Before my breath was mine, it was my mother’s. Her echo and pulse. Her misfired intentions, her shrink-wrapped future.
Begin, again, with carrots and celery, pruned to matchsticks, protected by a sheet of plastic. Rented sound system straining against July heat, staccato arrival of street medics from across Toronto. We distribute zines, instructionals pressed inside. How to flush the eyes of tear gas, how to dress a wound, or loosen shock. Christie Pits, subway rumble, the constant itch of a city’s sound, crowding in.
Unplugging the white noise machine, static cutting abruptly to silence. As a therapist, I tended to porousness. I couldn’t help but approach in the first person. I, we, those brief wicks of intimacy. Burned out.
Forests flame in Quebec and here, the skies stain all summer. Drone of smog, and a charred blue.
I learn that wildfire smoke and Covid both target the respiratory cilia. Tiny lung hairs mobilizing, essential hum, waving mucus upward to the throat. If the cilia get damaged, mucus collects, lungs clench—eventually, a drowning.
Humidity erodes a sense of self. Dulcet din of splash pads and swimming pools in public parks. Shelters packed to spill. Condos, cool and empty, above our heads. By 2050, this will happen five times more often. During heat waves, sweat blurs the day’s edges.
Two screens, in the mind’s theatre. Two clotted streams of imagery. Drought, blaze, storm, deluge. Their potentials, their destructions, diametric.
Then again, grief and anger are not binaries. Their meanings do not fix. Neither do excess and lack, nor colours, the skies today burning red, orange, yellow, even green.
Mucus, trapping bacteria and virus, then expelled, iridescent in the sink. Thick fluid which, when amassed in the lungs, causes inflammation. Hushes the breath. Danger and defence, a continuous loop.
All night, I wheeze into the silence. The hours, a bowl of congealed blue. Absence of witness, of the solicitous mother dotting Vaporub on the throat. She, too, knew asthma. Solitary wakefulness. The underside of illness. Similarities I assemble and document, though I know I am not her.
Mia Mingus, on being queer, Korean, adoptee, and disabled, in 2018: I am part of different diasporas and each one pulls at me constantly. And each one holds that constant refrain: I am, but I’m not; I am, but I’m not.
Each utterance an island, a node of want.
After the 1997 handover, Hong Kong self-defined in double negatives. A story without a linear arc. I am, but I’m not. Finding itself in an echochamber of colonial influence, between British and Chinese rule. Freedom becoming more than a linguistic act. Booksellers arrested, as books sputtered, inaudible, covered their eyes.
So script an archaeological dig, in which one’s ancestors emerge from history’s puckered lips, fully-formed.
The Lo Ting’s iconography speaks for itself. Fish jawline, human limbs; scraping together a life on the land, seeking always to return to the sea. The curator stitches a narrative from scraps of myth.
When asked why she writes fables, K-Ming Chang responds, So much of queerness is about making your own myths, inventing your own future and past, forging your own new lineages.
In my experience, queerness has also been against binaries, about beaches, about burying our dead, against private property, about downtown’s slender scrawl of alleys, about clean drinking water, about housing, about parking lot murals, about pain, about music, about illness, about tongues, about fingers, about fluidity and heat.
At some point, the thumb of a myth begins to press on belief. Symbols accrue a percussive force, as material as sweat-chafed skin, stones sluiced in cold water.
Cue viral videos: ice poured over another’s head. Accusations of idealism, naïveté. Get out of your own echo chamber. What is the dew point at which dreams dampen? I pocket the names of everyone I love, each one a pane of glass, rubbed dry in my palms.
To furnish an imagined lack. To transcribe an echo, to trace its wayward passage through the museum’s windowless rooms.
Preparing for an action targeting the offices of various banks investing in fossil fuels, we map the route, wending through the financial district’s churning high-rises, scarlet pen-marks slapping the foam, like a fish’s tail, or a parent’s hand.
I participate in a friend’s multimedia project about mermaids, contributing sound, poems, and time. Such meaning attaches to shape. Fish tail, or fish head? Monster, or maiden? In each case, hybridity —which I am predisposed to read as cypher for
disability—relegates one to the politically and morally marginal.
In other words: to crescendo past the parameters of normalcy, to watch the river carry one’s language out, and out, beyond touch.
