The Distortion Principle: On Sickness and Perception

Jackie Wang on Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, and others.

This piece originally appeared in Ballerinas Dance with Machine Guns.


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there is no time to write, and yet i woke up wanting to write

because i wrote last night, i woke up feeling calm

not calm

or as calm as one can feel waking up to bombs going off in your head

always, this ringing

“The body can no longer stand being a body” –Lispector

i breathe

a 4th tone emerges in my right ear

the fear circuitry of my brain lights up

because there will never be silence again

and sometimes it makes me want to die

because i can no longer sink into my books

or my words

everything is fragmented by the noise

i keep losing my place in the thought because of the noise

it’s like that moment at the concert

when the band is sound checking

and for a second there is feedback

and the audience cringes

but the sound is adjusted and the feedback goes away

and everyone sighs in relief


Do you see the world through an oblique cut?
Through emotions so intense they threaten to undo your body?


now imagine the moment the feedback blasted you never ended

and you were forced to live in that sound forever

could you think?

could you sleep?

could you be fully present with people

inside the noise

only you inside the noise

now imagine that you are the kind of person who needs silence to read

and that you need to read to live

could you adjust to having to use computerized speech dictation to read books?

could you adjust to not being able to bring the images of the book into relief

to no longer be able to see the pictures inside the words

because of the noise

to only see chunks of pixels from various parts of the picture

slipping in and out of focus

in this way, the noise interferes with vision

it undoes your capacity to even see your thoughts

to see a thought through to the end

in this way, the sentence is truncated

all thoughts return to the noise

and the noise returns you to thoughts of your health

are you even living in the same world as everyone around you?

were you ever?

.

.

.

In Kincaid’s Annie John the protagonist Annie falls ill at the beginning of a three and a half month deluge of rain

from her sickbed she listens to the rain

the world is warped by the delirium induced by her illness

in my writing i have sometimes referred to this as THE DISTORTION PRINCIPLE

the world seen through pain

the world seen through the eyes of the sick or the traumatized

the disorganized thinking of the dying

Kafka’s last words—“lemonade everything was so infinite”—as remembered by Cixous

“I write to you in disorder, I well know. But that is how I live.” Lispector

No other text captures the consciousness of sickness better than Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva

“How can I explain it to you? I’ll try. It’s that I’m perceiving a crooked reality. Seen through an oblique cut. Only now have I sensed the oblique of life. I used to only see through straight and parallel cuts. I didn’t notice the sly crooked line. Now I sense that life is other. That living is not only unwinding rough feelings—it’s something more bewitching and gracile, without losing its fine animal vigor for that. Upon this unusually crooked life I have placed my heavy paw, causing existence to wither in its most oblique and fortuitous and yet at the same time subtly fatal aspects.

“The oblique life is very intimate.”

Do you see the world through an oblique cut?

Through emotions so intense they threaten to undo your body?

The “oblique life” is what I meant when I wrote about the bent tree in my Entropy Magazine interview.


in the morning, i was bleeding. was i bleeding the ocean i dreamt last night?


It is what Jamaica Kincaid captures in the chapter “The Long Rain”

when Annie John falls asleep on her sickbed and dreams of drinking the ocean dry

“As I fell asleep, I had no feeling in any part of my body except the back of my skull, which felt as if it would split open and spew out huge red flames. I dreamed that I was walking through warm air filled with soot, heading toward the sea. When I got there, I started to drink in the sea in huge great gulps, because I was so thirsty. I drank and drank until all that was left was the bare dry seabed. All the water from the sea filled me up, from my toes to my head, and I swelled up very big. But then little cracks began to appear in me and the water started to leak out—first in just little seeps and trickles coming out of my seams, then with a loud roar as I burst open. The water ran back and made up the sea again, and again I was walking through the warm soot—only this time wet and in tatters and not going anywhere in particular.”

in the morning, i was bleeding. was i bleeding the ocean i dreamt last night?

this crack called my cunt, out of which flows the ocean i swallowed in the dream

perhaps i was trying to imagine Antigua

a secret place in the sea between Florida and the islands of the Caribbean

a place i wanted to reach, where the waters were crystal clear and neon coral reefs lined the seafloor like a majestic glittering city

a crooked city, without right angles

i remember entering the waters by way of Miami

and thinking, “the waters aren’t clear here. I will have to swim farther out.”

when i woke, it was snowing outside.

i did not want to get out of bed.

i told myself, i don’t have to.

i told myself, i am convalescing.

i will let the snow set the rhythm by which i rest and wake

i thought about Annie John convalescing during the rain

dreaming in bed

attended to by her parents, the doctor, the obeah woman, and her grandmother

how everything was different after the rain

after she destroyed her family in effigy

but what if this Long Rain, this feeling of everything being crooked, never ends?

on my whiteboard in my little adobe house in New Mexico i wrote the Maria Sabina quote, HEALTH IS COMING

Dylan reminded me of it on the phone and i felt sad because the health i longed for never came

i wrote, what if health never arrives?

what if health never was, and everything has always just been distortion?

the oblique life.

wayward daughters with wonky circadian rhythms, bad teeth, poor affect regulation, and broken senses

could i learn to re-orient myself to THE NOISE?

could i learn to celebrate that which corrupts, degrades, corrodes, destroys, bewilders, destabilizes, inverts, perverts, and derealizes?

when i woke all i wanted to do was stay in bed and write

outside the window next to my bed were ominous icicles

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the stalactites of the cave of my forgotten dreams, i wrote

i looked at what i had written late last night

i had spelled “mold” “mould” (the British spelling?)

and knew it was because i secretly wanted to make “mold” more like “mourn”


Jackie Wang is a queer poet, essayist, filmmaker, performer, alien, and prison abolitionist based out of Cambridge, MA. In her critical essays she writes about queer sexuality, race, gender, the politics of writing, mixed-race identity, prisons and police, the politics of safety and innocence, and revolutionary struggles. Follow her @LoneberryWang and loneberry.tumblr.com.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid • Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985 • 148 pages

Photo courtesy of Helene Childs-Budelis

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