Kintsugi is a Japanese art technique that consists of repairing broken porcelain or pottery with resin varnish dusted or mixed with gold, silver or platinum powder. It is the art of fixing what has been broken with a precious metal that gives a greater value than that which the piece originally had. Kintsugi makes objects become a testimony of a particular journey.
In September 2015, in Cape Town, my fiance and I went to have lunch and listen to a concert at the Waterfront. Walking through the artisan market, we were struck by a stand where simple mugs of clay and pottery were displayed. Each one of them had been made by a woman survivor of some type of violence or trauma, which put her name and the imprint of her hands. Mugs had no handle, the way to take it was to put your hands in the hands of the woman. So, she connected with you and became part of your daily journey. Moved by the deep transcendence of the initiative, we got a pair. Mine was made by Heather, 54 years old.
My relationship with my (then) fiance eventually split. A while before, I had begun to exhibit the cracks, dents, and scratches of emotional violence. Months of love bombing, romance, and mutual understanding that led to marriage plans, shifted after we were engaged into a progressive discomfort he had with everything I was.
I ate too fast, “like a wild animal”; I was chubby, “lazy and avoiding doing something about it”; I have tattoos, “like a whore.” I was cheap, “that’s what single mothers are, actually.” I was not as smart as his sexting buddy, “who has a PhD and is a better Islamic Feminist than you.” My work as writer, activist, and scholar wasn’t particularly worthy, “even a cow can write 1,000 words in Feminism and Religion.” Anyway, he wanted to marry me despite the fact that I was “crazy and exaggerated, tempered and too immature,” because “someone has to put order at home.”
I never said too much, all while holding Heather’s mug with my spicy chai. Rather, it was Heather’s hands holding me. Unknown Heather from Cape Town, 54 years old, survivor of trauma, who made this mug as a testimony of her hopes and strength, was offering her hands marked in clay to a Chilean woman in Cravenby State who was falling silently apart, trying to make sense of it all in order to be ready the next day to talk about Islamic Feminism at the University of Cape Town, with a tight stomach and a drained spirit.
I was discarded by a Whatsapp message informing me that marriage preparations were cancelled, but I would receive in compensation “a bottle of a good shampoo.” Back in Chile, I asked him instead to send me the mug made by Heather. After months, I finally received a box from South Africa. The mug arrived broken, destroyed in many large and small pieces, after a long journey from Cape Town to the coastal city of Concepcion. LIKE I WAS. I took the box to store it along with my wedding caftan and my engagement ring. There was a hard winter in my soul. My heart, my self-esteem and my faith in life were broken.
Maybe you’re wondering:
Why didn’t she say anything? I was not sure. I was a feminist awarded for her courage in the cause of women’s rights. I’ve read all the books, I knew better. THAT could not be happening to me. He was right, I must be crazy because of my traumas. Why didn’t she ask for help? To whom? The organization that took me to South Africa that I left due to systematic harassment? Activists who knew my fiance for years as a man committed to social causes and an ally of women’s rights? To Islamic feminist “sisters” who didn’t know me? Why did she stay in that relationship?
I loved him sincerely and wanted to make it work. I really believed that all problems were my responsibility and I was in charge of fixing them. Why did she speak up now?
I own my story.
The right moment to speak is whenever I am ready and feel safe to do it.
The consequences of being in a toxic relationship extended beyond the domestic sphere. The pseudo-love triangle in which I was unwittingly brought in had actual effects on my activism. Emotional and spiritual suffering unfolded in the body, because our lives don’t happen outside it. Muscle sore, psoriasis, alopecia, gastritis, liver problems and shame, depression, sorrow, anger.
I was totally SHATTERED and completely FUCKED UP.
Grieving lasted a summer, a fall, a winter, a spring. Last year, close to my trip back to Cape Town, I looked for the box. Sitting in front of that box that summarized the last two years of my life, I decided to return the ring and make-over the dress. What about the cup? People get rid of broken cups and this one seemed to have no fix whatsoever. Nevertheless, during that difficult time, I’ve learned that not everything that’s broken, is dead. Despite my feeling of wholehearted failure now I was there, healing and growing, about to travel back to South Africa with a new academic project and a book in progress. It was not fair to put the mug in the trash. Somehow, the story of two women were entangled in that mug: Tears, doubts, hope, love, healing power, all was there.
It was at that moment when Kintsugi came to my head in the words of Barbara Bloom:
When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.
Kintsugi as art and existential outlook, as significant process of repairing the mug and a way of understanding and embrace the journey of healing my own soul, looking for gold in each corner of my broken spirit to make my experience worthy of the lessons. Life is a one-way street, it always moves forward. Its miracle lies in trusting our ability to renew and transform broken to beauty according to our own time and wisdom.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is Muslim who is an international journalist and writer, community educator and awarded women’s rights activist. Independent scholar and lecturer in Religion, Gender and Politics.