Blue Monday meditation: Thoughts on writing a life (again)

I took a long walk today for the first time since crippling pain seized my lower back on January 2nd, followed by a week of temperatures in the -28 to -35C range that kept me close to home for the first half of the month. Now, with temperatures above zero under heavy grey Chinook sky, it felt good to be moving again.

Since Christmas I have had to guard against a seasonal tendency to slide toward despondency; on occasion I even found myself drawn down dangerously dark corridors. I am ever more aware of growing old, feeling isolated from the culture around me, and concerned that I have lived a life completely out of step with the rest of the world.

I’ve always been anachronistic when it comes to television or movies or music, but nothing makes me feel stranger than the complete alienation of my own experiences as a differently gendered person from the transgender dialogue that has become so prominent recent years. I don’t understand it. I feel that it has taken my voice away, invalidated my reality as someone who transitioned twenty years ago without the supports, protections, or pronoun politics of today. And worse, I fear it has stifled my ability to be honest about the costs of the path I’ve chosen.

So what about my reality? Does it have any weight at all? And when does a lived story begin to take shape, begin to make sense?

Over the past few years I have asked myself these questions, entertained scenarios, crafted neat narratives tracing crisis to closure. But every time I imagined I was nearing not only an answer but more critically a direction to guide my desire to examine this life in writing, something would happen to unspool the thread I’d been so carefully winding.

An unforeseen opportunity would arise; an unexpected twist of fate would knock me off balance.

I have long wondered what to do with this existential morass, slowly and steadily accumulating more days, months and years as I found myself unable to do more than collect, in fits and starts, stray notes in a random collection of books and files. Hidden, tucked into closets, real and metaphorical.

The other day I finally started writing in earnest. I would like to confess that at last a path has opened up before me, that a map has made itself clear, a puzzle into which all the various pieces of my story have suddenly fallen into place.

But, of course, life doesn’t work that way.

Life is not a novel. It cannot be edited; it can only be lived. And if any narrative construct can be observed, it can only be seen in retrospect, buried under all the diversions, denials and delusions we rely on to get through the responsibility of living in the moment—the messy business of being in the world.

And is that evolving target I am writing toward. All that I have been. All that I am. Whatever I may yet be.

My literary goals for 2020, or rather, where they begin

When I wrote my end of year post on New Year’s Eve, a wave of end of year gloom, fueled in part by media focus on the currents state of the world and a sense of anxious pessimism colouring the future outlook, for myself personally and the planet. When I look back over the past twelve months or so I feel fatigued. There seems to be so much I could not get a hold of—the volume of editing for 3:AM, coping with my son’s addiction, managing my own grief processing and mental health challenges.So, unable to set boundaries or take control I sought to escape. After a five week trip to India in February, I went back in late October. One should never confuse the desire to travel with a desperation to run away from loneliness and a failure to feel at home, but I suspect that drives many of us who are perpetually restless. I’ve only been back for a month and already I find myself watching planes take off from the airport across the city and wish I too was leaving again. It’s a financial and practical impossibility at the moment, and I don’t even have a destination in mind, but a part of me is always mentally packing bags and thinking about getting away.

From this vantage point, I keep thinking about everything I did not do this year, all the bookish goals unmet, outlines unsketched, words unwritten. I made a few forays toward a fledgling project, some with promise, inspired in large part by essays I was reading. I fiddled with a little poetry, published a couple of pieces and wrote one major critical essay and a personal essay commissioned for a publication sometime this year.

However, sometimes it feels like my efforts fell short—for two months I even battled a crippling inability to open a book—but, in truth, 2019 held many moments of literary magic.  I visited Bombay for the first time early in the year to meet up with poet and cultural critic, Ranjit Hoskote, and also ended up meeting Priya Sarukkai Chabria—a translator, novelist and poet whose name was new to me. By the end of the year I would come to treasure her friendship and belief in me as a writer. In November I spent several days with her and her husband in Pune where she arranged for me to give a talk on book reviewing and, the next day, meet up with several poets who have now become part of my expanding network. I’m learning to trust her instincts.

In February I also made my second trip to Calcutta where, once again, I taught a class at the Seagull School of Publishing  (a session which has, in itself, added to my circle of friends) and I had the distinct honour of engaging in a public conversation with Edwin Frank, the founding editor of NYRB Classics. As usual, several other creative personalities were gathered at Seagull, but an unexpected delight was to spend a few days with Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who happened to be in the city on a residency. It was a busy, inspiring week in a city I’ve come to love.

