Fog Theory: lost in the white gaze

 

“Fog is a cloud that touches the ground.”

 

A metaphor for vanishing, for dissolving, for withholding, fog often finds its way into my poetry. A woman becomes the fog. An unanswered prayer is the fog. A body disappears into the fog. The fog is a way to make a thing seemingly invisible, even when that thing is placed right in front of you. So, I circle back to this definition from the National Geographic. Fog is a cloud that touches the ground, a cloud somehow in proximity to us—we might even say it is the action of clouding.

 

In Alberta, Canada, where I grew up, the fog was sometimes so thick, there was near-zero visibility. It stalked the landscape, eliding the shape of trees, softening lodge pole pine into could-be willow. The fog reduced a city into a series of indiscernible figures. It was a bewildering image, and a destabilising experience—how do you know where you are, or even who you are, without the ability to orient yourself?

 

Alberta, Canada is also where I first started to realise that I wanted to write poetry. And much of this realisation came from witnessing the remarkable words of modern American nature poetry – writers that I felt captured the world in their stanzas. But also, writers I coveted because they were all I knew: writers I studied in my introductory poetry courses, where I learned that good literature extended from the English canon, the verses of Shakespeare and Milton. I loved how these writers manipulated language, how they reflected the natural world in their poems. But, what I didn’t know then was that these exclusively white, Western/European authors – this colonial syllabus – clouded the works of Black and Indigenous poets, and poets of colour.

 

Today, I anticipate being called a “political” or “identity” poet – a label at apparent odds with those early influences. Although no one has said these terms to me directly, I’ve had several conversations with others about how my poetry is urgent (read: diverse). There is the suggestion that my poems may not even be that good, but that the literary industry will accept them because it is looking for “that kind of thing right now”. But, I think of all my poems as primarily nature poems. I truly believe they are more closely aligned to Wright’s “A Blessing,” for instance, than the white gaze may conceive. For me, too, nature is transcendence.

 

…Yet, I cannot help but recall Emer O’Toole here, and this quote which prefaces Sonnet L’Abbé’s inventive and radical collection, Sonnet’s Shakespeare: “Shakespeare was a powerful tool of empire, transported to foreign climes along with the doctrine of European cultural superiority.” See, even as I write this essay, something in me flickers uneasily. Are my attempts to emphasise my work’s alignment with these (white) canonical poets a way to gesture toward my “seriousness” as a writer? A writer who can exit my own private stanzas and blossom into the universality of nature? Someone who can write about the mysterious wonder of an elk bounding across a boreal wood, without imbuing it with “inaccessible” words of faith, without seeing her powerful movement as a metaphor for departures and arrivals—for displacement and the endurance of a long and aching search for home?

 

It’s a complex web, woven – or maybe knotted is a better word – with my own internalised oppression as much as with my Western upbringing. Because though I have been racialised and perceived by whiteness as a stranger, these canonical writers, categorised under the guise of “universality” in contrast to the “exotic” minority writer, will always be a part of my own, personal archive. Because of a colonial education, they constitute a part of my history. They follow me, almost nightmarishly, and whisper at the edges of my page. It is hard to appreciate an influence that doubles as a reminder of where you, and people like you, have stood – still stand – in society.

 

But this is only one complicated strand of it all, because as much as the Western/European canon was revealed to me as the prototype of good writing, my body could rarely access it. Imagine seeing the peak of a mountain range glittering ahead, but as you start toward it, becoming enveloped in a thick, persistent fog. A fog of white bodies, of white eyes that fix you into place. The sound of a lock clicking closed. Or, maybe there’s no sound at all as the oppressive structures embalm you, quietly, persistently, over time.

 

I wonder, without figures to cloud over, does our conceptualisation of fog have to change? Does fog lose its meaning, its sense of purpose, without the journey towards objects, towards subsuming our non-prototype bodies? There are reasons the white body so persistently wants to elide my own, one of which resonates deeply with Sara Ahmed’s analysis of the stranger: “The journey toward the stranger becomes a form of self discovery, in which the stranger functions yet again to establish and define the ‘I.’”

 

The “identity”/ “political” poet is a caricature – it is an outfit that has been ironed and laid out by white power structures for us to button-up around our non-white bodies. It may scratch and feel uncomfortable, but they’ve embroidered it alluringly with words like urgent and important and necessary. Being labelled an “identity poet” is a way to make us non-threatening. If a minority writer wins a prestigious award, the white writer can decide the award has less to do with quality than it does with tick-boxing. They can snidely write an article about it. Or, lament publicly over the fact that poetry is not what it used to be, is now too imbued with identity politics and privacy.

 

Yet, while simultaneously putting down racialised writers who express their multiplicity, who intricately and deftly and exquisitely write about their identities, the fog also fences them in an enclosure wherein they must write about certain things in certain ways. I have had friends who have been told by editors that their poetry about language loss isn’t sorrowful enough – if you’re going to write about your marginalised identity, they want you to make it hurt. They want you to put that hurt on display. The fog is hungry for it.

