Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:

things-i-dont-want-to-know-deborah-levy1. just open it and start reading taking in what is actually shared at face value, a woman on the cusp of a life change, whose suppressed emotions will no longer stay down, who leaves town to try and figure them out, looks back at her childhood and adolescence for inspiration, then decides to look forward instead and begins to write (on the last page);

or,

2. consider the framework within which she writes; a response to the essay ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, who claimed 4 chief motivations, in this order:
i. sheer egoism
ii. aesthetic enthusiasm
iii. historical impulse
iv. political purpose

which Levy moves around, addressing but not – in the following rearranged order.

i. political purpose – her feminist awakening opening, as she ponders her role and her desire, supported by poignant quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Margurite Duras and others, culminating in a brief getaway, escape to Palma, Mallorca, reading her journal ‘Poland 1988‘ in which she witnesses a soldier’s farewell to his mother, sister, girlfriend.

What interests me (in my sheriff’s notebook) is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.

ii. historical impulse – her white South African childhood in which her father is imprisoned and her mother sends her to stay with relatives whose political leanings are opposite to her father’s. Everywhere there are signs, reminding them of their privilege.

There was something I was beginning to understand at seven years old. It was to do with not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

iii. sheer egoism – the sadness of exile, adolescence and separation in London, England, writing on paper serviettes in a greasy spoon cafe, avoiding home life. The first tentative steps towards becoming a writer.

I was born in one country and grew up in another, but I was not sure which one I belonged to. And another thing. I did not want to know this thing, but I did know all the same.

iv. aesthetic enthusiasm – in which she has dinner with the Chinese shopkeeper, a continuation of the story  begun in the opening section – and there it is, the reflection of that kiss in the middle of a catastrophe.  I skipped forward after i. to read this section second, it being clear from the beginning that this was a framing device, I was immediately drawn to read it whole, not in parts. It’s not like other books, it doesn’t spoil the story to read the end before the middle.

At first I found it annoying, that the framework of Orwell had been used and quoted on the back of the book, while the contributions from the feminist writer’s in her opening section had so much more to contribute to her reasoning. I asked, Why not create your own framework? Then later, thought, perhaps she does, disguised as it is, within the infamous outline of the other. Making the reader try and read between the lines.

Levy places the life of a woman writer (herself) into this construct created by a male writer, his opinion on  the motives of writing – already an act of rebellion, and though it doesn’t work entirely, perhaps it was never intended to, though it may have lured some otherwise reluctant readers in.

Joan Didion Writer Essayist

Joan Didion, Author

Joan Didion also wrote an essay Why I Write in 1976, prompted by the same source. Ignoring Orwell’s framework she delved immediately into sharing her flaws and inability to conform, out of which grew her own singular way of seeing, observing and recording answers to her own curious questions, the flexing of imagination.

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Joan Didion

When Levy writes, there is an absence, a reluctance. It is admitted in the title, it stems from a childhood, continues into an adolescence and confronts her in middle age as she rides the escalator and can no longer keep it down. It threatens to overflow and engulf her.  Those things she does not want to know. That she laughs off.

It occurred to me that both Maria and I were on the run in the twenty-first century, just like George Sand whose name was also Amantine was on the run in the nineteenth century, and Maria whose name was also Zama was looking for somewhere to recover and rest in the twentieth. We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off.

She is left with her question. What do we do with the things we do not want to know?
She realises she can not accept her own question. She will continue to write and perhaps find the answer in the next book. I will read it and find out whether she has the courage.

In the meantime Didion persevered with hers:

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Joan Didion

Further Reading

NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner

Guardian Review: Kate KellawayDeborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy On Writing and Living

Deborah Levy, Author

Deborah Levy is the author of seven novels: including Swimming Home, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything and a short story collection Black Vodka. She has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has also written for The Royal Shakespeare Company and her pioneering theatre writing is collected in Levy: Plays 1.  She has written a trilogy of memoirs, referred to as a living autobiography on writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020. The final volume, Real Estate, was  published in 2021.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Delighted to pick this up at a book sale in the small French village of Ansouis recently, it contains two pieces previously published in other formats, brought together in this slim but powerful book, originally published in 1963, a period of time when he had returned from eight years living in Paris and before he returned to live in the south of France for the last 17 years of his life.

I have read one of Baldwin’s novels If Beale Street Could Talk (also made into a film in 2018) and listened to his 1965 impassioned speech in the historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?“.

Letter to My Nephew

The Fire Next Time James BaldwinThe first ‘Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation’ entitled My Dungeon Shook originally appeared in the Progressive Madison, Wisconsin – a magazine known for its strong pacifism, championing grassroots progressive politics, civil liberties, human rights, economic justice, a healthy environment, and a reinvigorated democracy, is a letter to his 15 year old nephew James (who appears in a photo with his author Uncle on the cover of the book I read).

