What we read: A reflection on gender, language and necessity

My astonishment – and what is really my anxiety (my indisposition) come from what, in fact, is not a lack (I can’t describe this as a lack, my life is not disarrayed), but a *wound*, something that has harmed love’s very source.
– Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

A comment made this morning on a post I wrote just over a year and half ago, has made me stop to consider what I am reading at this moment and why. The original post is called Gendering my bookshelves, a look at the gender of the authors I tend to read which were, at the time, and continue to be, predominately male. In the meantime I have read more female writers than I might have anticipated, but I have read more in general. So the ratio is perhaps closer to 80/20 than the 90/10 I figured last year.

This is Women in Translation Month, a project I respect and support, but I am unlikely to contribute with the same intensity as before. Truth is, despite a nice selection of titles that I had collected with this month in mind, I am not certain I will manage to read many. In fact I am close to putting my first effort Now and At the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques aside. Don’t get me wrong, this piece of experimental nonfiction about a traveling palliative care team in rural Portugal is quite wonderful. But not right now. These are portraits of death and dying. And to read it so soon after watching both of my parents die hurts like hell.

I am relatively new to the business of maintaining a book blog and, of late, much of my review focus has actually moved off of my blog to online magazines. But what is a literary blog if not an opportunity to write about what one is reading? Sometimes that includes review copies and new releases, but that type of reading comes with pressures and can cut into other reading that one is drawn to. Themes like Women In Translation, German Lit, Spanish Lit all offer opportunities to open up and encourage conversation about literatures that one may or may not otherwise consider.

But sometimes our reading is directed by the forces and idiosyncrasies and, of course, the tragedies of our own lives.

At the moment, I want to read two different types of books–those that offer total distraction, and those that say something about grief and loss. That is where I am at, pure and simple. July was absorbed by hospital vigils and then, once my father finally passed, the immediate business of beginning to organize paperwork, notify institutions and prepare to apply for Probate. We have not even managed to plan a memorial of any kind. Over and over others have commented about how well I seem to be holding up…

2016-08-07 19.03.15But I’m not. The other night, reading Barthes’ Mourning Diary I found myself thinking, but this is different, he is so focused on his mother, my mourning is different. Is it? My father was injured and his death was slow. In the midst of it, my mother took sick and was gone within three days. My mother’s death, is a loss of an entirely different order than that of my father. She was my best friend. I could talk to her about anything. Without her I have no one else, no partner, and no friend as close. Although I have two children, I cannot burden them as they are each bearing their own grief. I woke up yesterday to the harsh recognition that I was trying to roll these two events, these two losses, these two individuals, these two unique relationships into one experience to be grieved as whole. But I cannot. They are separate events and they are one. Suddenly the magnitude of the task ahead is overwhelming.

So I will read and I will write. I want to write and publish something before time has a chance to edit it… a task inspired by Barthes and by Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Women in Translation may or may not figure in the equation. In fact translation may not fit into much of my reading at all this month. So be it. Aside from Barthes, I have a memoir called When It Rains by Maggie MacKellar, a memoir that deals with two intersecting deaths, and I have ordered Love’s Work by Gillian Rose and Simon Critchley’s Very Little… Almost Nothing. Each one of these titles was suggested by Twitter/blogging contacts. I am open to more.

Finally I must say that I have been deeply moved by those who have reached out by email or on Twitter, publicly or through Direct Message, to offer condolences, good wishes, suggested reading and writerly support.

I am in mourning.

There will be words.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

18 thoughts on “What we read: A reflection on gender, language and necessity”

  1. yes, writing helps to shape the grief, or at least it gives us the opportunity to try to shape it as eloquently as we can — because of course so much of the way we grieve is inarticulate. My parents died exactly a year apart and sort of unexpectedly. (Or maybe I should I say I wasn’t alert to the signs. Maybe I was willfully ignoring them.) But are we ever prepared? I wonder. And I want to say that it gets better, or least it loses the raw edges. You must think that’s impossible right now but it will come. And you get to know them in a new way. Mine are with me every day, in positive ways and in, well, less postive ones. But they’re not gone. And yours probably aren’t either.

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    1. I am in the early days, I know but with two such different bereavements crossing like this, I don’t even know how to unpack my grief. Reading and writing seems to open up ways of making sense of it all.

