Ambassadors of the Otherworld

When we were sifting through photographer Nguan’s extensive and excellent work for this Dispatch—images spanning the world, from Tiananmen Square to Coney Island—our challenge was to identify a selection that would do justice to the geographical breadth of his keenly perceptive lens as well as gently suggest a theme.

Eventually, we agreed on a collection of portraits depicting young people from different places—kids in that strange time when they come to realize that there is much more to the world they live with and even the bodies they inhabit than they had initially thought, and almost none of it particularly comfortable.

I suppose nominating this kind of focus for our admiration was inspired by my reading of The Abundance, the new collection of essays by Annie Dillard, in which she writes with redemptive tenderness about the experience of being a child waking up to increasingly layered truths. Maybe it was also because I’ve been thinking about American teenager, Jordan Edwards, who was shot dead by a white policeman while leaving a party. And because many of my closest friends are having children, and because my own biological clock is making me seriously, if irrationally, consider parenthood.

The poems and the photographs in this Dispatch think through the complicated, often awful truths that children inherit: the languages of home countries, adopted countries and other places (Bhatt); the anxieties of their parents; their bodies and what they signify in a crowd (Nguan); gods whom they will struggle to forgive (Alyan); the words of their oppressors rolling happily in their mouths (Bulley).

But this week, as my friend lovingly braved what turned out to be two, three, almost four days of contractions and labor, I wondered about the other world, the one that children are from before they arrive. It’s a world that is located both in the room and somewhere entirely else, a world whose temporary proximity wrenches us from the catastrophe of living in this world and being this person, this subject. I wondered if it’s what children bring rather than what they must bear that makes us want them.

They are, albeit to a degree that decreases with age, ambassadors of the otherworld, the one that is separated from ours by less than an inch of belly, the universe in which, as Sujata Bhatt writes, “truth is mute and love will be silent.”