Continuing the conversation: Four years of roughghosts

The neighbourhood I live in runs across the top of a steep embankment carpeted with tall Douglas fir trees. Long before the city expanded this far west, the Bow Bank Quarry, one of fifteen quarries operating in the Calgary area prior to the First World War, mined a seam of sandstone along this ridge. Remains of the mining operation and the small settlement that housed the stonemasons who worked at the nearby brick factory and their families can still be seen today. But the only formal recognition of Brickburn is the sign that stands alongside the railway tracks.

I’ve been walking the pathways through this storied region for decades. Now only a short distance upstream from the downtown core, a precious wildness has reclaimed the embankment. To hike the challenging Douglas Fir Trail is to slip into a space that feels and smells like being in the mountains, in the middle of this city that sits where the foothills of the Rockies give way to open prairies. One can lose oneself in the beauty of the forest, but echoes of the past are ever present—in the rocks and trees, in the spirits of the Indigenous peoples who traversed the land and rivers for millennia, and in the traces of the settlers whose early industrial efforts transformed the river valley for better or not.

At one time, years ago, I sketched a few notes for a possible story about the years of mining and brick manufacturing in this location, or rather, about the rough ghosts that abandoned communities harbour. The thoughts I hastily gathered in a notebook were later uncovered by chance when I was searching for a title for what was an undefined blog effort. And thus, four years ago today, roughghosts was born.

I’ve mentioned before that this blog was created on a whim, about three weeks before months of increasingly unstable behaviour escalated into full blown mania, essentially ending in a nightmare that would cost me my career. I crawled home wounded, relieved to be away from what had become a very toxic, dysfunctional workplace, but suddenly found myself alone in the world. I had loved my job, it was my life. I was angry and hurt that things had been allowed to come apart so completely. I had worked in a disability field, was open about my own disability, but no one understood how desperately ill I had become and what that really meant. Cut off from all resources, I was left unsupported and isolated. I didn’t even have proper mental health care to turn to. Nor did I have any friends. No partner. My parents were aged and far away.

In the end, starting this blog when I knew it was the last thing I had time for, turned out to be the thing that kept me going in those early months following my breakdown and beyond that, through further challenges I could never have anticipated, including my own very-close-to-death experience, the sudden loss of both of my parents, a friend’s suicide, and a period of intense depression. It also gave me a forum to write. About mental health, about anxiety and loneliness, about sexuality and gender, and of course, about books. And it is the latter, that ultimately opened my world.

 In the past four years I moved from occasional musing about books I read, to writing critical reviews and creative essays for publication, and, most recently to editing for 3:AM Magazine. I have made friends around the world, and have travelled—something I thought I would never have a chance to do—visiting South Africa, Australia, and India. Had I not lost my job, I likely would have not moved beyond the idle musings and I would have continued to hide the truth of my personal history.

From the time I was a child, the one thing I really wanted to do was write; I was always bursting with ideas. But in adulthood, I found that stories began to elude me. I have stacks of notebooks filled with rough sketches that never moved past the vaguest of outlines. With each year, creative writing became a more desperately difficult act. I was losing a sense of self to anchor my writing. In searching for characters I was hoping to find myself. Yet what I ultimately came to appreciate was the truth that if I was going to feel whole, I would have to be able to live in the world in the gender I’d always sensed inside. But rather than freeing up my stories, transition threatened to bury them for good. As I devoted myself to a new reality as a single male parent, building a new career out of nothing, I quickly learned that my mis-gendered past—the first forty years of my life—could only be addressed in the most neutral terms. Being out as a differently gendered person was not an option. I had no supports within a LGBTQ community which, as it existed at the time, was alien and unwelcoming to me. So my stories, now that I’d started to understand them, had no audience.

Being freed from a closeted work existence has given me a voice, even if only a portion of my writing and my blog address queer issues. Meanwhile, in the real world, being “out” has proved to be an uneasy reality for me to navigate. My people, I know, are book people. Gender, sexuality, age or location are all secondary.

Roughghosts—as a blog and a Twitter handle—has served as my introduction to the world as a reader and a writer, under my real name. I still struggle with loneliness and depression, I’ve continued to face a tremendous amount of loss and challenge, and I grieve the years and opportunities I missed in this long queer journey of life. But this space has become an important outlet. It is a space to write about books, poetry, travels, and to offer the odd tortured reflection about the messy business of living. Literature will, I hope, continue to be the core focus of this blog.

Thank you to everyone—friends, fellow readers and writers, translators, and publishers—who have entertained my meanderings thus far. I’ve really come to love my blog, as place to talk about books, and a ground to explore writing ideas. It is one space that truly feels like home.