On both of this year’s India visits I spent time in Kochi where my dear and long-time friend Mini lives, now that she has returned home after many years in Dubai. I made my first trip to Nepal to catch up with a Nepali friend who used to live in my home town. My closest queer friend, a graduate in theratre arts and probably the only person who understands my own complicated queerness, I miss the long conversations over coffee we used to have. Kathmandu is a long way to go to catch up. But worth it!

I also finally  got to Jaipur, a city I will have to go back to—magical energy, stunning architecture and a climate as long as I avoid the really hot months, suited to my natural desert temperament. (I live in a dry, albeit cold, environment.) I spent two days with Saudamini, another creative spirit I have known for a number of years, who was an enthusiatic tour guide. And together we found in the bedrooms of the Nahargarh Fort interior design perfect for book lovers!

On my third and final day in Jaipur, I enjoyed another serendipitous encounter with a Twitter follower who reached out when she heard I was on my way. A curator at the City Palace Museum, it turns out that we have a mutual friend in Bombay, because, of course, even in cities with millions of people, it is a small world. Apurna and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch together, strangers only for the first few minutes. Which, in itself, is one of the things that brings me back to India.

The other critical anchor for me on this most recent Indian adventure, was the opportunity to get to know another Twitter contact, someone unknown to me on my first visits whom I “met” through non-Indian readerly friends and who lives (at least for now) in Bangalore where I was based. A writer and reader with impeccable taste (that is, corresponding with my own), JP and I spent a lot of time drinking coffee and scouring bookstores on Church Street as one must when in that city. Last, but not least, I went to the Bangalore Lit Fest with a couple of students from my first year teaching at Seagull. Had I found the courage to venture to Delhi, I would have connected with even more former students, but I still find the city daunting. Someday, I will go.

For now I know that I need to take the time to drift through all the memories I gathered in India this year. There are so many that they sometimes feel like they are crammed to the back of a closet, waiting to see the light but too much, too confusing to deal with. They are filled with joy, pain and curiosity. I was in the country during the election campaign when Pakistan was bombed, I returned home as the controversial Transgender Protection Act was passed—something that reminds me how precarious my own travels are, no matter where I go because my outward appearance only provides a superficial security—and now I watch the citizenship protests roll out.

My attraction to India is complicated. I am not an Indian, I am not involved with or married to an Indian. Friendships aside I have no need to go there. But what I have gained over the course of my visits is a real life validation of my worth as a writer. Something no editing engagement, publication or Twitter chatter can equal. However, it inevitably makes me feel like I come home to a creative and emotional void. I hit waves of loneliness that turn back into bitterness and resentment.

Aimed at myself.

Aimed at my city.

Aimed at my life.

Once again, it serves to accomplish little more than to further absorb my creative energy. So, as 2020 begins, I am aware that, if I am ever going to be able to meet the  writerly goals I have set for myself, I have to start with, strangely enough, forgiveness. It is the only protection against anger and resentment.

So that, then is my primary literary goal for 2020. Everything I read and write will flow from there.

Wrapping up another year in reading: Farewell to 2019 and a long decade

The end of a another year is upon us and, at the same time, another decade is also drawing to a close. Both have offered a mix of joy and pain. I have written enough about the personal challenges and the opportunities these past years have brought. Suffice to say I approached the 20-teens, so to speak, with confidence, prepared to face my fifties as a time of increased professional growth as I assumed day-to-day parenting would become less pressing. I could not have imagined what life would look like heading into the year during which I will turn sixty. I still have a troubled now-thirty-year-old child at home, my career imploded years ago, I have lost dear friends and family members, and today I look around the world to see fires raging, Arctic ice melting, right-wing Nationalist movements rising, and hatred and instability spreading, often in countries that have nuclear capabilities.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

Thankfully I still have books. And writing. And an international literary community — one that has expanded my horizons in ways I could never have anticipated.

The Himalya on the horizon above Nepal.

As avid readers roll out their annual lists of favourite books of the year, I’ve noticed many efforts to celebrate a personal book (or books) of the decade. I couldn’t even begin to do that. It would be like trying to hit a moving target. My reading has changed a lot, especially since I started actively writing reviews and publishing my own work. Chances are it will change again. Reading, like most things, is dynamic. As it is, it’s hard enough to narrow down a selection of favourites at the end of the year. There are so many that get left out. However, even though I keep promising myself I will give up on the regular spectacle, come the end of December, I find it impossible to resist shining a light on some of the books I especially enjoyed (and to be honest, I always like to see what others have been up to as well).