He shares with him what and who he sees in him, that comes from within the family, qualities that endear and those to be careful of, all from a place of deep love.

He writes to him too of his country and what it means to be of this country, to be black, to be at home in it despite all, to retain dignity and remember, to take inspiration from the long line of poets he comes from and remember one of them who said:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

A Letter to Me and You

The second is an essay Down at the Cross first appeared in the New Yorker as Letter from a Region of My Mind and is a wonderful talking through of his own development of self-awareness as he entered adolescence, describing how he and his peers came into a change that transformed girls and boys into something other and the refuges they seemed destined for, given how much beyond childhood wasn’t available to them.

He dissects his own choice to simultaneously seek refuge and revenge by going into the Church and the clarification it gave him, having seen beneath the veneer of that institution, while equally learning to use the tools it flexed to bring about an objective.

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church  merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher – a Young Minister – and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons – for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy.”

He also speaks of his meeting and audience with Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, and analyses what he perceives of this man and their intentions, beyond the religious element.

america ancient architecture art

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is noteworthy to consider this organisation that brought together religion and a population suffering from racism, when one thinks about the fact that most wars come about over religious difference, what terrible outcome might have occurred should they have been successful in the aim of their conversion, to make Islam the religion of Black American people, thus turning an issue of race into one of ideology.

“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

Ultimately Baldwin’s message is one of love, for standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. His words seem as relevant today as they were at the time he wrote them.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.”  James Baldwin

Highly Recommended.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James_Baldwin_in_his_house_in_Saint-Paul_de_Vence

Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence

James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright, novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement. His essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in the society of the United States during the mid twentieth-century. 

An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film, the visual essay currently showing on Netflix (in France) I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Other notable works include Go Tell It On The Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Further Reading

Interview: Paris Review – The Art of Fiction James Baldwin talking with  Jordan Elgrably

New York Times: James Baldwin – His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language by Toni Morrison

LA Times: 30 Years After His Death James Baldwin Has Another Pop Culture Moment by Scott Timberg

 

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

Reflections From Life

constellations-sinead-gleesonAn excellent collection of essays, of life writing with a particular connection to the body and how women negotiate life when part(s) of it malform and interrupt the ordinary course of a life, making it something extraordinary.

Extraordinary it is, that Gleeson went through all she has until now and managed to create a family and birth this wonderful book, not to mention curating The Glass Shore and The Long Gaze Back, two anthologies that celebrate Irish women writers.

Just as the cover displays the image of a body with numbered sections, inside the book the chapters are labelled with small diagrams that represent a key to the constellations, adding another layer of metaphor and meaning for the reader to ponder.

The Many Diagnoses and A Commitment

As a young girl, the author was diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis, rare to discover in a young person, it would mark the beginning of a lifetime of interventions, all of which might have had more devastating consequences, but Gleeson possesses a remarkable ability to rally, recover and live life on her own terms, despite the heavy price her body puts upon her.

The essays share the struggles, the shame, the hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief, of witness to a deteriorating mind, the many varied experiences that might represent weakness in the body, however they have all contributed to creating and moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring.

On the night of her leukemia diagnosis, not being able to face telling her parents she asked the nurse to break the news and then prepared herself to see them.

“I will never forget their faces, their incomprehension and tears. Amid all the wrongness of that moment, I knew something was required of me. To hide my fear and offer them a glimpse of a future none of us knew had any certainty. I have no memory of this but my mother told me years later that I looked into her face and said, ‘I’m not going to die, I’m going to write a book.’ To commit to writing, or art, is to commit to living. A self imposed deadline as a means of continued existence. It has taken me a long time to write that book and here I am, so very far from that awful night.”

A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light

The essay I found the most moving comes near the end is named after an Anne Carson poem ‘ A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’ which explores the relationship with art and creativity as a way to channel or express what is being felt. She is moved by the work and motivations of Frida Kahlo, Jo Spence, Lucy Grealy.

“Kahlo, Grealy and Spence were lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance. A triangular constellation. To me, they showed that it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage…That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is a rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

Art Creativity The Body Compromised.jpg

The Body Compromised by Allia Jen Yousef (2001-2019)

Spence’s medium was photography; an ageing, sick, working class woman, she sought representation, visibility, her series Phototherapy, focused on the intersection between arts, health and well-being, combining comic and feminist ideas, outward expressions to promote inner healing or peace, disruptive to the viewer, soothing to the artist.

“Representing a diagnosis – in art, words or photos – is an attempt to explain to ourselves what has happened, to deconstruct the world and rebuild it in our way. Perhaps articulating a life-changing illness is part of recovery. But so is finding the kind of articulation that is personal to you.”

