I was asked to write about joy and, to be honest, I’ve been having a hard time thinking about how to approach the subject. Now, that’s not to say I’m against joyful indulgence; in fact, if you asked anyone close to me, they’d probably tell you that I am the queen of relaxation. I eat my candies; I sprawl out; I lose myself in my activities. I spend my money on treats and trinkets, and lavish over cakes.
But once I zone out from these little clandestine pleasures, the idea of joy seems incomprehensible. Life under racialized capitalism, ongoing and emerging pandemics, global violence, and planetary ecological catastrophe makes it difficult to carve out spaces for me to live joyfully, let alone relax at an existential level. Coupled with my creative and critical vocations, as a poet and an educator, where these topics and issues are prevalent in my day-to-day thinking and speech, I’ve been trying to reflect on what joy means in relation to racialized grief. I’m hard in my body, I’m overworked, I’m losing the energy to hold space for others, not because I don’t want to, but because the care work I do in and out of the classroom is a surplus work, slowly eating away at me.
What can I offer? Some meandering meditations.
I often go to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric:
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world stored in you.
Racialized grief across different communities is, of course, not congruent; but there’s something to be said of the accumulation of minor and major harms that Rankine outlines in her book. Citizen is a catalogue of hurts, uncertainties, and subdued aggressions, ever teetering on the explosive. In so doing, the speaker in the book becomes a host, of sorts, to a library of displeasure and madness. But if the racialized body can become an inadvertent, fleshy archive of grievance, can it also become an archive of fleshy joy? How do we account for a life worth living?
Pleasure can feel like a betrayal sometimes—selfish, parochial.
Or maybe I am too obsessed with pain.
Joy doesn’t necessarily have to cancel out the grief—nor does it mean one forgets it. But I’m wondering what this sense of racialized shame means and how it figures and coalesces in the body as something almost unforgivable, another archive of displeasure.
I’ve heard that children of the diaspora are spoiled, privileged, ungrateful—because our parents endured hardships, war, persecution. I’ve had students say this, too, ashamed to even register their own pain because of parental guilt, on their way to becoming doctors or businesspeople. Their own creativity, stifled, an elective; nothing more than a passing interest. Yes, I grieve for my parents and their missed lives but who will grieve me? Who will grieve our missed lives? I don’t think this narrative of triumphalism or model minority success and perfectionism should hold us hostage. We, too, are afflicted, in different ways—and our peace and pleasure should not be negated.
As much as I try to refuse dichotomous thinking, I find the difference shattering.
Instead, I want to imagine an other body of pleasure and reprieve. It sits in me, too, veil-like, ghostly, ecstatic. If “race” constructs an unembraceable self, then I want to insist on this other body—a future-present one—that tallies the minor gestures of happy living, and is co-constitutive with my being. What’s more, these small accumulations, I think, can also be powerfully social.
I refuse “the good life” and opt for the strange and miniscule.
I think what I prize the most are the daily pleasures I take in as barely recognizable scenes or encounters. Glances, a misstep, a malodorous elevator. A wondrous breath, a delicious lip smack. Vomit on the metro train floor. There is so much potential when you attend to a moment. Focused. The world offers so much if you open yourself up to it. And the comical can rescue us from an unpleasant situation. Sometimes it helps to be equipped with a perverse sense of humour. Sometimes all you need is to shift an attitude from frustration to appreciation. Sometimes it is simply the pleasure of being.
These small acts can seem selfish. Maybe they should be selfish. I’m tired of being a model citizen. I pilfer joy and return it to people and places that need it. Or I hoard joy because I need it. I’m not a heroine but I think people look up to me—and I carry this burden. I want to uplift those in community with me but I also yearn for mentorship and protection, sometimes a brief moment of respite. But can I turn away from myself, too, as an act of rebellious joy? I make space for myself to welcome me. A me that is glorious and beaming. I gather up my spaces. I insist. And nothing more.
When was the last time you stole some joy for yourself?
How many jokes will I tell myself that no one else will hear?
In late 2021, I was asked by the now rebranded Ex-Puritan to guest-edit a special issue on “Joy.” I asked contributors to consider, experiment with, and express joy across mediums and forms, hopeful for a way for us—across different communities—to transmit the kinds of joy we can have across racialized life. Putting together the special issue was incredibly uplifting and promising. I saw the joy of friendship, sound, sex, and dancing. I saw the joy in insisting on life. In the introduction I wrote that joy was a kind of stitching. I still hold onto that insofar as personal joy can open up towards a constellation of infectious relation.
In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong talks about the minor feelings that accrue within the racialized body as a dysphoric, incomplete event. Like Rankine, the term minor feelings gives name to racialized grievance that can be difficult to articulate as grievance, since it’s sometimes difficult to parse out whether a sleight is racially charged or not. But I want to think about the other kinds of minor feelings that scaffold life. Minor gestures of affirmation, knowing glances or queer coded understanding, sighs of relief when there is shared yet hidden experience. These are the fugitive ways in which I find joy navigating the world, too. That is, finding that inner style and sensibility that we can find as accomplices living so close to harm as a devout refusal to be overtaken by it.
I suppose what I’m thinking about is a communal poetics of joy. Nothing is more satisfactory than shared understanding, especially when it borders the ridiculous. I suppose this is where the perversity returns: that disbelief concerning harm can be transformed into an outright refusal of the conditions of subjection. I don’t necessarily mean this as in the language of resilience; rather, it is the secret refusal to be addressed at all in the negative.
On the bus I lock eyes with someone like me as we bear witness to a stupidity. All it takes is a pursed lip, a raised eyebrow. A tilt of the head. And we enter into a private sphere of joyful communion of unuttered laughter.
This fleeting joy is not all I have but it’s been helpful to think about its ephemeral quality. I don’t mean to say that joy is unattainable because momentary, but that we can find joy in the fragments that split our being day-to-day. Perhaps I’m over philosophizing on the miniscule, but I do want to insist on resisting pleasure as that ultimate act—as some kind of truth event that will rescue us from suffering. Of course, joy can be orgasmic, all-consuming, to the point of self-shattering. Of course, the ecstatic can be that which multiplies our being and infuses us with vigour. But I want to map a different tactility of joy that sustains through a mending. These touch points come and go, unsuspecting, like little gifts. It’s within their surprising nature that makes them disposable and utterly precious.
For the past few years, it’s been hard for me to write. I’m prone to depressive episodes. My body aches. I move between precarious work. I feel too exhausted for life, if not exhausted by it. Slowly, I’ve been returning to writing. I wouldn’t normally say that writing is a pleasurable activity. It demands a lot (or I demand a lot from it). It comes in spurts. I approach this immoderate return to writing in a way similar to the ephemeral pleasures above. I’ll make less demands on myself. And coming back to writing now, it feels like light. It sounds simple, but sometimes saying yes to yourself is all you need but also the hardest thing to do.
Prathna Lor is the author of Emanations (Wolsak & Wynn, 2022), which was a finalist for the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry and is nominated for a 2023 Lambda Literary Award.