Monday, February 27, 2017

V. V. Ganeshananthan: On Essays, Assays, and Yiyun Li’s “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life”

Excerpted from How We Speak to One Another, an Essay Daily anthology of essayists in conversation.

I am guilty of what many people would consider excessive rereading. The most cherished books of my childhood remain among the most cherished books of my adulthood; if a story resonates with me, I will seek out its best sections over and over again. Those pages will become thumb-worn, and I will intentionally let the binding break there so that, eventually, I will find those preferred places more quickly. But even with all these habits and customs designed to keep my most precious words close at hand, there is an essay I have returned to so frequently that some time ago, even its presence on paper ceased to satisfy me. How to carry it with me, then? An odd solution—I took a picture of one of its passages. Now I keep it on my phone so that I can read it whenever the urge seizes me. There it is in my library of photographs: I can flick my finger to turn from
a picture of my parents to
a picture of my brother to
a picture of friends—to
a picture of children I know,
to a picture of a landscape I admired,
to a picture of a parking space I was trying to remember
—to pictures of some parts of my past I would rather forget.
Unlike all the other pictures, the one of the essay exists unmarked by time or place. It isn’t located anywhere, exactly, but on the page and in my head; I don’t remember the second that I took it, but every time I turn to that picture to reread, I reenact it anyway. I carry it with me as a talisman not of protection, but of uncertainty. Stripped not only of its page numbers but also of the name of the friend who wrote it and its title, it articulates both a question and a terrifying possible answer to that question—an answer that points to my own choices as someone whose two obsessions are the past and guilt over obsessing over the past.

Of course this is the picture from my phone. The essay from which it is taken, Yiyun Li’s “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” first appeared in A Public Space and then later in Best American Essays 2014. (Now it appears as the opening chapter of Li's first nonfiction book.) It is impossible to ever finish reading. This year, I assigned the piece to my students. (I should add, by way of disclosure, that I am friends with Li, although I have never spoken to her about the piece.)

I tend to look at the picture in between destinations, appropriately enough; it is about everything and nothing and therefore perfect reading for traveling. Because I have moved so often, it sometimes occurs to me that this is all I have done—traveling: leaving one place and arriving at the next just in time to plan leaving it. (No wonder I find myself at home with, among others, Calvino.) As a writer, and perhaps especially as an essayist, I am simultaneously bound and freed by questions of the past; I am often writing about an experience I wish had gone differently. I am attempting to reconcile myself to what has happened, although really, I would prefer not to; I want something else—I am a train for which the engine is regret. I want to honor the past as I destroy it. Is it possible for me to be otherwise? I am always wondering what I could have done differently, or what I am, in the present moment, doing wrong. Is it useful to ask these questions as each second falls away behind me, impossible to unravel? And if not—must I only ask questions that are useful? What if this emptiness is what keeps me carrying on? What if, as a writer, I am made of my warring obsessions? The past, and its mirror-hall of endlessly reflected regret?

This particular essay reinforces these ideas, and yet, although it is a talisman of uncertainty, that is comforting rather than disturbing. Unlike most other things I read, which give me the sensation of reading (albeit closely) about someone else, this essay gives me the sensation of reading about myself. This used to be a feeling I could get only from writing, and not from reading; reading was about entering other people’s pasts, other stories. I never saw myself on the page. But Yiyun’s consciousness opens to me in such a way that I discover something new about myself every time I read this essay; I am able to ask myself another question, and also forgive myself for my past a little bit more. What I want is this: to say, the past is not my fault. Yiyun’s essay ventures something better: it may be my fault, and that’s acceptable.

I can remember a time when I read not to reconcile myself to the past, but to discover the future. I am not quite sure when I crossed the line from one kind of reading to the other.


“Dear Friend” is an unusual essay, eliding easy questions of theme and form, and offering among its gifts openness, intensity, and that capacious consciousness. In reading I get the sensation of entering a bare, open, beautiful room—being unable to see the walls—having no desire to leave. This is all the more remarkable considering its spare, decisive structure: twenty-four comparatively short, numbered parts. Of these, it is that nineteenth that makes me feel the most.

