Out on the streets of Kolkata: A little exploration

While my first twenty-four hours or so in the City of Joy were intense—a mixture of everything and nothing I’d imagined—I now, just over halfway through my stay, greet each day with a blend of ease and exhilaration. How quickly one slips into the rhythms, growing accustomed to the roar of traffic and bleating horns. With each venture out, I have found myself fitting into the flow, making my way through the congestion to explore the city. Every time I emerge from my residence out onto Sarat Bose Road, I am filled with a sense of enthusiasm about where my wandering will take me. I have kicked around by myself in strange towns and cities, from Alice Springs to Cape Town, but none as intensely engaging as Kolkata.

Of course, this is a city that refuses to stand by idly. It commands a degree of attention whenever you step out on to the streets, and I do mean on to the streets; one navigates the roadways on and off the sidewalks as need be, and crosses any significant intersection with caution. In some places, smartly dressed traffic controllers aid the safe passage across busy thoroughfares, but only to some effect. I’ve learned to line myself up with other pedestrians and rely on their instincts. But even those only go so far. I’ve seen one man so busy on his cellphone that a van backed up into him. Only slightly startled, he quickly regained his balance and continued both his journey up the side of the road and his conversation without skipping a beat.

Some seem to engage with the roadways with uncanny confidence. Naveen Kishore, the esteemed publisher of Seagull Books, for example, appears to command the unceasing stream of traffic on S.P Mukerghee like Moses parting the Red Sea. Making the same crossing on route between the Seagull School of Publishing and the offices with their newest editor, a recent arrival from Goa, is a more tenuous exercise. We get half way across and crouch in the middle until an opening appears. On my own, I’ve been known to go out of my way to effect an easier passage, perhaps with lights, which is, even then, not a guaranteed free pass.

On my first weekend in Kolkata I began to explore. On Saturday, after a day spent mostly indoors working, I took the advice of one of the three men who tend to affairs at the residence where I’m staying that I should go to Minto Park. A little oasis in the middle of a noisy city, with a hectic corridor and a high level overpass running along one end, this space, maintained by the adjacent Belle Vue Hospital, is dominated by a large rectangular pond, lined with palm trees, a pathway and shallow green space. Once inside, all thoughts and memory of the boisterous mayhem of the roadways is, I want to say, not simply forgotten, but almost erased. One remembers the solitude and serenity, not the noise. Returning again almost a week later I noticed that, although the city sounds are acute when you first enter the park, they are all quickly reduced to a distant background murmur once you begin to walk around the pond. Or so it seems. In memory, only stillness remains.

The following day’s random explorations led me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, the grand marble edifice and surrounding gardens constructed in the early 1900s to honour the memory of the Queen. On a Sunday, the building and grounds were overflowing with visitors—local families out for the day, others bussed in from afar—squeezing through the passageways of the hall and spilling out onto the grounds. The colourful splash of bright saris added to the spectacle played out amid such formal colonial sensibilities. Hardly a day for actually absorbing any of the contents of the museum itself, I found it the perfect space for people watching. The relaxed mood of the milling crowds caused me to reflect on how much more fractious such a mass of human beings might be at home. (Mind you, this observation preceded my rush our ride on the Metro.) I have since returned to the Victoria Memorial for a very different evening event on the premises, one with entirely different intention and tone.

But that’s for another post.

Monday was the day for a couple of classic Calcutta experiences. I met up with a fellow book blogger, Chelsea McGill who has lived in the city for five years now and is a passionate defender of its charms, at the famous Flury’s—the tea shop and bakery dating from the 1920s that endeavours to maintain all the elements of Imperial elegance. The location, Park Street, is for the reluctant tourist, the most comforting of spaces I’ve encountered so far, where colonial meets modern architecture and business establishments are opened by courteous doormen. But it does blunt a measure of the in-your-face experience that, for me, makes this city so unique. Until, that is, one slips into the South Park Street Cemetery.

