I have no pride: A sombre reflection

I have no pride.

It’s Pride Week here. For me it’s the worst week of the year. An opened wound. I wake with chest pains, panic attacks. Always the same. No. The more I try to get involved the worse I feel.

I have been out for nearly twenty years, but I always feel out of place and alone during Pride.

And each year is more difficult. I have no pride.

I used to believe that it would get better. Then I believed that it didn’t matter. But it hasn’t gotten better. And it does matter.

Things have changed. I have changed.

Yet I’m not sure if the cost has not been too high.

I no longer know where I belong, my body and I.

 

Remember, Body

Body, remember not just how much you were loved,

not just the beds where you have lain,

but also those longings that so openly

glistened for you in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice—and some

chance obstacle arose and thwarted them.

Now that it’s all finally in the past.

it almost seems as if you gave yourself to

those longings, too—remember how

they glistened, in the eyes that looked at you,

how they trembled in the voice, for you;

            remember, body.

                              –C.P. Cavafy (tr. Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of the day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound as long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without the hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains. (“Outside”)

For Isabelle Eberhardt, the open road was the ultimate image of freedom—a symbol of liberty that called to her again and again. As such, she had a special affinity for vagrants or wayfarers. They feature regularly in her collection of short stories and vignettes, The Oblivion Seekers. To be confined—by physical walls, by obligations, or by the restraints of fin de siècle European society—is unbearable. Her characters give up comfort, security, even love, to find a place where they belong. Quite often it is a life of solitary independence they choose. Singular in her defiance, her passion, and her determination to set her own course, it is impossible to appreciate her writing without at least a cursory look at the remarkable life from which it emerged.

Born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Nihilist, Eberhardt was an unconventional free spirit who lived a charmed, if short, life filled with drama and adventure. Her father set the groundwork, insisting she labour alongside her brothers when she was young, learn to handle a horse properly, and appear regularly in public dressed in men’s clothing. He was inadvertently preparing her for the rigors of life in the deserts of North Africa, while his demanding expectations likely fueled her longing to escape. By the time she was twenty, she had already made her first trip to Algeria and converted to Islam.

Apart from a few short trips back to Europe, Africa had claimed her soul. Yet for the French colonists, her lifestyle was nothing short of scandalous. Her preference for men’s clothing—and Arab styled at that—was looked on with suspicion. She adopted a male persona, although she rarely fooled anyone with respect to her gender, and could often be found in the café, smoking hashish, perhaps inviting a soldier home for the night. The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love.

Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes. She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. In 1901, only a stroke of dumb luck saved her from a would-be assassin when her attacker’s sword bounced off a wire, missing her head but nearly removing her arm. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles. With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married. In 1902, the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by 1904, hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. After a near fatal bout of malaria, she left the hospital against doctor’s orders to meet up with her husband. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.

At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one. The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.

Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. “Taalith” tells the tale of a young widow who chooses death over forced marriage to an older man, while “The Rival” paints the portrait of a vagrant who abandons the wandering life to settle with his beloved only to discover that his bliss cannot withstand the pull of the road; his desire for his other mistress, “tyrannical and drunk with sun” draws him back. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:

Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.

Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy.

He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. (The Rival)

Considering the time and her background, Eberhardt’s stories are particularly striking. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative. She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. This is especially powerful in the title story, “The Oblivion Seekers,” one of the few first person narratives, which describes a setting she knew well personally—a kif den in Kenadsa in the Sahara Desert. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages. Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco’s underworld such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight. (The Oblivion Seekers)

There is a mesmerizing quality to Eberhardt’s prose. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. As Bowles notes in his Preface: “Her wisdom lay in knowing that what she sought was unreachable. ‘We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us.’”

Wise words still.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabell Eberhardt is translated by Paul Bowles, and published by City Lights Books.

