Learning to Live in the Anthropocene: Listening to Temsula Ao

A scholar and creative writer who reflected deeply on folklore and traditional forms of storytelling, the late Temsula Ao (1945-2022) merged techniques of oral storytelling with the short story and also her poetry. The imperative to remember/re-member and the imperative to listen carefully are two of the ethical touchstones of Ao’s writing.  The most memorable instance of this ethical concern is the supplementary “P.S.” section to her masterpiece “The Last Song.” This supplementary section stages a scene of oral storytelling in both its vocal and aural aspects. Three verbs dominate this supplementary section: “tell,” “listen” and “hear.” “Tell” emphasizes the importance of the mouth and vocality and is supplemented by other vocalic elements such as the old storyteller’s “shouting” and “humming.” “Hear” circulates as an injunction or attempt to orient the body towards the direction where imperceptible sonic elements emanate, like the sounds of the nonhuman or the now-dead Apenyo’s ghostly voice. “Listen,” on the other hand, reverses the orientation of the body towards the sonic object; the ear here transforms into an active ethical and relational sensorium receptive to the voices of forgotten others.  On the cold December night when this supplementary section opens, the old female storyteller is not her “usual chirpy self” and seems to be “agitated over something.”  When one of her auditors asks the reason for her irritation, she replies that on certain nights a “peculiar” wind blows through the village. It seems to start from the graveyard and “sounds like a hymn.” When one of the youngsters replies that they cannot “hear” anything, granny rebukes them “that youngsters of today have forgotten how to listen to the voice of the earth and the wind.” This is a key detail as active listening attunes the auditor towards imperceptible rhythms in the soundscape. Through the connection established here between the vocal and the aural, Ao expands the canvas to establish connections between witnessing an individual death, collective memories of trauma, the alienation from community, and the relationships with the nonhuman environment. The ethical act here is envisioned as one of training oneself to listen carefully, to be receptive to the voice of nonhuman and spectral others.

The effects of the ear as the primary ethical sensorium are heightened even further as the short story draws to its close. Tasked with attuning their ears, the youngsters discern a “low hum” as the old storyteller literally shouts at them to listen even more carefully. Storyteller and audience “strain to listen more attentively.” The old woman jumps up and asks each one whether they “heard” Apenyo’s last song. Like Apenyo’s possession by an “unseen presence” during the final performance of her song before she is dragged away by the marauding soldiers, the storyteller’s act of humming the “tune softly, almost to herself” initiates a process where “she seems to have changed into a new self, more alive and animated than earlier.” The contrast between the effects of hearing Apenyo’s song on the captain (the officer on charge of the army group that gangrapes Apenyo and her mother Libeni in the main story space) and the storyteller couldn’t be more different: if the captain cannot evade the call of the violated other, is infected by it and eventually becomes insane, the gradual possession by the acousmatic voice of the ghostly other re-animates the old storyteller. The actual act of storytelling, of re-memorializing the traumatic past can only begin at that point. “Come and listen carefully,” the storyteller says as the tale of the brutalized girl is enshrined in collective memory.

“I hear the land cry/Over and over again/‘Let all the dead awaken/ And teach the living/How not to die’”—this is the epigraph to my copy of These Hills Called Home, the collection that contains “The Last Song.” Ao’s careful conjuration of an oral storytelling scene in the “P.S.” section attempts to suture and re-member the broken and silenced voices that once wove the community together (weaving is an important motif in “The Last Song”) but have now been sundered apart by the long lasting and deleterious effects of necropolitical terror. The effects of necropolitical terror on everyday life is one of Ao’s major concerns and recurs throughout the collection.

 But the epigraph to These Hills Called Home, especially the segment “And teach the living/How not to die” reminds me of a book I read last year—Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene—the contested name for the geological epoch where Homo sapiens leaves its mark on the planet and planetary processes—is often read via the lenses of death, extinction and finitude. In that sense, Scranton’s reflections are pertinent—we have to learn how to die, both individually and collectively, in this epoch of endings, catastrophes and death.  But the Anthropocene is also amenable to other readings and possibilities that are dominated not just by death, finitude and eco-apocalypse, but foreground survival and continuance. The Anthropocene asks us to go beyond dualist forms of thought and consider how we are related to multiple earth others. The philosopher Glenn Albrecht asks us to reconsider the Anthropocene as the “symbiocene” by focusing on sympoeitic forms of kin-making with multiple nonhuman and inhuman others with whom we share the planet. This entails trying to re-member forms of relationality which have been relegated to the realms of forgetfulness by dualist divisions of the (human) subject and the (nonhuman/inhuman) object. Instead of learning to die, such acts of re-membrance can teach the living how not to die in the Anthropocene.

