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The Sea Uses Everything: Some Passages on Trinh T. Minh-ha
by Zach Ngin


“Rather than leading from one point to another, passages are middles, intervals within intervals.” (1)

The stories of Trinh T. Minh-ha never really begin nor end. Even though every film begins and ends with an image, and every book begins and ends with a word, her work delivers neither linear successions of events nor settled genealogies of thought. Instead, it invites you into “a stateless and constant form of passage. A passage that is always passing. A shady sort of sovereignty.” (2) We enter somewhere in the middle of things: ensembles of citation, constellations of secondhand memory, piles of objects gathered and given.

I want to make a map of passages: I remember only a small part. / But this is what I remember. (3) There is a footpath over the gutter here and the house with the fan palms and the pond with the fish. Over here is where the train stops on its way to the stars. Here is where the boats are docked and where the dwellings are round. Here it is made of paper, and here cellulose, and here chalked onto asphalt. Yes, it is extravagantly colored and hard to hear in places, but it remains no less a map – “the way a fragment of a shattered mirror continues to function as mirror no matter the shape it ends up with.” (4)

What is the shape of Trinh’s work? Much of it is concerned with borders, so I’m tempted to imagine an edge: a line between past and present, life and death, tectonic plates and language families. But the edges flicker and emit sparks, and I realize that this flickering is Trinh’s true subject, more so than the edges. “Inter, between, midway: what comes to our senses is always on the go, already in motion,” she has said. (5) Her work is committed (ethically, aesthetically) to honoring the motion that precedes it: the histories of vibration and propulsion, hot molecules lingering in the air.

*

Close to the beginning of her book Lovecidal, Trinh is already asking, “How to write an ending?”

An ending. The last art I saw in person, on a Friday in early March, was an exhibition of paintings at the Met Breuer. It was significant because it was the final exhibition in that space, though I hadn’t been there before. It was also significant because of the artist’s advanced age, and because of its title, Painting After All. In the months since then, the day has assumed in my mind the solemnity of that phrase, its finality. Within a week, the museum would be closed, and I would be putting things in boxes. Soon I’d be pulling all my books from their shelves and posters from their wall.



In the middle of the gallery, big panes of glass leaned against each other. (6) It wasn’t immediately clear to me why they were there. The rest of the room assembled around this blur, its gravity distorting the dimensions of things. And yet its operation was discreet, silent, transparent. The glass simultaneously yielded to light and threw it around, making images and unmaking them again. It formed a mobile composition of its surroundings: paintings, museumgoers, brick buildings seen through the window. The surface of a city painted with the colors of another. “Each fragment contains the whole, and the world remakes itself anew piece by piece, step by step.” (7) In the middle of the glass, I tried to glimpse that longing for transformation, for “the opposite of misery and hopelessness.” (8)

In the next room were six square paintings. Their surfaces bore the signs of some vast scraping, like the sheer face of a glaciated valley. I don’t remember the colors, only that there were colors, infinitely differentiated. I sat on the floor and scribbled some emphatic phrases in my notebook: no clear lines, but seams, edges, patches, directions. there isn’t anything under to uncover. And thought of all the people who would sit there, where I was, and see the same painting and make the same observations. And soon I’d sit again beside a different ocean.

*

“Again and again, the new normal reaffirms itself to be a state of pending ending,” Trinh writes in Lovecidal. She is referring to the American forever wars that followed 9/11, but the phrase is purposefully allowed to resonate across geographies: “Sudan, Tibet, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Rwanda, Congo, Burma, and … and… and, with the recurring specters of Bosnia, Kosovo, South Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam.”(9) Over the course of the book, she charts an ambulatory course through landscapes of war and neglect. Hers is a mobile cartography, evading occupation even as it chronicles its effects. She quotes Dogen Zenji: “The blue mountains are constantly walking… If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking.” (10)

Walking, as a practice, literalizes Trinh’s commitment to the passage, the middle, intervals of beginning and pending ending. Walking takes the body as its reference point: walking pace is a rate of time, walkable a unit of distance. It conjures the polyrhythms of body on earth, step upon breath upon step. And yet it offers, as Walter Benjamin has observed, a vision of cities “without thresholds” and landscapes “in the round.” (11) In Lovecidal, the walker extends from a solitary figure in a landscape to the crowds of the antiwar movement, from tides of displaced people to the “war somnambulists, unaware of their strange and terrifying sleepwalking.” (12)



“She’s not merely going somewhere,” Trinh writes. “Rather, she’s swallowing each step, feeling it with mouth, hand, feet, sole, toe, the whole body in motion, while noticing how thoughts arise, condense, stray, scatter, and return, always ready to concoct stories and even eager to get lost in the process. Now and then, the solitary walk carries her to a strange, collective site: at once emptied from the noises of everyday squabbles and wide open to the call of world events, living intimately abroad at home.” (13)

