All that I am, all that I will ever be: Sorting through my complicated emotions on Mother’s Day

This Mother’s Day marks the third that I have faced alone since my mother’s passing in 2016. Last year was painful; this year, the passage between her birthday on May 2nd and today has been even more difficult. I have been angry, frustrated, agitated, depressed. Beset with a loneliness that is bone-deep, existential, wordless. I debated whether I should even attempt to express it because my specific pain is coloured not only by my loss of a beloved parent, my own mother, but because, although I face the world as a male person, understood as a man even to those who know otherwise, I am also a mother. Mother’s Day opens itself to women who have longed for motherhood (including those born male) or taken on motherlike roles in a wide variety of contexts, but holds no space for a mother like me. Even my own children tend to overlook my desire for just a moment’s recognition.

The only person who fully understood, honoured and respected this incongruous aspect of my being in the world was my own mother. And she is gone.

Up until the week she died, my mother called me, like clockwork, every Saturday night at 7:00 pm. I’m not sure when this pattern was established, but it extended back for decades. We were so very close. I listened to her joys and trials; she listened to mine. But there was never a exchange more difficult than my call, almost twenty years ago, to tell her that, after nearly forty years of trying to make myself into the woman she naturally assumed I was, I could no longer fight a persistent agonizing sense that I was not really female. My thirties had been, she was well aware, a decade of peculiar turmoil; that behind the birth of two children and a dutiful effort to craft a home that resembled the one I’d grown up in, something darker was brewing. I was increasingly, obviously miserable. I had experienced a serious manic psychosis and spent the better part of a month on the psychiatric ward. But nothing could have prepared her for my revelation. I had never shown the slightest masculine tendencies or interests and “transgender” was only just beginning to become a topic of conversation. However if gender roles and experiences—including pregnancy and childbirth— could a woman make, I could have managed to quell the dysphoria. I could not.

My mother, bless her, responded to the news that I was planning to divorce and transition to a life as male, with the promise that she would always love me unconditionally. She asked for no more than a few weeks to adjust to the idea. She became my advocate, quietly, faithfully, unstintingly. If she had her own doubts and grief over the loss of her daughter, she never let me know. And I never got the chance to ask. It was a subject left unaddressed in death.

My mother died from complications of osteoporosis and, as we learned in the final days of her life, post-polio syndrome. In eighty-two years the markers of exposure to that disease had never been detected, but together these conditions had gradually reduced her body to a hunched, frail, crippled cage. Until the very last month, when the lack of adequate oxygen exchange began to impair her thinking processes, she remained alert, intelligent and fresh. When I spoke to her, her age was ambiguous, eternal. Every time I saw her in person, I would be shocked anew. She spent her final years trapped in a delicate, fragile frame that constrained the spirit of a woman who had been so active and physically vital most of her life.

Her body betrayed her.

My mother’s death, followed eleven days later by my father’s death from the complications of a head-on collision, unravelled my reality in ways I am only beginning to fully appreciate. My parents spent their final years in a cottage in the woods outside a small village about two hours northwest of the city I live in. It was the final destination of lives that had started in large urban centres—New York and Toronto—and ended in a place in which they had few, if any connections. To everyone who knew them in this ultimate location, I was the oldest son. To most of the distant and scattered friends and relations I was tasked with notifying of their passing, I was their only daughter. For my brothers, never entirely at ease navigating the decade and a half between my two opposed public identities, I will always be a sister.

My parents’ final home.

For my own two children, I am the parent who transcends and defies gender, who struggled to raise them alone from the ages of eight and eleven, with little financial and emotional support, with one identity at home, but hidden, vague and uncertainly defined to the outside world. I referred to myself as their parent, only explicitly defining the biological reality when medical or educational situations commanded more specific terms. To do so was to invite the question of how much my issues were or were not impacting my son or daughter who each had their own challenges. No one ever asked how the practical emotional distance of their father played a role. I looked like a father and it is difficult for others, even if they are fully aware of my past to hold mother as a reality in the existence and life of someone who looks like a man. I was, more often than not, reduced to that oddity that, even today, is poorly appreciated—a single male parent.

