Yet to be earned is a short narrative film capturing a series of old family photographs from the artist’s archive. It presents an audio-visual narrative about one family but broaches the concept of “earned kinship”—that is, something that has nothing to do with blood nor with relatedness but something that has to be earned.
In the background, the artist’s mother is heard reciting the events in her relationship with her husband who left her and their three children more than twenty-three years ago. Her narrative is the only medium that connects the artist and her father as two people with a biological relationship and a core way the artist came to understand herself and the bittersweet events that happened between her mother and father in a broader life context. In the story, her mother recites the cases of her father’s infidelities prior to the artist’s birth. The arguments persisted between them day by day. Her father argued that he would not be cheating if they had a son; he wanted a son so badly he had to look for him elsewhere. (They already had two daughters at that point.) They both agreed to try for another child, hopefully this time a boy. As Sarah Pinto suggests, “The work of kinship… may happen at points of breakdown.” And so, the artist was born eleven years after her second sister at a point of rupture in her parents’ at-the-time-15-year-long marriage. However, the plan did not succeed since the artist is a girl. A few years after she was born, her father left all of them: her mother, her two sisters, and her. He never showed up again in their lives.
Primarily, the artist thinks with Sandra Patton-Imani’s analogy of “a grafted tree,” where kin relations cannot be taken for granted for blood ties and family trees cannot be neatly drawn. Patton-Imani proposes this concept for the case of adoption in which an adopted child is not blood-related to the adoptive parents but becomes grafted into the family. However, the story of how and why the artist was born recited by her mother leads her to wonder if one must work at earning kinship, either biological or adoptive. The artist’s biological conception was to rekindle the love that was once ignited between her mother and father—however gullible the plan was; to sustain the kinship between her father and her sisters; and finally, to give birth to a new tie of father-daughter kin between herself and her father. The artist realizes that she had to earn those kinships even if the price is to be born a boy, a fate that is beyond her control. In making kin, social identities like gender, sex, and race, that are oftentimes beyond one’s choice and agency, can end up becoming a proxy for earning desired kin, even biological kin. This is because the expected familial nurturance and care that are supposed to come with blood relations are in the end “mere fleeting dreams” (Collier, Rosaldo & Yanagisako, 1982). And for the artist, those dreams continue to reside in the archive of laminated family photographs, but they remain forever yet to be found and yet to be earned.
Everyone in the family including mom1 agrees, the girl was easy to give birth to. Although she was nearing 40 (she was 37 at the time the girl was born), her birth was pretty easy unlike her second sister’s. Burmese women believe the level of difficulty during birth suggests how much hardship the parents would have to go through raising that child. She was pretty easy to raise. After all, father did little to no raising on his part.
But she was born into a time of difficulties. A difficult time between mom and father. A difficult time at their construction company. Father had been cheating on mom for a few years even before she was born. His excuses dwelled on the gender of her two elder sisters.
“I would not have cheated on you if we had a boy!” he would scream.
The girl was born to fix that gender problem. Aunt said mom would regularly eat boiled quail eggs, a common snack for a road trip, hoping the small round shape of quail eggs would manifest her having balls. (She did have balls when she grew up!)
Mom would refuse to get an ultrasound when she was pregnant with the girl. She didn’t want to know the baby’s sex, not that the biological sex really matters at the end. But also, it did in the family to a certain extent. And then, the girl was born. A few years later, father left all of them, mom, the girl, and the girl’s two elder sisters.
For a plant or a tree to grow, the soil needs to be appropriately ready and fertile. The girl thought perhaps the family was not exactly the right soil father was looking for. Something definitely grew and she was born but it was not exactly a kinship. Kinship is not something that happens because the girl is related to father by blood. Kinship has to be earned. The work of any possible kin relation with the girl’s father happened “at the [point] of breakdown” in the family and therefore, it is forever accumulated at a sore spot for the girl (Pinto 2011: 394). The girl thought she didn’t earn her father’s kinship. Sometimes things that grow on fertile soil also include weed and they are just plucked away. Aren’t they?
Everyone in the family likes to watch the 7 PM K-drama on TV. Mom would open up the “dream bed.”2 Sisters gathered around the dream bed on the wooden floor, totally consumed by the laughing and the crying in the drama. It made them forget about their own drama for a little while.
The girl would spend time upstairs in her small bedroom when mom and sisters were watching the drama. That one hour felt like a lifetime to watch how the skinny tall leaves of the palm trees across from her house rubbed against each other.
In Colorado where the girl lived for a few years, instead of palms, aspen trees grow everywhere. People said, “They share their roots underground and that’s why they are always seen in groups.” In Myanmar and in the neighborhood the girl grew up in, there were always palm trees, not sharing roots like Aspen but also growing in groups. A tall monumental column-like stem of palm trees would stand apart from the other stems, but when the breeze came at night, their leaves would always touch.
Sandra Patton-Imani says kin relations are like “grafted trees;” one can be grafted into a family that has no blood relations. For the girl, kin relations are more like touching palm trees in the midst of a humid breeze at night. Aunts, cousins, and mom’s friends flocked to mom to help raise the girl when mom went into depression after father left. The girl, then three years old, lived with seven aunts that she had for a year. Each month she would move from one aunt’s house to another. Each aunt touched her differently, some more kindly and some not quite so. Some blamed mom for the reason why father left. Some took pity on the girl for such a bad fate she brought upon not only herself but also the family.
Regardless, no one offered to “graft” her into their families. The care of the aunts felt to the girl like a fleeting touch of palm leaves inevitably brought about by the nightly breeze. If there were no breeze, would the leaves ever reach out to each other? Kinship surfaces when ruptures occur, but not to suture one family member to another forever, just to send a gliding signal about its presence through the dark. Through those occasional ruptures, kinship is earned.
Collier, Jane, Rosaldo, Michelle Z., and Yanagisako, Sylvia. 1982. “Is There a Family? New Anthropological Views.”
Patton-Imani, Sandra. 2020. Queering Family Trees: Race, Reproductive Justice, and Lesbian Motherhood. New York City: NYU Press.
Pinto, Sarah. 2011. “Rational Love, Relational Medicine: Psychiatry and the Accumulation of Precarious Kinship.” Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry 35: 376–395