, place-and-culture-specific milkarri or song-spirals of the Yolngu women of North East Arnhem Land. I have not personally witnessed the keening of milkarri; however, reading Song Spirals by the Gay’Wu Group of Women introduced me to an art-form that takes utterance very seriously. The sense of responsibility for kin and place is very strong in milkarri. There is a conviction that words matter. What also matters is how the words are said, where and when they are said, and who they are said by. I felt chastened reading the milkarri recorded in Song Spirals, as chastened as I feel when I read the apostle James on the power of the tongue and the care we need to take with our words. (‘How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire … With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so’: James 3:5b-6a, 9-10; NRSV translation.) Do I take as much care for my kin and place in the words I utter?
In spite of all my intellectual knowledge and lived experience of hybridity, I also felt a strange longing for the kind of certainty about belonging that milkarri expresses:
Ŋuruku miyamanarawu Dhaŋgaḻa aaaaaaaa …
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ŋunha marrtji Baŋupaŋu.
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy.
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water.
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Baŋupaŋu.
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea.
There is naming happening here – naming of bodies of water and animals with which the singers have a long history of inter-generational association with. I wonder what it would be like to live in the same location as generations of one’s ancestors. I wonder what it would be like to be so connected to place. I wonder what it would be like to spend so much time with biological family. Every life is equally valuable and culture is a constantly shifting thing, however, I feel … a stab of jealousy for such connection, for what looks like such certainty about belonging. Perhaps it is the jealousy of a migrant who has lived and continues to live a place-and-people-shifting life.
Perhaps one could argue that the peripatetic life generates its own sort of kinship. Its shared material could be the heightened knowledge of loss. As poet Boey Kim Cheng puts it in ‘Not in Your Country’:
You know that the cruellest fate of exile is to watch
parents die from a distance, not to hold their hands
at the end, the way they held yours when you were a child
afraid to go into the dark.
This, too, is a common experience that can become grounds for mutual connection with other exiles. It is, at the very least, the basis of Benedict Anderson’s idea of the imagined community. There is a difference, however, between reading a poem and meeting the poet. There is also a difference between meeting the poet once and having an ongoing relationship with the poet. One could say the same thing about place: there is a difference between reading about, say, Singapore and visiting Singapore. There is also a difference between visiting Singapore and choosing to live in Singapore as one’s primary place of residence. There are degrees of kinship: the closer the relationship, the more commitment is required. Commitment is measured, primarily, in terms of bodily presence.
The word ‘kin’ has ties to the Teutonic family of tongues, and appears in turn to be descended from the Proto-Indo-European line that has also given us the Latinate ‘gene’, ‘genus’, ‘genre’, ‘gender’. Kinship, at its roots, seems to be strongly associated with bloodlines, family bonds, tribal groupings, procreation. Perhaps this is why the adage that ‘the closer the relationship, the more commitment is required’ feels intuitively true. But is it an observation or a rule? Certainly, kinship has to do with a primal tug, evoking our first ties and obligations; an umbili-call that reaches and lays claim to us on a subconscious level, asking us home. The Latin root ‘relatus’ has to do with a sense of bringing or referring back. Kin relations are a summons; a reeling in, a rallying, as to arms. I cannot but feel a wariness, a resentment, a wait-a-minute hesitation to answer that beckoning, in part because it appears to assume special dispensation (nudge nudge wink wink) to sidestep the critical faculties. Emotional blackmail?
Near the end of his 2022 collection The Singer, Boey reflects on the phenomenon of (his daughter’s) birth as ‘one act of ultimate emigration, the other death’ ( ‘Emigrating’). This insight marks a late point in the book, where the mature artist, now middle-aged, has come to accept that departures and arrivals and the ambiguities (as well as pleasures) of place and being and loss and wonder and connection are not unique to his peripatetic life, but characterise the mortal human condition: in these matters we are all kin. His memories, particularly of his late parents and their time together in Singapore, colour and haunt his experiences of other times and places: presences from the past infuse the present and inform the future. He has not and will never leave them behind, because they are an inextricable part of his being in the world and his sentience of it:
…it’s the past
that interns us, saves us, that makes of its music
a capsule that will send us beyond the present
and future, to the inner place
where the music circles home.
