In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin unravels the belief of the spear as the earliest human tool. She writes: “[S]ixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in [temperate and tropical] regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food.” The overrepresentation of the spear conveys the conflict-driven narrative of the hunter as hero. She de-centers the spear and re-centers that which holds: the carrier bag, the basket, the pouch, the stomach. A modality is expressed, one that better reflects Le Guin as a person and writer.
The author writes about the importance of “holding” in a life-affirming way. I read the text’s rejection of hierarchy as a caution against alienating the individual from the community. Our bodies hold our experiences, our experiences shape our perspectives, and our perspectives are useful to those around us. But, humans are messy. How do we hold this complexity with care—and subsequently, each other? It feels contradictory to take this up in writing as it can be a lonely, heart-opening practice. However, I do feel moments of possibility when reading collectively written texts: manifestos; community agreements; zines; anthologies.
Inspired by collective writing, I reached out to two friends and artists, Hannah deJonge and Natalie Cito, who both address “holding” in their work. Hannah tenderly contemplates the histories of form through varying practices such as quilting and genre-defying ceramic vessels. And memories of intimate dialogue with Natalie Cito affirm my love of novels. Her artistic practice mirrors her approach to life. Natalie’s visual creations represent journeys into women’s stories and histories.
What are your thoughts on the reading? How do the ideas coincide with your practice?
Hannah deJonge: Le Guin’s description of the carrier technology makes me think of the illusion of it all; how the glamour of violence refuses to pay heed to the quiet of gathering. It’s very grounding to put these thoughts into words. Le Guin states that the novel (our reflection) is more fruitful with gatherers, foragers, and good listeners in our web of connections. That in collecting, there is work of means, of thoughtfulness. When I think of my own work, the necessity that Le Guin places in a “vessel” is where it all starts. In making, there seems to be this balance of artistry, functionality, and letting go of being too picky. As I’m learning, I add pieces to this shelf of experiments. They’re usually pieces that cracked and warped, dripped or shrunk too much. And out of need, I’ll grab one and put it to use. In her descriptions, the container is this ultimate resource, non-territorial and secure. It seems that, at least for myself, when there’s this aspect of being worn in, the use of a ware can become greater and more comfortable.
Natalie Cito: Le Guin touches on the doula within each story, by turning not to the triumphant narrative of the hero, but what the hero carries. Like the mother, Le Guin’s conception of the container is the outer shell of our lives. The story. I am reminded that it is not always the meat that holds the richest nourishment, but that which transported the meat.
The author calls attention to what she names “the recipient”. When our primary containers are full, we do not forget that we will need substance soon after. Instead we lay our ideas away in another world. Often forgotten, the recipient takes center stage in my practice. Le Guin’s idea of the container is comparable to my practice of nonlinear storytelling. I ask myself how might I draw closer attention to that which we discard in our day to day, that which holds magic, that which holds. I paint landscapes lost in time, filled with warm womb centered hues and feminine faces. I am trying to locate containers of softness and reimagining their humanity.
The algorithm surfaces as “a weapon of domination” similar to the spear. Algorithms can create space between us by limiting the whole story. The shadow-banning of political activism on apps such as Instagram and Tik Tok is an example of this. Visible or invisible content becomes synonymous to good/bad, human/non-human, dominant/subordinate, and/or worthy/unworthy of livable life. Le Guin cautions, “The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story.”
The term can also be used to define internalized behaviors and patterns that affect how we gather. Behaviours and patterns that are channeled through desirability, popularity, and more urgently, funding and infrastructure. When we orient ourselves around behaviours of exclusion, dominance and hierarchy, what is lost?
What are you holding in your body?
Hannah deJonge: Lately I’ve been holding onto what it means to feel engaged. With clay and ceramics, you can spend a long time working on something. At the end of the day, it feels as if you’ve made no progress. In my mind, there can be this tightly woven grasp of needing to feel accomplishment and I’m trying to fizzle it out. I’ve been working slower, actively trying not to overproduce, and drinking lots of home-pressed juices.
Natalie Cito: My body is holding the absence of grief. Emily Dickinson wrote, “I can wade Grief/ Whole Pools of it/ I’m used to that/ But the least push of Joy/ Breaks up my feet...”
My experience of Death happens everyday—to my identity, or a memory of spring that will never see the same upward thrust. My body is storing flashbacks that make Joy uncomfortable. The last smell, the last touch of a hand, the harshness of their presence. All the turning and movement that happens before Death plays like a drama in my body...Back and forth. This limbo, between being acquainted with Death yet having no capability for Joy has left me in the absence of grief. I am waiting, looking up.
The scene unfolds in my heart: communities of “gatherers, foragers, good listeners, and doulas” meeting to exchange and archive stories. The passing of symbolic torches as we navigate the strange, psychic realms and write ourselves towards another precious day.