I would be asked: Where is their real parent? Who? Their mother? What could I say? She’s dead? And yet, I resisted revealing my identity unnecessarily. I have long known single fathers, not widowed but left with the care and responsibility while mothers moved on, and I felt it was important to call attention to the fact that not all single parents are women. I also feared negative fallout. As a closeted transgender person I stood in isolation.

Yet raising children through their difficult adolescent years gave my life meaning, value. My own parents stood by me, pitched in, built strong and vital relationships with their grandchildren while the other side of their family, maintained a distance. Only their stepmother, their father’s new wife, made an effort. As I built a new identity and a new history as a man in the world, my children and my parents provided essential continuity. They allowed me to feel whole, to carry motherhood and manhood as part of who I was.

Who I was.

The last few years have not been so easy. The artificiality of this assumed completeness was shattered when I became ill and lost my job. The scaffolding provided by my short-lived career, the years I spent working in social services fully and completely accepted as male, was stripped away leaving me defenseless. By this time, my children were in their twenties, both dealing with their own serious issues, and I had no friends, community or support to fall back on.

In retrospect, the sharp jolt into recognition of the limitations of transition to address the longstanding dislocation of gender dysphoria, has been a blessing. I could have continued to imagine that my artificial existence was sufficient for some time, but in truth, cracks in my carefully tended armour were showing long before the tentacles of mania pried them open. Career success was only a passing indication of achievement. My failure to make friends or forge a sexual identity spoke much more acutely to the truth that I could live as a man, but would never really be a man. Yet, as transgender, my own experience—past and present—is never echoed in the endless stream of gender different narratives that have become so ubiquitous in queer and public discourse. My personal efforts to find comfort, community or safety in LGBTQ space have been a dismal tribute to the heartache of finding oneself doubly alienated among the alienated. I sometimes feel like I have never fit in anywhere.

So I sought to find myself where I had no reason or expectation of fitting in. Where I once sought to ensure protection by building walls between myself and the world, I now seek escape. Through reading, writing , and travel. South Africa. Australia. India.

And again, India.

My mother only lived to know of the first of these journeys, one that in my complete ignorance about the risks of long haul sedentary travel, very nearly cost me my life—blood clot to pulmonary embolism to cardiac arrest—saved against incredible odds, by my son who found me and started CPR. But I know she would never have discouraged my continued travel. In her lifetime she managed to visit Cairo with a friend and Russia and New Zealand with my father, but had she not been constrained by an increasingly brittle body and an increasingly eccentric and intransigent husband, she would have travelled longer and farther. Perhaps I have inherited some of my restlessness from her.

That restlessness is growing. I have never felt “at home” in the city where I have lived for most of my life. I was not born here. I have no roots or connections here. Both of my brothers are married to women with deep histories in this part of the country. But my ex was of the first generation born to migrants, refugees. My own mother was a migrant and, back only two generations of a family of refugees herself. I feel this eternal disconnect enhanced by the embodied dislocation I feel as someone who has navigated womanhood and manhood, but belonged to neither. In this present #MeToo era I am even more adrift. I am torn between a genuine empathy for men—informed by living as a male person in society keenly aware of the ways testosterone has altered my mental and emotional engagement with the world—and the feeling that my own experiences as a girl and woman have lost their currency. I look like a middle-aged white man and that is all that I am allowed to speak to. There isn’t even a language which can adequately address my dual life and my role as a parent. Transgender men who opt to have a child at the beginning of the transitional process engage a queer parenthood that is unlikely to ever be labelled “motherhood” as language now tends to be gender neutralized, distorted. Which is fine for them, but it silences and disowns the reality of my, admittedly less common, hybridized experience.

I want to speak for no one but myself. I do not regret the decision to transition, I am entirely comfortable with the face I see in the mirror. I am male and enjoy a hormonal rightness that grants me a certain completeness. The body, well that is another possibly unsolvable matter. However, of late I find myself wanting to claw back some sense of dignity for my early, pre-transition life. It isn’t easy. It is unsettling, even with my most generous and supportive friends— those who fully accept me but have only known me with this present name, this current appearance. And very often it angers transgender activists because it defies the accepted discourse. I can’t help but fear that the only person who might have ever come close to truly understanding, who might have been able to walk with me through this unending, evolving, shifting, and ever ill-defined journey is no longer here. My mother contained all that I am—all that I have ever been, and all that I ever will be. My absolute alpha and omega. Her love was whole, at times skeptical perhaps, but expansive and complete.