No more than a mark on a map for me before I entered the lush, high-walled enclosure, the place caught me completely off guard. Beneath a tall canopy of greenery, rows of aged-darkened, weather-beaten graves, crypts, mausoleums and obelisks mark the final destination of the British officials, traders, and civil servants drawn to the city in the early years of the East India Company. The inscriptions speak to the men, women and children whose sojourns were cut short by illness and other inclemencies of the tropical environment, as well as those who survived to make the mark in the expanding empire. The grandiosity of the structures is almost overpowering. The weight of the souls resting so far from their home shores is tangible in the hot spring air. The history contained in these stones is palpable. And lingering behind it all, the ghosts of more recent years: the criminals who once used the cemetery as a hideout and the homeless who sought refuge from the elements in the columned structures before the area became a protected heritage site. On the day we were there, I’d say that romance was in the air, evidenced by the many couples making out behind the sepulchres.

Finally, after enjoying my first experience of tea served by a street vendor in a tiny clay cup, I made my way back to my residence. Feeling the heat and the grime settling into my pores, and facing an endless steam of rush hour traffic—cars, buses, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, the occasional rickshaw driver, and even a horse—I discovered that the streets are elastic. They shrink and stretch with one’s energy and fatigue accordingly.The street I’ve walked the most and know the best, serviceable more than spectacular for the experience, can seem absolutely endless at the end of a good, but tiring day.

So, that was Monday. The flavour of my time in Kolkata  again shifted greatly over the next few days. I had the most remarkable and inspiring opportunity to meet and listen to one of the preeminent literary greats of our time, an experience made even more powerful by its placement here, and now, in the City of Joy.

But more about that later. My notebooks are filling up faster than my ability to transform my observations into posts (and fight with the vagaries of composing on an iPad). More soon.

First days in India: This is the real thing

In the lead up to my trip to India, I imagined that I would have the time to compose a reflective post about writing, and all the anxiety and excitement I feel about having almost two weeks away from home to read, explore a new city, take photographs and, of course, write. As fate would have it, I didn’t have any time for such careful reflection. Coming into the final stretch, in the days preceding my flight, I was beset with the sudden demise of two MacBooks, the second less than twenty-four hours after I brought it home, in the middle of all the work that had to be completed before I could leave.

Just as well, because I had no real idea how the arrival in such a strange, vibrant, and somewhat overwhelming environment would impact me.

I arrived in Kolkata on Wednesday evening after two eight or nine hour flights, separated by a nine hour layover in London during which I met with up Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless force behind Istros Books, and a further two hour flight from Delhi. I’d been travelling for nearly two full days. I emerged from the airport to noise and sweltering heat and a line up of waiting drivers, none of whom carried the sign I was looking for. An cab driver insisted, repeatedly, that he could take me to any hotel I wanted. I’m sure he saw me as his mark. I tried to make a phone call but could hear nothing, yet when I tried to go back into the building to find a quiet corner, the soldier with the AK-47 across his lap had other ideas.

Finally united with my driver who had been waiting at another gate, I made my way into the city. A ride on a river of noise—horns blaring, vehicles squeezing into any space available, lane or not, candy striped light standards wrapped in strings of lavender and royal blue trimmed lights, and clusters of weary men lining the route. Here and there one of the city’s ubiquitous dogs eased its diseased frame to the ground. Every time the traffic flow slowed to a stop, people appeared from behind posts or over low cement barricades to pick their way across the sea of cars, buses and motorcycles. Enterprising street merchants arose to snake between the lanes. To conserve gas the driver would cut the engine until everything began to inch forward again.

It occurred to me, as if I hadn’t quite registered the fact, that I am well and truly in India. This is not a picture postcard. This is real life.

And now, on my third full day in the city, I have barely read a word, no less finished any one of the books I so ambitiously packed, but every morning I have written for several hours. No, I’m not deeply engrossed in the project I planned to devote my energies to, but there is still time. More than a week yet. Rather I am simply absorbing and transcribing the sounds, smells, tastes and sights I’ve encountered so far. The incessant stream of traffic, punctuated by car horns, that roars up and down the busy street outside the heritage home where I am staying has become a comforting backdrop—an urbanized antidote to those recordings of babbling brooks.

No empty shelves at the Seagull office—if not books than beasts and birds..