At first, I thought that the essay was about being existentially troubled, and then I thought that it was about unhappiness, and then I realized that it had announced itself as being about time: before and after and in between. But for me, existential woe and unhappiness and time are tied up in one another, and of course with writing, and probably with essays themselves. What I want out of an essay is, perhaps, not original: When I teach essay writing, I ask my students to think about the central questions driving each essay. What is the subject? What is it that the writer hopes to learn by writing about this subject? How does the writer arrive at an answer? It isn’t interesting for me to begin an essay (at least, a personal one) by asking a question to which I already know the answer; if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t have to write it.

But this approach also presumes that knowing will be possible. The modern world, with its urges toward mindfulness, often invites us to be in the present moment, and I have to admit that my skepticism of this may have been rooted in one suggestion that sometimes underpins that one: that being engaged in the present moment means that we will know ourselves better and therefore be happier. “Dear Friend,” on the other hand, with its unapologetic depiction of ostensibly contradictory feelings and ambitions and thoughts, gives me a strange kind of permission to fail to understand my own inconsistencies, and to be both interested and unhappy in the present. It opens the door to uncertainty. I am grateful for this, engaged as I sometimes am in a flat daily performance of happiness. That performance is often a strange counterpoint to my changeable, contradictory interior. “The present does not surrender so easily to manipulation,” Yiyun writes in the third section of this essay. She defines the present as truer, then—but not necessarily happier. I am not sure, and the essay is a space in which that uncertainty is fine. One does not always arrive at knowing.

Yiyun does not write as though she is able to answer the questions she has raised about time. In an interview with Iron Horse Review, Yiyun herself points to the sixteenth section of the essay, in which she writes,
I had this notion, when I first started it, that this essay would be a way to test—to assay—thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.

Assays in science are part of an endless exploration: one question leads to another; what follows confirms or disconfirms what comes before. To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile: just as one is about to understand one facet of time, it presents another to undermine one’s reasoning.

To write about a struggle amidst the struggling: one must hope that this muddling will end someday.
Is there a silent but at the beginning of that second paragraph? At any rate, the central question need not be answered; this essay may be a good enough reason for me to stop saying that in my classroom. A question may just lead to another question.
What a long way it is from one life to another: yet why write if not for that distance; if things can be let go, every before replaced by an after. . . . the train, for reasons unknown to us, always stops between a past and a future, both making this now look as though it is nowhere. But it is this nowhere-ness that one has to make use of. . . . One has made it this far; perhaps this is enough of a reason to journey on.
The essay is, among other things, a manifesto for writing—but she does not stop at an after, or an answer; she stops on an if without any apology for how nowhere if can be. A picture on a phone leads from this passage to a photograph, to another photograph, with no definitive end in sight.


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 Granta, Ploughshares, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Will Slattery: On Memorials

I fear I may here reveal myself as a uselessly young essayist, as the sort of person in possession of a great number of words but rather little wisdom. Still, I will make my case: it is sometime in one’s mid-twenties that the full weight of untimely deaths makes itself truly felt. This is not to say that such deaths are a novelty. One always knows, usually from a very young age, that not every death presents itself as a narrative act, as the culmination of some arc. One knows, quite simply, that these sorts of things happen, and that is that. But what changes is just the sheer regularity of it. One gets habituated to the rate at which these little skyborne darts of loss fall down, striking without particular rhyme or reason. Looking at my own life over the past few years I see, amongst others, the motorcycle accident, the brain aneurysm, the other brain aneurysm, the unspecified natural causes, and most recently an acquaintance who, quite stupidly, auto-erotically asphyxiated himself to death this past December. Given that I am a white dude living in the 21st Century, this catalog is relatively small and mostly mundane; I’m fairly well insulated from historical traumas and most forms of structural violence. Still, despite the ordinariness of it all, these deaths—these little sudden disappearances—have lingered with me in a way that most that events don’t. I’m not grieving them exactly, though each was undoubtedly a case for sadness. But after each my life resumed its normal pace quickly enough, sometimes with no real interruption beyond rumination.

