Listen to Episode One: “To Walk Alongside One Another: Messy Tangles of Self and Society“
Speakers: Rebecca Wang, Manuel Axel Strain, Angela Marian May
MANUEL STRAIN: It does go both ways, and that’s why I really think sometimes it’s okay for us to try to question each other, teach each other, and walk beside each other.
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, well, I mean, consider me beside and walking. I’d love to go on a conversation walk or a real walk one day, but I appreciate it.
[rhythmic electronic theme music starts]
[00:32] REBECCA WANG: Welcome to In Tanglement by Cinevolution, a grassroots, women-led, migrant-driven film and media arts organization situated on the occupied, traditional, and ancestral territories of the Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking peoples, including the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) and other Coast Salish peoples, also known as Richmond, BC.
My name is Rebecca Wang 王晨釔. I am a first-generation immigrant settler, hosting this podcast from the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-waututh nations, colonially known as Vancouver. In Tanglement is a six-episode series on art, culture and race in today’s world. Through intimate conversations with artists, filmmakers, and community organizers, we explore current experiences and perspectives from the Asian diaspora.
Today’s episode is To Walk Alongside One Another: Messy Tangles of Self and Society. I am delighted to have two amazing guest speakers with me. They are writer, activist, and PhD student Angela Marian May, and non-binary, two-spirit Indigenous artist and community organizer Manuel Axel Strain. Our conversation revolves around the role of personal, familial, and communal narratives in their artistic practices. We also discuss how trauma, refusal, and healing inform their research and work, a significant part of which takes place in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
[theme music ends]
[02:28] REBECCA WANG: Angela and Manuel, welcome. Would you like to first introduce yourselves a little bit?
ANGELA MAY: Sure, yeah. So, this is Angela, I’m speaking from the territories of the Tsawwassen people. Like Rebecca said, I’m a PhD student, but I also make art and write creatively. I’m mixed Japanese Canadian, which I think will be of some relevance to this particular episode. So most of my involvement in community is connected with the Japanese Canadian community and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
MANUEL STRAIN: Thank you, Angela. My name is Manuel Axel Strain but you can call me Manny. My dad is Eric Strain, from Musqueam. His stepmom was Helen Point. My great grandparents on my dad’s side are Tina Cole and Tony Point. My mom is Tracy Strain or Tracy Eustache. She is from the Secwepemc and Syilx territories. And my maternal grandparents are Harold Eustache and Marie Louis. My grandpa Harold is from a community called Chuchua, part of the Simpcw peoples in Secwepemcúl’ecw. My great grandparents are Christine Eustache and Manuel Eustache. And on my maternal grandmother’s side, my great grandparents are Rose and Ben Louis from Head of the Lake in the Okanagan in the Syilx lands.
And I’m really grateful to be here, and excited to talk about this stuff. I would say I am primarily an artist but I wear many hats, and working in the Downtown Eastside is something that I’ve also done a lot of. I feel like this is really awesome because Cinevolution is in– is it in Richmond?
REBECCA WANG: Yes, it is.
MANUEL STRAIN: Yeah, so my family has a long history there. My great, great grandparents, James Point and Martha Bailey. We actually get our name from a point that’s in the Richmond area. So I think that’s really exciting and thinking a lot about my great, great grandpa James Point.
ANGELA MAY: That’s so interesting. My family also– I didn’t realize that Cinevolution was in Richmond. But the side of my family– my grandpa and his mother were not interned in the Second World War, but my grandma’s family was, and they were originally living in Steveston in Richmond. So, yeah, I also have ties to that particular place, part of the Lower Mainland.
MANUEL STRAIN: Yeah, Steveston is the area.
ANGELA MAY: Is it? Oh wow!
MANUEL STRAIN: The airport and all that part is really connected to Musqueam.
ANGELA MAY: Hmm, yeah.
MANUEL STRAIN: And there used to be a reserve on Sea Island where the airport is.
ANGELA MAY: Oh wow.
MANUEL STRAIN: Now my auntie Mary Point, working at the airport as the Indigenous Relations Manager, is trying to restore and build a better relationship with Musqueam and that airport. And there’s a lot of Musqueam people that live in Richmond still.
ANGELA MAY: That’s so interesting. I’m fascinated by the area because when you’re trying to reconnect with your roots you go to Powell Street in the Downtown Eastside, you see one thing. When you go to Steveston, especially– they lived on Moncton Street, you get basically a tourist attraction at this point. The use of the land and the treatment of the land is– there are certain connections, but it’s a very different experience in your body and viscerally. I’ve wondered a lot about what those relations with Musqueam– it seems like such a resource rich place for lots of different people. I’ve wondered what those are like. They seem to get diluted by the volume and loudness of the tourist tones in Steveston.
