In Hystera, I also deal with the idea of female hysteria prompted by familial expectation, this time in an hour and thirty-minute live performance. Throughout the piece I stand in the center of nude-colored tarp wearing nude-colored undergarments I tear pages out of the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook. The cookbook and a bowl of papier-mâché paste are positioned to the right of me atop a black TV dinner fold-out table. After I tear a new page from the cookbook, I tear it into smaller strips and dip them into papier-mâché paste. At this point, I attempt to adhere each of the strips of coated paper to my stomach. This process is repeated until I run out of paste. For the remainder of the performance, I run my hands over the mound of cookbook strips layered onto my stomach in a maternal fashion, molding the assemblage into place as it dries.
The Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook is the most popular cookbook in Trinidad and Tobago. Every Trinidadian household has at least two copies of this book. Polly Indar, one of the three women who produced the cookbook, explains, “The first edition of the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook was a project of the Alumnae Association to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the school in 1987. Mrs. Dorothy Ramesar, Mrs. Sylvia Bissessar, and myself undertook the task to produce a cookbook with recipes which represent the diverse ethnic groups of Trinidad and Tobago.”
My mother, who moved away from Trinidad at the age of seventeen, has never been an expert in the art of Trinidadian cuisine. In fact, she is downright disastrous in the kitchen. Though my mother has made baiganee (eggplant in a batter), roti (bread), dhall (lentils), curried chicken, beef, and goat, and other dishes countless times, her renditions fall far short of my grandmother and aunts’ variations. Mom has never been one to stick to a recipe. She always strays from the suggested calculations on the page, and the result is generally unsuccessful. My grandmother and aunts have carefully calculated and tested their minute changes to the recipe to develop a variation that is distinct from the rest. Mom’s culinary experimentations are far less controlled and very rarely calculated. The outcome is generally a monstrous concoction, bearing no resemblance to the original dish.
My maternal family’s solution to the problem, better known as my mother’s cooking, is to provide her with another set of Naparima Girl’s High School Cookbooks every time she visits Trinidad. She does not simply receive one cookbook from the family as a collective upon each visit, but a group of cookbooks, one from each household. As a result, my mother now has a collection of these cookbooks, a combination of the first and second editions, lying around our home in Texas collecting dust. Growing up around the accumulated collection of cookbooks, I began to think of them as evidential artifacts of what my grandmother and aunts viewed as failed femininity and cultural identity. My own femininity and cultural identity, consequently, were being called into question because I am a product of my mother and have inherited her inefficiency in the kitchen.
The performance is a reclaimation of both my femininity and Trinidadian heritage. I utilized the object that represented the absence or failure of a prescribed perception of identity within the context of my maternal family to build an armature onto my body that is universally recognized in relation to womanhood—pregnancy. Instead of extracting from my womb, like Carolee Schneemann does in Interior Scroll, I am adding to the womb.
Performing Hystera in front of a live audience was meant to serve as tangible proof that I exist as a woman of Trinidadian lineage. Through the creation of a prosthetic pregnancy I am able to lay claim to that identity without adhering to traditional Trinidadian views of femininity.