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.”


  1. I hope you’ll talk about this in our discussion of Dark Matter on Wednesday. During the first half of the book, I thought I picked up on a formula throughout the stories which basically centered around the authors using technology to complicate and or resolve real-life conflicts. I’m not sure if that will be the case with the second half. We’ll talk.

  2. I don’t mind bringing it up. I was trying to work through some of it here before getting it into response-paper form.

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