I want to say outrageous things. Like: “I wish I was only consciousness for a little while. No body, no brain, no mind. Only to observe and perceive the universe, from afar, unfeeling.” No mother should say such a thing. The selfishness.
I want to take acid and become only consciousness for a little while. Also, to leave my bed unmade for a whole day.
I want to descend into the carnivalesque, Rabelais style. Let the excess take over. Like when I was a student and hid in my house for days with dozens of movies, watching one after the other without acknowledging the outside world or its wants from me. Let the body disappear behind the decadence. Leave only the eyes and the ears.
I want to cut my head and body off so I may feel better for a little while. Bottle the consciousness in a clear jar in the meantime. Put it on top of a shelf for when I’m ready to come back. No suburban mom should say such a thing. The madness.
I want to say outrageous things.
Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” 1559 (Wikiart Public Domain)
Some albums tickle your mind. Others expand your political conscience or soothe your heart. But some albums are entirely for your senses, those that awaken feelings and sensations buried deep within.
Jimin’s new solo album, FACE, is one of those. It is a brief, 20-minute journey into the singer’s confounding emotions during the pandemic and one that takes the listener into a mesmerizing, immersive sonic experience.
Jimin is one-seventh of the iconic South Korean band BTS. Since his debut with the band in 2013 at age 18, he has been known for his elegant contemporary dance-influenced moves and unique, delicate vocals. Here, in his first solo work, he proves his incredible gift with melody, something fans have previously remarked in his solo songs such as “Lie” and “Serendipity,” but also a newly revealed mastery of mood.
The album’s release comes in the context of a complex period for BTS and all its members: first, the personal and professional reckoning with the pandemic, which impacted artists and musicians in a particularly acute way by erasing their livelihoods overnight. Unable to perform and interact with their fans, many questioned their very reason for being. Second, the announcement last June of the temporary hiatus BTS would go on to focus on solo music, later confirmed to be prompted by the need of the members to fulfill their mandatory military service.
In multiple promotional interviews, Jimin has said he started working on FACE after realizing he was not doing well during the pandemic and its aftermath. Encouraged by his BTS members, he decided to pour all of these feelings into music, which resulted in the five songs that make up FACE. I remember the early days of the pandemic and how cultural critics often wondered about the art that would result from this collective horror and trauma. Jimin’s album is a moving example of an artist processing the angst and confusion he felt during that time into a remarkable work of music.
While each song on FACE stands perfectly on its own, they gain in meaning and resonance when played in order from beginning to end. The album moves through quite distinct but intertwined emotions: the anger in the opening song “Face-off,” becomes defiant liberation in the closing one, “Set Me Free Pt. 2.” The sensual search for abandon in the main single, “Like Crazy,” is followed by unforgiving self-awareness in the next, “Alone.” Filled with rich synths, electronic beats, vocal distortions, and even a choir and horns used in a quite unexpected way, FACE is a sophisticated 80s-inspired electronic pop album with devastating emotional depth.
Sonically cohesive, the album also feels like a concept album or the soundtrack of a short movie, with Jimin starting in a disturbing dark place and progressively moving through different emotions until the end, where he does seem to find a powerful sense of resolution.
The cinematic feeling may also be related to the fact that, as Jimin has explained, the title song “Like Crazy” was inspired by the movie of the same name (Like Crazy, 2011), which tells the story of a couple struggling to stay together as they face forced separation and doubts despite the profound love they have for each other. In the song, this is translated into a story of longing and confusion, and of a wish to hold on to a reality that seems to be slipping away.
“Like Crazy” starts with the wistful strumming of a guitar or mandolin and Jimin’s melancholic vocals. Soon, the acoustic sound gives way to a fully electronic, transfixing beat. “I rather be lost in the lights, I’m outta of my mind,“ he declares in the chorus, giving the first hint that he’s seeking a certain kind of oblivion in the night. Then, when he sings the amazing second or third hook of the song, “Give me a good ride, it’s gon’ be a good night,” drawing out each word slightly on top of the beat, he is fully evoking the delicious feeling of letting go but also, of the choice he is making of letting go—this is a controlled, conscious abandon.