REBECCA WANG: It’s so wonderful to learn the ties that you both have with the land of the Musqueam people. I’m very excited to see how all this thinking of the land reflected in our talk today.
For each episode of this podcast, we start the conversation off with a relevant media artwork. For the theme of “messy tangles of self and society,” we thought Angela’s 2021 creative video dear community is a perfect fit.
CLIP FROM dear community: Ever since my arrival in the Japanese Canadian community, people have been asking for the perspectives of younger Japanese Canadians. It took a long time for me to wrap my head around what I was feeling and thinking, but finally, I’m ready to tell you: this is my perspective.
[08:29] REBECCA WANG: Angela, dear community is a letter to address your own community, the Japanese Canadian community. Through conversations with family and friends, visions of home, illustration, and all kinds of writing, it questions conventional tellings of Japanese Canadian history, as well as the kinds of politics and futures that these tellings afford. It follows your longtime research and work on the overlap of Vancouver’s Japanese Canadian and Downtown Eastside communities, but it is also a piece born out of anger and frustration. Can you tell us what made you feel so strongly about making a video to express your perspective?
ANGELA MAY: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. So dear community was made for and its development also was supported by the 45th annual Powell Street Festival. Powell Street Festival is a Japanese Canadian arts and culture festival. Also, in many ways, it’s a form of remembrance. Powell Street Festival takes place every summer in Oppenheimer Park in the neighbourhood that our community calls “Paueru Gai,” which translates roughly to Powell Town in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Because it was from this area, that the largest historic Japanese Canadian community was forcibly uprooted by the government in 1942. So 35 years later, by 1977, the first Powell Street Festival was conceived as this expression of coming home, and that spirit still remains and informs a lot of the festival today.
Powell Street Festival has been an incredibly important organization for me in terms of forging and sustaining a connection with my community, because for the most part for most of my life, I was not connected with the Japanese Canadian community. But at the same time, Powell Street’s location and values and especially a few key people in the organization connected me with another community, and that was the Downtown Eastside community. There’s a lot of really positive and meaningful overlap between our two communities, but there’s also a lot of tension. That tension I think comes from three things.
The first thing is that the fact remains that our forced removal is historic, and the Downtown Eastside community’s forced removal is happening now, it’s ongoing. The second thing is that efforts from Japanese Canadians to remember our home have been quite successfully co-opted by governments in order to gentrify, or basically clean up the Downtown Eastside, so to speak. And gentrification then displaces people. The third thing is that within the Japanese Canadian community, it’s really difficult to critique people’s efforts to remember, commemorate home, or even more in our grief and its loss, because of course for many people, there’s a lot of pain there. I’m not the first person to try to talk about this stuff. I owe much of my thinking to two geographers, Jeff Masuda and Audrey Kobayashi, whose work has in many ways made mine possible, and who tried to start to ask these questions before I did. So those three things.
As a result of that tension, having strong relationships in both communities can be really challenging, and it hurts. Then you’re stuck. You have to realize that you’re a part of it, you’re a part of this awkward tangle that hurts.
Then you think about what you could do, and this dear community is what I could do. You speak to your own community. I’ve never lived in the Downtown Eastside. I’m not about to turn around and– that conversation didn’t feel appropriate to me. But I am Japanese Canadian, so addressing my own community directly seemed like one tangible thing that I could do. Crucially if you watch dear community, you’ll notice the only way I was able to do that was with the support of several people, but especially two friends, Shō Yamagushiku and Nicole Yakashiro. I couldn’t have made it without them. But that’s basically what it is, really. This anger and frustration is a product of me living in this tension between two communities. I care about both of them a lot. And It’s an expression of me trying to handle that experience of tension. I just basically turn and face my own community, and try to say some stuff. I tried to do it lovingly even if I’m making critiques.
MANUEL STRAIN: Wow, Angela, that was really thorough. I’m just trying to digest it all. [Chuckle] I think there’s a couple things I want to say before we get into this. My mom worked in the Downtown Eastside for a very long time. I remember when I started working in the community, I went to some of my family members and I asked them about the history that they have to that place. I think the one story that stood out was that my great grandma on my dad’s side, Tina Cole. I heard stories that she used to get in a canoe, she would go from the North Shore to that area there. And she would bring things for people. So she had stuff that she would give away for people.
And I think the first thing I noticed when I was watching dear community was…, what was missing for me was that piece about the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh.