That final sentence is perfectly suited for this particular moment of pending ending: a summer of atomizing worry and common duress, of solitary neighborhood walks and mass street protests. Like Trinh’s walker, I’ve become newly aware of the intimacy and the strangeness of home. Walking as method honors the unruly continuities of the body, rather than the constructed continuities of narrative. Trinh’s work is the product of a lifetime of walking, a lifetime of gathering seeds and sounds in various containers (poetry, theory, documentary, ethnography). (14) Her walking attends to the smallest deposits of material, the warmth and acid of the soil. And it takes place amid generations of displacements, across intimacies of languages and continents. Walking with the disappeared, her sole “conveyance is each morning, breath, departures of any kind, tapers, sheets of anything, paper, cloth, rain, ice, spittle, glass.” (15) She’s not merely going somewhere.

*

On a map of San Francisco, I saw a place called Mount Olympus that I had never noticed before. It appeared as a tiny patch of green at the end of a single, looping road. The surrounding streets had similarly vertical, atmospheric names: Saturn Street, Upper Terrace, Uranus Terrace, Mars Street. The road there was steep and narrow, and the park, obstructed by surrounding buildings, reveals itself only as you approach its base. Not that it’s much of a park: it’s basically a tiered square. A set of stairs brings from the street you to the second level, which has some benches. Another set of stairs brings to the summit, which is dominated by a large plinth, empty except for a plaque worn by decades of weather.

As I was circling the plinth, I saw a man and a woman get off a motorcycle and start to climb the stairs. They approached the plinth, and the man was talking in an indignant tone. “I can’t believe it’s gone,” he said. “This has nothing to do with BLM.”

I was pretty sure that nothing like that had happened here. I looked it up on my phone. The statue on the plinth, Triumph of Light, had been donated by Adolph Sutro in 1887. It sat in the center of the city, and depicted the victory of liberty – a woman carrying a torch – over a hulking figure of despotism. “Generations will fade away, and still that monument will Dally in the wind, and scorn the sun,” proclaimed a pamphlet made to commemorate the statue. (16) And while it pierced the ridgeline for decades, it was the statue that would fade away. It was gradually worn away by weather and vandals, and sometime in the 1950s, Triumph of Light dissolved entirely into the overcast. Neither the neighbors nor the city authorities knew where it had gone.



I told the couple that the statue hadn’t been there since the ‘50s. I felt a little embarrassed to be correcting them. I didn’t feel like I could change anyone’s mind, not really. Still, I showed them a picture of the statue on my phone, and they nodded. Cool right? I said weakly.

I’d intended a brief interaction, but I soon found myself engaged in a lengthy conversation – more of a monologue, really – about various low-cost ecommerce platforms. A little wire you would buy for fifty dollars at Best Buy? the man said. You can get that for like thirty cents on Alibaba. This is something he says to everyone he meets. There’s a site for sporting goods too.

He said that he was a fifth generation San Franciscan, and waxed nostalgic about decades past, the previous names and faces of the neighborhoods. There’s a lot to know about this place, he said. A lot gets forgotten. For instance, he asked me, have you heard about the plague? The one a hundred years ago? They found these tunnels that started in Chinatown and went down to the bay. They didn’t want anyone to know. (17) There were skeletons there. Plague bones, he said. Did you hear about that? Down by the water, that’s where they stayed.

*

Trinh’s work, no matter its medium, refuses the total triumph of light. It instead assumes the form of a twilight walk. “Clarity,” she writes in Woman, Native, Other, “is a means of subjection, a quality both of official, taught language and of correct writing, two old mates of power: together they flower, together they flower, vertically, to impose an order.” (18)

Her body of work repeatedly enacts this distrust of the well-spoken and the high-resolution. She is uninterested in locating a perfect language for feminism or Third World struggle or visual anthropology. She attends, instead, to the disjuncture of the language that we have: the repetitions and silences, jump-cuts and black-outs, and what she calls “holes in the sound wall.” (19) Her work is animated by a “choppy, broken voice” that can rarely be heard from beginning to end. (20) This voice is compromised by its arduous travel between virtual and material, analog and digital, continent and footfall and continent. This is language as “a gift, a theft, an excess or waste, made between Skopje and Saigon by interns and non-resident aliens on Emoji keyboards.” (21) These are voices “marooned in music, dark nightclubs of weeping, in never-sufficient verses, uncommunicated sentences, strict tears, in copper throats.” (22)

Trinh’s work is a place for stories to collide: escape stories and ice stories, slept stories and swarm stories, semblance of noise stories and never been born stories. (23) Her citational practice refuses to impose an artificial unity; it suggests the possibility of coalition, rather than determining its parameters in advance. She allows her interlocutors’ words to take up space on the page. She allows their questions to resonate, remain unanswered. She allows them passage.



