The Chat with Bahar Orang

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Bahar Orang_Author Photo_Credit Mel Mikhail

Bahar Orang’s Where Things Touch is a stirring, wholly invigorating meditation on beauty and memory. Part prose, part poetry, and part critical analysis, the book asks important questions about care, love, and the limits and possibilities of language. It was released last month by Book*hug Press as part of their celebrated Essais series.

Writing in NUVO Magazine, Allie Turner praises the work. “In a world where eyebrow raises, eye rolls, or scoffs can accompany a conversation about the philosophy of beauty or when so-called philosophers overcomplicate the concept as if that gives it more value, Orang eschews all expectations and allows the subject matter breathing room. She defines her own categories of beauty and looks inward to determine what she finds beautiful.”

Bahar Orang is a writer and physician-in-training living in Toronto. She has a BASc from McMaster University and an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. She completed her MD at McMaster University, and is now completing specialty training in psychiatry in Toronto. Her poetry and essays have been published in such places as GUTS, Hamilton Arts & Letters, CMAJ, and Ars Medica. Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty is her first book.

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Trevor Corkum: Where Things Touch is such a lyrical, incisive read. You weave together compelling threads of critical theory with reflections on love, the body, memory, and so much more. How and when did you conceive of the project?

Bahar Orang: I started writing as a medical student, during a time when I was having my first experience with things like surgery, serious illness, death, childbirth, and so on. These were emotionally demanding encounters, raising all sorts of political, existential, and even aesthetic questions for me. There was no one mode, no one discipline, that could, on its own, address these strange and difficult moments.

Poetry, both reading poetry and writing poetry, was essential for retrieving and rematerializing language. And theory, particularly theory that speaks to and with poetry, helped to clarify and complicate my thinking. Generally speaking, I don’t know how to work with theory when it’s disentangled from the everyday, from everyday intimacies. And the fragment, as an unpredictable, experimental unit of writing, was a freeing sort of form, and when I found it, things really started to emerge.

TC: You write from the perspective of both an artist and physician-in-training. How do these two vocations intersect and overlap for you, and where are there moments of struggle?

BO: When I was growing up, my political education was very important to my parents, and I came to both art and health care through a commitment to radical social and political change. Art and poetry have always been the materials of my political imagination. And . There are many possibilities, then, for overlap between arts and health care, since both have historically had rich and complicated relationships to social movements.

Working in medicine has been a practice in bearing witness, in sitting with difficulty, in becoming attuned to how capitalist and colonial apparatuses of power make people sick.

Of course, there are still many places of conflict. A lot of the time, health care workers become instruments of the state and health care institutions become arms of state violence. So where the arts might make possible new terrains for critical reflection, or might draw our attention to more capacious practices of care, medicine doubles down on its violence. I have always hoped that writing could be, for me, a project of not turning away from violence, of staying attentive to the tyrannies of the present, and of being engaged in imagining anew.

TC: You also speak to notions of queer identity and queer love. In one section, you write “Lately, learning to speak in the second person is the queer project that preoccupies me most.” Can you talk about this idea a little further?

One of the book’s questions is how do we undertake the difficult, but extraordinarily enriching work of love and care? How do we address each other?

Thinking through the queer can be helpful to these questions. Queerness can yield new configurations for care and different possibilities for collectivity and kinship. Queerness is certainly not a simple methodological fix, but where its meaning remains open, where it escapes regulation and refuses foreclosure, where it keeps its eye on liberation—queer can be a place of immense possibility.

 
TC: Earlier, you write “Beauty, like memory, can only be defined provisionally.” Indeed, there is a provisional, probing tone to the book: certain ideas are taken up, explored and examined closely, and then give way to new theories or understandings of the topic at hand. In what ways has your training and experience in medicine attuned you to new ways of considering beauty?  

BO: Hospitals and clinics, where I encounter so much interdependence, and at the same time so much resistance to interdependence, helped me to conceptualize beauty as living inside intimacy.

TC: The book comes out against the backdrop of the global pandemic. What has it been like to release the work at this particular moment in history?  

BO: It’s been a bit challenging in some respects, where some of the usual ways of sharing a book with the world can’t be done at the moment. But I’m grateful to Book*hug, who has carried on, coming up with new and creative ways of sharing in words and writing, and I’m so grateful to all the readers who continue to be interested in reading new things.  

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Excerpt from Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty

Beauty must be in conversation with care—there can be no alternative for me! So when I say beauty, I mean the slow approach of alive things, meeting each other in all their complexity and longing.

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The doctor talks drugs, but it’s raining now and getting dark outside. The sound of the rain, a rhythm without a cause, permits me to think of other things. What are the borders of care? Can we speak of borders even as we speak of entanglement? The doctor turns on the light, and I think of how it feels to write in the dark, how the words on the page become indiscernible, shapeless, the notebook itself barely different than my lap, meaning is here somewhere, unreadable, probably untenable.

[ ]

I write letters to you in the dark, hoping my latent desires, which I describe so unsuccessfully in the light, can look like beauty in the dark, not for the purpose of intelligibility, just to be apprehended as singular and strange.

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Can we imagine language as a sort of border of care? In which case my efforts here to describe beauty are acts of love. Though it’s a project with its own perils, sometimes language is only omission.

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Not to mention that there are days when beauty is as borderless as the sea, an entity that evokes without recoil, that opens, only opens. What is our relationship to that sea? The sea whose large hands sweep away whatever footprints we leave in the sand, whose blue displaces me from any centre.

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Artist and writer Etel Adnan: to look at the sea is to become what one is. The sea, if you allow it, settles the itinerancy of the human heart, the heart that flits about, lovesick, trying to accumulate meaning from this thing or that thing, travelling from here to there, running from tedium, mistaking tumult for freedom. The sea is like the final poem, and the performance of looking a never-ending feat. Looking is freedom, looking to the sea, becoming what one is, a revelation of beauty.

This excerpt is from Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty by Bahar Orang, and has been reproduced with permission from the publisher, Book*hug Press.

September 11, 2020
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