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What’s wild? Reading with the lypard in Isabel Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff

By Fanny Wendt Höjer.

Isabel Waidner, We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019)

There’s a lot going on in Isabel Waidner’s recent novel We Are Made of Diamond Stuff. It’s a short but crowded piece, where the main protagonists shoulder a psychoanalyzing shark, black ice bears and rebook shoes who are poets—all set in a xenophopic, heteropatriarchal and hyper-capitalist Britain in Brexit times. The novel follows Shae and the first-person narrator Thirty-Six as they try to make a way in this weird world. They are underpaid workers at the hotel New House of Normal, near a beach on the Isle of Wight. It’s a messy text, where the characters constantly have new missions, many of which are simply dropped without reappearing in the story. They build a gray float for a PRIDE-parade, make sandy squid soup for the hotel restaurant, receive guests, storm forts, apply for citizenship. At the same time, Diamond Stuff is surrealist and hyperrealist, crammed with history, theory, various parallel dimensions, present-day politics and auto-fictive storytelling. You probably have to let yourself be swallowed whole by this strangely enchanting, hopeless world or you might not get much (out) of this book. I was swallowed.

In particular, I was swallowed by the strange, large wildcat—a lypard—that lurks around Diamond Stuff. My response to this creature takes shape around the notion of wildness as something that might interrupt a colonial and heteropatriarchal order of things, as proposed by queer theorists Tavia Nyong’o and Jack Halberstam. The wild is a tricky term, charged with colonial violence, but possibly also one that carries other potentialities. What, actually, is wild? The lypard, too, is a tricky one. What, actually, is a lypard? Reading the wild with the lypard, and the lypard with the wild, might help us to make disruptive use (and maybe sense) of both. But first let’s take a closer look at Nyong’o and Halberstam’s set-up.

In a special issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly from 2018, Halberstam and Nyong’o collected a variety of texts on wildness that attempted to “think beyond the colonial epistemes in which wildness indicates uninhabitable space and unknowable peoples all at once” and instead ask “what is wildness for those who have been forcibly gathered under its sign?” It’s clear that wildness is a historically charged term. But can it help us reach for alternative futures? Though what’s considered wild might differ depending on cultural contexts, the wild that Halberstam and Nyong’o theorize seems to be situated in the tension between a (post)modern, western subject of “civilization” and its “wild” Others. Julietta Singh reminds us, via Edward Said’s classical analysis, that the wild/civilized binary was/is situated at the very center of colonial missions. Still, Singh points out “how one colonial errand gives rise to the advent of another and … how this relay might be perverted and redirected toward the decolonial wild.” If, as Sylvia Wynter also argues, the modern subject, or “Man,” is dependent on a binary of rational/subrational, to turn wild might mean to reject the supremacy of the western rationale. The wild move is then a kind of anarchistic impulse, a reaching for other worlds beyond white, neoliberal patriarchy. Halberstam and Nyong’o argue that “If we refuse to access all that wildness names and has named, we will be acceding to a monologue of civilization with its narrative alibis of humanity.” Embedded within wildness’ possibility to challenge a certain world project, then, are the histories of violence of that very project. Some of what is at stake can be considered through the figure of Waidner’s lypard.

In Diamond Stuff, Waidner summons a contemporary mini-archive of resistance literature, calling on support from writers like Jay Bernard, Tommy Pico and Nisha Ramayya, each both paraphrased and cited. Their relationships with the traditional western canon is in Waidner’s own words “complicated.” The ambivalent figure of the lypard offers one way to understand this knotty liaison. Towards the end of Diamond Stuff, the origins of the lypard is explained. We are informed that:

The Tyger by William Blake (1794) is one of four canonical poems included in the Life in the UK test official handbook. Romantic verse is not normally part of Shae nor my educational capital but there you go – a lypard is a literary leopard (to a naturalized British citizen).