And yet still I find my mind, and by extension my essays, returning to them again and again. What transfixes me so is, I think, the question of what precisely remains in death. There are emotions to be processed, families to be consoled, arrangements to be made, and yes, ultimately, graves and bodies which will persist in a literal manner. But I am never quite certain what to do—or even what could be done—with memory, both individual and collective.

At the opposite end of a human life from where I now reside, Roger Ebert (who is somewhat under discussed as an essayist, I think largely because he mostly confined his work to the format of reviews until he began blogging in the last act of his career) took a stab at dealing with the question of memory only about a year before he died. While viewing a slideshow of old family photos at a relative’s funeral he found himself confronted with a stark reminder of human impermanence. Ebert, who had at this point lost his ability to speak due to illness, realized that he was then the last human being able to identify the peripheral figures in the old photos, the ones the younger funeral attendees knew were dead relatives somehow, but couldn’t quite place. His unvoiced memories formed the very last bulwark shoring up whatever remained of those departed souls, and once he was gone—what then? An existence confined to census records, for as long as those might last? Like Ebert, I find myself continually turning round again to the question of what persists, and what remains.

These questions take on a different dimension, I know, for those who believe in an afterlife. There is elevation, or resurrection, or damnation, or transmigration, or purgation, or reincarnation, all of which provide some sort of answer. I am not one of those who believe in an afterlife, though I had the distinctive (mis)fortune of being born and raised Catholic, which is an indirect way of saying that I come from quite morbid stock. Taking into account ordinary Sundays, Holy Days of Obligation, and the odd extra service, in the first 20 years of my life I witnessed somewhere around 1000 times what they call the sacrifice of the Mass, the process by which Catholics ostensibly receive and consume the literal body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus the Nazarene. The Mass is a participatory testament to the death and resurrection of a god and (depending on where your metaphysical loyalties lie) it can be understood as a memorial that will continue either until the eschaton itself or until every Catholic in the world has perished. Given the stakes that were driven into my mind as a child, is it any wonder that I should find myself so skewered by questions of death and history?


He was a good person, and I am better for having known him, but it would be dishonest of me to say that I was especially close to my acquaintance who passed from auto-erotic asphyxiation this past December. We were very close once, when our lives aligned tightly for about 6 months, but our friendship gradually attenuated, largely due to the fact that we lived permanently on different continents. We settled into a comfortable pattern where we spoke once every three or four months, and slightly less than that the past few years. I suspect that if he had not died we would have quietly drifted out of each other’s lives, each becoming eventually the sort of person you think about once or twice a decade but no longer know how to get in touch with. But no: his death happened, and now I suspect I will bear him with me for a very long time.

The death of my acquaintance by auto-erotic asphyxiation was a shock to those who knew him, though not for the reasons one might expect. In all spheres of life he fashioned himself as something of a sexual bon vivant. It was no secret to any who knew him that he had a great deal of sex in a wide array of modes, that he would try more or less anything once, that he viewed sex as a canvas for any and all possibly pleasing sensations. And he made his erotic dimensions as literally visible as possible, in that he spent a huge amount of his free time producing amateur erotica for the benefit of, more or less, the entire internet. This was, again, no secret at all, and he felt no need to hide it from his friends and family because he did not feel that his homemade pornography was the sort of thing that should be hidden. He could have made a modest living from his erotic work, as many people do (usually on live webcam sites), but he had zero interest in monetizing his experiences, and distributed his pics and vids for free across a number of platforms. Nor was his work purely a self-gratifying vehicle for his own exhibitionism—though he was, undoubtedly, an exhibitionist of some sort. He enjoyed showing off, but he also treated his own sexual capacity as a sort of public good: if the sight of his dick or his ass or the curves of his arms or his whatever might give a moment of happiness to some far-flung viewer, so be it, for the human world needs as many moments of happiness as it can get. As with the rest of his being, his erotic life was consistently joyful, transparent, unashamed, expansive, optimistic, magnanimous even, often to the mild embarrassment of his boyfriend, who blushingly agreed with these values in principle but often approached their enactment in a somewhat more halting fashion.

