Non-Monogamy Letter #4
The Non-Monogamy Letters (4/4)

Non-Monogamy Letter #4

Kim TallBear writes an update on her post-Covid palate for food, drink, sex, and conversation, and opens her tattered copy of Simon(e)’s book for some inspired remote discourse.

October 27, 2021

Dear Simon/e,

It’s been a year since I wrote you my last letter. And I received your response to it in January of this year. That is not, however, a record in terms of my tardiness on a writing project.

I’ve had a steep learning curve this year, some of which I’ve been writing about on my Substack newsletter, Unsettle: Indigenous Affairs, Cultural Politics & (De)Colonization. That learning curve involved getting and recovering (as far as I can tell) from Covid-19 in December 2020. The only enduring Covid effect I am aware of is that my palate is still not quite 100%. Food and coffee—the most important things—I can probably taste about 80%. But wine tastes off, especially whites. This is not good for my Interesting Whites wine and race review on Instagram, but it’s not bad for my pocketbook. Perhaps drinking less wine is not such a bad side effect.

I am de facto monogamous (at least sexually) at this point in the pandemic. I didn’t have the risk tolerance and/or the emotional capacity to entertain two local relationships in Edmonton after the lockdowns started. The pandemic also shut down in-person visits with my person in Austin. As you mentioned in your last letter, I haven’t seen him since I was last in Austin in January 2020. The US-Canada pandemic border restrictions have eased up a bit, but now the hospital situation in Texas is terrible with surging Covid cases. I’m not worried about ending up in hospital with Covid since I already had it pre-vaccine last year and came through it apparently fine. I’m more worried about any other chance medical situation that might occur if I were to visit him in Texas, and not being able to get adequate care because the defunded medical system there has been pushed beyond capacity. Having no definite prospects of seeing each other and perhaps also due to pandemic emotional weariness, our communication has grown more sporadic. I am not sure what the future holds. But we seem to do fine with occasionally dropping into one another’s lives via text or a zoom catch-up.

I am truly unsure about what is the balance between my Covid risk aversion and my limited pandemic (or is it menopause?) emotional and energetic capacity. What are their respective roles in my pandemic practice of pulling back from multiple romantic relationships? At the same time, I’ve decided to focus on friends as made kin, although I’ve always been good at that having been raised in part by a mother who regularly made kin, both informally through her extended social support, activist, and professional networks, and by ceremony. I highlighted the part of Playing Monogamy where you wrote about your coupled-up friend and her partner getting ill simultaneously and being more stressed out about needing to rely on others than you were when you contracted the same (not Covid-19) virus:

At first sight my situation, as a single living alone, appears more fragile than hers. But I believe it’s the other way around and in reality she’s more vulnerable than I am. A single person has opted for an explicitly insecure lifestyle. That insecurity is productive, because you’re aware of your vulnerability and therefore make more of an effort to be sociable. By caring for others and dealing with other people’s needs, you take out a kind of socio-emotional insurance (55).

In addition, my nineteen-year-old daughter is in her first year of university. She has not ceased needing/wanting regular support during our many hours per week of Zoom and cell phone check-ins. I feel that I need to parse my limited capacity carefully and where it is most emotionally and intellectually generative.

Five floating eyeless heads clustered closely together.

My more limited capacity was non-generatively challenged by my former second partner in Edmonton. He was not as strict about Covid social distancing as I am and he has a large extended family who he is in regular contact with. They all think that the extent of Covid-19 globally is exaggerated by a “liberal” press. The only energy I could muster in response was a sigh and one raised eyebrow. The prospect of ongoing Covid-19 science and politics conversations with him did not interest me in the least, whereas sex and light banter over wine and dinner had always been interesting with him. We had a good rapport (if we stayed away from politics) that involved a lot of gentle teasing and laughter. But given my risk aversion to his Covid-19 practices, there would be no dinner, banter, and sex. All we’d be left with for the foreseeable future would be disagreeable conversations via Zoom or chat. That sounded unpleasant indeed when I could instead spend my waning emotional pandemic energy on the other sweethearts in my life, be they familial, made kin, or romantic. I said my goodbye and wished him luck with no hard feelings.

I laughed at your “goody-goody behaviour” reference in the last letter. I am kind of a goody-goody, but not as much as some people, and I certainly despise having to loudly proclaim that behaviour all the time, say on social media: “I went out to a restaurant, but I ate ON THE PATIO.” I wrote a longish essay recently about my lack of desire to scream around at everyone about Covid-19: “Five Hypotheses about Covid-19: Denial, Outrage, Risk Fatigue, Stealth Vaccinators, and Relational Risk Assessment,” wherein I write, “Perhaps a mono-normative society is less intellectually and socially equipped to deal thoughtfully with risk of infection?” I suggest that their moralizing mono-normative narratives rather than pragmatic and statistically-informed conversations about sexually transmitted infections might also inhibit more effective management of Covid-19 risk and infection.