Teaching the living how not to die in the Anthropocene, I posit, is the central concern of Ao’s poem “The Old Storyteller”.

This poem is not only about cultural identity alone, but how a musing on identity and “tradition” merges with questions of deep time and re-membrance. In this poem, the grandmother-as-storyteller figure laments that her grandsons dismiss her counsel as “ancient gibberish.” In the concluding lines of the poem, the speaker says that “when memory fails and words falter” she is “overcome by a bestial craving.” She desires to “wrench the thieving guts” out of the “Original Dog” and consign all her stories “to the script in his ancient entrails.” This reference to the “Original Dog” comes from a Naga myth. Dolly Kikon writes: “They (dogs) also feature centrally in the most famous origin myth about the Naga script, which is connected to identity and language. According to legend, a dog ate the Naga script written down on animal skin, and from that day onwards, Naga tradition and knowledge has only been received and shared orally.”

 Orality and writing are contrasted as values in this poem. Oral storytelling revitalizes the female figure’s “life force.” But her grandsons discount her “rambling stories” and say that “books” will do just fine. As a storyteller rapidly denied her audience in the evening of her existence, the grandmother has a violent zoomorphic fantasy—the “bestial craving” above. This reference to the “Original Dog” reverberates with a previous use of animal imagery in the poem. The stories that were transmitted to her made “warriors and were-tigers” come alive. Other animals, too, who were “once our brothers” came alive through these renditions. These “brothers” were once kin to the community before the invention of language relegated them to the level of the “savage” and rendered them separate. Just as the folkloric tradition suggested that “human” separation and alienation from nature, animality and multispecies harmony coincided with the invention of language as a system of difference, the new language concretized through the figure of the “book” will relegate oral storytelling to the realms of forgetfulness. The technicity of language in its mutations through the successive states of undifferentiation, orality and writing figures as an imperializing force in the poem. In the fading embers of her existence, the “outmoded” oral storyteller melancholically wishes to consign her stories to another forgotten, albeit originary, figure of writing: the forgotten script in the old dog’s ancient entrails. Modes of communication and memory keeping that are vanishing (like orality) are conjoined with a primal scene of forgetting.    

I cannot but help compare this poem to Ursula LeGuin’s short text “She Unnames Them.” In this story, an unnamed female narrator—Eve from the “Book of Genesis” presumably—reverses God’s sovereign act of naming other creatures. Beginning with the yaks and ending with swarms of insects, the narrator unnames these creatures who did not ask to be named. These acts of unnaming culminate in the following passage:

None were left now to unname, and yet how close I felt to them when I saw one of them   swim or fly or trot or crawl across my way or over my skin, or stalk me in the night, or go along beside me for a while in the day. They seemed far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier: so close that my fear of them and their fear of me became one same fear. And the attraction that many of us felt, the desire to feel or rub or caress one another’s scales or skin or feathers or fur, taste one another’s blood or flesh, keep one another warm — that attraction was now all one with the fear,   and the hunter could not be told from the hunted, nor the eater from the food.

Naming and language act as a form of differentiation and dualist separation. To unname is to re-establish relationality with a host of multispecies others. These forms of relationality could be both attractive and fear-inducing, but such widely varying affective responses are based on relationships with others. If dualist divisions between subject and object, namer and named, sovereign and beast initiate processes of nonrelation, unnaming reinstates relationality.

The folk wisdom Ao researched on extensively and incorporated into her short stories and poems is also about the relationality of nonhuman with human worlds. The stories that are passed down in a chain to the old storyteller in the poem keep the memories of relationality prior to dualist separation alive. If LeGuin’s unnamed female narrator establishes relationality by taking back what was given by the sovereign (without creaturely consent), Ao’s storyteller desires to keep the memories of relationality alive by passing it down in a relay to future generations besotted by the isolation and monadic individualism engendered by the “book.” In both cases though, the turn towards relationality is an injunction to the living that one need not die alone in a state of what the Native American thinker Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “species loneliness.” Maybe re-membering that is how we learn how to live in the Anthropocene.

Rest in power, Temsula Ao! May we have the wisdom to listen to your counsel in the times to come.


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Amit R. Baishya Written by:

Amit R. Baishya is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma. He teaches courses on postcolonial literature.

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