Ancestral Threads (Madibaland Literary Festival Transcript, M. Grierson, Nov 25 2021)
“She gazed back over the sea, at the island, but the leaf was losing its sharpness. It was very small; it was very distant. The sea was more important now than the shore . . . About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she murmured, dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.” – Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse, p 191.
Before I ever read Virginia Woolf’s work, I was fascinated by how she died: walking into a river, her pockets filled with stones. I couldn’t help but wonder at the level of despair—or perhaps courage—of this singular tragic, irreversible end of a woman’s life. What are the stones that each of us carry that ultimately drag us into the depths? What gets buried at the very bottom of us, what secrets are forgotten, once we leave this world? As a teenager, the question of why—why this choice, why that way—made me dive into Woolf’s work with intensity. I developed a fascination for tropes of the so-called ‘mad woman’, for authors who breathed melancholia and truth and memory onto the page, who weren’t afraid to expose women’s experiences as they truly are. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing—rife with seemingly insignificant detailed musings by female characters—captured me with an almost magnetic repulsion. Images of domesticity pervaded: she carefully and meticulously rendered a portrait of interior spaces, the domains inhabited by women. I remember feeling swallowed up by the sheer volume of her words, by her meandering prose; there was an ever-present claustrophobic recognition with every turn of phrase. I know these women. These are the women of my family. I didn’t want to know them. I hated Mrs. Ramsay for her reverential deference to her husband, for her joyful complicity in the trappings of wifedom and motherhood. She reminded me of my own mother. I wanted to shake Lily Briscoe out of her incessant, spiraling self-doubt and futile rumination on finding just the right shape or hue in her painting. Of course, she was a little too close to home, as though I were looking into a mirror. It took me several years—and many readings of To the Lighthouse and other great works by Woolf—to fully comprehend my conflicted love affair with domesticity, with mothers and daughters, with the ephemeral fluidity of ancestral memory.
My debut novel, Becoming Leidah, explores these themes: patriarchy and domestic cages, mothers and daughters, othering and identity, memory and ancestral inheritance. The tension between characters is echoed in the tension between landscapes; Maeva is a selkie, half human, half seal, a creature who belongs to the sea. Her husband Pieter, is a Norse fisherman who lives on land, but navigates on top of the water, with the sole purpose to cast his net to capture, to colonize, to consume. Though the main character tries her best to live in Pieter’s tiny cottage in the mountains, becoming what her husband wants her to be, her true wildish nature wins out; Maeva must return to the sea, because she IS the sea. The character of Leidah—their seven year old daughter—is the key to Maeva’s reclamation of identity. Leidah is the living embodiment of what her mother Maeva tries so desperately to hide, to forget, to deny. Like all daughters, Leidah is Maeva’s living memory; what was, what is and what will be, manifesting in Leidah’s physical body. In her magical ability to become things.
I push my eye farther into the crack, smushing my cheek. The door rattles.
Her arm freezes. The needle stops. Instantly, her shadow fills the room, a mountain on the wall.
I hold my breath. No hiding in the wood-box this time. My fingers start tingling.
Before I even have time to pull my eye away, the door opens. My mother’s face, like the moon in the dark hallway. She squints and takes a step toward me. “Lei-lee?”
I want to tell her I’ve had a nightmare about the Sisters, that I can’t sleep with all this whispering and worrying from her—and what are you sewing in the dark, Mamma? I try to move my lips, but I have no mouth. My tongue is gone; my nose is gone. I don’t have a face anymore.
It has happened again.
I am lying on my back, flatter than bread. My mother’s bare feet slap against my skin, across my belly, my chest. She digs her heel in, at my throat that isn’t there. I can see her head turning toward her bedroom. Snores crawl under the closed door. The door to my room is open, but she can’t see my bed from where she stands, can’t see that my bed is empty. She nods to herself: everything as it should be. Her foot grinds into my chin. The door to the sewing room closes behind her.
I struggle to sit up. I wiggle my hips and jiggle my legs. It is no use. I am stuck, pressed flat into the grain of wood under me.
But it’s not under me. It is me.
I have become the floor.
I know it’s true, even as I tell myself I am dreaming, that I am still in bed under the covers. My blood whirls inside the wood knots, spinning and rushing, sucking me down and down. The nicks of boot prints stomp and kick at my bones, like a bruise. I feel the clunk of one board to the next, like bumps of a wheel over stone. And then I am all of it, every knot, grain, and sliver, running down the hall, whooshing like a river, ever so fast, over the edge and down a waterfall, rushing from room to room. I pour myself under and over and through, feeling objects brush against me as I pass by. Bookshelves, bedposts, Pappa’s slippers, a fallen dressing gown, the stubby ends of an old chair. A mouse hiding inside a hole in the wall. Mor’s needle bobbing up and down.
