Written and illustrated by Anna Onni.
In “the book of sainted aunts” you will find the lives of the mildly martyred sinners-turned-saints, our most revered sainted aunts, since queerdom come. While we do not know what made queerdom come, we know that the queerdom is always working in mysterious ways…
Saint Martha is probably the most queerly unorthodox of the sainted aunts. Befuddled by the myriad of intersectional positions that her fellows identified with, her slips and errors made her the untrustworthy outsider. Diligently making her way through tedious administrative tasks and cleaning up the literal messes made by her fellow activists, she began to be noticed for her sharp eye, consistent work and genuine smiles.
Showing up for the basics was the mantra she lived by. While she never became a spokesperson or prominent leader, many movements have referred to her steadfastness in duty as an inspiring exemplar. Standard operating procedures for meetings, events, campaigns and followups have often relied on the work she began and kept minute records of throughout her lifetime as a dedicated activist.
After leading a full life, death and burial, many communities have claimed to be visited by reincarnations of Saint Martha. A stranger dressed in the same manner she was, bright colours and loud prints, would stay as a quietly nurturing presence for as long as their movement required. On the night before a major success, a large meal would be cooked in the communal kitchen and everyone would feast nervously as they waited with bated breath for the final move to be made. The next day, when someone raced back to the kitchen to share the good news she would be gone. The Feast Day of Saint Martha is often celebrated by a bountiful meal. When toasting, participants of the feast recollect the changes leading to and following queerdom come.
Saint Martha’s Letter to the Young Activist
Let me begin this letter by showing you how I pray for myself and the activists that shape our world today.
When the time comes for us to act, every person I know lights up the streets and prepares for the long march. But I find the comforting ghost of the past in my heart and start to cry out and lament. Since I wash off my guilt with tears, I need to find a way to rekindle the fire in my belly. When the call for action reaches the door of what I can do, I lock myself in. Which was should we go? I missed the chance, I need to make up for this, you and I will receive innumerable tests of our loyalty because of these missed chances. I wonder if the actions of those who are enraptured in this new movement are right. You tell me the truly involved activists will always be in the right time and place for whatever needs to be done. Is this the right time? Or is this a doomed attempt? Was I meant to fail in this action? I can’t speak because of fear. How can I knock on the door of the powerful? Because my hands and heart are no longer mine. I am not in me. They have taken my hand and heart. O my fellows! Nothing remains in me. You once gave me assurance and trust. By our shared goals and aims for this new world, I do not know how to act. Did I complete the action? How was the aftermath? I have no idea. From now on let me be like a shadow in front of and behind every action so that I may follow the movement’s every tiny movement, never out of step with its deliberate and careful pace.
I hope this shows you how puzzled and confused some of us supposed veterans of service and activism are. You, as a young activist, will have a better hand on the pulse of what we need going forward. Your heart will tell you what needs to be done. And we who trust that your heart is well will join you in your cause.
There is an outdated prayer that a wayward but well-meaning friend once shared with me:
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
This friend used to caution me about my activism, that perhaps I was doing too much too soon, that perhaps the time for change would be sometime in the future but not now. They came from a tradition where the woman named Martha in their holy scripture was often ridiculed. A woman who busied herself in menial tasks like cooking and cleaning but failed to prioritise the bigger miracles at work in her own home and in others’ hearts. I take this as a cautionary tale, but I also believe that in order for any real activism to happen as many people as possible should have a properly cooked meal in their belly. People get cantankerous and unnecessarily hangry when they start burning out from all the good work they try to do.
This dear friend believed in change too, but never lived a life that proved this belief. They believed that change would come from some higher being that lived in the cotton candy clouds of heaven. I often mourn for my loss of faith in some higher being that lives like this. What my friend never knew about me, and what I feel I must share with you a stranger, is this: the loss of faith is a continual process of healing. What you once had faith in was a firm foundation, and it is frightening to navigate this world without the rituals that once held your life together.
To be an activist you will need to keep a little gentleness burning bright in your heart. For the times that you lose your foundations, this gentleness will be enough to light your way forward.
I have found this to be true. Perhaps there is a newer and better way that you can teach me. But for now, this will be enough to keep me going.
Ever your friend in spirit, word, and deed,
Author: Anna Onni’s life goals include living in an environmentally-sustainable commune, getting over her debauched postcolonial hangover, and paying someone to convert the tunes of “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and other Tom Lehrer favourites into a low-fi hip-hop album for her to play on loop. She is an asexual panromantic living in Singapore who posts doodles and shower thoughts on Instagram (@annaonni). In her spare time, she is an educator who illustrates and rips up old periodicals and books into crafting materials. Her work is published in the literary anthology Food Republic (2020), with The Birthday Collective, and she illustrates for The Singapore War Crimes Trials Project.
*This piece was originally published with the support of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus and VOICE. This creative work was featured during the Southeast Asian Queer Cultural Festival (SEAQCF). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International). View the entire collection here.