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.

A new year, a new optimism, in spite of it all

As 2019 opens, my world is so much brighter than it has been for a long time—a strange sentiment given all the obvious and ominous shadows hanging over this sorry planet—but when you have been carrying darkness deep within and even the smallest moments of hope seem impossible, the lifting of that weight is near miraculous. The difficulties and challenges do not evaporate, but a renewed sense that they can be faced moving forward is the most wonderful feeling. On the Solstice I wrote about my recent medication adjustment and the subsequent easing of a depression that I had failed to recognize, being so tightly wound in its grasp that I was struggling to even find the will to continue living. Consumed by bitterness, anger, and grief I’d become a morbid, unpleasant soul by the end of November, unloading my misanthropic  self-hatred on a few trusted close friends, near and far. Now, with the unrepentant zeal of the born-again, I cannot stop marvelling at the sheer joy of not feeling miserable—it is not a delirious happiness, but damn, it does feel good. Or as a friend who nearly lost himself to a bout of  depression described the transition: I went from cowering in a corner wanting to die to crying at a stoplight overcome by the sheer beauty, intensity, and brilliance of the green light.

This past holiday season—the third since the loss of both of my parents and the suicide of a dear friend, and the fourth since my own very close encounter with death—feels like a turning of sorts. Or a recognition that we are ever turning and looking back over our lives, applying narrative arcs, seeking meaning and closure. However, this time, I refuse to be swayed by the temptation to believe this is even possible, let alone helpful. I’ve long doubted the narrative imperative, in fiction and memoir alike, and yet in our own lives we long for tidy, complete stories with meaning and message, and are continually upended every time life pulls the carpet from beneath our feet and we are forced to rewrite the script.

The major difference this year is that I have started to see my mother, in my dreams and my imagination. Always colourful and carefully coordinated, ageless and aged, believer and doubter, guardian angel and true friend. For long time, apart from a brief interlude when I was the desert of central Australia, my mother has remained a dull thickness in the core of my being. A mass of anger and guilt and self-pity. It’s easing. I feel sadness. I find myself crying. I know that I am finally beginning to grieve. It hurts so good. And I have a sense that this loosening, this opening up, is essential to releasing the blockages I’ve encountered in my own writing projects.

So with the new year ahead, I’ll begin with the resolution that marked every journal kept during decades of looking for a voice, an identity, and then, having found it, having to slip into a closet—This year I will write. Of course, I have advantages. I am no longer unpublished. I am part of an environment as a reader, writer and editor where I am fortunate to engage with inspiring and encouraging people. And I have formed some true, valuable, real friendships with people who accept the whole, weird me. These people, some of whom I have never met face to face, have sustained me through this darkness. A few with saintly patience and grace, I’m afraid. I hope that going forward I will become a calmer, more open listener, a better friend myself. And alert to the pain of others, like so many seemingly random twitter connections who heard me call out into cyberspace in my darker moments and responded with a good word or expression of concern.

My intended reading, moving into 2019, includes a few essay collections, a couple of photo essays, some long-deferred grief reading like Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, and lots more poetry. With a month in India now just over four weeks away, I’ve also got some work by Indian writers in my TBR pile, and some books I’m reading in advance of a really exciting event I’ll be taking part in in Kolkata (more about that to come).

As I mentioned before, I became seriously concerned about my well-being last November, when I found myself so physically drained and emotionally exhausted that I was wondering if I could manage to get through my trip to India at all. I had been planning a return all year and, at last, with the tickets booked, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of going. The day after I finally allowed myself to accept my psychiatrist’s suggestion that I was under something more than the seasonal blues, I dragged myself down to Mountain Equipment Co-op and bought a new lightweight travel bag. And I haven’t looked back since! My agenda for my stay is still taking shape, with room for impulse and adventure. I look forward to spending time with friends, some I have met, and some I feel like I’ve known forever even though we’ve yet to meet. I will be flying in and out of Bangalore with plans to go to Kochi and a desire to visit Mumbai, and beyond that, who knows? I am less of a tourist attraction hunter and more of a flaneur on the road. My attraction to India has grown more out of friendship and literary connections than anything else. Its neither romantic nor idealized, but as I said in my RIC photo essay:

 I’m drawn to travel in uneven places. In scarred and wounded spaces I recognize myself. Complex, interrupted histories mirror my own.