How is this possible?
I am so wide, I can see both Mor and Far at the same time, even though they are in different rooms, one wide awake, the other fast asleep. I feel my father’s breath easily, sinking through the bed into me, while Mor’s breath fights against me, against the floor. In and out, each breath swimming away, away, at the speed of her needle, up up up in out in out outoutout—let me out, get me out, I want out.
That’s what Mamma is thinking, and I hear it, loud and clear. I strain my ears against the wood to get back into my own body. Nothing happens. I try again, but this time push hard with my arms that aren’t there. Nothing at all. I stop and sink, letting go, giving myself into the floor.
Seven, soon to be eight… it’s time, time’s up, time to go.
The needle is singing, as sure as stitches on a seam. I am inside the thread, inside her head. Mamma is ticking—onetwothreefourfivesix—
Seven. Seven what? And why is it time to go?
Don’t leave me, Mamma. I beg her feet, her knees, her hips, her chest, her heart, my begging spreading like a big squid into the very skin of her.
It’s then that I feel it.
Something is happening to Mamma. Something neither Pappa nor I have noticed.
She is becoming dust.
She is dryer than the wood I have become. (Becoming Leidah)
Despite being unaware of her mother’s true form, Leidah physically manifests her mother’s secret in her own body, in her blue hands and feet. Maeva suppresses her own identity—becoming something she’s not—as well as forcing her child to appear ‘ordinary’ in order to protect them from the suspicious villagers of Ørken. Leidah’s ability to become other shapes and identities parallels her mother’s emotional, survivalist shapeshifting, in a world that will never accept who either of them are. Being an unreliable narrator, Leidah innocently offers the reader so much information about the tension between her parents, foreshadowing the eventual dissolution of the family unit. Desperate to know what her mother is hiding, Leidah intuitively stretches herself inside her mother and all of her mother’s precious things. The entanglement of mother and daughter, evidenced in Leidah literally becoming the needle and thread that her mother uses to stitch with.
A few months ago, my father said to me, “A daughter will always take on the burdens of her mother, even if she doesn’t want to.” The statement immobilized me. I wanted to rail and shout against the words; instead, I quietly simmered, feeling the burn of them inside me for weeks. The truth of it was maddening because it was undeniable, something I have known in my blood for a long time. There were so many strange knowings I had as a child, things that propelled me into wondering: is this truly me, or is it something I inherited from her? It became a driving force in my life, to figure out what my mother had unconsciously buried in me, sparking years of research on the concept of blood memory. Also known as ancestral memory, it can be loosely defined as genetic inheritance. I like to think of it as an epic-sized quilt that spans across time, each patch stitched to another, generation upon generation, and each individual, a fractal of the whole. The science world calls it ‘transgenerational epigenetic memory’. From my limited understanding, our DNA can be tagged or affected by the environment we experience throughout our lives—essentially changing how genome expression manifests—which can impact many generations. Not only do we inherit things like hair or eye colour, we may also inherit behaviours, like an aversion to certain smells, or even an inexplicable fear. The biggest, far reaching impact on genomes seems to be traumatic experiences of violence and adversity. Horrific events such as the Holocaust or war can echo through time, hollowing out bodies for generations, even when survivors have passed on, their memories faded or disappeared completely. Personal trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, can also echo through lineages, even if the original trauma has never been named or dealt with.
Genetic memory is not a new idea. It’s been around for centuries, possibly even longer, spanning across many cultures around the world. In contemporary western society, Carl Jung coined the term ‘collective unconscious’ to speak of the deepest layers of identity formation, a depth sinking far beyond the personal. Universal archetypes reside here; trauma lives here too. In his new work, Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds, Thomas Hübl explores the trajectory of trauma and ancestral memory. Interestingly, his explanation of how unresolved violence becomes stuck in our shadow consciousness, only to show up later in life, parallels what I have suspected in my own family. When I was in my late twenties, I began experiencing worrisome symptoms: panic attacks, food aversions, nightmares, sobbing fits. Intuitively, I knew there was something I had been repressing; I also knew that my mother’s avoidance of her own traumas was part of my body’s need to purge. It took years of therapy, art making and writing to dig into what both of us had buried. Even as I enter my fifties, I can feel the ground shifting, something still begging to be unearthed. My mother’s severe dementia, making this archaeological dig the most challenging yet.