Losing my story (or my capacity to tell it)

For the longest time I have entertained a writing project. Memoirish, I described it. I put time and money aside to facilitate this activity. I’ve been going through the money, but have little to show for my time. It has been more than a year since I’ve written anything serious of a personal nature beyond a few small prose pieces or random blog posts. I’ve written about writing and not writing and all manner of writerly insecurity. I regularly hear from people who, much to my surprise, enjoy what I do write, appreciate what I share. Yesterday, after submitting an overdue review, for better or worse, I told myself that I must finally get serious about trying to pull together a more significant effort.

Yet, I woke up today fearing that I can no longer tell my story. The only story I have to tell and I cannot share it. The cost is too great.I don’t know how others do it. Detail their personal lives, their vulnerabilities, their victories. Perhaps there is a part of ego that has no filter, a point of pride that longs to disclose. But that’s not me. In real life, I’ve come to understand that my existence can only begin to affect some measure of authenticity if I refrain from attempting to have full expression of all that I am. All that I have been. It’s one thing to write. I have published a few raw and honest pieces that have been well received, that can be searched online, and I am happy with each one. And here at home, for the past three years, I have been more intentionally out and involved in LGBTQ and affirming spaces in a way I never dared before. However, more often than not, I’m left feeling defeated. It’s all okay, it seems, until I try to have my voice heard. My history validated. My pain respected.

I would to dream that writing could heal the loss and grief I carry. Yet, too much loss and too little gain makes for a story no one would want to read. Life stories are supposed to show recovery, strength, hope. But that’s wishful thinking. Real life itself just goes on. I am afraid that attempting to write now would only reveal the anger and despair that I can’t get past.

This is not to say that there have not been many positives in recent years. I’ve a network of good friends across the globe. I’ve travelled to some amazing places. I still love writing—reviewing, interviewing, and editing. I am producing work that I am truly proud of. And I’m not ashamed of who I am. But I think I have reached the limit of what I want to explore on a deeply personal level in writing.

Perhaps some stories are better left untold. Some transmythologies are better left uncontested. And some lives are more coherently lived by keeping the closet doors at least partially closed.

This weekend I realized that, in no uncertain terms, it is one thing to be “accepted” as long as you don’t talk about yourself, or your life, in any way that others do not want to hear. This simple truth has finally extinguished my intention to continue this memoirish fantasy.

I wish I was a poet.

Sometimes I think poetry offers the only hope that one could touch the truth but keep the self intact.

No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

The reflective, circular “report” that occupies the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s latest, and if he can be believed, last, novel is presented as an account “of actual events and no sort of work of fiction.” This clarification, coming in the midst of an extended extrapolation of possible impossibilities, anticipates the skeptic:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

Of course, in Murnane’s mental terrain the line between fiction and events actually experienced is a slippery one, but Border Districts reads like a meditation on a lifetime of traversing imaginary landscapes as a reader and writer famously adverse to physically travelling beyond the confines of his home state of Victoria, refracted through a playfully multi-toned meta-fictional prism. This is a novel about perception and memory, and the degree to which we can ever hope to grasp the contents of our own minds. More critically it’s about the way our experiences and our experiences of our experiences are inflated or telescoped with the passage of time.

The narrator of Border Districts has relocated from a capitol city to a small town near the state border, echoing a similar move made by Murnane a number of years ago. He has not entirely shunned the city, he makes several return trips to visit friends and family, but his stated goal in moving to this remote place is to spend his last years focusing on the images, emotions and words that have stayed with him over time, “guarding” his eyes, as he puts it, so that “I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision.” Anticipating the essential, fragmentary quality of this mental inventory he embarks on a meticulous effort, paragraph by paragraph, to trace the connections from one recollection or set of recollections to another.

The result is a digressive internalized odyssey. Perspective shifts from first to third person for a time as the book-hungry boy approaches the remembering man. Uncertain boundaries exist between recalled events and the fiction writer (and reader)’s inclination to wander off on paths not taken, to imagine what might have been, sketch out potential storylines, flesh out characters that could have existed, and step out from the shadows of possible unlived trajectories to anticipate a meeting of minds on the open plains of a mental landscape. Idiosyncratic sideways cognitive processing is acknowledged, examined, and entertained. But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.

There are a number of key motifs or pivot points to which the narrator returns as he attempts to maintain order and control of his own report. Lines of thought that keep circling back and merging. Readers familiar with Murnane will recognize the elements of the rural Australian landscape, the fondness for horse-racing, and a certain literary cynicism. Houses with return verandas hold a peculiar affection. But the key image that recurs is one of coloured glass—from the windows of the unassuming church in his adopted hometown, to observations about stained glass, to a treasured marble collection—and the difficulty of accurately perceiving the shade and details therein. Just like our memories, in our mental images, appearances are mutable. Light is the key because:

. . . a coloured pane better reveals itself to a viewer on its darker side, so to call it; that the colours and designs in glass windows are truly apparent only to an observer shut off from what most of us would consider true light—the light best able to do away with mystery and uncertainty. The paradox, if such it is, can be otherwise expressed: anyone observing the true appearance of a coloured window is unable, for the time being, to observe through the window any more than a falsification of the so-called everyday world.