On the first morning, in a somewhat quieter locale, I gathered my earliest impressions, mostly aural, of my initial encounter with Kolkata. Later that day I made my first trip to Seagull Books—my first opportunity to meet the staff and tour the nearby school and headquarters of their Peaceworks project. It was all a little overpowering to finally be present in a place I’d long seen captured in photographs. But the real shock if you like, the disconnect I failed to anticipate, was the street level reality of the area in which they are based. In my western naivety I had imagined something, well, less “heart of Calcutta.” But no, this is the real thing. The road on which they are located is a busy thoroughfare lined with sidewalk vendors, beggars, and homeless men, women and children. As I quickly discovered, one rarely actually walks on the sidewalks in this city—they are either crowded with people and structures, or in a continual state of disrepair. I have, in very short order, become accustomed to walking along the edge of the roads, having vehicles pass within an inch of my life, and being, to date, the only obvious foreigner—non ethnically South Asian person if you like—that I have seen.

Many of the people I interact with have no more English than I have Bengali. Uncertain tourists would likely feel ill at ease in these surroundings, but I am loving it! The house manager at this B&B fills me with multi-course Bengali meals at every opportunity. I used a fork for a day but now eat with my hands like everyone else and, knock on wood, I have had none of the usual traveller’s discontents I was fearing. And the bed, a firm 12cm mattress on a wooden platform suits me fine—I’m sleeping soundly. And now that I’ve finally worked out the vagaries of the limited water service, hey, it’s all good.

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One of the coulorful side streets.

The opportunity to spend time at Seagull is a particular honour. Yesterday I managed the five minute walk there and back on my own without getting lost, and had time to sit by myself in the office and gather my preliminary impressions of the place, the groundwork for what I hope will be several articles and interviews to come out of this experience. Next week there are some really exciting things going on…

But for now, I think I ought to walk off a little of the special Bengali breakfast that was prepared here this morning (there is some kind of photo shoot taking place in the house today). So, back out into the noise, colour and congestion that is Kolkata.

A few thoughts on falling short: On my contribution to A Catalogue of Failure

Failure:

NOUN

  1. Lack of success.

1.1    An unsuccessful person or thing.

  1. The neglect or omission of expected or required action.

2.1    A lack or deficiency of a desirable quality.

  1.  The action or state of not functioning.

When I saw Alice Furse’s call for submissions for a little handmade publication to be called A Catalogue of Failure, it was like an invitation with my name on it in bold print. Ah, failure, I know it well. Don’t we all? But, the consternation… what failure out of a life-time of well-earned examples would I turn to for the exercise of 500 words?

And so, the question that confronted me was: what does failure really mean and how can it be distinguished from regret? Surely we regret our failures. And so often we blame ourselves for falling short. But in truth success and failure are relative and complicated. Likewise, whether we respond to either, in the end, with regret or relief, or a measure of both, depends on so many circumstances.

Ultimately much of what happens in this life is beyond our control. Shit happens. And as the parable about the Chinese farmer reminds us: “Who is to say what is bad or good?” For example, nine years of success in a job I loved ended in spectacular failure. Was it my fault? No and yes. Was it a blessing (in so much as I believe in blessings) in disguise? Yes, and on a lonely bad day, no. Failure and success is sometimes very difficult to qualify.

So, I thought, I could write about my professional failure, my parental shortcomings, the opportunities I passed up, the endless years I spent trying to conform to a gendered existence that never fit, or the price paid in personal isolation in my decision to alter that existence. Should I go on? I’m certain the majority of people would, like me, have a harder time choosing from a multitude of failures (perceived or otherwise), than zeroing in on a couple of successes looking back over their lives.

At the eleventh hour, having agonized over the selection of a failure to write about (lest my inability to pull together a submission be yet another failure in itself), I turned, once again, to my recent experience in central Australia and my inability to hike the Larapinta Trail as I had hoped. Failure? Perhaps. Or a success that I managed to walk two and a half days out of eleven given how sick I was? It was, as I’ve said, a truly amazing opportunity to be out there, but at heart I can’t help harbouring a sense of dreaming big and falling short.

Which is, I suppose, what makes failure such a human experience. And those small success such a simple joy.

If you have ever known failure (come on, be honest now) and would like to find a little comfort and company in the stories, poems and experiences of others, copies of this limited edition handcrafted zine can be ordered here for a very modest price. Treat yourself or some miserable failure you know. Order a handful!

