Bodies out of Place (1996)
Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8:2
1996 Women & Performance Project. Pp. 161-173
Bodies Out of Place: The Videotapes of Shani Mootoo by Richard Fung
There is a sensuousness to the video art of Shani Mootoo. It's the first thing you notice: the colors, the textures, the thick, silky voice beckoning into a world of flavor and heady fragrance. Her work directs you to use your senses. But the bodies presented in the tapes and the bodies addressed by them are not an unspecified mass of flesh and nerve endings captivated in a sybaritic dance of transcendence. They are social bodies, born into specific times, places, languages, and genealogies. They are gendered and sexual bodies, raced and placed. The pleasures they elicit and experience are usually forbidden ones that at once foreground and work against the grain of their ascribed location. It is by analyzing and subverting the regulation of pleasure, and with it the performance of identities, that these tapes both foreground and undermine the anxiously repeated stereotypes of patriarchy and colonialism.
Born of Indo-Trinidadian parents in Dublin, Ireland, Shani Mootoo grew up in San Fernando and Trinidad, and she currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, where she works in video, visual art, poetry, and fiction. I mention these geographical details because her work reveals a preoccupation with place and displacement, signaled through Mootoo's autobiographical presence as narrator, actor, or through the pointedly self-reflexive presence of the director as a character. Of the five tapes I will discuss, Lest I Burn (1991), A Paddle and a Compass (1992), and Her Sweetness Lingers (1994) are structured as visual montages accompanied by Mootoo's first-person voice-over; Wild Woman in the Woods (1993) is a short narrative featuring Mootoo as the protagonist; and English Lesson (1991) features an on-screen performer who addresses an off-screen director in his monologue. But although the tapes arise from Mootoo's experience as an Indo-Trinidadian, an immigrant, a woman, and a lesbian, the "I" they deploy is not a transparent, unmediated subject; rather it is a strategic device in which the artist performs her "self." In putting her image and voice into her work, Mootoo carries on a longstanding tradition of self-reflexive performance in Canadian experimental video. In the process of unraveling and weaving together the complex strands of the self, she touches on issues of identity that are particularly topical.
Where place and identity merge we call home. But for the diasporic subject, the connotations of wholeness, security, and refuge associated with the place(s) one might regard as originary can not be taken for granted. Mootoo doesn't fit in to essential(ist) constructions of what it means to be Irish, West Indian, Canadian, or Indian. She either doesn't look, sound, or act "right." Race, language, and culture are the obvious culprits: the "typical" Canadian woman is white, just as the "typical" West Indian is black. Even in 1995, as Indians celebrate their 150th anniversary of arrival in Trinidad—they now constitute that island's single largest ethnic group—their claim to Caribbean-ness is still a matter of contestation. Predominant North American stereotypes about the Caribbean share in common with certain strands of anti- and postcolonial nationalism the collapsing together of the distinct, though overlapping, histories and realities of different Caribbean nations into one another. In this conflation, the resulting generalized West Indian identity is inevitably narrated solely in terms of its African heritage. Despite a national anthem that proclaims "every creed and race find an equal place," in Trinidad and Tobago there still exists a European, African creole cultural hegemony in which the Indian contribution to the nation is constructed and managed as something of an add-oil. This is not to suggest that official and oppositional discourses of race and nation in Trinidad and Tobago are at all simple or stable. It is also important to recognize the process of decolonization that the reclaiming of Africa—and India—represents.
Race and culture are not the only criteria for national belonging. Since the mid-80's, lesbian sex has been criminalized in several Caribbean nations (along with the already existing laws prohibiting male homosexual activity). This includes Trinidad and Tobago, where it is classed as "serious indecency" and punishable by five years in prison. As an out lesbian, Mootoo is a priori an outlaw. "Not just (any)body can be a citizen anymore," writes M. Jaqui Alexander, "for some bodies have been marked by the state as non-procreative, in pursuit of sex only for pleasure, a sex that is non-productive of babies and of no economic gain. Having refused the heterosexual imperative of citizenship, these bodies, according to the state, pose a profound threat to the very survival of the nation" (1994:8). The link between reproduction and nationalism, especially ethnic nationalism, became visible in Canada recently when, during the 1995 sovereignty referendum campaign, Bloc Quebequois leader Lucien Bouchard lamented that francophone Quebequois are one of "the white races that have the least children" (1995:A18).
