Monday, July 17, 2017

Drew Knapp: On Difficult Tasks

I'm skim-fed to the city through the baleen corridor of the Lincoln tunnel. I'm aware of the oft-inhabited expectation of this place (a movie set of indeterminate expanse, where glimpsed strangers, in their thespian intersections, become saturated with the kinetic glow of promise) and find it seems to descend from paranoia and manifest as mental succor in specie. I am not searching for ambition in the gullet of this great mechanical whale, nor escape from insecurity. In truth, there is no tangible ultima Thule to discover, no other pantheonic status desired. I have come for more money, yes, and to be closer to the family of my significant other, but the defining traits of the act--position, velocity, time--don’t clarify its meaning beyond movement. That its occurrence exists outside of my general emotional ataxia makes it important, I think--archaic content given a significative insertion into the present.

My prior home is stuck in a constant state of (what to call it?) terminal prettiness. Each frontal square snapshot stretches out across that frontier town; it collects dust in blue and green (these colors used loosely to include cyan, teal, turquoise, aquamarine) so regular that the neighbors keep their clocks by it. Whirring mercy-mild we traversed that old, motley woodsmoke bridge, unpainted and unhinged, over small creeks we bottled in amethyst like reserves for rapture–goddamn we had the freedom to make fun of it. We stomped through those howls and humps like some latterday Titans letting off steam. The place disarmed me with openness and stitched up my irony, while the old blood and the gunshot cough were swabbed away. This place was peaceful before the opioid epidemic and will forever remain not yet a dreamwork, not yet Chernobyl.

Home is not the first place a man is captive (or captivated!)–but it is surely the most relatable, and so I use it to set the table: The cabin had once belonged to my grandfather–a place for last stands: haggle of brickwork, a stairway of pointed mortar jogging up the spent orchid facade, each filigree of brick entablature Earth’s rebate, a vocabulary of masonic ritual. On each revisit to the old place I find the innards of the house paused in time–MomMom’s beaded dresses lay embalmed in dime-store tissue and cedar cabinets, a number runner’s box of betting slips still wedged between the hand-sawn joists above the single room, a collection of whalebone corsets piled unceremoniously on the table among thin tubes of ether and empty glass bottles rayed in a circle. Visualizing the motions of a busy family is kind of like tracking shadows in a kaleidoscope, but I have vivid memories of the sounds of the place: my father’s shirk of duffle to the washroom, the windowsill radio humming Pacini, clack of tin and razor, screech of medicine cabinet, the whip pop of cream being frothed into a memory of meringue dabbed from cheek to chin to cheek, running water over porcelain, straight razor ringing like a tuning fork off the spicket.

Hear the loving language I tell it with. The notion of captivity should not always be reduced to the roles of prisoner and warden. Sometimes we must glance at it sideways, look down on it or up at it, move past it quickly, stop and hold it close for a while–here is the prescribed thought: I am captive to my home because the place relies on me to see it as such to be so; my home is captive to me because I rely on it to stay homelike to qualify as such–if either side waivers the whole binary notion collapses and the self-referential meaning I impart to the word disappears along with my identity in the context of this place. Preservation of the relationship requires upkeep and each moment of the present maintenance becomes a refrain for itself as it moves into the past–a structure with two shapes like Wittgenstein’s rabbit | duck–refrener from refrenare: re- (expressing intensive force) + frenum ‘bridle’; or, efraindre from refringere: ‘break’, based on the Latin refringere, ‘break up’. From the east the word lets us start over; from the west it lets us leave.

It is this express relationship with the cradle that allows the certain freedom of perspective one is gifted when assuming the identity of a pedestrian in a new city. There is nothing quite like donning the costume of an average day and witnessing it gleam in new places. Today’s life-hike begins in Astoria, named so to draw money out of the richest man in the country (an investment that never manifested in any meaningful way), at the intersection of two streets: the first is named for a piano company whose products were advertised as mania-inducing in 1867, the second after a famed curator of reptiles for the New York Zoological Society. In short, it seems I stand at the gateway to a very strange riddle.

This is perhaps why, hours later and many steps into the neon chrome and new smells of Manhattan, I am disregarding the daily spectacle of too-much-life in bloom, like I’m looking on it through the window of a backlit room, discerning mostly the reflection of myself overlaid on the hazy scenery and recalling, the way one does a mantra, a small excerpt from an old book by Siegfried J. Garethewohl on the philosophy a man must hold when he first explores new space: “[any system] of this kind must therefore be studied to define man’s objectives for the system, his functions within the system, and the information necessary to establish the requirements for an efficient use of the system.” Put another way, I am wondering what I am here to do, what I am able to do, and what I need to know to do so. All day, this curiosity is chewed up by toothy skyline and spit out as noise. If there is a simple answer, it is not easy to detect.

Foucault wrote of difficult tasks in his Madness, though he related the adjective to a scope of time, rather than hardship: “What is difficult behavior? Basically, behavior in which a vertical analysis reveals the superimposition of several simultaneous forms of behavior. Killing game is one form of behavior; recounting one’s exploits, after the event, is another. But at the very moment one is lying in wait for one’s quarry, or actually killing the animal, to tell oneself that one is killing, that one is in pursuit, that one is lying in wait, in order, later, to be able to recount one’s exploits to others; to have simultaneously the real behavior of the hunt and the potential behavior of the account is a double operation, and although apparently simpler, is in fact more complicated than either of the others: it is the behavior of the present, the germ of all temporal behavior, in which the present action and the consciousness that this action will have a future, that one will later be able to recount it as a past event, are superimposed upon one another, are meshed together.”

A short walk past the crowded National September 11 Memorial & Museum seems to prove him right, though we’ve traded the gun and buck for a phone and a monument. Somewhere in this exchange, the anticipated act of recounting has collapsed into the event itself. The snap and post has, for many, supplanted the sensory experience. In the void left behind by this compression, receiving praise--or at least, a reaction--has moved in as the expected potential.

At a macroscopic level, society produces and maintains these counter-factual expectations in spite of disappointments. In keeping experience at arm's length, one inhabits paradox: his observations are both protected from the vulnerability of true exposure and prohibited from the steady fortification of certainty. Maintaining unfulfilled expectations made in this state (to refuse to learn from facts) disables the utility of shared knowledge and of society’s role in human progress outright. More damaging still, communication of this intention uses the symbols of normativity. The cost incurred by this process is a shifted import of understanding--beliefs fall under a pathology, one does not need to have possessed a disease to know it's bad for him. In hindsight, the political turmoil present in this country was laughably foreseeable. I can look at a photo of my grandparents’ house and find a memory, but the peace formed in that transaction requires a great cache of exploits to which the signifier can call back to; it is not a commodity that can be produced solely as an object of its own recounting.

So what can be done? What is it that I am here to do? In 2016, President Barack Obama laid wreaths at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Following the ceremony, he addressed the crowd: “The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” In the context of the speech, this statement seems to imply that particularly American type of inspiration--the idea that human belief can be submitted, then worked--though I think in isolation it still holds as necessarily true. In the desire to rebel we find the morals that provide our ethics with valence. And in the way this memorial display was an act of rebellion against the very violence that necessitated it, I am pointed toward new behavior by the discovery that even in a profligate and beautiful city, stark apathy will seep into any space it’s allowed, riding the back of unattended humanity, each time gaining ground as we more regularly forget to marvel then and again at the smashing nonchalance of nature. To wander and wonder, this is what I’ve come for--through the belly and bones of this creature, each storefront inside it lit up in the last of a broad sunset strung with gems--hoping that you are as anxious as I am. I will walk like I am wary of collecting dust, forget for now my phone, my plans, my neuroses, and embrace instead a rambling devoid of adjectives, as though the very here and now were becoming a kind of paradise to sit in, listening, largely mindless of the risen, cloudy brilliances above.