Now that I have them together, I’m surprised to see that my top reads for 2019  were all published this year save one — I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. However, reading the poems of a 14th century Kashmiri mystic in the same month the Indian government revoked Article 370 triggering a crisis in Kashmir that is still ongoing made it disturbingly timely. As well, all are translations.

Absent from this photo because I do not own a hard copy is Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, tr. by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić from Istros Books, a tale of an unhappy marriage with a wonderfully engaging narrator.

The balance of my selection, arranged for aesthetics not relative value, includes:

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia, tr. by Rawley Grau) an evocative, filmic Holocaust tale set in the north eastern region of Slovenia lying between the Mura River and the Hungarian border.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Kashmir, tr. by Ranjit Hoskote). Not only is this book timely given the state of affairs in Kashmir, but because the body of work attributed to Lalla was likely created, in her name and honour, over the centuries by contributors reflecting a range of faith communities, ages, genders and backgrounds. Thus her example is critical at a time when forces are tearing at the threads of India’s diverse heritage.
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina, tr. Alice Whitmore) features a troubled difficult narrator who does not relate to others in a “normal” way — a challenge for author and reader, but I found much to recognize in her lack of social skills. Brilliantly realized.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger, (Swiss/German, tr. by Megan Ewing). Reading like a performance piece rather than a conventional narrative, this confident, complex, intelligent novel circling around the subject of borders and migration is one of the most original works I’ve encountered in a long time. Stunning.
Herbert by Naburan Bhattacharya (India/Bengali, tr. Sunandini Banjerjee). A new translation of this Bengali cult classic was also published as Harbart in North America. Both that edition and the Calcutta-based Seagull Books edit are boisterous and fun, but as an editor I was surprised to see how much was smoothed out of the former.
Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa/Afrikaans, tr. Marius Swart) this wonderful collection of interconnected stories by the inimitable Marlene van Niekerk, one of my favourite authors, is an example of how an English translation can maintain elements of Afrikaans and Dutch without alienating readers — if you trust your audience. These are stories about the magic of language, where the magic is allowed to shine through.
The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens by Raoul Schrott (Austria/German, tr. by Karen Leeder). Undefinable, indescribably beautiful, this text — best described as a prose poem paired with haunting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O — is etheral, heavenly and bound to the earth all at once.
Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris (France, tr. by Christine Pichini). As soon as I learned of the release of this text, the last major work by one of my literary heroes, I knew I had to have it and write about it.  A moving exploration of art, writing and aging by one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century.

At the City Palace, Jaipur

This year I made two trips to India, both over a month long. Presently I am watching tensions rise there with concern, aware that I am an outsider, but it is impossible to ignore hateful rhetoric no matter where it arises. None of our countries or communities are immune from divisive discontent or politicians prepared to capitalize on it. And yet I still think about going back, about the places I have yet to visit, people I want to meet up with or see again. The restless loneliness of being home settles in quickly and India has become important to me. But I suspect it will be a while. . .

As I look ahead to the coming year, my primary objective is to write. Seriously this time. I know I have said that before, but my writer’s block has eased. I now need discipline. My goal is to have a draft of a nonfiction manuscript of perhaps 100 pages complete before my birthday in October. All other writing, reading, and volunteer editing will have to fit around that goal.

And so I go. Into a new decade.

Solstice, solemn solstice

The sky has closed in around us today. It is warm, but the world feels wrung out and weary as the decade draws to a close. I am aware of an abiding sense of  quiet sorrow, Weltschmerz. This time of year is always difficult. Christmas has become a melancholic, meditative season for me. It has been this way since my parents passed away more than three years ago. I have learned to embrace a degree of aloneness as a time to recalibrate. But this year the “Joy to the World” spirit my religious upbringing taught me to embrace seems especially anachronistic. It seems there is so much hatred coursing through veins of this tired planet.

On a personal level, the passage from last December to this one has been marked by a little more mental instability than I’ve experienced in recent years. Twice I needed medication adjustments while in therapy I began to make some progress opening up channels into exploring grief and trauma. But progress is slow and subject to diversions and setbacks.

In an effort to cope with a variety of stresses at home I sought to escape. Run away, perhaps. To India. Twice. And now I’m back at home anxiously watching political unrest threaten to explode there; worried about my friends and a country I have grown to care about, and worried about the way hatred has been allowed to grow and spread so freely through democratic nations across the globe. Even my own country, still modest compared to its loud neighbour to the south, is not immune. Ignorance of history, distrust of science, and intolerance of difference are fueling fires that won’t be easily extinguished.

