Writing my way out: A Poetics of Illness and Disability

Reflecting on their pandemic life living in communal halls as a PhD student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Cat Chong considers their practices involved in continually negotiating a chronic illness within the context of Singapore’s circuit breaker measures.

200. entre chat et loup / between cat & wolf—

—because I am a crip of the covid century—language is not enough to facilitate survival—we need safety that does not relegate the sick & the old as disposable—on day 177—the 11th of May 2020—Broc says—for the second time—Poetry is where language goes to renew itself—we enter & deform that turbulent field when we write it.—I’m paraphrasing Anne Boyer when I say—so much time spent lying down is also time spent looking up—as though to be let out is to empty my space of the dying—a permanent gesture of escape—

Book cover of Not Without Us: Perspective on Disability and Inclusion in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2023). This article is adapted from Cat’s chapter included in this collection of essays.

On the 20th of April 2020, I began a 200-day countdown. I have a chronic pain condition and, due to the suppression of movement across international borders, I was unable to access the medication I needed as it was prescribed and dispensed in the UK. As I have no formal diagnosis, I was unable to request the same prescription from the healthcare services on campus. Without a formal diagnosis, I signed every medical form as “healthy” when I matriculated into the university. As of the 20th of April, I had six months until my body became uninhabitable for me, until it became “unproductive” according to the academic system that I occupied. These two states aren’t equivalent, yet they coincide.

My chronic illness is disabling, and I identify that way. I identify as crip. For me, to crip is to wince back at many of the ableist assumptions I encounter as someone with an invisible chronic illness. By being crip, I wish to enact an audacity like Eli Clare, turning cripple into a “word of pride” (Clare 1999, 83). Clare likens the term “crip” to “queer”, recognising their similarities as “words to shock, words to infuse with pride and self-love, words to resist internalised hatred, words to help forge a politics” (84). In claiming crip, I find communities that congregate in sickness, illders, family, connection, and retaliation against oppressive ableist forces. [1] To crip and to be crip is to imagine a futurity in which I’m able to thrive.

188. —tender confusion—

—of the unending presence—the body—the distance of pause between here & futurity—I know—I’m in pain—I know it’ll go on like the rain—pain contains—an element of blankets—if it’s all the same to you—without relationship to cure—this is my future—immutable & contained—in this—in me these—20m2 of space—

Abracadabra guts of a ghost season (3am), Cat Chong and Wong Weng Yew, 2020. Part of Pandemic Time, a collection of 24 diptychs that explores the distorted experience of time in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abracadabra guts of a ghost season (3am), Cat Chong and Wong Weng Yew, 2020. Part of Pandemic Time, a collection of 24 diptychs that explores the distorted experience of time in the COVID-19 pandemic. https://wongwengyew.art/pandemic-time.

In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Alison Kafer asks: “[w]hat would it mean to explore disability in time or to articulate ‘crip time’” (Kafer 2013, 25). Kafer uses this question as a method of reorienting an understanding of disability’s temporal effect. She states, “[c]rip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded” (27). When Trump first mentioned hydroxychloroquine as a possible cure for novel coronavirus on the 19th of March (Liptak and Klein 2020), my first thought was of my family. I realised that my connection to this drug spanned several lifetimes, continents and circumstances. Contained in my family’s ingestion of hydroxychloroquine are multiple connections to war and sickness. My great grandfather was stationed in Malaysia during the Second World War, my grandmother developed severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and 妈 (mā, mother) also has RA. Tracing the development of drugs, we often consider medications in a drug class within a network of familial relations: the first generation of a drug is succeeded by the second, and so on. Rarely have I paused to consider how medication can traverse genealogical time, unearthing elastic and intergenerational proximity. In my case, hydroxychloroquine sits contextually within my family history between the Covid-19 pandemic, arthritis, and anti-malarial care across a period of 75 years. Our familiarity with particular medications has remained constant, while the circumstances under which it has been deployed have varied wildly. Consequently, our sense of time between these instances becomes flexible.

Painkillers have been atavistic within my family too. My grandmother took morphine for severe arthritis, while I’ve taken painkillers consistently since 2016 and currently take codeine every single day. In Singapore, under the Misuse of Drugs Act, codeine is classified as a Class B controlled drug. Under this law, the possession, consumption, manufacturing, import, export, or trafficking of controlled drugs in any amount are illegal (Parliament of Singapore 1973). To acquire the medication I need risks unauthorised trafficking, the penalty of which is a maximum of 20 years imprisonment and 10 strokes of a cane. Perhaps chronic illness invariably places me in closer proximity to violence, in closer proximity to death than it does to cure.

171. —I never thought I would want—

—as much as I do now—I want to measure the space between here—& the sound of you laughing—I sit on my windowsill on the 10th floor to watch the sunset—the gloaming is the flattening you said—of distance & light—I tell myself I’m not waiting for this surface to end—something that I’m gleaning—to take from in the great distance away from me—something made visible by light—a circuit breaker is an automatic device for stopping—the electric flow of a current in a circuit—a safety feature for stopping the flow of transmission—to prevent excess mortality in this—island—city—state—waves curves sweeping—the metaphors for virality are circular & electric—

Poster displayed at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Courtesy of the author.

In Singapore, the state response to the pandemic has seemed invariably tied to images of the digital, electrical, and technological re-appropriation of animal bodies. The robodog SPOT first appeared at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park between the 8th and 22nd of May 2020 “as a safe distancing ambassador” (Su 2020). There is convergence between military discourse and animal characteristics in this comment. As it polices Singapore’s green spaces, SPOT’s “walking” creates a sound akin to a dog’s panting, reminding all visitors to “stand at least one metre apart” (ibid.). It “sits” on its “hind legs”, its analytic tools “estimat[ing] the number of people in the park” (ibid.). This appeal seems situationally ironic to me, as the materialisation of such an uncanny, fantastical, and even dystopian creature engenders more disruption. Entering into the public space with the spectacle of a surveillance device that re-appropriates the animal body, SPOT causes a gathering to witness it, thus undermining its purpose as a social distancing device.