I know what you mean about the trade-offs of living with a partner. It’s been ten years since my legal spouse and I have lived together. I have cohabited with no one since except my daughter sometimes; I am now accustomed to living alone and regularly sleeping alone. I’m not sure it would be very easy for me to go back to sharing space with a partner. I don’t rule it out, but it’s no longer a goal to have a relationship like that. I thoroughly enjoy almost every moment I have with my remaining partner. We rarely disagree. I remember the tensions that come with living in one household. With no time wasted on that stuff, our time together is filled with laughter, both light and deep conversation, physical and emotional intimacy. We never argue over what kind of home to make, who did what chore, who made what mess, and who spent money on what. We keep house and finances separate, and it makes for a calm sea on which to gently rock around together in our little boats that come close and then sail apart for a while.

I also hear what you say about privilege conditioning the possibility of relating differently. For you it involved long-distance relating and for me too. I can also afford to live permanently uncoupled—well, as permanent as anything in life can be. I’ve seen many people stay in relationships because of finances. They can’t afford to separate or will endure hardship if they do. I just turned 53 and had two foot surgeries this year so I’ve spent three months of the past year temporarily disabled. I have been thinking a lot about the long-term possibility of living alone, and wondering when I might need to change that. It might be twenty-five years before I seriously need to entertain a non-solo situation, but as I think you mentioned in your first letter and you talk about in Playing Monogamy, health and mobility challenges can arise at any time; we all need some kind of help sometimes. How do we build that kind of relational and supportive network outside of mono-normative, ableist, couple-centric, nuclear family that is in so many ways non-sustaining?

I participated in a facilitated conversation on “Settler Sex and Family” a couple of evenings ago on October 25th with the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM). In response to an audience question about moving away from mono-normative expectations that a true or meaningful relationship should last “forever,” I thought of your book. There was much I wanted to discuss in regarding length of relationship and to the broader concept of time. I remembered that I had highlighted several passages in your book that touched on these ideas, but didn’t have the passages at hand to bring them quickly into my response to the questioner. I simply held up your book, which was on my desk, and said “Read this.”

I had also been thinking hard about the broader concept of time for a few days before the Berkeley event. I sat on a panel on “decolonial science and technology studies” last week at another university where one of the panelists expressed the shocking-to-me idea that Indigenous peoples offer no solutions to pressing problems today or in the future because we “can’t look to the past.” He asserted that Indigenous knowledges are “pre-colonial.” I was astounded to hear these ideas from someone on such a panel. I hear such thoughts all the time from scientists who have never read any social theory or colonial history and politics, but this was someone on a panel with me that was dedicated to decolonization in science and technology studies. I get so exhausted pushing back against the racist vanishing Native trope, the by now 400-year-old won’t-die-vampire story that our cultures, knowledges, and peoplehoods are artifacts of a disappearing past. That idea then justifies the ongoing bloodsucking of Indigenous life by the colonial state.

I return now to my tattered and marked-up copy of Playing Monogamy in order to think more and with you on the idea of linear temporality and its connection with how a capitalist, settler- and white-supremacist world defines truth. Of course, I mean two kinds of truth: both “true,” authentic, respectable love, and also the truths or truth claims made by beings ranked in a hierarchy of life by colonial states and their institutions. For example, Indigenous knowledges—be they “traditional” or those also forged throughout colonialism as we continue LIVING—are often not understood by non-Indigenous people who nonetheless denigrate them as “beliefs,” or untruths. Whereas the knowledges produced by higher-ranked beings, i.e. by whites or by science (as whiteness) are deemed to be true and factual. Indigenous peoples, thought to be vestiges of the past, are not thought capable of producing incisive knowledges that we all can live by. Thus, my co-panelist was able to say that Indigenous peoples and knowledges offer nothing to this world in crisis, no solutions at all. Being of the past is to have a form of denigrated knowledge. Being of the past is to be de-animated. Science, which he obviously presumed is not also produced by Indigenous peoples, exists in a binary with Indigenous knowledge. That binary science is what is needed to solve present and future problems. Indigenous peoples are dead. Science and the whiteness it presumes, are alive. 

I get so exhausted pushing back against the racist vanishing Native trope, the by now 400-year-old won’t-die-vampire story that our cultures, knowledges, and peoplehoods are artifacts of a disappearing past.

You note too that “time has always been used to differentiate. Time has been used to categorize people as backward and others as progressive” (15). And like me, you think with that idea in your analysis of what constitutes true love. Let me jump with you now to the relationship between time and what is considered truth in love. You write:

The notion of deep, true love is accompanied by a belief in a positive correlation between time and profundity, so that if two people come together often over a long period, they will get to know each other really well. By this reasoning, partners in a monogamous relationship have a profound knowledge of each other because they spend hardly any time apart (82).

The mono-normative idea is also that “true love” is supposed to be a “forever” love. Does this not implicitly denigrate love or connection that does not go on forever in either a static or ever-deepening (whatever that means) form? There is an ownership claim in that definition of love, if not for all time, at least for a life-time. Related to the idea of finding a lifelong love (synonymous with “true” love) is the linear temporal idea of the relationship escalator with all of its milestones and supposedly upward and forward movement that you reference in the following passage:

If we scrap the ideal of the escalator from our DNA, relationships no longer need to have goals and our experience of time will be different. There will not be an ideal level of intimacy that needs to be reached, nor any external yardsticks (such as living together or going on holiday together) that determine the value of the relationship (83).