Returning to Calcutta for the third week of February will feel like coming home to a creative space I cherish, this time with the added lucky coincidence that my stay will overlap with the poetry residency of Franca Mancinelli, the Italian poet whose wonderful The Little Book of Passage made my end of year list, and she will be staying about a five minute walk from where I’m likely to be! I expect a busy week in the City of Joy because all year I’ve been mapping out places I want to revisit and those I have yet to explore. With a camera and notebook in hand.

The greatest thing I hope to bring into 2019 is an openness to experience without prescribed expectations. Some very exciting threads are coming into view—writers, reading, artistic opportunities that need to be followed to see where they lead.  There is also a lot of personal work to be done on my grief, loss, and identity issues, be it fodder or foundation for future writing… well, only time will tell.

Best wishes for all in the year ahead. Personal, national and global storms are inevitable. A good word, a good book, and, as I’m learning, a little light can go a long way. With luck we can all sustain at least a glimmer of that light through the months ahead.

Winter solstice 2018: From now on each day gets brighter

It seems as if each year, as I come to my customary winter solstice year-in-review post, I am looking back at another bleak year—not entirely bleak of course, but on the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, it’s easy to allow the dark days to slide into one’s imagination. Last year, I ended my post on a high note, enthusiastic about my son’s sobriety. It did not last, but a solid alcohol-free stretch is a start. I was at once cautiously optimistic and typically cynical, knowing how my life has been playing out in the recent past.

And so, yet another year of ups and downs nears an end.

2018 began with the excitement of getting ready to head to India, to spend two weeks in Kolkata. I was, I told myself, going to get some serious writing done. I gathered all of my fragments and half-finished pieces of work, backed up in the cloud, and packed a stupid number of books and too many warmer clothes “just in case”. I wrote little, read nothing, bought even more books to drag back home, and had the time of my life. If the city’s particular character overwhelmed me for the first few days, it won my heart before long. I was able to spend time at the office of Seagull Books, taught a class at their school of publishing and met Ngūgī wa Thiong’o. I had a chance to meet and spend time with friends, contacts from blogging and Twitter, reinforcing my experiences in Australia the year before—this online space can translate into real life contact, contact that sometimes builds into deeper lasting friendships. As I write this, I am looking forward to returning to India this coming February, this time for a full month, visiting  Calcutta for a week, but expanding my journey to include Kochi, Mumbai, and wherever else time and circumstance affords.

However, my failure to meet any of my, perhaps unrealistic writing ambitions during my stay in India turned out to be prophetic for the rest of 2018, especially with regard to my ability to make progress on the increasingly phantom memoirish project I keep fretting over. I’ve spent much of the year doubting the value of writing about the self at all, and then wondering what, if any, stories I have worth telling. So, apart from a few photo essays, a short poem and a handful of reviews, I’ve published no significant personal work at all. Instead, I channelled a fair amount of my writerly energy into editing for 3:AM Magazine. Admittedly there is an element of productive procrastination at play, but I truly find editing, especially for such a respected and unclassifiable journal, to be a highly rewarding activity. Over the year, I’ve had the honour of working on some really fascinating and original projects with a wide range of gifted writers.

I also had the honour of being invited to San Francisco this past summer to host an event in honour of translator Isabel Fargo Cole and the release of The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig. Meeting Isabel and having the opportunity to visit the offices of Two Lines Press and the Center for the Art of Translation was a thrill. The trip also afforded me a chance to catch up with my cousins whom I had not seen for close to forty years. Our mothers, now both gone, were sisters making this precious opportunity extra special.

On a personal level, 2018 was another year of upheaval. I have lived without income for several years, a result of a series of unanticipated  traumas and a reconsideration of what is really important at this point in my life, but well aware that this is unsustainable in the long run. So I decided to sell my house, move to a smaller, more manageable space, and invest the proceeds (just in time for markets to plummet, as would be my luck). The sale and purchase went well, but the move was devastating. My son and I made the time-honoured mistake of thinking that because we were moving less than a kilometer, we could handle most of it alone. Downsizing from a house I lived in for twenty-four years to a two-bed apartment condo was impossibly heartbreaking—especially for my son who was grieving the recent overdose death of his best friend, someone who had spent a lot of time at our home over the last dozen years—and the physical stress of trying to unload and move a quarter-century of life and living.

As I settled into my new place, an older low-rise building above an embankment of Douglas fir trees, just steps away from one of my favourite natural areas in the city, I was hopeful that the change of environment would mark a new beginning. I hoped for a fresh surge of creative energy, a renewed focus, and an opportunity to move beyond the losses and loneliness of the past few years. But, of course, when you are facing challenges deeply rooted within, your problems simply move with you.