Home is no longer just a place to be left or returned to, but is also carried with one wherever one goes, along with the scars of fracture and separation, be it through distance, divorce, or death. And kinship can be forged among those with whom one has shared deep-reaching experiences that one can be brought home to.
In a provocative 2006 essay, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues for an acknowledgement that cultures evolve through processes of contamination: gradual changes brought about by encounters with difference; by individuals and families moving away from what they used to know towards what they eventually get used to, adapting, modifying, and easing into a present that is different from the past. Appiah argues that societies unable to make these accommodations ‘aren’t authentic; they’re just dead’. Appiah’s argument is more nuanced as it develops: he is not arguing for a blithe utopianism of mixture, but perhaps something of the equanimity in Boey’s recent poetry. Remembrance (through writing, in Boey’s case) becomes a form of care – both for kin and of self. It is an honouring of significance and the meaningfulness of the particularities of one’s life and its specific experiences and relations: the places it has been and not been, its wants and compromises. A replay of neural images reinforces memories in the brain and hence re-creates the self constituted by and founded upon those memories. To acknowledge and practise kinship in this way is to embrace the way we have been touched and changed by other people and places.
To my mind, it may be intensity rather than duration per se that renders a relationship significant and inscriptive. It need not always be an ongoing connection (and human bonds at any rate must end); it can be one that provokes a shift in perspective: one’s first experience of a racial slur, or a stolen kiss, or an intimate writing retreat on an island, or a searing argument at midnight. But when I think of kinship I realise I do mean a different quality of relationship, one where there is a certain robustness of the shared lodge ‘where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in’ (Robert Frost, ‘The Death of the Hired Man’), so there is no need to soothe egos and keep up the courtesies in order to continue to connect, and words don’t matter because the ties are resilient beyond the verbal, and careless statements do not lead summarily to eviction. It is conventional wisdom to find such sanctuary among blood relations. There is perhaps an unvoiced assumption that shared nationality or ethnicity or creed afford some (although by no means unconditional) automatic shelter. Might it be at all possible beyond these atavistic circles of kinship? Are writerly kindred a thing? What are the terms of such relations? To whom do we turn to dance?
When I consider the possibilities of writerly kinship that move beyond atavism, my mind leaps towards what Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura calls ‘culture care’:
Constructive cultural work begins not in opposition but in sharing – of ideals generously argued, of visions for future generations, of opportunities to meet and dialogue with the other – all of which could occur in the context of the arts and from there be mirrored into society. From this point culture care can and will lead to rigorous debate – debate that is aimed not at defending homogenous ideological tribes but at ways to care for the whole of culture and all of its participants.
Fujimura is articulating an ideal in response to the polarisation of Western culture wars. It is, however, a necessary ideal if we are to get beyond kinship-as-tribalism. In order to dance, we need to find common ground. Fujimura explores the idea that common ground might exist in a shared acknowledgement of the gratuitous, or non-utilitarian, nature of art. Common ground could also be found in the shared appreciation of beauty, the mutual recognition of suffering, and the joint desire to see justice upheld. Writers from different tribes could meet at these shared borders, though we may well end up arguing about who has been wronged and who deserves justice! One might make the case, though, that arguing is better than not speaking at all. What do arguments that ‘aim to care for the whole of culture and all its participants’ look like?
Eunice Andrada’s recent collection Take Care can be read as an argument against rape culture. There is a seething anger here: at gender-based violence, at ongoing devaluation of people of colour, at lack of regard for those who work to provide the service of care, at environmental degradation, and at political and economic systems that entrench injustice. Her poetry rises to the pitch of a scream:
A rapist teaches me how to drive.‘Comfort Sequence’
A rapist decides what I do with my body
after rape. A rapist on trial doesn’t believe
he’s a rapist. A rapist doesn’t like being called
This is the searing argument at midnight – caution has been pushed off the balcony and complete unreasonableness shouts at the top of its lungs: ‘All men are rapists!’. I recognise this person – the wounded beast, the unhinged woman lashing out in rage and grief. Sometimes this is me. If writerly kinship is a thing, recognition of shared experience (in this case, anguish) could be one of its terms of relation.