A brilliant line in the English version of the song —the album contains a Korean and an English version—further illustrates this when Jimin sings “emotions on ice, let me have a taste,” which could mean both putting his emotions “on ice” (in pause, on hold) as he surrenders to a night of the senses or of choosing to drink to feel more pleasurable emotions than the ones he’s currently dealing with. The Korean version of the lyrics is no less beautiful: “너를 품은 달 (the moon with you in its arms), let me have a taste,” he says, a poetic declaration of love or desire.
The song then goes into a magnificent electronic break, and now, following Jimin fully into the night and the headiness of drinking and dancing in a crowded room, we feel transported into a delicious musical high that’s absolutely addictive. This is no over-interpretation, as that’s how Jimin has exactly talked about the song, describing it as having “a feeling of dreamy intoxication.”
The video of “Like Crazy,” released on March 24 at the same time as the album, illustrates all of this but adds a further layer of complexity in which Jimin seems to be confronting multiple dualities – masculine vs feminine, in-control vs trying to let go, virtue vs guilt, keeping up appearances vs showing real feelings. As he told Rolling Stone, with the video and choreography of “Like Crazy” he wanted to portray “the somewhat complex, somewhat lonely, somewhat happy emotions. [To try] to express all these ambiguous and subtle emotions in a slightly sexy way.”
Despite FACE’s clear pop appeal, there is also a clear artistic vision, with ambient sounds framing nearly all of the songs and which help enrich the narrative concept of the album: A circus-type song opens the album before “Face-off,” while at the end of the anthemic “Set Me Free Pt. 2” (where he triumphantly sings he’s “finally free” like a “butterfly”) we hear him audibly struggling to break free. Ambient sounds actually made the entirety of what for me is a highlight in an album of highlights, the song “Interlude: Dive,” the second track on FACE.
Starting with what seems like a rewinding effect, the song then settles on a deep, hypnotic low note contrasted with sparkle-like chimes indicating we are entering a dream-like state where sounds flood in like distant memories: a startling knocking on a door, Jimin’s shortened breathing, walking, pouring of a drink on a glass and drinking, and most moving of all, the audio from Jimin’s introduction to his audience (ARMY) during BTS’ last concert together before announcing their enlistment.
Jimin has said that with this song he wanted to find a bridge between “Face-off” and “Like Crazy,” and to give the feeling that he was “lost or wondering.” Both goals are beautifully achieved, in addition to creating what feels like a return to a vulnerable primal state, the place where all wounds and joys are imprinted and that we need to painfully revisit to fully “face” ourselves.
The album keeps building on this musical atmosphere song after song, doubling down on the lushness of the arrangements, and offering complex, unusual melodies that keep us on our toes as listeners–this is where Jimin truly shines, carving and curling and shaping his voice around the words and the unresolved notes and keys like water flowing around pieces of smooth and not so smooth glass.
For this album, Jimin worked with a group of close long-time producers and collaborators, including the brilliant BTS in-house producer P-DOGG and producer GHSLOOP, who also contributed as co-writers together with Jimin. Other co-writers include Evan, Supreme Boi, and Jimin’s bandmate RM in a couple of songs.
My way into music is usually through the music first (as opposed to the lyrics) and how it paints pictures and creates meaning with sounds. This is a wonderful album to get lost in the musical choices made, such as the way in “Face-off” the explicit anger of the lyrics is contrasted by the controlled elegance of the music through an elusive, syncopated beat. Or the way in “Alone,” the most starkly painful song on FACE (“The me who pretends to be okay every time, I find him pathetic,” Jimin sings in Korean), a gentle guitar seems to suddenly fracture into weaker strains of sounds as if the world is itself fragmenting inside his mind. Later, in the same song, as Jimin sings “it’s gonna be all right,” an eerie high-pitched chorus responds by saying “lie lie” repeatedly, as some mocking, horrifying inner voice.
“Set Me Free Pt.2,” which came out as a pre-release track on March 17 together with a stunning music video, closes the album (before the English version of “Like Crazy”) with bombastic zeal. Featuring an operatic chorus and an exhilarating horns arrangement, the song sounds almost like a horror movie battle cry as Jimin is simultaneously angry (“Shut up, f*** off, I’m on my way”), celebratory (“지나간 나를 위해 손을 들어-I raise my fist for the past me”) and liberated (“finally free”).
