Letís Get Physical
The body is central to Tania De Rozario's histories
By Diana Rahim
And the Walls Come Crumbling Down
Tania De Rozario's And the Walls Come Crumbling Down is an exploration of home, love, family, and loss. These concepts are familiar to us, but often in parochial terms shaped by dominant narratives or conditioned by arbiters of power like the state or religious authorities. We are told what home is supposed to look like (a happy, state-approved, heteronormative nuclear family) and what love and family are supposed to be like (heteronormative, too, among other things), and many have given words that help tide us through our experiences of loss and grief.
But what if the dominant understanding and narratives around family, love, and home are the ones that exclude you? What if the world has failed to write you into its history and stories? At the heart of And the Walls Come Crumbling Down is the act of writing one's self into a world that has failed to include you in its writing.
While all the aforementioned terms are conceptually and personally explored, we in turn can explore how De Rozario deals with the notion of history. De Rozario encapsulates the experience of exclusion when she says:
If one can never identify with the commonly-held understandings of history, home, family and love, then one has to create one's own and insist against its disappearance. When the girl De Rozario loved banished their romantic history to nothingness when she re-wrote her first love to be her husband, De Rozario is the one left to remember and sustain the truth:
As constructed narratives, notions like history are shaped by the institutions and people that hold the power to speak of it on their terms. If they are ideologically motivated, then history is bent to the shape of their ideology, though it purports to be an objective re-telling. To tell her own history, then, is to insist against its exclusion in the dominant shaping of history. It is to insist that one's personal history is as much a part of the larger history that is shaped to be told to all. The personal is political.
But first, an important digression. In the chapter 'Blueprints', we are introduced to the inner world of a South Asian migrant worker, Bhavan. On first read, this section appears somewhat out of place ó a narrative break ó in a book that has largely focused on De Rozario's personal history. However, it resonates with the book's theme ó in the chapter's attempt to understand the effects of the state's organisation of space, homes and, therefore, its citizens, one cannot exclude the migrants who have physically built the very spaces we inhabit in work, play, and rest.
In including Bhavan's story, De Rozario is implicitly insisting that all personal histories are intertwined, even those who are relegated to the margins. Bhavan's experience and history are as important to her history, even if indirectly, and as part of it as all that has directly happened to her. Bhavan, like so many migrant workers in Singapore, is excluded from the dominant narratives of the state, their stories sanitised against the dismal reality spoken by their material conditions.
Bhavan was someone who had believed in the state's story of itself:
But this is quickly dispelled by the reality he is confronted with when he arrives: The small dorms that allow little to no private space, and working in the conditions that have been given to him in order to clear his debt. The truth of the story cannot be divorced from its material reality.
History more than just a mere vehicle or conceit for De Rozario. To her, history is also physically and experienced and expressed:
There is a shift here from the conventional 'great-men' or 'top-down' narratives of history to one that moves the reader's gaze to the banality and minutiae of everyday life. History is thus not just a detached, intellectual concept, but something that is materially created and sustained, and personal. She keeps the letters. She wants the moss that grows on walls. Even words, immaterial as they seem, are things that scar the skin. Elsewhere, she writes:
This attention to the material is something that is present not just throughout this book, but also elsewhere in De Rozario's writing. In her first book, Tender Delirium, De Rozario's words are raw, visceral, vulnerable and achingly rooted in a lived reality.
Even in describing her lover's lie, she gives it an almost physical presence:
In making her case for her mother to choose her, the living, breathing person that is her daughter, over immaterial religious dogma, she says:
And the Walls Come Crumbling Down, then, is a book of the flesh, and of blood. The body. The material. It is no surprise that in exploring the concept of home, we are brought to focus on its material aspects (the door, drawers, bed, etc.). The body of her lover is often the site of rumination. The body ó whether the physical human body or the body of the home ó is where rumination begins.
De Rozario's attention to the material is thus an understandable extension of writing that focuses on the body. Exclusion is something material. We have seen this through how she understands history, but we also see it through the way she understands the concept of home. De Rozario's understanding of home cannot be divorced from her experience of leaving her family home and moving from place to place while struggling to make ends meet. The physical experience of home informs the conceptual and personal understanding of home for her. In the end, home is located in her lover.
Yes, there can be something political about loving another person. So is leaving home, making love, and losing your family. The body also often lies at the crux of these contestations. Often the site of visible difference, the body experiences direct violence and trauma. For many, the first line of exclusion and oppression is premised on the presentation of their body, or their refusal to regulate it according to accepted (and often repressive) sexual and social norms. The pain for such disobedience is as often felt in the mind, and also the body.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 1 Jan 2017