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A modern reader of the Bible is struck by how strong the connection between this world and the next once was. It can almost seem as if God was genuinely concerned about mankind. It took very little to get him to show himself and talk to men, or send one of his angels down to Earth to do his bidding. But these constant interventions never led to any permanent improvement. On the contrary, everything always reverted to its old ways. It seems as if all goodness and justness are the result of gargantuan efforts, which must constantly be repeated, in a continual maintenance that no human being is strong enough to manage. Even Lot, the angels’ unlikely favourite, succumbed in the end. After fleeing from Sodom, he settled in the mountains above Zoar with his two daughters. Still too fearful to chance living in the city, they dwelt in a cave, and there he got both of them pregnant. True, they were living alone in the mountains after a Doomsday-like event, and may have been bewildered enough to believe that they were the last people on earth, and certainly the insemination took place at the instigation of the daughters, who plied him with wine before going to bed with him, but Lot must still have been well aware of the mark he was overstepping. He wanted his daughters, and he had them. For lustful thoughts may form such a tangled web above the sky of consciousness that not a single ray of light can penetrate to the soul, whose damp and dingy seat excludes all life forms except the very lowest: moss and fungus, beetles and maggots, and a slimy snail or two blindly creeping about the mire. And who can be expected to do right under such conditions? For a time, perhaps, you’ll manage to keep it open a chink, righteous and enlightened as you still are, but sooner or later you’ll sleep, and when you awake, you’ll be surrounded by darkness once again. If you have the strength, you’ll fight on; if you haven’t, you’ll give up. The human soul is a clearing in a forest, and for the divinely pure and untarnished it must be impossible to understand why it’s forever getting choked with growth. This is the struggle the Bible speaks of; the darkness that descends again and again on person after person, generation after generation, century after century, until the despair is unendurable, and the story ends in the description of the insane, apocalyptic fury that was revealed to John on Patmos: So the four angels were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of mankind. They decapitate, burn, become a living torture, and from the bottomless pit they release swarms of poisonous locust-scorpions, which harm no grass or bush or tree, but only the people who haven’t the seal of God in their foreheads. Stars fall down to earth, the sun is darkened, forests burn in great firestorms, the seas turn to blood. A huge army is sent out numbering twice ten thousand times ten thousand, and they must have been an impressive sight for John, riding on horses with lions’ heads and clad in breastplates the colour of fire and sapphire and sulphur. His descriptions are so detailed that there is no reason to doubt that he has seen what he’s describing, and yet there is something that grates, because since his vision in that cave on Patmos, things have happened to make the scenario he described impossible. The world will be destroyed, but not in that way. The angels have lost all the power they once had, and if they went to war with us now, we wouldn’t find it hard to crush them. At that time they probably did have plans to destroy everything, and it might have happened, too, if something hadn’t gone terribly wrong for them, so there is no need to lambast John, he acted in good faith, and the fury he witnessed was at least authentic.
What the angels didn’t foresee was what a success Christianity would turn out to be. At the time they revealed the apocalypse to John, Christianity was still just a small, insignificant minority religion, something like our UFO sects, and as Christians were greeted with universal suspicion, and then persecuted, tortured and killed, no-one expected them to survive. When Christianity suddenly began to spread across the world in the first centuries after the death of Christ, the angels were completely unprepared. Soul after soul in country after country was saved. And all of them extolled the angels. Poetry was written about them, pictures were painted, theses written, stories told. By the time we get to the Middle Ages, angels were part of the common consciousness. They caused conditions resembling hysteria when they revealed themselves, because their proximity proclaimed those who’d been selected to carry out God’s will, perhaps to give away their wealth and dedicate their life to the poor, as in the case of Francis of Assisi, or lead the French army into battle against the English like Joan of Arc, or just flog themselves until the blood ran as the many flagellants did. Bodies were racked with convulsions, fell into deep trances, spoke in strange tongues, exhibited sudden wounds. The angels themselves stood aloof from this monstrous physicalisation of God’s word, but must have been fascinated by the way their mere presence could induce a phenomenon that was so utterly foreign to them. Fair, beautiful and pure as they were, they must have felt a growing intoxication at the adoration they received. In any case they appeared more and more often and gradually became the objects of another, and no less intense, kind of worship, in the welter of learned tracts and theses about angels that were written in the medieval period, tabulating, systematising and classifying all their various manifestational forms in a kind of angelic taxonomy, complete with kinships, species and sub-species. The Swedish theologian Lönnroth from Uppsala distinguished, for example, between material and immaterial, visible and invisible, immutable and mutable, with and without free will; in his On the Heavenly and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite argued that there were nine classes of angel, while Gregorius Tholosanus believed that the number was seven, in keeping with the seven planets, and that the virtuous could be found above the moon and the evil beneath it. Johannes Durandus discussed whether angels had memory, or if their consciousness occupied an eternal present. Were they pure form (creatura rationalis et spiritualis)? Or were they, like human beings, both form and substance (creatura corporalis et rationalis)? Bodine and David Crusius maintained in Theatrum naturae and Hermetica philosophia respectively that they were fully and entirely corporeal. Bodine put forward the odd notion that they must be as round as balls, because this is the most perfect of all shapes, while Bochard went as far as to claim that they were actually mortal, took sustenance and had bowel movements.
In truth, the Middle Ages was the time of the angels. Can we blame them for allowing themselves to be flattered by this concerted attention? For being more and more often in the proximity of human beings, even when they had no specific business to perform there? They still radiated dignity, with their stern looks, simple robes and angular movements; their beauty still had something hard and cruel about it, not of savagery, but the opposite, of an inhuman restraint, which, however, deserted them when they sang – the song of angels, oh, how lovely it was! – then their features would soften, their cheeks flush, their eyes fill with tears. But it couldn’t last. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries their sojourns with mankind got ever longer and more frequent, and at the beginning of the fifteenth century the first changes in the angels’ physiognomy occurred. A painting by Francesco Botticini of that period clearly shows what has happened. Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, three of the archangels, are walking in a landscape, presumably Italian, in the company of a young boy. True to tradition, Michael is clad in armour, in his hand he holds a raised sword, and yet there is nothing mighty or awesome about him, rather the contrary: his face is soft and boyish, his cheeks a trifle fat, his hair long and well groomed and he has chosen red shoes to go with his black armour, a matching gold-embroidered red cape and a red scabbard with a gilded point, giving the impression of a vain young nobleman rather than a victorious warrior with all the angels of heaven under his command. Certainly his gaze has retained something of its former ruthlessness, but with the rest of the figure appearing so mannered and self-obsessed, he has more of the arrogant aspect of the spoilt youth about him. Raphael’s costume is violet, across his shoulders he has a gold-worked cape of red, fastened at his throat with a simple pearl, draped in such a way as to show the subdued green of the lining visible over his arms. Around his waist he has tied a red and black kerchief, also embroidered in gold, while his wings are decorated with green and black circles, not unlike the pattern of a peacock feather. His hips are broad, his posture feminine, his hair long and golden, his face beautiful as a lovely woman’s. His small mouth is pursed, the expression filling his half-closed eyes is one of boredom and distaste. Gabriel’s figure is also dressed in a dark green silk cloak, with a black, gold filigree collar, his wings are red in colour, and his face is turned to the viewer in an attitude that might have been challenging had it not been for the almost demonstrative lack of interest in its expression. He knows he is being observed, he knows that he looks good, but is indifferent to it all. At the same time there is also sorrow in his eyes. It makes his expression enigmatic. Why is he looking at us like that? He must want something of us.
In the early Renaissance angels began to be portrayed with countenances similar to this, all expressing compassion for man, as if they were only then close enough to comprehend what they saw. But Gabriel’s expression is different, it’s introverted: it isn’t us he’s suffering with, but the angels. He alone has a notion where the path they’re following will lead. The angels are to be pitied, he seems to be saying as they pass us. But the clearest sign that something is wrong can be seen in their haloes. Whereas in Cimabue and Giotto’s time they shone so brightly that now and then they seemed like discs of gold, here they are so pale that they can only be glimpsed against a dark background, like Gabriel’s red wings. Against the sky they are transparent. These angels are fallen, but they are falling so slowly that they notice nothing themselves.