His passing then was no sordid revelation of a hidden life. Rather, the shock came from the feeling that he, of all people should have known better than this. Even amongst the boldest of the world’s sex-positive explorers, those who navigate the obscurest regions of the sexual imaginary, it is a cardinal rule that one should never tie things around one’s neck while alone, for the obvious reason that one may not be able to get it off in case of emergency. My acquaintance knew this. He knew this very, very well. At one point he wrote and distributed to his local kinkster community a guide warning about this very possibility, imploring them that no matter how fascinating they might find asphyxiation, they should never try it alone. And yet this is how he passed—bound alone in his apartment, where he would be found some hours later by his boyfriend, who faced at the same time the gutting tragedy of this loss and the alienating indignity of explaining all this to the confused, suspicious police while under a 6-hour detainment.

As the eroding streams of time and forgetfulness wear away at those who once knew him, the memory of my acquaintance who died by auto-erotic asphyxiation may be outlived by the digital monument his internet erotica forms, and he may someday exist only in a vintage collection or an artsy porno remix, leaving the world with a record of his smiling face and smooth flesh but nothing else of his person. This is, I suppose, a very different sort of memorial, a new way of giving one’s body for others to eat and drink.


Now is as good a moment as any, I suppose, for the requisite metatextual interlude (and what is Essay Daily a home for, really, if not metatextual interludes?), if you will permit me a few such moments in this otherwise overbearingly bleak essay. This essay is now three or four times over last-minute delayed, and its most recent such delay was the source of an editorial lacuna in January that Ander seized on to talk about David LeGault’s forthcoming collection (you should read that piece, and read the collection too when it comes out). It’s good that such a delay became a space for Ander’s midnight oil creativity. And this essay is likely better off for it too, in that between then and now I purged from it a tiresome 1800-word tangent about Venetian monuments and reliquaries.

But the reason this essay comes to you so late is simple: dear readers, it turns out that it is damn near to impossible to write about somebody with a strong internet presence (i.e., his social media and his erotic work, which are easily connected) who died in a very specific way (i.e, the auto-erotic asphyxiation) without making them quickly Google-able. After repeated testing I discovered that even slight, seemingly minor details about an unnamed person can give enough of a portrait for a dedicated internet sleuth to work with, and this essay had to be repeatedly pushed back and re-drafted simply because I continually failed to recognize those details until the last minute.

My writing is reflexively, even neurotically open about the private stuff of my own life. One could easily reconstruct about 90% of my intimacies just from essays attributed to me online. But as for rendering my acquaintance so visible—and visible in so singular a way? To make his life a possible internet search result? And to risk leaving space for interloping essayistic voyeurs to potentially worm their way into his boyfriend’s psychic wounds? This I could not do. I considered employing D’Agata-esque elisions or falsifications to throw the scent off and lead any would-be internet stalkers down a false path, but given that the memorial, as a form, makes a bulwark against emptiness, it seemed deeply perverse to employ such trickery here.

Craig Reinbold, my editorial predecessor here at Essay Daily, hit a somewhat similar ethical stumbling block this past winter, and he took that as an opportunity to write about stumbling blocks themselves instead. The constitutional difference in character this reveals, I suppose, between the two generations of Essay Daily management, is that when Craig is presented with a potentially bad idea he works efficiently around it, whereas I instead throw myself repeatedly at the idea until something in one or the other gives way. The above account of my acquaintance who died from auto-erotic asphyxiation should, I hope, finally be enough to give a sense of him without committing a moral offense as to the privacy of his boyfriend and family.