Our uncertain stories: Immortal for Quite Some Time by Scott Abbott

There is a fortuitous intersection between my first, and to date, only attempt to capture a memoirish reflection on the page, and Scott Abbott’s memoirish reflection, Immortal for Quite Some Time. My Minor Literature[s] essay was published a year ago this past May, just as Scott was proofing his book. I followed that process via his blog, The Goalie’s Anxiety. We shared concerns about opening oneself to strangers. When my small piece went live, his reaction was so immediate and gut-level, that I returned to his positive words repeatedly in the weeks that followed. Now, my reading and my attempt to record my reaction to his finished book comes at a time when I am seriously beginning to build on the project that started with my initial essay and flesh out a life twice lived—my own. And although, on the surface, the circumstances driving our explorations would seem very different, both involve fundamental, human questions of identity, belief, and family. As a result, my reading of this work is decidedly idiosyncratic.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is, as Abbott states in his epilogue, a “fraternal meditation,” an attempt to answer a question posed by his brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of forty. Estranged from his devout LDS family for several years prior to his death, John’s question is simple: “Are we friends, my brother?” Scott’s reply, complicated by his loss of faith, conflicts with the rigidity of the Mormon church, a loveless marriage, the demands of parenthood, and a deeply ingrained homophobia, is ultimately more than two decades in the articulation. Presented in the form of diary excerpts, highlighted with images, outtakes from John’s notebooks, and the input of a critical counter narrative voice, Abbott struggles to reach a place of comfort with the answer he so dearly wants to offer. Thus, we are warned, from outset, that this is not a memoir: “The story is uncertain, the characters are in flux, the voices are plural, the photographs as troubled as the prose.”

It is this disclaimer that promises an honesty that respects all the shadowed corners one encounters looking into a life lived—whether that is someone else’s life or one’s own.

Immortal opens in the morgue in Boise, Idaho. The image of John’s body on the examination table forms a stark pivot point that his brother’s thoughts return to again and again: “His feet are livid.” From there, the narrative swings back to Farmington, New Mexico, 1950, midpoint between the births of Scott and John, only fourteen months apart, and moves, with broad strides, through the 50s, 60s and into the 1970s. Scott’s missionary obligations and academic aspirations take him to Germany, where an intellectual infection will begin to work its way into the assumptions and presumptions of his strict Mormon upbringing. John will go to Italy and, for years, his family will speculate if that is where he was “corrupted,” or whether he was “lured” into homosexual behavior at some earlier point. One of Scott’s first steps to reconciliation and acceptance of John’s orientation will involve coming to understand that sexuality has a biological basis. Not that that understanding provides a desired comfort with his own, decidedly heterosexual, attractions for many years.

Scott’s belief in God slips away from him much more readily than his homophobia. However, he continues to uphold the expectations imposed on him by his background. He marries young and before long is supporting a brood of seven with a teaching position at Bringham Young University. John, despite strong grades and an interest in pre-med studies, ends up working as a cook in a series of cafés. His contact with his family is limited and strained. His notebooks reveal little about his personal life. Abbott is clearly troubled by his brother’s isolation and sadness. It was not easy to be gay in the 1970s and 80s, but coming from an uncompromising religious tradition made it much more difficult. It still is today.

Throughout this work, John is a memory, a ghost, as much as a loved and lost brother and son. As readers, we only hear his voice filtered through time. See him peering from old photographs. In that sense, Immortal for Quite Some Time, reads like a fraternal love letter, an apology, and a reckoning. Scott Abbott is wise enough to know that the only story he can really tell is his own. And it is a fascinating, raw, and honest exploration of the intellectual, emotional, and political conflicts that have made him the man he is today. As his story progresses, a critical voice intervenes to challenge his recorded recollections, forcing him to answer and clarify his statements. Toward the end John is also granted a greater presence. (The use of italics, bold type and font facilitates these imagined exchanges in a manner that is simple and effective.) This is more than stylistic device. It is a reminder that we can never and should never stop questioning ourselves even in telling our own stories. It is a good lesson for me to keep in mind too.

As I made my way through this book, I encountered many questions I need to ask myself in piecing together my story. I do not come from a rigid religious background, but in my case I am the outcast, the one set apart by sexuality and gender. I sought to conform to a different, but equally confining set of rules and expectations. I mourn the loss of a sibling, a stillborn sister I never had, and the imagined image of her that I could not be.

The person I have to answer is myself, finding the courage to ask the question is my goal. That will require a memoir of some kind. Just as, in spite of himself, Scott Abbott ended up with a memoir of sorts to answer his brother.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is published by The University of Utah Press.