ANGELA MAY: Mm-hm.
MANUEL STRAIN: That was what I noticed right away after watching it. I was like, oh, there’s no mention of us. And this isn’t a critique. I say that because, you know, as a person working in art, I think we could be overly critical. The word critique, it has a certain energy to it, that doesn’t sit right with me. And so for me, this is more like I want to teach you something, and that’s that we have a strong history there, that was left out. And it’s not a competition, I’ll say, and it makes sense we’re talking about this messy tangle of self that you make–
ANGELA & MANUEL STRAIN: [Chuckles]
MANUEL STRAIN: –this dear community about, that community of yours. But I think that it’s interesting that we walk together, we walk beside each other in this. The one thing I want to say is that there are names for that neighbourhood that aren’t the Downtown Eastside or Powell Street. There are other names for that. Cease Wyss told me the name. I think it’s Lek’lekí, is the Squamish name.
So my great grandmother being from Squamish, I think she would have resonated with that. Musqueam has its own name too. I don’t want to butcher the pronunciation. But I’m going to give everyone a website. So if you’re listening, write this down, it’s placenamemap.musqueam.bc.ca. Once again, that’s place p-l-a-c-e, name n-a-m-e, map m-a-p, dot, m-u-s-q-u-e-a-m, dot, b-c, dot, c-a. If you go there, there’s a map for the different place names that we use, and we recognize, in all of the Metro Vancouver area.
So that was the first thing I noticed, and then the second thing I noticed when I talked about critique was that, I think it’s important to remember that we kind of have to walk beside each other and help each other along when we do this work, and make sure it comes to a really nice place. And critique– it’s almost judgmental for me. So, I guess that’s the only thing is that you remember that “it is not my community that’s gentrifying the place.” I don’t know how you feel about that, Angela, but it’s a question I had. Do you feel it is your community that’s gentrifying the Downtown Eastside?
ANGELA MAY: I think that’s– I mean my thoughts are kind of flying all over the place at the moment, but that’s my feeling, and basically I think it’s never– there’s always some risk in saying X community is doing Y. There’s always complications there. But when I look through archives and stuff, I do see a pattern of efforts from my community, which seem really rooted in, in some cases, a very genuine effort to commemorate. But the City of Vancouver has frequently managed to turn that into something quite different. So, there’s a combination of forces that I feel it’s really about complicity and culpability.
I think your observation about me not even mentioning actual nations whose land that has always been is another expression of that, just how you learn to talk about land in a certain way or place in a certain way. For some of us in the Japanese Canadian community, the intervention has been to resist the place named Japan Town. But so– I don’t know if ironic is the right word, but it’s even more to the point, I guess, that I would go and miss place names that are crucially important for the communities who have always been there.
But as far as “do I think Japanese-Canadians are gentrifying?” I don’t think that you necessarily walk onto Powell Street and see that happening right before your eyes at the moment, but I have a little bit more of a behind-the-scenes look and I’ve been to different meetings. I guess if there’s not tangible action happening, the level of attachment to certain forms of commemoration, I think that there’s a standing risk of that from my community.
MANUEL STRAIN: Yeah, the other thing I want to say that I always think about when we talk about these things in this neighbourhood is that, when we think of gentrification I think it often gets equated to a system of class. But for me, I always equated it to, on top of a system of class, It’s actually just colonialism, in a sort of new way that people maybe aren’t familiar with. I think there’s a term for it that Glen Coulthard coined which was “Urbs Nullius.”
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, yeah.
MANUEL STRAIN: So I think a lot about that, because all the tearing down of buildings and putting new buildings in– there’s no, I would say, active consent or consultation with Musqueam, Squamish, or Tsleil-Waututh. Plus on top of it, you think about the area being largely urban Indigenous, it becomes more apparent when you realize that not only are the Host Nation communities not really involved in the processes and the development or the ongoing development of that area, it’s also negatively impacting many many urban Indigenous people who are in various different intersections, whether it’s gender and race or sexual orientation, economic status, disability. There’s a lot of urban Indigenous people that intersect in those ways that are there, that are being negatively impacted on top of all this. It’s really just, gentrification is colonization.
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, no, I think that’s a really useful analysis. I welcome this kind of response. I’m excited by this conversation, because I hope that we can get to this maybe later in the podcast. I appreciate what you say about critique. I don’t think that what you’re doing feels like a critique. It feels like definitely some teaching, but also just thinking seriously about this thing that someone made, in this case I made the thing. It’s really generous to have an honest and authentic conversation about the kinds of stuff that thing puts in the world.
