The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

All Issues
NOV 2021 Issue
Critics Page

This Strange Thing, the Word*

It pains you terribly to hear it. The word. It was dropped casually, as if of no importance. The moment it hit your ears, your heart got stoned. The immediate reaction was a full silence. It weighed on you as you turned mute. You wanted to throw it out, back to where it came from, but to no avail. All you could hear yourself uttering were some rasping throat sounds. Wounded, hit dead, you managed to fight back but the word hung on. It stayed and stained your thoughts, and even when you succeeded to have it taken back with apology, it waited its time to surface at the smallest injury you might find yourself exposed to. Merciless, it returned in full force to hurt you and make you wail in pain. su• sul • sulfur • sulfuring • surf • surfing • suf • suf-i • suf-fering. Pain is a word, wrote visionary poet-thinker Antonin Artaud whose intensive suffering took him from one hell—one clinic, one sanitarium—to another. Suffer is another, opening to this other (word) Love—the Word, the World.

Make it pure and it becomes mortal. What is named takes flight. Beware of wise Lao Tzu’s new beginnings disguised as painful endings. This is where stories of the wound—your wound—mature into wisdom. The moment of unbearable injustice spreads deep and wide, both personal and so intimately collective in its reach. You limp, stagger, stumble, and…walk on. Undone, redone, and never stabilized in its done-ness, the work of naming remains constantly on the move. Everyone seems to know what hurts also heals, and yet…sometimes, she would have liked to remain silent. When seemingly propitious moments arose, when things seemed to reach their height, she has often chosen silence. Many times, she thought she would have liked to remain silent—most of her life. For, why speak, if only to get entangled in the karmic binaries of speech and its endless rights and wrongs? No wonder someone wrote on a car window, “the more I speak to people the more I love my dog.”

And yet…silence has its own openings and closures. You who struggle to un-word and reword your reality, your voice—you know. And often cannot say it. You try and keep on trying to unsay it, for if you don’t, they will not fail to fill in the blanks on your behalf. How to keep silent without being silenced? Speak with silence. Speak nearby. Speak to silence and moreover, be silence. The word’s miracle lies in its ability to go on living despite all attempts to erase it. A word sets the world into motion. They are many those who deny this, but fight endless battles because of a word that rules over their thoughts and beliefs. Let this four-letter word rule without ruling over she and they who write. Let the power of its banalities be felt over and over. And until it lives deep in the flesh, bone and marrow, until the silence is the story, remember Maya Angelou: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

One sound at the point of intense silence.

One clear sound in the midst of daily noises. It is not mere chance in African villages to hear at a certain time of the day one drum sound and one only. A ritual event begins with a powerful stroke on the Great Drum—the large, sacred drum usually positioned so as to make the most of the acoustic properties of surrounding valleys; a drum whose roar vibrates into the ground and makes itself physically felt by every villager around, including those living far beyond the immediate area where the action is carried out. By this single sound, a village ceremony often marks or unmarks its beginning and ending—the passage from one time, one tone, one reality or one consciousness to another. Awakening the community to the call of the heart is the sound of an earth beat. In an indefinite interval, single sounds are introduced at longer and shorter gaps, as one by one or group by group, the villagers from nearby and afar slowly drift in for the gathering. In sounded and unsounded beats cultivated by each player, individual rhythms slowly, effortlessly and collectively unfold.

Until the sound of silence is the story…


* Excerpted from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s book in progress.


Trinh T. Minh-ha

Trinh T. Minh-ha is a Vietnamese filmmaker, writer, literary theorist, composer, and professor.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

All Issues