But besides my fears that I may have rendered my acquaintance visible to pernicious Google stalkers a perhaps greater fear is that I have not sufficiently rendered him in more important dimensions—that I have not arranged my experience of this young man’s life in such a way that it illuminates anything about our human condition, that I may have become mired in the familiar failures of human particularity which plague essayists: excessive subjectivity, over-determination, forgetfulness, retrospective selectivity, imposition. The essay after all, if nothing else, is a human vehicle for the making of sense. The essay is how we make meaning from the patterns of the atoms as they fall on the mind and how we sketch out the contours of Woolf’s semitransparent envelope. But what meaning do we get from writing an essay as memorial? How are we to arrange the murky substrata a life leaves behind? And who does this arrangement serve?

The portrait of my acquaintance I’ve drawn reveals only a tiny sliver of his life, and it’s possible that my effort simply isn’t broad enough to give a sense of who he was. I may also have carelessly lionized his sexual quirks, twisting his erotic visage into some faux-heroic sentimental tableaux, and in so doing attempted to wring out more meaning than his proclivities ever contained. It’s also possible that I’ve failed to treat the manner of his death with the sensitivity and subtlety it deserves. I wanted to avoid turning his death into a spectacle, accidentally making him an exhibition in a zoo of kinky homosexual wonders for the viewing pleasure and potential moral edification of a mostly straight audience. Despite my best humanizing efforts, I may have already here turned him into a gaudy allegoric chimera—half David Carradine (lost to us in so fleshy and lurid and stupid a way) and half Matthew Shepard (so young, so sweet, so fair, so gay, so tragically taken from us so soon)—for some kind of medieval morality pageant in the minds of my readers today.


A simpler version of the essay I am trying to write here might go something like this:
I’m sorry, pal. You deserved a better end than the one you brought down upon yourself. And you certainly deserve a better memorialist than me. But this is the world we have, and I’m not sure what else to do, so I’m going to keep at it.

When I think about the difficulty—maybe the impossibility—of the memorial as a form I think inevitably of Anne Carson’s Nox, a hybrid text which collages translations, visual art, photographs, found documents, and essayistic fragments to serve as an art-book epitaph for the author’s departed brother. The book opens with a blurry facsimile of a Latin poem (one Catullus wrote as a eulogy for his brother, we will later learn), followed by a lexical entry for the Latin adjective multas, and then this brutally melancholic pronouncement:
I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expend on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history. So I began to think about history.
Carson and her brother were not close. He fled the country in 1978 to avoid criminal investigation, lived under an assumed name in Europe, and passed away in 2000. During that time they exchanged a handful of letters and spoke on the phone 5 times. Nox is a working through of her own memorial process, and it locates the act of memorialization—the method by which we reconstitute the absent, the process by which we articulate that which has gone mute—as a sort of interpretive gesture by triangulating it in reference to the disciplines of translation and history. “History and elegy are akin”, Carson tells us, in that they both constitute a form of asking, and she traces out this process of uncertain inquiry by juxtaposing biographical fragments involving her brother, an ongoing struggle to translate Catullus’ poem, and a running commentary on the difficulties of Herodotus’ historiographical methodologies.

The trouble lies in this: “we want other people to have a centre, a history, an account that makes sense. We want to be able to say This is what he did and Here’s why. It forms a lock against oblivion.” But this is never how history, or translation, or the reconstitution of a person works, and this sort of investigating “often produces no clear or helpful account.” Carson doesn’t think that this is because of a failure to excavate information, but because of a difficulty that inheres to subjects themselves. In a deliberately uncertain, slippery account of the historian’s practice she puts it thus:
History can be at once both concrete and indecipherable. Historian can be a storydog that roams around Asia Minor collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide. Note that the word “mute” (from Latin mututs and Greek myein) is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.
The historian can collect data, accounts, explanations, investigations, corroborations, testimonies, and all other manners of evidence, but no accumulation of acts or words can provide a definitive certainty. And this “fundamental opacity of human being” continually resists Carson in her efforts to work out both the interpretive problem of her brother and of the Catullus translation. The problem is “solved”, so to speak, not by resolving it but by reconciling to it:
But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end. Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.
Carson laconically notes that “when Herodotus has got as far as he can go in explaining an historical event or situation”—when the accounts reported are at their murkiest, when human experiences push back against arrangement, when a thing seems most untranslatable—the Father of History will conclude with a remark like this: “So much for what is said by the Egyptians: let anyone who find such things credible make use of them.”