And for that reason, on this Mother’s Day, I miss her with all my heart and soul.

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).

The appeal of India for this restless soul: A reflection

Back from a month in India, I am struggling to reorient myself. The jet lag and the cold I thought I had shaken that has now morphed into a different version of moderate misery do not help. My brain is foggy. My body is trying to adjust to the twelve and a half hours I just gained back. My heart is sick with a longing to grasp again, just for a minute, whatever it is that I left behind. That I leave behind every time I return.

India has a strange charm. One I can’t quite place. I never imagined I would go there; I cannot pinpoint when the seed was sown. I do know that for years it was a secret wish, not bound to any  particular calling but simply a desire to go there. Last year’s chance decision to visit Seagull Books in Calcutta was an opening, this year I expanded my time and orbit, and met so many more people along the way. Had so many great conversations.

How is it, I ask myself again and again, that I can travel halfway around the world, and make more solid connections—new or renewed—in four weeks, than I can manage in an entire year in a city I have lived in for most of my life? Is it, perhaps, that I am able to be myself in a strange land, relax into a comfort with who I am in a place where I do not naturally belong? Why can I not bring that person back with me? Or at least feel at ease with him when I come home.

What is home, then? And why does this place fail to complete me? Why do I feel a home-away-from-homesickness weighing on me? I envy those who belong someplace.

As long as I can remember, I have felt that I was out of step, out of sorts, a misfit. Marriage, moving, midlife metamorphosis—nothing has ever completely eased the discomfort. Only in travelling do I find relief. Only in upsetting the equilibrium do I feel whole.

At least for a while.

Toward the end of my visit, an unexpected event challenged this temporary relief. I went out to visit a friend at a school in Andhra Pradesh. Here, in a rugged and breathtaking location with only the faintest internet signal, the world was out of reach for the night. In the morning, as I climbed into the car, my driver greeted me with news he had just received. “India attacked Pakistan,” he reported with enthusiasm, “people are celebrating in Bangalore!” I politely responded that I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, but all the way back into the city I contemplated what it would mean to be in a country at war. I was not unaware of the tensions that had been building, but I had no clear grasp of the historical context. As an outsider, I am cautious to hold to a respectful neutrality, but somewhere along the way a line is crossed. I have become attached to people and places. I am not simply a visitor.

Once again I am aware of a sensation similar to what I feel as a person without a coherent gender history. A neither-here-nor-thereness defines my life. Always has, always will. Only now it is slipping across other boundaries, opening new possibilities.

After this recent trip to India, and the many rewarding and validating encounters that I was fortunate to have, I am beginning to believe that if I can learn to embrace an inherent disequilibrium as a fundamental and vital part of who I am, I can finally move ahead to tell the story that has been eluding me. My own story.

Oh Calcutta! Reflections on my second visit to the City of Joy

A week in Calcutta, my second visit to the city, now lies behind me. I am back in Bangalore again, looking out over the rooftops as the sounds of a busy Saturday remind me that life is ever alive and vital in a large Indian metropolis. But, as I sit here, the sights, sounds and scents of Calcutta are still coursing through my imagination. It’s a hard city to shake once it gets into your system.

Last year, as my first introduction to India, Calcutta was not what I expected. A full assault on the senses in ways I was not prepared for. It is still is, but this year I returned with a little bit more perspective, however limited. Unlike some people I’ve spoken to who cannot imagine why anyone would want to, or dare to, go to Calcutta, picturing the city at its most difficult times (enhanced perhaps by a little Hollywood melodrama as well), I had arrived expecting it to be more modern than what I found, especially in the grand, old, if somewhat decaying central parts of town. This time, however, I noticed more office complexes and taller buildings although somehow Calcutta manages to do “modern” and yet maintain a distinct element of shabby chic. Either that or, as in the new curator’s offices at the stately Victoria Memorial demonstrate, create a generic and unremarkable annex completely at odds with the echoes of the past. It’s a wonderfully eccentric we’ll do it our way way of being as stubbornly defiant as the hand pulled rickshaw drivers that continue to make their way along the back streets.