FACE is an emotional and, clearly, very personal album. Despite this, the main single “Like Crazy” debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, demonstrating not only the power of ARMY in supporting the song but also how both the single and album succeed in capturing the musical mood of the moment: dark, melodically intriguing electro-pop that seduces the senses while inviting us to look deep within an artist’s darkest corners of his soul.
Jimin’s FACE is available everywhere music is sold. The CD version of the album also contains a hidden track called “Letter.”
The process of creation is painful. There’s a reason why it is often compared to giving birth. There is an inevitability: this baby needs to come out whether we want it or not. The elation, relief, and exhaustion of finally bringing into the world a work of creation, resembles the moment a baby is finally out of the womb. In creation, as in birth, there’s also fear, sometimes terror involved.
I thought of all these things when watching j-hope’s new documentary J-Hope in the Box, released exclusively on Disney+ on February 17.
j-Hope is one-seventh of the iconic South Korean band BTS. A rapper and lyricist who has contributed to dozens of the band’s songs over their 10-year career, j-hope, real name Jung Ho-seok, is also the main dancer of BTS. In this role, j-hope has honoured his roots as a young teenage street dancer while elevating many of the styles he’s proficient in to world stages thanks to the success of BTS.
The documentary tells the journey of j-hope’s first foray into solo activities: his first solo album release, Jack in the Box (second after his first mixtape Hope World, released in 2018), and his preparation for his first solo stage: a headlining show at Lollapalooza, the legendary Chicago music festival, in August 2022.
For BTS fans, called ARMY, the context of this album release and concert is heavy in meaning and symbolism. In June 2022, during their annual anniversary celebration as a band, Festa, BTS announced the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another: they would be pausing band activities and embarking on solo projects for a while. While much suspected and discussed among ARMY, and to the fans’ dismay, a general public lacking important context, the reason behind the pause was finally revealed in October: the need for the members to fulfill mandatory military service in their country.
The documentary, however, does not touch on any discussion of the band’s military duty — a topic of contention among many of the band’s fans. Its focus is entirely on j-hope’s vision for his album and the monumental effort of putting together a headlining festival show. Told in non-linear form — the narrative moves back and forth in time from several months before Lollapalooza, to days before, and then back to weeks before the release of the album — J-Hope in the Box is ultimately intimate, intense, and revealing, even for an artist who has been under the scrutiny of the camera eye for the best part of the last decade.
The intimacy and intensity come from j-hope himself. After a brief introduction of j-hope finally coming “out of the box” (like a jack-in-the-box figure) during the opening of his Lollapalooza set, we go back in time to the grueling days when he was working alone in his studio recording the songs for Jack in the Box.
In a fascinating montage, we see j-hope alone in front of his computer recording vocals and ad-libs, typing, thinking, slumped in his chair at moments, a collection of paper cups in front of him. Then the image doubles up and we see two j-hopes, one dancing in front of the computer while the other types, or one sitting working away while another crashes on the couch behind him talking to his mother. It’s lo-fi, self-recorded footage and it’s quite moving. It’s the equivalent of a writer showing all the previous, unfinished versions of an essay along with the finished version, the messiness of the process familiar to anybody who has ever engaged in a creative journey.
While not uncommon, the behind-the-scenes musician documentary has become an almost rite of passage (Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Selena Gomez, and even Lady Gaga have all released documentaries in recent years), there is a raw and unvarnished feel to that sequence that truly brings home, in a relatable way, what it feels to be consumed by an artistic vision and the need to let it out into the world. Here, bare-faced and tired, j-hope is Jung Ho-seok, the writer and musician behind the sunny, brilliantly fashionable persona j-hope represents in BTS.
“This is how you end up in a rut,” j-hope says to the camera. “You don’t know why you’re even doing this. There’s no reason for me to push myself so hard. But I guess this is who I am.”
The sequence is a great example of the type of transparency ARMY has gotten used to receiving from BTS members. They have never been afraid to show the process behind the music and performance, the ugliness of fatigue and self-doubt, or the many failures that make up a success.
And yet, BTS is also intensely private. For a new fan, this paradox is difficult to understand given the thousand upon thousand of hours they have given of themselves to ARMY over the years, not only via regular music promotions such as music videos and interviews, but via personal videos or “lives,” where they chat with fans for minutes or hours at a time, through their long-running variety show Run BTS where they compete against each other in numerous games, their traveling shows, and much more.
