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  • Callie Gardner

(REVIEW) ON CARE by Rebecca Jagoe & Sharon Kivland (eds)

The anthology ON CARE on a dark wooden table. The cover shows an image of a bouquet of medow flowers on a pastel pink-and-blue background, surrounded by a wide white margin, and the title in all caps,

Callie Gardner explores the bouquet of poetic, essayistic, and visual positions on giving and taking care in ON CARE, eds. Rebecca Jagoe & Sharon Kivland (Ma Bibliothèque, 2020). Carefully picking up, examining, and placing each back again, they review their own notions and understanding of care — 'its complexity, its effects, [and] the profound nature of its absences and gaps'.

How is it that care is so ubiquitous and yet so often unseen? Healthcare, social care, care homes, the need to be careful and take care, the consequences of carelessness — all are, or have been in the last year, at the front of public awareness, headline news, trending topics. It’s strange how things you thought were just part of life, just nouns, get their moment in the spotlight of the circulation of ideas, and suddenly they are revealed as rich traditions of thought, which have often gone unnoticed by the academy and culture industry. ‘Self-care’ has become an increasingly noisy phenomenon and lucrative industry, and both its advocates and critics have spilled a lot of ink on defining and explaining it. Rumbling along more quietly, collective care, community care, and mutual aid have nevertheless begun to be scooped up into that great machine that makes discourse and awareness out of everything. This isn’t happening in a vacuum; it has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, but also comes out of a greater spread of feminist understandings of labour (especially of the reproductive and emotional varieties) and wider consciousness of the principles of disability justice like those elaborated by the Sins Invalid collective and in books like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018). The idea that care might not be spontaneously generated by society, but rather a form of difficult and complex work, seemed never to have occurred to people who didn’t spend a lot of their time doing it. These books weren’t really for those people, though; they were for people who were already doing care work that might not be recognised as work, or who might not realise where the injustice was in who got cared for and how. Saying that care might be having this ‘moment’ isn’t meant to label it as trivial — it doesn’t mean that care itself is a fad — but, like anything popular, it carries the risk of being trivialised so it can be better marketed. This is a risk of which ON CARE is only too conscious, and indeed its refusal to flatten down its ideas into instagrammable platitudes is one of the great strengths of the book.

Even though ON CARE is what they call a cross-genre collection, it has methods and practices that tie it together as an experience rather than a gathering of loose sheaves. It’s not an academic book, certainly — it’s somewhat more accessible, financially and stylistically, as well as more sharply critical of institutional power than the average university press tome on the subject — but it does have a scholarly, curious bent. The majority of the pieces fall more or less comfortably under the heading of ‘essay’, and being nonfictional, that probably means they are ‘creative’ or ‘personal’, but the label ‘personal essay’ fails to do justice to the contributions in ON CARE. Daisy Lafarge’s ‘The Doe’ is a lapidary meditation on in(ter)dependence, fate, and disaster built around a consideration of the become-animal figure of Beritola from Boccaccio’s Decameron, its plaguèdness foreshadowing the pandemic year. Jamie Crewe’s ‘Nibbling’ looks at trans family/parenting/aunting told through a blend of personal experience and the commentary on the films of Anne Charlotte Robinson and the fiction of Marie NDiaye. Holly Graham’s ‘Be/Hold/En: A Duty of Care’ begins by describing a collection of images of sugar bowls depicting caricatures of enslaved Africans and describes, drawing on Christina Sharpe’s ‘wake work’ and Saidiya Hartman’s ‘utterances from the chorus’, the route that ‘careful handling’ must take in being responsible to a history which has been so denied and distorted. In the midst of a seemingly endless culture war in which any attempt to reveal the lives and histories of oppressed people is turned into right-wing outrage fodder on the nightly news, essays like these resist the faux objectivity of much of academia. Instead, they show how careful, care-full study is conducted alongside and within the kinds of ‘life experience’ that the personal essay as form is often expected to serve up as content.

These essays are joined by, and share their concerns and foresight with, poems including a selection from Nat Raha’s series on/around Brexit, £/€xtinctions, which summons up the racialised and feminised labour that is made invisible but lies behind every aspect of white British society (‘a / feminist sense / corporeal / obscure working / brown arms’), and how it might be possible to (re)build a ‘queer love’ from ‘our solidarities / vicious, damaged’. Mira Mattar’s ‘Ocean’, which I read as a long-lined, aphoristical poem, explores concepts like independence, capacity, and safety, and the alienating, contradictory messages that circulate in the culture and the harm they do — a concern that will be familiar to readers of Mattar’s astounding debut novel Yes, I Am A Destroyer (Ma Bibliothèque, 2020). Still other texts remain generically unclassifiable, like Roy Claire Potter’s ‘Only Two Kinds of People are Gonna Stay on This Beach…’, a quasi-monologue on a lonely, violent man and his ageing and care from the perspective of his carer, and Erica Scourti’s ‘Prediction No. 11’, a short text on acedia, the loss of care, accompanied by six pages of puzzling line drawings that incorporate faces, figures, symbols, text in many languages, requiring some visual care to navigate. This variety of genre doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the book because somehow, there is no abrupt sense of shift between pieces in ON CARE. This is not to say that everyone speaks from the same perspective or toes some sort of party line; I suspect that if you asked the contributors and editors of this book for a definition of ‘care’, you could get forty-five different answers. But every perspective on care collected here is something we would see shunted out of the mainstream press and mainstream literary culture alike, and they all know it. They all recognise, and are speaking against, the illegibility of care within a framework that privileges endless, destructive growth over mutuality and tending.