Tonight as I decorated my Christmas tree with the many angels my mother collected for as long as I can remember, I tried to call on her presence and only ended up missing her more. Were she here she would be as worried as I am. No, I’m afraid she would despair even more despite the fact she was a believer in a way I have never been able to be.

So, as winter settles in here in the northern hemisphere, all I can do—what I must do—is to try to hold to some faith (even if I am uncertain where it is rooted) that the lengthening days will hold a little promise that things will get better going forward. For all of us. Everywhere.

Beginning to understand what keeps calling me back: A short reflection

As I write this I am in Pune; this evening I fly back to Bangalore for a few days. Then I head home. Away from heat and greenery, back into cold and snow. Plenty of both.

As I look back on the past five weeks or so in India, images and memories shift and tumble like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope. Diwali in Wardha, Blossom Book House in Bangalore, the crowded dusty streets of Kathmandu, the rocking rhythm of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, Jantar Mantar, the grand astronomical observatory built by Jai Singh II and the magnificent forts towering above the city he founded. Quiet days amid the lush tropical beauty of Kochi, and stimulating literary engagements in Pune.

I learned a lot on this visit—about India, Indians, and myself. About intersections where noise and colour can overwhelm, where nuance can be lost and small wisdoms can be gained.

This has been more of a spiritual encounter for me, if I can use that term. I’ve come a little closer to understanding what it is I am seeking in the repeated act of intentional, albeit short term, displacement. It has, I believe, something to do with death. With loss and grief. With finding a way to experience that which I have mourned, that which has caused me pain and anger, as a life-giving positive force.

It will take time to unravel this thread, this tangled web of thoughts. Now, I suppose, I need the space that distance will grant me to reflect a little. At this moment, from a balcony level with tree tops, I want to drink in the foliage and think about the past few weeks without forcing or directing anything.

What is it that stands out? The people, of course. Friends. Reconnection with old friends, encounters with new friends, and finally meeting face to face with those only known online. The luxury of long conversations. Exploring the landscapes and cityscapes with those who know it well and love it. Who feel it in their souls.

For now, that is what I will hold close to my heart as I prepare to head toward home.

Too old to write? Indulging in a little writerly insecurity.

From time to time I’ll see a flurry of comments cross my social media pathways, complaining and commiserating about rejections and the frustration that comes from having one’s literary labours unappreciated routinely. I have also received a few rejections myself of course, but the more unfortunate reality is that I have rarely written and completed anything worth submitting unsolicited to any publication—and certainly nothing that would come close to resembling a manuscript to set loose in the world in search of a publisher. For critical work I always pitch first, but even then my rate of production has dwindled to exactly two reviews last year and one this year which has yet to see the light. Add a few small somewhat poetic efforts and a commissioned essay for a book that is supposed to come out sometime next year and that’s about the sum extent of my writing outside this space.

So, while I have submitted and pitched little, I have certainly written a lot of rejection letters since joining 3:AM Magazine almost two years ago. At certain times of the year, and this is one, I shudder every time Gmail pings on my iPad because the submissions and pitches roll in at a steady rate. I debate acceptances and agonize over rejections. I do enjoy editing, and I think I am a good and respectful editor, but because I edit for a publication that defines its own rules by essentially refusing to have any hard and fast guidelines, I have often opted to take on ambitious younger writers with what I think is a cool and original idea—maybe one they’d be hard pressed to sell elsewhere—even if it means that a lot of time may need to go into making that idea come to life. If I worked on a clock it would be reckless to allow accept such projects. But I’m not, so what is costing?

Quite honestly, I’m afraid it’s beginning to cost any pretensions to a writing life I my have ever entertained. I’ve never seen writing as a way to make a living, all the more power to those who need to, but at this point in my life it’s about trying to tell a story. My own.

However, I am beginning to wonder for whom and for what.

In early March I came home from a wonderful month in India with a notebook full of essay ideas. I felt I had turned an important corner in my own journey of self-acceptance. I carried a renewed sense of personal value. Within weeks a crisis erupted at 3:AM which was not only a very stressful lesson in the speed at which intolerance—in multiple directions—can spiral out of control and the damage it causes. I stayed on but with a greatly increased workload. Add to that, a difficult spring spiralling through grief, revisited traumas, family stress, and mental health challenges, and, at this point, all of those essay ideas sit exactly as I left them. Unexplored.