The dynamic in those public-facing videos and shows is of a band of brothers working together while loving each other. The bond between the members — its sacredness, its unbreakability — is one of the most magical elements sustaining ARMY beyond listening to BTS’s discography. The music, naturally the core of BTS’ work despite the many prejudices it engenders by being classified as K-pop, is multi-genre, of impeccable quality, wide emotional resonance, and deep lyrical intelligence. A legacy of over a decade of songs that could certainly represent the voice of the first truly global generation.
To see j-hope moving about his creative process and exploring his limits and desires on his own is revealing. It’s a portrait of what it takes to fulfill fiery ambition and creativity, even after a hugely successful career at the top.
“Fame and money don’t mean everything, I already know it. My work makes me breathe, so I want MORE,” j-hope sings in “More,” a moody grunge rap track and one of the two title songs in Jack in the Box. Ambition and drive are also two of the main themes of Jack in the Box, and it’s appropriate that the documentary let us in this crucial moment of j-hope’s life.
Another moving and important moment in J-Hope in the Box is when j-hope visits his family in Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, where he was born.“Safety Zone,” a gorgeous R&B track from Jack in the Box, plays in the background.
“Where’s the ray of light to relieve me in the darkness? Is it a tranquil home? Or the blue that is far, far away? Where’s my safe zone,” the lyrics say as he gets out of the car to photograph the woods or when he talks about his band members on the way there. At home, he is welcomed by his parents (we hear them and see them at the margins of the frame only) who have filled their home with mementos and photos of their son’s career.
The contrast between this j-hope–safe, protected, nourished with food and love by his parents–and the one we will soon see commanding a huge stage in front of thousands of people, is truly staggering, not so much in how j-hope himself behaves, but in showing the extraordinary psychological leap artists at a certain level must make to inhabit their artistic selves. What’s beautiful and telling in J-Hope in the Box, is that we are full witnesses to the transition from person to performer he must make.
In between, we see the toll that it takes: as the performance draws nears and j-hope works with musicians and dancers during rehearsals, he becomes increasingly nervous. Consumed by hyper-concentration, he is unable to eat or sleep — a marathon runner numbing the exhaustion in the last couple of kilometers before finishing a race. It’s almost agonizing to watch.
Thankfully, the documentary also intersperses footage of his performance at Lollapalooza, or Hobipalooza, as the concert was nicknamed by ARMY. Boasting an incredibly satisfying sound mix, these are some of the best moments of the film, where we get to see and hear the results of j-hope months-long labour.
His performance of “Equal Sign,” a gorgeous song where j-hope expresses some of his most personal values about equality, peace, and solidarity, is an unforgettable musical moment. As he reaches the English chorus, and 70,000 fans sign back to him the word “same” with one voice, it is cathartic and emotional as well.
Throughout, one more aspect of j-hope’s character shines: his deep collaborative and respectful nature. We see it in the way he greets every staff member at his Jack in the Box listening party in Seoul, attended by a who’s who of South Korean artists and celebrities, or by the way he greets each band member or backup dancer in his crew. It’s not as if this is anything new, BTS is known to be the utmost professionals among industry peers, but it is still admirable and wonderful to witness.
Finally, anytime a BTS member appears next to another, the fun and warmth of any solo member or group activity double or triples accordingly. J-Hope in the Box is no exception. The moment Jimin, j-hope’s bandmate and fellow dancer, travels all the way from South Korea to support his solo concert debut, the mood of the film shifts as if the sunshine has finally appeared. Jimin’s presence has a deeper meaning too: only somebody who has experienced what j-hope is going through can truly understand what he’s feeling.
Although J-Hope in the Box was made very much with BTS fans in mind, it does serve as a compelling introduction to j-hope’s solo and group music. Most of all, it is the record of a moment in time for j-hope, an artist who has reached unimaginable heights but one who we suspect, will just continue to soar.
J-Hope in the Box is available for streaming on Disney+.
“Still I found myself glancing at the paintings and then looking at them. “The Potato Eaters.” “The Cornfield with a Lark.” “The Ploughed Field at Auvers.” “The Pear Tree.” Within two minutes—and for the first time in three weeks—I was calm, reassured. Reality had been confirmed.”