The fact that it would be another hundred years before these changes began to affect the angels’ lives, bearing and behaviour must mean either that they remained blind in relation to their fate, something that’s hardly plausible considering the length of time involved, or that they simply hadn’t faced up to the consequences of it before, but lived in the hope that this new condition would pass, rather like the way some people shut their eyes to the most serious symptoms imaginable and don’t visit the doctor until the disease has got such a grip that it’s no longer possible to keep the truth hidden, not even from themselves. When, after becoming an ever-commoner sight in the purlieus of certain Italian city-states during the fifteenth century, the angels slowly began to draw back during the first half of the sixteenth century, it was presumably in an attempt to resurrect the old order in which an angel’s appearance was as unique and rare an event as it was awe-inspiring and important, but this was unsuccessful, as man’s intimacy with them had become too great. Whether through arrogance or simply a lack of vigilance, they had gone too far. In certain places angels had become such a common sight that even the aura of revelation, the icy fear and ecstatic joy the sight of them had always generated, was gradually diminished. Fathers pointed them out to their children, farmers took them for good omens, country priests were flattered when they manifested themselves in their churches. It was as if they’d always been there. Even the glow of their fires on the mountainsides outside the towns at night, which at first had caused people such anxiety and disquiet, particularly as they’d been told that large flocks of angels sat on the ground all night long, completely immobile, just staring into the flames, as if they were hypnotised or the living dead, had gradually come to mean the opposite; through the centuries a belief had grown up that the angels were just watching over their town. The fact that this intimacy is reflected in only a few sources isn’t at all strange, because human nature takes note of the unusual rather than the commonplace, the exception rather than the rule. They had as little cause to remark on the angels’ roamings across the countryside when they wrote to each other as they had to mention the flight of the birds across the sky. Apart from art, of course, where angels continued to be painted and feted. But even here their supernatural aura waned, they began, more and more, to be seen as beautiful in themselves, in just the same way as an animal or a flower or a landscape is beautiful.
I’m happy whenever I do something that makes me forget myself – driving, fishing, reading, writing – but I am happiest whenever I can disappear into a situation that is overwhelming: the last time I fell in love; when my children were born; when I wrote my last novel – no thoughts, no reflections, only light . . . and a world opened up.
What is your principal defect?
I constantly try to please other people. (The fact that I so often fail to do so, is another, I guess.)
What makes you depressed?
The desire to please, combined with a rather self-scrutinizing mind and a more-than-normal sense of shame – the combined effects of these sometimes create a downward spiral. On the other hand, they can also fuel fiction, which was the case with my first novel, (a reviewer described it as “a monument of male shame”) and that was actually fun to write.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Oh, it has to be my rather yellow teeth, as a journalist so kindly pointed out in a feature about me some time ago . . .
What is your favourite word?
‘Weltschmerz’. Or ‘zeitgeist’. German words in general, actually. The ambition in them to reach everything. ‘Phänomenologie des Geistes!’ ‘Zein und Seit!’ And the nightside of this ambition, ‘Totalkrieg.’ What a word that is.
What is your most unappealing habit?
Maybe all the brain-like chewing gums I leave behind everywhere I work.
What is your favourite smell?
Shrimps, they smell fantastic!
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Oh, come on!
Who are your favourite writers?
Oh, that’s the most difficult question of them all! My favourite novel is definitely Celine’s Death on Credit: Celine is the only modernist who can make one laugh. Melville’s s Moby–Dick, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and, the novel of all novels, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, has to be on a list like this. Borges and his short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ should also be mentioned, as well as ‘The Dead’ by Joyce (which is the best thing he ever wrote). Among poets, there is no better than Hölderlin.
What is the worst job you’ve done?
No doubt the one I had when some of the people I was supposed to nurse and take care of threw their own excrement on me when I came in the morning.
When did you last cry, and why?
At a friend’s wedding a few weeks ago. I don’t know why, actually, there was no obvious reason, I guess I’m just too sentimental. Just kidding . . . I’m in love with his wife.
What do you most value in you friends?
The fact that I can trust them and that their thoughts are unpredictable. And of course that they like me, maybe even more than I like them!
What gift would you most like to possess?
I would like to be faster, and to be better with a ball, and to read the game quicker – and if this came true, the gift of being sixteen, so that I finally could play football on a level that matched my own ambition at that time.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
There is no such thing as my most embarrassing moment, there is a catalogue. But to mention two: I once hit a girl in the face in front of a crowd and I once copied a poem and stated that it was written by me, in my own diary.
What is your most treasured possession?
I honestly don’t have such a thing.
What is the worst thing anyone’s said to you?
‘None of the girls in our class fancy you,’ a girl once told me, in front of a crowd.
If you could edit your past, what would you change?
My life is edited alright, actually, but the casting is terrible, especially my father: who on earth placed him there, in that all-important role?
What is your greatest fear?
Death, of course, in all its shapes and forms.
If you could go back in time, where would you go?
The romantic novel-version of the seventeenth century: when the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Newton actually lived.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
The father that I have been trying to love my entire life gave me a pair of hiking boots just before I left home at seventeen, along with my first overnight backpack, metal-frame and clunky; old-school wilderness style. It was the first gift I can remember him giving me. He isn’t fond of shopping. His second gift – the one I can never repay – was to give me his journals from the years when we were missionaries to Haiti.
My father’s anger is hereditary, handed down from men who worked long hours in the dry heat of the family date ranch, pushing their bodies to exhaustion as they wrestled irrigation pipes at midnight and beheaded rattlesnakes, coached and relentlessly cheered on baseball games, packed picnics up the canyon in the back of pick-up trucks, threw their children against walls, and grew into benign and genial grandfathers, pinching our cheeks when they were confined to wheelchairs, although I am among the descendants who never forgot what they were capable of.
One of my uncles told me recently, over pecan pie, that the first time he met my father was when he was invited over to dinner at our trailer in the desert. He watched my father throw my little sister into the couch because she did not finish the food on her plate. A story I had never heard before. But why had he waited so long to tell it? Why hadn’t he tried to protect us when we were too small to protect ourselves? Harm that comes through the hands of those we love must be wrestled with; it does not simply disappear.
No one mentioned my father’s anger as a concern when we were appointed as missionaries, though it welled up in him when the seedling trees he gave to Haitian farmers withered and died in the worst drought in seventeen years. As Haitian friends died of preventable diseases and the political situation exploded around us, he toppled tables, shattering candlesticks and carved wooden statues. His powerlessness erupted into rage. And then repentance. He wept into his hands and his anger went dormant, until the next inciting incident.
When I first started writing about our years as missionaries, my father’s journals were my first glimpse into his hidden vulnerabilities. I was struck by his honesty on the page, and I admired him. He didn’t care about being portrayed as a hero or a villain; he wanted me to tell the truth about what we experienced. About despair. About trees and why they matter. My newfound respect for him pushed aside my old hurt and fear. Indeed, I hoped that by having listened to his grief, my father’s anger might have finally been put to rest. I wanted to believe that I had been sent, like a missionary, to help him. That I could lead him home. I was blissfully oblivious to my own paternalism.
My father’s patience after my sons were born was extraordinary. They could and scream and scream but he’d never stop rocking them until they finally fell asleep, safe in his calloused hands. He was patient with infants, just as he was patient with tender roots and buds. I was the one who lost my temper and was quick to shout, who just wanted to escape. Once, stuck at home with two fractious toddlers, I called my parents in desperation after the youngest had worked himself into a red-faced panic. I was ready to start screaming myself but I put the phone against my son’s ear and listened as my parents told him about the full moon, about the native plant seeds that my father was sorting on the dining room table for his customers. Eventually, I heard my father calling my son’s name and when I went over to look, my little boy was fast asleep, his breathing soft and even, his face peaceful. I picked up the phone and told my father that he’d managed to soothe his grandson to sleep. ‘Whoa!’ he said, several times. The next morning, he wrote: ‘Thanks for calling and letting us talk last night. When you said that he was asleep I was overtaken by something very deep. I had to go lie on the floor in front of the wood stove for a while. It brings tears to my eyes again just writing about it. We should be home if you need to call again. Love, Dad.’
My father’s anger made me what I am; my father’s gentleness, in that moment, protected me from myself. The strange, looping weave of history. My grandmother assured me that he had been equally patient with me when I was a baby. She had taken a bus from the California desert all the way up to Oregon to see how red my hair really was. She slept on the couch as my father walked the floor with me at midnight, singing to quiet my fears. Does my body still carry the memory of that tenderness, just as it carries the imprint of his rage?
As my sons grew older, we began to see glimpses of his old, unpredictable wildness reawakened. ‘Grandpa Jonny wins the Worst Dad of the Year Award,’ my eldest told me after I’d left the boys alone with my parents while I disappeared to write. My son is like me in intensity: he loses himself in his work, sobs over books, and is righteously indignant at perceived injustice. At five years old, he hadn’t gotten out of the bath quickly enough so my father dumped a cup of cold water on his head. My son was livid. I took his side, arguing that it was not my father’s place to provoke his grandson.
Later that spring, my father came to collect seeds in our woods so I helped the boys put on muck boots to tag along behind him, but when we reached the gravel just beyond the barn, my father stuck out his foot in front of the six-year-old, perhaps intending to slow him down, but instead he fell hard onto sharp stones, cutting open his hands and knees. ‘Grandpa tripped me!’ he wailed, his voice raw with betrayal. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ my father laughed gruffly. He attempted a conciliatory hug, but my son dove for my arms, refusing to touch him. My father disappeared into the ferns, away from the scene of the crime. ‘Grandpa loves you,’ my mother soothed, ineffectually. ‘It’s just that sometimes he forgets to be gentle.’