Yet knowing this limitation does not diminish the narrator’s natural inclination to want to penetrate the opaque surface of the window, to truly see the nature of the glass itself. He even attempts to capture, on film, the coloured windows of a friend’s house. When he retrieves the processed images and brings them home, he realizes that the image-panes are less colourful than they were when he photographed them. Was this a function of his modest photographic skills or further evidence of the unreliability of memory? Perhaps. But the explanation he chooses to endorse, is that the qualities he perceives as lacking are not inherent to the glass, but rather unique to himself:

. . . what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass. And if I could give credence to such an eccentric theory, then I might go further and assert that I saw in the glass part of the private spectrum that my eyes diffused from my own light as it travelled outwards: a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.

As he makes his way through a range of remembered images, experiences, and feelings, obscured with the patina of time, he is interested in what details he does recall. What he has forgotten, if it does not resurface on its own by association, is of no regard. He is keenly aware of his age and fascinated by the memories that have persisted, with a measure of intensity, for thirty, forty, sixty years. The narrator’s associations and meanderings are unique to him, but they reflect our own idiosyncratic mind loops—those layered networks of connections constructed through exposure to art, literature, landscape, life experience—which increase in depth but become more firmly attached to our specific pivot points or mental signposts, as we get older.

I have come to this book midway through my sixth decade (as frightening as that sounds), younger than Murnane and his alter-ego, but close enough. I come to it as a writer interested in capturing his perceived experience, rather than biographical detail, and inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know, a through-the-coloured-glass perspective at best. Border Districts is an older writer’s reverie. It dips back to childhood and adolescence, marriage and parenthood, and spins off into realm of possible lives unlived. There is something to greet a reader at any point in life, but I wonder what my twenty-eight-year-old self might have found. What I do know is that this novel entertains the kind of questions about memory—about the feelings, colours, and images that linger ever “on the edges of my range of vision”—that occupy me more and more with each passing year.

 Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Publishing in Australia. It is now available in North America through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

On another way of seeing and remembering Calcutta: A link to my photo essay at Sultan’s Seal

Before I went to Kolkata last month, my strongest visual image of the city was not informed by guide books, travel websites, or National Geographic features. Rather, it was Naveen Kishore’s haunting black and white photographs of his hometown that captured my imagination. I remember, in particular, a darkened residential street—Calcutta, at night—quiet and empty. What would it be like to be there?

Naveen Kishore’s photographs on display at the Seagull Books store.

And, of course, I arrived to what seemed a circus of noise, colour and crowds. It wasn’t until I began to pull out my phone as I navigated the streets of Bhowanipore, that I began to see the neighbourhood in which I was staying. Even when I had my proper camera with me, I continued to use my phone, for the built in GPS as much as for the ease of uploading and sharing photos along the way.

But I knew that I would want to do more. Photographs have increasingly become part of my creative process. And when I use them in concert with words, I feel liberated to edit and manipulate them as much as I edit and manipulate language to express myself. The images that accompany my recent essay for RIC Journal were processed to heighten the colour and dreamlike quality I wanted to achieve with the text. The photographs that comprise the piece that has just been published at Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal website are entirely different in style and intent.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian novelist, journalist, and very fine photographer. Over the years he has provided a home for photo essays by a number of excellent photographers and photojournalists. My humble contribution is entirely personal, again a reflection of my time in Calcutta, this time in black and white. The ordinary and the extraordinary. Twenty-four images—sometimes detailed, sometimes stark—and a simple text. And that special magic that only be conveyed with black and white (and all the shades of grey).

You can find my piece, Calcutta in Grey here. With much gratitude to Youssef for putting it together so beautifully.

Brief notes on returning home from travel and a link to my photo essay at RIC: Journal

Kolkata is not a place that inspires indifference. It has been almost exactly one month since I left it behind, and yet my thoughts and imagination are still occupied by the city, the people I met, and the experiences I had.

Now that I’m home, with the endless winter so very slowly melting away, I am once again confronting that familiar heaviness that weighs me down and reminds me how hollow and lonely life here can be. Perhaps it is this perennial inability to fit in that drives the restless traveller on. I don’t know.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a photo essay, just published at the wonderful RIC:Journal. This is, in words an images, an attempt to hold my first encounter with India close just a little longer.

You can find my piece here. With gratitude to Saudamini Deo.