National identities are always built at the expense of "others": those outside the borders, those of a different color, language, or sexuality. Of course, one's connection to an "imagined community" does not depend entirely on others' recognition of one's right to belong. Mootoo's videotapes persistently grapple with the twin powers of definition and self-definition. In some instances the tapes undermine hegemonies through a documentary analysis, in others they reinvent the self or reinvent the world to satisfy the needs of the self.
Body of Language
All but one of Shani Mootoo's tapes feature her voice. It is a voice whose accent and inflection bear the marks of her history: the rhythm and cadence of the Caribbean, the precise enunciation of a privileged education, the increasingly Canadian curl of the "r." Voice and language are the focus of her second videotape, English Lesson; ironically, it is the only piece in which Mootoo's own voice is absent.
The tape begins in darkness with a male voice warning the director in Trinidadian English that this had better be the last take. When the screen fades up, it is on a black and white t-shirt with the slogan. "Native West Indian." The camera then zooms out to reveal a white man. In thus orchestrating the revelation of the speaker's identity, English Lesson plays with the audience's expectations about what a West Indian looks like, simultaneously indicating and undermining the stereotype that conflates race with nationality. At the end of the tape, when the instructor sounds out a Caribbean beat with two wooden spoons, the conflation of race and culture is similarly parodied—in Trinidad white men have rhythm, too. A parallel inversion occurs in the content of the lesson itself, which consists not of a lecture on standard English, but rather in the correct pronunciation of Trinidadian "nation language" phrases such as "wha' hap'nin, man?" The instructor addresses the camera directly, employing a pedagogy of repetition until the viewer/pupil gets the lesson right. The instructor's patience and zeal recall the missionary, but Mootoo recasts the scenario as a postcolonial
on linguistic assignment to the metropole. It is an added irony that the
postcolonial missionary is a European creole.
At face value, English Lesson addresses the viewer as one ignorant of the Caribbean and in need of language instruction. But the tape engages the Trinidadian-ness of its audience in a number of ways. First, this is accomplished through the presentation of an identifiable "Trini" character in the body of the instructor. English Lesson follows in a tradition of resistance to the deluge of American cultural product through the celebration of folk personae (for example, Trinidadian storyteller Paul Keens-Douglas, or the Newfoundland satirical theatre review Codco). Second, the tape speaks in proxy for the Caribbean viewer who has suffered through North American attempts to mimic the long, wide vowel in the West Indian pronunciation of "man": "What the hell is 'mon'?,' our instructor challenges. "Don't say 'mon'; I never see a 'mon' in my life." Finally, given the traditional emphasis on "good" English, Mootoo explores the subversive pleasure of the nation language itself.
In the anglophone Caribbean there is a range of spoken language. This has been cataloged in Edward Kamau Braithwaite's History of the Voice. He writes:
(W)e have English, which is the imposed language on much of the archipelago. It is an imperial language, as are French, Dutch, and Spanish. We also have what we call creole English, which is a mixture of English and an adaptation that English took in the new environment of the Caribbean when it became mixed with the other imported languages. We also have what is called nation language, which is the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and labourers, the servants who were brought in by the conquistadors. Finally, we have the remnants of ancestral languages still persisting in the Caribbean. (1984, 56)
The speech of most Trinidadians slides along a continuum from standard English to nation language. Although many Trinidadians have an ability to shift register according to context, and the privileged regularly express themselves in nation language, there is a strong correlation between class, race, and education and the language forms at one's disposal. So although nation language sometimes gains public circulation—in calypso, for example—it is still seen as "bad" English with low-class connotations. Standard English is the official language of education, government, and business: language is a significant factor in the maintenance of the class structure. For example, children from families in which standard English is regularly spoken have advantages in an educational system in which that is the only acceptable form of communication. Accent, as well as grammar and vocabulary, plays a role. Trinidad's post/neocolonial status is reflected in the traditional prestige afforded British—and North American—accented English. This has engendered a practice and a consciousness about "putting on" northern accents, illustrated in the popular expression, "freshwater Yankee," referring to a person who has acquired an American accent without having left the island—that is, without having crossed salt water. While nation language may be a sign of class inferiority in the Caribbean, in the diaspora it can signal a much sought-after ethnic authenticity. It is worth noting that there is no nation language in the tapes featuring Mootoo's own voice, most of which were made after English Lesson. Her accent is neither explained nor contextualized, even in Wild Women in the Woods, where the Trinidadian-sounding protagonist lives in the heart of the Canadian wilderness. In these tapes, Mootoo's voice does not figure as a trope of authenticity or oppositionality. Its place at the center of discourse is situated as unselfconscious and natural.