To be someone: The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti A. Skomsvold

It may seem counterintuitive given the immediate obsession with death and a life unlived, but this quirky little book, opens with promise. Mathea Martinsen, the self-deprecating narrator, is an odd character, an elderly woman as afraid of living as she is of dying.  What concerns her most is that she will pass unnoticed, that her existence will not be registered. With an irrational fear of other people, and a preference to stay home watching TV and knitting an inexhaustible supply of ear warmers, she has reached the far side of life and is given to morose reflections on the fact that she has failed to make an impression on the world. Each morning she reads the obituaries, relieved not to find herself listed there. And yet, she reasons, an obituary would be proof that she had been someone, if only a presence noted in passing. She considers writing her own obituary and sending it in to the paper so that it will be on hand when the time comes, assuming that is, that someone notices that she is missing (or registers a smell coming from her apartment).

Cheery? Well, having just witnessed an increase in nuclear posturing between the US and North Korea, riots on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, mud slides in Sierra Leone, and carnage on the streets of Barcelona, one could argue that The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Norwegian writer Kjersti A. Skomsvold is the perfect, light refreshing read—intimations of death notwithstanding. And it is an enjoyable diversion, but strangely unconvincing if one is looking for a meaningful meditation on what it means to be alive.

Serious times welcome distractions. However, is that enough?

Mathea and her husband live in a cooperative where they stick to themselves as they have for decades. High school sweethearts, were brought together after Mathea, a natural loner given to lurking on the edge of the schoolyard, attracted not one, but two bolts of lightning, one after the other. This exceptionally unlikely occurrence caught the attention of a similarly unpopular classmate with a penchant for statistics:

“The chances of being struck by lightning twice in the same spot are less than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity” was the first thing Epsilon said to me. “It’s completely unbelievable.” He didn’t know how truly unbelievable it was, because nothing had ever singled me out. The spun bottle never pointed at me, the neighborhood kids never found me when we played hide-and-seek, and I never found the almond in the pudding at Christmas, one or the other of my parents always found it, which was almost a bit suspicious.

Epsilon works as a statistician, continuing well beyond retirement years, and measures life in statistically accurate probabilities. He is as eccentric as his wife, but at least he gets out of the house and, one suspects, has some semblance of a social existence. His career gives his life meaning—calculable and quantifiable—while his wife, with mortality facing her, has not even begun to figure out how to live.

She walks to the store, sometimes giving the time of day, literally, to a strange man she sees on her way, and buys countless jars of jam, hoping she will chance upon one she can actually open. She buries a time capsule and calls information repeatedly to request her own number, just to register the sense that she is a popular person. She likes to rhyme her thoughts, a strange game that affords for rather clichéd statements which one hopes may be in part an effect of translation. Nonetheless, Mathea comes across as a rather shallow, even irritating character—one can sense Epsilon’s stoic resolve and patience pushed at times to its limits—and she almost appears to recognize her own obstinacy. Yet she is powerless to fight it except in the most strangely counter-productive ways. What is humorous at the outset of this novella, quickly grows strained.

In the end, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am is somewhat like the meringues our narrator prides herself on making. Not enough substance to work as an allegory. Not dark enough to turn Mathea and Epsilon’s strangely isolated existence into a mildly gothic tale. A charming read on a week that, in world news, was in sore need of some charm, but, in the end, likely too lightweight to linger.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive.

The loose ends of memories: Before by Carmen Boullosa

The opening passage of Mexican writer Carmen Boullousa’s novel Before—the first she wrote, albeit the second to be published—is, at first blush, disorienting.

Where were we when we got to this point? Didn’t they tell you? Who could tell you if you had nobody to ask? And do you yourself remember? Particularly if you’re not here… And if I keep on? Well if I keep on perhaps you’ll show up.

A most unlikely welcome. But then our winsome young narrator is not here either. She greets us from a point beyond bodied existence, beyond a life cut short with the advent of puberty. She is lost in a realm of troubled memories, and in an attempt to find herself, to talk herself back into being, she invents a listener, one who is likewise no longer alive, to whom she can recount her recollections and, she hopes, confront the trauma that has continued to haunt her. “How would I like you to be?” she asks her conjured audience, “I’d like you to be whatever you were!”

