I noticed today that I am becoming less and less able to be articulate on cue. It feels troubling, because I rely on articulacy for a certain kind of passing - it is how I have managed to stay afloat thus far in life: by using words and voice to become convincing, accommodating, educated - in the way that I speak, the way I string words together. Losing a grip on this feels difficult, but I am writing this to remind myself that I also welcome it.
I am at a public talk in a town hall, a panel on feminisms. I am in the audience. I have something to say, something that expresses a frustration I feel, but I cannot quite find the courage to say it. Then two other women speak. They speak from a position of difference, and they speak about difference, about who is not in the room, about which writers are not being referenced, about alternative histories, and about how a simple inclusivity may not always be the best or most appropriate tactic. They speak from a place of power but they acknowledge that there is a lack of invitation for their power in the room.
I hear myself in their words. I realise that this is the moment when I might be able to say something, so I raise my hand. And then I speak. Voice noticeably trembling. I speak like someone who has never spoken before, like someone who is not used to speaking in public. I speak about who is already perceived as articulate and who is not. I speak about desire and about anger. I speak about the chairperson as a person of certain privilege and how this certain privilege has allowed her to be in a position of privilege as chairperson. I speak about how it feels important and near-impossible to acknowledge these things. I speak, as an artist, about our responsibility to create structures within which ‘awkward silences’ can be held: structures of gathering within which we can pause, reflect, feel angered or at odds; structures within which we have time to feel challenged and confronted, and in which it is not already time to move on so that we can go home and forget, but in which it is time to find a way to be with each other.
The trembling in my body and voice. The desire to say these things without flipping them from being inarticulate to being articulate. Being inarticulate mostly means becoming invisible, unable to be heard or seen. But being articulate also means a kind of invisibility, a kind of eliding with the main-stream of the argument, gliding into the space of speaking that has already been set up or decided. Sometimes I give myself permission to not reply immediately, and this helps. But if I have not given myself this permission in advance, then I am carried away by the rush and desire towards articulacy.
When people speak of diversity, so often they mean diversity within the terms of expression that are already understood. So someone who speaks, say, in the context of a debate about feminism in a town hall in North Melbourne which also happens to be an arts centre, has to speak in a way that is already able to be heard in that context. If they speak in a way that is not already understood as articulate, their difference is so different that it simply cannot be registered within the frame of the room. I am not talking about myself here. I was afraid to speak, yes, but my language is exactly the language that could be understood in the context. I am talking about the many people who may not even have felt invited into the room.
An academic panel. I am presenting a paper, alongside two other people. I have prepared my paper well, it is clear and articulate, and it is well received. And then it is time for ‘questions’. I express a desire to not engage in the format. I try to say that my paper, the one I just read, the one you said you enjoyed, was exactly about this problem: about how the spaces in which we gather, and the ways in which we are invited to be together in those spaces, affect what is audible and visible within them. I try to express that the format of the question and answer session is a problem for me, because it is already rigged to repeat a certain performance of knowledge, because I want to question its very format. But there is not a way for these words to be heard. The format is set. And so we continue.
I was born in Oxford, England. I have a certain accent. I went to a school and a university where I learnt to be articulate in ways that would buy me privilege. I know that I have the skills to be received as articulate. And yet, during this Q&A, I was deeply inarticulate. I said muddled things, I did not succeed in answering the questions that were being asked. I did not succeed in bringing myself into the room during that moment. And since then, I have replayed that scene many times, knowing now how to speak articulately about the inarticulacy I was experiencing. Later is always easier.
And yet, what bothers me is that I have this feeling that I was exposed – not as the person with the gentle voice and the Oxfordshire accent who can put you at ease, who can be heard if she needs to, and who can be accommodated and accommodating if she needs to – but as something else, woman maybe, she who cannot come to the point, she who does not understand how to become heard and at the same time cannot stop speaking. What terrifies me and saddens me is that there was not a place for that kind of voice in the room.
The feeling is of having the words that we wanted, but only having them later. Or of having the feeling but not the words. Or of having the words, but they were not the kind of words that could be heard in that particular setting. Or of having the right words for that particular setting but having the wrong tone or accent or pitch or body to be accepted as someone who could be heard.