It’s been barely a year since I lost someone important to me. When it happened I thought it was a joke. When I realised it wasn’t I lay in bed for a week. Staying in bed wasn’t a choice. Any energy I had expended itself on thoughts. Thoughts that came, stayed and went of their own volition — I was jealous of how much willpower they had. Thoughts. Questions. Sobbing. At times, loud and guttural like an animal had climbed into my throat. Other times, silent, like the animal had died there, withered away into nothing.
During that week I don’t remember getting up to piss or shit. But, I must have… right? Then again, I didn’t eat. I barely drank any water. So… maybe not. And if I did, I’ve forgotten. After a death every moment feels like ‘after’. After a death the living need to keep on living, need to make sense of something that is, oftentimes, senseless. It’s too new to me — my grief — it keeps trying to look me in the eye, hold my chin, tilt my gaze towards its own; keeps trying to tell me things, but I don’t let it.
In 2015, Emma Marie Jones wrote Something to Be Tiptoed Around as part of her Creative Writing minor thesis. It is also the ten-year anniversary of her sister’s death. This manuscript went on to be shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers (2015) and longlisted for The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction (2016). In 2018, it was published in book form by Grattan Street Press as the first of the Grattan Street Shorts series, which seeks to publish work that “does not fit neatly into conventional forms”, which is the perfect home for a work in which “fiction, theory and memoir interact playfully, artfully, experimentally”.
Still, I didn’t go in with expectations, not because the listings weren’t impressive, they were, I’ve just learnt firsthand that expectations can lead to disappointment and maybe I’m projecting a little, but now, how glad I am this little book is out there in the world. I’m excited knowing that presses are seeking, publishing and championing work that doesn’t fit into a single genre or adhere to a conventional form. (A cause after my own heart!) I say ‘little book’ and while it is short in length (around the length of a novella) this book is not to be underestimated. It is ambitious and experimental, yet exact, nuanced and artful in its examination of its subjects: grief, death, femininity, sisterhood, and surprisingly (but not so surprisingly) life.
We learn early on that:
Jeannie’s sister Harriet died when Jeannie was seventeen. She drowned in a backyard pool. This is also what happened to my sister, and I am lending that story to Jeannie for a while, mostly so that I don’t have to keep on carrying it by myself.
Jeannie is Jones and yet she isn’t: “Let’s say Jeannie is like me, but not enough like me that, if you met her in the supermarket or down the pub, you’d think she was me.” I laughed when I read this in the very first pages. I say laugh but it was more of a scathing low chuckle, a smirk masquerading as a grimace, directed at myself. When I finally got out of bed and resumed my daily life the only way I could manage was to pretend I was a robot, built for the very purpose of functioning as a human being named ‘Jennifer Nguyen’, the one that existed before the death occurred. As a robot I only had to effectively and efficiently carry out my responsibilities. As a robot I had no need for emotions and so, I had none. Not that anyone who interacted with me knew this, because the robot looked exactly and acted like me, except, it wasn’t me. For a long time, and even now, at times, that’s how I live(d). So, when I was introduced to Jeannie, an entity separate yet inextricably linked to Jones, who would spend a decade, longer, grappling with grief, I got it. The need for Jeannie’s existence. I understood deeply. Tenderly.
Grief is not neat, but the telling of a story must be if you want your reader to be able to follow along easily enough. I admire Jones’ choice of sectioning her/Jeannie’s grief into parts, eleven in total, with titles like ‘The Unpalatable Sympathy of Strangers’, ‘All the Holes’, ‘Aqua Profonda’, and of course, ‘Something to Be Tiptoed Around Until It Goes Away’. Each section is distinct from the other yet they all build and cumulate to make a whole. There is an overarching thread, present in the majority of the book, that Jeannie has (by becoming Jones’ ‘other’) grown snakes on top of her head and they whisper words to her. Medusa here is not “the real Medusa…made monstrous by trauma", or Versace’s Medusa, “shorn of her snakes and robbed of her potent gaze”. The snakes on Jeannie’s head are Helene Cixous’ Medusa, “Laughing Medusa becomes all of us, and all of us become her. Our identities are chaotic, multiple, alterable and infinite. We pop out a new little snake whenever we feel like it. We gaze upon our sadnesses and turn them to stone”.