A literary leopard. A merging of “wildness” and “civilization”? The lypard reappears throughout the novel as one of the main villains. It terrorizes Shae and Thirty-Six and might be eating the hotel guests (all we know is that they disappear). In the recently published text “Class, Queers and the Avant-Garde,” Waidner says that the lypard, via its connection to Blake’s tyger, is “partly a stereotypical monster and partly […] a representation of the literary canon and a particular educational capital unavailable to many queers, migrants and working classes.” So the lypard runs with the paradox of being both a rigorous monster and a rigid canon. Can we ask, as Halberstam and Nyong’o challenge us to, what wildness could mean for those gathered under its sign? Can we read the lypard as not only the imposition of an elitist, literary canon, but also as something that can be turned against the normative order of things?

The first time we meet the lypard is in the pattern of a T-shirt, imaged amongst fighter planes, rockets and explosions. Shae is dressed in the shirt a day when they and Thirty-Six are organizing to storm a fort. But whatever you’re wearing, storming forts can be scary. Right before charging, our two protagonists hesitate. But lypard on Shae’s shirt, doesn’t.

“Attack? Shae whispers, but the lypard is already charging.

The lypard is ranging the foyer at night (a sinister presence, a danger). It has a massive tear in its eye, it tears through the foyer.”

The lypard leaps from Shae’s sweater and charges the fort, something our heroes were not yet sure to dare. The imperial fantasy of control over the wildcat explodes back on the fort (such an imperial construction), as the lypard takes charge of Shae’s mission. However, in the next sentence, the lypard is suddenly no longer charging the fort, but ranging in the foyer. It ends up lurking around the hotel lobby. Though I’m not sure I can chart the step-by-step choreography of this lypard (it escapes my mapping, too), by association, the fort and the lobby are suddenly connected; appearing as both chargeable and in need of being charged. Perhaps the lypard dares to affirm that the House of Normal, too, could and should be stormed.

This ambiguity reappears through the relation between the lypard and a leash, another motif that returns throughout the text. The first time the lypard appears in the lobby, Shae wants to catch it. “Let’s have your necklace, Shae says. I’ll put the pussycat on a leash.” However, as it is impossible to turn a necklace into a leash, the lypard runs free. But later on, Thirty-Six proposes that perhaps “Animals and other props should be threatening.” Not pussycat-like; dangerous. In another setting police officers enter the lobby. In response, Thirty-Six summons a lasso out of the vomit of some nauseous lions in a poem by Nisha Ramayya. Here, the imagination of nonconformed writing teams up across fictions to fight state authority—and suddenly you could make a rope out of nothing/anything. Furthermore, the actual, fictional material of the lasso is the vomit of lions, the leaking of other sick or hurt wildcats. Where Ramayya’s lions puke, Waidner’s lypard weeps, but in this particular staging, it seems like it’s the police who should be put on a leash.

Later on, Shae is once again linked to the lypard. “Shae has a massive tear in their eye, they tear through the foyer.” Tied together by repetition, Shae and the lypard are bound up in each other. Perhaps they are also tied together by the distinct nature of this repetition, the specifically massive tears they share. This vulnerability seems directly connected to resistance, something wild that happens through the closeness between tearing up (a hurt) and tearing through (a storm). The tear in the eyes then seems related to the tearing through a foyer, the raging in the house of normal: a vulnerability gone wild. But let’s be careful here—the figure from a canonized text can’t be peacefully compared to working-class, queer writing by some general, ontological reality of totally hurtable life. Actually, when the lypard is finally at the point of defeat, Thirty- Six and Shae taunt it: “Lypard lypard – your eyes are tearing. Are you diamond? Probably not! We’re made of diamond stuff, that is, harder stuff than you’re made of.” Thirty-Six and Shae are made of diamond stuff, that is, stuff that has had to survive hardness, and it shines. The mocking of the soft lypard’s tear is like a mockery of privilege’s pain. Tears too (and, too much) can come from perceived injustice by the powerful and privileged. But my point is that the lypard isn’t only a literary leopard. It’s also a wild monster. It doesn’t stay obediently in one guise throughout Diamond Stuff. At times, like when it storms a fort, it seems like a widely (wildly?) illiterate lypard, who refuses to allow any canon to neatly contain it.