At the same time, if it is good to aim to care (as Fujimura asserts) ‘for the whole of culture and all of its participants’, this care must, arguably, extend even to the rapists. This does not mean condoning or minimising rape and other profoundly harmful behaviours. It could mean holding out hope that transformation is possible. Character, like culture, does not have to be a static thing. Part of the work of art could be redemptive: to imagine transformation and to keep that possibility alive for the community. This should not be another burden for survivors; however, I note that Take Care moves tentatively from catharsis towards a reimagined future – a future that hums with the music of coming justice. In this, too, I find a writerly kinship and a recognition of shared experience.
If it is true that commitment is measured, primarily, in terms of bodily presence, it could be equally true that commitment can be measured, or expressed, in other ways. Writing is one of those ways. Edward Hirsch, echoing Osip Mandelstam, compares the act of reading poetry to finding a message in a bottle. There is delight, in the act of reading, at finding connection. There is hope, in the act of writing, that our words will find a reader. While words are not the same as the embodied physical presence of another person, they do signify presence; because of this, writerly kinship can exist across the divides of time and space. I can have that Anne-of-Green-Gables delight in finding ‘kindred spirits’ in long-dead writers.
Reflecting on the engagement engendered between writer and reader, Eddie Tay writes of offering up ideas
…not as realities to be validated, but rather in the spirit of searching for affinity with fellow creative writers who I imagine to be like me, searching for a language to describe what it is that we do.’
Tay proposes here a kinship based on a vocational rather than affective affinity, founded on collegial rather than allegiant relations, motivated by a shared puzzlement and a quest for knowledge and sense-making. This is a form of kinship that is based more on common doing than being, and hence contingent, but also inclusive.
In a fascinating discussion of literary translation later in the same book, Tay interrogates the ‘essentialist assumption’, encoded in Singapore’s multiculturalist policies, that a person of a particular ancestry inherently possesses immanent cultural knowledge associated with that ethnic group. He further argues that creative mistranslation can contribute to subverting essentialist assumptions about culture by making the mediation and negotiation of language visible; and that ironically ‘infidelity is also an assertion of ownership’. This is a sense of relations that do not cling or constrain, but which call to possibility; that need not only speak for but can also speak out of or against certain norms. To be kin is, then, to have the privilege to rearrange, refurbish, reinvent, even to wreck, one’s inheritance.
At the same time, we cannot exercise cultural care without acknowledging that connection involves hazard and vulnerability, nor that our capacity to wound one another is proportionate to our intimacy. To me, this has implications for the creative writer, including the need to account for our own power to cause harm, even inadvertently. In pursuing solidarity, do we pass over differences within our own kin circles? In defending particular cultural works or creative expressions as more authoritative or more just, do we, as Tay or Som-Mai Nguyen (in ‘Blunt-Force Ethnic Credibility’) caution, risk eliding the flex and flow of cultural nuance and the varieties of lived experiences? Who do we keep in or leave out when we claim kin? And in seeking connection with our creative kindred spirits and their doings, what responsibility do we have to our non-literary blood-kin, who may not have asked to be related to a writer?
Proximity adds risk. A literary colleague in Singapore, on discovering one of their workshop participants was my child, referenced that relationship to look askance at the young person’s writing. Said child has stopped writing and now studiously avoids any class, course, or event in which I might feature on the syllabus or in discussion as a writer. To be related is to be part of a particular confluence and circulation of energies, with the potential to harness its dynamism, but also to subject oneself (and one’s kin) to its shocks, and perhaps also its blind spots. Those who share the same DNA also share the risk of congenital conditions.
