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(REVIEW) Tongues and Those Institutions Should Belong to Us

In this review, Rhian Williams takes a look at Tongues, a dazzling zine edited by Taylor Le Melle and Rehana Zaman (PSS, 2018), with* Christopher Kirubi’s pamphlet ‘Those Institutions Should Belong to Us’ (PSS). 

*I [Rhian] use ‘with’ here in homage to Fred Moten’s use of that preposition in all that beauty (2019) to ‘denote accompaniment[]’. This pamphlet was interleaved in the review copy of Tongues that I received from PSS.

> Onions, lemons, chilli peppers, fractals, hands, patterns, palms pressing, tears, avocados, pomegranate, mouths, finger clicking, deserts. Screenshots, flyers, placards, transcripts, textures, temporalities. Tongues is an urgent gathering in, a zine-type publication that works as a space where Black and Brown women (bringing both their intersections and the tension of distinction) enact memorial, exchange, jouissance, resistance, collaboration, support, listening. Edited by Taylor Le Melle and filmmaker Rehana Zaman, whose work generates many of the dialogic responses interleaved in this collection, this ‘assembly of voices’ was brought together in this particular format in the wake of Zaman’s exhibition, Speaking Nearby, shown at the CCA in Glasgow in 2018. But, as Ainslie Roddick explains, in ‘an attempt to reckon with the trans-collaborative nature of “practice” itself’, Tongues resists academic mechanisms that fall into reiterating the violence of individualism, moving around the figure of the single author/editor to seek to capture ‘a process of thinking with and through the people we work and resist with, acknowledging and sharing the work of different people as practice’ (p. 3). As such, ‘[Tongues’] structure, design and rhythm reflect the work of all the contributors to this anthology who think with one another through various practical, poetic and pedagogical means’ (ibid.). Designed and published by PSS, this is a tactile, sensory production: its aesthetics are post-internet, collage, digi-analogue, liquid-yet-textural, with shiny paper pages that you have to gently peel apart, gleaming around a central pamphlet of matte, heavier paper in mucous-membrane pink and mauve, which itself protects the centrefold glossy mouth-open lick of ‘I kiss your ass’ between the leaves of Ziba Karbassi’s poem, ‘Writing Cells’, here in both Farsi and English (translated with Stephen Watts). Throughout, Tongues reiterates the sensuous, labouring body as political, as partisan.

> Tongues’ multivalency is capacious, nurturing, dedicated to archiving that which is fugitive yet ineluctable; so, inevitably, its overarching principle is labour, is work. The entire collection of essays, response pieces, email exchanges, WhatsApp messages, poetry, transcripts, journaling, and imaginings are testimony to effort and skill, to the determination to keep spaces open for remembrance and for noticing within the ever-creeping demands of production. It is not surprising that this valuable collection is stalked by perilous attenuation, the damage of exhaustion. It is appallingly prescient of the first week of June 2020. Moving my laptop so that I can write whilst also keeping an eye on what I’m cooking for later, setting up my child to listen to an audiobook so that I can try to open up some headspace for listening and responding, nervous about how to spread my ‘being with’ across multiple platforms (my child, my writing, the news, other voices), I am taken by Chandra Frank’s meditative response piece to Zaman’s Tell me the story Of all these things (2017) and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982), which vibrates with ‘the potency and liberatory potential of the kitchen’ (p. 9) and movingly seeks to track and honour ‘what it means to both feel and read through a non-linear understanding of subjectivities’ (p. 10). But I only have to turn the page to realise my white safety. I am at home in my kitchen; my space may feel like it has turned into a laboratory for the reproduction of everyday life under lockdown, but it is manifest, it is seen in signed contracts, my subjectivity is grounded on recognition and citizenship. For Sarah Reed, searingly remembered by Gail Lewis in ‘More Than… Questions of Presence’, subjectivity was experienced as brutalisation, manifested posthumously in hashtags, #sayhername. (Reed was found dead in her cell at Holloway Prison in London in February 2016. In 2012 she had been violently assaulted by Metropolitan Police officer James Kiddie; the assault was captured by CCTV footage.) For the women immigrants engaged in domestic work in British homes, as documented here in Marissa Begonia’s vital journaling piece and Zaman’s discussion with Laura Guy, subjectivity is precarity and threat, their dogged labour forced into shadows. Lewis’s piece pivots around a ‘capacity of concern’ generated by ‘the political, ethical, relationship challenge posed by the presence of “the black woman”’ (p. 18), urging that such concern be of the order of care by walking a line with psychoanalysts D. A. Winnicott and Wilfred Bion in recognising that ‘in naming something we begin a journey in the unknown’ (p. 19). If that ‘unknown’ includes understanding how the British state is inimical to the self-determination and safety of Black and Brown women born within its ‘Commonwealth’ borders (#CherryGroce; #JoyGardner; #CynthiaJarrett; #BellyMujinga), and further, how its ‘hostile environment’ policies – named and pursued as such by the British Home Office under Theresa May – are designed specifically to threaten those born elsewhere, by reiterating Britain’s historical enthusiasm for enslavement of non-white labour (see the 2012 visa legislation, discussed here, that, for domestic workers, effectively put a lock on the 2016 ‘Modern Slavery Act’ review before it had even begun), then consider Tongues a demand to get informed. This is a zine about workers and working. It is imperative that we come to terms with what working life in Britain looks like (see the Public Health England report into disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19 – released June 2 2020, censored to remove sections that highlighted the effect of structural racism, but nevertheless evidencing the staggering inequality in death and suffering that is linked to occupation and to citizen status, and therefore tracks race and poverty lines). It is imperative that we scrutinise how ‘popular [and, I would add, Westminster] culture perpetuates a notion of working class identity as a fantasy’ (p. 52) that literally spirits away the bodies undertaking keywork in the UK. The title of Frank’s piece here, ‘Fragmented Realities’, is exquisitely apt.