One last glance back at 2017, as 2018 dawns

A little more than a week ago I marked the solstice on a rather positive note after another difficult year. The holiday season has been, however, more painful than I had anticipated. The weather has been brutal—as I type this, the temperature is in the low minus twenties, think -28 or -29C with a wind chill factor approaching -37C, and we’ve received about 30cm of snow or more—which has contributed to a marked degree of cabin fever. But what has weighed on me most heavily is a peculiar loneliness, a very personal emptiness, and a measure of anxiety about some of the changes I thought I was looking forward to, like selling my house and moving into an apartment. I’m feeling a little conflicted now, oddly because if my son manages to stay sober, I think less of escaping a bad situation and think more about the advantages of having someone else around, at least until he is well stabilized and ready to move on. (Okay, there’s also the fact that he saved my life a few years ago…)

Taken this afternoon. Does it look cold? Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

However, now that the end of 2017 is upon us, I can distract myself for a moment by looking back over my year in blogging. Although I started this blog in mid-2014, I did not begin to seriously write about books, or venture into the realm of mini personal essays until the end of that year. In the three years since, my blog has grown steadily and, I hope, developed a bit of a reputation for being unclassifiable. This year I noticed a marked increase in traffic from Canada and Australia, a result, I suspect, of my increased engagement with readers and writers from both countries. Still the largest number of viewers came from the US and the UK, followed by Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India. My most popular review written this year was, by a wide margin, of Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe. Mine must be one of the only reviews of this book online; it was even cited in an extensive overview of post-colonial African literature—the only blog review cited in the entire article. This book is a classic of early post-Apartheid South African black literature and I can’t understand why it hasn’t attracted more attention—clearly it was being studied extensively this year judging by the traffic generated. The second highest number of views for a 2017 review was for The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (tr. Jacob Siefring), the third, My Heart Hemmed In by Marie N’Diaye (tr. Jordan Stump) and the fourth for Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline (tr. Tim Parks). The 50/50 split between new releases and older titles in this selection highlights one of the advantages of blogging—not being bound to focusing exclusively on recent releases as is so often the tendency in other literary venues you can read and write about whatever books catch your fancy. Or not. This year I read much more than I reviewed here or elsewhere.

My own occasional reflective posts, which always make me feel mildly self-conscious, tend to be very well received, generating more hits than the majority of my reviews. Considering that the reviews typically take me much longer to write, it never ceases to surprise me that people actually want to read my idle ramblings… something to hold on to as I start to finally (yes, finally) tackle my memoir project in the year ahead. I’ve been piddling around on this front, to be honest. But it’s so terrifying to put one’s own life on the page. However, I trust I’m not the only personal essayist to struggle with this conflict. As I’ve mentioned several times in recent months, the work of French poet, essayist and ethnologist Michel Leiris has occupied much of my attention this past year (with much to keep me going in 2018). I had expected I would write some kind of a “review” of Scratches, the first part of his four-part autobiographical project Rules of the Game, yet I can’t quite imagine how to write about this book. It has become embedded in my consciousness, and interwoven with my reading of his dream diary, Nights as Days and Days as Nights, and his massive travel journal, Phantom Africa.

Long before Knausgaard starting dissecting the minutiae of his experience, Leiris was reflecting, musing, analyzing, and agonizing over the stuff of his life and, more accurately, his emotional and intellectual engagement with the world as mediated by language and memory. Scratches begins with his earliest recognition that language held magic and secrets that he could unlock as he came to understand the meanings of words. Throughout the book his discourses, which range widely from childhood amusements to recent events and back again, hinge on the associations he has for certain words or phrases. (Lydia Davis’ remarkable translation seamlessly weaves the French words into the text so that the layers of sound and meaning ring through.) It can be quite wonderful to get swept up in his winding and circuitous streams of thought. However, what I love about Leiris is his idiosyncratic emotional volubility. He easily swings from being proud and confident, to wallowing in despair and self-doubt. If the contemporary “journey of self-discovery” model of the memoir enforces the notion that life has a narrative arc that leads to growth and improvement, Leiris is not the model. In fact, much of the time he simply seems to be travelling in wide sweeping circles without getting anywhere at all. Nor is he wretched enough to stand as a forerunner to the popular misery memoir. But he doesn’t hesitate to indulge in a little morbid excavation of his weaknesses and failures when his mood plummets. I well imagine this annoys some readers, but as someone who has struggled at length with mood regulation, I adore the honesty and the way he somehow manages to drag himself out to firmer ground. Toward the end of Scratches he very nearly gives up his entire autobiographic endeavour worrying that he has reduced himself to “a sort of aged child, a prisoner of a bygone period and henceforth shut off from all action—even thought—involving the future.” In his anxieties, I see reflected my own insecurities about committing to a long term project. He justifies his decision to break off work on his book saying:

Since the literary work to which I am devoting myself with such difficulty seems less and less uplifting and no longer necessary (since it gives me nothing beyond what I put into it myself more or less deliberately), it would be better to abandon it and wait for a more favourable time. And right now the most serious hope I have for recovery is to let everything lie dormant until the anecdotal illness ailing me… and my brain cleansed by this period of repose, I can shed my old skin. To come into a new skin after a long period of obliteration in blankness, like a drum one has beaten too persistently and which, even though its body may still seem in pretty good shape, absolutely must have its vibrating skin replaced by a fresh one.

Of course, he not only recovers his enthusiasm but will go on to produce three more volumes after this.

So, looking ahead to 2018, I have a small selection of books that I am especially keen to read, but I know better than to make any public lists. I do want to continue a steady diet of poetry, learning how to read it more deeply, and write some of my own. But writing and photography have to take centre stage. Most immediately, I am heading to India in February to spend a couple of weeks in Kolkata where I hope to be able to find some distance from home, a wealth of inspiration and a little quiet time to write.

Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Happy New Year to all. Here in my hometown, and in many cities across Canada it is so cold that outdoor celebrations have been cancelled. But if the meteorologists are right, we should start to climb out of the deep freeze tomorrow as 2018 rolls in.

Another winter solstice: A dark year ends brightly

2017 has been a difficult year for many, personally and globally. It has become my custom to stop on this day—the shortest of the year, 7 hours, 54 minutes to be exact—and tally an account of sorts for the year just passed. That typically also includes some variation on a “books of the year” theme. This time I will refrain from the attempt to gather a formal list, but will work in some of my literary highlights.

My year began on a very low note.  2016 had been a year marked by significant creative achievement tempered by great personal loss. With the advent of the new year, I was awash in a mix of complicated emotions. Toward the end of February, probate was finally granted on my father’s will and I received the first part of my inheritance. This relieved the serious financial concerns that had been haunting me for months, but paradoxically, I felt worse than ever. As a wave of loneliness, threatened to completely overwhelm me, I sat down and composed a short blog post that, much to my surprise, garnered more views on the first day than any post I’ve ever made. Clearly I was not alone in my loneliness.

I don’t think I can say that post changed my life, but it represents the beginning of an awareness of the extent of the very real community that can develop online. Most tangibly it led to an invitation from fellow blogger Tony Messenger to take part in the annual extreme walk for charity he organizes in central Australia. And of course, because nothing is as perfect as we would like, I picked up an extreme cold somewhere between Calgary and Alice Springs, so I didn’t walk very much (or very fast), but to have almost two weeks out in the heart of the desert was an experience I’ll never forget. And the beginning of a deeper level of grieving for my parents. At the moment, much of the journey is, like so many of my photo files, unprocessed.

These things take time.

And, having travelled halfway around the globe, I had to at least stop into Melbourne and Sydney and catch up with some Twitter and online friends along the way. Every encounter was wonderful, and contributed to shrinking a large, lonely world a little, even if just for a few hours.

Brighton Beach, Melbourne
Glebe, Sydney
Sydney icon

Over the course of the summer, my brothers and I managed to get our parents’ home fixed up and ready to go on the market. They lived on an acreage outside a small village in a region of the province where the real estate market had been dormant for over a year due to the depressed oil industry. However, things were just starting to turn when we listed the house in late July. Within a week we accepted an offer. Now there are still some estate matters to clear up (and lots more stuff to dispose of), but with a measure of closure we can all start to move forward.

My highlight of the autumn was my city’s annual reader’s festival, Wordfest. I volunteered as a driver for the first time and had a blast. One has an opportunity to engage with authors in a completely different way when driving them around town. And this year’s event featured a strong line-up of Indigenous writers and an excellent poetry cabaret. But by far, my singular thrill was an opportunity to witness the phenomenal M. NourbeSe Philip performing from her experimental epic Zong! I had several opportunities to speak to her privately, and she was generous, supportive, and enthusiastic about my own writing project.