What I am able to do? In the act of being consumed, food, as it turns out, is granted two specific powers--the ability to poison, and the ability to nourish. Perhaps concern is helpless here, quite extra; yet, I must believe that if we make the naive gesture, bend and hold the prone man’s head, walk the plank with strangers, we might someday ward off, at all costs, those great wounds that can be knelled dumb by each other’s presence. To patch with brand of love the rank grimace that hangs on forgotten faces. To trim back to shape the poverty that assaults the ego. To provide the mere chance of making harbor through this racketing flux. To taunt others to valor, or at least peace, in re-assuming their names.

As for what I need to know to do so? I have no idea, but I’ll figure it out. In the future everything is absurdly possible. If nothing else, I must remember to live before I speak. The story must be distilled from reality, it cannot just be poured over life like lacquer. Outside my new apartment, a fresh cigarette is lit, a fluent mayday. Through the door, Eva has fallen asleep; tonight the bed is blue and the angels of morphia will soon bear me up to walk among the sleepers. I think of lullabies: bloom about me like night flowers; moon bald and wild look down on me, eye of a little god, with your particular luster and delicate silence. I am silver and exact, he says, round and flat and full of wry advice. There is a dignity to this; there is a formality--such blue currents in the veins of my loved one, the flowers vivid as bandages now, and I am not mystical, just trespassing stupidly, casting with my snares for any intolerable vowels that might enter the woman's heart. Above the roof, clouds steer a burnished drift and the air becomes bright for looking.


Drew Knapp is a writer and editor based in Astoria, NY. His other work can be read at He can be reached on Twitter @ggzuzwan.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Int'l Essayists: V.V. Ganeshananthan on Sunila Galappatti

As Told To, As Heard By

Sunila Galappatti and I met back in 2009, when I was part of the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, which Sunila was then running. We had a brief but memorable conversation, and have remained correspondents and become friends. We’ve met a few times in person since, most recently in Edinburgh, where we did an event together at a conference as part of the launch of her first book. Later that year, I took the book to Sri Lanka with me, where I traveled with someone who repeatedly borrowed it. I myself devoured it in a few days, and could not help but agree with my companion, who declared it “fantastic.” (In fact, he used a more emphatic phrase than that, but this is a family-friendly column, at least today.)

Sunila’s book has a comparatively unusual form. Indeed, it is not solely Sunila’s book. It is the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, an officer with the Sri Lankan Navy who spent eight years as a prisoner of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which fought Sri Lankan security forces for decades in pursuit of a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. The Tigers were a proscribed terrorist organization in many countries, including Sri Lanka. Sunila spent years talking to Boyagoda about those years, and then wrote a first-person account of his story based on their conversations. The result: A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka, by Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as told to Sunila Galappatti. The book is captivating, and surprising, not least because of Boyagoda’s voice, which is measured, introspective, and clear. “I could see when I came home that people did not want to hear the story I told. I had been a prisoner of one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world yet I couldn’t tell a ruthless story. People talk about the LTTE all the time; I lived with them for eight years and no one—not even my own naval command—ever wanted to hear my account of what they were like,” Boyagoda says in the book’s prologue. Here, then, the book’s dual surprise—the Tigers did not behave as one might have expected, at least with Boyagoda. And neither is he the storyteller one might anticipate under these circumstances.

After reading the book, I was interested in thinking about the liminal space and history of that ‘as told to.’ I could think of so few other books I admire that fit into that category—Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley was a prime contender. I also loved Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, produced in collaboration with J.R. Moehringer. Mostly, however, the American version is a form of storytelling I have associated, fairly or unfairly, primarily with celebrity and biography lite. I thought about whether I should reexamine these conceptions, and what ‘as told to’ in A Long Watch meant. Is ‘as told to’ a form of editing? Is it writing? I asked Sunila what she thought, and if in preparing to work on the book, she turned to any particular books as models.

Sunila wrote:

Believe it or not I have never myself read a book ‘as told to’. I’ll admit we chose it because it the closest convention available. I always think the more accurate description would be: ‘as heard by’.

Let me try and explain. Yes, I strove to be faithful to the way the Commodore told the story and especially to his tone in telling it. Yes, he checked that what I had written felt true to him. And yet the nuances I heard – the passages in the story that struck me - may have been different to those that caught another listener. And we know language is not incidental, not transparent – his story/my words is how I simplify it when people look for the lines of responsibility in it. 

It was writing not editing, to answer your question, but the two are close cousins – especially when it comes to the ethical responsibilities implicit in any non-fiction.

She traced her path to developing this approach: 

I could draw a line through a number of dots here – let me choose that way of telling the story. I started my career as a dramaturg in the theatre in London. In my early 20s I was fortunate to work on a production based on Shakespeare’s Pericles: a collaboration between my company, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cardboard Citizens, that makes theatre with and for people who are or have been homeless. During one conversation, Adrian Jackson, the Artistic Director of Cardboard Citizens, showed me the transcript of an interview with a man who had been walking for, I think it was, 16 years. Reading through pages and pages of his unruly narrative you slowly realised that he had once lived in a house where the door bell had rung and someone at the door informed him his daughter had been killed in an accident. That was when he started walking. I’m not sure I’m remembering all the details of the story right but I remember the feeling of reading the transcript, the collapse of time within it and the strong sense that I could only know this man’s story by listening to him on his own terms. 

Since then, you could argue that I have been working on that principle. Soon afterwards, I worked at Live Theatre Newcastle, in the early 2000s when there was increasing interest in verbatim theatre. There I developed and directed documentary theatre pieces with individuals from the community around the theatre. I found I loved the challenge of finding form for lived experience – but form that made it clear this was a part of the story, the story still belonged to the person who lived it and they were showing you what they chose of it. Form that was ethically considered and collaboratively agreed.

I suppose the book I wrote with Commodore Boyagoda represented the first time I was working with written form in this way.

The book was published more or less a year ago, and we did an event together in Scotland at which we spoke about it. Since then, many more people have read the book and talked to you about it. Has any reaction greatly surprised you? Can you speak, broadly, about your interactions with readers of the book?

I wonder if it will surprise you to hear that although I have spoken about the book on three continents now I don’t consider that I know that much about the reactions of readers. When I do speak about the book I love being asked questions to which I don’t have ready answers; questions that make me think afresh. But what I love even more is feeling that reading is a private experience for each reader and I won’t know the conversations they have with the book as they are reading it. And the knowledge that those conversations may change over time. I felt a kind of relief when the work moved from manuscript to book form – as though it was no longer mine but anyone else’s. On my own shelves, it sits between the essays of George Orwell and a fascinating book by Bella Bathurst about the building of the Scottish lighthouses – because that’s where there was space to put it.

How did you think about Boyagoda’s emotional arc and doing justice to it as you did your research? Was straight chronology always your plan?