 

“I don’t want to beautify our collective trauma,” writes Bhanu Kapil in How to Wash a Heart. It is disturbing what the white gaze wants from us. But, Kapil’s assertion is freedom, and since I came across it, this phrase won’t stop echoing in my mind. This phenomenon she describes is primarily the result of power structures in the industry, particularly those with financial sway or institutional affiliation, being largely white-dominated – editors, publishers, juries, academics, and so on. And under this dynamic, I think, too, of Anita Chari, and other critics of recognition, who emphasise that the “struggle to be recognised by the coloniser actually perpetuates the oppression of the colonised, insofar as this struggle is a struggle to be recognised within the terms of a discourse that is dictated largely by the coloniser.”

 

It is frustrating to have to walk this tightrope. Recently, I had a conversation with a primary school teacher who grieved that all of her students, predominantly from a Muslim, Pakistani background, were writing stories about white protagonists. The white body is still the desirable body. I want to write for a community of other brown women, to carve out those corners of understanding and belonging – to lovingly depict my very first drive along a road of mango trees, on my very first visit to the Kabristan where my grandmother is buried. Not to exoticise my experiences, but to do the very opposite: to normalise them. To work toward a future where young brown women don’t automatically assume whiteness as standard. But, almost always, these scenes I depict are first filtered through the fog, a whiteness which covets more sorrow, more trauma, more alienation, more difference. Intentions which are miles away from my own.

 

The infamous review by Willian Logan of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a map where every destination is a locked door. Remember that mountain range? That tradition held just at arm’s length, close enough to glimmer, too far away to touch? Vuong’s work, while stunningly about his family, also pulls from the classics – which are a part of his personal story, and how he wishes to tell it. Yet, Logan merely tucks Vuong’s conversations with Eurydice and Odysseus into the “long shadow” of the classical world, writing: “His poems may seem to bear the burden of the ancients, but he’s just toying with a tradition he hasn’t embraced.”

 

That word embrace makes me pause. A writer who is not racialised, who does not teeter at the fringes of (an imaginary) commonality, is less likely to be paired with such a verb. A white writer, dressed up in familiarity, does not have to take any action at all. Inherently, the white writer has permission to use the classics – the classics belong to them. Forget any sense of embrace, any relationship or understanding between the white writer and the classical world. Because of their histories and narratives (and the way they look), someone who may have embraced the classics far less than Vuong, will, still, automatically have more perceived access to them.

 

There is the possibility, then, for this to be profoundly internalised by writers of colour. Sandeep Parmar, in a lyrical essay which closes Eidolon, a collection that retells the myth of Helen, observes this sensation when she is told by a friend, who is also Indian, that she should be writing about “their” mythology instead: “I was stunned, taken aback really, by the idea I could not write about the Greeks legitimately because I was the wrong colour, the wrong race, and that any version of Helen I understood could only ever aspire to an epistemological end—one that puts our literature over their literature.”

 

At the end of the day, none of this is truly about the embrace at all. There is no chance to embrace something the fog will never let you get close to in the first place.

 

It is the same awkwardness that I find myself feeling whenever I use symbols of Greek mythology in my poetry. I find myself oscillating between two responses from the white gaze, both of which leave me feeling silenced and unwilling to write. The first is that the poem is fresh, that the reader enjoys it because it’s different than my usual style – the implication being that my usual style consists not of poems about Greek mythology, but about my identity as a brown woman. The second is that the symbolism just doesn’t fit, it doesn’t suit the poem; it recalls too much of a world that lives outside of the work.

 

Both responses are awkward for the same reason. They both centre my identity, and therefore my poetry, around my recognition as someone unfamiliar and strange. In the first case, I’m lauded for disentangling my poetry from my identity politics. The poem is exciting, fresh, because it doesn’t slide into the lexicon of my ancestral heritage. The glaring problem is, of course, that just because the last few poems I wrote are about my ancestral heritage doesn’t mean they are all the same. A poem about language is not the same as a poem about faith is not the same as a poem about an old photograph of my grandmother. This remark assumes that anything adjacent to my brownness is categorically identical.

 

In the second case, it doesn’t matter that I spent more years of my life learning intimately about Greek mythology than I did about, for example, Dar es Salaam, the latter of which has in many ways until recently felt displaced from my narrative. As much as I view the “classical world” and my cultural heritage as a series of crossings and conversations – something braided together, until they are, in fact, indistinguishable from one another – the fog nevertheless places itself between the two. And you can guess which side it forces me to reside in.

 

It also doesn’t matter what the world of the work is (or will be). Before my poem is written, there is already a projected landscape in place. This landscape is a vague sort of country – my own “long shadow,” perhaps, and one detectable only by the white eye. This is the landscape that makes it so easy for them to say the words go back, as in “go back to your own country,” “go back to where you came from,” go back, go back, go back…

 

This projection is why concepts like “neutrality” and “universality” are problematic. As long as our bodies dissolve into the fog, as long as our nature poems are described as fresh, our Persephones as unembraced, these lies set us up to fail. Under the façade of universality and all its charm, minority writers are essentially told to value something that white editorialship has made impossible to attain. As a brown woman, my subjectivity is read into every poem I write. My sociopolitical context lingers at the fringe, leaks into my imagery, my metaphor, even my lineation, like streaks of summer solstice light—seemingly ever present. What can an anonymous submission truly mean when language itself is a symbol, a marker of identity?