And speaking of streets, after a taste of the traffic in Bangalore, Mumbai or Kochi, Calcutta is comparatively ordered and slow. Very slow. Typically vehicles stay in their lanes, and the traffic police ensure a general order, lights at intersections are obeyed, and major roadways can be safely crossed. Which is saying a lot to be honest. It is a walkable city. The pathways can be rough at times, or filled with street sellers and food vendors, but if necessary one can generally manage to travel along the edge of the roadway. Some of the backstreets are fairly quiet and empty much of the day. But if a single vehicle comes along, you will hear of it. More than one vehicle and you won’t be able to hear yourself think. The noise of the car horns can be ear splitting. I’m inclined to think that anyone out to acquire a new or used vehicle must head to the showroom, car lot, back alley or wherever such transactions might occur and simply lean on the horn. If a few windows shatter, it does not matter if the wheels are falling off, it’s good to go!

Another traffic related observation I noted this time is the increased use of helmets on motorcycles. Friends told me that it has been a point of enforcement over the past year. And a good thing too. I was heading up a major thoroughfare on my way to meet a friend at the Marble Palace, when I came across a motorcycle accident. There were two children and one or two adults on the cycle, all fortunately with helmets. The one boy must have fallen off. As I passed, they were carrying this dazed child to a bus stop bench and a large crowd was gathering all shouting and offering their opinions. Without helmets it could have been far worse. All I could think of was the woman I saw speeding down the expressway in Bangalore with her young daughter on her lap, neither with helmets. But of course, where I live, motorcycles are a seasonal mode of transport, not a practical necessity as they are in this part of the world.

Traffic and faded architectural glory aside, to be back in Calcutta felt like coming home. A place I returned to seeking to refine a creative focus. On my first visit I came fully intending to write; this time I came with no such illusions. I came to experience, to meet other creative spirits, and to reconnect with all the good people at Seagull Books who have become dear to me. This time my stay was shorter, but coincided with so many wonderful visitors and events. It began, the night I arrived, with the opening of Removing the Gaze, an exclusive showing of collages by German artist Max Neumann. Monday morning began with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank’s masterclass at the Seagull School of Publishing, followed in the evening by my conversation with him at the Victoria Memorial (still fretting a little at what I had hoped to talk about but didn’t, I’m afraid). Tuesday it was my turn to lead a school session. As with my first experience last year, I was caught off guard by how quickly the three hours passed and by the engagement of the students. Wednesday was a full day of sightseeing with a new friend, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who, by coincidence, has been in the city on a residency, and Thursday morning featured a masterclass with conversationalist extraordinaire, Paul Holdengraber. Throughout the week I also had a number of meaningful conversations with Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books who was staying at the same residence where I was and doing some work with Seagull. Along with many visits to Seagull Books’ new office in their former school space, now newly opened up—a bright, cheery and inspiring creative environment—this was week packed with literary energy.

Now to see if I can carry some of the inspiration and focus I was seeking forward.

In Bangalore tonight, the friend I am staying with remarked on a new sense of perspective, of direction, and perhaps peace. As if India does give me something I need. The one thing it won’t give me is planned time for the two of us to travel, as unexpected circumstances now call him to be with his family. But such is life. This leaves me with a little over a week, and apart from one more overnight journey out of the city, much needed time and solitude to put some perspective to my own writing goals and direction before I return to the distractions and demands of life at home.

Of course, I will be back. India is not finished with me yet. Nor I with her.

Checking in from Bangalore midway through my India visit

As I write this I am back in Bangalore, my pivot point, my home base for this month-long stay in India. A fresh breeze drifts in through the open balcony door of my friend’s flat. The comforting noises of a city and neighbourhood gearing up for another day—traffic, dogs barking, children singing—rise from the streets below. The sounds carry a certain comfort, a connectedness to life, a rhythm timed to the swaying coconut palms and soaring black kites that pass from rooftop to treetop roost.

The past week took me to Mumbai, then south to Kochi. While my hometown back in Canada is in the midst of the longest unbroken deep freeze in decades, I struggled to adjust to the intense tropical heat and humidity, aware that it is not even the hot season in Kerala. Kochi is a port city, ribbons of land and ribbons of water, on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Huge tankers, barges and colourful fishing boats move in and out. It is lush and green, infinitely greener, they say, in the rainy season. With a population of about two and a half million, it is small in terms of Indian metropolises, with a greater sense of space and openness than I’ve noted elsewhere, perhaps due to the way the water is such a necessary and defining feature of the urban landscape.

