Reconstructing the “Self” and Speaking for a Collective Voice in Twist’s “Disintegrate/Dissociate”

During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and the US and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Megan Glover’s Medium bog.

Currently based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Arielle Twist is a Two-Spirit, trans femme Indigenous writer and sex educator from George Gordan First Nation in Saskatchewan. Made up of Plains Cree and Plains Saulteaux Peoples, the George Gordan First Nation community can be found near the village of Punnichy, Saskatchewan, in the heart of Treaty 4 Territory in Touchwood Hills. As the site of the longest-running residential school in Canada, operating from 1889 to 1996, the First Nations community suffers the intergenerational trauma of settler colonialism, and consistently works to provide services and support to the victims of this abuse. As a community, the George Gordan First Nation residents continue to strive to re-establish their traditional teachings, language and culture and to nurture a sense of pride and unity.

While Twist was born into George Gordan’s First Nation, she was adopted into and has been a band member of Sipekne’katik First Nation since 2003. Sipekne’katik First Nation is located in Hants County, Nova Scotia, near a village called Shubenacadie. It is one of 13 First Nations in Nova Scotia and the second largest Mi’kmaq band in the province.

New to the literary scene, Arielle Twist is an amazing example of a contemporary queer BIPOC artist who’s using her writing to practice Indigenous resistance and challenge colonialism in a way that is vulnerable, hopeful and seriously heartbreaking. Although not nearly enough praise has been sent her way, Twist has been recognized several times for her work in writing about her experiences as a trans Indigenous woman and what that means to exist in the modern world. So far in 2020, Twist has already been named a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Awards for Trans and Gender Variant Literature, the winner of the Indigenous Voices Award for Published Poetry, and the winner of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ+ Emerging Writers.

In her 2019 work Disintegrate/Dissociate, Twist explores themes of the postmodern Other Woman, Indigenous Queer ethics, kinship and the importance of imagining Indigenous futures. Bringing forth the existing intersections of colonialism and transphobia, Twist cuts through to the core of her experiences with violent transmisogyny and colonial erasure throughout her lifetime. By way of her poems, she takes us through the uncertainties of her past, the joys and traumas of her present and the promise of her future. The collection as a whole is haunting and beautiful, with each poem offering insight into Twist’s struggles with her sexuality, identity and grief, each uncompromising in queerness and tone, and each so carefully crafted to navigate such personal subject matter.

In interviews she’s held since its publication, Twist makes it clear that her collection of poetry is first and foremost about grief, and the many kinds of grief that lived in her body at the time she put pen to paper. From the grief of losing her grandmother, to the grief of her body as she transitioned, to the grief of dating as a trans Indigenous woman, Twist introduces us to her personal trauma and takes us through her journey to self-love and healing.

The very first poem of her text, the “Prelude”, introduces us to the first example of this grief, namely the pain of losing her grandmother. The poem brings us to the night Twist’s kokum died, and describes the trauma of losing a loved one.

“The night our kokum died,

my mother cried out in

another language.

I hear her break,

the cracking of burning wood,

like it was my own bones

between walls of mud and dust,

the structure, on fire”

(Twist, 11)

The use of words like “fire”, “cracking” and “bones” conjure up images of death, destruction and disintegration, depicting the irrevocable loss of connection to one’s identity through ancestry when an elder family member passes. In an artist panel hosted by the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus in 2019, Twist revealed that her grandmother passed away the same week that she was starting her transition. Because of this, the two of them were never able to have important conversations about what Twist’s future held as a trans BIPOC woman. Being the very first poem we encounter in her collection, the “Prelude” automatically brings readers into Twist’s struggle of identity and “self”. We feel her pain and longing as she experiences this loss of connection to her ancestry and deals with the unresolved feelings of not sharing such an important part of herself with someone she loved.

As the collection continues, this concept of the “self” remains an ever present theme, as Twist endeavours to name or locate her personhood and works to understand what it means to be Indigenous in a world that perpetuates colonial violence and cultural erasure.

The construction of Twist’s identity and how she sees herself as a Brown Indigenous trans woman is first introduced in the poem titled “Dear White, Cis Men”. In it, Twist presents four letters addressing the white cis men who act as both her “objects of affection” and the things she “fears the most” (Twist, 12–15). These letters provide insight into the ways in which Twist’s sense of self has been tampered with and heavily influenced by these men, who decide “if I am fuckable / if I am smart / if I am worth love”; by these men, who cause queer BIPOC women like Twist to wonder: “Is being trans worth being killed?” (Twist, 14). Defined by these men as a thing they “love to hate”, Twist highlights the colonial cissexist violence trans Indigenous women are subjected to as they are made to think of themselves as a “thing” that is undesirable and unworthy of respect (Twist 15). “Dear White, Cis Men” ultimately exhibits the narrator’s personal confrontation with how she defines herself, versus the identities that have been assigned to her unwillingly.