> Bookended by Roddick’s and Zaman’s radical re-orientating of the apparatus of academia – the introduction that resists assimilating each of the forthcoming pieces under one stable rubric, instead simply listing anonymously a sentence from each contributor in a process of meditative opening up, and ‘A note, before the notes. The end notes’ that counter-academically reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities, is open to qualification and reframing, is responsive ­– Tongues constitutes a politics and aesthetics of ‘shift’. Collated after a staged exhibition, anticipating new bodies of work to come, and ultimately punctuated by a pamphlet that segues from reporting on an inspiring event that took place at the Women’s Art Library, Goldsmith’s University of London to imagining a second one in paper (the ‘original’ having been thwarted by bad weather), the entire collection has a productively stuttering relationship with temporality and with presence. As Shama Khanna writes about working groups and reading groups, workshops and pleasure-seeking in gallery spaces, this is the moving ground of the undercommons. It is testament to its intellectual lodestars – Sara Ahmed, Fred Moten, Stefano Harney, and, especially, the eroto-power of Audre Lorde. Along with Christopher Kirubi’s pamphlet, ‘Those Institutions Should Belong to Us’, which comprises a series of seven short ‘prose poems’ documenting the anguish of writing a dissertation from a marginalised perspective, the entire project of Tongues with Those Institutions is to upend academic practice, to recognise the ideological thrust of academic method, to stage fugitive enquiry. Kirubi’s plain sans-serif black font on white pages rehearses the anxious dialectics of interpellation and liberation (‘there is a need to see ourselves reflected in position of agency power and self determination in a world which does not really wish to see us thrive at all’ (part 3)) afforded by their academic obligations, but inarticulacy is a higher form of eloquence:

Even though I know at some point I am going to have to yield to these demands I feel I have to say now that I want to take in this dissertation a position of defending the inarticulate, defending the subjective and defending the incoherent, without having to arrive at a point of defence through theoretically determined foundations, but to feel them.

> Since its structuring principles are those of women’s work, and of Black and Brown experience, nurturing and shielding within the exhaustingly cyclical nature of toiling for recognition, respect, and protection, Tongues dances in the poetics of circles, of loops and feedback, of reciprocity and exchange. Recognising, however, that circularity is also the shape of repetitive strain, Zaman leaves us with a spiralling gesture, in homage to the Haitian spiral, ‘born out of the work of the Spiralist poets’ (p. 61). This ‘dynamic and non-linear’ form insists on the mutuality of the past and contemporary circumstances, is ‘a movement of multiplied or fractured beings, back and forth in time and space demanding accumulation, tumult, and repetition, adamant irresolution and open endedness…’. We are in that spiral now. Such demands must be heard, power must be relinquished, established forms of control – enacted in the streets and on our pages – must be terminated. Writing in early June 2020, this feels precarious; no one is exempt from giving of their strength.

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Both publications are out now and available from PSS books.


Text: Rhian Williams

Published: 16/6/20


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