I was reminded while reading of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am memoir that I read in January, it similarly tracks events (seventeen brushes with death) and turning points in a life that invite pause and reflection, some more dramatic than others.

I read Constellations as part of #ReadingIrelandMonth21. Have you read any good Irish non fiction this month?

Sinéad Gleeson

A writer of essays, criticism and fiction, her writings have appeared in Granta, Winter Papers and Gorse. Constellations won Non Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2019.

Further Reading Irish Nonfiction

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

Handiwork by Sara Baume

An Affair With My Mother by Catriona Palmer

Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith

2020 Perspective Zadie SmithShort vignettes as Zadie Smith observes this particular moment in history passing, as she prepares to become one of those who returns, fleeing, always listening and observing others, sometimes in accordance with their uttered thoughts, at other times thinking she was, only to encounter her own subconscious bias.

Meditations by a Stoic

They open with the foreword in which she reveals she has been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for practical assistance and admits that she is no more a Stoic for having read it. Rather, she leaves that experience with two valuable intimations:

Talking to yourself can be useful.
And writing means being overheard.

I was intrigued to see what Smith had been talking to herself about and what she wished others to overhear, she is a mistress of eavesdropping and she is a Londoner and rider of the No.98, living/now leaving a country that turns many towards needing the benefits of meditation, though I can’t help but wonder if she would have gained more by listening to 21st century meditators such as Deepak Chopra, David Ji and Sharon Salzburg than Aurelius.

Writer’s and Their Reality

In Peonies, she dismisses writing as being creative, alleging that planting tulips is creative; inferring writing is control.

Peonies by Zadie Smith Tulips Intimations

Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious – rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance. Which can be a handsome and even a useful, activity – on the page. But, in my experience, turns out to be a pretty hopeless practice for real life. In real life, submission and resistance have no real shape.

It was observing tulips that brought about this reflection, a few days before the global humbling began, providing a preview into the now common feeling of everyday, one she describes as a ‘complex and ambivalent nature of submission‘.

She saw tulips and imposed peonies, like the fiction writer she is.

Thoughts On Flowers and Self Care

As ever, Zadie Smith creates a space for the reader to think and affirm their own views, even if she does fill it with her own words and worries.

I was a little concerned by her reading habit in A Man With Strong Hands, though an avid reader myself, there are some times and places when it might be better to put the book down and allow the mind to rest, for this self-care activity she indulges, is one the few that allows one’s existential angst to cease, if only momentarily, for that weekly half hour she regularly gifts herself.

I am reminded that we have as much to learn, if not more in the act of mindful contemplation of flowers as we do in observing that less well understood creature of Nature, humanity.

Further Reading

New York Times: Zadie Smith Applies Her Even Temper to Tumultuous Times

Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani

translated by Sophie Lewis (from French)

Reality bites.

Sex and Lies Leila Slimani MoroccoThe last nonfiction book I read was also set in Morocco (at the time referred to as the Spanish Sahara) written by a foreign woman living openly with her boyfriend, it couldn’t be more in contrast with what I’ve just read here – although Sanmao does encounter women living within the oppressive system that is at work in this collection.

In Morocco the ban on ‘fornication’, or zina, isn’t just a moral injunction. Article 490 of the penal code prescribes ‘imprisonment of between one month and one year [for] all persons of opposite sexes, who, not being united by the bonds of marriage, pursue sexual relations’. According to article 489, all ‘preferential or unnatural behaviour between two persons of the same sex will be punished by between six months and three years’ imprisonment’.

Leïla Slimani interviews women who responded to her after the publication of her first novel Adèle, a character she describes as a rather extreme metaphor for the sexual experience of young Moroccan women; it was a book that provoked a dialogue, many women wanted to have that conversation with her, felt safe doing so, inspiring her to collect those stories and publish them for that reason, to provoke a national conversation.

Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust. My hours with those women were very special. And it’s their stories I have tried to give back: the impassioned testimonies of a time and its suffering.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

In these essays Leila Slimani gives a voice to Moroccan women trying to live lives where they can express their natural affinity for love, while living in a culture that both condemns and commodifies sex, where the law punishes and outlaws sex outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. The consequences are a unique form of extreme and give rise to behaviours that shock.

It’s both a discomforting read, to encounter this knowledge and hear this testimony for the first time, and encouraging if it means that a space is being created that allows the conversation to happen at all.

However, overall it leaves a heavy feeling of disempowerment, having glimpsed the tip of another nation’s patriarchal iceberg. We are left with the feeling that this is a steep and icy behemoth to conquer. Article 489 is not drawn from sharia or any other religious source, it is in fact identical to the French penal code’s former article 331, repealed in 1982. They are laws inherited directly from the French protectorate.