Ferries, trains and yellow cabs: Navigating Kolkata in good company

I headed to India without any clear expectations about what I might find in Kolkata. The trip seemed to arrive much faster than I could prepare myself. But just as well. I like to approach a place with an open mind, content to inhabit a small corner, tracing and retracing pathways until they become, for the moment, familiar. I anticipated a fair degree of wandering, alone and unguided. However, as fortune would have it, nearly every day I was out with a friend or acquaintance, for a walk, coffee, or a meal. The opportunity to see fragments of the city through the eyes of others—life-time residents and more recent arrivals, regular visitors and newcomers—opened up varied angles and perspectives I would never have glimpsed as a lone, foreign observer.

A kaleidoscopic view of a kaleidoscopic city.

Love it, hate it, or a complicated mix somewhere in between, it is difficult to imagine Kolkata leaving anyone indifferent. I suppose one could sit still or tread carefully from one established tourist venue to another, but quite honestly it is a city that, despite initial appearances, is more welcoming and safer to move through than one might imagine. It invites personal engagement.On my own, walking remained my default mode of locomotion and, over the course of two weeks I came to know a couple of routes well, especially the stretch of Sarat Bose Road, from my home-stay to Minto Park, a diverse, commercial street. The only public transport I would entertain was the Metro, the aged but determined subway line running across the city from north to south. There was a station close by and one morning I squashed myself into a crowded car to travel north to meet a friend outside the Central station. Together we wandered through the book-lined roads and alleys of the College Street area before joining her husband to enjoy cold coffee at the legendary Indian Coffee House which has, over the past seventy-five years, served as an important gathering place for leading intellectual, cultural and political figures.

Kolkata, at least in the older central part of the city, is conspicuous in its absence of a cluster of gleaming high-rises and commercial office towers. It appears to the outsider like an accidental city. Yet it was once the centre of an empire. Scratch the surface and a cosmopolitan quality still lingers. It has a rich artistic and cultural heritage, but the weight of history and ghosts of the past are tangible. The scars of years of decline and neglect mar the surface.

Layers of existence and subsistence share the same spaces in a manner unimaginable in other major cities. Sidewalk vendors and luxury hotels. Modern buildings beside crumbling ruins. It is a place where anyone with a burner and a pot, a few shoemaking tools, or a pair of scissors can set up business. No one is swept off the street, tucked away out of sight. A dynamic urban ecosystem exists here. At once vibrant and decaying, often side by side. As a friend of mine said, there is a place for everyone in Kolkata: “there is food for every budget. There’s space for every fatigued body and there is transport for every pocket.”

My final weekend in the city was spent in the company of this same friend who had come up from Bangalore for a few days. Together we rode ferries, hired tricycle rickshaws, and experienced the prickly hospitality (or hostility) of an assortment of Yellow Cab drivers. We started out on Saturday morning with a ride across the Hooghly River to Howrah where a rickshaw driver carried us up to the railway station. There we bought platform tickets and my friend shared his enthusiasm for train travel. He led me through a third tier A/C car, insisting that I must, at some point, experience India by rail. (I’m not quite yet confident to attempt that on my own, but challenge registered, and accepted.)

We made several more transits across the river on Saturday, with a longer ride between the Dakshineswar Kali temple and Belur Math on Sunday. These passages introduced an entirely different space and pace. The Hooghly is a wide, languid, opaque green waterway. After the sensory crush of the city, time seems suspended, but even here echoes of the past persist. A mix of magic and sadness.

My friend and I covered a lot of ground over two days, in kilometres and in conversation. At his insistence my experience of Kolkata included small pleasures I would not have otherwise entertained—water from unripened coconuts, delicious fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and peanuts and puffed rice served in bags crafted from folded newspaper. And his personal perspective on the intersection of municipal grandeur and deterioration helped me begin to frame what I’d observed during my sojourn. A walk after dark through B. B. D. Bagh (Dalhousie Square), the seat of the provincial government and central business district, was a powerful experience, inspiring and haunting in equal measure.

And what would a trip to Kolkata be, in the end, without cab rides? Yellow cabs, even.

And so I left the city carrying the intensity of the place—its mass of contradictions—as a kind of thickened stew that will take time to sift through and clarify. Calcutta. Kolkata.

I remember jammed roadways. Taxis—yellow, white and, Uber. An endless chorus of bleating car horns. Brightly coloured buses jammed with passengers. Three wheeled auto-rickshaws scooting by. Bicycles and motorcycles, sometimes with a single passenger, but more often couples, even families—father driving, mother behind sitting side saddle in a sari, and a youngster on the handlebars—typically all without helmets. The whimsical magic of the Seagull Books office, the enthusiasm of the students at the school, the ambitious and inspiring Peaceworks project. Ngūgī wa Thiong’o in conversation at the Victoria Memorial, under the open sky, surrounded by that monument to colonial glory. Towering tombs, and stalls overflowing with books. The century-old residence where I stayed and my eager, affable host, Nandu.

Coffee. Conversation. Friends.

Until we meet again.

Out on the streets of Kolkata: A little exploration

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s for another post.

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

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

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

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

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