John Berger, “The Production of the World,” The Sense of Sight
The first time I read that essay, I was in my 20s. I didn’t know it then, but Berger’s words about how in a moment of profound existential dread, looking at van Gogh’s paintings had helped him find his place in the world again, would resonate for the rest of my life. I too have found solace in art in countless moments in my life, but more than that, Berger’s words have guided me and comforted me when life felt like it had stopped making sense. They tell me that the emotions we experience when confronted with art are real and worth thinking about and living for.
The night of the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory was a dark but breezy one. There was a power outage, and in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in Khartoum, Sudan, a young boy was getting ready to go to bed when a fiery light illuminated the night sky.
It was August 20, 1998, and the explosion was a missile attack as part of Operation Infinite Reach, launched by the Clinton administration against suspected al-Qaeda cells. That night, the bombing destroyed the plant, a modern, one-year-old factory that up to that point had been the main producer of an anti-malaria medication many Sudanese depended on.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud, the young boy who witnessed the operation take place just around the corner from his house, grew up to become a respected journalist and broadcaster in Canada. In a new book, Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces, Abdelmahmoud looks back into his childhood and youth in Sudan and Canada to come to terms with the intricate ties between history, tradition, and identity.
Written as a series of interconnected essays, Son of Elsewhere is a poetic, deep, and at times very funny, memoir about growing up between countries and cultures and the long journey a young boy must follow toward self-acceptance.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud grew up in Khartoum, Sudan. At age 12, he moved with his mother to Kingston, Ontario, where his father had settled five years earlier and worked to reunite the family.
Upon his arrival in Canada, Abdelmahmoud went through an initial shock. While in Sudan his identity has been one as a Muslim and an Arab, in Canada, as his older, cool cousin informs him, he will be seen as “Black.” Abdelmahmoud, an accomplished cultural critic today, then provides a fascinating exploration of what “becoming Black” in Canada means.
In Sudan being Black meant being part of the less economically powerful, “several shades darker” South Sudanese population (Abdelmahmoud’s family is mixed Arab and African, as most Northern Sudanese are). In Canada, it meant listening to hip hop and following the cultural clues of artists such as Dr. Dre or Ja Rule. However, hard as he tried, the young Abdelmahmoud could not embrace the culture of hip hop and the version of Blackness it offered, so he spent many years trying to be as far away from that identity as possible.
“In my corner of Kingston,” he writes, “the only place I saw Blackness was in the world of hip hop. And everything about my life in Sudan (religion, private school, wealth—pick one!) told me to run away from that world. So that’s what I did.”
Years later, when asked to write his nicknames on his school yearbook, he proudly listed “Oreo” (Black on the outside, White on the inside) and “Stan,” two names that he felt put him in closer proximity to “whiteness.” Abdelmahmoud dives into this existential inner conflict with honesty and humour, but also backs up his personal experience with illuminating passages about colonialism and racism and how the legacy of these two concepts impacted his search for identity.
Son of Sudan
Before moving to Canada, Abdelmahmoud’s father owned a publishing company in Sudan. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, which raged between the north and the south of the country from 1983 to 2005, he received threats for distributing the official publication of the opposition government, a dark incident a very young Elamin witnessed as he watched TV with his dad one night.
Similar to this telling anecdote, Abdelmahmoud uses many personal experiences and memories as entry points for painting a rich picture of the Sudan he grew up in during the late 1980s and 90s, immersing the reader in the sounds, smells, and political and historical realities of the North African country.
“Adhans were the ostinato of my daily rhythm,” he explains when recollecting his hometown’s many calls to prayers. “The adhan for the Maghrib prayers at sunset meant it was time to come home from playing outside. The adhan for the Isha’ prayers meant there was half an hour before I had to go to bed. You could hear the adhan in every room of the house.”
These sections on Sudanese culture, politics, and history are some of the most fascinating of the book, giving us an insight into a country we seldom hear about in Canadian mainstream news or as part of political or cultural conversations.
The memoir also pays loving tribute to the small, but tight-knit Sudanese community that welcomed Elamin and his family after their arrival. Soon, the local Kingston mosque became a refuge, where the Sudanese, but also a diverse Muslim community welcomed him as one of their own: “[The mosque] was where I met kids with names that were hard to pronounce, like mine,” he explains.