You challenge both the amount and length of time spent together as a hallmark of truth in love and as a hallmark of value in a relationship. And you write that:

Body and your memory form a continuous and coordinating connection between all those moments…But the real thing lies not in the stories or the series of selfies that result from them, but in the connection you enter into…(84).

I eliminated the word “play” from the last quotation, only because it is a lot to dive into conceptually and I felt like the crux of your point was still present without it? But please correct me if that omission elides too much. This challenge to “true” and valuable love or connection as focused on both length and amount of time is an idea that I want to sit with and seriously entertain. But it is also an idea that falls in part away from my temporal analysis of Indigenous life and death.

We do think about the importance of length and perhaps too the amount of time that an Indigenous People spent historically and today in close relation with a land- or waterscape. Length of time, Indigenous peoples assert, makes a difference in knowing more than do recent settlers about our more-than-human relations in place and how to live well with them. Although perhaps time spent is less important than the way of spending time with. For example, an Indigenous knowledge conversation can work with your caution that one should not try too hard to know or assume one knows one’s lover or relation completely. You write that “‘I know you’ is not a compliment, because it means looking upon the other as having a fixed shape. Knowledge means stagnancy. ‘I think you’ or ‘I think of or about you’ is more real, because thinking—like loving—is always an active process” (82-3).

Just as one should not rob one’s lover of agency to change, or remain in part mysterious, one should not rob one’s animal, plant, water, or stone relatives of that agency.

There is so much here for me to think with. I resonate with the active process of thinking of or about, versus making a knowledge pronouncement. And I also view the stagnancy of saying “I know you” as robbing the other of agency or life; it’s a form of de-animation. Just as one should not rob one’s lover of agency to change, or remain in part mysterious, one should not rob one’s animal, plant, water, or stone relatives of that agency. I think you wrote something to the effect that we can be driven in our loving connections and intimacies by mystery. To wrap up this thought for now, I do think much Indigenous knowledge holds room for mystery and values humility before our planetary and extraterrestrial relations too. I was taught as a Dakota, for example, that we as humans will never know everything, nor do we have that right. Not all knowledges are for all persons, which is a hard pushback on the universal and colonial claims to truth that science often makes. A human, plant or other animal relative may choose to reveal knowledge about themselves to you or, like your lover, they may not. They have a choice. This seems to me antithetical not only to settler science but also to legislated settler monogamy with its assertions of material and knowledge ownership. 

I think the previous couple of paragraphs also begin to get at a final question from the Berkeley talk that I want to discuss here and in conversation with Playing Monogamy. That question challenged the privileging of romance in our society.

A lot of this reminds me of conversations in aromantic activism around amatonormativity, the notion that romantic love in a monogamous, nuclear dyad is the be-all end-all form of love that is supposed to trump other forms of relationship and that everyone universally experiences. How does the overemphasis on romance in settler culture interact with this model of polyamory?

The questioner referred to my notion of critical polyamory—a form of polyamory that challenges the settler state and its disruptions to all Indigenous relations—familial, romantic, sexual, kinship, and “environmental.” Critical polyamory in my definition challenges settler-colonial structure’s attachment of marriage, sex, and family to land ownership and control, and as you point out, to capitalism. Again, I did not have the following passage at hand in which you challenge the fetishization of romance in this couple-centric and amatonormative culture:

Most known books on love approach intimacy as a question of attachment and dependency without critiquing our cultural attachment to traditional romance, patriarchy and capitalism…There are few works that address the political and societal potential of radically changing our thinking on love and intimacy (14).

Yet you also write that“a rejection of monogamy is a call for more romance, not less” (87). You explain:

There is no need to reject romance, we just need to share it more widely. The hoarded form of romance that we see now—experienced and expressed exclusively between two people needs to go (87).

You then recount broken heart pendants exchanged between friends in your primary school experience. One of two pendants to be worn by two friends was engraved with “best” and the other with “friends.” Together they make a whole. You are not then restricting “romance” to a romantic and/or sexual couple or even triad or larger group, but rather you seem to be gathering what we usually call “platonic” love under its umbrella? Instead of narrowing it in importance, you widen it but with the effect of including rather than excluding?

There is so much more to discuss, especially related to your descriptions in Playing Monogamy about “scarcity and exclusivity as traditionally romantic ideas” that have “become attached above all to a capitalistic determination of value such that capital and monogamous love have merged” (87-88). Perhaps we can talk more about this in the next exchange, more expanded definitions of “romance” and also the relation of a normative definition of romance to world-destroying capitalism? I need to push my thinking at these intersections.

Until next time,

Kim

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) (she/her) is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. She is the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.

Illustration by

Whess Harman is Carrier Wit’at, a nation amalgamated by the federal government under the Lake Babine Nation. They graduated from the emily carr university’s BFA program in 2014 and are currently living and working on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh as the curator at grunt gallery.

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