I stayed with a friend at the beautifully tranquil compound where she owns a flat. Her recent return home from “exile” in Dubai makes perfect sense. Here, seemingly cut off from the inevitable rush and commotion of the city streets, it is easy to imagine the stresses of the world away for a moment. And yet it is in the midst of an almost fully developed residential neighbourhood, easily accessed by auto rickshaw over a a pedestrian bridge down the lane, but by car, only through a maze of the most circuitous and narrow roadways I’ve ever travelled. Passage across the city is a disorienting journey to say the least, but within a few days, I began to register landmarks and gain a basic sense of direction.

In Kochi I was aware of two elements in particular: the striking presence of Christian churches—a testament to the historical role the Portuguese and the Dutch played for better or worse—and the overwhelming number of tourists, both on my flights and on the ground. With so much of my travel in India, I am drawn by connections to people I know, even if I have yet to meet them personally, and this often allows me to explore a space either on my own or guided by locals. So I arrived in Kerala unprepared to encounter the typical tourist experience. The only specific destination on my agenda was the Kochi Biennale, but this extensive and diverse series of art exhibits was set up, understandably, throughout the tourist-heavy areas of Fort Cochin and Jew Town. Of course, now that I have been to Kochi, and had my first introduction to the fascinating textures and tones of the region, another visit with a wider focus will be in order.

As ever, the most precious moments of travel are, for me, time for face-to-face conversations with friends I’ve come to know through the internet. India then becomes the backdrop, its sounds the accompanying chorus. In Kochi, I had several days to visit with a friend I feel like I have, in some fashion, known forever, and an afternoon with another friend I met through her, an artist who came into the city to take in some of the Biennale with me. Although it can’t be long, I am often hard pressed to remember just how, or when, some of my Indian friends, Mini in Kochi, Sachin here in Bangalore, or the Seagull Books folk in Calcutta came into my life. Each city I visit expands my circle. I feel so very fortunate to have been given this opportunity to travel, something I never imagined, but for a serious of fortuitous, albeit essentially “unfortunate” circumstances, I would ever be able to experience. It is not a gift to be undervalued. And yet I carry, somewhere inside, a fear that I’m unworthy.

Now the halfway mark of my visit is nearing. I wait on the edge of a return trip to Calcutta, eager to be back in that most singular of cities, keen to reconnect with old friends and meet with new ones. I must confess, however, to being just a little anxious about an event that awaits me there.In a few days time, on February 18th, I will be in conversation with Edwin Frank, the founding editor of NYRB Classics at the impressive Victoria Memorial. No pressure! In truth I’m very honoured to have been invited to be part of the visit of such an esteemed guest and will be sure to report back on the experience once I recover! In the meantime, I will sign off with a few more images from Kochi…

Three days in Mumbai: What a small taste of a small corner of a huge city can tell you (about yourself)

As I write this I am five days into my second visit to India in as many years. This time my stay is longer, my scope wider, my engagement deeper. It is as much about meeting, building and nurturing friendships and connections—long standing and new—as it is about “seeing a place.” One does not travel half the globe to inhabit, however briefly, a world that is so very different in texture, tone and sensations from one’s own without being open to experience. But it is a complicated negotiation at times.

As an outsider, and more specifically as a westerner from a city of a little over a million, I respond so viscerally to the intensity of the Indian metropolis. And yet I am ever conscious of my vantage point, skewed and out of context, informed by the romantic images of my youth and early adulthood—elegant colonial set-pieces, followed by the wave of popular biographies of Ghandi and Mother Theresa in the 80s. I do not wish to appear the starry-eyed searcher or the foreign curiosity seeker, for in truth I am neither. The attraction is real and formless. I feel it in my bones, but am hesitant to grant it words.

I am aware that I experience India from a point of both ignorance and privilege and to formulate a response to what I see and feel leaves me as anxious as a non-poet wanting to write about poetry but refusing to for fear of reading it “wrong”. As if there is only one way to read anything. There is no such thing as pure, unmitigated and unbiased experience.