The one thing I am pleased with is this blog (or literary site as I call it when I want to sound serious). I’m not super prolific and my reading rate has been dismally slow, but I have written a couple of longer essayish meditations and, although I no longer review everything I read, I tend to treat the reviews a do write with more critical attention—equivalent to what I might seek to publish elsewhere. I am aware that I have a significant readership and that many of these reviews, especially if publishers pick them up and link to them, attract traffic and readership as well, if not better, than many lit sites. I am extraordinarily selective when I do accept a book for review and I feel no obligation to finish or write about a book that’s not working for me on some level—which is not to say one has to love a book to engage with it on a critical level, but there must be something of interest to talk about in a meaningful way. However, that’s another debate altogether. It’s my space, here I set the rules.

I can even engage in a little self-indulgent navel gazing like this when I need to.

Thing is, to go back to where I started, I not only see writers measuring their lives in accumulated rejections, I also see writers within my little network publishing. Books, maybe, which I don’t begrudge anyone, but also on literary sites and journals—and sometimes at a regular pace. Which leads me to think other writers have a collection of finished, or nearly finished, stories, essays, and poems sitting in file folders, virtual or otherwise, or being tossed to the vagaries of unpredictable editors like myself at all times. Or they write constantly.

This past June I started a daily writing practice with the encouragement of a dear friend and mentor, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books. The first night I write a few prosaic words to myself about goals. The second night I emptied a couple of pages of anger and frustration until I nearly made myself physically ill. I’ve written about grief and loss, rehearsed a number of blog posts and essay fragments (like this one you are reading now), and at times I have used it as a journal to record my thoughts, activities, and goals. When all inspiration fails I have switched to the Devanagari keyboard and sputtered away in my rudimentary Hindi. I have revisited my entries several times, retracing my way through the accumulated pages, gathering words and ideas for use elsewhere; reminding myself how far I have travelled emotionally these past few months.

But still I am left with the questions: Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? What am I writing towards?

I can’t help but wonder if I am simply too old to start anything significant. Have I missed this train? Or rather is there just too much baggage now packed into nearly six decades and two gendered lives to unpack and make sense of? What if I do unpack it and find barely a story worth telling? Or worse, a story I cannot tell because I don’t know where it lies anymore. I am increasingly aware, as our world becomes ever more polarized on every axis—as we hunker down in our little glass houses with a pile of stones at the ready—that I look like a middle-aged white man (and I’ll admit it’s a handy façade on occasion) even if the actual truth of my being is so much more complicated and even ticks a few of the popular diversity boxes quite readily, should I want to define myself in such terms.  But, in the end, all the labels I could wear are simply part of complex real life lived.

Just like anyone else’s.

The interlinked processes of reading and writing grief: Thoughts on Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno

To read Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, is akin to making your way through a strangely familiar space that resembles a gallery, a diary, and a hall of mirrors all at once. It is, in its shifting fragmented form, unlike any conventional grief memoir. But then, as anyone who has lost a close family member—parent, child, partner—knows, there is nothing conventional about grief. The dynamics of shared histories, hopes and fears are complex. This colours, troubles and blurs the edges of the mourning process. Grieving is as much about our own lives, past and present, as it about honouring or making peace with our relationship with the person who is gone. We are the ones who need to be able integrate a complex of emotions and continue living.

Spanning thirteen years, from 2003 to 2016, Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s thoughtful, pained, uncertain attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida, works that attempt to articulate—initially in the immediate moment and later in the context of the photograph—the deep sense of grief he felt after the loss of his beloved mother, form a sort of natural undercurrent that arises regularly throughout the text. They are the only two books on grief that I read in the months following my own parents’ closely timed deaths in July 2016. I had already read, and thought often of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams which also appears here, but as for this book which came out in early 2017, I was not ready, at the time, to approach it. My own losses were too fresh.

As it happens, waiting was wise. Not only have I been open to reading grief in recent months, I am actively working to write about the loss of my own mother and how that is bound to the grief, anger and guilt that haunts my own sense of self. Although the circumstances, stories, and intentions guiding my own project could not be more different, Kate Zambreno’s book is filled with kindling—thoughts, ideas and reflections that sparked some sharp insights into my own achingly conflicted emotions and I have pages of scribbled notes to show for it. But that’s for another writing project yet to come. The point is, that reading and writing about grief, is not about finding exact images of yourself and resolving loss on anyone else’s terms, it is about being open to inspiration to guide your own mourning process, whatever that may ultimately look like.