But acknowledging the importance of care also means reckoning with the work of care, and the fact that caring is labour. Carolina Ongaro’s ‘Personal Notes: Care among the Cracks’ neatly identifies this knotty problem in the politics of care: ‘While attempting to employ feminist politics of organising to shape our modes of working and relating, we were performing once again that unpaid, feminised labour we were so actively criticising’. Compare with Raha’s coda to her selection of poems: ‘recognition of caring labour on its own terms was never meant to be enough’. A sense of care as part of a Marxist-feminist understanding of work and gender runs throughout the book: Helen Hester’s ‘Gender is a Workplace Technology’ examines this understanding of gender while also taking issue with the monolithic and essentialist conception of gender more recently voiced by figures such as Silvia Federici, preferring to read her earlier work ‘against the grain’. Care is central to this understanding, and Hester’s essay looms large in those other pieces that consider care as a job, whether a low-paid one as part of a vast and exploitative industry or an unpaid, long-term domestic responsibility. Tom Allen’s ‘Preliminary Notes after Care Homes’ shows how the function of waged workers in care homes in this society is not intended to alleviate the suffering of the people who live there, but to free up those members of the labour force whom the idea of that suffering might bother, and that the potential of talk and companionship to relieve suffering is only possible when care workers ‘shirk’ their paid duties. The refusal to erase care, the insistence on placing it in its economic context, is vital to understanding what the advance of capital is taking, and has taken, from us.

This is especially important because we have long since come to a stage with the idea of ‘self-care’ where the noise of commodification threatens to drown out the underlying radical principle. As Mattar writes in ‘Ocean’: ‘We got cruel with misplaced autonomy’. The heart has been hollowed out of a radical principle articulated by Black feminists like Audre Lorde (who wrote in ‘A Burst of Light’, an essay formed of entries from her cancer journals, that self-care ‘is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’) and turned into a commodity to be bought and/or a neoliberal ethic of self-improvement and self-pampering. Entertainment, too, is a big part of self-care; if you ask almost anyone about it, they will give you (some try to sell you) a list, but this will almost certainly include telling you to read a book, listen to music, or watch television. When I tell her I am feeling stressed or ill, my mother tells me to choose ‘something you don’t have to think about’ — giving this advice is a way she cares for me, but following it makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty. However, although there were many parts of ON CARE I allowed myself to be entertained by — I laughed reading Rona Lorimer’s insurrectionary tale ‘Waitresses’, and cried over Crewe’s ‘Nibbling’ — I never stopped thinking about it. As a writer and reader, I retain the cautious hope that enjoyment, reflection, and restoration can function together to resist alienation and easy complacency. Many of these essays sharpen an understanding of self-care, like Juliet Jacques’ ‘Aphorisms on Self-Care’, which critiques the myths and misunderstandings of late capitalist self-care culture and considers how we might return to the heart of the matter. Amidst the industry of self-care products and services, we have to constantly and forcibly remind ourselves that ‘radical self-care’, the kind worth doing because it can sustain from its roots, is communal.

In the past twelve months, I assumed a new caring responsibility and, to some degree, changed my life around it. In doing this, I also recognised more of the care work of others from which I’d been benefitting. This increasing centring of care in my understanding is a little hard to admit, because of course, I want you, reader, to think that my politics were perfect from the get-go and you are the one just now finding out about it — an illusion that ON CARE never indulges in its readers or writers. Juliet Johnson’s ‘Stop It, Dad’, which breaks down an unwittingly, but deeply insensitive and ableist Facebook post, named for me assumptions that had made me uncomfortable coming from others and that I hadn’t yet named, and pointed out assumptions I had that I hadn’t yet been able to unpack. I wasn’t ignorant of care, but I didn’t understand its complexity, its effects, or the profound nature of its absences and gaps. I think, like many people, I unconsciously believed that I basically ought to be able to look after myself and that relations with others were a sort of extracurricular activity. We think this because we’re lonely, alienated by neoliberalism or whatever we want to call it, but we’re still wrong. In the editors’ epistolary introduction, Rebecca Jagoe writes that ‘care is an imperative right now, and the hardest thing in the world’. Care, and the lack thereof, is the fulcrum around which all injustices turn and can be turned. Ruiz Stephinson’s cover image of a bouquet reminds us of the original meaning of anthology — a book of pressed flowers — and of the flowers beside a sickbed, a deceptively simple act of caring. ON CARE is also a bouquet, painstakingly arranged to bring some flourishing to the sterile rooms from which we find ourselves struggling to care.

ON CARE is out now and available to order via Ma Bibliothèque.


Text: Callie Gardner

Published: 4/20/21


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