The theme of this special issue was inspired, in part, by a late night Google search a few years ago. Amidst growing conversation in the United States and the world over about sexual violence and domestic abuse, I lay awake thinking about growing up a girl. The leering, catcalling, groping. Being taken advantage of at a party, being valued for beauty or ridiculed for ugliness. Worshiped for our parts, reduced to our things, to things ourselves. Dreading the meeting where our opinions are undermined, the birthdays that mark us as past an expiration date, the alleyways or relationships that leave us bleeding. In a moment of sleepless desperation, I googled “places where gender-based violence and misogyny don’t exist.” Unsurprisingly, the search didn’t yield many results, but I did find one published research paper that listed a handful of contexts where “violence against women” was rare and, when present, swiftly condemned. The one thing all these sites of nonviolence, so to speak, had in common was a reverence for the natural world and the nonhuman beings that occupy it. These were places where that which is considered easily exploitable is instead cared for and respected. How, then, I wondered, does this permanent, human-inflicted damage to the planet and its species relate to other forms of extinction, to the irrevocable harm we inflict against each other and ourselves?
When I first moved to Tucson, I had no idea that there was a summer monsoon, which for thousands of years has turned brown shrubs green and the cracked skin of the earth into watering holes for bobcats, deer, and migratory birds. Over the past couple of years, however, the typically drenched rainy season has begun to seem more like slow intervaled trickles dripping from a leaky faucet. During these months of unrelenting heat, I find myself nostalgic for the nearby Sea of Cortez, the thin bay curled in between Baja Sur and the Sonoran coast. Like the summer rains in Arizona, it, too, seemed unexpected when I first visited. I remember the sudden rush of blue after hours of driving through a barren landscape that had long since abandoned itself to the sun. While it’s really only a sliver of sea, measuring 700 miles in length and 251 miles — at most — in width, it is home to a wide variety of migratory whales. I am a music scholar by training, and lately I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about whales because of the elaborate vocalizations and songs they are known for. With a limited sense of sight, they have a highly developed sense of sound, communicating vital information about things like the location of food or the presence of danger through soundwaves that can travel thousands of miles. Each whale pod has its own unique sonic signature of clicks, trills, and bellows, which function not only as language, but as a reassuring marker of collective identity. From the moment they are born, calves learn to vocalize who they are and who they should listen for in case they get lost. When whales migrate long distances, and often become temporarily separated, their vocalizations have particular fervor, as if they are reassuring each other and saying, everyone you love and belong to is still here.
For over one hundred years, whalers trapped and killed the Gray whales who spent every winter in the Baja Sur lagoons, their birthing and nursing site, bringing them to the brink of extinction. I wonder about the calves who may have escaped death initially, but who couldn’t ultimately survive in larger seas without the ability to develop and nurture shared knowledge and identity (through learned song).
And it’s not just whales. Guided by a capitalist and imperialist logic that values the success of the individual over the collective welfare of all living beings, humans have contributed to the extinction of hundreds of thousands of species and ecosystems. But hyperindividualism is not only harmful and antithetical to the lifeways of other beings, but also to our own species. The primatologist Frans de Waal argues that it is in the best interest of mammals — inherently social creatures — to strive toward the common good; we are, he says, evolutionarily wired to feel and treat others with empathy. There is nothing unreservedly or wholly cruel or violent, then, in natural impulse. Human nature is not only mediated, but actually defined by, the desire to promote the happiness and prevent the suffering of others. In captivity, unable to learn the songs that are their lifeline, whales often become violent and self-destructive, and have an average lifespan of 16 years in comparison to the 30-50 years they typically live in the wild. What, then, might be the impact on humans as we are increasingly forced to live in such a way that impels us to deny our natural empathic impulses, and therefore prevents us from being intrinsically human?
