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 Laraib Khan’s Medium.
“I am trying to figure out how to be in this world without wanting it.” — Billy-Ray Belcourt
I open my reflection with a quote from Billy-Ray Belcourt, highlighted at the very beginning of Arielle Twist’s Disentigrate Dissociate to inform the prevalent subject matter at hand-the struggles to live in this cruel world! Arielle Twist- a Nehiyaw, Two-Spirit, sex educator is a part of the Cree community, and she has crafted a brilliant poetic memoir called Disentigrate Dissociate which opens up deep struggles a person is ‘forced’ to feel when they truly embrace themselves. This memoir touches upon transgender Indigenous identity and Indigenous kinship. I will focus on the struggles of being a transgender Indigenous person that Twist expresses within her poems. Almost every poem reflects the struggles of any human finding a place in this sexist, racist, and power-oriented society. In my attempt to write a reflection on this incredible and fearless poetry, I want to emphasize the overarching themes pertaining to the self — the struggles of placing oneself into the world, self-doubting her identity, and then accepting the distance one might feel once they embrace their true self. This memoir is packed with the idea of fitting in alongside the guilt of feeling true to yourself. This juxtaposition of feeling proud of one’s identity and feeling ashamed of being true to yourself at the same time is a phenomenon, beautifully captured in this courageous memoir.
Twist’s emotionally entrenched poetry dwells on finding a home or a place for oneself. Her emptiness is prevalent right from the first poem, “Prelude”. A poem describing a death scene of her kokum. Using strong imagery, Twist forces its readers to visualize the pain: the lines read “ I beg my eyes to stop/making an ocean-/water and salt…” The use of “beg” here suggests struggle to hold back, a strong urge of pleading to the eyes to hold back the tears. Here, the notion of begging alludes to the idea of hiding one’s feelings; there is a sense of shame associated with crying here, she is stopping herself from truly expressing her sorrow. In her act of remembering her kokum’s death, there is a notion of re-birth, the beginning of her own self-discovery; prevalent from the lines, “ I weep into a space left unbodied/I think I’ll leave mine too/Disintegrate or dissociate./I will deconstruct myself,/and rebuild in her vision.” In these beautifully crafted lines, there is a strong sense of hope. Through her emptiness- ‘I weep into a space left unbodied”- she decides to “deconstruct” herself. Just in these 2 lines, and a brief enjambment, Twist declares her journey to find herself. Interestingly enough, she even acknowledges how difficult it will be by mentioning the two profound verbs: “Disintegrate or dissociate”. This powerful statement shows the complexity of the self itself-it is an entire war against your own self in order to regain something lost, or broken.
Twist’s use of the first-person narrative and a direct approach to address the victimizers, intrigues the readers further. Her struggles and hesitation to cope with racial and sexual violence are written in a very honest and open way in the poem, “Dear White, Cis Men,” which is a poem outlining sexual abuse specifically towards a transgender Indigenous and the scars that this disgusting act leaves on a person. There is an ironic undertone in Twist’s voice throughout this poetry and I genuinely admire her for writing such a bold and fearless piece. The way Twist has written the violence, leaves the reader astonished; through descriptive imagery, she showcases her trauma. She begins the poem by declaring “…a spiral of/ confusion and self-doubt/about my own desirability.” Here, it can be inferred that she is perhaps doubting her own choices, however reading the rest of the poem, the reader finds that these statements are ironic. Twist cleverly uses the format of a letter to acknowledge that she did once doubted herself because these abusers made her think it was her fault- victim blaming-but through calling them out in her writing, she makes an attempt to cope with the blame. At the beginning of the poem, she expresses her fears of speaking out: “I still don’t know what you could do if I don’t [praise you]”. However moving towards the end, she expresses “your rough tongue that/taste a body/ I told you/not to.” The message that could be intended here is yes, there is self-doubt when the victimizer harms a person, there is always the notion of self-blame, but through the act of writing this poem, Twist makes a statement that she is finally coping with such atrocities. There is no more doubt when she claims that she had stopped them, she had ‘told them not to’.
Within the same poem, Twist mentions herself from the eyes of these white, cis men, as ‘[an] exotic girl,/brown skin with/tits and a dick.” Her identity is reduced to her physical appearance, she is objectified and tarnished due to her body and sexuality. The scar that this identity crisis has put on her is prevalent in lines where she says “Dear white, cis men,/who make me question:/Is being trans worth being killed?” The devastating truth is highlighted within these lines, how the cruel, and inhumane act makes a person question their own lives. Twist is seen as blaming her identity in an attempt to perhaps comprehend rape. She is addressing her struggles of self-doubt yet through this ironic, letter format, she addresses her healing process. That being said, personally, this poem fills me with emotions that are too hard to express, I cannot find the correct words to describe the overwhelming effect this poem has had on me.
These two poems are the first two works within Disentigrate Dissociate, and they set up the entire memoir extremely powerfully. Just by analyzing the contents of ‘Prelude’ and ‘Dear White, Cis Men’, the notions of grief, self-doubt, hope, and healing are seen, which are dominant in the entire memoir. Through a transgender Indigenous lens, Arielle Twist bravely visits her wounds, explains her struggles to fit into her own body, and depicts her healing process with poetry. Such intelligently constructed poems exhibit the notions of feeling lost and regaining confidence about oneself through speaking and writing. Through irony, Twist showcases her process of healing.