He protects birds’ nests and seedling trees. He is capable of gentleness. He will not allow the boys to rip out the stinging nettles because the bees need the pollen in the early spring, when little else is in bloom. And yet, during a game of Capture the Flag at his eight-year-old’s grandson’s birthday party, intent on rescuing the prisoners on his team, he ran out of the woods swinging a whip of uprooted nettles at crying children. I ran after him, whacking him with a foam sword, and asked what the fuck he thought he was doing. He admitted that he got a little competitive, but he thought the kids would be smart enough to stay out of his way. ‘You’re banished,’ I told him, though I later offered him a cupcake. He shook his head and did not take one. I could not tell if my offer – and his refusal – were due to penitence or stubbornness.
After the stinging nettle incident, at the boys’ insistence, we wrote out a list of rules for Grandpa to follow, and he promised to comply: No wrestling unless you ask us first, and we say yes. No calling us sissy. No pinching. No sneaking up on us. No yelling at us (too loud and too often). Reasonable rules, rules that I wished my sisters and I had insisted on when we were kids.
I wanted to convince myself that the problem had been solved. My husband and I had planned a kayaking trip in the San Juans for our anniversary and my mother made extravagant plans for five days with the grandsons: bike trips to the skate park, movie-editing, cake-baking, canoeing on Muddy Creek. My father helped them construct a raft out of scrap wood to float to their island, and their voices were full of excitement when they told us about stepping onto the waterlogged boards, water swirling over their ankles. We called every night. It seemed to be going so well. Until, four days in, our youngest son hid in his grandparents’ office with the phone pressed against his mouth and told us that Grandpa had grabbed his brother and thrown him. My mother got on the phone and sounded stricken. Everyone was crying. It had happened two days earlier, but they had been too scared to tell us. I told the boys to pack their things and that I’d drive down immediately to get them. My father had been out in the garden digging potatoes with the boys earlier that morning and he assured me that I was over-reacting. ‘Your boys are too soft, they need toughening up,’ he yelled, when he finally got on the line. I put him on speakerphone. My soft-spoken husband is the only man that I have ever heard shout my father into silence.
The boys and I cried together on the drive home. We bought fresh-pressed cherry juice and goat cheese and avocados, beauty that we could put into our bodies, and I explained what no one had ever explained to me: it is not your fault. You’re a kid. You get to make mistakes. If you take too long getting into the shower, if you don’t listen perfectly, that’s okay. Grown-ups are NOT allowed to hurt you. Grandpa doesn’t want to hurt you. He didn’t want to hurt me when I was a kid. He really does love us. But anger entered him like a poison through the hands of those he loved, and his heart was broken. And it’s my job, not yours, to protect you.
We told my father that the boys would not be able to visit unchaperoned until he dealt with the source of his anger, but years went by and he made no movement towards therapy. He sent photographs of happy sleepovers with his other grandson, my nephew, who was not yet old enough to defy him. I stopped calling. My parents stopped calling me. Frustrated, I sent a handwritten letter, hoping to jar him back into connection. Words on the page – journals, letters – had been the only way we’d managed to find our way back to each other after our years as missionaries. He sent me a terse email to say that his eyesight was getting worse and he couldn’t read my handwriting.
My husband and I still drove the boys down once or twice a year to my parents’ farm, though we rarely stayed the night, and my father still came to collect seeds in our woods, but seldom stayed to talk. My anger and his silence had created a wall between us. My therapist asked what it would take for me to stop trying so hard to save my parents. I had no answer. I had finally published a book about our complicated missionary family, but it hadn’t saved anyone. If anything, I had stirred up family tensions and put us all at risk by exposing our flaws and sorrows and unresolved questions. My parents remained supportive of the book – they wanted others to learn from our past mistakes – but it was the present that haunted us. It seemed an impossible task: to keep talking about the moments that hurt, about the harm we inevitably left in our wake.
When my mother and father first met and fell in love, high in the sugar pines of the San Jacinto Mountains, my father wore a uniform with a grizzly bear stitched in gold. My mother had iron calves and a winsome smile. He asked to see her hiking permit. She still refers to him, in affectionate moments, as Ranger Jon. In their twenties, my father put words by John Muir to music – Climb the mountains and get their good tidings – and my mother accompanied him on her autoharp. In recent years, he built a trail behind their farmhouse to follow at dusk, listening for owls.
This winter, after coming back from a walk along the creek with my mother, my father sent my sisters and me an email. It was New Year’s Eve. My husband was in bed with the flu. The boys were asleep. I read his words at midnight as a storm tore through our woods, ripping branches and toppling trees:
I was recently inspired to add more verses to the John Muir words that have been sung to all of you and to the grandsons and others as well. Blessings to you for 2018. Love, Dad
I cried when I read his lyrics, and cried again when I read them to the boys the next morning.
Walk a trail and see where it leads to.
New found places will welcome you
Like a mother glad you’ve come home.
And wild birds will sing
Exuberant songs to you.
You’ll know this is where you belong.
A few days later, he wrote to tell me that he’d just filled out a five-page questionnaire to start meeting with a counselor. He said he hadn’t intended it as a birthday present for me, but there it was.
The Woman’s Prizeis a Jacobean comedy written by John Fletcher, in which a powerful woman forces her male partner into meek subservience – a conscious inversion of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. ‘Is this stern woman still upon the flaunt / Of bold defiance?’ asks one man. ‘They say the women are in Insurrection,’ mutters another.
The Women’s Prizeis an award given to the best book of each year written by a woman. It’s a pity we need a specific prize to put the spotlight on women’s writing. (Look how far we haven’t come!) But given the prize is still very much necessary (see: statistics), it’s a pleasure to celebrate great writing by women.
This year sixteen authors have been longlisted. Here are some of their opinions on things:
Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire
Back in 2015, Kamila Shamsie wrote a provocation to the publishing industry: ‘Why not have a Year of Publishing Women: 2018’. No publishing of men for a year in a bid to reduce the gender bias: ‘We must learn from the suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns.’
Okay so we haven’t done this. But at least we have a prize FOR women, and we’re calling it the WOMEN’S PRIZE now, and we nominated her for it. That’s the same basically. I mean, if we had a year of only publishing women, then every book would be eligible for the Women’s Prize – and then it would just be called The Prize, which would be ridiculous. Long live the status quo!
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
‘I give all the awards to my mom, and she keeps them at her house,’ Jesmyn Ward tells BOMB, ‘I can’t think about nominations, or awards, or recognition. Then I’m too conscious of audience. I’m too aware of what people want.’ It’s a pity, because people keep awarding her things, like the two National Book Awards and the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant. Prize committees, leave Jesmyn Ward alone!
‘Each novel has its own font,’ explains Nicola Barker of her approach to writing. ‘I see my books on a screen and always have. This is because I feel a sense of immense space and speed behind the screen and below the screen . . . A novel dies to me when it leaves the screen and I instantly lose all interest in it.’
Meena Kandasamy, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife
Meena Kandasamy’s book When I Hit You explores marital violence against women. Interviewed by The Wire, she’s ‘asked’ whether she agrees that: ‘The liberation through writing, even writing that is erased, is a breathtaking innovation. It almost seems to suggest that the violence and terror makes of the woman a great writer/artist.’
My grandfather Aleksey Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer, attended the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute in his youth, starting in 1901, thinking he would like to become an engineer. But he never became one. He described to my father how difficult it was for him studying there.
Here is his professor by the blackboard, addressing the students: ‘Let’s picture a cigarlike object . . .’ And that’s it! My young grandpa is in a trance. He is picturing something cigar-like . . . he sees a cigar . . . You need to clip the end of it before you can smoke it . . . Golden cutters carefully trim away the dry brown leaves – what wonderful aroma wafts from quality Havana tobacco! . . . Out of nowhere appears a balloon-shaped brandy snifter full of heavy, red-brown cognac, casting golden reflections . . . Oh, to grasp the glass in your palm, warming it . . . the undulating golden flickers . . . the bluish smoke . . . you inhale it, you tap the cigar to break off the ash. It’s dusk, the heavy drapes drawn back. Outside, through the window, there is a crepuscular early evening on snowy Saint Petersburg streets; a sleigh pulled by a courser silently whooshes by – who’s rushing, and where? To the theater? To a romantic rendezvous?
Suddenly reality interrupts this waking dream. Chairs thunder, the professor erases the blackboard, wiping away formulas interesting and useful to any engineer – ‘See you next time, gentlemen!’
Grandfather never finished his studies at the Institute; he committed himself wholly to literature, becoming famous for, among other things, his historical novels. Writers who knew him personally described his imagination in the later years as clairvoyant: he was able to improvise, creating on the fly the most complicated dialogues, keeping them psychologically astute and peppering them with convincing historical specifics. He saw the past in great detail: every button on a jacket, every wrinkle in a dress.
This ability to daydream was passed on to me, although not to the same extent. I didn’t start out a writer, and had no plans of becoming one. Although I happily swam in imaginary expanses, I had no words to describe them.
Then one fine day, when I was thirty-two years old, I decided to correct my myopia by undergoing surgery in the famous eye clinic of Professor Fedorov. This was in 1983, before they used lasers for the procedure, as they do now, but instead made corneal incisions by hand, with a regular razor blade. The incisions took three long months to heal. All this time, while the eyes recuperated, you could see things only poorly, approximately, through tears that constantly streamed like rain on the windowpane. And after it was over, one day you’d literally wake up with perfect vision, 20/20.