Towards the end of Diamond Stuff, Shae and Thirty-Six are chasing the lypard. In their hunt, they’re forced to turn on their own environment (the fort is stormed from the inside). The lypard becomes such a problem that Shae and Thirty-Six have no option apart from “closing the New House of Normal for business.” They throw gray paint on the carpeted floor, making it impossible for the big cat to hide there. But they fail to consider that the floor was perhaps just one possible plane of hiding.

Leopards in the wild use their strength to drag heavy carcasses up very tall trees. No reason why our lypard shouldn’t exist in a vertical dimension – A vertical dimension?! Seriously? Is nothing sacred (PARALLEL)?

Is nothing sacred, our heroes ask. Halberstam answers with Jay-Z and Kanye West: “no church in the wild.” Or, we can answer with critical race scholar Denise Ferreira da Silva, that one has to give up on the teleological organization around Time as a trustable unit. Letting go of the rules of linear time, climbing through different dimensions doesn’t seem impossible. The lypard must have learnt it in the wild. One time when it moves in that parallel way, like leopards drag their canvasses up trees, this lypard drags Thirty-Six up the wall. Suddenly, she too can move vertically.

Remember how Shae wanted to put the “pussycat on a leash”, but could not? In this alternate dimension we meet the lypard “kittenish,” being fed home-baked cookies by Shae’s parent. Here, Shae is a yellow-haired college student about to graduate with a first honors degree. Continuing through other parallel universes, Thirty-Six is granted citizenship and discovers quality, social housing for working-class migrants in London. Although not perfect, it might be a parallel place with somewhat friendlier politics. In “Class, Queers and the Avant-Garde” Waidner comments on their own work:

The mobilization of a less than depressing future in the face of no hope or no deal was always going to be crafty. In order to maintain a half-plausible relationship with reality, imagined possibilities literally have to be relegated to parallel dimensions maybe – ‘cause, it won’t be happening here.

This is in keeping with Ferreira da Silva’s claim that before imagining new architectures, we need to first break with the world. Similarly, Halberstam writes that what “we want after ‘the break’ will be different from what we think we want before the break and both are necessarily different from the desire that issues from being in the break.” Perhaps the lypard’s vertical travelling can be understood as moving in that paralleling place, the different dimension in this dimension, what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten called “the undercommons.”

Does the sometimes-wild lypard bring Thirty-Six to a break, a place from which something better could be imagined? Quality social housing in Tory-Britain? Thirty-Six finds it too good to be true, is lost and arrives in another part of the new dimension. Here, the lypard sits on a pile of polar bear meat, and Thirty-Six realizes that the parallel worlds are not so different from the one she left. “Violence wz here, it says in the lypard’s eyes. Violence wz here all along.” In “Class, Queers and the Avant-Garde,” Waidner explains:

We’re realistic in Britain. The project to somehow, we don’t know how exactly, write credible modes of resistance while running out of options is probably at the heart of interdisciplinary queer writing atm, don’t quote me on it. In DIAMOND STUFF, even the Upside Down ends up turning bitter – the fantasy can’t be sustained, not under the circumstances. Not in Tory Britain, no way.

But when it comes to their own text, I’m with and against Waidner. Because there’s an ironic, utopian twist in that realism. Realistically, Waidner says, we can’t imagine another dimension where capitalism doesn’t bleed in, as if it bleeds out of our minds too. But the wild claim that Waidner’s implicitly making is that unsustainability was the lack of capitalist realism in the other dimensions, not the dislocating move through time and space itself. The lypard can be parallel to the mainstreamed, linear time of modernity—and it drags Thirty-Six along. That’s already something. Diamond Stuff can maybe teach us to ask, lost in dimensions like Thirty-six: “Where is reality, I want to change it?”


Fanny Wendt Höjer is a freelance writer based in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 11th, 2019.