Funny you ask this question. I asked it of myself many times before I started writing. Should I start with the Commodore’s capture? But then I would lose the poignant story of the 19-year-old who joined a navy because he liked its uniform and never saw war coming. Should I work backwards from the Commodore’s homecoming? But did I have a good enough reason not to go chronologically. Ultimately I decided the narrative ought to seem like the man and the chronology suited the Commodore. His reaction on reading the first draft? “Do we have to start at the beginning?” In the end, I don’t think it was so much the Commodore’s emotional arc that led but the arc of change that he described in the country around him.

Can you talk, perhaps even in somewhat technical terms, about the process of going from notes and recordings to these chapters and polished narratives? 

The technical term I would use is repetition. The first time the Commodore told his story I didn’t really ask him questions. I wanted to hear the story he told. I recorded it. I listened again to it. Then I went back and asked the Commodore questions about certain passages of the story. I recorded those conversations. I listened again to them. In this way for more than three years we went over the story again and again. All the while I was trying to get to know the Commodore’s voice well enough that I could write with his tone and character even while using my own turn of phrase. The chapters and structure of the book came more naturally - I think pace and rhythm are the forms of logic I trust instinctively. I edited the book by reading it aloud over and over again.

Which section of the book was hardest to render? Why?

This is such an interesting question and one with alternative answers. Listening to the Commodore’s accounts of early captivity was hard because it was such an airless part of the story - there were no signs that things would change. Then to render that airlessness in writing was a challenge – I wanted the reader to feel the vacuum in those cells but without slowing the narrative down to a halt. 

The other challenge was the last section of the book – the Commodore’s homecoming. In many ways to me this was the most revealing part of the story – it was his return to the world that made it clear how far he had been removed from it. Yet here was a new difficulty because a more conventional privacy surrounded this homecoming – back among family and friends – and I had chosen not to intrude further into the Commodore’s life than he invited me. We were back on a conventional footing about what I would and would not ask. But I suppose this section was still easier to write than his transition into captivity. In a sense, I also knew the Commodore better later in his story.

How did you think about titling the book?

Truly? I made a long list of appalling, semi-nautical titles over several months. I wanted a novelistic title because it’s a book you read as a story. The manuscript was first named after things the Commodore had said: The Next Hour (‘if you survive this hour, the next hour is available to you’) and then The Surface of the Sea (‘on the surface of the sea you become very small’). Finally, I sat in a North London pub with my publisher and we tried again. When we came up with A Long Watch I was hopeful the Commodore would like it too, for its naval overtones. I went home and called him to ask. He did like it and that became the title.

So much of Sunila’s story of writing the book sounds appealingly collaborative. I like “as told to,” but I love “as heard by,” and the way it underlines Boyagoda’s agency and centrality as the teller of the story. Recent debates about appropriation have presented binary choices: when asking the question of who has the right to tell the story, we see only two options: the person to whom the events happened, and a writer seeking to portray those experiences. Sunila’s book presents a third path, one I hope will become more common, and which offers a method of showcasing such stories in ways that are rigorous, inventive, truthful and clear.

Further reading:

By Sunila Galappatti: Did He Go Stockholm?


Michael Ondaatje interviews Sunila Galappatti about her work on A Long Watch 

V.V. Ganeshananthan teaches fiction and nonfiction writing in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Her debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House), was longlisted for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World's Best of 2008. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard, she is at work on a second novel, excerpts of which have appeared in GrantaPloughshares, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014.

Craig Reinbold was the managing editor of Essay Daily from 2013-2016 and co-edited How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