But before that happened, you had to sit in complete darkness; such were the idiosyncrasies of the process that any light caused insufferable eye pain. At first, for three or four days, the agony was so great that no analgesics, no sleeping pills brought any relief. Then it subsided a bit. Nonetheless, even at dusk my eyes were ablaze, and the temporary respite of night was interrupted by accidental glances at the stars, their light burning like fiery needles. Finally it was all I could do to sit at home wearing dark sunglasses, the black drapes closed, living by touch. Not a single word – neither handwritten nor typed – did my eyes take in during that prison sentence; only music, invisible in its essence, saved me from this existential desert. All that was left of the world was music and pain.
Gradually, something unfamiliar began to happen to my mind. The blindness was still near-total. I didn’t yet dare take off my sunglasses to peer outside, but in my mind’s eye I began to see bright visions from my past. They were not simply visions as before, similar to dreams – no, these were words, phrases, pages of text, plotlines; it was as if someone awoke in my head, a second me, one who had been slumbering until now. Visual experiences now came with a narrative; in fact, they were inseparable from it. If the wording wasn’t exact, then the imagery it conjured seemed obscured by dust or fog, and only the right words cleared it away.
I was remembering – no, I was seeing – my childhood. Our neighbor who lived on the other side of the fence and whom I had long forgotten: I was six when he was sixty – never before could he have been interesting to me. And why him, specifically? No matter: suddenly I saw him, I understood his life, I felt his anxiety and his joy; suddenly his house, his garden, his beautiful but not-so-young tsarina of a wife appeared before me, and with these images words emerged, words that could describe them; a plotline materialized and filled up with meaning. Unexpectedly, the subtext and hidden significance of this yet-to-be-written story appeared – the eternal metaphor of banishment from paradise.
My external eyes were still awaiting the sunrise, while my internal ones were looking around, seeking out details. Here is one. Here is another. Here is a whole bunch. As soon as I was able to emerge from my room into the dim light of the table lamp, I typed up my first-ever short story in great haste. I knew just how to do it – what to write, what not to write – and I understood that what remains unwritten possesses a special kind of power, a certain gravity by absence, similar to a magnetic force that can both attract and repel, a force we can’t see but that is nonetheless there.
This heretofore invisible, hidden world was now within my reach. I could enter it at any point, but it had particular doors – with keys of sound, with lock picks of intonation. The doors could be opened with love. Or with tears.
One day, all of a sudden, my sliced-up eyes could see again; my vision returned completely and immediately, 20/20, as promised. And this was bliss! Meanwhile, I found that the second world, having first appeared to me in darkness, was here to stay; it turned out to be a multifaceted underside of so-called reality, a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with passcodes to all enigmas, an address book with the exact coordinates of those who never existed.
I don’t know its geography, its mountains, or its seas; it’s so vast, it must be limitless. Or perhaps it’s not simply one world – perhaps there are many. They are unpredictable; they can show themselves to you, or not. Some days they may not let you inside: Sorry, the doors are locked, we’re on holiday. But to the patient and the devoted, they will in the end always yield. The doors will open, and you won’t know what you will come across until you enter.
Childhood doesn’t suddenly end one day, like we hoped it would when we were kids. It lingers, crouched silently in our grown-up bodies, and later in our wizened bodies, until one day, many years later, just when we think that the burden of resentment and despair we’ve been shouldering has finally made us adults, it reappears like lightning, striking us with its freshness, its innocence, its unfailing dose of naivety, and above all with the certainty that this really is the last glimpse of it we’ll get. We didn’t think it would be like that when we were young. As kids we dreamt of being independent and doing as we pleased: spending our time however we chose, eating whatever food we liked, going wherever we wanted. Childhood felt like a waiting room, a transitory phase between birth and the life we wanted. Children rarely achieve their dreams, they don’t have the tools, they depend on their parents, and neither Camilo’s parents nor mine seemed particularly interested in helping us achieve ours. They were drunk on their own lives, absorbed in repairing the disasters they were constantly leaving in their wake on their wayward paths to who knows where.
So I was lucky to have a friend who lived so nearby. I would go knocking for Camilo and he would know, just by looking at me, that something was up between my parents and that we should go and find a safe place to spend the rest of the afternoon, a place where no one could find us to send us home. Luckily we were surrounded by public gardens, dozens of trees to hide among.
The Palleiros arrived in Mexico in the mid seventies, when Camilo and I were just five. They were exiles from Uruguay, where the military junta had ordered the arrest of all communists. They moved into the building where I lived, but on the fourth floor just beneath our apartment. Around that time there was an influx of exiled children in Villa Olímpica, some accompanied by their parents, and others by their uncles, aunts or grandparents. Not all families could emigrate at the same time. Not all of them got out intact. Those families who had managed to gather their belongings had to wait months before they could go to the port to retrieve them. And they were the privileged few. That’s why, in most cases, their houses were bare, minimalist, modest: paper lampshades, wicker or reclaimed wood furniture, things picked up here and there. Anything to help them build their precarious nests.
There were more than twenty buildings in our neighbourhood, all separated by woodland paths and stone ramps, perfect for cycling. Every day after school we would scramble outside, making the kind of racket you hear at theme parks or break time. Our screeches and yells came in all different accents, but mostly Mexican, Chilean, Argentinian. Less common was Uruguayan, and perhaps that’s why to me it also seemed the loveliest. At dusk, the mums would come out or wave from the windows telling us it was time to come in. We all trundled home and a hush as dark as night would fall over the gardens.
Camilo and I first became friends further back than I can remember. In my earliest memories of us we’re about six. I can see us chasing a squirrel at the entrance to the car park, in fits of giggles. It may not sound out of the ordinary for two local kids to hang out together each day, but in our case it was. On arriving in the city, Camilo’s parents enrolled him at a school attended mostly by the children of families affiliated with the party, but he was too lanky, too tall, too awkward and too cultured to pass unnoticed (the best possible outcome for any school kid). To make matters worse, he wore glasses and had a funny accent. He would have been more than happy if his classmates had shown their contempt by ostracising him. But instead they would beat him up. And I couldn’t do anything about it, just like he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about me being an object of ridicule and abuse at my private Montessori school, owing to my acute shyness. We shared the fate – at once cruel and kind – of having liberal, progressive and largely absent parents. We also shared a desperate urge to be grown up, to build lives of our own, lives that we imagined free from all domestic strife. And yet, these were two very different dreams; for while I wanted to fly planes, climb mountains and travel by airship, Camilo spoke of nothing but returning to Uruguay. I ask myself now if this obsession came from his parents, but as far as I remember, in their house, where I spent as much time as I did in my own, no one ever spoke about it.
The gardens, just like the buildings in the complex, had their own tenants. Entire families of insects, worms, birds and stray cats lived among the hedges and tree trunks. The birds were by far my favourites. I wasn’t interested in shooting them with a slingshot like the others did to the pigeons. I was happy just to sit and watch them, admiring all their different songs, colours, sizes and feathers. I even liked that some were free and others lived in cages inside apartments, like the kids whose parents never let them come down to the square and mix with the rest of us. It’s true that most of those birds were ‘filthy pigeons’, as Camilo would say, but there were also sparrows and American robins with orangey bills. Inside the apartments you mostly got canaries and companion parrots. Whenever I was sick and lucky enough to skip school I would listen to the birds from my bedroom, amazed by the din they made. We usually drowned them out with our shrieks.
One Saturday afternoon Dad offered to take me to an aviary on the outskirts of town. It was a grey day and threatened to rain at any moment. But I’d spent the whole morning listening to my parents fighting, so anything was better than staying at home. On the way in the car we listened to an old Beatles cassette and didn’t exchange a word. The aviary was an enclosed park, but big enough so that it didn’t feel like the birds were penned in. Different areas simulated particular kinds of climates, from the golden eagle’s semi-desert to the scarlet macaw’s forest. We spent over two hours walking around the aviary under a refreshing drizzle. That afternoon my father also caught the bird bug, and from then on birds became one of the topics of conversation we would fall back on. And it wasn’t just my view of birds that changed that day, but also the way I looked at other humans. Dad and I invented a game that consisted of spying on our neighbours to work out which species of bird they most resembled, either physically or behaviourally. Lalo’s mum, the woman from the ground floor, was clearly an owl with five chicks in the nest; the woman from 305 was a robin in high heels. Camilo quickly got the hang of our game and soon became the undisputed champion at identifying which bird went with which neighbour.
I spent so much time over at the Palleiros’ place that it felt like an extension of my own home. Ernesto Palleiro liked playing the guitar, drinking wine and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. We would listen to him from his son’s room, just as we’d listen to my parents’ rows, barely muffled by the walls and ceiling. Noises from further afield also found their way into my room. I would often wake in the middle of the night to the sound of Camilo crying, cries I would have recognised from miles away, and on hearing them I’d become incensed at his parents for not taking him out of that damn school where they were torturing him. Nodding back off to sleep, I would think about how I couldn’t have been the only one who felt this way, and that in every one of those buildings full of exiles there was at least one kid crying themself to sleep each night.
