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Understanding the flipped over drawer: A conversation with Shadbolt Fellow Erin Soros
Artist, academic, and self-identified "mad writer," Erin Soros reflects on her year as a fellow for the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship in the Humanities.
Trigger warning: Some of the material discussed in this article touches on content that may be triggering for some such as sexual assault, psychosis, solitary confinement, and carceral violence.
In the age where Zoom fatigue is commonplace, artist, academic, and self-identified “mad writer,” Erin Soros (she/they) offers a refreshing warmth and connection that is hard to come by on a screen. We chatted online as she wrapped up her final weeks as a fellow for the SFU Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship in the Humanities.
During her one-year fellowship, Soros focused her writing on madness. More specifically, their upcoming essay collection takes on three themes that weave into the rest of their work: the critique of carcerality as a response to madness, alternative relational responses to madness, and inviting people to have insight into the experience of madness.
The critique of carcerality
As a mad writer, Soros’ work is informed by lived experience, critique of policy and procedure, psychoanalytic theory, and shared stories within community. They emphasize that the psychiatric system functions in relationship to policing and prisons, using the same punitive logics and techniques. She explains that the call for increased mental health funding needs to be specific. “Most of the time, funding gets put towards more power and control, not more care,” Soros says, “like the implementation of double doors so it’s harder for patients to escape.”
In their newly revised essay, I Call This Institutionalized Rape, Soros recounts a reoccurring experience in a psychiatric ward whereby restraints and excessive use of force are strategies to inflict non-consensual drug injections.
Soros describes the paradoxical and cyclical nature of hospitalization in their newly revised essay, Letting Madness In: Toward Hospitality without Incarceration. The psychiatrist, she states, believes that “harm must be enacted in the present in order to prevent future harm.” When being “pink slipped,” a slang term for hospitalization due to mental health concerns, these carceral tactics are used under the guise of “deemed consent.” For Soros, “deemed consent” to psychiatric treatment looks like forced drugging, removal from community, and solitary confinement. Soros explains, “they like to separate us from community and believe that we are dangerous because we speak in different ways.”
In crisis, in relation
On July 7, Soros performed X: On Psychiatric Solitary Confinement hosted online by SFU’s Department of English. At the event, she explained her choice of the title “X” as it illustrates the shape of the body bound to a single bed in solitary confinement.
In just three days, Soros gathered 24 people from her community to help perform this piece as a collective of voices. She emphasizes how healing the process was: “In the psych ward, we are so individualized and separated from our whole community, isolating us from anything that could bring us back to sanity. By doing [this event] it shows how I can coexist in community as a mad person.”
The lyrical performance contradicts the very nature of psychiatric solitary confinement. “By communicating solitary confinement,” Soros says, “you are absolutely not communicating it. The experience by definition is not relatable and non-relational.”
Soros compares the coming together of friends and colleagues to participate in this performance to the care patients gave one another in the psych ward: An alternative response to madness in the absence of empathetic, consensual care. A linking of arms rather than a singular bound ‘X’.
An invitation into the experience of madness
“I am what people are afraid of going through,” Soros states. They note that mad people are often read in a deficit model and are defined by what they cannot do. Alternatively, Soros suggests that mad people are on the edge of human experience and with their experiences and vulnerability have insight on how to be with and support others. “I can be with the scariest parts of myself,” Soros says, “and that opens me up to other people and to hear their scary parts, creating genuine intimacy.”
It is hard to imagine what psychosis feels like for those who have not experienced it. Soros describes psychosis as a form of expression, a way of communicating something you otherwise could not find the words for. This shows up as broken language, at least ‘broken’ to the person not experiencing madness.
"Just because somebody else can't make sense of it, doesn't make it nonsense."
Soros explains the broken, gibberish language with the metaphor of a junk drawer: “If you took your drawer, emptied it upside down, and had someone else sort through it, it wouldn’t make sense.” Soros continues, “But you know your notes, you know that piece of paper was from that class you took last year, or that that note was from your sister. Just because somebody else couldn’t make sense of it, doesn’t make it nonsense.”
In their performance, Eyes, Birds, Walnuts, Pennies, Soros demonstrates the gibberish language by repeatedly exclaiming “walnuts!” during one portion of the performance. The title alone to the average eye seems to be a string of unrelated words. During the Q&A of the performance, we learn that these four seemingly random words contain great significance. “Eyes” refer to acid attacks women experience from men – for Soros this was a fear of theirs as we come to learn about their stalker. “Walnuts” stitches back to a time where Soros was proposed to with a jar of walnuts instead of a ring. Soros explains that language, broken or gibberish actually gives testimony to trauma – a way to express the unspeakable.
These are the notes of the flipped over drawer.
“This fellowship has been my dream position,” Soros beams about her experience as a Shadbolt Fellow. “I am allowed to show up as my whole self,” she says, “it felt authentic.”
Outside of academia, Soros has roots that run deep in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Community work and collective care are in her bones. They volunteered as a rape crisis counsellor and developed literacy and alternative educational programs for various non-profits in East Vancouver such as the Urban Native Youth Association and the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society.
Soros explains that the Shadbolt Fellowship allowed her to braid her passion for community work, her academic career, and creative pursuits together. “This position allowed me to do things I really care about.”
While working with and through such heavy and potentially retraumatizing material, Soros takes care of themselves by immersing themselves in nature. Working as a mentor with other mad folks, these walks are therapeutic and helps her connect with her mentees. She also describes that writing about her experiences as a mad person feels like a way of taking power back especially when there are few models of psychosis in society. “Receiving a psychotic diagnosis feels like the end of your life,” Soros explains. “I want people to know that it’s not the end of the line and we can continue to find our path without being closed off about our experiences.”
Soros has an extensive list of accomplishments during their time as a Shadbolt Fellow and they have much to look forward to in their future pursuits. Forthcoming essays and poems already accepted for publication, a novel on the horizon, and interdisciplinary collaborative projects in the works – we have plenty to look forward to from Erin Soros.
Erin Soros’ Published works, performances, and presentations during Shadbolt fellowship
- “I Call This Institutionalized Rape.” Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, 43 (Oct. 2021): 71-80.
- “Letting Madness In: Toward Hospitality without Incarceration.” Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, 43 (Oct 2021): 59-70.
- “Wave Any Ward,” The New Quarterly. October 2021. 56-65.
- “Who Could Have Lived.” Reflections on “A Kind of Perfect Speech”: Essays on Dionne Brand. Ed. Mark McCutcheon. Montreal: Guernica Editions, Essential Writers Series. In press.
- “‘I Mean Hard Crazy’: Over and Ever in Eva's Man.” ‘Then You Don’t Want Me’: Canonizing Gayl Jones. Online Symposium. May 2022.
- “‘To be in this world without wanting it’: Writing out the Colonial Archive, Derrida Today Conference, Washington, 2022.
- “On Psychotic Wish Fulfilment.” Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry.” McGill University (online). 29 April 2021.