However, when I think back over 2017, I feel like I have been less productive as a writer. I would like to think that the work has been germinating… In truth, 2016 saw the publication of a couple of pieces that had been fermenting for a few years. This year it has been harder to find the focus, but I feel that shifting. I also limited critical writing off my blog, again an energy and concentration issue, but I am very pleased with the reviews I did publish. I’ve also been editing more, an invisible but very highly rewarding activity. And I’m excited to see where my new role with 3:AM Magazine will take me in the year ahead.

And so, at last, to the year in reading. I read many great books—and acquired many more that I’ve not yet gotten to—but here are some of the highlights:

This year I read, for the first time, several writers I have been meaning to get to for a while—Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Gerald Murnane—and I was in no instance disappointed.

I collected and read an embarrassing amount of poetry. These are a few of the collections I’ve been spending time with:

And somehow I’ve ended up with a healthy selection of contemporary Australian poets (with a few more still on the way):

Meanwhile, a couple of Canadian Indigenous writers really caught me off guard and I have since gathered earlier works by each to catch up on:

As a memoirist (or memoirish writer), I paid special attention to a variety of excellent (and different) memoirs:

And although I can say with confidence that almost every book I read this year was published by an independent publisher, I took special pleasure in supporting some very small indie outfits:

I also like to think that reading should be both intelligent and fun,so with that in mind, these are a few books that really surprised and delighted me:

And finally, I loved every single book released by Two Lines Press in 2017, including two of my absolute favourites novels of the year:

Last, but not least, 2017 is the year I became rather obsessed with French author Michel Leiris. I read the first part of his autobiography, Scratches, which I will write about soon, and purchased the next two parts (the last part has not yet been translated), along with his essays, fiction and correspondences. But, by far, the most demanding and rewarding reading experience I had all year was his monumental journal Phantom Africa. (With the exception of most of the poetry, I wrote about every book pictured here on my blog or for other online magazines. Links can be found on my Review Index 2017 page.)

Now, as the year is coming to a close, I am, of course, still reading. I’m also writing, and looking forward to an upcoming trip to India where I hope to be able get even more writing done. But the true reason this winter solstice is brighter than those of the past few years is that, as of tomorrow, my son who is just about to turn twenty-eight, will have been sober for two weeks. After eight years of heavy drinking and all of the discord, danger, and stress that loving an alcoholic entails this is something I feared I’d never see. I don’t know why he suddenly stopped. I have not asked. I am simply being supportive and hoping that this is the beginning of a new future for him.

So, at least for the moment, it’s all good. I hope everyone else finds a little goodness in the days ahead.

To sing the song unsung: A personal answer to Singed by Daniela Cascella

The voice soundless and then, records unheard, song unsung, voice also unsung
dipped enshrouded ensheathed enlandscaped tongueless tongueless tied no story no record.

Daniela Cascella is a literary ecstatic. She engages with the word—written, spoken, sung, depicted—at an essential point of being, at that place where the spirit, soul, or daimon resides.

She listens into the silences, to the whispers and echoes, to the frayed edges of meaning. As a native Italian who writes in English, she attends to the spaces between languages, bending and folding her adopted tongue to affect fractured layers of intent. To open yourself to reading her is to be challenged to read and write with a new sensitivity to sound, voice and significance.

If I sound like an enthusiast, I am. Daniela (if this was a review rather than an answer I would refer to her by her last name—I will honour her instead, as Brazil honours Clarice) has been a vital friend and mentor over the past year and half since I first came to know her. As an essayist, my primary goal is to reach toward an articulation of the ineffable, to give voice to an existence, not between languages, but between gendered experience in a way that gets closer to an expression of being as I understand it than the common dialogue surrounding trans identity allows. I have no idea if that is an attainable goal, but Daniela’s essays and meditations thrill, inspire and ignite me.

Inspire and ignite me.

Ignite.

Her latest book, Singed, takes its title from permutations of sing: sing, singed, sung. It opens with the account of a fire. A few months ago the room at the top of our house caught fire. A large number of books and cds were lost to the flames. I first read of these burned books from a PDF of the text. I responded with horror; I felt wrenched with every title. Returning to this accounting on the printed page a few weeks later, I sensed an exaltation, a calling forth, a rising to a challenge, a refrain to be reclaimed amidst the losses. And that is what Singed is. As Daniela sifts through the ashes and embers, sings through the ashes and embers, she calls forward precious voices—Clarice Lispector, Teresa of Ávila, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Elfriede Jelinek, Marlene van Niekerk, Isak Dinesen, Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann and more—chanelling their words and their attempts to speak to otherness. Hers is a reading as inhabiting the spaces between words.  The observations she makes and questions she asks, hang in the air, inviting her reader to ponder the unspeakable and challenge the constraints placed on how we’ve been taught to read and to write.