Shortly before my eleventh birthday my father completed his PhD in Biology, and they offered him a research post at the University of New Orleans. And that’s how, having always lived in the same habitat, we too became migrants, packing up our things and heading north. Camilo and I said goodbye in the lobby, making promises about the future, each of us knowing deep down that we’d probably never see one another again.
That moment marked the beginning of a period of constant upheaval for my family. We set out on a voyage that would take us all across North America and Europe. My father accepted jobs wherever they came up, almost always at prestigious universities, but always for short periods of time. Mum and I followed him as he went. In all those cities my parents fought with the same fervour. Their rows were the only constant in our countless houses, and I’ve come to believe that through those scandalous bust-ups they found a kind of harmony: the more they argued, the closer they became.
We were living by the sea on the North Atlantic coast, where seagulls replaced the pigeons, and when he had the time Dad would take me bird watching. But these birds lived in the wild, in woods and on the state’s peninsulas. One weekend we visited the Cat Island wildlife reserve in southeast Louisiana, where the brown pelican roosts. We travelled by car first, then in a boat belonging to the university, together with a team of biologists – one of them a friend of my father – and two sailors. The atmosphere on board was cheerful and relaxed. The sailors made wisecracks about biologists and the biologists poked fun at the sailors. During the expedition one of them took out a fishing rod. In no time at all, he had a bite. He wanted to catch enough for all of us to have a barbecue once we were back ashore. It’s true that we weren’t exactly a small crew, but the fish were biting that day, and there was nothing to suggest he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise. After about the third or fourth catch, the rod began to bend severely and we had to hold onto our fisherman to stop him from being dragged into the water. That’s when we noticed, to our complete horror, that the animal he was reeling in on the hook wasn’t a fish, but a giant bird.
‘Bring in the line!’ one of the sailors shouted. ‘His bill’s caught on the hook.’
I asked Dad if it was a pelican. I knew the species was endangered and the last thing I wanted was to contribute to their extinction. But he corrected me: the animal striking the boat’s deck with its two immense, unwieldy wings wasn’t a pelican but an albatross.
The sailors looked on, staggered by the sight of the injured bird, while one of the biologists tried to prise open its beak to remove the hook. It wasn’t easy; the albatross was flapping about furiously, trying to escape. You could hear its fear and rage in its squawks. What was an albatross doing here, so far from its natural habitat? The friend of my father explained that it is very rare to see an albatross outside of its usual geographical range but every now and then one is drawn off course by storms and gets lost. The problem, he told me, isn’t so much that they leave their territory, but that when they do it’s almost impossible for them to cross the equator and find it again. Finally the sailor managed to remove the piece of metal, and the albatross, after attempting several wobbly steps across the deck, took flight. The moment it was airborne it spread its wings, savouring all that space, and flew off majestically. But instead of flying away from the boat, it let us watch him for a few minutes more. Someone began to clap and the rest of us joined in.
Cat Island is an astonishingly beautiful place. I discovered this for myself a few months later, when we went a second time, but on that first trip I couldn’t have been less interested in the pelicans. I only had eyes for the albatross. When I got home I decided to write Camilo a letter to tell him that I’d found his bird, but I changed my mind before I even put pen to paper. All that distance and time between us intimidated me.
When I finished middle school my family emigrated to Besançon, in the east of France, and I enrolled at the Lycée Mignet. The students there were permanently on heat. Fully devoted to their various courtship rituals, they did everything in their power to find a partner, which halfway through the school year they would swap for someone new. It was around this time that I wrote the first letter. Three pages written in small, close handwriting in which I explained to Camilo all the major events of the previous years, including the day we discovered the albatross on Cat Island. But I also told him how lonely I was. I liked travelling, getting to know different landscapes and cities. I couldn’t imagine ever settling down. Books were my only stable friendships during those years. I would get home, sit down to read and not move until tiredness defeated me. I often thought about Camilo. I wondered what he would look like now. I myself had changed a lot. I was taller and more ungainly, and my nose seemed to be growing at a disproportional speed to the rest of my face. I wondered if his was now covered in spots like the boys in my school, if his voice was the same or if it had turned into an unrecognisable caw, but none of these questions found their way into the letter. I sent it not knowing if he would even get it. After all, four years had passed and in all likelihood his parents had moved apartments. A month later I received a photo of his new skateboard, over which he’d painted two giant two-tone wings. On the back he’d written: ‘Love, Camilo.’
It was that same year in French literature class that they made us read Les fleurs du mal, so I went to the school library to get it out. When they handed it to me I opened the book at random and there, on the page, was Baudelaire’s poem about the albatross – ‘ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux’ – where he describes the bird as nature’s equivalent of the cursed poet. I read it to my father when I got home, and he in turn, and with much gusto, read me Coleridge’s poem, the story of a sailor who ends up cursed for life for having killed an albatross. He is beset by all sorts of misfortunes on his travels, but the ultimate penance is being condemned to tell his story to everyone he meets, over and over, until he dies. The tale, as dark as any I’ve read, deeply disturbed me. All sailors know that story, my father told me. That’s when I understood the Louisianan sailor’s horror at having caught his hook on the albatross’ bill. I copied out a verse by hand to send it to Camilo as a response to his photo. I hadn’t had a single boyfriend in all that time. I liked to really know a boy before even thinking about kissing him, which drove them all to distraction. I was too slow.
December 1983 saw the end of the Argentinian dictatorship and Alfonsín took power. Half of the residents of Villa Olímpica went home. I knew this because our old neighbours had stayed in contact with my parents all of that time and some, on leaving, tried to sell them their car or apartment. Democracy returned to Uruguay in ’85. We were still abroad. I asked my father to write to the Palleiros to find out what their plans were, but before they’d replied I received an inconsolable letter from Camilo. In it he criticised his family for refusing to go home. Just a few years later we made a trip to Patagonia. My father wanted to see the glaciers and I the albatross, this time in their natural habitat. We travelled to the Falkland Islands, which were known for being home to an immense colony of black-browed albatross. When we went the island was brimming with adolescent birds who had just returned to their place of origin. They had been born there four or five years earlier, and as soon as they had developed into adults, they had then spent the same amount of time flying across the ocean, barely touching dry land. But instinct, that force almost akin to fate, compels the albatross to return home to settle, not only in their country of origin but just a few metres from the place where they were born. On that island we came across a nest with an abandoned egg. They explained to us that this was a rare tragedy. If an albatross abandons the family home it is only ever to save its own life. On hearing this, I thought about my South American neighbours, who, the second they had the chance, returned to the country where they’d almost lost their lives. It wasn’t an easy homecoming. There was no work and the people there looked at them suspiciously, as you look at a disappeared person who’s suddenly returned. But they had left something there: their dreams and ideals, perhaps, frustrated before they’d had a chance to fulfil them. And those dreams had to be retrieved.
I have vivid and conflicting memories of that trip to Patagonia. I had always imagined the albatross as a rare and solitary bird, and seeing them living all together in their colonies seemed almost oxymoronic. But I know from experience that the world is full of rare birds that have no idea how rare they are. Even stranger to me, all the albatross had their minds on one thing – mating. And I found their behaviour just as disconcerting as that of my classmates at parties and in the school playground. The albatross’s courtship is perhaps the longest in the animal kingdom. They can spend over two years dancing around other potential mates before they find the one with whom they fall into step. But unlike my school friends, albatross remain monogamous throughout their long lives.
My father died a year after that trip. They found him in a hotel room in Mexico City, having suffered a heart attack. Mum and I travelled to see him and make arrangements for his funeral in the Panteón de Santa María, which overlooks the Valle de Bravo lake. We received a lot of calls over those days. My mother took them all. I was in no state to talk to anyone. One afternoon she mentioned that Camilo had called. If you think about it, the custom of visiting the place where our beloveds’ bones rest is absurd, but in that errant life of ours, my family was my only nest, my only den. That’s why I visit his grave when I’m in Mexico. And when I do, I always take a handful of bird feed to attract the hummingbirds.