Over the fall, as the days grew shorter, my world grew darker. I found myself feeling increasingly isolated socially and emotionally. When I did go out with others, I would come home and feel like gouging my heart out. Online I often pulled away so as not to post anything as dark as the thoughts I was harbouring. Cautiously, much of this was released in a post I published in late November, Who am I now? Slouching toward queerlessness. It stands as the most popular new post on my blog this year—misery loves company? I’m not sure. Ostensibly a brief essay about the difficulty of trying to address a truth of experience, however subjective, in a world—and for me that world is queer and differently gendered—that only values certain truths. The subject, hardly a new one on this blog, is still valid. But some friends heard the acute pain just beneath the surface and reached out.

I’m happy to report that my psychiatrist heard that pain too and recognized it for more than my usual seasonal blues or the lingering effects of a bad cold. To be honest I was more concerned than I dared to admit. By early December I had become so weak that I was wondering if I’d even have the energy to manage my trip to India. Yet, I was reluctant to believe that a small increase in my psych meds would help. With my doctor’s encouragement I agreed to give it a try. Within days, the pain in my arms and shoulders lifted and the world looked brighter. I celebrated the renewed energy and focus. Depression is an insidious foe, fooling you into believing it’s all your own fault. I was diagnosed bipolar in my thirties, but until recently elevated moods were my demons; serious downswings are still a new territory.

So, although the core concerns visited in my Who Am I? post still exist, the creative juices have started flowing again after almost two years in abeyance. I am reading and writing with purpose. With luck (knock on wood) it will continue for a while.

And so, at last, to my year in books.

This year was a little different. I read a lot of strong books, including a fair number that I didn’t end up reviewing, most often simply due to lack of time. However, when it came to prose—fiction and nonfiction—there were fewer standouts, whereas with poetry, I had a hard time narrowing down my favourites. Poetry was a constant and essential companion this year. At times it was the only literature that could hold my attention.

The best two books I read in 2018—and no matter what else might slip into the final days this will not change—are Esther Kinsky’s wonderfully evocative novel, River (tr. Iain Galbraith) which I reviewed for Music & Literature and Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s awesome collection of experimental poetry, Third-Millenium Heart (tr. Katrine Øgaard Jensen) which I responded to experimentally and poetically at Minor Literature[s].

Beyond that, these are some of the books that I have continued to think about often since I read them:

Fiction:
Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (tr. James Anderson)
The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig (tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan
Murmur by Will Eaves

Poetry:
Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun (tr. Catharine Codham)
Brink by Jill Jones
The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli (tr. John Taylor)
Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote
Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah

In most parts of the planet, winter solstice is likely over, but where I am, this post makes it under the wire. Regardless, best of the season to all.

Who am I now? Slouching toward queerlessness.

I’ve had a strange and sombre day. Surrounded by hundreds of books and thousands of pages of words, with a couple of vague essay ideas sketched into notebooks or percolating in fragmented Word documents, I found myself thinking: What is the point? What value is there in this mass of words, written and unwritten?

Certainly we all hit creative impasses, as writers and as readers, but the impact is stifling all the same. For those of us who traffic in words, what are we when they cease to flow?

I have frequently posited my literary intention as an act of writing myself into being. By that I mean that I am acutely aware of my life, my being in the world, as an unfinished process—as is, of course, every human existence—but for me that process has grown increasingly undefined and undefinable over the years. I’ve been hunting for an existential language. I have, at heart, hoped that in my words someone else might recognize themselves; that I might not feel so alone.I’ve been thinking a lot about what drives us to tell our own stories. Some might argue that it is an essential element of human nature. We are story telling creatures. But to what end is it helpful to try to impose a narrative on lived experience? And what do I hope to achieve writing personal essays when I don’t have a very strong personal memory? There are huge swathes of my life that I cannot clearly remember or that are buried beneath the distractions of mood disorder and the disorientation of decades of gender insecurity. If I cannot clearly remember who I was, how can I hope to uncover any truths about who I am?

It might be easier if I was inclined to fiction, to creating shadows and echoes of myself and allowing them their own experiences. Play with variations on a theme. But my imagination is tethered to the hollowness that troubles my inability to find comfort within this real life lived. The only life I have. Queered and queerless.

