This evening I had the extraordinary opportunity to begin a media workshop with people who have had cancer. It’s my academic supervisors’ research project, where they are working at the intersection of queer/cancer/knowledge/media. People who they have interviewed are coming together to produce digital stories that highlight their experiences as queer people who have had gender cancers (breast/ovarian/uterine/other gyn cancers). The idea is that the collection of artifacts will constitute a digital archive of queer cancer stories. This is the second workshop I’ve participated in as a digital mentor, and it rocks. Each mentor works one on one with a participant to produce their short digital story about some aspect of their cancer/queer experience. I forgot how awesome it is to be in a feminist technology space, where I can solve tech problems and women are at the (media/digital) helm and there are stories being written into existence. Ah! It is so rare. It is so special. Technology spaces are the spaces where I have most experienced misogyny, so to be in a woman & genderqueer space doing media and tech is life-giving. It makes me have excited little butterflies jumping all throughout my blood stream, not just in my belly. It makes me remember why I love media.
Last workshop, I introduced my technology self, my media self, my love of images moving and still. I wasn’t sure if I should add in, “Oh, and I had cancer,” or if I should weave cancer into my introduction so everyone knew, or if that would be weird because it isn’t about my story, its about the participants’ stories. So I didn’t say anything about my cancer, but then I felt like I had to drop little hints because sometimes it felt painfully obvious, and sometimes I wondered if the participants would get annoyed with my cancer-specific contributions because they didn’t know that they came from a body that had had cancer. Eventually I just said it. And then it was easier.
This weekend, there are eight mentors. This weekend, I watched very closely what the other mentor who had had cancer did, waiting to see how they would situate themself, placing myself in part of the circle such that my introduction would be after theirs, and I could copy. They casually wove it into their introduction, and it felt appropriate and good, and so I copied. I thought everyone already knew they had had cancer, and I didn’t think anyone knew about me, so I still felt like it was awkward, but the other mentor had already shared their cancer experience and so that seemed like it meant it would be appropriate to share mine. I mentioned a recent cancer experience and how networked media (this blog!) was a lifeline during treatment. I made reference to a relationship developed through cancer to someone else in the group. And then I breathed a sigh of relief. No one would mistake my short hair as simply, dyke hair because everyone has the information to weave together an understanding of it as chemo hair. It’s just easier.
Tonights’ decision to situate myself as cancer-survivor (for lack of a better word, but I hate that word!) was tricky. On the one hand, I want people in this cancer-media group to know I’m with them, to know I occupy cancerland with them. Yet, I also understand I’m not a participant- I am a mentor, the expertise I bring is technological, it is programmatic, it is based in images and storylines and audio files. I want to break down those dividing boundaries by identifying as having had cancer, but also, I’m so relieved I don’t have to tell my own story, but also, I obviously think telling my own story is important, because I can’t stop making digital stories and blogging about it. I know so deeply that talking about cancer to someone who has has cancer is a world different from talking about cancer to someone who has not had cancer. I don’t want to over-share, and I don’t want to make this about me. I don’t want to seem like I am sharing irrelevant information, even if it seems silly that having had cancer while serving as a media mentor at a cancer workshop would be irrelevant. So it’s complicated. I want to be detached, I want to be up close and personal, I want to guide from a different perspective, I am mired in embodied cancer-knowing. I want to share technology, explore digital images, create playfully, and I want to tread carefully, fully aware of the tender territory and its explosive, scared, surprising, joyful places. It makes me want to skip and leap and hope with possibility.
I think this is what feminist praxis is: it is involving oneself in such a way that disrupts the barrier between researcher and researched, it is fostering a kind of strength in vulnerability, it is being able to support others by sharing one’s own experience. It is honouring knowing, not knowing, different knowing, wanting to know. It is following someone else into a place full of creative colour, shape-shifting memories, and curious revelations, and being a steady hand, a set of eyes that have also stared at death in cancerland, a place of refuge and strength, a reflection and a generative source of ideas and questions. Feminist praxis.
I am really looking forward to what the weekend holds, and should any of the work be made public, I’ll link to it so you can see the awesomeness that is being created. And until then, I’ll just skip and love and storytell and pass the tissues and solve tech problems. Because that’s how we roll over here in queer cancer storytelling feminist media praxis land.