Examining the shape of such a burial, our notion of linear time begins to curl and spiral into itself; the past is no longer a distant point on a line, but rather, layers of sedimentary rock, butting up against the present. Akin to an overlapping fold or wrinkle of a blanket, it can change the present, possibly even the future; when one fold is smoothed out, the other folds are also impacted. This idea is also reflected in the Old Norse concept of all times being ONE; what was, what is and what will be was thought to be controlled by the three Norns, sisters who stretched and snipped the threads of the Cosmos, manipulating the fate of all; this is also a key to understanding the structure and mythology that holds Becoming Leidah together. The book flips back and forth between time periods, as well as different points of view. What one character experiences as a beautiful moment, is later revealed as a traumatic event in another character’s memory. Time seems linear to Pieter, but to Maeva and Leidah, it moves in spirals, like eddies in the water.
The quantum physics theory of ‘retrocausality’ sheds some light on this conundrum of time moving fluidly: put simply, events in the so-called ‘future’ can actually impact and even change our experience of the past. In other words, memory is also fluid and relative. But what is MEMORY? Elusive like the shimmer of a sunset on water, at times, persistent and blinding but simultaneously fragmented, unpredictable. Fragile. Connected to time’s passing, time’s impact on the physical body. But time, like memory—like water—cannot be held in the hand. We must open our palms and let it pour through our fingers. This is the most challenging kind of personal work; to allow ambiguity and fluidity to move through us as we try to decipher what we have inherited and who we are becoming. But there is hope here; could this kind of fluidity allow for a mother’s burden to somehow be lightened through her daughter? Can time flow in any direction on the DNA spiral, from one body to another? Again, Becoming Leidah asks these questions, leaving a breadcrumb trail that spirals back onto itself.
I hid the day I was born, a ghost-girl, curling up beside Mamma, while she pushed and squeezed my real body—my baby body—into the world. I know that sounds like a made-up story, but I remember every bit of it. I was in two places at once. Here and there, inside and outside. I remember floating on the wind, the howl of a lone wolf flying through the trees, pulling me to and fro, inside and outside the cottage, inside and outside Mamma’s big belly. She didn’t know I was floating in between here and there. She was too scared to see. So scared, she was whiter than the moon. Her red hair, sweaty and dark. Like rivers down her back. I brushed it aside, put my ghost hand on her head to calm her. It was hot and damp, and she shook and shook, like a rabbit. I whispered sweet things into her ear, while the old lady caught hold of my baby head and pulled me out. She didn’t see the other me either, of course—no one knew I was a ghost in the room.
But I know it happened. I remember being born.
“Enough stories, Leidah. Enough of this nonsense. Go feed the chickens.” Mamma
shakes her head. She drops the basket of washing on the ground.
I squint up at the summer sun. “It’s going to rain.”
Mamma squints back at me. “Is it, now? And what makes you think such a thing, with the
sun shining high in the sky?”
I don’t say that the air is sad. That the trees are sad, too. That the sun is never happy
enough to last.
I don’t bother to tell Mamma that her clothes won’t dry today. She won’t believe me. I
dig my toe into the grass. She reaches into the pile of wet clothes. Shakes out Pappa’s trousers with a snap. I peep at her sideways, without actually looking. Bite a fingernail.
“I even remember the blanket you used to wrap me up in. It was red with patches. How
would I know that, if I wasn’t there, Mamma?”
Her eyes roll up to the clear blue sky. Her hand waves in the air, at bugs I can’t see.
“You were there, child—you wouldn’t be standing in front of me now if it were otherwise. But to remember any of this, as a mere babe—let alone be two places at once—it’s—it’s simply not possible.” She pins the pants to the line, hanging between two trees. “It’s a good story, I will admit.” She reaches to pull my fingers away from my mouth. “Such a bad habit.”
I bite my lip instead. I watch a caterpillar crawl across the grass toward my foot and wiggle my toes, feeling the webby bits stretch and pull.
“Then how do I know other things, Mamma? Things about that day? How do I know about the old lady?” I bend down to watch the caterpillar squirm through the grass, moving my toes a little closer. “Sometimes I see her walking. But she doesn’t have any feet.” I stop and think. “I guess it’s more like floating than walking. The old lady never touches the ground.”
She holds Pappa’s shirt by the sleeves. The collar falls forward, like it’s bowing its head.
Like she’s about to dance with a man who isn’t there. I wonder at the thing that might convince her. It comes out so quiet, I hardly hear it myself. “I couldn’t see that night. Something covered my eyes. Then the old woman cut it away. I saw everything after that.”
Her arms drop the shirt. The invisible man, gone.