Furthermore, while it is extremely necessary and highly efficient as a public health measure, such a surveillance system has also become a source of anxiety, especially to people with chronic illness or drug-related symptoms. Even though SPOT is designed with a yellow shell and a female voice, it is still macabre and eerie to look at. It does feel dystopian, especially when you imagine the “total of 30 drones” that are also “deployed in selected parks and nature areas to provide officers with a high vantage point to obtain visitorship updates quickly” (Government Technology Agency and Cyber Security Agency of Singapore, 2020). Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the governmental presence has crystallised in multiple spaces both physically and digitally. On the 10th of February 2020, NTU asked all staff and students to declare whether their temperature is below 38°C, and later as Covid-19 symptoms became more well known, also asked students and staff to declare that we had “no fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat or difficulty in breathing”. Everyone was asked to make this declaration twice a day.

Due to drug withdrawal and then an adverse reaction to the change in medication, I sometimes develop fevers and sore throats. When the pain is almost unbearable, it makes it difficult to breathe. I had never once truthfully took my temperature; I avoided spaces where I knew temperature guns would be pointed at my head. I was frightened that someone will misread my chronic illness or drug-related symptoms for Covid-19. I had to take this risk every time I bought food and every time I appeared in public before the start of April 2020. The digital monitoring of “health” had the potential to misread my body as a contagious one. Therefore, to navigate the campus means that I have to be especially wary of how my body is perceived, and inhabiting spaces with those who are aware of my chronic illness makes me feel safe to some extent.

159. —when I called my supervisor a weird-ass mushroom I was talking about myself—

—about oblivion—slicing apples in a moment of grace—& the possibility of rescue—useless esoterica—proselytising myself to pray in the language of mycelium—unreliant on sight or speech or sound—a mycorrhizal network—a mass noun of this kindness—we are so frequently tied to the language of the ground—that perhaps we should write our way in—a burial—that we might find new ways of speaking—without sight or speech or sound—of which these are the fruiting bodies—all this work a nocturn—my body this moist place—reluctantly departed from sunlight—my body speaks in water—in silence—I lick my own tears—the soil is a place where it—all comes together—&hope is a thing still breathing—

An excerpt from “To Hope is to Invoke”, a series of multimedia poems by Cat Chong. Coven Poetry, issue no.1, 2021. Courtesy of the author.

I really did call my PhD supervisor a weird-ass mushroom. Sitting opposite me during lunch, he pulled out an oyster mushroom from his pasta and looked at it with an expression of perplexity. As he was observing the mushroom, he mumbled improvidently: “weird-ass mushroom”, as if to explain his action to me. I remember laughing and muttering rather jokingly, “You’re a weird-ass mushroom”, as though somehow defending the rather miserable-looking saprophyte. As I’m often inclined to do, I am returning to this moment and taking it too seriously—to take the mushroom as a provocation.

To be a “weird-ass mushroom” here is to find alternative forms of feeling, of connection, in dark spaces, as a way of staying both hopeful and alive. In Mandarin, 金针菇 (jīn zhēn gū), otherwise more commonly known to English speakers as the enoki mushroom, is sometimes called 明天见 (míng tiān jiàn) mushroom. Literally it means the “see you tomorrow” mushroom. It is colloquially named after its ability to remain intact even after being consumed in the inhospitable place of the human body. I feel like this is an analogy I want to entrust my energy to, as a kind of response to the question about hope, survival, and irreverence. When I ask myself now, “can I hope to survive this?”, I feel I embody the “weird-ass mushroom” in my reply: What the hell, 明天见, see you tomorrow?

 

Endnotes

[1] “Illders” here refers to JD Davis’ definition of wise elders of any age who turn the demands of living with chronic conditions into opportunities for self-knowledge, growth, and connection. Further information can be found in his interview on pride, activism, and accessibility with #MEAction at: https://www.meaction.net/2020/06/24/an-interview-with-jd-davids-lessons-from-an-illder-chronically-ill-elder-on-pride-activism-and-accessibility/#:~:text=We%20can%20and%20must%20become,knowledge%2C%20growth%2C%20and%20connection.

 

About the author

Cat Chong (they/them) is a transcultural twister child negotiating an embodied rejection of fixity and belonging. They are a PhD student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Their work considers the intersections between genre, gender, and disability in experimental hybrid memoirs. They can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @marbledmayhem.

 

References

Clare, Eli. 1999. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Boston: South End Press.

Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Liptak, Kevin, and Betsy Klein. 2020. Trump says FDA will fast-track treatments for novel coronavirus, but there are still months of research ahead. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/19/politics/trump-fda-anti-viral-treatments-coronavirus/index.html.

National Parks & GovTech. 2020. “PARK PATROL ROBOT TRIAL IN PROGRESS.” Singapore: National Parks & GovTech.

Parliament of Singapore. 1973. An Act for the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs and substances and for purposes connected therewith. Vol. 5. 1973 vols. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore. Available from: https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/MDA1973.

Su, Edgar. 2020. Roaming ‘robodog’ politely tells Singapore park goers to keep apart. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-singapore-robot/roaming-robodog-politely-tells-singapore-park-goers-to-keep-apart-idUSKBN22K1S6.

Government Technology Agency and Cyber Security Agency of Singapore. 2020. NParks and SNDGG trial SPOT robot for safe distancing operations at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Govtech Singapore. 8 May. Available from: https://www.tech.gov.sg/media/media-releases/spot-robot-trial-for-safe-distancing-operations.

 

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