MANUEL STRAIN: ‘Cause I think the way I’m thinking in a lot of the time is– well, what I’m trying to get to at least, is sometimes the individual isn’t the system. Sometimes an individual can represent a system, an oppressive system, but many times individuals are not always– you know, they don’t represent these systems. That’s got me a long way. There are times where yes, definitely an individual does represent a system for me, but most of the time I find it’s not usually that experience. And honestly, Angela, I think it’s really helpful to have this conversation on this podcast. A way I would have preferred to do it is probably not, but you know there’s no time. But it feels good to discuss.
ANGELA MAY: [Chuckle] Yeah, yeah.
MANUEL STRAIN: I’ll say it goes both ways. I’ve seen many– and my mom has stories too, of different urban Indigenous people being utterly violent to those that aren’t Indigenous in the area, right? It does go both ways and that’s why I really think sometimes it’s okay for us to try to, you know, question each other, teach each other, and walk beside each other.
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, well, I mean, consider me beside and walking. I’d love to go on a conversation walk or a real walk one day, but I appreciate it. Thanks so much, Manny.
[rhythmic electronic theme music]
[24:18] REBECCA WANG: Now, Manuel, for the past few years in your art practice, you’ve gone from referencing your own experience, to focusing on shared experiences through collaboration with your relatives, to recently thinking of the vast diversities of non-human relatives such as plants, water, air, wind, and almost removing yourself in that sense. Can you tell us what inspired this transformation in your art making?
MANUEL STRAIN: I think it was probably, first and foremost, spending time with my mom, my dad, my siblings, my cousins, aunts and uncles, and realizing that all that I’ve gone through, they’ve gone through with me. I think that was a huge piece of it. And sort of recognizing that we are there for each other, in many ways that I started to notice that a lot of non-Indigenous people aren’t there for their family. I think that goes back to how we’ve always lived. I think that Coast Salish people lived– you know, we lived in large extended family houses. And I started looking at my life and trying to see the trickle-down effect and realizing like, oh yeah I grew up with different aunts, uncles, or cousins, moving into our house at different times, sometimes for years, sometimes just for a few months. But there were always people, even to the point now there’s friends too, that we kind of took in, my dad and my mom would make the space at our house for them.
I started realizing that I’ve been through so much, and they’ve been through too. When I started to think expansively about that, I started thinking about my other Indigenous friends that also have these experiences that I’ve had, and then realizing that, oh, what I’m experiencing is actually what the chaos of the world is also what our plants siblings are going through too. These hectic and chaotic times that I lived through in my life, I’m not alone in that, even as a human. And then I started thinking about the responsibility I have. A dear friend and relative, Carleen Thomas, when she introduces herself and she says her grandparents and her parents, like I did it when I started. I learned listening to her that it’s a reminder to myself about the responsibility I have in this world. So, when I name them, I recognize my responsibility to my relatives, which is primarily I would say my family, then the extended family, then other people and plants and animals, and it just keeps going.
It felt like, to just be making our work that’s reflective of myself, it almost seemed empty at times. I just sort of realized that myself is not me anymore. You know, I have a self, but it’s far more than that. Myself extends to my dad, my mom, and now my niece and nephew. That me as a person is them as a person. Now I’m sort of thinking about how to conduct myself and how to be. I think about the animals and the water and the wind, and it really becomes a form of governance and it’s at the top. Because as we’ve seen in the past few years, with the forest fires or recently with the flooding– humans, we think we’re on top but we’re really not. Especially water– water is so important. It really does govern us, and we have to respect that. If we don’t, I don’t know how much longer we’ll have.
But if we think about forms of governance in Canada, is this constitutional monarchy, is what we have this connection to. I often think about– well, first and foremost, instead of the Queen as this head of state, I think we’ve got to think about water or land as a part of that. As we go down, then the Indigenous people whose land we live in, they need to be sort of underneath that, as representatives of that. That’s kind of how I’ve gotten where I’ve gotten to. And I’m not perfect, I make mistakes. It’s just for the thoughts I’ve had and what does it mean to remove myself and think about others, but beyond that, think about how my experiences are shared with others, and the expansiveness of what that can create. It’s a good question. [Chuckle] Thank you.
[30:13] REBECCA WANG: Yeah, no. Definitely our previous conversation inspired this question and I find it’s really interesting to think of how expensive the notion of self can be.
