Thursday, February 9, 2006
Twinning and Human Chimerism
Earlier today I was in the office reading for 651 (Afrofuturism), and I came across a short story by Linda Addison called "Twice, At Once, Separated." We're reading all 34 pieces in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, then discussing those 400+ pages during next Wednesday's class session. Addison's piece is difficult to sum up. It involves Xotama, the protagonist, who refuses to go along with her arranged marriage despite cultural pressures and custom. Persuaded by anxious dreams, Xotama senses inhibition, and it turns out that the interference is coming an alter ego of sorts, a haunting figment of near self. Xotama pursues the source of knowledge about the dream; she goes on a journey to visit the all-knowing Ship, the vessel carrying her and others like her who can morph themselves into various creatures (eels, etc.). The Ship, using a cast of Watchers, functions as a kind of comprehensive cultural memory-machine, aggregating all of the activities and knowledge of its inhabitants.
Xotama approaches the Ship with questions about her sense of inhibition, the disturbing doubleness, and the Ship presents her with an explanatory vision: at birth, Xotama had a twin. "They were exactly the same, except for the sliver of a moon birthmark on Xotama's face" (204). In a half-reality where they can sense each other only through touch, Xotama discovers her twin, whom she calls Notama. Xotama and Notama have lost time, but Xotama fancies recovering her sister into full existence, bringing her back to life, in effect. They consult the Ship's "neural web," the totality of experience taken in by the senior "Watchers." But it proves overwhelming for Notama, and the experiment ends. Xotama returns from the half-reality of the dreamscape and proceeds with her plans, marrying, etc.
The Xotama-Notama reunion reminded me of an article from New Scientist my brother described to me when we stopped through Detroit over the holidays. Basically, it was about a case of human chimerism in Boston a few years ago. "Jane," a 52-year-old woman in need of a kidney transplant, learned that her DNA didn't match with the DNA of two of her three sons. How could this be? As well as doctors could determine, she carried two sets of DNA--the result of a fusion of non-identical female twins sometime between conception and the medicalization of the pregnancy. "Jane" seemed to be herself and her twin in this way; two sets of DNA constituted her biosystem, and, ultimately, one set went to one of her sons while the other set went to the other two sons. Various reports on this story suggest that upwards of fifteen percent of all humans could reflect similar variations of chimerism (not to mention "microchimerism" or the quality of a baby's genetically-coded cells lingering in the mother's body beyond birth, long enough to be passed on to subsequent children, according to the BBC piece).
Given that twinning is such a common theme in the speculative fiction I've been pouring over in the last ten days, and given that the class is also attending to the penultimate trope for African American rhetorics--Dubois' double-consciousness (alt. Paul Miller's multiplex consciousness)--the science of chimerism, as thinly elaborated in the linked articles, has been on my mind lately, both because it brings up a number of confounding issues but also because, at a more abstract level, it suggests a compelling metaphor for identity, identification and individualism as well as dialectic and fusion.
Added: Odd, a year ago today it was "Tweening."Posted by Derek Mueller at February 9, 2006 9:35 PM to Unspecified