I like that. The idea that a person is “chaotic, multiple, alterable and infinite”. While I was busy living and tricking myself into pretending I was a robot, the trickery seeped, insidious like a slow acting venom into my sleep. I began having a recurring nightmare, one where I’m in a car when an overhead sign (one of those large green ones) falls on top of the car, the metal frame cleaving me into two parts. One part of me was made of pure grief and the other part never learnt what grief was. The car kept driving, taking with it the part of me that never learnt grief, and it drove off far, far away, leaving the grief stricken me behind. I knew it was just a dream (fake) and that it was stupid (to be so affected), but I always woke up from this dream crying because it felt so lonely, to be severed and abandoned like that. What’s more, seemingly, by my own hand. I wish I’d read this book sooner, because very early on, Jones writes that there will be two versions of Jeannie, one version of Jeannie that will come to like the snakes and another that will come to resent them: “Maybe both versions of Jeannie are small, whole Jeannies that are both parts of a bigger Jeannie, who is also whole”. Just when you think a thing that was once broken is becoming/is whole again, look closely enough and you’ll see the cracks. But, it’s okay, I get the feeling Jones is trying to say, that’s what it means to be human.
It’s a precarious balancing act, being human — particularly after a traumatic event like the death of a sister. For every three steps forward you take one step back, sometimes several more. It’s disorienting navigating grief — the circumstances, the feelings, the living, the constant shifting of time, memories, borders, spaces. You tiptoe around it because you’re scared of waking it, you’re scared that at the slightest sound, it’ll sense you, wake and find you, and drag you to its depths. As Jones puts it “our minds recoil so violently and decisively from such borders that they create little chambers within themselves to house such horrors”. You venture through STBTA like a haunted house made up of part-gallery, part-hall of mirrors, but you’re not alone. Never are you alone. You’re guided by Jeannie (and by extension Jones) the whole way through, and the pace feels kind of brisk, but there is time to linger if you so wish. At times, you get deliciously close:
The painter is in the beer garden, rolling cigarettes for the both of them with his very long fingers, that when Jeannie looks at them, she can’t help but imagine two of them in her cunt a little later.
Up close we see things for what they really are. The narrator/Jeannie/Jones knows this, “subconsciously, Jeannie knows that men from Tinder have this preconceived notion of what femininity is supposed to look like, so she’s applying it to her body like a suit of armour”.
Although, there’s power in naming things, there’s also power in not letting those things name you: “Turning inward on herself as she does, Jeannie wins her body back by shedding it: by outgrowing language, by leaving it behind.” There’s no way you can ever be the same again, not after being broken, but you are still whole despite the cracks. You can try, and in the process of trying I come to realise this book is very much about life and living as it is about death and grieving. And seeing Jones come to this a point where she acknowledges Jeannie’s purpose and existence, “This is what we truly grieve. Me and Jeannie sitting on either side of the glass, so far apart that we cannot see each other. This is what we grieve. This loss of you, Harriet, irrevocable.” From time to time, I think about Jeannie and Jones, Jones and Jeannie, especially if I’m at the station and a train passes by and I catch my reflection for a second, “endless, endless”.
The use of fictocriticism with enacted theory results in an empowering narrative that exists as a means for “dismantling the masculine and in doing so, to negate the binary that pits the feminine against the masculine in the first place”. In ‘Notes on a Genre’, at the start of the book, Jones details her reason and process:
In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Cixous calls the intellectual spaces of academic writing ‘a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated, over and over, more or less consciously…where woman has never her turn to speak’. Now in 2018, academia remains repressive and silencing in many of the same ways.
With its use and interrogation of Greek mythology and literary theory, ranging from Tumarkin to Cixous to Freud to Butler, the book remains accessible. The approach and process are explained thoroughly here. In Marie Jones’ own ‘Notes on a Genre’ and ‘Page Notes’, which “anchor all the scholarly and literary texts”, and another introductory section called ‘Autobiography as Enacted Theory’, written by Dr. Elizabeth MacFarlane. As Marie Jones puts it:
You can read more about the authors and theorists whose ideas I’ve worked with, and see full citations of those quotations and works… I am made up of everything I have ever touched and laid eyes on.
Despite all of this theory, and explanation of process and form, Something to Be Tiptoed Around remains an intimate experience. By the end of the book I feel as if I’ve emerged through to a backyard. The evening is brand-new. It is summer and slightly muggy. You see only a faint hint of stars. Jeannie is there. So is Harriet. They are together, talking and laughing, so obvious it is they are sisters you do not need to ask. You just know. I am there alone as an outsider but I do not feel outside, after all, I have been tenderly lead to this point. For the first time in a long time I am not a robot. I am not two separate selves. I am sitting in a corner existing wholly as myself. It is a lonely night, but I do not feel alone. I am not alone.
Jennifer Nguyen is a queer, Vietnamese–Australian writer, poet and editor. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction has appeared in Ibis House, Scum Mag, Rabbit, Bowen Street Press Review, among others, and has performed her writing at Melbourne Writers Festival and West Writers Forum. Her first chapbook ‘When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon’ is forthcoming with Subbed In in early 2019. She is a member of West Writers Group based at the Footscray Community Arts Centre. Twitter @jennguyennifer