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  2. Grief of all kinds is overwhelming, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about it, it’s that some days there isn’t any way of dealing with it. It just hits you like a sack of concrete, and those days you just have to remember that there have been other days not so bad and that they will come again.
    Writing helps a bit, but for me, it needs to be private, not anything shared with anyone else because the rawness of bereavement opens up a Pandora’s box of emotions, and if I write with an eye to a public audience of any type, then some things I need to express are kept within. I have a diary by my bed, and I write in it, lurching from one incoherent emotion to the next. It’s a solace, it’s indispensable and it’s just for me and me alone.
    One other thing I would say is this: we, your readers who have come to know you through your blog, like to hear from time to time that you are ok, or ok enough, but I am sure I speak for many when I say that you should take all the time you need and you should not feel any pressure to post here, for as long as it takes.

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    1. Thanks Lisa. I do have a diary for all the complicated stuff. There is a very specific aspect of this encounter with death that I want to explore that might help me draw out the two separate losses (or actually the similarities perhaps). If I get something together I would work with an editor and publish it elsewhere. I’m just afraid that if I don’t try to do this now, time will change my memories of the actual experience of watching my parents die like I did last month.

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  3. I cannot begin to imagine how raw you feel right now. If writing on your blog helps then go for it but as Lisa says don’t feel pressured into it or indeed into anything. Just know that there are many, many people around the world who are thinking of you and wishing we could do something to help.

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    1. Reading and writing about books is a helpful distraction as long as I don’t hold myself to the feeling that I should read a particular book or type of books. If I attempt to write about this early stage of grief it would be, as I said to Lisa, with an eye to publishing it elsewhere. Somehow, as a writer, the need to write is pressing.

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  4. Words can help with the grieving process but we all have our own ways of dealing with things. The loss of my father just over a year ago was about the hardest thing I’d had to handle in my life and the cliche that time heals is actually true – the pain is still there now, but not with the sharpness it had. Read and write what you need to Joe – different books are for different times in your life. x

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    1. Thanks Karen. With blogging it is easy to feel pressure. And for what? I am feeling guilty that despite a fine collection of books by women in translation, most of the books calling to me are by women, but in English. I have to remember who I am reading for. And yes, I expect time will heal. I know I have not even begun to feel the full force of the impact of this double loss yet.

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    1. Thanks Penny. Maybe even a South African title too. I have a shelf crammed with last year’s purchases. Seems to me fitting in a Michiel Heyns would be nice about now too. He always cheers me up. 🙂

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  5. You are right not to stick to any pre-formulated plans and go with your instinct and if it proves that something isn’t what you were looking for, set it aside and go on to the next thing. I’d love to hear about the journals or magazines you find solace in – I hardly ever read magazines these days but I’ve recently found a new French magazine I love called Happinez – it’s full of dulcet colours of images that are soothing to the soul, there are articles with a kind of spiritual/well-being/philosophical tendency but I buy it not to read, as much as to just immerse myself in. It’s the opposite feeling to reading a fashion magazine (for me anyway) – as those magazines often leave me feeling unfulfilled and worse, as if I’ve binged on something unhealthy.

    Anyway, I wish for you that you find that thing that will bring you solace, it’s a cruel tragedy that you’ve lost both parents so soon and need to mourn for them in different ways – and to have lost a mother as special as yours was to you – I hope you are able perhaps in time to invoke her thoughts and to hear what she might have had to say, when you need her wise words. She is in you after all. Take care and keep reading, writing, immersing.

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    1. Thank you for all your good thoughts Claire. I feel like all of my reading intentions have been upended this year. I’ve only managed to stay true to the books I have committed to read and review for other online journals/magazines. By the way I have been cutting most print magazine and journal subscriptions with a few very literary exceptions that are not available online. There was a time I got all kinds of science, nature and photography magazines but no more. Even the journals I do get pile up, but fiction, poetry and essays don’t go out of date. There are some online literary magazines I really like, especially Numéro Cinq where I am a contributor (and therefore biased).

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  6. You write so beautifully. I would love to read what you write in mourning, after mourning, at any time. I tend not to read book reviews. Prefer to actually read books. You are, of course, a fabulous source of reading recommendations.

    More than anything else, though, I send you my love and keep you in my heart as you continue to mourn. Much love, Kitt

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