Monday, July 3, 2017

Robbie Maakestad: On Pneumothorax and Writing Medical Trauma

This past spring semester I taught an introductory literature course at George Mason University. For our final text of the semester my students read Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe: A Memoir—a hilarious (albeit harrowing) account of dealing with the hormone-less fallout of emergency surgery to remove a ruptured tumor on the narrator’s pituitary gland. In order to undermine the medical trauma, the juggling of drugs post-surgery, and the deep level at which this event transformed his life, narrator-Scalise consistently cracks jokes.
Yet, this book is more nuanced than an entertaining take on a medical catastrophe. For instance, look how Scalise begins the prologue: “Telling a good catastrophe anecdote means becoming a maestro of sympathy.” Later, he continues, “The trick to keeping [the audience] engaged is to focus on the oddities and ironies that would seem incredible and ridiculous in any context, not just that of your disaster.” And so, throughout his memoir, Scalise takes his own advice. I found myself not so much drawn to the humor and bizarre circumstances that Scalise explores, but rather I gravitated toward his writing about the way medical stories are told, how they are crafted for an audience.
            Throughout the book Scalise tells his pocket version of his pituitary trauma to various effect and with varied purpose: via email blast to friends and family [claiming the surgery as an accomplishment], at a family get-together [complete with slideshow], at a Manhattan party [for the first time his story entertains an audience], and to his boss at his first job [empathizing with her medical condition]. He even spills his story during an interview with a publishing house [an abject failure], and follows this up by inquiring about the quality of their health insurance policy.
As the reader observes this narrator feeling his way into an understanding of how and when his story works (or does not work: see publishing house interview), the reader is able to gauge the way illness narratives function for an audience—a metacognitive analytical experience since readers are in themselves an audience. The very act of reading Brand New Catastrophe becomes a learning experience in that subconsciously Scalise’s readers consider when and how to tell tales of medical trauma while also engaging with an entertaining memoir.
As such, a recurring point of class discussion ended up being the way Scalise consistently wields humor to deflect the reader’s pity. As Scalise begins to craft the narrative of the wracking headache that first sent him to the ER, he breaks back into narratorial explication of how one best relates a story of medical trauma: “Notice how the focus here is not on the vast pain that commandeered my head that night. Pain is a socially competitive thing, and too much emphasis on it can cue people to recall their own bouts with pain, or compare theirs to yours.” And this proves true time and again in Scalise’s narrative; by attaching the reader’s focus to the humor present in his situation, Scalise causes the reader to move beyond their propensity to feel sorry for a narrator wading through difficult circumstances. Perhaps the best medical nonfiction, then, finds a way to deflect the reader’s pity, or to avoid it all together.
            In March of 2009, my left lung collapsed in the middle of an intramural basketball game—a spontaneous pneumothorax—which hospitalized me in middle-of-nowhere Indiana, fifteen minutes away from the college where I was studying. Though unlikely, a pneumothorax is a common-enough diagnosis for tall, thin, white dudes in their late teens. As the chest walls extend with growth, so too do the lungs, which can become unwieldy and weigh too much to be supported by lung tissue alone, causing the organ to fissure, air to escape into the chest, and the organ to shrivel like the popped balloon that it has become. Once a surgeon stabs a tube into the chest cavity, the air escapes, restoring the body’s internal pressure balance, allowing the lung to reinflate. A week or so resting in the hospital is usually standard for the body to patch scar tissue over the fissure, restoring the pneumothorax victim to health. And this is precisely what happened to me.
            Sitting in that podunk hospital, I found that when friends and family visited, they approached tentatively, as if I was fragile. After asking how I was doing, they’d inevitably express their sorrow over my defective lungs, which was the last thing I wanted. Rather, I missed the joie de vivre of college life, of living in a dorm surrounded by friends, of dinners at the dining commons, of going to class. After laying in a hospital bed for days watching America’s Funniest Home Videos marathons, the last thing I wanted was pity. I already pitied myself. When friends visited, I deflected their condolences with attempts at humor: “It’s cool cuz once the chest tube comes out the hole allows for Mr. Potato Head attachments,” etc., etc., ad nauseum. Even when my dad walked into the room immediately post-chest-tube-implant, I closed my eyes and splayed myself dramatically across the bed, playing dead—a joke to downplay our family’s first major medical drama. Without a second though, my dad, thinking I was still “out” (though I had been awake for the entire procedure), snapped a photo with his brand new smartphone so I “could see myself later”—my first attempt at pity deflection memorialized in snapshot.
            But this avoidance of the reader’s sympathy raises a question: if the success of medical essays hinges on the deflection of pity, what then is the purpose of writing it in the first place? For if an essayist attempts to fully encapsulate their own medical trauma on the page, is not the essay at some level a request for the reader’s pity? Likely most people have not experienced similar trauma, so exposing the reader to a nonfictive medical experience forces the reader to grapple with that account, to reckon with the experiences of another—a situation in which they cannot help but feel some semblance of pity.
            In her 2003 New Yorker essay, “A Sudden Illness,” Laura Hillenbrand writes of developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a disease about which little is known, and for which she bounced from doctor to doctor in search of a diagnosis. The essay recounts years that Hillenbrand spent in bed, crippled by the disease, too dizzy to stand up, locked in a stalemate with CFS. Though Scalise argues against leveraging the reader’s capacity for pity, Hillenbrand does the opposite; of the essay’s 7525 words, 5295 (70 percent) detail her wide range of devastating symptoms and the variety of misdiagnoses that doctors ascribed. The essay reads as a veritable tsunami of pain—the chaos of symptomatic overwhelm.
Though at times the reader slogs through the narrator’s listed symptoms, the effect is that the reader begins to understand, if only fractionally, what it is that this narrator herself experienced—a shift from pity to empathy. The recounting of this disease’s resulting isolation and debilitation restricts the reader to Hillenbrand’s metaphorical bed of symptoms: “The realm of possibility began and ended in that room, on that bed. I no longer imagined anything else.” Just as Hillenbrand’s narrator is confined to a piece of furniture in her bedroom, the reader also does not move beyond the overwhelming description of the symptoms until the ending in which Hillenbrand leverages the stridency of pain in an unexpected shift outward, beyond her pain and her struggle with symptoms, to a hope for reprieve—a breath of air beyond the sick chamber—a rolling back of the reader’s pity, replaced by hope for this narrator’s future health.
Two months after my first hospital stay, my lung collapsed a second time, so a friend drove me to a hospital in Indianapolis—one that had actual lung specialists. When a lung deflates too significantly to permanently repair itself or when it collapses multiple times (my case), the surgeon recommends surgery to glue the lung to the ribcage in order to take the weight off of the organ: a procedure known as pleurodesis. To affix the lung, a surgeon slits open the skin to the side of the pectoral muscle, and inserts a de facto tire jack between the ribs to ratchet them apart without breaking the bones. The surgeon then sticks his hand into the orifice to manually manipulate the deflated-football lung until the ruptured tissue is located. The fissured area is sliced out, and the lung gets stapled back together, which enables breathed air to expand the organ, reestablishing the full flow of O2 to the bloodstream. The surgeon scrubs the medical equivalent of steel wool across both the lining on the organ’s exterior and the interior lining of the ribcage, and deposits acidic talc powder upon the freshly abraded surfaces. The lung is pressed against the ribs to trap the acid powder between, which reacts against the bleeding tissue and creates gobs of scar tissue, bonding the organ and bone—a procedure that sounds rather medieval in execution. But, for how inhumane it sounds, my recovery was not as bad as I had been told, and the surgery worked to lessen the self-weight of my lung.
            In his 2003 Georgia Review essay, “Bullet in My Neck,” Gerald Stern dramatizes the moment when two would-be thieves shot up the car he was traveling in at a stoplight in New Jersey. One bullet hit his chin and lodged in his neck, and another grazed his shoulder. Slumped over, Stern floored the gas pedal with one hand, and his driver, Rosalind—a fellow poet—took the wheel and drove them away. Though a fantastic hook to the essay, Stern’s handling of the shooting itself only spans half a paragraph.
Rather, Stern focuses on the shooting’s aftermath. He details their difficulty in finding a hospital as anyone he asked for directions shied away at the sight of all his blood. But they eventually found one; he does not remember how. Though Stern details the medical treatment he received at the hospital as well as his difficult recovery, throughout these passages, Stern continually focuses on the suffering of the other: Rosalind, who was left alone and untreated in the hospital while he was cared for; a frog that his friend abused as a child, which child-Stern put out of its misery; Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish writer and painter, killed by a Nazi officer; and Stern’s own sister’s death from cerebrospinal meningitis. Stern ends his essay:
And I want to remember how small was my brief “suffering” compared to thousands of others’, what cruelty, absurdity, insanity, maliciousness they were forced to experience, how the lamb itself was twisted and pulled in a thousand ways, how it wept for itself at last, just as it wept for others—and continues to do so.
Rather than allowing his own pain and suffering to take a central role in the essay, Stern uses these as a vehicle by which he can examine suffering itself beyond his own experience, as a human experience. Rather than leveraging the reader’s pity as Hillenbrand does, Stern shows that it is also possible to redirect, affectively guiding the reader’s sympathy elsewhere.
Though pleurodesis solves the problem of collapsing lungs for ninety percent of people who suffer a pneumothorax and opt for surgery, I fall into the unfortunate remaining tenth percentile. Normally, if a lung collapses after pleurodesis, the scar tissue that affixes it to the chest wall holds the organ up and open, still able to breathe, which allows the lung to heal itself. Yet, in my case, two years after I’d had pleurodesis, my lung collapsed so significantly that the organ ripped away from the scar tissue and fully collapsed.
This surprised the surgeons, who relayed a more permanent option than retrying pleurodesis: a pluerectomy. The procedure would be precisely the same as pleurodesis, but this time the surgeon would rip out the pleural lining surrounding the lung so that the lung could adhere directly to the ribcage itself—an even stronger bond than previously, albeit one whose recovery would be ten times as painful given the nerve endings that would be exposed with the removal of the pleura. I opted for this procedure, rather than risking a repeat failure of pleurodesis—what I hoped would be the right decision.
That night while waiting for an operating room to open up the next morning, I had trouble sleeping, so I did some research on the procedure and found that the surgery was only about sixty-five years old—first performed in the 1950s. While that is many years during which a medical procedure can be refined, even more than that, I found comfort in thinking that I was alive within the slim fraction of human history during which this surgery has existed. Previous to 1950, a pneumothorax would have permanently invalided me if not been my death sentence.
            In her seminal 2014 essay in The Believer, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison details her experiences as a medical actor, as well as her decision to get an abortion—blowing both open to explore the human capacity for empathy. Here, Jamison explores the crux of handling pity as pertains to her decision to get an abortion: “I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and I also wanted it entirely for myself.” This evidences the inherent contradiction of writing the medical trauma essay: though the writer desires to avoid overwhelming the reader with descriptions of pain and suffering (evoking pity), at some level the essayist must share their pain with the reader, in order to capture the reality of what they experienced (evoking empathy). The issue then becomes landing in the middle of the continuum of sharing too much pain and sharing too little. 
            But this leads to the question: why put the medical trauma on the page in the first place; what is gained by sharing it with the world? Again, Jamison has the answer. In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” published by VQR in 2014, Jamison writes:
What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity; beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed light to write by. They yield scars full of stories and slights that become rallying cries. They break open the fuming fruits of damaged engines and dust these engines with color.
Essaying medical trauma, then, presents an opportunity to mitigate the experience itself, to attach to a meaning beyond the pain and trauma, just as Gerald Stern found himself able to do. Later in the essay, Jamison returns to the explication of wounds:
Wound implies en media res: the cause of injury is past but the healing isn’t done; we are seeing this situation in the present tense of its immediate aftermath. Wounds suggest sex and aperture: a wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior; it marks where a body has been penetrated. Wounds suggest that the skin has been opened—that privacy has been violated in the making of the wound, a rift in the skin, and by the act of peering into it.
This logic holds true when broadened to the writing of medical trauma, for what is trauma but a physical or mental wound? When writers peer within the traumatic circumstances surrounding medical emergencies or treatment, they name it, giving voice to the wound. By spreading wide the skin of the medical trauma and poking around to find what’s raw, writers reveal the heart of the wound. For in the telling, some element of healing takes place.
Three years and a move to the east coast later, the pluerectomy still held my left lung in place, but for the first time, my right lung collapsed. I was eating a bagel sandwich when I felt the familiar gurgle of air escaping. Three days later, the hospital released me to meet with a specialist since my lung had stabilized. In an hour-long consultation, my new surgeon prodded for my complete lung history—each and every collapse or gurgle of air escaping, no matter how minor. The tally: nine lung collapses, this most recent being the tenth. Once he had established a complete timeline, he thought for a moment and said, “Well, if I didn’t know you or your past, I’d recommend waiting to see if the lung stays stable and remains inflated. But given the circumstances, I’d be willing to do surgery if that’s what you’d prefer.” When I asked what he would do in my situation, he chuckled. “If I were you, I would push straight for a pluerectomy.” As I left his office, I breathed shallowly, a pluerectomy scheduled for the next morning.
            Perhaps my favorite medical trauma essay is Rachel Riederer’s “Patient” from the spring 2010 issue of The Missouri Review, in which she details an accident in which a bus ran over her left leg, crushing her foot. Unlike any other trauma essay I’ve read, this one captures the raw incongruity experienced as a medical trauma unfolds: the questioning, the uncertainty. In the moment where the bus sits atop her leg, the narrator asks an onlooker, “Can you please tell him to move?” In that moment, Riederer reflects, “It is easy to be calm because I cannot really have been run over by a bus.” Though the bus sits on top of her leg, she denies the actuality of her injury—a rhetorical move that repeats itself throughout the essay.
For instance, in the hospital Riederer cannot move her toes when the doctor requests that she do so. She writes, “My toes would have bent. My feet are pretty and obedient. They are slender with high arches. Yes, they are callused on the bottom, but they are nothing like this fat red blob that has had all the foot shape squashed out of it.” By crafting the narrative to include these moments of disbelief, Riederer immerses the reader into the surrealism of the moment, allowing them to feel her shock and her inability to grasp the reality of her crushed foot.
Further, Riederer creates a deluge of drama: doctors deciding whether or not to amputate, nurses debriding her tissue, the decision not to amputate, her detached calf muscle dying a little bit every day, the first glimpse she gets of her own leg post-surgery. All these recreations of the then-narrator experiencing and feeling in the moment add texture to the essay, establishing the vividness of the “then” in order for the reader to best engage with the experience crafted on the page. By immersing the reader in breathlessly vivid scenes, no room for pity remains.
Before I was released from the hospital post-surgery, my surgeon stopped by my room. “Here,” he said, holding out a business card. “I wrote my personal cell number on the back. If anything happens with either lung, give me a call day or night, okay?” At first I found this reassuring—my own on-call lung specialist. But after he left I began to have my doubts; under no circumstance would a specialist hand out their personal cell number unless they thought it absolutely necessary.
Two years out, my lungs remain stationary within my torso—firmly adhered to the chest wall. Though I have been medically cleared for all activities except smoking and scuba diving, and though I have almost no residual side effects except for extreme shortness of breath if I exercise, my lungs cast a constant presence over my life. I am cognizant of every gurgle and groan within my chest, every torsional shift while sitting or laying down, of the stasis of my lungs while my other organs move freely when my body is in motion. It’s not that I am scared or afraid that they’ll collapse again; rather, it’s a finely tuned bodily awareness usually glossed over by the brain. Two years out, I have yet to call my surgeon’s cell, but it’s a number saved into my contacts just in case.
            In the conclusion to Brand New Catastrophe, after so many pages spent telling and retelling the story of his brain tumor in different contexts, of learning when and where and how to tell the tale, Mike Scalise writes, “And it becomes possible… to grow infatuated with something, even as it destroys you.” Here finally Scalise recognizes the way the story of his brain tumor consumed him in the years following surgery, the way that a façade of humor and an engaging retelling spackled over the hole that his medical trauma had worn throughout years spent juggling hormones levels via medication and further treatment.
And is this not precisely what the medical trauma essay must avoid? A spackling over? A façade? At heart an essay digs deep to open something up, to unearth that which is hidden within, to expose the truth tucked beneath the surface. So too must the essayist push beyond the trauma, the medical terminology, the shock, the pain, the uncertainty, and probe the wound in order to suss out greater meaning.