I lean down to touch the caterpillar. It rolls up into a ball. “I heard things, too…A wolf.
She sighs. Then rubs her eyebrows and forehead. She must have a headache. The only thing I can see is her mouth. Lips pressed hard.“Enough. Nonsense.” She points to the barn. “Chickens. Now.”
I jump a little at each word, standing up. Marching up the steps onto the porch, stomping as loudly as I can, I ignore the pointed finger and the hungry chickens. I stop and spin around, feeling taller on the porch.
“I know things, Mamma.” Her eyes get real small. “You can’t tell me I don’t.” I open the door before she can say another word. “I remember it better than you.” (Becoming Leidah)
At first, this idea of time being fluid may seem impossible, yet research on how DNA is affected by trauma reveals the truth of this.1 (Thomas Hübl, Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wound, 7). The magic of female fertility encapsulates the idea that all times can exist as one. Consider the image of ‘matryoshka’ nesting dolls: each infinitesimal egg inside a woman carries its own precious acorn sack of future eggs, and so on and so on. Truly, this miraculous design must be divine, proof that the human form carries the past, present and future in our bones and blood, in everything we experience now. Trauma can imprint not only on a singular woman, but also her future children, grandchildren, for many generations.
My mother’s life has been filled with untold traumas. She grew up in poverty, in a family of eight children in rural Ontario. Christian piety masked a strong undercurrent of secrets in that small town, caves of untold and ignored abuses. Such pervasive darkness has a way of burrowing into generations, creating hidden tunnels between bodies, between past and present and future. Does every daughter carry the seeds of her mother’s private wounds, only to have them take root in the next generation? I watch my son growing into adolescence, praying these dank places have become fallow graves, collapsing inside me. In A Chorus of Stones, Susan Griffin writes: “For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a deep sorrow within and cannot weep until that history is sung.” (1 Griffin, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, 8). What remains of the stories that are buried and silenced? Forgotten, no longer part of anyone’s memory? I watch my mother lose words, names, numbers, language breaking off in pieces. Sadly, after seventy years, my mother’s song hasn’t been sung; she never knew life outside of a cage. Neither did her mother, nor her mother’s mother, and so on. Like many others, our female history didn’t leave the house. It was dissolved and consumed in dirty diapers, washboards and mashed potatoes. In long lines of bed sheets, pinned to submission, flapping in the wind. One act of rebellion my mother recalled once: her own mother never went to church. My grandpa went without her, never missing a sermon, with all eight children in tow. This was more than enough for the town to be suspicious. What kind of woman does that? After grandma had her first few children, tragedy struck: the house caught fire. Oddly, she didn’t call the fire department. She didn’t call anyone, in fact. I imagine her standing outside, pregnant, with a baby on her hip and toddlers at her feet, watching the house burn to the ground. Apparently, everyone wondered if she had set the fire, but no one spoke this aloud. Despite being ‘poor as dirt’, they moved to another house. The walls were so thin, my mother used to shiver and huddle into the warmth of her sisters in the shared bed. But even the flimsiest cage can be solid enough to silence a bird. It is this house—flattened by a bull-dozer, decades ago—that still haunts my mother, pulling her back to childhood: newspapers covering the holes in the drywall, the dirt floor basement, smelling of rusted metal and murk. The kitchen and bedrooms, always filled with too many bodies. Too many secrets.
Though it seems obvious now, I did not know until after publishing a novel how each character is a piece of the writer, taking up permanent residence; like tiny spores, we breathe our lives into the fertile ground of the page, and this field absorbs all that wants to take root. Characters bloom out of our histories and herstories, they twist and writhe inside us to find the light, until we find the right landscape, the right word, the perfect turn of phrase for them to break through. And even then, when we release them into the world, there is a thread that hangs on, underground, an undertow that won’t let us go, even when we dive into new stories. I suppose there is always more to unearth, the deeper we dig; there is no final burial. Akin to the rhizomatic system of a forest, our rich ancestries are stories that stretch through all times, waiting for someone, a daughter perhaps, to stretch her fingers like a divining rod into the damp ground, deep enough to find water. Like Leidah, there is never an end to this kind of searching; we are forever destined to be in a state of becoming, at the mercy of memory and time and experience. When the last page has been turned, each of us floats in our own story, a whirlpool held by a vast ocean of stories, each one connected to the next, the depths of which contain rusted, sunken treasure. This current, this undertow—to uncover what’s hidden in the depths—is the reason I read. It is the reason I write, my pen scribbling backwards and forwards through time:
"Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting. . . . - Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Christina, my great great grandmother, at her quilting table