Which country to wear today?
I like wearing the countries I have been to. At any given day, Peru, Korea, and Turkey might be just an arm away…literally.
To Susan Stewart, my jewelry souvenirs, made of anything from bottle caps to corn kernels, would most likely be metonymic objects that represent “not the lived experience of its maker but the ‘secondhand’ experience of its possessor” and that announce the distance of the self from the experience and the origin of the object, a sense of dispossession (135). Both of the above, however, are the inversion of what I experience with my souvenirs.
It is precisely distance and space that my jewelry items help cross, bridge, bring together, and perhaps even re-live in my daily roundabouts, transplanting in the body (whether through the bracelet around the wrist or the necklace) the energy of the places, people, and sensations that these objects seem to contain and be able to transmit. I know that wearing “jewelry with a story” does the same for others: instead of emphasizing a sensation of dispossession, the connection of the objects with the skin intensifies the feeling of the past being a tangible, permanent part of one’s life experience capable of being resuscitated in a particular, tangibly present moment. This is particularly true of jewelry as opposed to clothes, since clothes get washed over and over again, but the jewelry maintains the actual hand-touch of its creators and very often the natural, original smell of the material and the place of making.
The jewelry I buy is always made by artisans, by people whom I get to engage in a conversation and know – my approach to buying souvenirs somewhat similar to the one argued about taking pictures - since I like being able to connect the object to the stories of making the piece and the meaning they suffused it with to my own experiences at the time. Sometimes, I also buy a jewelry piece when I have a very special experience in order to infuse the object with the happiness I feel at that moment and carry the object charged with those emotions later on, in less exuberant situations. Here, Stewart’s point is very pertinent in describing how the souvenir “must remain impoverished and partial,” so that the personal narrative can suffuse it with individuality and history tied to its owner. When choosing my jewelry (according to clothing colors and to which place I feel in the mood of re-experiencing by reviving it from the drawer), a quick thought passes my mind: Would anyone ask me about the earrings? Would I be able to tell the story of the woven bracelet?
Certainly, the potential of my story-telling lies in the “exotic” look of most of the pieces. However, my selection of them was not under the motivation to surprise others, but rather to carry with me the natural materials from the place – seeds, wood, shells, bird feathers, etc. - as well as the particular life philosophies incorporated in the objects’ symbology.
The actual texture of these kinds of jewelry is “warm,” in Baudrillard’s terms applied by Stewart, because “contemporary mythology places the latter objects in a childhood remote from the abstractions of contemporary consumer society” (146). One of my favorite jewelry pieces are Mexican earrings made to look like two tiny shoes, the typical “huarache” or flip-flop like shoes people wear in the country-side, which always make me feel I am walking again those old colonial streets of Puebla. My Chilean earrings made from the big seed of a “jacaranda” plant illustrate the power of narrative and association, since my friend Josue from Haiti told me they look like the fried banana patties they eat in Haiti and could not stop laughing imagining people’s reactions if I walk down the street of Port au Prince with “food” hanging from my ears. I have a corn necklace from the Pueblo Indians in Santa Fe, which embodies the powerful veneration they attach to corn and is a fabulous “relational object” which leads me to share with others, interested in the necklace’s story, my amazing encounters with Native American philosophy. In fact, I wore it at a formal occasion at Princeton and a woman asked me if it was amber, and you can hardly imagine my delight at her astonishment with my camping stories and claims that “corn is more precious than amber or gold.”
For such and many other experiences I have had with souvenirs, and not only jewelry but other object others ascribe great emotional importance to, I find problematic Stewart’s overly skeptical analysis of the souvenir as simply an object that allows the tourist to “appropriate, consume, and thereby ‘tame’ the cultural other.” There is so much more at an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level that goes on, which the “fetish” analysis misses or reduces and distorts.
The final dimension of the souvenir I wanted to discuss is its incorporation of “microcosmic thought,” defined by Stewart as “the use of the body as a model for the universe and of the universe as a model of the body” (133). A ring I have from the Mapuche (indigenous society) in Chile represents what seems to be a human figure, but which they describe as the symbol nourishing love and artistic creativity. I have a few other pieces with varying geometric representations of the human body, where one can sense the tactile convergence of cosmic energies in a small metal circle, at a level and dimension where size does not exist as a concept and where the human universe and the universally human are equally large: in the life-world of the symbols which populate souvenirs – especially the ones made by indigenous societies – the universe becomes both the largest sphere the human mind has imagined and the smallest ring-sphere the hand has molded to make immensity visible and internalized at all times. My ring is my bodily reminder that there must be a space and time where neither of the two matters.