Robbie Maakestad received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from George Mason University where he was the Editor-in-Chief of Phoebe. He currently reads and edits nonfiction for The Rumpus and has been published or has forthcoming work in The MacGuffin, Free State Review, and Bethesda Magazine, among others. In 2017, Robbie was shortlisted for the Penguin/Travelex Next Great Travel Writer Award. Follow him @RobbieMaakestad.

Source Materials:
Hillenbrand, Laura. “A Sudden Illness.” The New Yorker. 2003.
Jamison, Leslie. “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” VQR. 2014.
Jamison, Leslie. “The Empathy Exams.” The Believer. 2014.
Riederer, Rachel. “Patient.” The Missouri Review. 2010.
Scalise, Mike. The Brand New Catastrophe: A Memoir. 2017.
Stern, Gerald. “Bullet in My Neck.” The Georgia Review. 2003.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Int'l Essayists: Chris Arthur, An Irish Essay(ist)?

Recently, as I write my essays, I’ve been thinking a lot about allegiance and influence, about belonging and not belonging, about feeling at home and feeling alienated, about nationality and a sense of exile. Increasingly, these reflections leave me feeling close to stateless. This isn’t surprising given the context in which I’m writing. Let me explain.

I was born in Belfast and spent the first eighteen years of my life in Northern Ireland, so my youth was spent in bitterly contested territory where conflicting loyalties raged. One of Northern Ireland’s tribes sees itself as Irish, the other as British; one is predominantly Catholic, the other Protestant; one aligns its political compass to Dublin, the other to London. Growing up was an education in how difference can lead to discrimination and how the sense of injustice that discrimination spawns can easily spill over into violence. The Troubles that ignited in 1969 and burned and smoldered for a quarter of a century, wrecking so many lives, were a potent factor in my decision to move to Scotland. I lived there for the next decade.

Edinburgh was a welcome contrast to life in County Antrim. No one there cared what religion I belonged to. There was no Irish-British tension. Ulster folk were as welcome as Americans, French, Indians, Japanese and all the other nationalities who, like me, were drawn to the city’s ancient university. There was a sense of easy internationalism, a tolerance of diversity, an openness to new ideas. Scotland’s capital – the Athens of the North – seemed secure enough in its own history, culture and traditions for differences to be considered a source of interest and enrichment rather than a threat.