That is something to hope for, I think. That while our memorials may never be certain, comprehensive, authoritative, sweeping, definitive, canonical, revelatory that they may still, in their smallness, be of use to someone, somehow.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rebecca McClanahan's Selected List of Literary Gear Shift Moves

In her talk on Imagination and the Essay at AWP 2017, Rebecca McClanahan mentioned that she has a list of 72 (as I wrote it down) moves in creative nonfiction. After, in the audience Q&A, someone had asked to see that list. We thought that our readers too would appreciate that list, so asked for it, and she offers it here, with a note that it's a living document. Writers and students of writing may also want to consult Matthew Salesses' "57+ Moves in Contemporary Flash Fiction" and Mike Young & Elisa Gabbert's "Moves in Contemporary Poetry."


Selected List of Literary Gear Shift Moves

Created by Rebecca McClanahan

. . . narrate, describe, record, persuade, quote, document, ask a question, argue, inform, make a scene, weave, collide, list, sidewind, sidestep, skip a step, inventory, time travel, tell a tale within a tale, interview, meditate, speculate, ruminate, intrude, interrupt, deconstruct, reconstruct, reveal, talk back to an earlier self, talk back to your present self, interrogate, extrapolate, characterize, generalize, theorize, contextualize, summarize, rhapsodize, dramatize, imagine, rant, echo a word or phrase or sentence, use camera or editing moves (pull back for big view, zoom in for close-up, dissolve, cut, stop action, splice together, split screen, reverse, flip image, colorize, speed up or slow down, replay), employ negative space (What lies outside the frame of the subject? What is being omitted? What didn’t happen? What might have, should have, would have if only…), expand, shrink down, rewrite history, say it again in a different voice or a different rhythm, rewrite same scene in a different way, get inside characters’ thoughts, flesh out the bones, remove the bones so we see only the skeleton of the subject, don a mask, remove the mask you have worn, create or discover metaphor, mix a metaphor, switch pronouns (I, you, she, we, etc.), switch tenses, change tone, change audience, rewrite sentences in a different musical key (open vs. closed syllables, etc.), change rhythm of sentences, return to earlier statement and overturn it, create a visual disturbance on the page, mute one or more senses to create a description employing the remaining senses, start the piece over several times until you exhaust your original intent and find a more complex one…

Monday, February 13, 2017

Int'l Essayists: Toni Nealie on migration and cultural echoes

My Country, My Land

Before I could consider myself an American resident writer, I swam in an alphabet of visas and titles, alien, then alien on advance parole, then resident alien—such is the language of borders. To enter the country is an essai, a trial, an attempt to make sense. How does one understand the lexicon of immigration? Forms like traffic lights, amber, green. Which port did you leave? Which port do you drift toward? Boxes interrogating ethnicity and race don’t conform to a shimmering view of self. The ephemeral I wants to escape like smoke. Unfixed, impermanent, sliding under the doors of transit lounges and out across the clouds, the oceans, the air. Forms ask about nationality, but somewhere across dateline, across years, across skies, across borders, my nationhood blurred. Different-same.

