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 Alanna Sabatino’s Medium bog.
Author of Disintegrate/Dissociate, Arielle Twist is of Cree descent, specifically Nehiyaw, and identifies as a Two-Spirit, trans women from George Gordon First Nation, Saskatchewan. Being one of the largest indigenous communities, the Canadian Cree community lives north and west of Lake Superior, and in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Although the Cree community is one of the largest in North America, the people are still experiencing the horrors and trauma from settler colonization which has dramatically affected their sense of “Self” and identity.
Evident in Twist’s book of poetry Disintegrate/Dissociate the concept of the “self” and trying to understand one’s indigenous identity in modern days is a very striking theme that is prevalent in many poems. The search for an identity is not met with answers or happiness, instead Twist’s narrator highlights the struggles that indigenous woman have to face from settler colonizers, which include rape and assault with strong, graphic imagery. What is interesting about Twist’s collection is that the narrator seems to be speaking for the collective I, the collective of indigenous women in many of the poems.
Within “The Girls” there is a narrative arc of the “Self” that shows the progression of the narrator using her trauma to channel into self-love and healing”
I think the “self” is best exemplified in “The Girls” where we see an emotional responses from the narrator in regards to the narrative arc they experience transitioning from trauma into healing. The trauma being referred to in this poem can be located in lines such as “so you can ask these questions and validate”; “dirtyfuckingdesiresdaddyhadtoo”; “boys like you make us feel unlovable, a biological mistake” (Twist 28). These lines show the self-doubt and confusion that the narrator experiences being the postmodern Other Woman as a result of years of oppression from white cis men. This theme of postmodern Other Woman is prevalent in this poem in all the lines where the narrator describes herself with words such as “too brown” and “a goddess without a name” which implies the narrator’s lack of self identity from being considered the Other Woman.
The narration arc progresses away from trauma that the narrator experiences in a space of self-love and healing, highlighting the beauty of their body. Specially focusing on the last few lines, the narrator’s perspective shifts to use the strength they have learned from these past events to realize: “ I am the kind of girl who learns my boundaries by dating you” (29). I believe this is turning point in the narrator’s thinking. We see the change in appreciating her self-worth. Following, the narrator explicitly acknowledges her “self” in a positive light for the first time, using the literary device of anaphora by starting each line with “ This girl…” to strengthen her language and create a more impactful declaration of her healing and female empowerment.
The poem does not have any breaks but uses spaceless word clusters to fill the space that the break would be in a traditional poem format, this may be a subtle nod of rebellion against settler-colonialism society by not adhering to their poetry formatting rules and therefore alluding to not adhering to their rules in general. “The Girls” is a powerful poem that speaks to many themes and issues that the collective female Indigenous population faces from oppression, assault, and a general lack of self identity and awareness, Twist’s use of language is able to bring the reader onto this small journey that is part of her larger journey into the healing and beauty of the Indigenous Woman.
Her tweet above shows that Twist continues to support the beauty of all Indigenous women. And the self-love that she is able to present through her poetry.
Twist’s collective “I” voice goes beyond the postmodern Other Woman and Indigenous Feminism that is evident in “The Girls”. As an open Two-Spirit, Trans Woman, Twist also speaks to the Indigenous Queer identity and their transformation from trauma to healing in “Who Will Save You Now?”. Twist does not shy away from creating graphic and violent imagery to enforce the reality that these individuals face. She leaves no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity, she explicitly shows the trauma and abuse when she states:
“While these men choke you
beat you in bathroom stalls
crush your ribs against brick walls
in queer bars, downtown home.” (41)
As well, Twist makes it very clear who this violence occurs too, the Queer and Transgender Indigenous community. She brights the spotlight onto this population that is typically hidden in Indigenous and Settler societies in a very powerful and political fashion. Looking at the fifth stanza:
“Queerness and indigeneity not intersecting quietly
white queers policing your existence
indigenous blood telling you that you’re
a new generation problem.” (40)
Twist is able to address settler-colonialism as well as Indigenous queer ethics while acknowledging the Queer identity that is found within the Indigenous community and is often a taboo topic. By shedding light on this identity, Twist is giving them power and opportunity to express their needs and their narrative. As stated earlier, Twist does not provide the fairytale happy ending to the poems or the collection as a whole, these endings stay true to reality and highlight how the trauma Indigenous individuals have to endure. This specific stanza embodies the reality of being Indigenous Queer because they feel unaccepted by both their people and their colonizers which contributes to their lack of self identity. It creates the feeling of displacement that so many of these individuals, as well as Twist being a Two-Spirit, Trans Woman, may experience as a result of their “Otherness” in both spaces. This feeling of displacement that the narrator expresses in association with the lack of self identity creates the traumatic experiences in “Who Will Save You Now?”. Twist still does not end the poem on with the extremely graphic imagery of the abuse in the bathroom, she follows up with asking the reader an important question in regards to their “Self”: “who will save you now if you can’t save yourself?” (41). In an almost challenging- the-reader way, there is still a sense of hope and pleading for the realization that these traumas do not define one’s sense of “Self”. That you can still fight back and “save yourself”.
In “In Dying I Become”, Twist introduces the idea of the Transgender Indigenous Studies in a more explicit way. Similar to her other poems, there’s a feeling of self-destruction as a result of the oppression from settler society, but there is also a fleeting moment of hope, rebuilding and healing and the determination transgender Indigenous have. The poem follows the concept of having to die, metaphorically speaking, to be reborn into one’s new identity. The narrator explores the construction of the “Self” as a trans femme in a transphobic world, from both their indigenous world and the settler-colonized world, leaving a space of unknown for these individuals.
not whole, not mine
not quite yet” (32)
But, their world is not hopeless, as Twist shows, in the closing line “ In dying I become, reborn.” (32). These individuals have the strength and desire to rebuild themselves and their place in society by creating a new cultural identity for themselves that have endured the long years of oppression from Canada’s historic efforts. Through this poem, Twist is essentially creating a space for a sub-culture within these two worlds, to live their truth. By encouraging them to ‘kill’ their old selves, metaphorically speaking, and to rebuild their new “Self” in this space.