When I started writing and publishing essays after an extended period of closeted post-transition existence, I hoped and believed that I could reclaim for myself an identity and a sexuality I had buried. Four years later I own even less than I started with. How do you write about an increasingly meaningless way of being in the world? It’s not a happy story; not the trans narrative that finds a ready audience. From the moment one comes out as transgender, the story you can tell defines your validity and access to services and support. Twenty years ago that was a very specific story, one I could not tell and so I had to carve my own path. I should assume it’s better now, but with the explosion of trans discourse, the narrative essentially remains the same. At odds with my own.

What do I know? All I know is that in my experience, this journey is intrinsically incomplete and unresolvable, lonely, and, in the wrong situation, dangerous.

I have friends who question my continued efforts to find myself within a conversation that cannot contain me, especially when my search for queer comfort causes so me much pain. I have good people and good things in my life, but when your history and your body are skewed against the norm there is a driving need to find a chorus to which to add your voice. A chance to a love song even. No matter how hard I try to believe, I cannot dream there is one. At least not for me.

Who wants words to that effect? There is no catharsis in writing or reading to that end. There are simply words, strings of syllables leading nowhere, achieving nothing at the end of the day.

§

Of course, I will find refuge in books again. And I will write. I just wrote this. For what it’s worth.

Disembodied desire: Murmur by Will Eaves

The price of consciousness, of power, is choice.

 Mathematician Alan Turing is remembered as much for his critical role in the development of computer science , his contributions to code-breaking during the Second World War and his work on artificial intelligence as for being a man whose homosexuality led to a charge of gross indecency and a period of enforced chemical castration. His life has been examined in print and film, his character analyzed and debated, and his death mythologized, but to truly venture deep into the recesses of the mind of such a complex and extraordinary character is to invite challenge, scrutiny and dissension. After all, what can we ever truly know of another person’s internal processes? Or, for that matter, our own?

In his latest novel, Murmur, British writer Will Eaves takes the key elements of Turing’s career and ultimate predicament, and creates a shadow character, Alec Pryor, slips inside his skin and inhabits his dreams and anxieties while the state takes control of his body. This audacious approach stays close to the outlines of Turing’s life, even borrowing first names and specific details like his fiancé or his fondness for Snow White, but avoids the constraints of conventional biographical fiction. Presented through journal entries, letters and a feverish dream chronicle, Murmur offers a poetically charged reading experience that is at once scientifically astute, philosophically engaging, and emotionally disturbing. It imagines a rational minded man pushed beyond the edges of rational existence who still manages, we assume, to hold the surface still, controlled and humane.

So much of real life is invisible.

The novel begins with Pryor’s recorded reflections on the circumstances that led to his charge and conviction, his dalliance with a young man and subsequent reported robbery echoing Turing’s misadventure. Choosing one year’s probation with hormonal treatment over jail, he begins therapy with a psychoanalyst, Dr. Stallbrook, and weekly injections to turn him “into a sexless person.” Analytical by nature, he cannot resist the temptation to filter his situation through scientific, historical, and philosophical musings. As if he wants to quantify a situation that clearly has left him concerned and uncertain about what lies ahead.

The central section, which comprises the bulk of the narrative consists of extended dream sequences and an ongoing epistolary correspondence between Alec and June, a former colleague and friend to whom he was once engaged. It begins with a disassociation, a stepping away into third person, which leads to a recognition of a division, necessary perhaps to observe the self, but also speaking to the effect that the treatments are beginning to have on Alec’s relationship to his own physical being:

I am a thinking reflection. He is the animal-organic part, the body unthinking. I am a searching mechanism with a soul. I’m him, but only when he’s near the glass, metal, water, the surface where I’m found. I search for some way to express this separation which feels all the wrong way round.

A bird is puzzled by its reflection; not, surely, the reflection by the bird. And yet I’m one with him. I’m one and separate. I search for ways to describe this. I live and think within all glass. He only has a body and can’t hear this murmuring; sees himself in a mirror—doesn’t know that it is me.

From his detached vantage point, the dreaming Alec revisits his younger self at school, observes a schoolmate whom he once loved, and watches as the two boys swim naked across a lake where they will spend a night together. This other boy, Christopher, has a counterpoint in name and fact in Turing’s biography, a close friend and object of an affection most likely unreturned in the same nature. In both realities, Christopher dies young. But in Alec’s dreamscape, his psychiatrist is conflated with his former schoolmaster, and his friend’s post corporeal essence becomes an abiding presence. His intellectual preoccupations, such as the limits of machine intelligence are personified in bizarre interactions with a real life associate who visits him as a computational illusion. His mother and brother appear as cartoon effigies straight out of Snow White. By opening this vast and increasingly distorted space where, as is common in dreams, people known and events experienced become the scenarios that are continually replayed in response to current waking affairs, Eaves is able to twist Alec’s past and present together to create a complex, introspective character who is both troubled by and curious about the impact of  the unnatural situation in which he has found himself.

