Kai Cheng Thom on transformative justice after #MeToo

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Image: Rachel Woroner

"It has become something of a truism among my community of queer people of colour that the end of the world is nigh," Kai Cheng Thom writes at the beginning of her new book. Looming climate catastrophe. Increasingly fascist governments. Widening power disparities. The world is undergoing tremendous -- and alarming -- changes. To survive them, she insists, we will need community and love. 

Thom recently spoke with me about her new collection of essays and poems, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes for the End of the World -- a book that considers the need for transformative justice and revolutionary love both before and during the #MeToo movement. "I want to know that I have told the truth as best as I know it," she tells me, "And that I have done my diligence as best as I can to a story that needs to be told." We speak by phone during Thom's lunch hour from a retreat she is attending on Salt Spring Island, off the coast of British Columbia. Time moves more slowly on Salt Spring, but she jumps out of the island's unrushed rhythm and right into discussing ideas of truth, storytelling and her new book.

Thom grew up in Vancouver and later moved to Montreal for school, where she obtained both her bachelor's and master's degree in social work at McGill University. She then worked as a family therapist, and now focuses on being a writer, performer and community healer based in Toronto. A two-time Lambda Literary nominee and the winner of the 2017 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBT Writers, she also writes an advice column titled "Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse," for Xtra. 

Throughout the past turbulent three years and its myriad conflicts, Thom lost faith in her community. She lost trust in them, she writes, and lost hope in the idea that a community could dismantle the very social conditions engrained within it. What felt clear for her were feelings of rage and shame that developed out of the #MeToo movement: feelings that needed to go somewhere.

So they landed and unraveled in a book. Through the process of writing, and looking at other thinkers such as adrienne maree brown, Thom wanted to argue for and explore the idea of transformative justice -- "a better justice, a loving justice; justice that doesn't see violence through the lens of perpetrator and survivor only but a lens that takes into account the culpability of community and the responsibility of community," she tells me.

A few weeks away from the book's release, when we speak about the possibilities of magical stories and fairy tales, Thom is audibly animated -- she's an aficionado after all. As a former psychotherapist, she was always interested in archetypes and Jungian theory. "Fairy tales are a container for anything you want to put in them," she says. "What really is made possible in the form of the myth or fairy tale is symbolic or metaphoric action that has magical power to unveil the real." When we look at the architecture of the #MeToo movement, and the archetypes that have been centred in it (like the witch), she explains, we find secrecy and persecution -- ideas that are eloquently untangled in I Hope We Choose Love.

Thom thinks through the forms of persecution that exist in queer communities (social shunning, for instance) and writes about how inconsistent they can be. Some people are called out for their behaviour and yet continue to thrive in the community while others are banished forever. Using her background as a former therapist, she tries to understand how stories of sexual violence are concealed and why they are so prominent for queer and trans people. An analysis of the freeze response "might help to explain the peculiar and ferociously charged dynamics around secrecy, disclosure, and punishment that characterize our community's discussions and understandings of what constitutes sexual violence between people," she writes. In queer community, violence is everywhere, so people ultimately feel numb, she explains in the book.

Within her work, and throughout her life, Thom moves between storytelling and story listening. In I Hope We Choose Love, Thom uses storytelling to better understand ethics. "A storyteller's job is partly to trouble meaning, to question meaning, to unseat our desire for moral certainty and universal truth," Thom writes. She tells me that she feels both nihilistic about storytelling and yet wonders what it could look like outside a colonial context. She is weary of the dissonance between artists' lives and the narratives about them. "If we could find a way to centre integrity in our storytelling then we'd come closer to our ideal of revealing the truth," Thom says.

Thom includes a few confessional-style essays in the collection, where she writes about practices of consent, failings of the #MeToo movement, and reductive binaries. "What the book helped me to do was to release the notion of punishment," she says, "that I deserved punishment for being a bad woman or a sinner or a bad activist or whatever -- and if I didn't deserve punishment, then I had to believe the same for everyone else, or vice versa." As Thom explains, "the book was many steps toward understanding for myself what I believe love to be. Love as a political act, and love as a political force and a healing force."

Giving up on the idea of punishment, and becoming a "punishment abolitionist," as Thom describes herself, took "such a long time to get to." In activist communities, she noticed that sometimes "It feels like the conversation is not so much about whether or not we can use violence to transform violators but who gets to do the violence."

Moving away from punitive justice does not mean abandoning resistance as a tool or making space for any kind of inappropriate behavior, though. Similarly, choosing revolutionary love does not mean "being like a doormat," Thom says. Remembering and choosing revolutionary love was, for her, "about finding ways to restore my own sense of safety in the world, and my own sense of power and agency that didn't come from punishment." I Hope We Choose Love makes a distinction between using punishment as a tool and implementing accountability and structures for healing in a movement of transformative justice.

The three-part collection interweaves prose essays with vivid poetry pieces. Each section has an imperative title: "Let us Live," "Let us Love," and "Let us Believe," that urges the reader to try to imagine the world Thom conceives of. While the essays are about precision, "the poetry pieces are about expressing those truths that cannot be rendered into something precise," she tells me.

The poetry was also a way for Thom to express what she sees as the failures of this latest wave of the #MeToo movement. A movement that relied -- and barely so -- on punitive justice and failed to address the root causes of systemic rape culture. A movement that does not understand or take into account the nuances of ethics. "Punitive justice models," she writes, "like those offered by the prison system and supported by mainstream white feminism have given us the spectacle of trials (both legal and in the court of public opinion), but they have not offered us healing or a way forward."

In writing her poetry, she tells me, she was processing difficult experiences and observations, and her own feelings of rage and disappointment. Her poems seek to transmute bodily sensations and feelings into untethered verses. In a poem titled "if you should start to think forbidden thoughts," she writes "if your bones should start to murmur and hiss / in a language that is not safe to know, then leave." Here, free from the constraints of the essay form, her language is vibrant with emotion.

Thom is trying to imagine and model a world in which we restructure and redefine justice. In an essay on storytelling, she reminds the reader that beyond being engaged in the act of reading and story-listening, "The story is a dream of the revolution, but it is not a revolution on its own." She wants her book to propel readers toward a "greater honesty" in what they do, she says. Perhaps, with many communities of activists, thinkers, and doers, this could lead to "a system of justice -- real practices of justice -- that allows for human dignity for all."

Alexandra Valahu is a freelance radio producer and writer based in Vancouver, B.C. ​

Image: Rachel Woroner

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