In a conversation with Egyptian feminist and author Mona Eltahawy about the tussle between the freedom desired and the shackles forced upon women, Eltahawy responded by using words attributed to the great American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to persuading slaves to flee the plantations and claim their freedom.

She is meant to have said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew were slaves.” Emancipation, Eltahawy told me, is first about raising awareness. If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.

Women are stepping out of isolation and sharing their stories everywhere, finding solidarity in that first step, sharing in a safe space, being heard, realising they are not alone.

May it be a stepping stone to change.

I read this book as part of WIT (Women in Translation) month and was fortunate to have been gifted it by a reader, since I participated in the gift swap, so thank you Jess for sending me this book, you can read her review of it on her blog, Around The World One Female Novelist at a Time.

Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit (Essays)

Rebecca Solnit EssaysThe Circular or Spiral Memoir

Having read a few of Rebecca Solnit’s essay collections, I’m used to her meandering mind or circular style of narrative, so while this has a #memoir tag that might create an expectation of recounting an aspect of the author’s life, Solnit’s essays are rarely linear, less ‘slice of life’ and more like interconnected ‘thought bubbles’.

She starts out recalling her early adult life, eight years in a neighbourhood of San Franscisco, the people she came into contact with, the situations she avoided as a woman, pausing now from years afar wondering about her impact on that neighbourhood, her contribution to its demise, to its gentrification, removing its diversity, colour, vibrancy and ultimately affordability.

The title pays homage to and contrasts Diana di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, a feminist beatnik poet I first came across earlier in 2020 when I was reading all I could about 1968, the year she wrote Revolutionary Letters, a series of poems composed of utopian anarchism and ecological awareness, scribbled from a spiritual, feminist perspective. All touch points within Solnit’s repertoire, however she writes in and of a different era, scratching at the wounds of our non-existence, how it has been actively contributed to by others and by her/our own hand.

Our NonExistence

Recalling a sensation of disappearing, as if on the verge of fainting; rather than the world disappearing she senses herself disappear, introducing the metaphor of nonexistence, discovering/exposing the many ways it is enacted.

In those days I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were often at odds with each other.

Because of the meandering style, it’s not easy to recall which particular vignette or essay has the most impact, however I note that I’ve highlighted 107 passages in the collection, her words provoke, recollect, ignite the reader’s memory, imagination and own experience.

Looking Back At Youth From Ripeness

She struggles writing poetry as a young woman, not doing it well but ferociously, unaware of what or why she was resisting, often resulting in a murky, incoherent, erratic defiance, something she observes today, as young women around her fight those same battles.

The fight wasn’t just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.

And though we all know people learn from their own experience, there is something reassuring in reading or hearing of those who’ve trod a similar path; she expresses a desire that young women coming after her might skip some of the old obstacles, some of her writing exists to that end, at least by naming those obstacles.

Women Feminism Rebecca Solnit Silencing

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

Discussing harassment and violence towards women, particularly young women, she ponders how and what she is able to do differently being an older woman, compared to how she reacted and behaved in youth.

So much of what makes young women good targets is self-doubt and self-effacement.

Observing how we strengthen our purpose over time, gaining orientation and clarity, she recognises something like ripeness and calm flowing in, as the urgency and naiveté of youth ebb.

I think of her book The Faraway Nearby where she revisited childhood and a difficult mother, unrecognisable in the woman she then tended, neither of them who they once were, there being no longer any need in hanging on to the earlier version. Ripeness was a metaphor here too, one she desired to observe over days, a pile of apricots gifted from her mother, left on the floor of her bedroom, an installation, left to admire, to mature, rot, transform.

Conversation and Research Weave Patterns

Looking back at her evolution as a writer, she recalls the evening conversation that spawned the morningessay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ that went on to become that new word, now mainstream ‘mansplaining’.

She rereads photocopies of letters in handwriting that is no longer her own, meeting a person who was her, that no longer exists, who didn’t know how to speak.

The young writer I met there didn’t know how to speak from the heart, though I could be affectionate…She was speaking in various voices because she didn’t yet know what voice was hers, or rather she had not yet made one.

Furnishing her mind with readings, they become part of the equipment of imagination, her set of tools for understanding the world, creating patterns, learning enough to “trace paths though the forests of books, learn landmarks and lineages.” She celebrates the pleasure of meeting new voices, ideas and possibilities that help make the world more coherent in some way, extending or filling in the map of one’s universe, grateful for their ability to bring beauty, find pattern and meaning, create joy.

