Breathing TIA House to Life
Jan 11, 2016
What is this TIA House anyway?
Welcome to the Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing, online. No doubt many of you, my meat world and virtual friends, are wondering what wonders are transpiring here at the University of Calgary, the long time home of a vibrant, ever-shifting writing community that has been a hub over the years for so many forms of cutting edge practice from fictocriticism, to writing the Western local, to biotext to an experimental avant-garde. My first contact with this hallowed place occurred in the middle the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, specifically the 1993 event “It’s a Cultural Thing” 1 organized by the Minquon Panchayat, a coalition of what we then called “First Nations artists and artists of colour”, organized in response to discussions around cultural race politics and strategies of inclusivity taking place within ANNPAC, the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres, once an important organization for artists working outside the mainstream gallery system.
Though I was not present at that event, I attended to it very carefully from my then home in Vancouver, BC, where I was active in a community of First Nations writers and writers of colour then organizing a conference called Writing Thru Race.
I lived here for the first time in 1997-98, taking up the Canadian Writer-in-Residence position at the University of Calgary, a position that still supports an emerging Canadian writer every year. I liked it so much, I returned again to do a PhD under the supervision of Aruna Srivastava in the early 2000s. Since completing, I’ve been a professor (I worked my way from Assistant to Associate there) in the English Department at UBC. Now I’m back at the University of Calgary, with a Canada Research Chair II, and very happy to be charged with the work of a little teaching, my own research, and the setting up of a creative writing house. This is how The Insurgent Architect’s House for Creative Writing was born.
The name of the house comes from the critical geographer David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope. I chose it because it describes the kind of work that I want to make happen in the house. I see the name “The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing” as a call towards a kind of idealism, but a cautious call. I believe that in this historical moment– marked by an unsustainable economic system, unpredictable climate change, neo-colonialism, intensive international human migration, the rise of religious fundamentalisms, and also, more positively, powerful Indigenous resurgence– that the kinds of cynicism that mark certain forms of electoral, media and everyday politics and certain forms of literary production are no longer tenable. With Harvey, I think it is important to begin again to cultivate ideals. The problem, of course, is that we’ve just left behind us a century riddled with idealistic thinking and the horrible material consequences 2 of such thinking– combined, admittedly, with terrible megalomania and other more complicated contingencies.
The question then becomes whether it is idealism itself that is the issue, or whether something is wrong with the way we practice it. This is where Harvey becomes useful. The problem Harvey confronts, which is the crux of the whole matter for me, is this: no matter how hard we try to articulate and create the best world we can imagine, we fall victim to “the unexpected consequences of our own actions… [and] also evolutionary contingencies…. that impinge upon us at every twist and turn and at every scale.” According to Harvey, we (insurgent architects) are attracted to utopian thinking precisely because it has traditionally held uncertainty and contingency at bay. He pushes us to recognize that modern capitalism created the world we now live in through speculative action and the readiness to take risks and be undone by them (254). He suggests that we insurgent architects must also embrace speculation and risk, with careful attention given to unexpected eruptions, mutations and emergent events. It is our work, further, to be attentive to liberating serendipities in those eruptions and mutations. What we do when a happy serendipity catches our eye– or breath– is up to us, and may be decidable only in the moment.
Those of you who know the speculative fiction writer in me can probably see why such a set of ideas would be appealing. I’m particularly interested in the insurgent possibilities of speculative fiction for the ways it can show us a world that might be possible, and also show us the pitfalls of realizing any ideal– that is, if the fiction is any good. What do I mean by good? In this instance, I mean fiction that really thinks through and plays out the consequences of its initial projections, be they social, political, technological, biological, biotechnological, or any combination thereof. In this thinking, I’m following Ursula LeGuin, who considers her novels to be literary experiments. I’m also following the SF critic Tom Moylan who offers the concept of the “critical utopia” as a kind of novel that shows awareness of previous uses and misuses of the idea of utopia as “good place”, but still clings to idealist impulses. We need to remember that Thomas More’s coinage of the term was a pun. “Utopia” means both “good place” and “no place”, thus opening the door both to our imaginative labour and to the unpredictable. For Moylan, the idea is to “reject utopia as blueprint while preserving it as a dream”. To draw in another critical and community tradition, I turn to Rey Chow’s incredibly helpful idea of “the fascist longings in our midst”. Chow cautions us that the over-fervent pursuit of ideals, even the best ones, will result in in repression. But we must still pursue them (a little cautiously, with ears wide open) as a way of saving our own lives.
