Who we think we are is a fluid concept. We might have a stable image of ourselves but in reality we are constantly in flux as we come into contact and collide with others. And it’s not just other bodies but other possibilities of your self that disrupts who you are at this moment. The realization that we can be something else we don’t recognize or can’t control can be transcendent and can be frightening.
Kiini Ibura Salaam explores those ideas in her latest speculative short story collection, When the World Wounds, where the outside forces of the world can break open spaces that lead to the displacement and reconstructing of the body, of the self, of identity and place. Salaam’s main grounding tool in that exploration is that of the concept of desire. Through her sensual and erotic descriptive language, as a reader you are opened up as much as the characters in her stories to the point of an ecstatic experience.
Opening with “The Malady of Need,” Salaam shows us the ambiguity and the invasive disruptiveness of desire. In a story about a relationship in which one’s presence dominates the thoughts of the other. The character’s desire for this man because “touching him, you would have remembered what the sky looked like, the taste of fresh fruit, the feel of water on your skin” and how that taste of freedom reminds him that he is still in “shackles.” (5-6). In Love, Desire and Transcendence in French Literature: Deciphering Eros, Paul Gifford describes sex as “violent, sensual pleasure” that is a result of our desire for a oneness or “continuity” in being but how that desire for “invasive continuity” results in a violent dispossession of self. “The ‘All Shook Up’ of erotic encounter” (199-200).
We see further how that primal urge, that agitation of spirit and the resulting violent encounters is eminent in other stories. In “Pull of the Wing,” WaLiLa, a character we met in Salaam’s other story collection, Ancient, Ancient, has a dream of flight that urges her desire for wings and her willingness to break into the Elders’ chamber to get them. But her and her friends’ desires to do so lead their bodies and minds to be in a sense “raptured” up by the “unseen force” of the elders and violently manipulated and changed into something new. As WaLiLa says in her description of “wing fling:” “you can’t control everything — some things are the whims of the winds stirred up by the push and pull of the wings…knowing the world–knowing the wing–would fling away everything you knew, fling you into a different you” (32-33).
We read in “The Taming,” a human’s control and reshaping of desire and primal urges through the point of view of a wolf character who is undergoing domestication. We see the breaking in of an animal as a separation from his old environment and community and retrained to assimilate into a new environment and new community. He is forced to adjust to a new sense of self “unknown to himself” (50). The same “breaking in” is seen in “Hemmie’s Calenture” (a calenture is a feverish delirium caused by heat) as a runaway slave who is saved by and demanded by a woman deity to lead her war. Much like the story of Jesus and that the Christian God demands him to sacrifice himself for the greater good of mankind, Hemmie is filled with a passion and
purpose that she struggles against because it goes against her sense of self. A higher power retrains her to its will and purpose, but instead of animal domestication, it is spiritual possession and ecstasy.
The same goes for the character in “Volcano Woman,” which blurs the line between spiritual ritual/spirit quest as she is hounded and harassed by a man and encounters an old woman who stirs the mighty wrath in her. Salaam’s collection culminates in “Because of the Bone Man,” which takes places in New Orleans and references the Katrina hurricane and flooding. The flooding caused utter destruction and displacement of whole communities and the strength and hope of the story is the incorporation of elements of nature (rocks, trees, air) and that they adjust with our presence invading their space. That we have no other choice but to rebuild and bridge to a new existence.
I recently read artist Shervone Neckles‘ interview where she said,”Carnival and festivals are one of the oldest forms of artistic traditions across all cultures. It reminds folks of the presence and significance of oral history in our present-day culture and its ability to transcend ritual and tradition over time. At its core, Carnival is about play and renewal. The inclusion of Mardi Gras and the children in “Because of the Bone Man” calls back to our ability to still renew and play after we have been wounded, when we face displacement and death.
Our bodies, our identities are permeable and penetrable by things with greater power than us and the world can open you up in ways you did not except or want, but it is how we react to those violent encounters and changes that shows who we are.