Place and Identity
A Canadian Rocky Mountain town in winter. Pria (South Asian and butch) nervously drops in on a burgeoning love interest (also South Asian but decidedly femme) who enthusiastically shows off her new engagement ring. Disappointed and bitter, Pria (played by Mootoo) takes a stroll along a country road, where she runs into a female acquaintance returning from skiing alone in the back country. Invited to go camping in the woods, Pria declines. Asked to go skiing, Pria timidly admits that she has never learned how. Finally the woman asks Pria to go for a day hike, "up there." The camera follows the woman's' gesture up a vertiginous rock face to a distant cap of snow. Pria demurs: "How about a coffee some time?"
In Wild Woman in the Woods, Mootoo's most formally complex videotape, the land is initially presented as something intimidating and forbidding. Pria sticks to the paved road, the thin strip of safety that slices through the wilderness. It is the white woman who can move across this landscape. This association of race, gender, and place is repeated in A Paddle and a Compass, the tape that precedes Wild Woman and is in some ways a prelude to it. Here Mootoo and co-director Wendy Oberlander trade stories about their differing relationships to the land. Told in voice-over, these tales frame and re-frame the tape's visual images of rock, pine, and red commercial canoes cutting through the impossibly turquoise water of Lake Louise in Banff National Park. But while Oberlander tells of daring exploits in northern extremes—her own and those of others who fascinate and motivate her—Mootoo's anecdotes situate her take on nature in a wealthy childhood in neocolonial Trinidad. Her parents borrow a Sears Roebuck catalogue from American friends who have ordering privileges at the American military base on the island. Mootoo the child becomes fixated on an advertisement for camping gear. Set against a scene of a lake, mountains, and evergreens, a nuclear family is shown interacting with appropriate merchandise. The mother and daughter look into a tent, while the father and son cook at a hibachi.
From the moment of contact, the cult of the outdoors is already commodified and tied to whiteness, foreignness, and a gendered nuclear family. The cultural imperialism at work in the catalogue photo is referenced against the concrete imperialist presence on the island. Mootoo illustrates the role of pleasure in extending that cultural hegemony: "more than anything I wanted to be in the picture with the father and son in their matching, red-plaid lumberjack shirts." Nevertheless, attempts at satisfying such desires result in either a futile, unfulfilling mimicry—Shani the little girl pitches her toy tent in her garden, the stenciled drawings of Cowboy and Indian against a hibiscus fence and palm tree, not the forest of evergreens in the photograph—or in extravagant exercises in class privilege: her father buys a heater for the swimming pool: friends order sleeping bags, which they can use only in their air-conditioned bedrooms; her uncle imports a ten-person tent that the family takes to the beach, where other beachgoers "strolled by inspecting the tents and us."
In A Paddle and a Compass, Mootoo contrasts the self-consciousness and foreignness of the cult of the outdoors with what might he read as an authentically Trinidadian approach to nature: "I don't remember talk there of conquering this mountain, this coast, that river, we used to take long drives into the country, turn around, and come back home." The tents, the sleeping bags, the swimming-pool heaters are imported commodities that complement the distinctly foreign need to categorize, measure, and contain nature. However, differences between the North American and the Trinidadian are not fixed and permanent. Phoning home from Canada, Mootoo questions her mother about the highest mountain and the longest river in Trinidad—she, too, as her father points out, has begun to talk in superlatives. "From the tourist board she found out that the longest river is the Caroni river, but no one knows how long it is." With this anecdote, the artist charts her own acculturation as a Canadian. But as she, an immigrant "of color," becomes Canadian, so do the markers of Canadian identity have to change: Oberlander, the white Canadian, rethinks the childhood experience of singing the Canadian version of 'This Land is Your Land." "I wonder if Woody Guthrie ever saw the Canadian Rockies," she asks. "and I wonder whose land this really is?" This is a particularly poignant and potent image. By pointing to a gesture of Canadian nationalism authored by an American, the closing phrase suggests that Mootoo has moved from one neocolonial context to another. It also opens up the question of Canada's own colonial relationship with this continent's First Peoples.
