Crabcakes—James Alan McPherson (Touchstone, 1998)
Ban en Banlieue—Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat Books, 2015)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life—Yiyun Li (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)
“Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living.”
Stones underfoot; they’re slope-faced, many thousands of them, ancient as the moon. They crunch as she hobbles over them from the water’s edge towards the castle. She should have worn her runners. Up ahead, Kronborg—Elsinore, for today—is as vast and regal as any castle. The scene is so familiar, though how should it be? It’s her first time in Denmark.
The performance begins under the great white banner of the sky outside; scene by scene the actors work their way through the halls and chambers of the castle. At each point in the play, she joins the line of spectators, gathered at the rim of a red rope circling the actors. Every year a new season of the same play. Must be a great gig for an actor, she thinks. One season, a Danish friend told her, Jude Law played the role of Hamlet. It was like the biggest thing to happen in Denmark. No Jude Law this time. Only actors with dark eye make-up smeared, who look, as all the Danes seem to, vaguely familiar to her. White people of a certain variety; the planes of their faces echo hers and her brothers’, invasions a millennia old alive in the angles of their noses, the curls of their chins and licks of ears.
‘Viking’, she learns on Wikipedia, isn’t an ethnic group. It’s just another word for marauding. Echoes of memories arbitrarily, violently implanted. Errant genes. Though ‘Viking Queen’ does have a ring more charming than ‘Pillaging Monarch’.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! (Hamlet ii.ii)
Oh, Hamlet. Hamlet and the pillaging monarchs. The forms upon which the human, humanity, is based—“quintessence of dust” (ii.ii).
She exits the castle early. Gets on a train back to the flat grey city. Enough Shakespeare for one day. Though she is in Copenhagen for a summer school on world literature—and Hamlet is the work of world literature, the work with multiple sources and endless articulations, adaptations—she hates the play: the wronged prince, the dead crazy girl, in this instance the pompous black-cloaked production values. And these days, all castles look like Trump Tower to her.
I write compulsively. No. That ‘I’ I just used, that is a former I. My current I doesn’t write. She doesn’t even take coherent notes anymore. She doesn’t believe in writer’s block, so it can’t be that. Writing is only training. (“Everything,” writes James Alan McPherson, “is training.”) It’s not about the sentences, sentences are still possible. See? It’s the self that’s supposed to be there to urge them into existence that has taken flight.
When in the past I wrote, there was a point from which ‘I’ could pivot. A time and a place and a self, located at the centre of those dimensions. Fiction, nonfiction, work emails—it doesn’t matter. An axis, something like: a voice composed on a screen, which could always be tracked back to a body, my body. I usually write ‘from life’, whatever that means, so the connection between these two things is, for the imagination of a reader, easily comprehensible. Same parents same schooling same crooked teeth. Same bullshit. Where are you? When did the dimensions of your space and time stop moving you?
We can trace it to three events:
1. Bhanu Kapil’s antimemoir workshop. And her books The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, read before the workshop, and Ban en Banlieue, read afterwards.
2. Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Then James Alan McPherson’s Crabcakes. In one destabilising breath.
3. Uprooting my life again. Suitcase living; what’s-your-wifi-login? living; using-a-sheet-as-a-towel living. The purpose of the uproot was to learn everything and to be in love with someone good—two most precarious states. The ‘learning’—being directed, bearing witness, reading hard, and undoing myself to find new threads—put the concreteness, the muscularity of my ‘self’ under direct attack. And the ‘loving’, that took care of the rest.
Can’t write memoir now. How bout antimemoir?
“Point of view offers two possibilities: partial and complete. What remains silent is the third and anonymous possibility—blindness, the end of writing.” (On Longing, Susan Stewart)
The upturn of losing the plot: the proliferation of a million futures opening up and collapsing like a row of spring blossoms. Longing made as soon as it is lost.
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is an extraordinary collection of literary-autobiographical essays. Li wrote these meditations on time, language, and living through her ‘context’ (which is, for her, within books), between and after two bouts of suicidal depression. Li distrusts the lyric ‘I’ more than any writer I have encountered, and not for dull reasons like the presumed universality of the author. She writes:
A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word. In Chinese, a language less grammatically strict, one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip the embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.
The collection abounds with astringencies like this, particularly where the author requires herself to think about and through the autobiographical mode:
Why write autobiographically? There must be a belief in some kind of freedom.
The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles.
To capture a moment—of life, of history—is less a reason to write than to return to confront the melodrama, to understand how illusions beget illusions, memories eulogize memories.
To be exposed means that a stranger could learn something about me through reading my words and against my wish.
All people lie, in their writing as much as in their lives.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #35. Get your copy here.
Ellena Savage is a writer and reader. Her essays, poems, lectures and stories have been published and performed widely. Most reccently: Chart Collective, The Lifted Brow, Literary Hub, Cordite and Scum.