Ownership: An Introduction

Nine writers on the complexities of property

Eula Biss

Still from Collector's Item, a short film by Dalia Huerta Cano and Eula Biss, which served as the catalyst for the work in this folio. Courtesy the artists

Ownership is a massive vessel, freighted with implication, swayed by legal currents, caught in the conceptual eddies that whirl around every use of the possessive—“my child,” “my house,” “my story,” “my body,” “my land," “my language.” The writers gathered here have generously offered their work on the theme of ownership, broadly interpreted. Their thinking invites us to consider ownership in all its dimensions, from its political implications to its intimate entanglements.

I came to the concept of ownership through buying a house, and then writing a book that critiqued the mindset of middle-class homeownership. I wanted to resist being owned, so to speak, by ownership, as futile as that effort might be. In the final stages of writing Having and Being Had, I sent the opening pages to the filmmaker Dalia Huerta Cano, who underlined disparate sentences and phrases and then stitched them together into a new text, a voice-over for our short film Collector’s Item. This process was revelatory—to engage in collaboration, I gave up exclusive ownership of my work for something more dynamic.

Inspired by that experience, I approached guest-editing this folio in the spirit of collaboration, in hopes of having my own thinking unsettled and upended by the work of others. The problems posed by the concept of ownership are international in scope, and the writers who contributed to this folio are from Colombia, Korea, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and South Africa, as well as Kentucky, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and that country we call California.

If we reimagine the ownership of land and property, we may also reimagine relationships between people.

Aminatta Forna, whose father was imprisoned and hanged for his political resistance in Sierra Leone, considers the popular use of the word trauma in an American context. Her essay “Who Owns Your Story?” explores how we might unwittingly cede our stories to concepts carried into our consciousness by the Trojan horse of language. In the essay “Unspeakable Pain,” Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas slips into and out of herself through language. Her job as an interpreter is to inhabit someone else’s words and someone else’s identity, to erase herself—but she performs this era- sure with an understanding that is hers alone.

In Nami Mun’s story “The Hermit,” a mother whose name has been erased, who has lost everything, including her say over her body, gives up her child, the only thing she feels is truly hers. She marks her ownership of the child with a desperate act of love and violence.

An accountant who is himself owned as property makes a request for goods that include a “good woman” in Tiphanie Yanique’s poem “Invitation to a Pleasure Ride with Phillis Wheatley as Honored Guest.” The accountant is asking permission to spend not just money but his own time in the company of a celebrated eighteenth-century poet named after the slave ship that brought her from West Africa to the British colony of Massachusetts.

Every historical accounting of the United States runs red with the damage done by white people who have exercised property rights over Black lives. Ownership is a double-headed ax that cuts in two directions—it enriches and it robs, it gives and it takes, it builds and it kills. This ax haunts the shadows of “The Black Shape Slumped in a Chair” by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. In this essay, she illuminates, with refracted light, the challenge of a Black artist meeting the white gaze, the challenge of making art that is owned not by the viewer but by the maker.

How a shared culture is made, claimed, and physically inhabited is taken up by José Vadi in “More Joy and Less Cool” Here he celebrates the defiant acts of play that define skateboarding, and reveals how a group of people accused of damaging public property may preserve and protect it.

Property is fragile in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s poem “Guest House,” where the burden a person imposes on a place must be atoned for with exhaustive care. In “An Attempt at Exhausting a Neighborhood in Chatsworth, California,” David Trinidad reclaims the place he’s from in an homage to Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Trinidad owns the place in memory, and the place owns him, in that it made him who he is.

The exclusive ownership of land as private property, a concept relatively new to human history, is now so dominant worldwide that any attempt at an alternative can seem fanciful and naive. In his essay “Communalism in the Veld,” Glen Retief reports from post-apartheid South Africa, where a white minority holds the majority of property and the redistribution of land is a political mandate. Experiments in collective landholding, flawed as they are, may still be reparative. If we reimagine the ownership of land and property, we may also reimagine relationships between people.

Eula Biss is the author of four books, most recently Having and Being Had.
Originally published:
March 1, 2022


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