Escaping through pop culture
Despite Abdelmahmoud’s efforts to close the divide between his emerging Canadian identity and the expectation of his more traditional parents, he never quite managed to do it growing up.
As the journalist explains, at the same time he was struggling to find his place in the cultural and racial landscape of Canada, he was fighting a silent battle with his parents who, in an effort to preserve their Sudanese culture, severely restricted their child’s steps towards embracing more liberal, “Canadian” values.
A scene when a 15-year-old Abdelmahmoud is allowed to attend a metal band concert only under the condition that his mother accompany him is a hilarious but poignant illustration of the difficult dance many immigrant children must go through to bridge their parents and their own experience of a new culture.
Abdelmahmoud is the host of Pop Chat and the co-host of Party Lines, two CBC podcasts covering pop culture and politics. Though highly knowledgeable of both subjects, it’s Abdelmahmoud’s love of pop culture that permeates the majority of the essays. Music, TV, and wrestling are all used as prisms through which he reflects on his experience of growing up as an immigrant. Moving constantly through internal and external signifiers of belonging and identity, he finally finds “Elsewhere,” a place uniquely his own.
“I am interested in the constant calculus of how much of yourself to allot to each homeland, and how you navigate the anguish that comes with giving one of them less. This is Elsewhere,” he writes at the beginning of his book. And as Abdelmahmoud describes it, this “elsewhere” is a beautiful place to be.
Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces, was published on May 17, 2022, by Penguin Random House Canada.
It’s December in the Pacific North West, and I fall asleep to the sound of the rain outside my open window. I breathe in the cool air while my body is warm and protected under the heavy covers. I drift off, and as I move through the sleep cycles and go into the dreaming phase, I fly south across the continent, glide above the Caribbean Sea, and as I reach land, sight the shores of Lake Maracaibo. I move further inland, flying above skyscrapers and darkened arid landscapes until I find myself in my childhood home again.
I have spent twenty-seven winters away from Maracaibo, but at night, lodged deep in my brain, the hippocampus and amygdala are quietly composing dreams that seem to draw from my earliest, most fundamental memories. Given that the hippocampus is the area of the brain that creates memories and the amygdala the place that processes emotions, it seems appropriate that I’m dreaming of the house where I grew up until I was 15.
The house was a large family home in a quiet neighbourhood called “Las Lomas.” The house was brand-new when my parents bought it–they had come of age in the 1970s and, as did most young Venezuelans of their generation, benefited from the extraordinary economic boom the country experienced in the late 70s and early 80s thanks to a historic increase of oil prices. It was a time of abundance and limitless possibilities. New neighbourhoods sprung all over the city, the infant trees, and pristine sidewalks an indication of their newness.
Our house was a generous one-floor, three bedrooms, two bathrooms home. Following the Venezuelan custom, my mom named the house “Agua Blanca”–white water. “Agua Blanca” had a spacious dining room opposite a square, generous kitchen. It had a long, rectangular-shaped formal living room which we used to call “la sala verde” (the green living room), so nicknamed due to the heavy green sofa and chairs my parents had installed there. The front of the house faced a row of similar, newly built houses, each unique enough to break the uniformity of the street. A beautiful lawn, adorned by shrubs and perennials, separated the house from the metal fence and the front sidewalk.
In my dreams, the order of events changes. Invariably, however, the dreams take place at night. Many times, I am in my childhood bedroom looking out the window at the empty, quiet street. I feel the fear of the outside slowly building inside my body. A change of setting. Now I’m in the sala verde, nervously locking the wooded living room door that faces the front garden and the darkened street. At this point, the fear of somebody getting in the house before I manage to lock the door is almost overwhelming.
The fear of being outside at night is one of my earliest memories. I remember hearing the story of how our neighbor, a boy called Junior, had his new bicycle stolen at gunpoint when he went out for a ride. This resulted in our mom and aunt only letting us ride our bicycles on the stretch of sidewalk right in front of the house, back and forth, back and forth as they kept an eye on us from the chairs on the porch.
Like most Venezuelan homes at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, our house had a tall metal fence extending along the front to protect us from intruders and robbers. Ours was white and in the latest fashion: the bars were thin with little spikes in the ends to further discourage anybody from trying to climb it. We had two gates: one large double gate that opened to the outside in the uncovered garage area and another door-size one in the area in front of the porch.