Zambreno’s relationship with her mother is rife with contradictions, frequent tensions and conflicts. Her mother’s independent existence apart from her, prior to her own existence and as she grows up, is an enigma that death calls her to try to give sense to. The only access is through memory—a “house of memories”—and it is the fear of facing what this may unearth that holds her back:

My mother is the text. I cannot enter her.

Your mother was not herself in those last few months…
But who was she?

This resonates with me as someone whose own memory project was interrupted by my mother’s death, closing the door to a house of memories I was suddenly afraid to open. And yet writing is, for many people, the only access to understanding and release. Barthes and Handke both embarked on early missions to write grief, private or public, and both, I would suggest, found release elusive in these immediate efforts.

But thirteen years?

The process takes the time it demands, and then some. But the desire for closure, as impossible as that may be, is a natural instinct—one that holds a curious allure for writers who work toward that line, sentence, thought where a poem, story or essay naturally ends. But, of course, the strongest endings are those that hang in the air unaltered. Allowing for that in the act of literary creation is one thing—living it is quite another. The desire to be able to gather up all the loose ends of a life so as to let them go looms large. Zambreno describes her own intention clearly as an attempt:

To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave it behind.

All the offerings for the dead
so they remain buried.

Book of Mutter can be read as a daughter’s incantation, an attempt to grant meaning to her mother’s life, illness, and the curious spaces she leaves behind. It resembles a literary scrapbook or a passage in and out of the rooms in a large house where mnemonic images drawn from life, literature, art, and history provoke reflections. It is a fitful journey. Zambreno’s guides are idiosyncratic, their very strangeness allowing for the unique tone of this remarkable work. Key among them are Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois. Darger is the famous “outsider artist” who was orphaned at an early age and spent his childhood institutionalized. As an adult he maintained a solitary existence, attending Mass daily and supporting himself as a hospital custodian. It was not until he was forced to leave his Chicago apartment at the end of his life that a trove of illustrations and extensive typed manuscripts was uncovered. His stories and drawings depict detailed, elaborate fantasies—alternately whimsical and horrific—featuring children. Bourgeois was a French-American sculptor and installation artist. Works from her Cells projects, each a series of large scale installations featuring scenes and vignettes created with found objects and enclosed in wire mesh cages, provide recurring counterpoints for Zambreno as she assembles her own memory project. Disturbing insights into the creation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Saint Joan, reflections on post-mortem photography, and the fate of Mary Todd Lincoln are also woven into the text along with input from a variety of literary voices.

The resulting oddly eclectic assemblage reflects, perhaps, the extended passage of time that marks the realization of this book. Zambreno is writing in fits and starts, as she seeks to articulate so many unresolved emotions and observations. By placing her not uncommon experiences against a backdrop that is unusual (as in, not the standard grief and loss tapestry), the surreal strangeness and absolute uniqueness of the grieving experience is captured. This is a book that is at once measured and raw. In her account she moves back and forth between memories of her own often difficult relationship with her mother and the profound absence and guilt she feels, her widowed father’s attempts to fill the vacated space in his life, and an often brutal portrayal of her mother’s illness, decline and madness.

The fractured quality of the text echoes the way loss refuses to conform, refuses to work itself out neatly. How can it? Although my own relationship with my mother was quite different than the one Zambreno describes, it was not and is not free of tangled sentiments that I have often wished we could have talked about. We were close. We spoke on the phone every week and she died in her eighties, weary yet peacefully ready to leave, however there are many moments in Book of Mutter, especially in the first half, that have illuminated, by contrast, questions I’ve been struggling with. Turned them around. And that is why we read grief. And why many of us feel a need to attempt to write it. Not to find answers. But to be moved to ask questions and follow where they lead. In recent months I have read some very good books about grief and loss, accounts that blend personal experience with time-honoured, accepted understanding of the grieving process. Which is fine, but this book with its uneven, awkward genesis across more than a decade is one that I skirted so widely when it appeared (and to be honest every time I saw it staring at me from the bookstore shelf with its peculiar cover that I now know to be one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells), has unintentionally offered a clue I needed to move forward in my own writing at exactly the right time.

And yet it remains an unfinished text. I am now reading the newly released Appendix Project, a collection of essays and talks that Zambreno wrote in the year following the release of Book of Mutter—coincidentally the first year of her own daughter’s life. It is a rich and valuable continuation of her meditation on writing grief and living with the ghosts and reverberations of an evolving and ongoing process that does not end with a final edit and the publication of a book.  What she once hoped to box up and bury is anything but.

Book of Mutter and Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno are published by Semiotext(e).