Woven through her literary explorations, are reflections on music and art. These excursions help frame, and reframe, a multi-dimensional engagement with the written word. Hearing, seeing, and speaking are essential activities, as are silence, emptiness, and unfinished forms. A sigh, for example, Clarice’s in particular, which Cascella (at this moment, this feels like a review) first encounters listening to Lispector’s last recorded interview, inspires an intuitive and rhythmic engagement with the works of other writers, a series of echo and dub sessions on the page. The experience of reading and writing a review of Marlene van Niekerk’s The Swan Whisperer, a short tale in which a young student loses himself in his endeavour to transcribe the language of swans, leaves her spellbound, speechless and wordless, unable to write for months. Of that interlude she says:

Today I know that the silence I experienced was a deep working of the stuff that makes writing be. It was the encounter with the substance that eludes you and that causes such physical turmoil when you grasp it in other words, in words you read in a poem or hear in a song, and you recognize their subject as yours.

And the connections she draws when writing across languages are illuminating, especially for those of us who are unilingual. In an essay about Fleur Jaeggy’s as yet untranslated novel, Le statue d’acqua, Cascella writes:

Where did the spirit of the world hide that night its reservoir of dreamers?

The porous blank portions between the words in The Water Statues soak up Jaeggy’s discomfortable writing. They enfold the space of space, or as Gass wrote of Rilke’s Innerweltraum, the space made by Being’s breathing… Not just the space we call consciousness, but the space where we retire in order to avoid a feeling… These spaces are always palpable as though space were smoke, or the mountains of the heart where the last of the hamlet of feeling may be discerned. The blank spaces host echoes, speech where speech ends, the voices of ancestors. Jaeggy herself has acknowledged, in discussing herself hearing writing in between German and Italian, that German is the language of her dreams…

Voices and echoes, and echoes of voices.

Repetition of a refrain.

Call and answer.

If reading Daniela Cascella’s work—including her earlier books, En Abîme and F.M.R.L.— has nurtured in me an alertness to sound in language and imagery, and an awareness of voice, more explicitly a desire to voice what is known without words, Daniela, as a friend and fellow writer, has personally encouraged me to incorporate more photographs (or a photographic sensibility?) into the presentation of my writing—a process I am still just beginning to explore.

But take this image:

July, 2015, mid-winter in Cape Town. This is the Company’s Garden, with the iconic façade of Table Mountain looming in the background. On that white columned building in the distance, if you could see it, is a poster advertising William Kentridge’s multi-media installation, The Refusal of Time. That is the South African National Gallery and this is my last full day in the city. I made my way through the gallery in near isolation and as I passed into the room containing the Kentridge exhibit, the recorded rhythms of metronomes and bellows were triggered and seemed, in the moment, to be contained within this dark space where I experienced the entire presentation alone, surrounded by noise and images, free to wander and absorb the full sensory explosion unhindered. Later, as I explored the rest of the gallery, I realized that the sounds and rhythms of the exhibit resounded and echoed through the entire building, enhancing my sensory appreciation of every photograph, painting and artwork I saw. I cannot think back on that visit to the gallery without hearing and feeling, the steady cadence, the heartbeat, of The Refusal of Time.

But that’s not all, and this where I answer Daniela Cascella and Singed. When we first connected, we shared our mutual appreciation of Marlene van Niekerk—The Swan Whisperer and her monumental novel, Agaat. It is a trace of the latter work I carried with me during my stay in Cape Town. Every time I came into the bowl from my B&B in Sea Point and saw Table Mountain stretching out before me, I could not help but hear the awed voice of the young Agaat after a trip to the cape with her mistress: “I saw Table Mountain.”

I saw Table Mountain.

 That young girl’s voice echoed in my head. Agaat’s voice became my voice. The voice of a past part of myself.

I saw Table Mountain.