I think it was towards the end of dear community when Angela, you were walking back home and reading a santo poem. A santo poem is a poem made of other poems. You said something like, belonging doesn’t necessitate possession. I think it applies to Manuel’s point of seeing the natural elements as forms of governance. We can all feel a sense of belonging to nature but it doesn’t mean we own it. Manny mentioned responsibility a couple of times. We definitely bear the responsibility of caring for it.
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, I did read a santo poem at the end of dear community, but it was my friend Nicole who was talking through some thoughts that she was having and just made the observation that which I think it’s accurate, at least in our community, the Japanese Canadian community, that everyone is searching for belonging after the Second World War and the dispersal. Everyone’s quite fractured, everyone wants to belong. And property is often the lens through which people think that’s going to happen. I think that in a certain way gets at the connection that Manny was pointing out between what connection or sameness overlap between colonialism and gentrification. Like everyone thinks of belonging is going to happen when you own stuff, and especially when you own property, lots and zones and maps, and all those kinds of grammars and languages and images. There’s so much going on!
Even if I just think for one flash moment of being in Oppenheimer, all of the things that Manny mentioned are critical to that moment. You can feel, if it’s the summer, dry grass beneath your feet, you can hear seagulls, you can hear the water lapping at the inlet, probably you can feel wind. Those are fundamental parts of that place, above and beyond what we insist on putting on top of them. Yes. So in short, I agree, but I’m seeing all kinds of connections here.
CLIP FROM dear community: Dear Community, I am worried that our own sense of self is so precarious, so paper thin, that we’ve become accustomed to protecting it at all costs, even if that means abandoning our neighbours, at least to suffering, often to death.
And I’m worried because to abandon, or at least, mostly abandon, our neighbours, on the one hand, and to proclaim “never again!” and “justice in our time!” on the other hand, is to… kid ourselves.
It seems to me that we so desperately want an identity, a community, a place to belong, or at least something to be… that we have clung to Japanese Canadian-ness, whatever that is, and actually foreclosed other opportunities to grow.
[33:53] REBECCA WANG: Angela, the majority of visuals in dear community is illustration done by you. For privacy reasons and limitation of resources, you couldn’t take a camera with you and film people when they talk to you. So in a way, many of the creative elements of the video were born out of necessity. Do you think there is a similarity between the way you made dear community and your activism work? You said before that it really grew out of necessity.
ANGELA MAY: Hmm, man, these questions. Yeah that’s a good question too. You know I want to have something like, in these kinds of times in important conversations and podcasts and meeting new people, I want to have wise stuff to say or sound like I know what I’m talking about. But the truth is I’m just making it up as I go and trying to not be super terrible along the way. I’m human and we all make mistakes and have shortcomings. But yeah, I think the through line that I hear you drawing: this necessity piece. One way of thinking about it is necessity, but the other way is just resources. I mean like friendship. Friendship is a huge part of my life, and I can’t imagine my life, nevermind the things that I create, without friendship being at the core of that work. So I think I don’t know if I’m making things because they’re necessary or if I’m just responding to the resources that I find myself with.
[35:44] REBECCA WANG: Manny, I think you said you don’t see yourself as an activist, but as an audience I can see a sense of activism in your work. Do you think the responsibility or urgency you feel to make work or do community organizing have anything to do with the distortion or omission of history of communities deemed unimportant by the dominant culture?
MANUEL STRAIN: Yeah, I don’t know why that is, but yeah it’s true I don’t ever think of myself as an activist. I guess it’s because… I don’t even know. it’s not like you are the first one to say it, right? I don’t know what it is. But, history is something I’m very interested in, and the erasure of histories. [Phone beeping] Oh someone’s calling me. Oh, hold on.
REBECCA WANG: Okay, no worries.
[Manuel gets a video call from their niece, who is excited to show them the face swapping app she discovered. She does a face swap with her uncle on the video call. They laugh together and Manuel promises to call her back after the recording.]
MANUEL STRAIN: She is always calling or is there when I’m recording something.
REBECCA WANG: [Chuckles]
ANGELA MAY: It’s the cutest thing that’s ever happened in the history of time.
MANUEL STRAIN: It happens all the time.
ANGELA MAY: It’s very sweet.
MANUEL STRAIN: And it’s nice to break it up with just some kids’ laughter and family. But I can’t remember what the question was now. Was it history?
ANGELA MAY: Activism. Like what even is activism?