Discussing patterns of how women were portrayed in novels by men she read in the past, she becomes aware of always relating to the part of the male protagonist, usually cast in the preferred heroic role, noting:

‘women devoured to the bone are praised; often those insistent on their own desires and needs are reviled or rebuked for taking up space, making noise. You are punished unless you punish yourself into nonexistence.’

Imagination Rules

It was Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand and Passing who said:

“Authors do not supply imaginations, they expect their readers to have their own, and to use it.”

Rebecca Solnit carries the thought further observing the astonishment of reading:

that suspension of your own time and place to travel into others’. It’s a way of disappearing from where you are…a world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own…It’s the reader who brings the book to life.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

She finds research exciting, piecing together a nonfiction narrative like a combination of craft and medicine, of creativity and healing.

Research is often portrayed as dreary and diligent, but for those with a taste for this detective work there’s the thrill of the chase – of hunting data, flushing obscure things out of hiding, of finding fragments that assemble into a picture.

Even if some of this is familiar from previous works, it is the reworking of the landscape of her mind, the rearranging of those experiences, interviews, a more mature awareness and wakefulness that makes her work so readable, engaging and accessible and relevant to what is happening in the fast changing world we inhabit.

Nonfiction is at its best an act of putting the world back together – or tearing some piece of it apart to find what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions…recognizing the patterns that begin to arise as the fragments begin to assemble.

For all it’s circular loops and spiral reasoning, its patterns and weaving, I appreciate the web Rebecca Solnit has created in this collection, threads linking across and around its intersections, leaving something fully formed at its conclusion.

Highly Recommended.

Rebecca Solnit Books I’ve Reviewed Here

The Faraway Nearby

The Mother of All Questions

Buy a Rebecca Solnit Book

Surfacing II by Kathleen Jamie

In the second half of Kathleen Jamie’s latest nature writing essay collection, Surfacing, she writes about an archaeological dig on the the island Orkney in Scotland, remembers a trip to a Tibetan town in China in her twenties, and tries to recall voices of her own female ancestors that are beginning to fade from her memory.

Links of Noltland I, II, III

The author spends time at another dig, one whose archaeology has been buried for five thousand years on the Scottish island of Orkney.

‘What’s happening is significant really to…well, to archaeology, but also to us, the human race.’

It is a Neothilic and Bronze Age settlement, a site that has been in operation for a number of years and could go on for many more, if they had surety of funding. They do not.

‘There’s enough here for thirty PhDs on bone alone,’ said Graeme, ‘Decades worth of work.’
‘If HES really pull out what will happen?’
‘We’ll have to look elsewhere and make all kinds of promises. We can’t look to the EU anymore.’

There is not just the work on site, but a Victorian building stacked with their findings, she visits and is shown beads bones and stones and ponders who those people might have been.

For a moment, out of the twenty-first-century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, there emerged a vision of people clothed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.

The most famous find, discovered in 2009, is kept in the Heritage centre, where they have a small section, most of the centre given over to more recent Viking finds.

The ‘Westray wife’ is the earliest representation we have of a human, in the UK, and she has become a motif for the site, almost a tourist attraction, if tourists can be drawn to a sandstone figure not four centimetres high on a faraway island.

Jamie asks about local interest in their ancient dig and is surprised by the response.

‘They’re interested but not connected. It’s only the Viking they’re interested in. It’s the Vikings the Orkney and Shetland islanders identify with. They’re not British, not Scottish, they’re Norse. Not prehistoric. Viking.’
‘But the Vikings are so recent, relatively.’
‘The Vikings “won”,’ said Hazel with a shrug.
‘What do you mean the Vikings “won”?’ I asked reluctantly, thinking of the ancient burial mound I could see from my window, which the Vikings had chosen to use as a fishing station.
‘Just that. After the Vikings arrived, all traces of the older culture ceased. That’s what the archaeology is suggesting.’

Some years before the team found cows’ skulls set into the walls of one of the buildings they’d excavated, a complete ring of cattle skulls, all placed upside down with the horns facing into the room. The wall had been built up over them, no longer visible, but presumably their presence had been felt by whoever built it.

There are other sites over Europe where cattle skulls have been found and often a rush to come to conclusions, resulting in dramatic headlines of massacre or sacrifice, but this team have a different take on it, believing them to have had symbolic or aesthetic significance.

‘Remember’, said Graeme, ‘these animals would have had biographies. They would have been known as individuals. As personalities. Spoken about.’
‘Named?’
‘Maybe.’
‘You think they revered their cows?’
‘Worshipped!’ Hazel Laughed.

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

She meets a couple who are organic cattle farmers, it seems like the only living link to the Neolithic people. They moved onto the farm one day and ploughed up the ryegrass the next, to plant a species-rich herbal lay, with thirty varieties of grass, which has seen a great increase in insects and wormcasts. They now have a herd of twenty-three milking cows. With names. And personalities. And a bull named Eric.