 That afternoon, I sat in the café in the Garden, with Kentridge’s metronomes and Agaat’s wonder punctuating every breath, and started to write. I was, I believed, at the beginning of a process of writing my way back through the year that had just passed, from the breaking point of a serious manic episode to the renewal of a sense of self identity and an clear understanding of the unfinished business of being differently gendered in the world. A neat, circular journey  that would, in the writing, lead to healing.

As if.

Life (and death) still held lessons I could not, in that moment, anticipate.

Today, the pen still hesitates on the page. Small forays have been made, but I am only beginning to learn to listen to the voices I am trying to transcribe, the voices of the selves I am and used to be—girl, woman, man.

Somewhere, in the distance, I am calling back the beat of the metronome and a child’s voice: I saw Table Mountain. That child is me. In Cape Town I believed I could rewind time, solstice to solstice, one year back to the day I left my job,  and move on from there.

No.

I need to go back farther. Back into my past and listen for that child’s voice, the child who had a feeling, but no words to express it. To gather what one can know in absence of language, to salvage words from the margins of memories. Attend to that distant silence.

So much has passed in the two and a half years since I took this photograph. I almost died, then both of my parents faded rapidly and were suddenly gone, and the friend who drew me to South Africa committed suicide.

Just when I thought I was ready to write, my life caught fire and burned for over a year. Now it is time to sift through the ashes and embers, re-enter the remembering, and embrace the discomfortable, pen to paper.

Singed by Daniela Cascella is published by Equus Press.

The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

Earlier this month I wrote about the fact that I had not been writing much, despite my pledge to focus on my own work for a year.  Well since that time I haven’t been reading much either, but I have been busy with writing related activity and, fortunately, I have more work written earlier in the year that I am now able to share.

Today my contributor’s copy of the latest edition of the elegant and engaging Seagull Books Catalogue arrived.  I have only just begun to glance through it—this 428-page masterpiece begs to be savoured slowly and carefully—and, for the second year, I am honoured to have a piece of writing included.

My brief prose poem/essay, “The Cost of Words,” was written upon my return from the trip I made to central Australia in May of this year, to participate in a charity walk on the Larapinta Trail west of Alice Springs.  Thank you, as ever, to Naveen Kishore and the entire team at Seagull Books for this beautiful creation and for once again inviting me to take part.

THE COST OF WORDS

It starts, not with a shout, but with a whisper, a tightening at the back of the throat.

 Sadness was an opened door, an invitation, across the globe, to an ancient place where, for a time, the world might stop swaying, where I could focus on the moment, freightless after years of pushing against this cage of flesh and bone. Traverse a vast terrain of sound and sand and stone. I arrived empty, expectant. In my head, I had fashioned a journey of healing, imagined an ordeal to open a conduit to choked and buried grief. I longed to release the words that had ceased to flow. Unleash emotions untold.

Nature defies a narrative directive; life sets its own course. Streams flood, rivers run dry. We are not what we think we are. We are whole, we are broken. Fragile and durable in turns.

 On my first day out, my head closed in, my voice grew strained and raw. Over rockbound passages, rising ridges, jagged ground, I began to fear that a different script was being dreamed for me. My challenge would be to submit. I fought it, pressing against weakness and illness and fatigue until one day I dropped from the trail into a circle of needles and stone.

The wisdom of the desert holds you humble. Reminds you when failure, not triumph, will unleash the tears you cannot cry. Water is precious. A gift not easily spared.

In the end, I will never know, how long I could have walked in perfect health. Whether heat or blisters or skeletal complaints would have slowed me all the same. But I do know that the outback is not just rock and rust-red dust and sand. It is explosive greens, the pallid beauty of the ghost gum, the sacred promise of the waterhole, and the wisdom of the women whose ancestors walked this land for millennia.

And the possibility of redemption from ruin. Again and again.

The cost of writing is not simply the loneliness and isolation a writer’s life affords; it is the cost of the life lived, the pain, wreckage, and devastation endured to be able write at all. Words are not free.

 What might a perfect life dream forth? Nothing worth the ink that blood can bear. I am not what I think I am. I am broken, I am whole. I seek the words, the notes that bind this song I write. In my heart, after two weeks in the desert, I have carried it home. How long can this self-sufficient refrain echo before it fades to hollow silence?

Long enough if one remembers the cost of words and is prepared to pay the price.