MANUEL STRAIN: I don’t know. My auntie Cece Point and Mary Point and so much family. My mom and others, friends, different relatives, I just sort of got pulled into it. I think it’s because Musqueam has done a lot of it. So I think it’s because it’s just a big part of who we are. I guess you could say in that aspect of it, it is a necessity. Maybe why I don’t feel like I’m an activist is because there’s so many people doing this, and I would feel irresponsible by saying that to me because I’m not someone that– I’m more of a supporter quite often. I include it in my art work, but in terms of the more direct action and direct stuff, I am more of a supporter, someone that’s still learning. Yeah, I guess that’s why?
It is necessity, huge necessity. Sometimes I feel like I’ve had to work my whole life to learn the little little little bit of pieces I know about where I come from and where my family comes from and who we are. I’ve worked my whole life and probably will work the rest of my life for that. So it’s necessity, but it also just sort of brings me life. I guess I could say that I activate myself that way. We were talking about the self, but yeah it becomes a way to really activate myself as well, to give me a life. So for me it was just like I’m living life. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything important. But necessity and it’s a lot of work to know where you come from, and who you are. And then on top of that, where other people come from and who others are, but I encourage everyone to go on that journey.
[rhythmic electronic theme music]
[41:02] REBECCA WANG: Now let’s talk about something present in both of your work or research: trauma. There have been overwhelming narratives of Indigenous people and unhoused folks being traumatized, but not as much attention paid on their ability to heal and a strong sense of community. What kind of space does trauma, resistance, and healing hold in your work?
MANUEL STRAIN: You go, Angela!
ANGELA MAY: The big old question! Yeah, I can go. I think there’s lots of different ways to answer this question, but I’ve been writing and scholaring about trauma a lot these days and especially the history of trauma or how certain people have thought about it. Lots of old white guys, Freud, et al., Freud and folks. Long story short, I’ve been thinking about it and I have some thoughts about how it shapes some of the decisions that I make and stuff that I do, concerns that I have. So maybe I can share just some of that.
I think that a lot of my thoughts here are kind of about this category of the victim and victimhood. I think that’s a really important but controversial term, trope, figure. That attachment to victimhood is something that I feel like I see happening in my community. I don’t say that just in a– you know pointing fingers at others. I can see it in myself too, talking about the self. But it’s a very insidious idea. I don’t mean that in a necessarily only bad way, I just mean it can get into places that you don’t expect it to be and all of a sudden, there it is. One thing that I wanted to point out was that what I’ve been thinking about was a little bit of a loop between violence and victimhood or in the opposite order, whichever.
So this is the thing. The category of the victim is totally bound up with our understanding of what it means to be traumatized at this point. If you’re not a victim, then how can you be traumatized? Even if you use the language of survivorhood. Some people say, “I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.” Fine, cool. That’s a thing, you’re a survivor. But the whole point is that you’ve survived something at some point. In a super basic way, if you’re a survivor, you’re the victim of violence at one point. That may not be true for everyone, but by and large, it’s kind of the common sense logic behind our current conversations around trauma. The result of that is that in order for your trauma to be valid, be recognized, be considered real, you have to have some sort of relationship to victimhood, a lot of the time.
For many people, including, not limited to Japanese Canadians, what that looks like, is just a straight up assertion of victimhood. I suffered this, so I deserve this. We suffered this, so we deserve that. Those kinds of assertions are almost totally philosophical; they’re based off of an ethical principle. We don’t live entirely philosophical lives. We need food and shelter and community and so on. So when you put those claims, “I suffered this, so I deserve that,” in the context of the real world, which is material and physical, things get a little complicated. ‘Cause one group’s claims are frequently at odds with another group’s claims.
dear community speaks about that a little bit in the context of the Japanese Canadian Downtown Eastside communities, but it’s something that plays out in lots of places for lots of different people. Basically the question becomes who’s the most victimized, who has survived the most, the worst violence, or in other words, whose trauma is the most valid. And then usually one of two things happens, either a battle plays out and people argue about who’s got more trauma, or the battle doesn’t play out, but everyone’s trauma gets flattened into the same thing. That’s kind of like a school teacher’s pacifying approach, like, “your pain is valid and your pain is valid and your pain is valid.” They may be valid, but it doesn’t make them the same.
So I guess what I’m trying to do is kind of think about, try to see both in theory and in practice, because I do think practice gets a lot of points but theory is important too, the way we think, thought is important. But I would love to figure out how to move towards something that allows us to recognize some of the stuff we’ve been through, and the way it lingers without just either pitting people against each other or subsuming a whole vast array of different people into just this homogenous mass of the same oppressed-ness. Everyone’s trauma is trauma is trauma is trauma. I don’t think that’s super useful either so I’d like to get out of that. I think regardless of the kind of work that I’m doing, whether it’s art or writing or scholarship, I feel like that’s a through line, where I’m stuck. I’m trying to figure that out but it’s very difficult. There’s a lot of really powerful forces that keep us in that “either flatten everyone’s trauma into the same thing, or pit people against each other” mode. I’m convinced there must be an alternative, and I’m determined to devote some energy to finding it, but it’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about when it comes to trauma and the stuff I spend my time doing.