For added protection, my parents bought a thick chain and lock to close the garage gate; its normal locking mechanism was not enough to dissuade somebody from opening it and entering the garage area to steal the car. I remember coming home after dark, from either my grandma’s house or some family outing, and sitting nervously in the car as my mom, my oldest sister, or some other grown-up got out of the car to open the lock and chain so we could enter the uncovered garage. My dad, on the driver’s seat, would stay in the car to quickly drive the car in as soon as the gate was open.
I remember later on being old enough to have to get out of the car and open the gates myself. These moments come back to my dreams frequently. I am either opening the lock from the outside for my mom or dad to drive the car in or nervously closing the lock from the inside after they have driven in and parked the car.
There used to be a secondary school at the end of our street — Colegio Don Simón Rodríguez —, and I see the dark building out of the corner of my eyes to the right. In other dreams, to my horror, I suddenly realize I’m outside of the house looking in, wondering what I’m doing on the sidewalk after dark.
I had my first dream of being outside of my house at night when I was nine or ten. In the dream, I saw myself walking over the polished granite pathway that led to the small metal gate. The street was empty and quiet, the only light coming from the tall streetlamp at the end of the block. In unexplained dream logic, I make my way to a big, city-size empty lot that was just around the corner from our house to the left.
When I arrive, I see a school bus parked in the middle of it. In the distance, I immediately spot a group of young men approaching the bus from the other side of the field. I get on the bus and climb on the roof. The men get closer and as they reach the bus, I jump up towards the night sky, much higher than I could ever jump in real life. The dream ends with me floating down back to the bus in slow motion, my heart booming in my ears from the adrenaline and the fear.
I share the story of my long-time recurrent dreams with my parents and my siblings on our group chat. My entire immediate family–my parents, my siblings, and their spouses and their kids–no longer live in Venezuela. I ask them about their memories of danger while they were still living there. Was it as bad as my dreams make it seem? The answer is mixed.
My mom explains that our house was broken into at least five times. Most of the break-ins happened during the day when we were on a Sunday outing or a short trip. We would come home and find the house in disarray, my parents’ bedroom, a sacred space we were not allowed to enter without permission, clearly violated by the thieves: the mattress partially off the bed, every drawer and closet door open, papers and random objects scattered on the floor. Another time we arrived to find our next-door neighbor pointing a gun at the intruder and a bunch of valuables such as a VHS player and other electronics piled up on a couch.
My dad bristles uncomfortably at the memories; these break-ins were considered an almost normal occurrence at the time, contactless, anonymous crimes that did not end up in violence. He also has the perspective of having lived through much more dangerous times. That’s because starting in the early 2000s through the present day, common crime increased to almost unimaginable levels in Venezuela, in addition to being compounded by the political violence brought about by the dictatorship of Hugo Chávez and then by his even more cruel and authoritarian successor, Nicolás Maduro.
This violence, combined with a catastrophic government-made economic collapse, haunts every corner of Venezuelan civil society today, making it one of the most dangerous countries to live in and visit in Latin America and the world. And as impunity and crime continued to grow for decades, a whole generation of Venezuelan kids grew up never knowing how it feels to move around their cities on foot at night. Grownups have also forgotten that feeling: On one of his first visits to Canada in 2008, my dad asked to walk everywhere at night; he too had lost that privilege long ago.
The truth is, I was never the kind of immigrant to wish I could go back home. I left Venezuela out of my desire, fulfilling a destiny I always knew would come. I loved Maracaibo, but I also couldn’t wait to leave it. Venezuelan society in the 1980s and 1990s was darkly constrictive and conservative, and while I had an extremely happy childhood there, I knew I would never be a happy adult in Venezuela. I refused to live in a country where you were always afraid, not only fearful for your physical safety, but for daring to dream and being yourself. When I first moved to Canada, the pain was in the separation from my family, not in my missing my life in Venezuela.