My particular way of practicing insurgent architecture is, I hope, to turn the neoliberal project of innovation on its head, to reinsert an insistence on justice, land, Indigeneity and the social back into our thinking on where we ought to go from here. I also insist on a measure of agency. Imagination requires a subject to exercise it. For this reason, I reject the cynicism of certain strains of poststructuralism and affect theory that deny the subject, and turn instead to the concept of “Asiancy”, coined by Roy Miki in an essay of the same name. Recognizing the assimilatory displacement of Asian Canadian subjectivities onto white identifications, Miki queries what an Asian Canadian coming to consciousness might look like. Specifically, after Gail Scott, he asks “What if the surfacing consciousness finds void instead of code?” If there is code sometimes and void sometimes, then agency has a role to play, but a partial one that must be radically open to the void, to not-knowing, and to the necessity of listening. Thinking about this in terms of writing practice, we can see that this does not mean throwing out questions of form and aesthetics, but rather, an embrace of them. But it is an embrace that requires a radical recognition of the relationship between form and content, aesthetics and the social.
OK, so that is the providence and my deployment of the insurgent architect. But of course, I’m attendant to other valences of the word/acronym “TIA”, pronounced “tee” as in the drink “tea”, what many cultures around the world call “cha”, otherwise known as
TIA as in TIA House of the August Moon, to reverb back on Western misappropriations of the word, and also to keep critiques of Western hegemonies open and declare solidarity with other anti-colonial movements– especially Indigenous and Black — in all their depth, diversity and complexity.
In Chinese culture (never imagined as monolithic, of course!), the tea house is place of social gathering, traditionally a place where scholars gather to share ideas, and where social rank and political allegiances are put aside, so that people may speak freely.
Thinking of the work of my longtime friend and collaborator, Rita Wong, and her project on water with the Secwepmc filmmaker and scholar Dorothy Christian, I recognize that water is required to make tea, that it is a substance requiring earth elements and water elements, plant life and elemental life that sustains our always culturally specific human lives. Etymologically, the character for tea is the figure of a person harvesting leaves from a plant. Tea is an important part of our physical and social lives, necessary for both biological and cultural survival.
So then, what is TIA House at the University of Calgary for? And what is this blog for?
It is my hope that TIA House, as a physical space, will be a gathering place for the exchange of creative writing and thinking. TIA House is interested in all aspects of practice, circulation and criticism in Indigenous, diasporic, Canadian and global contexts. Already, over the course of the last eighteen months several events have been organized: “Paper Hearts: a Valentine’s Day Roundtable on Gender and Power in Canadian Writing Communities”, as well as individual talks and readings by Phinder Dulai, Nigaanwewidim Sinclair and Gerry Shikatani. Stay tuned for an event called Poetry Apothecary that my RA Colin Martin and I are organizing with Melanie Boyd. And later this winter, in collaboration with the Free Exchange Graduate Conference, TIA House will hold a one-day symposium tentatively entitled “Social Justice, Contemporary Form”.
This blog will be an informal, curated online magazine featuring poetry, fiction, thought and provocation by contemporary creative writing practitioners and critics both Canadian and international, particularly as they attach to the TIA House concept articulated above. For now, because our resources are limited, the TIA House blog publishes by invitation only, though this may change as the blog evolves. This blog tips its hat to the sleeping dog that was Lemon Hound, as well as to such important paper journals as Open Letter, Capilano Review, and West Coast Line. It gives a friendly nod to its American friend, Jacket2, and its Spanish sister, Canada and Beyond. It hopes one day to howl as loudly and clearly at the moon as any of its respected cousins.
Chow, Rey. “The Fascist Longings in Our Midst.” Ethics After Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. 14-32.
Christian, Dorothy and Rita Wong. “Untapping Watershed Mind.” Thinking With Water. Montreal: McGill-Queens U P, 2013. 232-253.
Gagnon, Monika Kin. “How to Banish Fear: Letters from Calgary.” Other Conundrums: Race, Culture and Canadian Art. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2001. 73-85.
Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: U of California, 2000.
Miki, Roy. “Asiancy.” Broken Entries: Race, Subjectivity, Writing. Toronto: Mercury, 1998. 101-124.
Moylan, Tom. “Introduction: The Critical Utopia.” Demand the Impossible. London: Methuen, 1986. 1-12.
- Interested readers might check out Monika Kin Gagnon’s chapter “How to Banish Fear: Letters from Calgary” a series of letters to the Lebanese Canadian multi-media artist Jamelie Hassan, directing the discussion towards a sister in the struggle, and thus revalencing how we understand “the public”, while documenting an important cultural event that itself sought to re-imagine a Canadian arts public that could be more inclusive of its racialized practitioners, critics and audiences. ↩
- It is beyond the scope of this informal blog piece to elaborate in detail, but one might think of the Cultural Revolution in China on the left or the German holocaust against the Jews on the right as exemplary moments in the work of idealism gone wrong. Hannah Arendt would be the philosopher to read on this subject. ↩