As she revisits her past, attempting to start at the very beginning, with her own birth, memories and emotions pour forth in a jumble of childhood anecdotes crossed with her reflections about the limitations of language and the perplexity of familial relationships. Her estranged connection with her own past is palpable. She describes playing games with her older sisters, her fondness for her father, and the sense of security she feels with her grandmother. She paints vivid images of life at her Catholic girl’s school. But she speaks of her mother, whom she insists on referring to as Esther, with an odd, pained distance. And she is hypersensitive to noises, creating a “lexicon” of her own. She finds comfort in the ones that can be explained by the light of day, but fears the insistent sound of footsteps that haunt her in her dreams, that wake her in a state of panic. The steps threatens to envelop her in darkness. She seeks refuge in both practical and enchanted solutions. She feels she just barely escapes their pursuit:

I didn’t know what I could do against this persecution. When I was younger, I stayed in bed or ran to my parents’ bed to let them protect me, but Dad never let me sleep in their room, thinking my nighttime terror was “clowning,” which was the word he used to describe it. Some nights I managed to trick them and stay asleep on a rug at the foot of their bed, thinking their closeness would defend me, but when I was older, let’s say around the age of nine, I stopped having recourse to the rug; if I didn’t stay in bed waiting for the noises to hit me, I walked through the house trying to elude them.

Her memories are not orderly, they vie for her attention, and often require the insertion of backstories to give them context. This allows for an odd logic, a somewhat disjointed storytelling. Some memories bring her unexpected joy, make her feel “alive again,” while others rekindle fears and mock her loneliness, her “opacity” and “sadness.” As a ghost, her connection with her life is complicated, suspended on the cusp of womanhood. The stories she shares often take on magical overtones in the retelling. Some of this reflects the enthusiasm and imagination of childhood fantasy, but as she gets older, an ominous superstition grows. As the narrative progresses, our heroine is winding her way toward an event almost too unbearably painful to return to. As readers we know that her death awaits, but there is another heartbreaking loss that precedes it.

Underlying this fragmented account of a privileged childhood in Mexico City, is the sense that adults and children exist in separate spheres. A rotation of caregivers passes through their lives and the eldest sister takes on some of the surrogate parenting roles, while the mother and father pursue careers and social engagements. When her sisters become young women, seeming to enter overnight a world of brassieres, stockings, and nail polish, the narrator promises that she will not follow suit. She does not realize, she admits when she confesses this, that she has sealed her fate with this wish.

There is an uncanny urgency and intensity to this ghostly coming-of-age story. Boullosa’s own Catholic upbringing in the 1950s and 60s, and the early death of her mother when she was fifteen are echoed here, suggesting that it may have been as imperative for her to tell this tale as it is for her protagonist to share hers. And what better way to create a distance, a place of relative safety, than to root a narrative in the afterlife? Not that any of her narrator’s animated energy or distracted childhood logic is lost in the process. Rather, we are presented with a unique blend of curiosity and innocence, tinged with wisdom and sorrow.

A most unusual and affecting tale.

Originally released in Spanish in 1989, Before is translated by Peter Bush, with an introduction by Phillip Lopate, and published by Deep Vellum.

Long nights have no stories: Plats by John Trefry

Few books keep me awake at night. Few books invade my dreams. Plats did both.

But then, few books are like Plats.

First, things first. The author, John Trefry, is a friend of mine. We’ve gone head to head reviewing the same titles for different venues, we’ve talked about writing, and I’ve floated a project I have in mind inspired, in part, by his first book, Thy Decay Thou Seest By Thy Desire, by him for his feedback and guidance. We have never met, but at his suggestion, I read Michel Butor’s Mobile earlier this year. However, we have never discussed Plats at any length.

We’ll talk about it as soon as I publish this piece.

Butor’s influence can be found in the pages of this novel, but where Mobile is borne of a road trip across America in the late 1950s—open spaces, small towns, Howard Johnsons—Plats is dreamy claustrophobia. The darkness, the light, the textures—skies, water, sand, carpet, paint, asphalt—suffocate, soak, dissolve, and distort streets, hallways, furniture, bodies. Time is measured in a series of anchorless reference points that heighten the sense that everything is happening at once in a continuous existential flux and flow.

Think Mobile filtered through the late Beckett of Company and Ill Seen Ill Said, pulled into 21st century and re-invented in Trefry’s architect’s imagination.

Plats is a novel of sanitized urban decay, it exists in a space that blurs the experiential lines between deserts, ocean, streets, apartment towers, and generic office environments. It inhabits the modern American city, the tidal city, the anonymous city. Plats is a novel of Los Angeles.

