Nonfiction / Jenny Ferguson
:: What We Pretend We Know About the Ocean ::
At first we make believe this is ageing, the gentle normalcy of what’s to come for all of us. She’s grumpier, a little mean. At times, though, meanness devolves into cruelty. Mostly this is snapping, this is accusing my father—her husband—of being unkind in the most general of terms. You know what you did. Or, he knows why I say the things I do. Or, why do you always defend him? Like the biting fence that dug into my bare leg when someone else I was forced to trust let go too soon, we pretend we deserve her barbs, at least for a little while.
When your mind tends toward narrative, stories, and their close cousins, untruths, what you find in the cloudy statements she makes are rocky shores, seaside cliffs, thirst and tides too long, too far away to catch. You know, infidelity, some kind of sexually transmitted disease brought home to roost that can’t be forgiven, some rupture between what once were happily-unhappy people.
Delusional disorders are fascinating and cruel, another ocean entirely. When the mind sinks into a reality so seamlessly right, it becomes more than real, every new input into the system, no matter how incongruous to the story being told, weaves its way in a flowing until all the plastic in the salted body becomes like water too. It joins the tides, the underwater currents, becomes entangled in wildlife-thoughts, becomes digestible even while those micro-plastics do their work. DDT and BPA invisible in water, still, killing us.
Her cruelty arrived after the Facebook Farmville phase, where she tended to a virtual garden with such single-minded drive, while outside, not a minute’s walk from the desktop computer in our living room, tomatoes hung on the vine, ripening past goodness, rotting from too much sun, too much good rain. At least for a little while, we pretended this joke was funny.
When a woman reaches the cusp of sixty, the odds of her developing a delusional disorder sprouts legs until there are eight, grows suction cups capable of elongating to twice their length, this almost-sixty form capable of changing at colors will, like grey hair taking on henna, but this creature whose blood is blue, this creature climbs out of the water and walks in alien form among us. This fact is something we should all know, should not find comes at us slant. We’ve learned to call it mother.
Long after we’d stopped pretending, and after that night, after I’d begged the RCMP officer to arrest my mother so that she could finally, hopefully, be dragged to the hospital, admitted, forced to get help, be medicated, an older man with a British-ish accent common to Nova Scotia told me with delusional disorders it’s harmful to force this reality on their reality. It’s not helpful to pretend. It’s not helpful to deny. Where that leaves those of us on the outside, living here, on a planet made of silicon, iron, magnesium, aluminum, oxygen, and maybe magic, this planet, something we can tend to agree is actually here, is not flat, where we live in bodies composed of atoms, and maybe, yes, both we and our planet have gone through a process of evolution, I’m not sure, I’m really not, of where we are, of what we’re supposed to do when a schism opens in the earth’s crust. In 220 million years, there’s a chance the Atlantic will drain away like a bathtub funnel sucks water from around a body, drawing Europe closer to Turtle Island, changing our geographies. Some schisms don’t understand time in the millions, some schisms evade our detection until we are sunk. Now, we make our lives in battleship graveyards.
Of the varieties of delusional disorders we currently know by way of science, women are more likely to develop the type that tends toward invisible-but-deeply-felt amorous connections, whereas men are more likely to find themselves attacked, persecuted from all sides, betrayed by those they love as often as the mail carrier delivers junk mail coated in anthrax—yes, the messenger is as guilty, as intertwined as the sometimes faceless threats. Yet always, with new input from our reality into theirs, this threat must change, develop, solidify as new masterminds emerge from the depths, their bodies suited to impossible pressures. Where a submarine can’t go, where humans can’t travel encased in skin, the giant and colossal squids live easy, free of swim bladders, free of our unshakeable need for air.
And who can say what reality this is, what reality we share above water and below, what oceans are the delusion, what land? And if the octopus is cosmic, carried to this planet on meteors, seeded here in oceans when a virus infected early squid already among us, can we deny our own making up what is real and what is reality, can we define her but refuse to define our own belief that we can breathe underwater if enough time passes, if the Atlantic one day empties itself into the crust? Sometimes these thoughts are as troubling as removing salt from the human body to see what might be left, removing salt from the ocean to clean it.
Psychosis breaks the boundaries between pretend and real, fusing lava released in fissures into new ground we must claim. Her paranoid thoughts, of the army, and my father, and eventually me too, trying to kill her, have formed new ground. My relationship to land has always been complicated, about give and trust and never ownership, about the waters that feed me running free, but yes, the treaties exist, and yes, they are broken, and yes, each day, this is a betrayal. Now, we pretend in new ways: the medication helps, the minutes lingering between question and answer do not exist, the haunting lack of her laughter is normal because we are underwater, our ears flooded so that sound cannot reach us, nevermind, yes, nevermind that laughter lives in the eyes. We know that the tide is far off, and that when we reach it here, the water is muddy, that tides are predictable but always come in faster than expected, that here on the mud flats you can get stuck, but also that this water is salty, this water holds life even as life changes.
From the writer
:: Account ::
The book-length CNF project I’m working on now is a collection of essays exploring my decolonization. That is, I’m trying to work out and chronicle—through nonfiction fragments—what it means to be a white-coded Indigenous woman reclaiming a culture she was cut off from when her grandmother, fearing the residential schools and the government abduction of Indigenous children through adoptions and foster care, decided to pass as white. It’s taken me a long time to understand why I didn’t have pride in being Métis as a child.
Of course, my mind was colonized.
And undoing that process is messy, reveals the ultimate presence of fragments, dissolves the untruth of wholeness. That leads me to essays where I work in fragments, arrange fragments into fragmentary narratives and fragmentary truths.
Three Latina writers (Anna-Marie McLemore, Anna Meriano, and Tehlor Mejia), one white writer who is also a disabled writer (Cindy Baldwin), and myself will be presenting a panel at AWP 2019 where we will discuss “The Cultural Responsibility of Magic Realism” and how many of us are turning away from that label. For me, this means carving out what a genre called Indigenous Realism(s) can mean for art, building off of the work people like Daniel Heath Justice and others I have yet to meet or to read, others who have yet to be published, are doing to rework genre. I am not aiming for this category to fit perfectly. That too is why Indigenous Realism(s) exist in the plural, in the multiple, in a space that welcomes the hybrid, the strangely-fitting, and the fragmentary as the work this space can hold, without borders, with instead a boundary more like skin, a semi-permeable membrane that has the ability to change shape, take on ink, and to navigate the connections between the worlds and the body of work in expansive ways.
This modular flash essay begins—possibly? hopefully?— with tentative, messy steps, to engage with Indigenous Realism(s) in nonfiction by using the land as bridge between magic and realism until neither can be seen as independent of the other. In particular, this means reading in a way we were should not simply mean to treat what may be read as metaphor, as only metaphorical.
Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. Border Markers, her collection of linked flash fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She teaches at Missouri Southern State University and in the Opt-Res MFA Program at the University of British Columbia.