My father would often say that people only gain recognition in Mexico when they make a successful career for themselves abroad. I don’t know if he was right, but it was certainly true in his case. On the first anniversary of his death, the Faculty of Sciences organised a conference in his honour, which they invited me to open. The aula magna was packed full of people from all generations, and that’s where I found him again: in the middle of the crowd. He had changed a lot, it’s true, but it barely took me a second to recognise him. We hugged without saying a word, in front of all those sombre, prestigious professors. I had to attend the official dinner that evening so we agreed to meet up the following day, in a cafe in the Coyoacán district. We spent the whole afternoon recounting our lives to one another. I talked to him about the cities we’d lived in, and I talked, too, about albatross. In turn he explained that he still lived in Villa Olímpica, in the same apartment, putting up with that dismal birdsong. He told me that he’d been in two major accidents, one of them in a car: a friend had tried to race a train and lost. Thanks to him Camilo spent three months in hospital, fighting to save one of his legs. The experience did give him the push he needed to complete his studies in economics but it had been years since he’d worked in anything related. He didn’t have the patience. Instead, he helped out his dad with his business, and in return he got a roof over his head and food on the table. His dad had no idea about the marijuana you can farm under artificial light, and which Camilo grew in his bedroom wardrobe to sell to the neighbours. Villa Olímpica had always been associated with cannabis. He couldn’t have been in a better location. He swore he saved every penny he earned in a special fund to one day return to Uruguay. Despite his numerous efforts to persuade me, I declined his invitation to visit them at home. I felt fragile after the death of my father, and the mere idea of going back to the old neighbourhood terrified me. There’d be time for that. We met a few more times in the same cafe, and each time we stayed until they threw us out. When we left we would walk in circles around the block. We couldn’t stop talking, or staring at each other. We pointed out our physical changes with admiration and surprise: his hair, once dead straight, was now wavy; and he no longer wore glasses. But he was still just as tall and attractive, and his hugs just as perfect.
Without mentioning a word to Camilo I missed my return flight to France to stay near him, and since then I haven’t returned to my studies. You can quantify the effects of tangible accidents, but internal blows leave imperceptible scars that are much harder to mend. I rented an apartment near the university, and it was there that we would see each other, a couple of times a week. My contribution was the space itself with its terrace. He would bring the pizza, the wine and the weed. Our gatherings generally consisted in us sharing details about our lives and laughing till we cried. Every now and then Camilo would fail to turn up or would cancel at the last minute to go out with other, potentially like-minded female friends. He had plenty. I liked that he told me about his love life, as if he knew that with me he didn’t have to watch what he said or put up a guard. And I really didn’t judge him, just like he didn’t judge my decision to wait as many years as I needed to find myself a mate. We both knew perfectly well that, the day I was ready, the mate would be him.
We spent almost six months like this, in sync, just as we had been as children, until one day I finally accepted his invitation to visit him in Villa Olímpica. His father was out of town for the weekend and we settled into the apartment from midday on the Friday. On the Saturday afternoon we went for a walk. Camilo remembered all our favourite games and hiding places. ‘Here’s where you used to bring your dolls. Here’s where we hid our stash of candy. Over there, behind those bushes, is where the water-bomb war started, the one that went on for three days.’ I asked after Paula, Alexis and all the other neighbours who came to mind that morning. Camilo gave me the lowdown on all of their lives right up to the moment they left Mexico. One by one, he’d watched them go. ‘I never heard from them again. I’m the only one left. Me and my parents, of course, but those idiots are too scared.’ We strolled along the stone paths, holding hands like in the old days, but really we were walking in opposite directions: I was regressing to childhood, while he only wanted to escape it.
On Monday I went home and didn’t hear from him that whole week. I respected his silence. He called the following Thursday night to tell me that he’d bought his ticket and would be leaving for Montevideo in a fortnight. I swallowed the news in silence. ‘You don’t have to pretend,’ he said. ‘I know you’re crying.’ I laughed and told him between sobs that he was a poor bastard. That was all I said. I didn’t ask him to stay. How could I if it was all he’d ever wanted? If in reality nothing significant had happened in his life besides those two accidents – which were perhaps another unconscious attempt to escape captivity? Nor could I go with him. All this was unfinished business with his own story, his own family, even if they didn’t want to get involved. I would have liked to ask him what country he was really from: Mexico, where he’d lived for four decades? Or Uruguay, a country of which he didn’t have one measly memory? But anything I could have said that night he’d already thought about a thousand times, over the course of forty years. My interrogation wouldn’t have contributed anything to the conversation he was having inside of himself. No, there was nothing I could say. The only thing left to me to do was help him get ready for the journey and pack, give him a lift to the warehouse he’d rented to store his things, and finally drive him to the airport, trying to prevent Ernesto Palleiro – sitting on the back seat, silent as a funeral mourner – from seeing me cry.
That afternoon, Camilo’s father and I stuck around in the viewing area for a couple of hours until the LAN plane pierced the sky with its two-tone wings. As we waited, I told him about the albatross I’d come across as a child. ‘Albatross,’ I explained, ‘have a very clearly demarcated territory: the North..
Lisa Moore has written two collections of stories, Degrees of Nakedness and Open, and three novels, Alligator, February and Caught, as well as a stage play. We featured her story ‘The Fjord of Eternity’ in Granta 141: Canada. In this series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
I started reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf in Florence, Italy, three weeks ago. I fell asleep with the book held upright in my hands. I woke with it under my cheek, pages crumpled and squished. I read it in cafes drinking hot chocolate, thick as tar, so rich and chocolatey that for a second or two I experienced synesthesia – I was drinking the novel and reading the hot chocolate. The sugar high was inseparable from the gorgeousness of Woolf’s prose. Basically, I fell in love with the book. Or the hot chocolate.
The beginning of Woolf’s novel is set during the Renaissance. I was spending almost two weeks alone. For three or four hours each day, I wandered around Florence doing sketches of Renaissance sculptures.
I’d also made a New Year’s resolution to do a portrait every day for a year. I wanted to explore what a ‘likeness’ is, and how the act of capturing a person through a portrait might compare to writing a character.
By the end of January I was getting better at proportion. I was able to think more about the quality of the marks I was making, (for example, the silvery lightness of a pencil sketch, or the happy accidents of a bleeding watercolour).
But ‘likeness’ still, quite often, evades me. How can it be that everything is right – the angle of a cheekbone, the set of a chin, the distance between the upper lip and the nose, the gleam of light on a tear duct, or in the pupil of the eye – yet the person is not recognizable? Doesn’t look anything like her.
I draw from life, the model sitting in front of me. I raise my pencil an inch and the model lifts her head. I tell the model not to talk so I can get the exact shape of the lips and how they meet. It’s an intimate and charged experience. Sometimes, when I’ve been lucky, I’ve ended up with something of a ‘likeness’. The essence of the person, or at least the essence of our encounter together, the intensity of the exchange, is there on the page. It shifts easily out of focus, blurs, flickers in the corner of the viewer’s eye. How does this compare to writing a character so the reader knows them, however much a character might be (must be?) an unstable construction, flickering in and out of view?
I had studied many of the sculptures and the architecture I was seeing in the museums and palazzos of Florence in a foundation art history course at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the mid-eighties.
Our textbook in that foundation year was Janson’s History of Art. Yup, the entire history of art from the get-go. Compressed time, beauty, politics, patronage, desire: what is art and why has everybody been making it for so long?
But that was nothing compared to the altering experience of reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Berger’s book, along with the television series of the same name was revolutionary (in one of the episodes, as I remember it, Berger stands before the Mona Lisa and suddenly whips out a knife and slices through the canvas! And then Berger demands we consider the aura of a masterpiece and compare the feelings it evokes with a mere reproduction).
Of course we’ve been duped, it isn’t the real Mona Lisa, but how does the reproduction differ from the original? Reading Berger was like having someone take a jackhammer to the inert marble chunk of my imagination and wake it up, shape it.
And during my nearly three weeks in Florence, there was most of the art I had studied in my early 20s, but had never seen ‘in the flesh’.
These museums blocked with Botticellis and Raphaels and Caraveggios, gold cherubs jammed into the moulding. If you’re willing to get a kink in your neck, you can watch the gods play out their wars, dashing lightning bolts all over the ceilings.
The David is pretty good: ripped, the curls, the nose, shiny from so much polish.
But Michelangelo’s Prisoners sculptures interested me the most – blocks of marble only partially chiseled into, as though the artist were hacking away to free the man inside the stone before he suffocates.
A man trying to burst free of a massive block of stone; you can see him writhing – here a knee, here a beard, here an elbow, searching the room with one wild eye, an eye suddenly very much alive, roving crazily around to see the world he’s busting into, which happens to be 2018: Trump, Trudeau, Brexit, pipelines in Canada, a hydroelectric dam in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador that will create enough methylmercury to destroy the food security of the Indigenous people living adjacent to the project, as well as the energy security of the entire province, and skinny polar bears, receding ice caps, and so on – and with his other eye, still inert, still blind, this thrashing prisoner, stuck in the stone, is casting back through geological time, through climate change and we’ve gone too far, through cave men and, apes and fish crawling out of the sea gasping with their new lungs, all the way back to the big bang – the sublime.
Orlando is a faux biography. The narrator tries to capture the mental anguish of the young poet’s efforts to become a writer. Orlando is wealthy and powerful, he certainly doesn’t need to be a writer (who needs that?) but he’s obsessed, he cannot escape it.
He wants to be a writer, and Woolf captures what it feels like to try to write, and to get it wrong, the feeling of wanting recognition and the folly in that. The desire to capture a character and get most of the things exactly right, the neighbourhood where a character lives, their socio-economic status, what they’d had for breakfast, and whether the toast was cold, butter or margarine, and still manage to fail at bringing that character to life. Still manage to end up with a marble look-alike rather than a living, breathing, flitting ‘likeness’.