The resolution of the nature dilemma in Wild Woman, though complementary, is quite different. After her encounter with the outdoors woman, Pria takes another stroll along the foot of the mountains. This time, however, she is approached by a postmodern pastiche of the Hindu goddess Durga wearing sari and ski boots, played by ritual performance artist Shauna Beharry. Teased and tantalized, Pria follows this cross-country-skiing trickster higher and higher into the mountains. The unathletic Pria even dons skis when the goddess feigns an accident. Led through an area of darkness by a path of lights laid in the snow, she finds herself in a happy world of hybridity among a group of beautiful South Asian women decked out in silk, leather jackets, and camping wear, dancing to the rhythms of calypso-inflected Hindi movie music. In this world, the goddess tells Pria. "we have no roles, no rules. You simply are as you are and you're perfect." In A Paddle and a Compass, the childhood encounter with the image of the northern forest precipitates a desire to refuse the gendered, racialized location by entering the world of the white father and son in the photograph: it brings location to consciousness but also produces a rift in the self. In Wild Woman, on the other hand, the landscape holds the promise of healing for the fractured self: at the heart of the mountain, Pria finds a complex imbrication of identities.
Unable to enter nature on a leisure quest, Pria is drawn to the mountains by something more spiritual; it is a place of wholeness and solace. But in this epigrammatic narrative, the image of Pria in the snowy Rockies has more than a psychological resonance. Since 1971 Canada has had an official policy of multiculturalism that recognizes two official languages and many cultures. Despite such apparent inclusiveness, however, in a country whose identity is tied to a romantic image of the land, people of color are discursively tied to the urban landscape—and the inner city, at that. In this version of Canada, Aboriginal Canadians occupy the ironic position of being a fixed feature of the sentimental, untamed geography but simultaneously erased from the land as a living people. By inserting Pria's queer, brown, female body into the iconic national landscape, Wild Woman disturbs the hegemonic construction of Canada. And in its realization of Durga as a sporty diva, the tape gives us a portable, adaptable mythology that challenges essentialist notions of culture and identity.
Public and Private
In Mootoo's tapes discussed thus far, the only characters shown exclusively in interior space are the male instructor in English Lesson and the newly engaged love interest in Wild Woman in the Woods. In the first case, placing the male instructor in the domestic (feminine) space of a kitchen is a spatial gag that parallels the linguistic inversion of the lesson. In the second instance, Pria meets the woman in the most public area of the home, the living room, and she never gets to a more intimate space. The woman's location in the home further symbolizes her collusion with conventional norms of femininity and heterosexuality, and it serves to contrast with the free women in the woods whose lives are undefined by men. In fact, the lesbian characters in Mootoo's videos are always shown outdoors.
By presenting lesbian identity in exterior space, Mootoo's work subverts the normal private-public dichotomy in which sexuality (and homosexuality in particular) is relegated to the former. "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation," declared Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to justify the 1969 amendment that legalized "sexual acts between two consenting adults in private over the age of 21" (1982:226). Tolerance was therefore conditional: homosexuality is to be kept in the bedroom and away from public view. When homosexuality disobediently moves out into public space, the euphoria of liberation is always muted by the (possibly violent) consequences. This ambivalence is captured in Lest I Burn (1991), in which images of a lesbian couple out on the street are juxtaposed with a voice-over (Mootoo) describing a forced performance of femininity lest her "spiky shortness of hair" make her the butt of homophobic abuse, "lest I burn under the curl of their lips." The tape was shot in front of a cafe on Vancouver's Commercial Street, where the city's Italian and lesbian communities intersect. The irate owner once turned a hose on two lesbians who greeted each other with kisses in front of his establishment.