I find a tactile pleasure in the aesthetics of street medics: the fanny packs and bikes, the plastic water bottles, the brightly marked sleeves like red tulips, moving footnotes on the margins of action, guarding the edges of an alternative world.
In one version of the story, the mermaid seduces the sailor, allured and afraid, to his watery death. Misogyny distorts the ripple of responsibility. His desire: a pure ratio. Her desire: sonic dissonance.
Desire: a system of resonance. Lychees peeled in a porcelain bowl. A palm skimming the inside of my thigh. Stooping to dab the soil from her grave, its silence falling open. Pigment shivering on the many tongues of a dandelion.
Desire orienting me always to queerness. Pronouns orienting me always to loss.
Three years in, I couldn’t continue as a therapist. Those fifty-minute hours, compressed to less than inches, the screen’s blue hinges. Voices acquire a lag, clauses cleaved one from another. Abandoned me. At the fish market. Suddenly, bruises. My twin bed. Burnt. Blue, like the hospital. Cops, maybe two. Can you elaborate. Framing the front door. Echoes dilute. And I, pretending not to have drowned in those same syllables.
So sure, once, of the need for that forged neutrality. That fantasy of distance. My outcast child-heart, powerless to narrate their own alternate ending, an indigo suffocation.
Karen Cheung writes, The act of myth-making, of creating an alternate history, is to assert sovereignty over your own story, when politically you’ve had no say over your own future at all.
Severed from the land by settler farmers, the Lo Ting sutured their tomorrows to the sea.
During Hong Kong’s 2019 uprisings, protestors adopt the slogan, Be water. As if it were a choice. As if the air were not already boiled, a pinched nerve. Beneath tear gas, rubber bullets lapping at their skin. Power can be so monotonous. How will we breathe underwater?
Lungs woozy, as they are, with wildfire, and virus-scarred. Two packs a day my father smoked, when I was a child. At night, every night, I heaved narrow air and nightmares, until I threw up.
Look at that sky, we begin our sentences now. Then end, saturated, in some uncommon hue.
Yet, to imagine a self—as riddled by impediment, as familiar with shame—who might survive inside that chromatic future, its banality of fire, flood, and storm.
Future: that swollen word. In lockdown, I watch a virtual screening of Sins Invalid’s We Love Like Barnacles, with my crip, queer, degenerate roommates, and this is the first time I can.
Consider also my friends, raising their first child. Cooking rice. Letting them pick out socks. Rinsing them in attention’s most harmonic light. Yielding, and without resentment. Some fossilized image of childhood, rupturing inside me.
Though how might one make a life, should they inherit only the memory of reds, and blues, and much they would not have chosen to?
That if I have a child, they will have survived my life, my mother’s.
That before I was born, I was inoculated to water, through water, the sonorous tide of my mother’s breath, echoes thrumming through fluid and skin, from beyond, and beyond, and the world was all touch, and vibrations receding from a shore.
And water’s incessant hum, through ocean and rain and cloud and pond and sea and swamp and river and stream and creek and fog and lake and sound and mist, in and out of each other’s bodies, stripped of any need for a singular sufficiency.
In Rehearsals for Living, Leanne Simpson writes, The absence of hope is a beautiful catalyst. Low pressure system, then the storm.
If I may think of the future, my future, our futures, not as a threat of absence, but a change of form.
The poet, Jenny Xie: The dead do not end, they grow denser.
But there I go again, lurching ahead of time. Of the protest, flowing through the streets. I still dream of mermaids, though the fantasy has long since scabbed over. History snarls, anyway, at the door. Inside, sliced honeydew, scraped clean of seeds. Skin tautened not by fish scale, or face mask, or fever, but by laughter, its diatonic river.
And why not waver? And why not sing?
Jody Chan is a writer, drummer, community organizer, and care worker based in Toronto/Tkaronto. They are the author of sick (Black Lawrence Press), finalist for the Lambda Literary and Pat Lowther Memorial Awards, and winner of the 2018 St. Lawrence Book Award and 2021 Trillium Award for Poetry. Jody is a performing and teaching member with RAW Taiko Drummers, an editorial board member of Midnight Sun Magazine, the 2023-2024 Artist-in-Residence at the University of Toronto’s Queer and Trans Research Lab, and the 2023 recipient of the Joseph S. Stauffer Prize in Literature from the Canada Council for the Arts. They can be found at dog parks, in used bookstores, and online at https://www.jodychan.com/.