‘Lots of bulls here are called Eric. I think its a Viking thing.’

The couple make an artisan cheese in the style of alpine French cheeses called ‘Westray Wife’ a little picture of the Neolithic figurine features on their labels.

In the second part of the essay she returns for the end of the season, the closing of the site and in the third part she writes the story of the Neolithic people, the culmination of observation and imagination.

Surfacing

Although ‘Surfacing’is a metaphor which aptly describes the book’s theme and is appropriate for narratives about archaeological digs, it is also the title of a vignette about the author’s mother and grandmother.
Your losing their voices. When did that happen? You’re forgetting the sound of your mother’s voice,and your grandmother’s. They died within eighteen months of each other a decade ago and today you realise you can’t quite bring their voices to mind.

A Tibetan Dog

A wonderful little essay that recounts an experience with a little terrier in a Tibetan town and his return in a dream many years later, a symbol she interprets on awaking, like a message from the subconscious she immediately understands.

The Wind Horse

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The final longer essay is one pulled from old notebooks and memories of her twenty-seven-year old self, travelling far from home, a woman who wanted to become a writer, starting out.

It is notably different to the earlier essays, more of a travelogue, less present, more self-conscious, there’s a passivity to travelling through a place without purpose, looking at it from the outside.

I could look and smile, but what did I learn of their lives, the prostrating Tibetan pilgrims, the stallholder deftly working an abacus, the ice-cream girl with her barrow, who sat with her chin in her hands when business was slack? Nothing at all.

A tall monk who wore brown robes and a topknot staying at their hotel.

He may have been a Taoist, he may have been Japanese, I don’t know, and I regret that I didn’t try to speak to him.

This reticence highlights what has become one of her strengths, prominent in the earlier pieces. What has also surfaced is Jamie’s generosity and respect for those she interacts with, she gives voice to others, her observations are an amalgam of her own observations and insights and those of the many other passionate participants or locals she encounters in her meanderings. She is not the lone observation, she is a gatherer of insight.

I so enjoy and value how the essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality. Her work is like a patchwork quilt, made up of different colours and textures, bringing in all the elements that make a community, whether its 5,000 or 500 years old or from the present day.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Surfacing I by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie writes creative nonfiction. Some people call it nature writing, some travel writing, others describe it as lyrical prose.

In her first book of essays Findings, she talks about her attempts to observe better, to stop naming things, to really see. She wants to move away from labelling and identifying, towards painting a picture with words.

Surfacing is her third collection and it’s brilliant, practiced in the art of observation she takes us with her on a voyage, helps us see with the eye of a naturalist, sharing her experience with respect for the environment, acknowledging the privilege.

A poet and bird watcher from Scotland, her essays are compelling and engaging, they draw you in as if you were there.

I’m writing about Surfacing in two parts, because the third essay, the longest, is 86 pages and deserves it’s own post, the majority are short vignettes of 3-6 pages. There are three essays of significant length and I’ll write about the reminder in Surfacing II.

The Reindeer Cave

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In the first essay, written in the second person ‘You‘, the author has hiked up a glen to the cave, thinking about the Ice Age and the preciousness of life, as she observes six red deer on the hillside opposite, equally startled no doubt.

Not half an hour ago you were walking beside the burn in a narrow ravine further up the glen. You heard something, glanced up to see a large rock bounce then plummet into the burn twenty five yards in front of you. The echo faded but your heart was still hammering as you backed away.

Deep within the hillside, in the passage of an underground stream, the bones of a bear were found by cave-divers. Carbon dated, they were found to be forty-five thousand years old.

A long sleep, even for a bear: sixteen million days and nights had passed in the upper world. Long enough for the ice to return, then yield again, then return in one last snap, then leave for good – or at least for now.

At the cave mouth she wonders whether the ice will ever return, a natural cycle, or if we’re too far gone with our Anthropocene.

Next to the last page is a black and white photograph of a valley, mist in the distance; as I look closely I see something  appear out of the mist. This is a book you must read the printed version, or you will miss the apparition.

A Reflection

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The second essay begins as Jamie is taking a train north (in Scotland), sitting on the landward side she watches wintry fields pass by, passengers on the opposite side have a sea view. Drifting in and out of daydreaming she notices the sea superimposed over fields of brown earth. Then disappear.

A moment later it flashed back again, a stretch of sea, silvery over the land, but only for a few seconds. By now I was sitting up, interested in this phenomenon. The fields on the left gave way to pinewoods, the train tilted a little and, yes, the sea’s reflection flashed on again, this time above the trees. If I narrowed my eyes I could see both sea and trees at once. And now there was a ship! A ghostly tanker was sailing over the pine trees.