My next move came about for reasons of professional advancement not personal choice. I was offered a lectureship at the University of Wales, so I moved three hundred miles south, settled in Ceredigion, and lived there for nearly twenty years. This period of my life brought new senses of divisiveness – between the indigenous population and incomers; between Welsh-speakers and non Welsh-speakers; between Wales and England. The conflict of loyalties that was evident and the discrimination it fuelled – particularly in the local schools – was an unwelcome reminder of my Northern Irish past.

I’ve recently moved back to Scotland and have no plans to move again. But since I last lived here there have been momentous political changes. Unlike England and Wales, Scotland voted to remain in Europe (as did Northern Ireland). The Brexit process has, accordingly, caused rancor between the Scottish and Westminster governments. Scottish independence – when I lived here first an eccentric minority stance – now looks increasingly probable. Issues of nationality and belonging have come to the surface as people struggle to decide whether they are British, Scottish, or European. Their loyalties and loathings have become more openly vociferous. There’s a sense of contested territory, opposing traditions and identities. Jagged fault lines are sundering society into increasingly adversarial groups. It’s almost enough to make me feel I’m eighteen and back in Belfast again.

This fragment of resumé, a quickly sketched autobiographical tracing of the main steps in the route by which I got to where I am today, is intended as a kind of personal prolegomenon to my musings about my allegiances as an essayist. What tribe or nation, if any, do my essays belong to? Does it make sense to link nationality with literature? Where do my literary loyalties lie? Of what country, tradition, set of values, ethnicity are my essays an expression or endorsement? What now defines my sense of home, of homeland? What nation do I consider mine; where do I belong? I suspect few, if any, of these questions would have arisen, at least not with any real insistence, if I’d been born and raised in some rural part of England – Shropshire, Devon, Cumbria – and remained there all my days. The trajectory my life has followed has taken me to places whose unsettledness has unsettled me; whose mongrel mix has made me suspicious of any claims to pureblood pedigree or allegiance to a single nation, faith, or tribe.

* * *

In one sense it might be thought entirely unproblematic to say that I’m an Irish essayist. This is certainly how I’m often presented and how, not infrequently, I present myself. I was, after all, born on the island of Ireland and spent my youth there. But there are many who would prefer to see Belfast as British, or failing that as Northern Irish; plain “Irish” falls like a discord on their ears. To many of my friends and family, “Irish” carries with it a note of betrayal – as if, by embracing it, I’ve changed sides. In any case, given that I’ve spent longer living in Scotland and Wales than I have in Ireland, does it make sense to shackle the country’s name to mine and to the writing that I do? A friend used to jokingly refer to my first book, Irish Nocturnes, as Welsh Preludes – given where I was living at the time of writing it. Joking apart, is there not as strong an argument for describing my essays as Scottish or Welsh as for insisting on their Irishness? It’s interesting that Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, has shown far more interest in my writing than The Irish Times. The Scotsman has carried positive reviews of all my books – together with a long feature article/interview (see:; The Irish Times, by comparison, has acted as if I don’t exist, with none of my books ever mentioned, let alone reviewed, in its pages. Or, looking beyond Ireland, Scotland and Wales, since I write in English and have been hugely influenced by the literature and language of that nation, why not just align myself with the English, or British, essay?

Thinking about the question of national identity, I’m reminded of a remark wrongly attributed to Irish-born Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, victorious commander at the Battle of Waterloo and great British national hero. His response to being called Irish was, supposedly, to retort that “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.” In fact this infamous disclaimer of Irish nationality was something said about Wellington by someone else; it was never uttered by the Duke himself. But turning the remark from the personal to the literary poses the interesting question of whether an author’s birthplace is enough to decide the citizenship of his or her books. 

How useful is it to think of there being different national traditions of essay writing? Are there sufficiently clear differences in substance, style, subject or structure between, say, American, English, French, Chinese and Australian essays to warrant making them sub-categories of the genre? Or are any demarcations between these purported types rooted simply in the language in which they’re composed and/or the geographical location of the essayist’s birth or present whereabouts, not in the nature of the writing itself?

It’s interesting to look at the coverage given to national traditions of essay writing in the main reference volume for the genre, the Encyclopedia of the Essay. Edited by Tracy Chevalier and published in 1997, this thousand-page tome has much to recommend it. It provides a multi-dimensional perspective on the form of writing it explores. But it’s a book that’s also in need of an updated edition given how much has happened in the world of the essay in the last twenty years. There are entries, by a range of contributors, on:

American Essay
Australian Essay
British Essay
Bulgarian Essay
Canadian Essay (English)
Canadian Essay (French)
Chinese Essay
French Essay
German Essay
Japanese Essay
Polish Essay
Portuguese Essay
Russian Essay
Scandinavian Essay
Spanish Essay
Spanish American Essay

To what extent are these discernibly different types of writing, as opposed to convenient categorizations by which the huge territory of the essay may be mapped via a series of encyclopedia entries? Suppose that sample essays from all these nationalities were translated into a single language and placed (without their authors’ names being revealed) in front of a reader. Could they be told apart immediately, parsed into their national groupings, simply because each country’s essays possess uniquely identifying literary plumage? Are they as readily distinguishable from one another as robins, woodpeckers and swans? Is it accurate to see them being as separate as different species, or are any differences between them more a case of character trait than bloodline? It’s worth remembering, I think, that species don’t interbreed and that one of the key characteristics of the essay, evident from Montaigne to the present, is an openness to outside influences – something seen most obviously in the inclination of essayists to quote from other sources.

* * *

There’s no entry for “Irish Essay” in the Encyclopedia. Given the Irish essayists who are given individual coverage, this seems a strange omission. There are eleven of them: Edmund Burke, Hubert Butler, Maria Edgeworth, John Eglinton (William Kirkpatrick Magee’s pseudonymn), Oliver Goldsmith, C.S. Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats. It’s interesting that C.S. Lewis – born in Belfast – is described as “British,” and that Richard Steele – born in Dublin – is described as “English.” It’s a literary irony I particularly enjoy that one of the great figures in the origin of the eighteenth century English periodical essay was an Irishman. The fact that Steele was Irish torpedoes below the waterline of credibility any simplistic ship of national identity in which we might want essays to set sail. 

As an aside – essays of course are full of them – Steele is a figure I’ve been meaning to write about since discovering that he spent his last years living in Carmarthen, a town in Wales close to where I used to live. Indeed I must have walked within feet of his body – unknowingly – many times. I only discovered that he’d been interred in St Peter’s Church in Carmarthen when a news story emerged in 2000 about the discovery of his head. This gruesome remnant was found in a Victorian lead casket, inscribed with Steele’s name, during renovation work at the church. Debt had forced him to leave London and seek refuge in Wales, where he owned a small estate inherited from his beloved wife, Prue. Apparently his remains were first uncovered during excavations in the 1870s – about a century and a half after Steele’s death – when the head was boxed and reburied. There is, I think, an essay (or several) waiting to be written in the circumstance of a living essayist walking repeatedly past the head of this eminent dead one. Such an essay – to continue the aside – would surely draw from Frances Larson’s fascinating book, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found (2014). It might also bring in Russell Sholto’s Descartes’ Bones (2008), intriguingly subtitled A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. The postmortem peregrinations of this great philosophical essayist’s skull make for interesting reading. I suspect that soon enough in this piece (perhaps simply entitled “Essayists’ Heads”) F.Gonzalez-Crussi’s elegant pathological essays might also receive a mention.

