Scarcity, memory, and the theory of nonmonogamy

Scarcity, memory, and the theory of nonmonogamy

In a cafe near Templehof park in Berlin in the spring, Anna Bowen catches up with scholar and writer Simon(e) van Saarloos about their new book, Take Em Down: Scattered Monuments and Queer Forgetting.

It’s difficult to write about an individual who challenges the linear nature of time and narrative in every word, wrote a book called Playing Monogamy and, charmingly running their hands through their short mop of platinum blonde hair, asks you if you “still like your husband” after the pandemic.

As I wrote out my interview questions, I immediately noticed that they ascribe, typically, to a linear frame—tell me about your upbringing, your influences, your current work, and where you go from here—the questions all smack of exactly the type of linear temporality (that is, thinking of time as a line with a beginning, middle, and end) that Simon(e) van Saarloos explores as a source of harm and constraint in their new book Take Em Down: Scattered Monuments and Queer Forgetting (PS Guelph 2022).

30 seconds: Simon(e) van Saarloos introduces the setting, Berlin, spring 2022

Simon(e) (pronounced either “Simon” or “Simone-ah”) themself often ushers people into the moment together by employing a group breath at the beginning of a workshop, talk, or book launch.  I’m in Berlin for one or two fragments of Simon(e)’s self-directed book tour—extending from Rotterdam to Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Istanbul to name a few—a set of events which they have stirred into being, curating conversations and collaborations with people encountered at since-shuttered queer dance clubs in Amsterdam and midnight bookstores in New York City. As a part of the publishing house, I’m joining up for Paris and Berlin, a welcome scratch to the need to move after two years of on-and-off school for my kids and on-and-off lockdowns for me.

-Café Engles near Tempelhof?

-Sounds good—Herrfurthstraße 21?

-Yes

After admiring the FINTA bathroom sign (a German all-gender demarcation standing for Frauen, intergeschlechtliche, nicht-binäre, trans und agender [women, intersex, non-binary, trans and, agender]), I see the cash-only sign and count my euros. I order coffee that comes in a small wide-mouthed jar so cute it almost makes me wish I hadn’t vowed not to post any photographs of coffee and croissants on social media.  Small, well-behaved dogs seem to be everywhere in Berlin, next to no one wears a mask, and smoking looks as seductive as it did in the early 2000s. Simon(e) arrives to Café Engles bumping over cobblestones on a rented bike with my carry-on suitcase (now empty of books) in their basket, held expertly with one Dutch bike-riding hand.

*

Forgive me if I circle back a little. I’d like to describe the breath. On my way to the book launch at Hopscotch Reading Room in Shoneberg, Berlin, my Uber driver assures me that everything starts uncomfortably on time in Germany—the train will not wait for you, he said. Sure enough, Simon(e)’s favourite lover (an expression Simon(e) uses in lieu of more conventional and confining terms) is waiting for me at the curb, and I scurry in to find some artfully laid out wooden boxes ready to be filled with the new title.  I hand write an invoice of what I’ve brought from our Publication Studio in Guelph—books printed, hand-made with a perfect binding glue machine, chopped and stamped in our studio.

Hopscotch’s owner, Siddhartha Lokanandi, delights in rare and out-of-print books. The shop itself is stacked with what Erin Honeycutt, Siddhartha’s colleague, calls “book sculptures” and no surface is left clear, with open boxes spilling over. The counter is stuffed with piles of books, bowls of USB drives and rubber stamps, spray bottles, wine bottles, empty glass bottles, postcards, a bowl of fruit, a kettle, a mug of pens, another of cutlery—it serves as bar, kitchen, staff room, till, reception.  I feel immediately and irrevocably at home.

Simon(e) opens the gathering at Hopscotch books, outside in the courtyard with a breath. They encourage people to do whatever they need to do for their bodies to be in the space in a comfortable way at any time—get a drink, roll on the ground, go to the bathroom. Let’s breathe together they say. On my voice recording, the group breath is audible, there is a pause as everyone breathes in. You all seem to really like breathing, says Simon(e), to much laughter.

This is the thing: I love all the words and I do not know all the words—and that is what the goddesses for me represent

Simon(e) van Saarloos

People in Berlin are often encouraging me to lie in a park. To grab a blanket and just relax in the sun. Back at Café Engles, which is near a giant park that used to be an airport, Templehof, Simon(e) and I chat at one of the tables outside along the side of the café building.

In the first book by CS Lewis in the Narnia series, The Magicians Nephew, someone throws a broken bit of a lamppost into the sod in a brand new, just-being-born world, and the land is so fertile that the lamppost fragment sprouts.  Talking to Simon(e) is a bit like this—anything you bring up seems to develop into a whole world, so I need to be careful what I bring up and what worlds emerge. 

In broad strokes, the book Take ‘Em Down: Scattered Monuments and Queer forgetting discusses the way in which some things are commemorated more than others and what that means in terms of our memory and our forgetting.  Throughout the book, Simon(e) asks, why can’t there be more of an abundance in the way we conceive of memory and remembering? And what power is there in forgetting? I’ve heard that in the book the concept of the “goddess” that Simon(e) refers to has been taken up with much gusto in the Netherlands. In the Dutch, the idea of referring to goddesses is very counter cultural. It smacks of something different in that context, perhaps, than in my own, in Ontario, Canada where it might be dismissed as flaky. Here is the excerpt:

I talk and write only when I trust the goddesses. The goddesses are a tangible presence. They say, it’s okay, you can use this particular word now and take it back later. You can contextualise and elaborate at any stage… Without the goddesses, this tiny attempt at thinking memory from abundance and scattered chaos would be impossible.