MANUEL STRAIN: Yeah, you presented two extremes. You know, I’m a very non-binary person and I describe that in many ways. I think what’s helpful for me is to always think beyond binary thinking as well, beyond the black and white. It’s often because I feel this thinking in that way– “it’s got to be this way or it’s got to be that way” has really wreaked havoc in my life. So I’m always trying to balance things out. This is what I’ve also thought a lot about, Angela, these extremes. Like I said, we live in this chaotic world. Pretty much everyone can make a claim to being either traumatized by something or victimized by something– pretty much everyone. I do believe the world is so chaotic right now, almost anyone can express some form of trauma. And it is our understandings of trauma that have gotten to be quite expansive, I’ll say. I think, a long time ago, trauma was not necessarily viewed the same way it is today.
ANGELA MAY: That’s… Yeah, 100%. Sorry I’m interrupting.
MANUEL STRAIN: That’s okay. it’s so true though.
ANGELA MAY: It’s so true.
MANUEL STRAIN: And that’s where I think things got a little messy. I think it is true that we live in a very traumatic time of course, and have for quite some time now– decades. But seeing where things are different and that’s what’s important, and it’s not to be competitive but to sort of weigh those on a scale and then find where to move forward from that. I think a lot about denial. Denial as a defense mechanism. I think it’s very telling when you speak to individuals, I’ve known many, that maybe necessarily aren’t even familiar with the ideas of them being a victim then being a survivor then being traumatized. But you know it’s there. I know all the shit I’ve been through in my life. There were moments where I wouldn’t have viewed that as a trauma or something I survived. I was just living my life, you know. It was that denial. I think that is a really significant piece to this puzzle that we’re forgetting about.
I think If you can claim your victimhood, if you can claim you’ve been traumatized, if you can name it, if you can speak it, if you can talk about it, you’ve already gotten to a really big step. It’s those that aren’t there, that are sort of disillusioned if you will. That’s concerning. And those people, I think about the most. The people that are disillusioned, they can’t see things, because they’ve had to be in that sense of denial to survive. That’s serious stuff, right?
Power of denial! And even me, there are moments where I actively, knowingly go into denial, because that’s the best way to get through things sometimes. Just like “oh not right now!” And okay, you know it’s there but you just gotta get it out. I will open the window, but “ok time to go” and then I’ll just pretend it’s not there and keep doing my life, but I know it’s there still.
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, what a cluster of things. I agree that working binaries are not so helpful. Sometimes they can be useful at least for me to get my thoughts going, but I’m always trying to work my way out of them, and find that they can be traps a lot of the time.
MANUEL STRAIN: Yeah, they definitely can. But sometimes seeing those binaries is what brings us to a new resolution.
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, totally.
MANUEL STRAIN: That’s what’s so helpful about it.
ANGELA MAY: Yeah, the oscillation. In my body I know that binaries… they don’t sit right, there’s something that feels off, that doesn’t seem like it can be the whole truth, when you try to sit with a binary, for me. So I appreciate what you pointed out about those different trauma trajectories, Manny.
[52:30] REBECCA WANG: Manuel, your practice is always transforming. But one of the constants I noticed so far is the deliberate decision of leaving something out, or making the audience look for clues to form their own understandings about the work. Can you tell us more about how and why you first came to this strategy?
MANUEL STRAIN: Well I think it’s the– I don’t know, it’s easy for me to let people bring their own messages to the work, often. And that’s where I find most interest is what I don’t see. I don’t like the idea of “I’m the artist, and this is what this means.” This very prescriptive notion of what art is, I find it kind of empty, it’s very selfish. I find it self-absorbed, you know. What other people see is very important, and that guides me in my work usually.
Leaving things out, we’re talking about trauma, and I’m just making this connection now. But we were talking about trauma, and I’m not going to go into it, but yes I’ve definitely had some very traumatic times in my life, you know, many traumatic times in my life that I think most people would be shocked if they heard some of the things that I’ve been through. And I’ve really cared for that and It wasn’t public. That’s sort of the understanding of this “keeping things to myself.” If there’s just a little thing in the work that I know what it is, or maybe these other people recognize it, I really really find a lot of fulfillment in that. So I think it speaks a lot to our time as well.