Woolf writes about Orlando’s desire to contain memory on the page, or let it burst through, flood everything and everywhere, like a broken dam.
She says this about character: ‘The mind receives a myriad of impressions, trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, in an incessant shower of innumerable atoms . . . Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, as each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.’
Woolf recognizes the instability of any likeness; she celebrates it.
Sometimes I think it’s impossible to make a character three-dimensional in a novel, or in a drawing or even a faux biography; the best to hope for is a shadow, a glimpse, an impression, because life itself is too complex, too lush, too magical, there are too many moments, too many tangents!
Okay, this happened: like I said, I was alone for almost two weeks and I went into a gelato shop, and these shops, the heaps of gelato are sculpted, and the shop is an artwork all in itself, and it’s crowded, shoulder to shoulder, people jostling each other. I choose a flavour and get in the line up to pay, and the man behind the counter takes my money, and then he’s taking the money of the woman behind me, and because it feels like I haven’t used my voice in days, haven’t spoken, been alone, all I’ve been doing is reading, I ask him: What’s your favourite flavour?
And he snaps at me: One moment!
He is counting out change and I’ve interrupted him, and: One Moment!
I feel humiliated. What the hell was I thinking What’s your favourite flavour and next thing he leaves the line of customers and comes around the corner of the counter and shoulders his way through the crowd, and goes behind the glass where all the gelato is heaped and he says: I will show you.
And he’s back with a sundae spoon. It’s a lime green plastic spoon, with a longish handle, and everybody is crowded around us, and the eyes on him, big, sexy, chocolate eyes. Looking deep into my eyes, he is, and he opens his mouth, involuntarily, sort of encouraging me to open my mouth, I realize he is going to actually feed me in the middle of this shop floor. People have stopped jostling, they are watching, crowding in.
You will see, he whispers to me, coaxing. Just taste this.
I feel my mouth open, involuntarily, mimicking his mouth.
But I realize, at the very last second, before the gelato touches my lips, that if that gelato is as good as he said, and if I let him feed me like that, well, I will never leave Florence, I will stay there forever, prisoner of the Renaissance, I’ll abandon everything I know of myself for this guy with the spoon! So I quickly and awkwardly took the spoon from his hand. Spell broken. The crowd gets on with their jostling. And the gelato is every bit as good as he promised.
Orlando finds himself up against this kind of problem when he tries to write: ‘Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.’
And who wouldn’t want to be under that linen, face turned up, tickled by all those petticoats? Who doesn’t want to get it all down, capture something alive for posterity, or the present? Who doesn’t want to at least try for that kind of likeness?
Francis was my older brother. His was a name a toughened kid might boast of knowing, or a name a parent might pronounce in warning. But before all of this, he was the shoulder pressed against me bare and warm, that body always just a skin away.
Our mother had come from Trinidad, in what parents of her generation called the West Indies. It was a place that Francis and I, both born and raised here in Canada, had visited once and could recognize vaguely in words and sounds and tastes. It was a place that accounted for the presence in our house of certain drinks like mauby and sorrel and also the inexplicably named Peardrax, which Francis had once fooled me into believing was bathroom cleanser. Somehow, we felt that the West Indies made sense of other equally strange objects in our home, like the snow globe of Niagara Falls, or the lurking threat of Anne Murray’s ‘Snowbird’ 45. It was a place populated by relatives we had met only briefly, who existed now in old black-and-white photographs, ghostly images that were supposed to explain our eyes and way of smiling, our hair and bones.
There was another old photograph in the house, one that Francis discovered when we were small, shelved secretly in Mother’s bedroom cupboard. It showed a man with a moustache groomed so carefully it looked painted on. He wore a thin light-coloured jacket, the open collar of his shirt slightly kinked up. Old words like suave and debonair came to mind, or at least they do now. This man was our father, who was also from the West Indies, and who now lived somewhere in the city, although he had left our home when Francis was three and I was only two. The photograph wasn’t perfectly focused, and I remember Francis and me as children looking hard into the blur of the man’s face for something recognizable. His skin was much darker than Mother’s, but we had been told that he was not black like her, but something called ‘Indian’ – although this identity seemed lost in the poorness of the photograph, or in the trowel-thick application of Brylcreem in his hair, as artificial as the black snap-on do of Lego Man.
In truth, none of us, not me, Francis, or Mother, had much interest in the grey pasts of photographs. We had more than enough to explore right here and now, and most of all we had the running challenge of what our mother called ‘opportunity.’ Mother worked as a cleaner in office buildings and malls and hospitals. She was also one of those black mothers, unwilling to either seek or accept help from others. Unwilling to suffer any small blow to her sense of independence or her vision of eventual arrival. And so if a job suddenly arose in some distant part of the city but held the promise of future opportunities, or if, just as suddenly, the opportunity for time-and-a-half beckoned, she would accept the work, though it meant leaving her two young boys alone at home.
She was never happy about abandoning us, and if she learned the evening before of an impending night shift, she would spend precious sleep time cooking and worrying over the details of meals and activities for the following day. If we had homework, she would set it out on the dining room table beside plates of cook-up and greens, or rice and stew chicken. There was tenderness in the dishes she prepared, love in a dish made perfect with the fruity bite of Scotch bonnet. But by the time she started putting on her coat and shoes, she would be in a state, exhausted, almost overcome with guilt, yet expressing it in bitter scoldings and fantastic threats. Her voice, schooled harshly in the Queen’s English, now articulating threats mined from the deepest hells of history.
‘No answering the door or turning up the heat. No turning on the oven or stovetop at any time. You hear me, Francis? I will strap your backside red if I come back to find you or your brother hurt. Absolutely no TV after eight if I’m not back until then. No A-Team or Mrs. T or any other gangster foolishness in my home. Oh you smiling now? You think is joke? You feel you too harden to listen to me? Then you both go right ahead and touch that stove dial. Just answer that front door once. I will string you up by your thumbnails from the ceiling. I will skin you alive and screaming. I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel!’
Francis and I would nod and shake our heads all at once in urgent promising. Mother would neat up her uniform and hair in the mirror by the door and then leave without looking back, locking the door and testing the doorknob several times before we heard faintly among the noise of traffic her feet clopping quickly away on the sidewalk. In the hours that followed, Francis and I would try to be good. We would eat our dinner and put away the dishes and only afterwards find high up in the kitchen cupboards the other tastes we craved. Thick mouthfuls of corn syrup sucked direct from the yellow beehive container. The tongue-stinging green of Jell-O powder licked slowly from a spoon. We’d do the homework Mother had laid out for us, but, later, we’d learn equally important life skills and facts about the world from Three’s Company and The Dukes of Hazzard. When we were a bit older, on those Friday nights when Mother was away we’d watch late-night Italian comedies with the enticing parental guidance warnings. Francis and I each suffering patiently through intricate plots in a foreign language for the promise of a couple seconds of boob.
‘They’re showing!’ he once shouted from the living room. ‘Both of them at once! You have to get here now! Right now!’
‘Wait! Wait!’ I called from the bathroom. Stumbling, falling, then crawling with my pants still around my ankles until I reached him and could see. But nothing. Only that late-night infomercial for the Ronco food dehydrator.
Francis’s laughter. Stupid beef jerky.
In every case, he would have the decency and respect to wait for at least an hour before making his move. And the first time Mother left us alone, it was magic. When the sun had begun to set, my brother dragged a chair from the kitchen to reach the deadbolt on the front door. He clicked the lock open, and pushed at the door, and here it was before us. The freedom of Lawrence Avenue. Security lights and rust-stained apartment buildings.
‘Remember,’ Francis told me. ‘We never answered the front door.’
The world around us was named Scarborough. It had once been called ‘Scarberia,’ a wasteland on the outskirts of a sprawling city. But now, as we were growing up in the early ’80s, in the heated language of a changing nation, we heard it called other names: Scarlem, Scarbistan. We lived in Scar-bro, a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life. Our neighbours were Mrs. Chandrasekar and Mr. Chow, Pilar Fernandez and Clive ‘Sonny’ Barrington. They spoke different languages, they ate different foods, but they were all from one colony or the other, and so they had a shared vocabulary for describing feral children like us. We were ‘ragamuffins.’ We were ‘hooligans’ up to no good ‘gallivanting.’ We were what one neighbour, more poet than security guard, described as ‘oiled creatures of mongoose cunning,’ raiding dumpsters and garbage rooms or climbing up trees and fire-exit stairs to spy on adults. During winters we snowballed cars on Lawrence Avenue, dipping into the back alleys if the drivers tried to pursue us. A Pinto Wagon once shaving past my face, its wake tugging hard upon my body, Francis’s hand upon my shoulder pulling me safe.
During the day, we had more formal educational opportunities. Our school was named after Sir Alexander Campbell, a Father of Confederation. But we the students of his school had our own confederations, our own schoolyard territories and alliances, our own trade agreements and anthems. We listened to Planet Rock and carried Adidas bags and wore stonewashed jeans and painter caps. You could hear us whenever there were general assemblies in the auditorium, our collective voices overwhelming whatever politely seated ceremony we were supposed to be attending.
