5. 6. 2021

madness is a strategy

Jody Chan

sometimes you watch a government force people to work in a pandemic, without paid sick days, and you know it isn’t right.

I say anger and I mean centuries of anti-Blackness and colonial violence, culminating in the breath. the blood. the not-enough of it. the nightmares. the names of someone else’s children on our hands. 

I say anger and I mean laws designed to make it easier for poor and Black and Indigenous and disabled people to die. 

mass murder. eugenics. the government calls it economy, or reasonable accommodation. no. but what language could be right?

maybe anger, translated into thousands of bodies in the street. in their beds. on their screens. all sound and silence and sensation. no words enough to explain the movement of it. 

before madness meant rage, it meant insanity. before that, a Latin verb: to change, to go, to move.

anger comes from old English, meaning grief, sorrow, distress, affliction. before it was a word, anger bloomed around the rooms within us that needed protection. someone powerful became afraid of anger, and then it was given the same name as disease.

madness is in my body. anger’s bubbling, burning, blossoming. it lives in each of us. a red lake. I tend to boil over. my heartbeat is a language of verbs, a late-summer reservoir of water. it threatens heat. 


before my body was my body, it was my mother’s breath and blood. her best intentions and her future.

I say anger and I mean centuries of patriarchal violence, culminating in a man against his wife, the way his father and his wife, the way his father and his father. I say madness and I mean before I was born, my mother taught me about fighting. 

sometimes the doctors tell you what is and isn’t possible, given your age your pre-existing conditions your idealism your gravity your family situation and you ignore them. you choose the baby anyway. even if it kills you. even if you can’t explain it. 

pre-verbal, as in before language or memory. a hardening in the eyes. a contraction of the chest. trauma can be held this way, but so can the way our ancestors fought for us. our bodies know things about freedom that our language cannot articulate. how to drop the shoulders. how to hold hands and chant in the face of an oncoming police line. how to centre in the spine.

there are many lineages that teach how to strengthen the core around breath. in martial arts, in taiko, in qigong, for instance, silence is filled with breath. 

breath can fire the belly. breath can blue the lake inside. breath can tell you what matters to you, if you pay attention to what loosens it. what grinds it down. 

in my father’s house, I learned that anger was a fire hazard. a belt unlooped, an unlocked door, a shadow in the hallway. 

he raised me to be obedient, not happy. silence was easier than fighting. but fighting was easier than admitting we had lost a mother; that his anger had anything to do with it; that it was hard for any of us to breathe, inside the blue she left behind.

the symptoms we pathologize as madness are so often strategies for survival, learned by our bodies, our ancestors’ bodies, over lifetimes of individual and collective trauma.

my instinct is always to nod, to make small, to hold the breath, to scream on the inside only, to wield a smile, to optimize others’ happiness, to leave the frame.

if feeling can’t get you what you need, why feel at all?

in Cantonese, happy means an open heart. sadness is a heart that’s hurt. energy and passion, a hot heart. 

capitalism’s happiness, on the other hand, is a kind of anaesthetic. a happy heart can adjust to almost anything: hour-long commutes, twice daily. CCTV at every corner. cops tearing down homes, pressing cuffed humans into cages. 

this is why, as Sara Ahmed writes, we have the stereotypes of the unhappy queer, the feminist killjoy, the angry Black woman, the ungrateful immigrant. there must be exploitation, and there must be an enemy, and the enemy must not be the corporate landlord evicting families in the middle of a lockdown.

in madness, I am more porous – no boundaries of time or space between my different hearts, between my body and the world. in madness, I have learned to be with pain, both my own and others’. I have ruptured from respectability. 

losing my name, losing the season, licking the telephone pole, entering myself with glass, sharp edges, a staple, shaking on a bench outside the fire station. we are not supposed to need like this. 

madness can be a structure of possibility; it can force us to build bonds that outlast periods of crisis, political projects, the constrictions of capitalism.

I don’t mean this as a metaphor. I trust the people I’ve crumbled with. every day, I’ve handed them my life. 

what it takes to stop paying rent. to refuse to go to work. what it takes to process conflict with tenderness. to learn in public. to daydream of your friends like you do your lovers. to commit to each other’s care, outside the grip of any institution. I am interested in the overlap between all of these practices. the trust they demand. the world they could lead us to.

certain modes of relating can crack us open, write Clémence x Clémentine. we are learning how to unleash our desires to the point that they rupture with capital. 

it is not a moral duty to be happy. the bosses, the politicians, the landlords fear our collective unhappiness because it challenges the conditions that maintain their power. in that case, I would rather demand the abolition of violent institutions than be happy. I would rather be terrifying.

our protests, our organizations, our movements die when we disavow anger and grief as a source of their aliveness. what if we take madness as our centre? 

madness is a tactic and a strategy. a tool to ready us for the rent strike, the riot; a vision for a world with no coercion, no perfection, no guns or tasers, no rooms locked from the outside. it allows no reprieve from feeling. it is the map and the trap door.

a riot is a feeling and a sound. there is a heat that transforms from within, and a heat that burns oppressive institutions to the ground. 

I want my anger to be both felt and heard. to be the instrument, the mouth, the breath, the mother, the movement, the body. 


in March of this year, one week after the shootings in Atlanta, my Taiko drumming group is asked to perform at a rally against white supremacy. that morning, the organizers receive a threat that someone is going to come shoot up the gathering. 

we process: risk. safety. facing fears. yes or no. we all decide we still want to go. this is not a better or worse choice, morally. it just is. 

but as soon as our bodies meet the drums, I forget about the threat. call it adrenaline, call it a flight response, dissociation. whatever it is, I feel it: our one heart, one breath. fear transformed into the sound of rage, flowing through. 


the poet Yanyi writes: 

The revolution is emotional. I found a reason to not fear death. I found more reasons to live, reasons to change what is living inside me and around me. The revolution is that I care about my own safety, that I believe my life is valuable and worth pursuing. As in, I am worth the work of transformations. As in, I do not fear how I will emerge from myself, or how many times.

my body teaches me to seek liberation in the places where language falls short. a sound can become a feeling of power. silence, the space for breath to synchronize with another’s. 

to live in madness requires trust that our bodies know the way back – through capitalism and colonialism and white supremacy, through the fear of our own longings. we have never gotten what we need just by asking for it. which doesn’t mean we can’t have it. can more of us paint our dreams in the street? can we raze the prisons and the courts, can we arm ourselves with poetry and pocket knives? can we imagine growing old with each other? can we imagine being satisfied by our own lives?

Jody Chan (they/them) is a writer, drummer, organizer, and therapist based in Toronto/Tkaronto. They can be found online at https://www.jodychan.com.