She continues to Aberdeen and visits a museum. Interested in Arctic artefacts, it is at the Aberdeen University museum she first hears about archaeologist Rick Knecht and his work in Alaska, the subject of the next essay.

In Quinhagak

Jamie takes a six-seater plane from a small airport in Alaska, where pilots enter the waiting area, call out the name of their village then lead passengers across the tarmac. Nervous because the name is so unfamiliar, she hears the call for Quinhagak and follows two other passengers behind the pilot to the plane.

The pilot had long red hair tied in a loose bun with a biro stuck through it. In the plane she readied herself, then half turned in her seat.

‘You guys definitely going to Quinhagak? Just checking! Okay. There’s emergency supplies in the back.’

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The village is the home of the Yup’ik, indigenous people of the circumpolar north; an archaeological site Nunallaq (meaning old village) sits at the edge of the tundra, a couple of miles away near the beach. As the sea erodes the land, it is slowly revealing the 500 year old village and its cultural heritage, its resilience.

The dig is in it’s fifth season, at the end of every season all the finds are air freighted to Aberdeen to be cleaned, preserved and catalogued.

At the end of the excavation, however, there would be a great return. All the thousands of artefacts would go home to the Yup’ik land where they belonged, legally and morally.

The dig is revitalising traditional skills that had been lost, local people interested in the items found are beginning to make replicas, relearning old techniques.

They are people who have learned to adapt. Their houses stand on stilts due to thawing of permafrost. Nothing can be buried. Any warm structure on the ground would cause the ground to melt and heave, collapsing the structure.

Between walks with her binoculars and helping out at the dig, sometimes facing seaward, other times landward, she observes life. At the end of each day people gather at the shed to view the days finds; on the last day of the season there will be a grand ‘show and tell’.

I noticed that people notice. George had noticed me looking.  They notice the bog cotton and its passing, an influx of owls, that there are bears around. The whole place must be in constant conversation with itself, holding knowledge collectively.

Near the end of her stay, she is invited to a birthday party with a couple of others. They arrive, there are introductions, they gave their names.

As we did so, Sarah looked at us from head to toe appraisingly, and then bestowed on each of us a Yup’ik name several syllables long. It seemed to delight her, matching us to these names by I don’t know what qualities.

I understood that these names, which we now bore as well as our own, were the names of family members who had died. So it was as revenants, rather than strangers that we were welcomed into Sarah’s home.

Later when they are introduced to one particular elder with their new Yup’ik names, the mention of those lost people affects the old lady deeply, she hugs them each warmly.

I so enjoy and value how Jamie’s essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Further Reading

My Review Of: her 1st collection Findings, her 2nd collection Sightlines

Article: Why Thawing Permafrost Matters

Map of Another Town by M.F.K. Fisher

Essays on Aix en Provence

While I usually steer clear of memoirs set in France, M.F.K.Fisher (1908-1992) is a writer I’ve long intended to read. She was an American nonfiction writer whose wrote about food, considering it from many aspects: preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy.

Since no-one can visit Aix-en-Provence right now, here is another way to visit the town, through the imagination and evocative style of this talented writer, a specialist in evoking the senses.

Fisher lived in Dijon for a few years as a young bride, but now it is 1954 and she is a widow with two young daughters spending a year in Aix-en-Provence at a time when France is still reeling from the effect of the second world war. Fisher too is recovering from raw emotional wounds.

While being in Aix makes her feel alive, a sense of frustration seeps through the pages as she describes feeling largely invisible and worse, looked down upon.

She is keenly aware that the grand dames consider her an ‘outlander’, an emissary from a graceless, culture-less people.

Living here has given her a thick skin, a confidence and an extra sense with which to navigate the world.

Over the years I have taught myself, and have been taught, to be a stranger. A stranger usually has the normal five senses, perhaps especially so, ready to protect and nourish him.

Then there are the extra senses that function only in the subconsciousness. These are perhaps a stranger’s best allies, the ones that stay on and grow stronger as time passes and immediacy dwindles.

It is with these senses that she creates her map of the town, Aix-en-Provence.

Le Cours Mirabeau

She finds just the right words to describe the near indescribable, whether it’s the cafes, the main street or the people, and though all of the characters she writes about have long gone, the edifices remain and it is easy to imagine how this place we live in was back when she inhabited it. In reality, little has changed, except that today it is a ghost town.

After reading the initial chapters, I stopped reading for a couple of months just after the chapters The Gypsy Way and The Foreigner, which were somewhat xenophobic. Then I picked this up again and was relieved to find the next essays as delightful as the debut and way more humorous. I found that Fisher was more entertaining when observing herself than she was observing others.

