During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Shubhneet Sandhu’s Medium bog.
Arielle Twist writes an autobiographical collection of poems that explore how sexual violence can be linked to colonial power and also outlines how healing can be found through metaphorical destruction and death. Twist unwittingly condemns colonial systems and highlights the decolonial process, which occurs through her and her culture’s survival.
Arielle Twist is a Cree transgender woman who hails from George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan but is currently living in Nova Scotia. Disintegrate/Dissociate is a self-reflective poetry collection highlighting her experience. She writes poems that tackle identity, culture and healing.
In her poetry book, Disintegrate/Dissociate, there seems to be a continued tension between what she chooses to share and what is deliberately left unsaid. The reader is only made aware of what she wants to share. In her poems, it seems there is an exploration of identity that is inherently tied to sexual violence, which can be a codified way to describe colonial violence. Twist narrates her journey to healing by navigating Intergenerational and colonial trauma. In some poems, Twist’s “self” seems so reliant on validation by white cis men and can be just as easily destroyed by these agents of sex and violence.
Colonial violence is greatly interlinked with sexual violence as the poems describe white men who cross boundaries and aggressively take sexual pleasure ashamedly. We see Twist carry this trauma of sexual domination and violence, and it starts to manifest in the form of internalized self hatred. Dissociation can be described as a detachment from oneself, and it appears the word “Dissociate” from the latter part of the book’s title may be a reference to her reaction to trauma. Her poem entitled, “Dear White, Cis Men,” deals directly with self-worth being tied to men who do not respect her. It explores the complex nature of wanting validation from your abuser. This can be directly applied to colonial violence and ideas of changing your appearance and behaviour to please and appease people who inflicted unspeakable violence on your people and ancestors. She writes, “Dear white, cis men,/ with voices that boom/ power and authority/ demanding the respect/ you would not give me/ no matter how powerful/ my voice booms/ back.” (13) There is an apparent difference in power despite recognizing the power in her voice. In this poem, she acknowledges she is not weak, but he is stronger. The poem “Prairie Beneficiary” seems more explicit about colonial violence and settler colonialism. Twist writes, “My trust fund/ was a legacy/ of violence/ against bodies like/mine.”(18) In a completely unconcealed way, the effects of colonization become visible. It also reaffirms the continuance of colonial repercussions which affect Indigenous peoples. The physical and sexual violence that Indigenous people face today can be directly traced back to the same violence inflicted by the ancestors of settler colonials.
Another theme ever-present within her poems is Indigenous queer ethics and transgender Indigenous studies. Indigenous queer ethics explains the colonial isolation Indigenous queer people may feel due to altered networks and separation from community. Transgender Indigenous studies suggest the idea that Indigenous people who are transgender compartmentalize parts of their identity. Being Indigenous, queer, transgender, a woman, and many other things are all different aspects that create a whole person. It seems due to a colonial legacy, these parts of Twist’s identity need to exist in separate worlds, even though they all sum her up as a person. These ideas are explored in the poems “Brother” and “Who Will Save You Now?”
In “Brother,” Twist’s identity becomes compartmentalized because being a brother cannot coexist with being queer or a transgender woman. Twist writes, “But there are things I never told you either. Like how I loved a boy, and I know, I know it’s hard to hear that your brother was gay, but I fixed that too.” (33) This demonstrates the difficulty in negotiating one’s identity as it relates to others but also as it relates to one’s authentic self. The poem continues, “I never got to tell you about the time when that boy broke my heart…I’ll never give you pieces to find me, or tell you that maybe I could be a poet, a sculptor of words.” (33) Twist is saying that she never got to share this part of her identity with her brother. This again reiterates the theme of disclosing and withholding. The entire poem in itself is expressing all these unsaid things to her brother, but the poem concludes that these sentiments will remain unsaid, at least in person. There is a sense of loss because her identity cannot intersect for her to be whole. In “Who Will Save You Now?” Twist writes quite explicitly, “Queerness and indigeneity not intersecting quietly/white queers policing your existence/ indigenous blood telling you that you’re/ a new generation problem.” (40) Here we can see quite clearly that war that wages within her. Belonging to different groups can often mean you don’t fully belong to either at all. People who are white and queer cannot grasp the Indigenous side of her identity, and she feels the Indigenous community writes off her queerness.
As she navigates these ideas, it becomes so evident that, in many ways, her identity is quite refracted. This makes me think back to the first part of the book’s title, “Disintegrate” and its suggestion of pieces falling apart from what was once whole. Healing can mean becoming whole once more, and I think the primary ways Twist attempts to heal is through the idea of rebirth through destruction, Indigenous kinship, and Indigenous feminism.
We can see the theme of rebirth through death, as well as Indigenous feminism and womanism in the poem, “Mother/Creator.” In the title alone, we can see parallels are being drawn and the word mother is being elevated to, or very close to, the status of Creator. Mother is also capitalized in the same way as the Creator. This may suggest that the mother Twist is speaking to refers to something or someone much larger than a biological mom but the language is distinctly feminized in comparison to the Christian vernacular which would use God and/or Holy Father. This poem also speaks to the concept of healing as Twist tells the Creator, “I want you to know that I’m trying/ to cultivate/ to create/ to learn/ but I forget how/ to know I have not given up.” (38) She asks Mother, “I don’t know if I can do this/ can I process/ can I forget/ can I be whole” (38). Although Twist’s faith in herself is shaken in these questions, we can also see her recognize her survival is resistance. Mother is the one who she speaks plainly to, and to her, she makes herself completely vulnerable when voicing her self doubt.