The pieces in this special issue speak to this question, exploring the interrelatedness between gender-based violence, other forms of harm and destruction, and self-annihilation. We solicited and received works across genres and mediums. Many of the works consider how sexual conquest has been used in the service of usurping power and profit at the expense of the well-being of the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. Aiden Baker’s essay, “The Wolf Peach,” explores the simultaneously seductive and dangerous qualities ascribed to the tomato through European-based taxonomy as reflective of a patriarchal, colonial compulsion to control and conquer regenerative feminine power. A.M. Rosales’s nonfiction piece, “Dis·mem·ber” similarly points to fear of the nonmasculine as a driving force behind the (neo)colonial world order, drawing attention to how this global system constantly attempts to erase the gender fluidity that exists in human and nonhuman species, and the Indigenous cultures that celebrate both. Building on the theme of erasure, Emily Spencer’s poetry reflects on the woman’s body as held captive in exile, using imagery of the store mannequin and stone sculpture as exemplary of the dehumanized and commoditized female. Her work shows how this configuration works differently for white and black women; in various forms of media, the white woman’s body has been portrayed as the ultimate symbol of delicate feminine beauty that therefore needs to be watchfully guarded, while the black woman’s body (dis)appears as dispensable, memorialized like statues of white women only “in death [through] rigor mortis.”
Other pieces in this issue more explicitly focus on the theme of self-annihilation. Denise Dolan’s fictional story, “Letter by Letter,” draws attention to the pathology that fuels both domestic violence and suicide, while Becky Thompson’s poem, “Hold onto Time,” touches on the sadness of men trapped in cycles of violence, whether they are the victims or the perpetrators, as both are “caught, related by mortar and blood.” Morgan Riedl’s “Multiplicity” and Arien Reed’s “There are barbed rose stems,” on the other hand, illustrate how victims of gender-based violence can be manipulated into complicity through silence, mimicry, and self-harm.
Another key theme that emerges, however, is the potential for certain kinds of “extinction” or collapse to bring about metamorphosis and renewal. Melissa Wiley’s short story, “A Place of Private Beauty,” reimagines human extinction as the promise of transcending our mortal and moral limitations. The story centers around Becca, who likes to be tied up and hover above the ground like an avian creature. In this way, she is momentarily able to abandon human form, limited and corrupted, as it is, by a misogyny that manifests in her father’s attraction to adolescent girls. Donelle Dreese’s “A World Without Birds” contemplates a kind of self-annihilative but regenerative migration that other species might embark on: an owl, for example, “burrowing deep into the earth’s mantle…desperate to return to the beginning of creation/and start over.” Other contributors consider the possibility of sensory metamorphosis bringing about a radical reconceptualization of power and systems of violence. In the poem “Carceral Holocaust,” Sarah Digner Riveros suggests we might “sleepwalk through razor wire / fjord an insomniac river / beyond border scars…”; while Meredith Clark, in her nonfiction piece, “excerpt from Colluvium,” welcomes and announces “an army of girls” surreptitiously building a coalition through similar magical methodology, inviting us to “rip apart/the bright seam” of a “line of light upon the sea.”
In the Sea of Cortez, whaling was banned in 1946. Gray whales are now abundant, and even swim up to boats and allow humans to touch their backs. Though they have an average life span of 70 years, gray whales can live longer, which means that a few of the whales who show human beings such warmth and camaraderie are the very ones hunters attempted to kill long ago. Of the many lessons that our fellow mammals can teach us, this one, about the ability to forgive human cruelty, is inarguably one. And I think there is also another message here about the capacity for resilience. Against all odds, these whales have found a way not just to survive, but to release themselves from resentment and find happiness. To refuse anything but happiness, which, in their case, is expressed most genuinely, whether in deep bellow or light staccato, as vocalization.
In a literal sense, to vocalize is to utter, to sing, to make voiced. But, when understood metaphorically, vocalization means a kind of excavation of the previously unspoken or unexpressed. An emancipation of the suppressed. How fitting, then, that whales use the medium of vocalization as resistance. As you read through this issue, I invite you to consider that the song or sound of resilience and resistance for women might be — as Clark writes in this issue — , “a tower, a lighthouse, a bell.” And why not? It makes sense that the once inconceivable, a newly materialized truth, would manifest as an unexpected sound from an unexpected source.
Amalia Clarice Mora is an ethnomusicologist and performing artist from Los Angeles. After receiving her PhD from UCLA, she moved to Tucson, where she has performed and collaborated with the Southwest Folklife Alliance, Invisible Theatre, Blacktopgunn Theatrics: Teatro de la calle, the Arizona Theatre Company, and SomethingSomething Theatre. She currently works for the University of Arizona Consortium on Gender-Based Violence and teaches for the Human Rights Practice Program, for which she also helped to develop a new master’s certificate program. Her writing primarily explores the relationship between performance and the political economies of violence, and has appeared in a wide range of publications.
Image by NASA