This story was also published in the Ensemble guest-edited issue of Sunday magazine
When I think about joy, two photographs of the inimitable Toni Morrison dancing at a disco hover in my mind. The images are not the stately portraits more commonly a ached to the late author’s memory; they’re party snaps of a 43-year-old literary tour de force cutting a rug in a shimmering slip dress alongside the swinging limbs of New York City partygoers.
I happened upon these photographs more than a year ago when they (re)circulated through the internet on the anniversary of Morrison’s death. They have become something of a lingua franca for embracing joy in the now; a celebratory salve to interrupt the endless deluge of doom crossing our screens.
The date is noteworthy, too. In 1974, Morrison was the senior fiction editor at Random House publishing, working on Angela Davis’ and Muhammad Ali’s autobiographies all while ushering a wave a black-authored texts into the mainstream canon (she had also recently published her acclaimed novels The Bluest Eye and Sula).
Outside those disco walls was a world of great civil, economic, and political turmoil, all issues Morrison incisively unpacked through her literary gravitas. But she was as much in her element on the dance floor as she was putting pen to paper. In these images, Morrison is forever immortalised as joy incarnate.
I return often to these photos, especially in the “now time” when my appetite for joy has swiftly deflated.
At the beginning of this month, I considered bypassing my birthday without a cake or mention. I didn’t have anything special planned (I rarely do, even in the least restricted of times), but as I witnessed the world become further engulfed in a junction of overlapping crises, celebrating my arrival to this floating crater felt especially silly.
As the days wrinkle into one another without a definitive crease between the yester and the now, I felt uncharacteristically guilty for even entertaining a kernel of celebratory thought. November through January are my prime months for communal celebration. It’s currently Scorpio season (arguably the spookiest and sexiest time of year as the sun passes into its eighth astrological house), brimming with my favourite annual festivities(Halloween), multiple birthdays (including my own), and the eagerly awaited end-of-year cinema releases. I was most looking forward to reclining in a movie theatre chair with friends, squeezing in all the cinematic delights of Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival. Here’s hoping for 2022.
Having spent more time than usual in a room of one’s own, I’ve come to realise that (my) joy is best experienced with others. That’s not to dismiss tending to joy alone. There are many things one can do to fill the individual pleasure cup. However, at least for me, those ‘things’ have erred into superficial indulgences to alleviate existential dread. But joy is a force to be met with intention, it can’t emerge from avoidance.
As Audre Lorde wrote, “The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers, which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”
When joy is relational its collective effervescence forms an energetic force field capable of subverting the systems that try to swallow us whole. It’s why many claim joy is a revolutionary act, especially as the world burns.
To this end, I take inspiration from various indigenous and black science-fiction futurists whose visionary art, writing, film and music inspire a radical imagining of the future that isn’t marked by apocalyptic ecocide, but where joy, love and community are the primary organising factors of our social relations, as opposed to the corrosive hierarchies that consume us now. But shifting into that spacetime requires us to embody, in the present, what we envision for our future selves.
To defer joy is to deny our full humanity, only reaffirming a scarcity mindset that joy, pleasure, and celebration are zero-sum games. The present absence of collective, physical communion doesn’t mean we can’t find joy through nonphysical means. Thankfully, the digital walls are porous.
I’ve found it through long conversations about film-making with friends, partaking in a Fijian language course with 10 or so incredible wāhine, and immersing in the aural and visual wonderscape of the Filth x Boiler Room DJ sets.
We will eventually get to fold back into one another, but we can use the now time to more thoughtfully consider how we can opt into joy more deliberately (and not with hedonistic indifference to the Earth’s realities).
As Jack Gilbert wrote in his 2013 poem A Brief for the Defense “…We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
We must make like Toni Morrison and embrace joy because of the times, not in spite of them.