The colonial violence and sexual violence Twist faces at the hands of settler colonials seem to be often paired with the idea of self-destruction — a concoction fuelled by self-hatred, which threatens her very existence and identity. In her poem, “VACANT,” we can see Twist struggled with the idea of belonging to herself as well as self-destruction in the lines, “They always told me this body is mine,/ that autonomy is key/ breakdown, undone/ I can destroy it freely/ so, I will.” (24) This showcases Twist’s lack of self-love and the difficulty she has valuing herself. Her identity remains incomplete because she does not fully accept herself as a person of value that deserves to live and thrive. Self-destruction does not only mean destroying who she is but it can also mean breaking down who she is expected and perceived to be. In this sentiment, you can find healing because you are allowing yourself to be born into your truest form. The final lines of the poem read, “break my jaw/ plant seeds/ in emptiness/ and hope that/ something grows.” (25) There is hope that in and despite loss, one day life can return and seeds will sprout into plants again.
This theme of healing can be found most clearly in the poem, “In Dying I Become”. The opening lines states, “death is a ceremony,” (31) suggesting that there is meaning in ritual. The title is repeated twice within the poem, each after describing the practises related to death. This line indicates that death is not the end. To become is to enter into the state of being. Death is not the ending but instead a pathway into realizing herself, which can be viewed as a form of healing. This final line states, “in dying I become, reborn” (32) and this makes it explicitly clear that there is new life in death.
Time and time again, Twist finds herself the victim of violence, but she does not succumb; she rises again. The final lines of “Prelude” read, “I will deconstruct myself, and rebuild in her vision” (11). In death and destruction, new life can be found, just like how forest fires leave the soil fertile for seeding.
The “her” she may be referring to is her kokum, when reflecting on her death. The women in her life deeply affect Twist’s being and reason to keep insisting on her existence. Indigenous feminism and womanism can also be found throughout many of Twist’s poems. Indigenous feminism comes from the intersection of Indigenous and woman where you experience twice the oppression: one from racialization in white spaces, and the other from the patriarchy in both white and Indigenous spaces. Similarly, Indigenous womanism looks within the community for support and seeks to uplift Indigenous women, and there is a view that Indigenous women are a life source for Indigeneity.
The poem, “Iskwêw”, begins with a dedication: “For my Nêhiyaw sisters” (64). This makes it very clear who this poem is written for. Twist has invited the reader into a poem not written for everyone. This poem calls on Kokum, Auntie, Mother, Sister and Matriarch to “be proud” (64–65). The poem calls upon images of the modern Indigenous experience and asks for all these women around her to be proud of their existence. The second stanza of this poem reads, “because I have feathers longer/ than my thick black hair/ draping my chest now/ and Cree is passing these red lips, a violence shade, carnivorous.” (64) Despite all the attempts to colonize and destroy Indigeneity, Twist calls on the female members of her life to be proud because they still retained parts of their culture such as beadwork, feathers, long black hair and most importantly the Cree language. There is an implied recognition that it is women who are the keepers of culture. This network of women can also be viewed as a part of Twist’s own Indigenous kinship.
Indigenous kinship can be understood as the social networks and community that are adopted after colonization. Yet it is more than just relationships, and is in fact a way to pass on traditional teachings and Indigenous laws. It can help to both explain and understand one’s place within the world. These female relationships help to pass along parts of Cree culture. Twist writes, “there is learning to do and I will try to unlearn/with you.” (64) This shows us that together as a community, there are practices that need to be learned but also colonial teachings that must be unlearned. There is decolonization that must take place, and Twist recognizes that this is a process that they must undertake together, in order to heal themselves but also the community.
We also see this theme continues in her poem, “Is This My Home?”. There is a continuous train of questions which ask about the truth of her experiences, and traumas, and so many things that have become a part of her identity. But in her questions, she reveals the truth. She writes, “Is it the place I ran away to with my Indigenous sister I met in the system that failed us both? Is it the city where we roamed, running through fountains during storms when we had nowhere to be and no one to care? Is it the community I found, of black and brown femmes who make me feel safe and whole?” (42–43) Here we see a condemnation of the system which fails Black and Indigenous queer people. In questioning what is a home, she wonders whether it is in her past traumas, but she also wonders if home is in her system of support. In this community, she finds safety and wholeness. This brings me back to the idea of her refracted identity, as well as the meaning of the title. Disintegrate means to fall apart, but in this community, she is put back together.
I will end with the poem “MANIFEST” which depicts healing as something larger than oneself by the means of Indigenous futurism. The words manifest can be seen as a play on words. To manifest means to speak into existence but it also hearkens back to manifest destiny, which was an ideology used to justify colonization. The poem is written “for Billy” and the opening line is, “I think I want us to be forever.” (55) The poem on the surface can be read as a love poem which seeks to immortalize love. But it can also be applied to ideas of self love and seeking to immortalize not only oneself, but one’s ancestors, traditions and culture. Twist writes, “And if we must survive, which means we must write, I’ll weave you into a poem, this art of quilting words.” (55) Writing a poem is compared to the by-hand craftsmanship of quilting and weaving. Indigenous futurism relates to the possibility of imagining a decolonized future. I think a part of this must include survival and the refusal to submit to colonial erasure — a persistence to be here for the future. With help from the women in her life, she begins to understand what it means to be a transgender Indigenous woman. Arielle Twist attempts to become whole by rising like a phoenix from the ashes.