And so to my present location: Bombay or Mumbai. With a population of over eighteen million souls, Mumbai is the largest city I have ever been in. It is arguably one of the very biggest on the planet. I have to confess I found it immediately oppressive and claustrophobic. From the moment you leave the airport, humanity crushes in on you. Densely packed slums crowd the space alongside the roadway, for kilometre after kilometre, giving way at times for marble and granite dealers, before returning again. Gradually the apparent quality of the hovels improves, but it is an urbanized poverty on a scale that is difficult to process. I knew it was there. Maybe I didn’t expect to see it so explicitly.

The ride into the city was endless. A thick yellow haze hung in the air and I began to regret my decision to hire a non-A/C cab. In the rear view mirror I could see the eyes of the driver watering. With the smog and exhaust fumes blowing in through the open windows, I wondered what it would be like to spend each day moving back and forth through the impatient traffic and gridlock hour after hour.

For the traveller who arrives by air, a city makes her first impressions in the journey in from the airport. Mumbai’s welcome is pungent and emotionally disarming. From the vibrant interior of an ancient yellow and black cab, I watch the corrugated metal landscape pass as we slowly descended into the city. I take no pictures. It would not feel right.

Once I am finally settled in my hotel in the Fort area of south Mumbai, I grab my backpack and head out. The streets of the city are noisy, fast and congested. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that they often appear empty in photographs—it’s an illusion!) They seem to change flavour and character from block to block. Crossing the street, even daring to walk along the edges where the uneven pathways are blocked, or nonexistent, is an exercise in blind faith. A motorcycle is likely to roar up behind you, racing against the flow of traffic, blaring its horn to make you disappear. A legless older woman working a rusted handcart down the side of the road is my new hero. I’m at odds to know what I think of this place. I feel a little pressed under the weight of the space.

As ever, I take note of the street dogs. Here they’re a rather sorry assortment of creatures, weary and worn. Perhaps they don’t stand a chance against the cats that appear to quite handily own this part of town.

My immediate destination lies in the heart of the Kala Ghoda arts district. The area is crowded. Following my friend google  in search of the library where the literary portion of the annual arts festival is to be held, leads me through a bag search, metal detector and frisking, and into a large square crowded with young people  A variety of  sometimes quite tacky horse-themed artworks are displayed and the selfie generation is quite enamoured of them all. I am a little perplexed. I later learn that this is a new addition to the festivities, one that has drawn large numbers of people, mostly young, in from the suburbs, not for the arts so much as the party atmosphere. This type of attraction and congestion alters the tenor of the area. Of course, I’m here for the festival too—a little unexpected serendipity—but fortunately the literary programming is taking place beyond this makeshift corral, across the road in a garden oasis behind the David Sassoon Library. There one is magically removed from the noisy traffic and crowds on the street outside.

Now on my final day in the city, at least one tiny corner of Mumbai is less strange. The streets seem shorter, less confusing. The architecture is beautiful. This part of the city wears its age with grace. I have been to the Gateway of India, the obligatory tourist gesture, and today I saw the sea from the other side, looking out from Marine Drive. A completely different world unfolds there. Large, expensive vehicles line the shady streets, students pour out of colleges and universities, and in the distance, across the waters, the towers of the city’s centre appear ghostly in the midday heat. But it’s hot. I don’t stay long.

So, after my first, brief encounter with Mumbai, three things remain: the gift of being a stranger in a place where, despite disorientation and an inability to comfortably communicate, a little semblance of familiarity begins to emerge; the necessary joy that literary community affords including the precious opportunity to meet, in person, supportive and inspiring writers previously known only online; and finally, the chance to experience a hectic, sometimes seemingly harsh, city at rest. Late last night, after a wonderful, long visit with a friend, I made my way back to my hotel through the quiet virtually empty streets. Ranjit accompanied me part of the way, down byways I likely would not have attempted on my own, until he was certain I knew where I was, and I finished the walk alone. Here and there men spoke quietly, or bid one another good night. On sidewalks, those without homes were already fast asleep, and lonely yellow and black cabs crawled by, hopeful for a late night fare.

Funny that such a huge city could test me by day, and win me over at night.

The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.