Take ‘Em Down, Simon(e) van Saarloos p.38

Although there is a shift of tone embodied in the passage from Take Em Down, there is something in their answer that helps me understand the ligaments connecting Playing Monogamy (PS Rotterdam) and Take ‘Em Down. With our coffees and sandwiches, my suitcase tucked behind my chair and my voice recorder between us on the table, Simon(e) continues to explain: “For me, every sentence is like a suffering. There is a literal, material death in every sentence that you speak—because these words are in some ways repressing other words that could have also been chosen.”

Simon(e) van Saarloos discusses the idea of the goddesses and language in this 8 minute clip

Playing Monogamy was published in the English translation by our sister studio, Publication Studio Rotterdam in 2019. Unlike the stack of books available that explain the how-to of polyamorous relationships, Playing Monogamy is in some ways the why-to.  It offers the case for what polyamory offers in relationship to a late capitalist world, while also offering hints about what makes it so difficult: our society is structured around monogamous, patriarchal views of relationship in terms of childrearing, wealth accumulation, home ownership, culture, and social norms.  You may be frowned upon for attending a party, or having a baby, without that other +1.   I have heard Simon(e) reflect on the number of readers who have announced, “thank you Simon(e) for this book! I’ve left my marriage and I feel great!”  There is a sense in which these readers are not quite getting the whole picture.  Simon(e) seems to imply that they, the author, are not necessarily advocating for the break-up of marriages—instead they are advocating for more love, more intimacy, more vulnerability, more abundance.

And that’s where the filament of connection lies, at least for me.  Both Playing Monogamy and Take ‘Em Down are pushing against these norms of thinking of love and remembrance, respectively, in terms of scarcity. In our interview, they explain:

This is the thing: I love all the words and I do not know all the words—and that is what the goddesses for me represent.   They know all the words—I do not know all the words.  They love everything, I can only choose because I’m a human, so somehow, I have to choose these words in order to make myself legible, and there is pain in the legibility, but there is the trust that the goddesses hold that space.

The goddesses are a tangible presence. They say, it’s okay, you can use this particular word now and take it back later. You can contextualise and elaborate at any stage… (Take Em Down)

The relationships between scarcity and abundance becomes pithier when it begins to take shape in this way with regards to language. What sentences are foreclosed by others being spoken, what words left by the wayside as other words take their place? For some reason this abstractness about language helps me understand—what other love is foreclosed in the structures of monogamy? What other commemoration is foreclosed when one statue is chosen to represent a certain thing?  Why not just have it all?

Simon(e) and I get caught as we speak on different words. For myself, I notice Simon(e)’s refusal to speak in linearities, and my habit of using linear and quantitative expressions—when did this begin, how long. Simon(e) catches themself on ableist words in our conversation. They catch our turns of phrase: I see this or that, or when we privilege speech, or mobility. We stumble through the field of words and pick our way through. In this case, the words we are choosing not to use fall away like husks. And yet doesn’t the way the crowd of other words and sentences are held by the goddesses, for Simon(e), and for others they cite horizontally, mean somehow that there is less violence in the choosing? Are the goddesses holding all the other relationships, all the foreclosed commemorations?

I stand and gaze up at the Brandenburg Gate on my last day in Berlin, just a stone’s throw from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a field of 2711 concrete stelae designed by the New York architect Peter Eisenman, a study in commemoration and monument itself. Built in the late 1700s by order of Prussian king Frederick William II, the Greek revivalist Brandenburg Gate is one of the most iconic structures in Berlin. It has a varied history: Its adorning statue was dismantled by Napoleon Bonaparte about a decade after it was built;  before and during the Second World War archival photos show the Gate hung with Nazi flags and flanked by columns bearing swastikas; later, it became a symbol of division, marking the separation between Communist East Berlin and the Federal Republic of West Berlin as a part of the Berlin wall, but existing in a restricted area from both sides.  And when the wall fell in 1989 it became a new symbol of unity. 

Here this monument takes on a different shape with each chapter of history—the significance is layered on it like a garment. It is a physical structure that allows for a type of remembering that feels essential, but certainly it tells one dominant narrative. To understand the significance of the Brandenburg Gate, I’m pushed to understand a linear story of history, and I hear one story more loudly than others, represented by its sandstone columns. Instead of a commemoration through monument that is chosen by few for the benefit of a certain narrative, Simon(e) calls for a daily embodied commemoration.  They wonder what would happen if the stones of toppled monuments were left littered in our path.

I make a home for myself in the courtyard outside of Hopscotch Reading Room in Berlin for the few days I am there, connecting to their WIFI and drinking radlers with Siddhartha.  I sift through the books, overwhelmed with the beautiful collection stored here. It feels like a candy store, I say. That’s exactly how it should feel, says Siddhartha, as I remember it. I select a pile of small books to take home (perhaps more than I should) for friends, for myself, the violence or haphazardness of choosing one word instead of another, pulling one collection of words into my suitcase, and leaving another behind for someone else more acute now as I remember it—but someone, perhaps the goddesses, will take care of that too.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

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Anna Bowen is a Guelph-based writer, poet, and editor. She works at Arts Everywhere, Musagetes, and Publication Studio Guelph. She is former news editor at This Magazine and has an MA in Sociology and Equity Studies (now Social Justice Education) from OISE/University of Toronto.

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Abby Nowakowski (she/her) is a queer interdisciplinary artist whose work includes storytelling and collaborative workshops, performances and events that center around creating safe-brave spaces and exploring shame and confidence while advocating for consent.

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