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Bearing witness: On spring, Jazz and writing

Alternate worlds, and the glimmer of the everyday

Spring arrives quietly but surely, hints of its presence collecting gently on the body and the senses. I notice it one night with T after a sunny late-August day, goose bumps not rising on our arms in the balmy air. I move house and walk home often, breathing deep in new space, and am aware of all the tree smells, musky and sweet and swirling. Outside the cafe where I work, pollen begins to rain down from huge trees yawning over the footpath, falls in coffees and adorns hair; small puffed accessories. 

Everyone I know creates spring-themed playlists on Spotify when September begins. While listening to my own, I watch the right-hand side of my screen, white text in motion informing me of my friends’ listening activity. A, Sevdaliza, 7 hours ago; C, Maggie Rogers, now.

Along with the weather comes a sense of possibility despite a world of exposed breaks and fractures. I speak to M on the phone and we talk about intentions. “Get shit done while having fun,” I frame it at one point. The trees, outlined in sharp relief against a pale sky, seem to urge us on. 

To be outside in September is to be in constant interaction with all its sensory gifts. What does it mean to take pleasure in this on unceded land? Pleasure becomes a voracious form of consumption, hand in hand with a wider settler-colonial project of environmental injustice. Isn’t it the nature of the settler state to consume too much, never be satiated, eat good on stolen land – smile with a blood mouth? Seasonal shifts hold violence – spring itself a colonial construct better described on Dharawal Land as cool weather becoming warm; Ngoonungi. How might settlers replicate this violence, breathing in heady on jasmine-scented streets?

For those of us who are people of colour, there’s a specific tension to finding pleasure in physical space that is often alienating. When I ask my PoC friends about their definition of home living in Australia, they reply that this land is intimate to them but lacks comfort; that in response to the displacement they frequently feel moving through white spaces, they have come to see home in feelings and people more than their physical environment.

I often feel similarly. This is a country that denies justice to Tanya Day and Tane Chatfield; that has overseen 445 and counting First Nations deaths in custody since 1991. It’s one built on a death-making apparatus of carceral punishment, detention and colonialism; it blinks twice and calls it justice. Wishing to disavow connection with the violence of Australia’s institutional infrastructure, I dream of alternate futures, ones that sometimes do away with physicality all together.

And yet: I walk outside, and air rises fragrant in my nostrils, sky sizzles pink-orange at dusk, ocean glimmers hard crystals in the first cold dip of the season. This land keeps stretching and breathing, sharply beautiful. With pleasure comes accountability. PoC can’t afford to turn away.

In her 1992 novel Jazz, Toni Morrison describes the arrival of spring in ‘the City’, a 1920s Harlem: “And when spring comes to the City people notice one another in the road; notice the strangers with whom they share aisles and tables and the space where intimate garments are laundered. Going in and out, in and out the same door, they handle the handle; on trolleys and park benches they settle thighs on a seat in which hundreds have done it too.”

Reading Jazz as the weather slowly warms, I savour Morrison’s prose; full of small thrilling images that bubble up just like the world around me. As a writer, Morrison embeds the full scope of life in the specificity of the City. She notices that “daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half”; pays attention to how “the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot to cool.”

Jazz is also full of grieving, aching people who act in cruel and unforgivable ways. Morrison turns her gaze on them and says, here they are, and here they are in this city, that keeps moving, through seasons and through time.

Toni Morrison’s writing is an act of bearing witness to the world in its fullness, both mundane and in-motion. Drawing on Morrison, Christina Sharpe writes of ‘residence time’: the residues of black bodies, trauma and ancestry continuing to cycle in the ocean. In all of Morrison’s novels, time is indeed oceanic: an always-moving presence, constantly doubling back on itself, drawing the past and future multi-directionally into the present. 

Isn’t this speculative and imaginative, precisely in its groundedness? In bearing witness to small and immediate environments, Morrison allows the creation of new worlds to crystallise in moments that we might not normally notice. She shows us that new worlds are always just below the surface; maybe one simply has to look.

Being a witness as Toni Morrison offers is one way PoC settlers might engage meaningfully with living on and loving unceded land. Astrida Neimanis, whose speculative environmental feminism class I was lucky to take in 2019, tells me about care and attention as ways for settlers to contend with both pleasure and harm as operating on this land.

To deeply care is to hold space for the imperfections and violences of a place: “finding beauty in the ruins of the world, but still having accountability for the damages we’ve caused,” Astrida frames it. “Why wouldn’t it be pleasurable and joyful to have close and meaningful relationships with bodies that aren’t perfect, or aren’t healthy, in the ways that we’re taught?” It’s a question that brings harm and beauty close, knowing that new textures spring up where they touch.

Right now, queer and PoC co-conspirators are thinking deeply about how to use ‘this moment’ to break open new worlds and possibilities. But a future-oriented politics doesn’t occur in an online vacuum or in our heads. And burning racial capitalism to the ground will happen on just that – sacred, physical, ground. Settlers with investment in both this land and in building a better world need to think about who and what we are listening to as we get organised.

A politics of witnessing isn’t an invitation to passivity, to let harm occur and watch on. Instead, it’s an opportunity for settlers to engage with unsettlement – as Michael Farrell writes, unsettlement is a verb, a thing that is done. Unsettling becomes a process of slowing down, stepping back, and localising specific environments for which to care and fight for.

In so-called Australia, ecological poetics – ‘ecopoetics’ – extends the links between unsettling and witnessing through the locus of language and art. Ecopoetics positions language as inextricable from the intricacies of the physical and more-than-human. In the introductory description to the Sydney Environment Institute’s 2019 symposium ‘Unsettling Ecological Poetics’, language is an always-actor in and on the world: “More than merely transcribing the world, [languages and literature] collaborate with it in the makings of meaning [which] shift, shudder, and shatter…”

In embracing the instability of language, ecopoetry points to new futures from a localised place of witnessing. Anne Elvey describes ecopoetry as “a process of engagement, a responsive poetry-in-becoming, a poetry-to-come.” This reminds me of José Esteban Muñoz, who writes on queerness as “not yet here”; while “the here and now is a prison house,” he urges the imaginative summoning of a “then and there.”

Could an orientation towards ‘then and there’ centre witnessing as a way to coalesce harm and pleasure into a collective project of transformative care? Could writing and art open such a collective witnessing that, in unsettling, becomes a world-building strategy?

As I live and love and create on unceded Gadigal Land, I’ll bear witness; keeping still enough to catch Muñoz’s ‘then and there’ glimmering in the small contours of the everyday, catching the light, again and again.

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