The grave in every name, or how else to be a good melancholic?

Kang Kang explores the temporalities and ethics of grief work, and losses that refuse “successful mourning.”

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.



When Ma Qiusha begins to tell her personal history and upbringing as an unwanted only daughter in the opening of From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili (2007), we do not yet see the razor blade in her mouth, or the blood that will soon stain her teeth. She talks directly into the camera in a quiet, impassive voice, face not yet betraying pain, but any trace of humour is neutralised by the compromised formality of her slightly slurred staccato. “If I were a boy, I would be given my dad’s last name and be called ‘Shàng Dì’. […] It often occurs to me that if I were born a boy, my name would be God (Shàngdì).”

In a typical narrative of filiation, the putative male infant is godlike in so far as its presence and absence are required to sustain a system of sacrificial citizenship. The artist’s pun with Shàngdì—what the girl child could have been, what she is not and is barred from becoming—toys with the possible obliteration of distinction between a given name and a proper name. The hypothetical son is not actually God, but the sacrifice of the daughter, born or unborn, means something extremely literal in the one child nation. This is the other origin story that Ma Qiusha withholds, a message that finds no expression except as that which continuously cuts into the flesh of her tongue.

The girl, if she manages to speak, cannot but speak as a survivor who doesn’t know whether the obliteration she’s narrowly escaped was going to be literal. She pays a hefty price to access the world of the metaphoric, where some enjoy the privilege of insulation while others are exposed to the terror of demetaphorisation. This world is at its most unbearable when the anti-metaphor kills or threatens to kill literally. Black Lives Matter protest slogans like “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up don’t shoot” tenaciously mark in language the split between generalisable social indignation and the Black experience of white supremacist police violence. Beyond appropriation, the liberal multiracial rally chanting “I can’t breathe” in solidarity cannot but paste over the very condition that BLM sets out to articulate and destroy.

This rift is a fact that does not stop being a secret simply because it is known. In Dark Continents, Ranjana Khanna considers demetaphorisation (in her definition, “an emptying out of the process of language and meaning formation from the word”1) a symptom of colonial melancholy that signals in language the encryption of an unassimilated loss, the burial of a secret. In the postcolonial independent nation under duress, this hard secret is that nation-statehood is constituted through colonial relations and cannot survive as such without a colonial other. Certain losses—of lives, worlds, ideas, or ideals—are so unassimilable that even our “refusal to mourn is prohibited from being given a language, that we are debarred from providing any indication whatsoever that we are inconsolable.”2 In turn, the fantasy of preserving the lost object whole leads to a state of “cryptophoria”—Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham’s term for describing the melancholic that has been transformed into the living carrier of a tomb.

Following Fanon in Wretched of the Earth, Khanna notes that as a melancholic symptom, the anti-metaphorical use of language, which creates fixed proper nouns out of situations that can be understood only relationally, dynamically, adjectivally—like the nonmetaphorical binary identities of coloniser and colonised—has historically functioned as a cure of colonialism’s many pathologies, for it most readily accommodates the staging of Manichean revolutionary war of the Native against the Coloniser in the age of decolonisation. In his clinical writing, Fanon suggests that the agency of the melancholic, which Freud observes in the European as self-critical, self-denigrating, and suicidal, manifests in the Algerian patient as outwardly violent—a phenomenon that had so confounded French doctors that they considered the native only capable of “pseudomelancholy.” Herein lies the key to Fanon’s analysis of demetaphorised revolutionary violence in a time when nationalist struggle appeared to be the only political cure of colonial domination.

If postcolonialism’s re-evaluation of anticolonial essentialisms has often hinged on their degrees of success or failure at being strategic, it is also necessary to revisit the graves within the proper names, the losses that refuse successful mourning and demand renewed methods, temporalities, and ethics of grief work. Like how language regains its suggestive multidimensionality in Christina Sharpe’s account of Black Studies’ work of being in the wake of racial slavery’s still-unfolding loss and unfinished present: “Aspiration. Aspiration is the word that I arrived at for keeping and putting breath in the Black body.”3


*   *   *


We have seen ample evidence that being in community through a common sense of loss and a shared experience of grief comes with no political or ethical guarantee. This ambivalence does not relieve us from the duty of attending to the remainder of loss; nor does it take away from the power and pleasure of being with others who can’t get over it either. As the destructive consequences of reactionary responses to loss unfold on so many fronts, the urgency and stakes in figuring out how, where, and with whom we can grieve better together are only getting higher.

Losses, of course, are anything but equal. Object choice in itself is an insufficient analytic for grief’s many different eventualities. In their reworking of the Freudian ethics of mourning into a minoritarian ethics of melancholia,4 David Eng and Shinhee Han locate ethical and political possibilities in the psychic splitting between unattainable ideals of whiteness and the lost, unspeakable, devalued ideals of the home—like the motherland, the racialised birth mother, the mother tongue—experienced by Asian American immigrants and adoptees. To be a “good melancholic,” as Eng, Han, and others have suggested, is to radically refuse to abandon one’s disavowed and denigrated objects of loss, to be committed to a process of interminable mourning that generates and regenerates the collective. In turn, the “good community” of melancholic subjects—of race, gender, nation, coloniality, and empire—would be duly wary of the dangers of nostalgia, the complacency of potent fantasies of origin, possession, retrieval, restoration, and the fallout of their frustration.

The bad melancholics might be easy to spot, but I’m not sure if a good one can know they are being good. This perhaps explains Tiffany Sia’s hesitation when she writes about wanting to find a “more human way to mourn Hong Kong” in Salty Wet 鹹濕 (2019); and the ending of Chan Tze-woon’s film Blue Island 憂鬱之島 (2022), his post-National Security Law tribute to the history of political movements in Hong Kong under British and Chinese rule, in a sequence of portraits of anti-Extradition Bill protestors awaiting trial in court. In Sia’s collage zine, screenshots of texts and correspondences about the well-rehearsed death of Hong Kong and living in diaspora float in proximity to pre-Handover softcore, without ever touching, despite pornography’s promise of unmediated contact. The melancholic fighters of the depressed island are likewise suspended in the gaps between action without hope and reenactment of historical traumas—some forgotten, others overly usurped and doubly violated. Chan’s camera lingers, caressing each of their faces, not wanting to let go.


*   *   *


The eight-minute video, in which Ma Qiusha sets out to narrate her life’s trajectory from the maternity ward where she was born to visiting her parents’ home on a school break from America, ends with the camera zooming in to a close-up of the artist slowly opening her bloodied mouth—a black hole missing its front teeth—to remove the razor blade. The tongue that endured a thousand cuts, now attempting to support the heart-breaking ambivalence of love and hatred in her final words: “mother has grown old” (媽媽老了). Neither No. 4 Pingyuanli nor No. 4 Tianqiaobeili is an address of home.



Kang Kang has written for Artforum China, ArtReview Asia, The Brooklyn Rail, LEAP, and other publications, and was an editor of the Guangdong Times Museum’s journal South of the South. Her work as an artist, critic, and translator can be viewed here. She is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Northwestern University, working on critical theories of ethnicity and race in modern China.

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 




1. Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2003), 25.

2. Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis (University of Chicago Press, 1994), 130.

3. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), 130.

4. See David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (Duke University Press, 2019).




Kang Kang

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

Relevant content

The Stakes of Naming
Part of series

The Stakes of Naming

A series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live

Salty Wet
1 Document

Salty Wet

Tiffany Sia / T▇▇ 謝▇