 

But, and perhaps this is worst of all, the scam of universality – what Audre Lorde describes as the mythical norm – leads us to believe that subjectivity, the lyric I, the private corridors in which we reach for one another and rinse our eyes with each other’s stories, is something which we must remove from our work. That these contexts, our migrant or colonial histories – however close or far away – which linger underneath the typeset, are against the sacred institution of poetry. That each time I evoke my brownness, in elation, in sorrow, in anger, in joy, my poem sinks further away from that perfect horizon. That I am giving up the quality of my lyricism for the context within which it exists.

 

Just today, a friend of mine explained the programming term “binary search trees” to me, so they’re on my mind. A numerical node splits off into two strands, and the same number can never exist on both the left and right side of that originary node. The institution of poetry will award us for urgency and importance, our bravery and our trauma, they will assuage their white guilt – or, they will pat us on our backs for writing a poem of quality, one that isn’t too political, but just the right amount of political. Goldilocks political. The white gaze perpetuates this binary, keeping those two elements safely on their separate sides. Notice that my friend explains this utterly “neutral” programming term and still, my impulse is to relate it back to my life, to even embody binary search trees with my private “I.”

 

And what of Lucille Clifton’s untitled poem in Mercy, which Jane Wong discusses in The Poetics of Haunting:

 

surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar,
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever i begin
‘the trees wave their knotted branches
and . . .’ why is there under that poem always
an other poem?

 

Who are the poets that can suggest trees are neutral? That see ecopoetry, for instance, as a genre to cherish because it apparently winds more easily away from the (minority) subjective. Who are the writers that can bypass what the North American landscape signifies for Black writers – for Indigenous writers? Who are the writers that have the luxury to pretend there is no other poem underneath their poem?

 

We cannot isolate meaning from the body that writes it. This is why cases like that of Michael Derrick Hudson, who some might remember appropriated the Asian identity penname “Yi-Fen Chou” to get his poetry published, are so tiresome. Not least of all because it promotes the problematic and false idea that marginalised poets have an easier time in the industry. What the poem evokes when articulated by a woman, a marginalised woman, is rightfully different than what it evokes when articulated by a white man, despite the words on the page being identical. And why deny this? Why suggest that quality is limited to the most mechanical definitions of craft subjects like rhythm, diction and narrative, when we can broaden the imagination of such definitions to also constitute how an Asian woman selects and shapes words according to her particular lived experience. Clifton’s poem is powerful exactly because of the context which prefaces it. Why pretend that a metaphor doesn’t transform depending on the utterance? Or, better yet, why demonise this practice as a marker of non-quality? Why can’t both strands exist together, in relation, informing the other?

 

It would do well, of course, for white writers to keep in mind that “neutrality” is a farce for them as well. Historically, white poets in the mainstream, in the canon, have also been writing from their sociopolitical contexts, elevating their content with their lived experiences. But, it is their constructed familiarity that disguises such content as universal.

 

As minority writers, “BIPOC” writers, our work is strongest when the gaze we write under is that of our own communities, because these are not eyes that want to vanish us or spectacle us. These readers are the readers that see us, that don’t ask us to beautify our collective trauma, but, when trauma finds its way onto the page, embrace it with empathy – with heart and not with hunger. Alicia Elliott, in A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, puts this into words:

 

That’s what I feel when I read the work of Gwen Benaway, Waubgeshig Rice, Tracey Lindberg, Eden Robinson, Katherena Vermette, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Joshua Whitehead, Lindsay Nixon, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Cherie Dimaline. That’s what I hope Indigenous people feel when they read my work. Love.

 

It is when the fog breaches the blank space between my lines – when the white gaze dictates what I write about, because of its sheer power and momentum, how it covers everything and brushes my own body out of sight, that I find myself feeling lost. Lost in the industry, lost in my poems, lost in my invisible visibility as a Muslim brown woman. But, dismantling the fog is a responsibility of the literary arts as a whole. To admit its pervading whiteness and the flawed way in which my work is perceived. To uplift BIPOC writers not only through representation, but more crucially, by presence. Most vitally, amidst all of this, I know that it is not only my responsibility alone to unitalicise myself.

 
 

Alycia Pirmohamed

About Alycia Pirmohamed

Alycia Pirmohamed is the author of the pamphlets 'Hinge' (ignitionpress), 'Faces that Fled the Wind' (BOAAT Press), and 'Second Memory' (Guillemot Press and Baseline Press), a collaborative essay co-authored with Pratyusha. Alycia's debut collection, 'Another Way to Split Water', is forthcoming with YesYes Books and Polygon Books in 2022. She is the co-founder of the Scottish BAME Writers Network and a postdoctoral Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Liverpool, where she is working with the Ledbury Poetry Critics programme. In 2020, Alycia won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award.