What We’re Reading: Phantompains

Although Therese Estacion noted that her book, Phantompains, talks about the overall theme of “home,” this slim debut volume of poetry touched upon many other profound topics—ones that we tend to avoid thinking about: detachment, residue, witnessing.

Estacion contracted fusobacterium necrophorum, an incredibly rare infection that affects less than 0.000003% of the population, with only a 20% survival rate. Her poetry organically weaves a multitude of Filipinx folk tales into the recollection of her multiple surgeries and rounds of rehabilitation, that we, along with the mythical creatures, emerge from a fever dream to bear witness to a woman reassembled.

The book is in its most poignant form when negotiating the female body as a reproductive vessel. Estacion is a bilateral below knee and partial hands amputee, who also had to undergo a hysterectomy due to this illness. Her personified uterus speaks to her, as she reflects on the transformation of her female sex, soothingly reminding her, and the reader, that the “miracle” is not in the ability to give birth, but rather to bear witness to survival.

We tend to think of limbs as extensions of our bodies and children as extensions of our existence, both giving us mobility through space and time. The multitude of meanings in the title of this book refer to the documented medical phenomenon of the brain perceiving pain and other sensations without corresponding sensory stimuli because the part of the body is “no longer there.” Estacion notes this as a type of “psychic” pain. As we journey through the terrain of trauma and corporeal horror, we traverse through the collective unconscious of the Filipinx diaspora between the lines of Visayan and English in the first section Abat/Monsters. These fragmented anthropomorphic figures from childhood stories carried over a vast and scarred geography of oceans, land, and flesh. Are these the other phantoms?

Each year, the first week of June is observed as AccessAbility Week in Canada. It was a very quiet week this year, with many organizations forgoing hard-won accessibility programming. In the arts and culture sector, accessibility is often the last on the table and the first to go during times of crisis and cuts. While the pandemic has ironically improved access for some communities (barriers to transportation and admissions fees are temporarily mitigated) to cultural participation, this is now the second spring we’ve been trudging through this pandemic. There’s obviously Zoom fatigue, but also an emergence as the provincial health authority outlined its much-awaited reopening plan. So, it follows, then, that minds were elsewhere. 

Yet, like all historically marginalized communities know so well, holidays and dedicated “weeks” are too little time for awareness when the very conditions they celebrate are, for some, permanent realities. Public interest is a function of our collective attention spans, bombarded by the multitude of stimuli advocating for all kinds of social progress. In the end, these “causes” rotate endlessly on a carousel, holding the interest of those who remember for that particular moment before it journeys into obscurity until another year passes. And here we are, patting ourselves on the back for such perceived progress when we are just forever going in circles.

I belabour this point because we are on the cusp of a new normal, another shift, where reopening will bring about another rush of priorities, competition for stretched resources, and potentially another crowding of marginalized communities back to the peripheries. Episodic memory leads us to remember those vivid times of crisis and sanctify those who “rise to the occasion” or advocate only during anniversaries. I hope we can give credit where its due, particularly for those who do the work in the meantime, in the in between time. 

My gratitude to Book*hug Press for doing just that in demonstrating that accessibility is not just needed in content, but also in delivery. In a discussion with All Lit Up, Co-Publisher Hazel Millar noted how Phantompains was made available in various types of accessible formats including audiobook, accessible ebook, and in braille (both electronic and embossed). This sector has such a long way to go, but this is undoubtedly the right direction. 

—Sarah Wang, Programming Coordinator


Sarah Wang