My favourite essay ‘A Familiar’ didn’t even take place in Aix, it’s a stream-of-consciousness narrative of six hours spent in the train station of Lucerne after being sold a ticket for a non-existent train. Refusing to allow herself to venture outside, she orders a vermouth-gin in the station restaurant to ease her awkwardness.

I would have liked to order at least two more,  but although I had to laugh at myself I was afraid that the maid, already somewhat alarmed at my ordering such a potion … a woman alone … would report me to the police who must be somewhere handy in the enormous station.

And in the essay ‘The Unwritten Books’, she visits a cake shop, asking the pastry chef to make a cake, one drawn by her young daughter, a cross cultural hilarity, not to mention the proprietors constant refusal to hear her other request, to provide her with a calendar of culinary events, for which there is only ever one reply, an(other) invitation to visit the calisson factory? Priceless!

A must read certainly if you know and love Aix-en-Provence, this is an outsiders insight into the old city, one who has fallen for its charm, cursed by her inability to meld completely into it. Humorous in some parts, cringworthy in others, overall a delight and superbly descriptive.

This new edition with an introduction by Lauren Elkin, was re-released in 2019 by Daunt Books. Thank you to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

The Art of Personal Narrative

A deliberate slow read for me as I wished to absorb the teaching, while researching and writing my own work, something definitely clicked in my understanding which I hope translates across into my writing.

On The Essay
In the first half Gornick dissects a few essays, citing them as evidence of her theory of the narrative that really demands attention and works, because it has been structured, attention being given to understanding the difference between the situation and the story.

A theory that came to her like an epiphany while attending a funeral, where one person in particular moved her more than the others.

Her words had deepened the atmosphere and penetrated my heart. Why? I wondered even as I brushed away the tears. Why had these words made a difference?

She concludes that because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking. She had created a ‘persona’ of herself in order to eulogize the deceased. An instrument of illumination.

The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.

But getting from the understanding of a theory to being able to apply it in one’s writing was something that eluded her until she analysed her own attempt of personal journalism (part personal essay and part social criticism) when she was invited to go to Egypt and write about the middle class existence in Cairo. Overwhelmed by the energy of the city, the drama of its citizens, the work mimicked Egypt itself. It would take years before she was able to control the material with sufficient composure to see the situation and narrate the kind of story she wished to share.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

Using examples from different essays and memoirs, she shares extracts to demonstrate the theory in it’s most eminent form e.g. Augustine’s Confessions, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, Ackerley’s My Father and Myself.

She compares a trilogy of essays that exhibit the way self-implication can shape a piece of nonfiction writing: Joan Didion’s essay on the companionship of a migraine, ‘In Bed’, Harry Crews’s divided feelings about home in ‘Why I Live Where I Live’ and Edward Hoagland’s disturbing urban nature essay, ‘The Courage of Turtles’.

We are in the presence, in each instance, of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows – moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge. The act of clarifying on the page is an intimate part of the metaphor.

Joan Didion, perhaps the most practiced of them all, excavated her subconscious regularly, stayed in touch with the times, and wrote right down to the core of her self-examined existence.

“I have tried in most of the available ways to escape my own migrainous heredity … but I still have migraine. And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger.”

Joan Didion, ‘In Bed’, 1968

On The Memoir

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required.

She posits that modern memoir is of value to the reader only if it is able to dramatise and reflect on the experience of transformation or ‘becoming’ as the writer moves away from that person one has been told they should be towards the more authentic version that might be revealed beneath.

Quoting the example of Gosse’s, Father and Son she observes:

That this son must come into his own by making war not on a parent who is willful and self-involved (which he is) but on one filled with the tender regard that alone gives a growing creature the ability to declare itself (which he also is). This is the thing the reader is meant to register; this is the narrator’s wisdom. It is the betrayal of love that is required in order that one become.

These memoirs that succeed are works that record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.

For each of them a flash of insight illuminating the idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organising principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.

Ultimately the advice she gives is to aspiring writer’s is to ask oneself certain questions, both in reading and in writing:

What, we would ask of the manuscript,was the larger preoccupation here? the true experience? the real subject? Not that such questions could be answered, only that it seemed vital to me that they be asked.

That exploration of the subconscious might precipitate insights to rise to the surface and spill over onto the page, by digging deeper, one may stumble across the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance.

“who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two” had become my single-minded practice”

She ends with an observation about timing, the thing that a writer can rarely predict.

Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at a time that we are reading.

This explains why a worthy book might be overly criticized while one of fleeting value is highly praised, the former, great though it may be, misses the mark because what it has to say can not be absorbed at the moment, while the latter

is well received because what it is addressing is alive – now, right now – in the shared psyche.Which is perhaps as it should be. The inner life is nourished only if it gets what it needs when it needs it.