I see myself refracted in Edward Gunawan’s collection of poetry and prose, The Way Back. It made me feel less alone in confronting the slipperiness of identity and in my exploration of art-based healing.
I felt grief for pasts I didn’t even know to ask about; for situations where it may be too late to retrieve. I felt a tension of being policed in expressions of desire that jut against heterosexual norms; the ways that these expectations make contact with our bodies, and the empowering ways we can subvert this through art.
The Way Back conveys an elusiveness of identity and belonging. It refuses to simplify and stay put into neat categories of knowability, as if situated at a shifting crossroads within a field in flux. For each dimensionality of being, there are layers that perhaps become revealed on their own time; stories are “…skins / Peel them – off our backs” (p. 22).
There are allusions to powerful voices of the past, visionaries such as Audre Lorde, reverberating across space and time in pieces such as “auto-correct”: “red squiggly lines, double-underlined blue flags colonizing the pristine of my page. you kill what i’m yet to birth. new worlds through new words are not meant to fit easily to your rightrigidrules.”
A revelation of how colonial history remains deeply embedded in digital-aged tools, and a reminder that, as Lorde said, “poetry is not a luxury”, but rather, “the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”
Notions of home and family are troubled; in pieces such as “Love Refugees,” “Insufferable Joy,” and “The Way Back,” Gunawan divulges the fluidity of these concepts and creates space within them for longing, disappointment, and celebration. The places where we yearn for containment and placement become muddied when migration, historical trauma, and loss swirl into the fold. But the opening of concealed pasts also creates room to reveal hidden resistances, traces of heritage looming in plain sight, as in a reflection on a cracked vase. Perhaps it’s all been there and we just needed to listen.
Woven through these shifting incantations of the self, there remains a question on love. In recognizing the immense richness of experience, a paradoxical juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy that nevertheless bears the residue of life, how can love contain all of this? In pieces such as “The Question Next Time,” “tap tap tap,” and “The Man on the Train,” love manifests in its profound mysteries, as a love of love itself, in its contradictions and incessant, processual nature that becomes apparent when we are inclined to make contact with it. We may not always notice love, but with space, time, and the shedding of our stories, perhaps we can unearth and release its boundlessness; spilling across borders, genres, and localities.
One wonders about the wisdom echoing through these words and pages; on art being a beacon from the past; an unsettling suggestion to root oneself in intrinsic abundance, to become and be an ocean. Perhaps one day we may feel what it is to have a sense of space and place for ourselves, on our own terms. To see ourselves in a place, rather than as a space that we conform to through a process of destructive erasure. In challenging ourselves, embracing our selves, we find a way; art responding to art in a process of uncovering; an unfolding, as poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs has said, of love.