If the Encyclopedia of the Essay was being updated today and “Irish Essay” was one of its additions, who else might go in alongside the eleven Irish essayists already there? (Many of them, incidentally, as well as having their own individual entries, are given brief mention in Douglas Hesse’s entry for “British Essay” – the concluding section of which, intriguingly, almost as an afterthought, talks about “the British and Irish essay.”) Robert Lynd (1879-1949) is perhaps the most obvious omission from the Encyclopedia of the Essay’s first edition. He was a prolific essayist and an influential figure on the early twentieth century literary scene. It’s unfortunate he was overlooked. One hopes at least that his omission was due to simple oversight rather than being part of the partisan trend in Irish letters noted by John Wilson Foster in a recent issue of the Dublin Review of Books. According to Foster, Irish essayists have been marginalized and neglected because they’ve been perceived as “failing to contribute to cultural nationalism.” Thinking of philosophical essayists, Steele’s contemporary Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) would surely deserve an entry, if only because of the impact of his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709). A case might be argued for Flann O’Brien (one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan), in terms of the essayistic leanings of some of his journalistic output. John Stewart Collis (born in Dublin) has written books described by Robert Macfarlane as being “structured as a mosaic of tiny essaylets, riffs, visions, meditations and comic pieces,” so he should surely go in. Does novelist Joyce Cary’s posthumously published Selected Essays (1976) constitute a case for seeing him as an essayist too? Seamus Heaney’s prose is sometimes neglected because of his poetic stature, but the essays in Preoccupations (1980) – to name just one source of his essay writing – would surely warrant his inclusion. And Heaney isn’t the only Ulster poet to have written essays – Leontia Flynn, John Hewitt and Tom Paulin are three of several who might be considered under this heading. Others who might be mentioned in the “Irish essay” entry for an updated/revisioned Encyclopedia of the Essay include George Buchanan, Thomas Davis, Stephen Gwynn, Thomas Kettle, Robert Lloyd Praeger and Filson Young. And of course Yorkshire-born Tim Robinson’s work would demand extensive consideration. I like the fact that an Englishman – albeit long domiciled in Ireland – is at the forefront of essay writing in Ireland today. That constitutes a complementary torpedo to Steele’s (though fired in the opposite direction) in terms of sinking overly neat notions of Irish/English essay traditions. Whatever nationality it stems from, or is claimed for, Robinson’s writing deserves all the plaudits it has received.

* * *

Even from this kind of rapid preliminary sketch of possibilities, it’s clear that such a putative encyclopedia entry veers as much toward “essays written in Ireland,” or “essays written by Irish men and woman” as it does toward “Irish Essay.” This last title is suggestive of a literary type, but I’m not convinced that any such type exists as a truly distinctive form of literature. As for “the Irish essay” I become yet more suspicious when the definite article is added. Could such a thing be identified any more successfully than “the American essay” or “the French essay”? The title of his fine anthology notwithstanding, David Pollard’s The Chinese Essay (2000) is notable more for the sheer variety of writing it contains than for any unifying national characteristics. I strongly suspect that the same thing would be the case with The Russian Essay, The Nigerian Essay, The Swedish Essay – or whatever other nation one cared to nominate. In this kind of context, “the” suggests something singular, uniform, predictable, even normative – all of which are far from being characteristics of the essay. Remember Adorno’s perceptive observation, that “the law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy.” The (intelligently) heretical bent of this kind of writing inevitably challenges all of the conformities that national outlooks would impose on it.

There are several Oxford essay anthologies that select their contents by country. From The Oxford Book of American Essays in 1914 to the more recent (both 1997) The Oxford Book of Australian Essays and The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It’s easy enough to see the appeal of organizing an anthology along national lines. Not only does it provide a manageable territory but it identifies the whereabouts of likely readers. Imre Salusinszky, editor of the Australian volume, opens his Introduction by saying that “Although the Australian essay might not have attained the seriousness of its British, or the urbanity of its American, counterpart, for sheer democratic variety you cannot beat it.” How well-founded are these comparisons? One of the representatives chosen by Salusinszky to illustrate the “sheer democratic variety” of Australian essay writing is Pierre Ryckmans. Born in Belgium in 1935, Ryckmans only moved to Australia in 1971. I can understand any country wishing to claim this brilliant essayist’s work as its own – writing of such caliber adds kudos to a nation’s literary profile. But in what sense are Ryckmans’ essays really “Australian”? His The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011) – published under his nom de plume, Simon Leys – are mostly about China (Rykmans/Leys is a distinguished sinologist), English literature, the university and the sea. Whatever their national affiliation, these essays are as serious and as urbane as anything in the British or American repertoires that Salusinszky points to. 

Ilan Stavans, editor of the Latin American anthology, likewise emphasizes variety – talking about “the wide orbit of themes” touched on by his assembled essayists. He identifies the philosophers Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno as bringing the essay to the fore in the Iberian peninsula in the nineteenth century and that prior to this late beginning essayistic writing in the region was not much practiced. But he also makes the intriguing suggestion that a much earlier beginning might be seen in the letters Christopher Columbus wrote to his royal patrons (and in what he recorded in his diary):

In chronicling what he witnessed, Columbus…intertwined fiction and reality; thus he could be considered either the first magical realist novelist in the region or its first enchanting essayist.

It puts an interesting spin on literary history to think of a pre-Montaigne origin of essay writing in South America. But as with the Australian anthology, what is most striking about the Latin American one is not any particular national or ethnic flavor to the writing but its fluency, vigor, and sheer variety. In other words, the gathered pieces owe their first loyalty to the form, not to the nation.

* * *

Yet clearly an essayist’s provenance is not unimportant; it’s likely to influence their choice of topic, their range of reference, perhaps even the style in which they write. The particularities of place can, at least to some extent, be correlated to the particularities of prose written by the people who inhabit them. Though I’m wary of placing too much store on what “Irish” conveys when I say that I’m an Irish essayist – I’d prefer the emphasis to be placed on “essayist – it would be disingenuous to try to give the impression that what I write contains no national markers. 

My relationship to Ireland – and to the wider world beyond it – is something I’ve touched on in all of my books. I’m still not sure if I’ve got the measure of it, but some comments I made in Irish Nocturnes (1999) still hold good today. I suggested there that, on the one hand:

These nocturnes [i.e. essays] are rooted in the same parts of Ireland as I am. They took shape where I was born and grew up. Inevitably, they derive much of their tone and colour from the places, people and events that constitute my background. To the extent that writing has a voice, they speak with the same accent whose inflection and intonation mark every word I utter.

But on the other hand:

Though the Irish dimension does indeed provide a linking thread, under-running all the different themes with the same familial bloodline, the nocturnes [= essays] are the outcome of many intermarriages, brief encounters, unexpected alliances, which often take them far away from their ancestral roots. Kinship does not rule out distance, difference, or diversity, as I hope the pages that follow will illustrate. The ground covered in them, if it does not sound too grandiose, belongs to the human tribe, rather than to some little County Antrim clan, even if the universal issues are addressed in an Ulster accent; even if the points of departure are minutely local. 

Ten years later, along similar lines, I suggested in my fourth collection (Irish Elegies) that:

Although there’s a definite Irish tinge to all my writing, it would be fatuous to expect it to be the kind of clear unbroken color you might find on a flag. As an Ulsterman of uncertain loyalties, flags with all their divisive simplicities are not things I readily give my assent to. 

