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Writing the Body as a Political Act

While taking part in online meetings, I started to notice that, for most of the time, I look at myself onscreen. Surely not out of shyness, but more because I am trying to answer some questions: How do I look in this "public digital environment"? What does my expression, outfit and background reveal about myself? Can people see I’m distracted? Can I disappear? How can I make myself heard? Do I have to ask permission to speak? Do I have to write, to make myself visible?

Thinking about this experience, I noticed that it is not dissimilar to writing. In fact, as a literature researcher, translator, and writer, every time I sit down to write something (even only partly autobiographical, like this article), I find myself asking similar questions: How much of myself should I put in the text? Should I blur the context? What point of view should I use? Who is the "I" writing the text: the person in front of the screen looking at herself or the one in the screen cell – a mirrored and limited version of myself?

Both in online meetings and when writing, we always show a fragment of ourselves. We are the only ones to know what is beyond the frame of the cell, in front of the screen or outside the window beyond it.

The body is the only connection between what is shown and what is left out. This explains why our existences and the way we talk and write about them are not neutral acts, but acts that have a political dimension that is informed by our mental health, which is itself determined both by our bodies and the socio-cultural context our bodies are immersed in.

Writing and the body

Point of view, distance, and the standpoint from where we write are both stylistic and political choices. Together they reveal the position we feel comfortable writing from (or willingly uncomfortable) and determine how much we want to unveil ourselves.

Take some classic examples like Virginia Woolf describing her love for Vita-Sackille West referring to the fictional character Orlando, whose body changes gender over time. Take Gertrude Stein writing her own autobiography under the title Autobiography of Alice Toklas (the name of her lover and life partner). Both Virginia and Gertrude have written in disguise, but what is the distance between their real embodied self and the one in the text?

Virginia Woolf. Orlando: A Biography. New York: Crosby Gaige, 1928

Take the entire body of work of French writer Annie Ernaux who has produced over twenty autobiographical works, which taken together show that one person's self is irreducible to unity and a single narrative.

Choosing how we write ourselves is determined both by external and internal needs (censorship, desire for experimentation, attempt to reconstruct a whole self in writing) and determines how we’ll be read.

The body for women and queer people has a relevance that is hardly found in those produced by the male counterpart. It is a space of struggle between personal desires and societal pressures, the space where battles are fought, the only space we can’t be expelled from, even when attacked and invaded.

The body is the ink on the page, the mark, the trace, the inevitable presence. A presence that can be made invisible only at the cost of acknowledging it. So, it is inevitable that the body ends up being, explicitly or metaphorically, the way to explore the relationship with the world, and writing ends up being the tool to negotiate it.

In the memoir, The Body Where I Was Born, Mexican-French author Guadalupe Nettel recounts her upbringing between the two countries and her experience as a marginalised subject. In her book, she describes her sight deficiency and the attempts by doctors and the family to correct it. At the same time, she uses this as a metaphor to write about political oppression in Mexico.

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

Similarly, Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa in her genre-defying book A Ghost in the Throat has chosen to entangle the description of her post-partum depression and feeding experience with her obsession for the life of XVIII century Irish poet Eibhlín Dubh, suggesting a parallelism between nurturing a creature and writing poetry. As Doireann herself writes in the book, she was “inviting the voice of another woman to haunt [her] throat a while”, suggesting that the act of writing and that of inhabiting the body are symbolically embedded.

Reclaiming the right to speak, and, by association, the right to write and to be read, means reclaiming ownership over our own bodies, it means acquiring visibility, refusing to be written out. This is why writing is so important for marginalised communities: writing is the tool to fight for the right to visibility and existence.

The different ways in which writing and the body are imbricated can coexist at the same time, as in the work and life of poet and thinker Audre Lorde who has explored her own queer desire through sex and poetry ("my body / writes into your flesh / the poem / you make of me." [Recreation]), used verses to fight racism ("When we speak we are afraid / our words will not be heard / nor welcomed / but when we are silent / we are still afraid / so it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive" [A litany for survival]) and, in her later years, wrote a diary documenting her fight with breast cancer.

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

The sick body as well finds space and visibility through writing. Writers such as Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag or Anne Boyer have reclaimed the existence of their sick bodies through their diaries and memoirs, in an act that is profoundly political because it challenges a neoliberal society that excludes and silences the ill-fitted as less-, or even non-productive subjects, and consider the sick body as something to be ashamed of and to hide.

Through writing, they have opened up new ways of talking about the experience of being sick, freeing the language from an abundance of military metaphors ("fighting the battle", "surviving") that have often deprived them of subjectivity and reduced them to "losing fighters" who should almost be ashamed when the illness "wins".

From theory to practice

Writing can take many forms, from intimate journaling to poetry, novels, and essays.

If embarking on a writing journey alone is too hard, sometimes creative writing courses can help.

If you speak Italian, the upcoming creative workshop The body I live in led by Italian writer Rossana Campo at the Festival of Italian Literature in London (Coronet Theatre, Notting Hill) on Saturday 22nd April could be a good opportunity to share the journey. The festival is supported by Inspire the Mind, and other ITM writers like Gianluca Didino and Carmine Pariante are working with me in the organisation.

Regardless of how experienced we are with writing, what is important is not to judge ourselves and try — at least once — to sit down and listen to our own pulse, follow its flow and see where it leads us.

Whatever comes out, it will inevitably speak of us and our bodies.


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