In Lovecidal, for instance, she quotes Trần Thái Tông: “By what road / does the scent of cinnamon flowers / come to us at the end of the day?” (24)

Trinh’s walker echoes the phrase: “What makes a man bomb a flower? By what road did a green plant come to the onlooker as an enemy?”

And she wonders: “In what tongues do rain and wind speak? In what keys do they sing?”

Pablo Neruda puts it slightly differently: “In what language does rain fall / over tormented cities? / At dawn, which smooth syllables / does the ocean air repeat?” (25)

*

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a bench near Fort Mason, looking out onto the water, eating a sandwich. A woman biked up to another bench nearby. A bouquet of slightly wilted flowers lay in her basket. She picked them up, one by one, and started throwing them into the ocean. The gesture seemed to have some private significance, so I didn’t look at her. I looked instead at the water as it was briefly punctured, just as the air had been, by color. I wondered, briefly, what it meant, what the ocean had taken and why it kept taking.

After a while, to my surprise, the woman came over to my bench and asked me if I wanted to throw some flowers. It’s fun, she said. They go surprisingly far. She handed me one, and I watched her throw another, observing her technique. The flowers were heavy enough on one end – dense enough with petal, stigma, style – to spin through the sky like tiny divers. I held the stem and released, watching it go.

I felt the place in my hand where the stem had been. The stranger reached over to hand me some more flowers. I don’t remember the colors, only that there were colors. People think that someone died or something, she said. It isn’t anything like that. It just feels like such a waste to dump them into the trash.

I nodded. It made sense to me. I also knew that “the sea uses everything.” (26)

We threw them all, what must have once been an entire bouquet. Before they’d been carried there, they must have been in a vase on a table somewhere. They must have sprouted somewhere and grown. They had been held by different hands. It was impossible to imagine where they had been, where they had been born.



*

Zach Ngin is a student, writer, and artist. He lives in San Francisco and Providence. In the summer of 2020, he was an intern at the Wattis.


Notes:
(1) Trinh T. Minh-ha, D-Passage: The Digital Way (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 91.
(2) Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and the Super Futures Qollective, “Before Dispossession, or Surviving It,” Liminalities 12, no. 1 (2016), 8.
(3) Leslie Marmon Silko, Storyteller (New York: Penguin, 2012 [1981]), 6.
(4) Trinh T. Minh-ha, Lovecidal: Walking with the Disappeared (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 7.
(5) Trinh, D-Passage, 91.
(6) See Hal Foster, “In a Glass, Darkly,” in Sheena Wagstaff and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: Painting After All (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020), 94-101.
(7) Trinh, Lovecidal, 237.
(8) Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “An Interview with Gerhard Richter (1986)”, in Gerhard Richter (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 25.
(9) Trinh, Lovecidal, 1.
(10) Trinh, Lovecidal, 96.
(11) Walter Benjamin, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 422.
(12) Trinh, Lovecidal, 142.
(13) Trinh, Lovecidal, 182.
(14) See Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 165-70.
(15) Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002), 215.
(16) Annalee Newitz, “In search of Adolph Sutro,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 13, 1999.
(17) See Nayan Shah, “Plague and Managing the Commercial City,” in Contagious Divides: Race and Epidemics in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 120-57; Andrew Liu, “‘Chinese Virus,’ World Market,” n+1, March 20, 2020, https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/chinese-virus-world-market/.
(18) Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 17.
(19) Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (Milton Park: Routledge, 1991), 201.
(20) Frantz Fanon, trans. Haakon Chevalier, “This is the Voice of Algeria,” in A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1993 [1959]), 86.
(21) Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (New York and London: Verso, 2018), 142.
(22) Brand, Map, 216.
(23) See Silko, “The Storyteller’s Escape,” in Storyteller, 239-44; Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior (New York: Vintage, 1989 [1971]), 3; Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001 [1982]), 75; Trinh, “Grandma’s Story,” in Woman, Native, Other, 119-51.
(24) Trinh, Lovecidal, 182, 237, 184.
(25) Pablo Neruda, trans. William O’Daly, The Book of Questions (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1991), 66.
(26) Brand, Map, 9.

Images:
(1) Still from Forgetting Vietnam, directed by Trinh T. Minh-ha ( 2016).
(2) Courtesy of the author.
(3) From a digital scan of Trinh T. Minh-ha, Framer Framed: Film Scripts and Interviews (Milton Park: Routledge, 1992).
(4) Provenance unknown, via Annalee Newitz.
(5) From a digital scan of Trinh, Framer Framed.
(6) From a digital scan of Trinh, Framer Framed.