And in Reading Life – a new collection due out this year – I acknowledge that because “I was born in Belfast and grew up in Northern Ireland, at a particularly turbulent time in that small country’s history,” many of my essays will “bear distinctive Ulster markings – sometimes scars.” But, on the other hand, the fact that I left Ireland after my schooldays and that, in any case, “my reading had already taken me to distant destinations,” means that my essays also “swim far beyond any Irish waters.” Yes, among the books considered in Reading Life there are those by Irish writers (Flann O’Brien, Seamus Heaney), but it is not a collection of essays about Irish literature. English, French, Italian and German writing is also considered – and in any case the “reading” implied in the title is often meant not in the literal sense of reading books, but in the broader, metaphorical sense of reading the objects and events around us. (Another aside, but a briefer, parenthetical one: The fact that I frequently avoid the term “essay” in the early pages of my books but instead use “nocturne,” or press “haiku” or “elegy” into different use, stems from an awareness of how much negative baggage – particularly on my side of the Atlantic – the term “essay” still carries. It would be nice to think that there will come a time when such dissimulation will be rendered redundant and the essay will be given the same automatic recognition that poetry or novels enjoy as legitimate forms of imaginative writing.)

* * *

I’m always delighted when people read my essays – whether in Ireland or elsewhere – and one of the pleasures of publication is the feedback offered by readers from all around the world. I’ve also been pleased by the critical reception my books have received. But sometimes I’m left bemused by what reviewers think I’m doing. For instance, writing in Nordic Irish Studies – a journal published by the University of Aarhus – Irene Gilsenan Nordin observes:

While there are strong reminders of Heaney, especially with regard to the linking of moods with landscapes, Arthur stakes out his own personal space and reclaims the landscape for the Protestant sensibility, describing a terrain that is at times as immanent with a sense of the numinous and sacred as any Heaney landscape.

I certainly never set out to “reclaim the landscape for the Protestant sensibility.” Apart from anything else, by the time this review appeared I inclined more to Buddhism than the precepts of my native Presbyterianism. Nor, when I think about it, am I even sure what “the Protestant sensibility” would be. If I’ve succeeded in suggesting a sense of the numinous that’s on a par with what Heaney invests in his sense of place, I’m well satisfied, but I’d be uneasy to be cast in the role of spokesperson for Ulster’s Protestants. That said, I’m pleased if my writing challenges mistaken points of view. An unsigned piece in the Contemporary Review suggests that “not the least valuable effect of reading Arthur’s essays” is that “the reader will be given sympathy for a group that has so often been stereotyped in the modern media.” I know the tribe I was born into tends to emerge from media (mis)representations as dour, bigoted, humorless, intransigent and unimaginative. But challenging stereotype is one thing, acting as a religious or ethnic exemplar is quite something else.

In a review of Irish Nocturnes that appeared in the New Hibernia Review James Silas Rogers writes:

The author – an Ulster-born, Buddhist-influenced, Scottish-educated, former Irish game-warden-turned-essayist now living in Wales – must, on the strength of this collection alone, now be counted among the most innovative advocates of creative nonfiction in contemporary Irish writing, and certainly the one most committed to creating a distinctly Irish habitation for the essay.

It’s nice to have some of the main influences on my writing identified, and to be cast as an innovative advocate of creative nonfiction – even if I have strong reservations about foisting this unhappy title on the essay. But whilst I’d be keen to see more interest in reading and writing essays fostered in Ireland, I’m not at all sure I know what it would mean to create “a distinctly Irish habitation for the essay.” I’m committed to writing essays as well as I’m able; I’m not committed to – indeed would be suspicious of – any effort to make that writing follow national contours.

Given the competing mix of tribal loyalties I’ve experienced in the places where I’ve lived, and the way in which strident nationalisms so often go hand-in-hand with discrimination, intolerance and bigotry, I’m wary of giving my allegiance to any grouping of the sort that clusters smugly beneath some flag which is then waved with provocative fervor in the faces of others. In a world in which the boundaries of nation, family, class, religion, culture have been rendered increasingly permeable to distant and diverse influences, retreating to some supposedly impermeable national enclave and insisting on its singular superiority seems at best an impoverished response. Certainly when it comes to literature, should we not simply give our loyalty to the best there is, rather than caring where it comes from? If we don’t do that it would be perilously easy to drift into the insularity and parochialism of those varieties of chauvinistic nationalism that insist the school curriculum should be governed by the language and the literature of just one country. As Salman Rushdie puts it – in Imaginary Homelands (1991) – “we are inescapably international writers at a time when the novel has never been a more international form.” Is it any different for the essay? Rushdie continues: 

a writer like Borges speaks of the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson on his work; Heinrich Böll acknowledges the influence of Irish literature; cross pollination is everywhere.

Such cross pollination has surely always been an important feature of the essay – consider Montaigne’s range of reference; consider how he stresses the importance (in Of the Education of Children) of learning about other countries so that we can “rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.”

I hope my essays will be judged not on the basis of my ethnic identity, but on their quality as pieces of imaginative writing. My loyalties as an author, such as they are, lie more with a genre than with any country. I may no longer feel at home in the world in terms of a place that I can call my own, a nation to which I could give unqualified allegiance, but I do feel at home in the territory of the essay. Citizenship of that territory is not determined by the accident of birth, or by religion, language, or ethnicity, but by a simple test of disposition. This is well summed up by one of the key modern authorities on the form, Graham Good:

Anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Irish, British, American, Chinese, French, Kenyan or Peruvian; it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Protestant, Hindu, Jew, or atheist; it doesn’t matter if you write in English, Cantonese, Arabic or Polish; your age, gender, color, sexuality is irrelevant – the essay’s criteria of belonging are the same for everyone. The fact that an essayist’s lookings, thinkings and writings will, inevitably, carry the fingerprints of their individuality and provenance adds interest and variety, but this is an entirely secondary and far from defining matter.

I know this allegiance to a genre rather than a homeland may sound unpatriotic. But consider the diagnosis of a nation given by one of our best medical essayists, Lewis Thomas. In The Lives of a Cell (1974) he warns that “For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation.” Would we really wish to pledge our fealty to such an entity? Nations, Thomas continues, “survive by detestation” and “live for the death of others.” Are such stances deserving of our loyalty? However these questions are answered, essays stem from and are addressed to individuals not nations. “At the heart of the essay,” as Graham Good puts it, “is the voice of the individual.” If that individual voice speaks only after looking attentively, thinking freely and writing clearly, what it says will, hopefully, act as a humane counterweight to the bullying rhetoric that nations too often favor. A final thought: since it is ideas, not merely territory, that underlie a sense of national identity, are attentive looking, free thinking, and clear writing not precisely the kind of qualities that are closely aligned with the core ideas – the ideals – of democracy? Perhaps, in the end, essay writing is more politically, less nationally, attuned than many might imagine.

Chris Arthur is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. His essay collections are: Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, Words of the Grey Wind, and On the Shoreline of Knowledge. Reading Life will be published later this year. Hummingbirds Between the Pages will appear in 2018 in Ohio State University Press’s “21st Century Essays” series edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden. More information about Chris and his writing can be found here:

Craig Reinbold was the managing editor of Essay Daily from 2013-2016 and co-edited How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

Other installments in this series include:

Toni Nealie on migration and cultural echoes