With his sex drive disabled, Alec admits to June that he is plagued by dreams and desires, a “coded overcompensation” for a reality supressed. Ever the scientist, he understands these dreams as a means of functional storage and processing:

My dreams are candid with me: they say I am chemically altered. They are full of magical symbolism! At the same time, they are enormously clear—where there is high reason and much thought, there will be much desire and many imaginings. Urges. I can be given drugs and hormones but they will only work as drugs and hormones work. They cannot get at excess desire. Take out libido and another drive replaces it. Materialism and determinism define me through and through, and yet there is more than they allow. And if that illusion of more—call it free will—is itself a mere effect, then an ‘effect’ suggests, does it not, a real cause, as a film ‘suggests’ a projector?

Balanced against this projected, or perhaps, “reflected” reality, Alec’s correspondence with June provides a safe place for him to explore his physical and existential uncertainties. She serves as confessor, sounding board, and unconditional support. Early on, especially as the hormones begin to soften and alter his body, as the estrogen causes his breasts to grow, he expresses fear of becoming a hybrid—less the fear of change than of loss. He grieves his past, his one true, yet quite likely impossible, love for Chris, and worries that he will somehow lose himself.

The estrangement between physical and essential being continues to grow. The dreamer longs to grasp a sense of if, and how, the body exists beyond death—dispersed, yet tangible, and at the same time, its elemental links to a geological, and for Alec, icebound past. The “self” seems suspended between:

The lake freezes. Ice calls to ice and Pryor’s raised and summoning hand is frosted black.

No trees, no distant school, a greenstick whine as cities pop, scatter. Another order of significance arrives. Air thickens with the charge of glaciers. The former gas solidifies, the mirror plane of my glass eye is crushed and I am fractioned, like a mote among asteroids. Only the world’s ship-like trembling, its great pistons concealed, attests the passage of aeons, time brakeless and unpeopled. Then, as fast as they arrived, faster, the glaciers recede, the waters rise, anoxic bile that boils away at Pryor’s still, unvoiced command—and I am either glass again, or obsidian, axe flint, my face upturned and refashioned.

The veil of night drawn back. The sun comes close, colossal in the sky. A pale hand hangs me on a wall that rises from the desert’s fiery sands.

There has been much controversy around the matter of Alan Turing’s death by cyanide poisoning a little more than a year after his hormonal sentence ended. Suicide was the official verdict; accident and murder have also been argued. The fortitude he is reported to have displayed throughout his ordeal, is offered as an indication that his mind was not as troubled as imagined. But, for Eaves’ shadow protagonist, there is both profound growth and insight as a result of his enforced period of introspection, and a fundamental internal loss of self that others cannot see. His perception of and relationship to his body is ever altered.

Murmur is a bold, imaginative accomplishment—one that manages to convey the strangeness of conscious experience while asking what it truly means to be conscious, pushing at the edges of its limits and constraints. It is, in many respects, a natural evolution of Will Eaves’ experimental novel, The Absent Therapist, a fragmented blend of scientific fact, philosophical reflection and fictional vignettes that read, not like snatches of overheard conversation, but as fleeting encounters with the thoughts of a wide range of characters. Murmur pulls you deep into the mental reality of one man whose rational and logical grounding is upended, but this time the therapist is present and inseparable from the subject.

However, as much as this is a novel embedded in conscious experience, it is a memoir of the body and its essentialness to being. It asks: Can a machine be encoded with emotional intelligence? What happens to the substance of the body after death? What of the self is lost or altered when the body is rendered sexless? No matter how cerebral one may be, the body matters. In my own, long-standing, welcomed and self-administered treatment with contrasexual hormones, I have experienced an evolving disassociation from the altered body I now inhabit. Yet, at face value, I look right. I am afforded the ability to live in the world in a manner that conforms with the internal gendered self I’ve always known. In a way that feels right. But I am changed. My body is othered and alien, de-sexualized. Over time that disassociation feeds existential discontent. Threatens the self in weird and curious ways I hear echoed in this book—a book which echoes my own murmurings.

Murmurs by Will Eaves is published by CB Editions and shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmith Prize. A North American release is forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in April, 2019.