Kinship beyond genealogy, lineage, inheritance and bloodlines

A reflection on one of the guiding questions to our course KINSHIP: World as Archipelago, from advaya's Head of Storytelling, Tammy Gan.

What does kinship mean beyond genealogy, lineage, inheritance and bloodlines? For most city-dwellers, two-leggeds operating in a modern, fast-paced, disconnected culture, the word “kinship” brings to mind the immediate, nuclear family, perhaps blood relatives—any humans you can “prove” yourself related to; the family you were born into. The genetic connection is what matters, and is what makes kinship biological. Anthropologist Tim Ingold presents a convincing counter-argument to that. He shares:

“We take the closest imaginable relationship, between a mother and child. This child has actually grown and developed within the mother’s womb. We often think that the woman is the child’s ‘real’, biological mother, because of the genetic connection. But the genetic connection is not what matters. What matters is the fact that this child has actually been nurtured within the womb of the mother, and then even after birth, will be fed and nurtured within those relationships of care. So it's that, that generates the kinship, not the genetic connection—which is just in a sense, incidental.”

Ingold contends that seeing the genetic connection as incidental changes how we connect with other human beings, but also affects how we think relate with non-humans. Obviously, he points out, “we run into a problem as soon as we encounter beings, whose genetic connection with ourselves, is more or less remote”, when we choose to define kinship narrowly. Our ethical, practical, relational decisions regarding the non-human world are then determined, as some people do, by how much genes we share in common with the species in question.

Probably some of that stems from human exceptionalism: the stubborn strand of thought that we are different, a strand that emerged with René Descartes’ dualism, then developed by Enlightenment figures John Locke and Immanuel Kant, and even into the “redoubling of efforts to assert new forms of human redemption in the years after publication of On the Origin of Species (1859)”, the assertion of the “‘human revolution’ – the idea that some kind of cognitive leap took place in the recent evolution of Homo sapiens that forever split us from other species.” As researcher Melanie Challenger concludes: “The history of global philosophy on humans and other animals might be mischievously summarised as a long study in mental bias.” All of this is to say, in the final analysis: not much makes humans unique.

So we return to Ingold’s suggestion of looking at the “ongoing relations of care and nurturance” to establish kinship instead. Defining kinship in this way opens up a multitude of possibilities—one of which is kinning with land. Land, place, home: these profoundly shape us, though the ‘proof’ of relation in this case would be in story, in myth. Professor Emeritus Leny Strobel shares: “I think there was a certain point in my life, when I recognised that [I am an island girl adrift on the continent]. I said, ‘Oh, I am an Islander.’ That’s why I couldn’t relate to these giant mountains. That is important too, recognising how place has shaped us, recognising how coming from [a certain] part of the world, shapes your sense of how you move in the world and how you carry yourself in the world.” As people who care and are cared for by land, our places are kin, too.

What about our animal, plant, fungal, even bacterial kin? Poet Craig Santos Perez says: “[The] way of putting species into different taxonomies and different, separate categories, is a way of saying like, ‘Oh, everyone’s their own separate island. These species are separate islands.’ But for me, we have to think about humans and animals in relation, and as an archipelago, as an ecosystem.” What if we began to think of our kin as islands in an archipelago? We are certainly different in ways, but we are undeniably connected. Archipelago as metaphor reminds us to see our connections in our separations: kinship prevails despite, and we can hold this tension at the same time.

There would be no tension if we were content with shifting meanings of kinship. Maybe “kin” is whatever you define it to be: intimate connection at times, clear boundaries at others. Author Gavin Van Horn shares the story of the coyote: a kin that has reclaimed the urban habitat across the United States. “They’ve escaped their Southwestern myths and places, and they’ve spread all across the country. Every city in the United States has coyotes now, despite well-funded and organised efforts to put an end to them.” He likens the coyote to the Trickster: the coyote “comes to shake things up, to gamble on prospering alongside the two-leggeds.”

Author of Trickster Makes This World, Michael Chabon, writes: “Trickster is always associated with borders, no man's lands, with crossroads and intersections. Trickster's the conveyor of souls across ultimate boundaries, the transgressor of heaven, the Reconciler of opposites. He operates through inversions of laws and regulations, presiding over carnivals, and feast of fools. [...] as the primary locus of entertainment, trickster goes where the action is, and the action is on the border between things.” Like the Trickster archetype, the coyote blurs categories of nature and urban, wild and city, human and non-human. What belongs where? Who belongs here?

In the end, like our coyote kin, belonging is an unfinished sentence, an ongoing process. We don’t have to belong to be kin, and we don’t have to belong with our kin. In this archipelagic world, kinship is an active relation with the familiar and unfamiliar, to persons we look like and persons we don’t. In this way perhaps we’ll find ourselves more rooted, in our differences and diversity. This sort of practice of kinship opens up more questions too: can similarity and relatedness be isolating, or difficult? Returning full circle to our original question—what does kinship mean beyond genealogy, lineage, inheritance and bloodlines? Kinship means reckoning with those things too. (Organiser Justine Epstein adds: “I love the word reckoning; its root [comes] from the measurement of a ship changing course.”)

Kinship isn’t always the work of belonging: sometimes to connect, we must separate. Epstein shares from the work they do, speaking in conversation with fellow organiser brontë velez: “we spent a lot of time in caucus, with the white folks, looking at our history, grappling with some of the stuff that was coming up, allowing y’all to have that reparative time, to be in grief, also in praise, of returning to the earth, without the gaze of whiteness always present. So that was also part of the practice, knowing when it serves to come apart and come back together.” In response, velez adds: “that allows more timelines to happen; we’re [don’t] necessarily need to always be on a journey together. We [may have to work through what we need to work through, and] that may be different.”

Sometimes the difference is held in the tension of our bodies, so the work of reconciling and reckoning is within: as a child of the diaspora, Strobel shares that her friends were often told to return to where their ancestors are from, to return home, rather than attempting to search the world and other cultures for the answers. So sometimes, to find kinship with those beyond our genealogy, lineage, inheritance and bloodlines, we may have to reckon with just that, first. Reckon, nautical, first recorded use in this meaning in 1613: dead reckoning—the determination without the aid of celestial observations of the position of a ship or aircraft from the record of the courses sailed or flown, the distance made, and the known or estimated drift.

Kinship, too, a kind of reckoning: an ocean navigation without comprehensible direction or divine aid, a journey and practice of figuring it out on the fly, in the hopes of finding oneself on the intended path, on a straightened ship, a clear course.

If the world is an archipelago, what might that imply about our relationships? What kinds of relationships are possible in this context? How can we challenge the idea that geographical boundaries are borders, and instead see them as domains of communion? How can we acknowledge porosity and their ongoing dialogue with the rest of life? What does kinship mean across different contexts? How can kinship help us cultivate nuance, understanding and multi-perspectivity around the notion of the ‘other’? How do our separations connect us?

Why might the ‘world as archipelago’ metaphor be helpful at this time? How might it restore meaningful identity and help us learn to respect difference and similarity, while paying more careful attention to the connecting forces between and among us?


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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