I think in many ways, with social media we live in this world where people are like– I feel, myself, this is my opinion, over sharing. It’s okay for us to keep things to ourselves right? I quite enjoy that. I think when we think about trauma, preserving this– “not retraumatizing oneself or retraumatizing others,” that’s so important. So I think part of it for me is knowing there’s “Oh, I know what this is!” And that’s for me to do some healing through my work. I want to do a little bit of healing here. But I don’t want everyone to know what it is, ‘cause then I don’t want to be retraumatized. And also, a lot of discussion recently about performing trauma which I have a whole bunch of thoughts about.
But at the same time, I do think in many ways people need to share, and they need to let people know about what they’ve been through, and that gives them a real sense of purpose and meaning and fulfillment in their lives. I’ve done that. I’ve been that person. I think it’s so important to listen, to hear, and like I said, to walk beside people that are doing that, and make sure that happens.
I also think of the potential of the artwork. Leaving things out, I think that makes the work stronger. I think if every message or meaning or material is all very obvious and given out to everyone, I think it kind of waters down what the potential of the work is. If everything’s right there on paper and you can read it all, It’s like, “Oh that’s that! And that’s what that is!” It really waters down the message I believe that I’m trying to get out, but it also waters down people’s ability to bring their own things to it. But yeah that’s it for me.
ANGELA MAY: I don’t know if this is too boring and academic, but I feel it’s worth mentioning that leading the way in terms of refusal have been many Indigenous thinkers, including scholars, who are responding, if not specifically to trauma, but at least to pain, and this humanitarian impulse to collect pain stories or pain narratives. Eve Tuck calls them pain narratives. I think maybe Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang both wrote that chapter. But it’s been something that is happening I guess in the arts, but also in terms of knowledge production. I can’t remember if it’s Eve Tuck quotes Audra Simpson. There’s some slippage in my brain there, but there’s some things about which “the academy does not need to know” is a line that I’m remembering. It reminds me of some of your positioning that you’re describing Manny.
MANUEL STRAIN: Yeah, the academy doesn’t need to know! I think you can come from a place of not knowing things and still respect it and still honour it. Those people, just because– there has to be some work to earn things too, right? So, speaking about knowledge, I don’t want to just give everything away all the time. I will say people probably think I give away too much at times. But there are certain things that people need to earn, need to work for, because it’s extractive. People’s life experiences become extracted, a lot of the time at the Downtown Eastside especially. There’s a question there, and I think a lot about–
I did some work at the Budzey Building with an amazing group of people. And we are doing these workshops with a friend and coworker, Luca. We did an exhibition, we did publications. And I always was trying to remember that this is not necessarily my project. I don’t want to be steering things too much, and really just uplift them, and recognize how amazing they are by stepping back, not taking credit for it, and letting them dictate how they want to be represented. That’s done through lengthy conversations, eating together, making art together, walking together, talking on the phone together. It’s a long process but when you do that, you let them lead the way. And I’m not extracting their trauma. Yes, they are at this building in the Downtown Eastside, but that’s irrelevant when I present their work, and I work with them to show their artwork. They could be from who knows where, it doesn’t even matter at that point. They got good work, they got good work.
So I asked, “What are some things you want to say?” We’re talking about Powell Street and the Downtown Eastside. It is “Do wait to start your tomato seedlings, just let summer be and follow in every way.” So it is too late.
ANGELA MAY: Oh, don’t plant them. Nevermind, it’s over.
MANUEL STRAIN: But I’m here to tell you it’s not. [Chuckles]
ANGELA MAY: You can plant other stuff– doesn’t have to be tomato seedlings.
MANUEL STRAIN: It’s not too late. What a perfect way to end. It’s not too late.
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[1:00:44] REBECCA WANG: For more information about In Tanglement, and a list of resources for information mentioned in this episode such as the link to watch dear community or visit Musqueam Place Names, please visit cinevolutionmedia.com/podcast.
In the next episode of In Tanglement, host Minah Lee talks to sisters and filmmakers Ying Wang and Jie Wang. They share lived stories of one sister’s eating disorders and another’s heart-felt witnessing in their film Sisters. Their collaborative story-telling weaves together complex issues of mental health, identity, cultural and physical symptoms, and a healing journey.
This episode is lead produced by me, Rebecca Wang 王晨釔, with assistance from Yun-Jou Chang and Minah Lee. Editing and music by Leiwa. In Tanglement is produced by Cinevolution Media Arts Society and made possible with funding support from the Government of British Columbia. Thank you for listening.
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