In Lest I Burn, the city is configured as an uncertain space for lesbian identities. In Mootoo's work generally, it is not simply the freedom from domestic space that is celebrated, but specifically the natural world—either the unpeopled wilderness of A Paddle and a Compass and Wild Woman in the Woods or the garden in which two female lovers flirt in Her Sweetness Lingers (1994). In choosing a garden as the setting for that piece, an erotic prose poem of longing and seduction recited over lavish, electronically manipulated images, Mootoo exploits the hybrid geography of a space where the oppositions of city-country and natural-social give way. Also interesting is that the garden is also one of the few public leisure spaces with feminine associations.
In the adage "a woman's place is in the home," the feminine space of domesticity is counterposed to the male-identified workplace. But the gendered separation of public and private space does not only occur along this axis. As A Paddle and a Compass and Wild Woman indicate (and defy), there also exists a separation between the female domestic space and the public space of leisure, which is also coded as masculine. In Mootoo's description of the Sears Roebuck catalogue, the mother and daughter kneel looking into the tent while the father and son are at the barbecue, their fishing rods and canoes beside them. The females gaze inward into the surrogate home while the males participate in what at first glance may also seem domestic. Nevertheless, cooking is what women do as part of their domestic chores. When it is moved into the workplace (e.g., the restaurant), or it becomes a leisure activity (e.g., the barbecue), it shifts into the domain of men. It is their command of the public recreational space that the child desires when she fantasizes herself into the photo with the father and son. While A Paddle and a Compass and Wild Woman debate race and nationality in the North American outdoors, they simultaneously affirm the presence of women in that public sphere.
Bodies in Place
In the postcolonial context of diaspora, home becomes a fixation: losing home, remembering home, imagining home, returning home. Feminist geographer Doreen Massey writes, "(s)uch views of place, which reverberate with nostalgia for something lost, are coded female. Home is where the heart is (if you happen to have the spatial mobility to have left) and where the woman (mother/lover-to-whom-you-will-one-day-return) is also" (1994; 180). Of course, for this concept of home as security and stability to have currency, the mother/lover-woman-must be fixed in her place. For lesbians and gay men, our sexuality can also make this vision of return problematic. The literal home is often a place to leave, though not always without regret. New homes must be built just as new families are chosen.
Shani Mootoo's tapes all reveal the search for a home where her affinities of gender, sexuality, culture, language, race, and national belonging can come together. The strategies offered up in the different tapes have changed over time. Her early pieces are interventionist and assertive: although modified by humor, English Lesson forcefully inserts Trinidadian nation language into the space of dominant speech; at the end of Lest I Burn, the narrator's tone changes abruptly from fearful to defiant, "Enough of this shit; from now on this is amazon land!" The camera shows that slogan painted on a wall—it is a turf war. On the other hand, Wild Woman in the Woods, which was produced later, posits a space of self-fulfillment carved in metaphor and the imagination, rather than the literal landscape. In Her Sweetness Lingers, the most recent of the tapes I have discussed, interracial lesbian lust runs free in the hybrid space of a garden. In viewing the body of work as a whole, what is significant is not the linear progression of strategies from tape to tape—what is striking is the way in which, as a group, they represent an attempt to balance the social, the personal, the imaginary, and the political.
Anglo-Canadian mythology is rooted in images of a vast land that runs "from sea to endless sea:' "My Canada includes Quebec," goes a slogan in the recent Quebec referendum. The identity of francophone Quebeçois, on the other hand, is traditionally tied to language and memory: "Je me souviens (I remember)" reads the Quebec licence plate; "Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver" [My country isn't a country, it's the snow] begins an unofficial anthem. These conflicting discourses of identity fight it out over territory claimed by native people. Shani Mootoo's videotapes shatter the binary of English-French in which the Canadian national debate is usually trapped. They deconstruct the central tropes of land and language, mapping out a space in
which the nation's "others" might become both centered and central.
English Lesson, (1991) 2:45 min. Lest I Burn, (1991) 5:00 min.
A Paddle and a Compass (1992) 9:10 min. (co-directed with Wendy Oberlander)
Wild Woman in the Woods, (1993) 14:00 min.
Her Sweetness Lingers, (1994), 12:00 min.
Distributor: V Tape, 401 Richmond Street W., #451. Toronto, Ontario.
M5V 3A8, Canada. Telephone: (416) 351-1317; Fax: (416) 351-1509.
This article was conceptualized during a Rockefeller Fellowship residency at the Center for Media, Culture, and History at New York University. I would also like to thank Tim McCaskell for his usual insight and criticism.