Still, the heart of an immigrant is complicated. No matter what we do, we carry within us in our tongue and our skin the imprint of the places where we were born. And so I carry within me the Maracaibo sunsets I witnessed with my youngest sister from our bedroom window. I carry within me the tropical flavors of my childhood and youth. A palate exposed to the still fresh, hand-ground corn of the morning mandocas, a sort of sweet and salty deep-fried beignet, can never forget that it has tasted it. A nose that has smelled the Lake Maracaibo breeze announcing the thunderstorm always remembers it.
And while I live the life of a Canadian woman in waking life, at night, my dreams — and my fears — betray the dormant Venezuelan girl in me. I am 46 years old, but in reality, I am a 19-year-old Venezuelan and a 27-year-old Canadian, a mere youngster in either world. So instead of settling into the peace of middle age, I nurture guilt born of the contradiction: Here I am living a fully integrated and happy North American, English-speaking, safe life, while the place where I was born, the place to which I owe my language, my heritage, my cultural imaginary, burns to ashes and languishes into the darkest shadow of what it could have been.
Morning coffee in Venezuela is ritualistic. In my memory, the scent of fresh coffee permeates the still dark kitchen just before sunrise. The quiet conversation between my parents, between my mom and my grandmother, or between uncles and aunts when they were visiting, often revolved around the dreams of the night before. Sitting with their cups close to their faces, they would try to conjure the last remnants of the dream world, before the images and words vanished in the bright morning light, and they would hold on to this non-entirely logical, more magical version of the world for another little while.
I wake up from my dreams of home and try to conjure them in the same way before I can no longer seize them. Laying in bed between wakefulness and sleep, I try to hold on to the fragile magic, to the fragile stage between the past of my dreams and the present of my adult bedroom. And for the briefest of moments, I become whole, as the pieces of me that are Venezuelan and the pieces of me that are Canadian reconcile briefly in a way that I can understand them.
My last visit to Venezuela was in 2004 and as my entire immediate family no longer lives there, I haven’t had to negotiate between the risk of visiting the country with my need to see and support my family members. Still, at least once a month, and sometimes what it feels like once a week, I am there in my dreams. Sometimes I am still a child, but many times I am an adult moving around my childhood home cooking, cleaning, and locking the doors in fear.
Through these dreams, these places are still very much alive in my memory; I have been there, I was there last week, I saw my parents’ room, I cooked in my parents’ kitchen, and I slept in my childhood bed again. What a strange feeling to still know these places so intimately. And given the fragility of memory, of how difficult it is to accurately remember events and places, I am grateful for these dreams that take me home again and again, like a primal umbilical cord that was never cut, like a magical time machine working freely inside of me.
Home is Canada. Home is the woods and the scent of spring rain on the flower beds. Home is my parents, home is my husband and son; my siblings. But home is also the dreams of my childhood in Maracaibo, the memories–and fears–etched deep within the groves of my brain, the cells of my skin, the particles of my soul.
The simultaneity of suffering and peace is one of the cruelest realities of the living condition. How, at the exact same time, somewhere in the same planet, some are going about their daily lives in safety and some are enduring unspeakable horrors. It has always been so, but modernity and its ability for instantaneous communications makes it so much more palpable and cruel.
Sitting in my office in downtown Vancouver, an Excel sheet open in front of me, I daydream: “A fluffy sponge cake. Three layers. Rosewater buttercream. Soak the cake in lemon syrup. Fresh rose petals to decorate. A sprinkle of gold powder on top of the cake to finish.”
For a few minutes, I escape the reality of my job as a researcher and enter a baking fantasy, one of my secret internal worlds. That world, that compartment of my personality, is as much part of me as my name, my hair colour, or the sound of my voice. «Cogito ergo sum», wrote Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” I “bake, therefore I am.” Baking is synonymous with my name and my name is synonymous with baking. We are one.
Sooner or later, our bodies betray us. I said that once in this blog, as the opening line of my post on Michael Haneke’s devastating masterpiece Amour. I still believe that sentence to be true. What I now understand as well is, sooner or later, our minds betray us too.
Today is day seven or ten (I’m not counting), since I stopped taking my depression medication. The reason is vanity. I am convinced that the weight I’ve gained in the last few is due to the medication I started taking five years ago in 2016.
A late 2020 meme or trope has been circulating. It takes issue with people who are ready to say goodbye to 2020 and to welcome 2021. The criticism is that people are placing their hope on a new year as if the pandemic will magically disappear as soon as the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.