My own children are currently quite secretive about their writing. This is the teenage phase – yet another stage of separation. I try not to pry. They need to find their own voices. This is difficult to achieve, though, in a context where the child’s work is negatively compared to the parent’s. Competitive comparisons and unrealistic expectations are some of the emotional hazards of kinship, especially in the inter-generational context, though it can also be true for siblings. The poet Esther Ottoway writes with great insight into the complex dynamic of inter-generational kinship:
And I see she has to love and hate me, our bodies
driven to fight suffocation. I turn bitter when
she says from her car seat I don’t need you any more, Mum – can’t stop
trying to sully her clarity: sharp-tongued, I say I still need my mother
and I’m grown up. Everyone needs their mother. I weave through the line‘Triptych’
of traffic, recall screaming at my mum, pushing her to the edge. Our bodies
speak truth: what I say to my daughter, I say to my mother, myself.
Kinship is a dance of connection and dis-connection. We draw close, even to the point of merger; we push away, screaming our separation; but somehow, we still need each other. This is also true of the kinship of writers.
I do wonder, though, if there is a way to dance that is less fraught. Arguments against essentialism are important, particularly because they give value to those whose lived experience of culture is marked by discontinuity. Does this, however, come at the cost of devaluing those whose practice of culture is characterised by relative continuity? Absolute continuity of culture is, of course, impossible; every iteration is an interpretation, but it is still possible for different voices to sing the same song; to repeat it across generations, with variations and extensions, but the same melody. It is also possible to rip up the score and write a completely different melody. Sometimes the score is ripped up by others and there is no choice but to start again. Can we value the daughter who stays home and takes over the family business as much as we value the son who leaves to start a life of his own?
I find myself back at definitions. What does it mean to be related? A Chinese term for kinship comes to mind: 亲 [qīn], which evokes the intimacy of both blood and marital relationships, taking us back to the bodily connections, and emotional hazards, of family.
In the midst of dwelling on this essay and its questions while travelling in Europe, a friend pointed me to the writings of Clarissa Pinkola Estés. In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Estés writes about the necessity of not rejecting or disdaining what we consider ugly, even as we lean towards what uplifts us or feels transcendent. ‘If we spurn the not-beautiful,’ she writes, ‘we are severed from real life’. It feels necessary to me to engage with the straw and chaff of things, even that which makes us flinch. Disagreement, conflict, vulnerability, disappointment – these are as much a part of kinship as the familiarity, closeness, and belonging. The antithesis of relation is not aversion or revulsion, but indifference.
In the work of Boey and Tay and Andrada, we find a form of care that has to do with paying deep attention, even to difficulty; to my mind, they create kinship through this watchfulness, which invites reflection, remembrance, perhaps reciprocal engagement. Not just the dance itself but laying the ground for dancing; not just mourning but preparing the wake for grief. Writing can remind us that we share not only particular languages that make communication possible, but also the need to relate. That reaching out to one another; that embrace of recognition and mutuality; that capacity for suffering; the humanity that resists indifference and refuses to be forgotten or dismissed – yearning to narrate, record, account for, bear witness, be heard and be understood, and know itself whole. In acknowledging and answering these needs in one another, we make kinship possible.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 1983.
Andrada, Eunice. Take Care. Giramondo, 2022.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony, ‘The Case for Contamination’, New York Times, 1 Jan 2006
Boey Kim Cheng, The Singer and Other Poems. Cordite Books, 2022.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves. Ballantine Books, 1992.
Frost, Robert. ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, Poetry Foundation. Accessed 10 August 2022.
Fujimura, Makoto. Culture Care. IVP, 2017.
Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. Harvest, 1999.
Ottoway, Esther. Intimate, Low-Voiced, Delicate Things. Puncher & Wattmann, 2021.
Nguyen, Som-Mai. ‘Blunt-Force Ethnic Credibility’, Astra, 30 June 2022.
Gay’Wu Group of Women. Song Spirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines. Allen & Unwin, 2019.
Eddie Tay, Anything You Can Get Away With: Creative Practices. Delere Press, 2018.