Written version of text for “Barrier” Installation
“If ‘culture’ is not an object to be described, neither is it a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitively interpreted. Culture is contested, temporal, and emergent. Representation and explanation—both by insiders and outsiders—is implicated in this emergence” - James Clifford, 1986: 19.
“Ote ma fille! ou la pahonte?” The giggling and jovial tone of her voice was more euphemism than a joke: this particular intonation rises up an octave at the end of the question.
“Hey Girl! aren’t you ashamed?...” I heard again, “What’s that for anyhow?” The cause for such a comment (for this is more a declaration than a question) was that I was bent over, picking up a round, partially crushed container. When I heard Nathalie’s quip and the subsequent affirmations I quickly redressed myself, tucking the piece of trash between my palm and my thigh. While inverted, I only caught the tail end of the elbow jabbing and eyebrow-raising exchanged among the happenstance audience and I told myself the whisps of “pshhh” was really the prickly cane leaves rubbing against each other in the on-shore breeze.
I decided not to indulge her with my attraction to the scratchy texture of the weathered object. (I had been collecting such objects for as long as I can remember, but my habit had dwindled significantly since picking up debris was met with more overt disgust in present company). Even less effective would have been trying to explain my fascination with the metaphorical implications of the object’s former life as a beverage container juxtaposed to its current location on the edge of a ravine. (The very ravine where her grandmother and great-grandmother had gone to quench their thirst and wash their clothes). I knew that within certain circles, academic or artistic for etc., I could get away with such “odd” actions and even such convoluted explanations. But here, now, I couldn’t justify the dirt under my fingernails or the presence of a discarded container in my personal bag. Ramping up my defenses in times such as these, I had learned to swallow the burning humiliation instead of fighting (selfishly) to be understood. The amount of energy and emotional wherewithal it took to justify my actions wouldn’t satisfy or clarify much. My snooty air and funny words, (as I had come to understand they were interpreted), were about as effective at holding water as the deflated forms I was routinely attracted to.
Nathalie and I were both born in 1981 to strong, self-reliant parents who taught us the virtue of manual labor and warned us against the vice of leisure. We are both mothers now. Contribution to family operations is unquestionable and routine: gathering and sorting food stuffs, cooking for large gatherings, mashing up small portions for toothless gums. We are sisters, often encountering the frictions of siblings’ inability to see eye to eye. But we are not blood. We do not speak the same language. We do not find the same things beautiful, or worthwhile. And we rear our children with as separate a set of guidelines as might be expected from two women growing up on opposite sides of the globe. To further connect (or distance) matters of our relations, we were born in twin cities: She, Saint Paul of Réunion Island, an Outer Seas Department of France located in the Indian Ocean, and I, St. Paul, Minnesota, an urban center located on the great artery of the northern United States, the Mississippi River.
“Ou la pahonte?” in Réunionese Creole (“Tu n’as pas honte?” in standard French) is an expression commonly used to ask why someone is doing something deviating from the social norm. My understanding of the term has followed a pendular path spanning the five years I have known Nathalie’s culture. I found it difficult to swallow the first time I heard it, interpreting the word “honte” with the full weight of “shame” and the associations of exclusion and downtrodden self-esteem. Perhaps this is because I transliterated the phrase at first, relying on a word-for-word portal into the unknown. As I observed the phrase uttered at seemingly inconsequential moments, (among friends in casual conversation for example), I began to understand the nuances of the expression. It could express sarcasm as well as or instead of condemnation. As I have been the object of the comment under circumstances that highlight my foreignness, I began to tune in to the additional underlying inferences.
Although superficially playful, the phrase can be used to obliquely comment on a another person’s membership in the social group or even to his or her sanity. (A similar phrase “Ou lé fou ou quai?”, “Are you crazy or what?”, carries similar implications). Whereas the practice of ladí lafé (roughly translated as “gossip”) mostly discusses persons who are not present, the use of the phrase “Ou la pahonte?” is uncharacteristically confrontational. Perhaps this is one reason why it surprised me. As many other aspects of Réunionese culture confirm a general aversion to confrontation, this phrase: “Tu n’as pas honte?” jumps out as an exception to the perceived “rule.” The question is abrasive in that it is directed at someone who is out of line, and furthermore, it is quintessential “moukattage” (making fun/ belittling someone).
As subtle tools for prodding and pruning social membership, I realized that these mechanisms maintain a sense of unity and appropriateness. I am still sensitive to the sense of mockery and exclusion that the question carries with it. However I have come to accept that Nathalie asking if I wasn’t ashamed by my behavior was somehow confirming my integration in the group. My choice to no longer explain or hide my deviant behavior reflects a protective layer of callus.
James Clifford, “Introduction: Partial Truths,” in James Clifford and George Marcus, eds., Writing Culture (California, 1986).