This concept of the “self” and the construction of Twist’s queer Indigenous identity can similarly be pointed to in her poem “Reckless”. Reminiscing on her sexual past, she ends this poem with three succinct lines:

“I’ve been reckless

because men

are reckless with me.”

(Twist 22)

This line is heartbreaking, as it shows us how deeply Twist’s sense of “self” has been manipulated by colonial violence and transmisogyny, and by these strangers who “never listen” but whose abuse of queer Indigenous bodies cause her to internalize self-hatred (Twist 21). By “fucking this thing I am”, these men cause women like Twist to see themselves as the postmodern Other Woman who is “unlovable, a biological mistake”, a thing that is “too trans”, “too brown” and simply “/toomuch/” to deserve integrity or tenderness (Twist 28–29). In “Under Uprooted Trees”, Twist similarly ruminates on this loss of power and identity, writing, “There are days / where I don’t / remember my name, / losing track of / who I am now / and what I was” (Twist 23).

Twist’s poems not only highlight this trauma of “thingification” and the colonial erasure of one’s identity, they also work to demonstrate the reality of physical violence and abuse that is perpetuated against queer Indigenous peoples. Throughout the collection, Twist includes graphic, disturbing depictions of this violence, with lines that describe sex not as an act of love, but as an invasive “colonization in this body I called home” (Twist 29). She speaks of the “Black hair / that you will grab fistsful of. / When I say no”, and of the “rough bites and cuts / swelling with blood” that are left on her body after sex (Twist 13–14, 20).

These depictions of sexual and physical violence can most prominently be seen in the poem titled, “Who Will Save You Now?”. The poem reads:

“While these men choke you

beat you in bathroom stalls

crush your ribs against brick walls

in queer bars, downtown home.”

(Twist 41)

Twist makes it clear that this abuse is a typical reality for Brown trans Indigenous bodies. She writes, “Queerness and indigeneity not intersecting quietly / white queers policing your existence / indigenous blood telling you that you’re a new generation problem” (Twist 40). From these lines, we can see identify the narrator’s struggle with the intersectionality and doubly emphasized feeling of otherness from being both queer and Indigenous in a transphobic settler society.

Twist explores the “self” as both an individual and on behalf of the collective indigenous LGBTQ+ community, within which she found a family. She introduces these themes of Indigenous queer ethics, Indigenous kinship and queer kinship in the city, thanking her “Indigiqueer and Two-Spirit kin” in her text and making sure the “black and brown femmes who make [Twist] feel safe and whole” know the collection is written for them (Twist 68, 43). Unapologetic and real, Disintegrate/Dissociate gives a voice to this group of othered individuals who are largely left unheard or silenced. Twist understands the great impact of providing positives representations for this community to look up to, as can be seen in her tweet below:

Throughout the collection, we see an evolution of Twist’s sense of biography, and how this Indigenous queer kinship starts to reconstruct the way she defines herself. While remaining honest in the way she portrays transmisogyny, sexual abuse and the attempt of colonial society to erase the postmodern Other woman, Twist starts to explore the potential for trauma and healing to coexist, and for kinship to support the reconstruction of queer BIPOC identity.

Evident in the poem “The Girls”—perhaps a call to the collective trans Indigenous woman community—is this reworking and reclamation of a queer BIPOC existence. The poem starts by detailing the “kind of girl” the narrator is as defined by the abusive white cis men who are “looking for a quick fuck” (Twist 28). While this text starts as a raw reflection of the way trans Indigenous bodies are dehumanized, we see a change in tone towards the poem’s end, as the speaker starts to define herself not through the eyes of her oppressor but on her own terms. Twist writes how she “became this girl who stopped showing up at three in the morning”, a “girl who is more desirable than fuckable” and “who loved herself more than men” (Twist 30).

Twist does not forgo the present colonial cissexist violence that exists in settler societies for a Brown trans Indigenous femme like herself, but suggests the possibility for queer Indigenous joy and self-love to coexist with trauma and grief. She reclaims her Indigenous trans womanhood and queerness, and reconstructs the portrayal of her desirability to show what Indigenous kinship can accomplish. In doing so, Twist also brings queer indigeneity into the future by approaching trauma, healing and her body with an analogy of death and rebirth. She returns to the imagery of fire, but instead of representing destruction, Twist uses fire to represent resistance and new beginnings. She speaks of her future children that will be “born by fire” and “fuelled by love”, and her plans to “sing them something beautiful / teach them how to speak” (Twist 35). In these lines, Twist imagines a future that makes room for queerness and indigeneity, and grants herself and the trans BIPOC community space to grow and rise from the ashes of their collective grief.

“Disintegrate or dissociate.

I will deconstruct myself,

and rebuild in her vision.”

(Twist 11)

Disintegrate/Dissociate presents Twist’s journey of self identity and empowerment in the face of oppression. Her words give the trans Indigenous community a voice, a true representation of their reality, and access to an example of joy and self-love as it coexists in the way of trauma.

Megan Glover

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