The glass is very cold and damp. The hollow beyond is sealed, excised, solitary. Its refusal is total, it refuses the city, warm sun. It refuses you because it is not there. Rooms do not reappear. They are there to be filled with emptiness and reflections. These are empty cells where you put the apartments, the dust of age and sleep. They have yet to be forgotten.

Plats is non-narrative, language driven, and constrained. The rhythm and structure is precise—each page contains exactly three paragraphs of eleven lines each. The imagery and energy of the paragraphs fluctuates, holding to patterns that gradually shift throughout the course of the 156 pages. The characters, the women that populate this novel—“I,” “she”, and “you”—have a disassociated relationship with one another. They embody a femaleness in dress, hair, stockings, shoes, but are remarkably sexless. And it is never really clear whether they are three distinct entities or aspects of one fractured whole. They interact abstractly, repel, reflect and absorb one another. Their bodies are loosely inhabited, articulated, disjointed, atomized as is the city that encases and envelopes them.

A word spreads across you, a characterization or clue settles into the gentle stupor of your creation. The years that have led up to your limp entrance and disassociated gaze were filled with unspoken projections I have forgotten. I casually entered into awkward silences with you in my mind and then interrupted them with cascades of trinkets washing through my apartment. You were the sand and the water, you were lost, now you have me, you have what is mine, you need it, I no longer do. There is no story in the words. They are characters that erase themselves by happening and being recognized. When they become real, shared between us, a little bit of me is let loose, a view, a movement, a lost hope, it could be in you, settling on your skin, it could be lost in the room, amongst the detritus.

In this kind of literary environment, the reader sets the terms of engagement. One can drift across the text, engage and disengage, listen to the language, watch the flickering scenes pass. If there is meaning to be discerned, it will be dependent on the experiential context that an individual brings to the reading.

Not the other way around.

Plats is essentially an extended prose poem. The language is eerie, strange, intoxicating. From time to time I would stop and read a few pages aloud, just to hear the words unfold. I would notice images repeating: rinds, splayed limbs, chair legs, floral prints, shoulder blades, and my favourite: pleats.

Plats places pleats in places you never pictured pleated beyond curtains and skirts smoothed against the thigh: “pleats of moonlight,” “pleats of a dreamt dawn in waves,” “pleats of indoor night.”

If there is an intention in this book, apart from the conceits that govern its design, it can be met as an attempt to invite the reader/observer into an experience that emulates the disordered, depersonalization, and de-realization associated with schizophrenia. Read that way, it is granted a defined frightening, disorienting beauty. I would suggest that as one possible, but not prescribed, approach. It can be understood as a kind of contemporary metaphysics, a meditation on the quotidian tedium of urban existence—disembodiment as a coping mechanism—where the expanses of desert and ocean are reduced to an idea that drifts through the porous cocoon of concrete towers. The hallways breathe, alleys pulse and the city and its inhabitants are locked in a symbiotic relationship.

Or it can be encountered as something else altogether. That is the true magic of Plats. My own experience was decidedly idiosyncratic, running on several levels at once.

But I’ll talk to John about that.

Plats is published by Inside the Castle

 

Women in Translation Month: Some suggestions and my goal for this year

August is, as you may know, Women in Translation Month—a broad based initiative to promote the reading of translated literature by women, hosted by Meytal Radzinski.  Anyone and everyone is welcomed to take part in any way, large or small, to help celebrate, promote, or explore translated works by women writers.

This month I have several significant reading projects that involve writers that, if in translation are not female, or if female are not translated works. However, I have, as ever, made a selection of titles to choose from with the hopes that I will be able to work at least a few in over the weeks ahead. Being a painfully slow reader, and an even slower writer, I have been careful to keep all potential contenders at or below 200 pages—sometimes well below 200 pages. From the books pictured here, Carmen Boullosa’s Before and Magdaléna Platzová’s The Attempt are at the top of my must read list for this year’s WITMonth. I will be happy to manage to fit in four.

This modest collection includes works originally published in Afrikaans, Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, French Canadian, French (France), Norwegian, Polish, and Portuguese. And, of course, I reserve the right to choose something not pictured here, but I don’t want to let the month pass without honouring this worthwhile, and important, project.