Hey Francis, homeboy, my man.
Rudebwoy Francis! Gangstar!
Francis and I each served out long sentences in classrooms beneath the chemical hum of white fluorescent lights, in part out of fear of our mother, who warned us, upon pain of something worse than death, not to squander ‘our only chance.’ But Francis actually liked to learn. He read books, and he was a good observer.
And after class was out there were other institutions to learn from. A dozen blocks west of the towers and housing complexes of the Park, at the intersection of Markham and Lawrence, there lay a series of strip malls. There were grocery shops selling spices and herbs under signs in foreign languages and scripts, vegetables and fruits with vaguely familiar names like ackee and eddo. There were restaurants with an average expiry date of a year, their hand-painted signs promising ice cream with the ‘back home tastes’ of mango and khoya and badam kulfi, a second sign written urgently in red marker promising that they’d also serve, whenever asked, the mystery of ‘Canadian food.’
Also the Heritage Value convenience store, run by that asshole who framed his useless foreign degree, despised the dark stinking guts of every other immigrant, and bullied his wife and two daughters into endless hours at the cash register, advertising lottery tickets and low phone rates to Kingston and Saigon and Colombo and Port of Spain. The father hated Francis and me, recognizing the look of ‘no money’ on our faces. We had little chance of sneaking into his store when he was working. But if his wife or daughters were on shift, we might slip in and buy a few singles of Double Bubble and maybe a pack of three-flavoured Fun Dip. We’d scope out the freezer section with its Klondike Bars and Eskimo Pies frosted thick with crystals, their prices always out of reach. We might even be allowed to steal a few moments at the comic book display, pretending to debate a buy but actually reading as quickly as possible. Those stories of heroes masked and misread. Their secret origins, their endless war with darkest evil.
Francis had nightmares. He’d be lying in the bunk above me, and I’d listen to his breathing, the soft wheeze he might have from allergies or a cold. He’d be on the edge of sleep when some terror would visit him. He’d wake screaming a deep body scream, all cracked throat and emptied stomach, and it would take me a while to realize that I’d been screaming too. If Mother was home, she’d offer comfort. She’d lie beside us, and with the warmth of her body push back the fear. We’d lie quiet and awake, the three of us, for a long time, watching the wind blow ghosts into the drapes and cars passing by on the avenue cast moving lights upon the walls and ceiling.
Never speaking. Listening for things.
What scares two boys aged ten and eleven? Sometimes, in the midst of our play, a siren would cut the air and cars with flashing lights would brake screeching on the avenue, a neighbourhood kid soon cuffed on the sidewalk, his face turned away from us in shame. There were tales about boys jumped and beaten, faces ruined, jaws wired shut. ‘I saw it myself,’ claimed one; ‘I did it,’ claimed another, and we were never sure if either ought to be believed. Always, there were stories on TV and in the papers of gangs, killings in bad neighbourhoods, predators roaming close. One morning, I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces.
From the age of seven, Francis could read. He read books, of course, regularly and well into his teens. But he could also read the many signs and gestures around us. He could read the faces of the neighbourhood youth hanging around outside 7-Eleven and know when to offer a nod or else a sly joke or else just to keep moving and not just then attempt to meet a bruised pair of eyes. But especially, Francis could read our mother. He recognized her pride, but also the routes and tolls of her labours. He knew that for work as a cleaner, and sometimes a nanny, she had not only tough hours but also long journeys, complicated rides along bus routes to faraway office buildings and malls and homes, long waits at odd hours at stops and stations, sometimes in the rain or the thick heat of the afternoon, sometimes in the cold and dark of winter. He understood that there is a specific moment during the trip back home from work when a mother’s body threatens to give out. A specific site in the bus loop at Kennedy Station when exhaustion closes in and the limbs feel like meat, and it takes every last strength from a mother to make the two additional bus transfers home.
When Francis was still not quite a teen, and Mother returned home in a state, he would go to work. He would casually offer her a cool, damp cloth for her head, maybe even a pan of water and Epsom salts for her feet. He would fetch a blanket in winter, or a fan and a glass of water in summer. He was careful never to overdo his concern, and so wound her pride, or otherwise to break any of the household rules she had established to help us through lean times. But one hot summer day, when Mother collapsed on the couch, shaking her head at all offered food, unwilling to take a sip of water or even to open her eyes, twelve-year-old Francis dared big.
He went to the kitchen and took from the freezer a can of orange juice concentrate. We had been warned repeatedly by Mother never to touch such stuff without her permission. And if she allowed us to touch it, we were to use five cans of water to dilute the concentrate, never three as the fool instructions on the can said. But on that day, Francis used just one can of water, mashing it into the frozen lump of concentrate with a wooden spoon, and pouring the slush bright into a glass. He gently lowered the glass into Mother’s curled fingers, her eyes still closed. I braced for all hell to break loose as she tasted, her mouth moving as if eating pudding.
‘I made it sweet this time,’ explained Francis.
‘Sweet,’ Mom said, a tired smile.
She touched his face. She cupped his chin and touched the growing shadow of his moustache. She pinched his earlobe lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf, then reached to gently pluck something from his hair. A burr from the Rouge Valley.
The Rouge Valley. It was a wound in the earth. A scar of green running through our neighbourhood, hundreds of feet deep in some places, a glacial valley that existed long before anything called Scarborough. It had been bridged near our home, turned into a park with a paved asphalt walkway running alongside the creek. When we were very young, and Mother could spare the time, she would take us there for picnics. But soon Francis and I preferred to visit it on our own, scorning the paved walkway down into its parklands, opting instead for the footpath that we ourselves had broken through the undergrowth and down the steep slope until we reached the floor of that deep green valley.
When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken pieces of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle. One summer we used a stick to corner a crayfish, blue-red and mottled, and Francis explained shiveringly how it grew by cracking its own body open. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down from the fast-food joints above. Our hair camouflaged with mashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces already the colour of earth.
The Rouge was not ‘nature,’ not that untouched land you could watch on wildlife shows or read about in history books. The Rouge wasn’t the sort of place you could pretend to have discovered, nor imagine empty and now your own. But it was the place we knew, and the place, even as we grew older, we kept returning to.
Late one evening during the fall Francis turned fourteen, we visited for the last time. It had been a long time, perhaps more than a year, since we’d gone to the Rouge together. We walked to the edge of the bridge and spent a bit of time rummaging along the guardrail, trying to find the head of our path amidst the brush and fallen leaves and blown trash from the road. Twice passing cars honked angrily at us. Finally, Francis said, ‘Over here,’ and we began edging carefully down the steepest part of the valley’s slope, slipping wildly and only slowing down by grabbing brush and low branches. Eventually, the ground levelled and we broke out into a small clearing. Francis had a green canvas backpack with him, and when we were seated by the creek he surprised me by pulling out a six-pack of Molson Canadian. He broke one from its plastic ring and opened it with a soft whisper crack and passed it to me. I sipped carefully, trying not to make a face at the bitterness. We were quiet for some time as we drank our cans and the trees turned to black shadows against the night sky.
Her habitat: a rectangular prism of the toughest plastic, ten gallons of tepid tap water.
Her furniture: glittering blue stones once scattered from a packet.
Her sole companion: a plastic frog with a plastic rod on a plastic lily pad beside a plastic sign which read, ironically, gone fishing.
In the beginning, there was the goldfish.
And the beginning was the late 1980s, and her position in our habitat was its epicentre: the kitchen – site of every great speech, bottleneck for every strong emotion. On the countertop in-between the toaster and the sink, above the old twin-tub, beneath the clock.
And there the goldfish spent many hours immobile, suspended, as if in a state of reverie, as if visualising the silk and agate and amber and earthenware of the Tang dynasty – when her carp ancestors were first bred especially for the mutation of their goldenness, plucked from water gardens and placed in glass bowls in palaces for emperors to admire. And the goldfish was beautiful and replete with equanimity; sometimes it took her days to extrude a single poo.
In the beginning, there was the goldfish.
And her tank changed, once every several years – and her water changed, once every several weeks, after she had lost sight of the scenery due to the accretion of slime and somebody had finally thought to fill the gallon drum and leave it sitting in the kitchen for long enough to reach tepidity. And then the scenery changed; an electric kettle arrived, a grill, a modern washing machine.
New faces came and went; constant faces aged.
In the beginning, there was the goldfish.
And there on the countertop now, beneath the clock? A mug tree, and a socket from which we are inclined to charge our mobile phones. And the goldfish is everlastingly earth-bound – her glass-like bones sunk beneath a layer of flowerbed and marked by her old, blue stones, which now glitter only barely.
The goldfish survived for almost twenty years, but there isn’t a single photograph, and I cannot pinpoint the day she died any better than I can the day she arrived; the only event of her whole life I can clearly remember is the afternoon on which the filtration system was installed.
I remember: how the tap water swelled with tiny balls of air, and the goldfish relinquished her reverie and entered the moment; how her fins shimmied with bliss; how her gilded scales glinted brighter than silk and agate and amber; how her extruded poo sprung up and danced.