In this time of bans, being an International writer means I struggle to write a narrative. My thinking is scattershot, my process in shards. In this time of bans written by executive order, not-bans, may-be-extended-bans, revoked-bans, watch-this-space-bans, I check the writing on my United States green card. Expiry date, 2023. Permanent resident since 2007. Below a gold-stamped eagle’s head, adjacent to images of the Lincoln Memorial and Lady Liberty’s Gallic gaze, I stare out at an immigration official, one anxious eye slightly wider than the other, my lips turned down tightly. It’s a replacement card for the first one, that took me six jagged years to secure after 9/11. In contrast, in my Uruwhenua Aotearoa/New Zealand Passport, my eyes smile at my photographer husband, my lips turn up. Inside its black and silver cover, the pages are decorated with sea birds and whales, colonial sailing ships and native canoes, navigators and travelers. The sky changes color from dawn to twilight, the Southern Cross gliding right to left as you flip the pages. This passport contains biometric data in a chip—hidden aspects of fingerprints and eyes, yet so little of me. Many visas and stamps patchwork my old documents, but this new one is pristine. The privilege accompanying this passport is fluke—the luck of geography and birth, of colonial ties and alliances. Under my country’s crest, in the name of the Queen of Great Britain, a request is made “to allow the holder to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful assistance and protection.” I have been granted safe passage in twenty countries, lived in three, worked in four—Aotearoa New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Singapore, the United States.

After arriving in the United States in 2001, I developed a fear of scrutiny, of the rules changing, of being separated from my loved ones. It springs from multiple airport inspections, the wand sliding up my legs, across my chest, under my sweating armpit. It arises because it took me years longer than my husband and children to achieve residency. My mother in New Zealand worries, angst leftover from her Indian-born father, who was tripped up by the white immigration movement of the early 1900s. When I planned to visit Pakistan my mother worried that my emails might be scrutinized, that the C.I.A was keeping tabs on visitors, that my re-entry to the U.S might be impeded. I laughed at her paranoia. “This is the United States, not a banana republic,” I told her.


“Where do you live?” I was asked while shopping last holiday season. “A few blocks east,” I replied. “But where are you from?” Every day I was asked, once, sometimes twice in a day by storekeepers and customers in the small town on the border of Chicago where I reside. Accustomed to the question—I get it less than I used to—I was surprised by its frequency in December. Each time I answered cheerfully, “I’m originally from New Zealand, but I’ve lived here fifteen years.” “But where are you really from?” was the follow-up. The day before Christmas, in a pop-up store, in a hurry, I felt disinclined to engage. The storekeeper, a woman with sharp eyes and a tight mouth, was not satisfied with “A few blocks east.” She persisted. I repeated, “A few blocks east.” “Oh, it’s a secret, is it?” she hissed. “I just wanted some socks,” I replied, as I shot out the door. When I’m with writers, they usually ask: “What are you working on?” not “where are you from?”


Nation—an idea I carry inside of me, a nesting doll set. Here, in the outer layer: Red cardinals in the viburnum. Red oaks and elms. Victorian and Prairie houses. Stars and Stripes fluttering two hundred yards from my kitchen window. There, in the inner layer: a volcanic cone looming over Waitemata Harbor in a squall. Little blue penguins inching from holiday house to inlet. Mother sitting in her rose-patterned chair drinking Lady Grey tea and nibbling on ginger slice. A snow peak viewed from a childhood garden. Sheep. The clacking song of the tui bird sucking at flax blooms. Snippets of chants, poems and stories and gossip drifting on to the page, unbidden, even though I have lived away for years. 

International can mean inter-national. If a homeland is “officially” bicultural, it can be bifurcated, two countries bundled together, yet kept apart between tribal gathering places, marae, and post-colonial cities. My Māori friends’ parents recall hands slapped in school, forbidden to speak the language of the tangata whenua, people of the land, the host culture. Ancestral stories and spiritual genealogies, absent without leave, were written and stacked in the myths and legends shelves of libraries when I was young. They were told and retold on marae, meeting places, until they breathed again in classrooms, in ceremonies, on television, on carvings in public places. 

As Pākehā, non-Māori, these stories have run in my bloodstream for only a few generations. They are part of the culture I was raised in, but they do not form my foundation, as recited genealogy does for Māori, who know all life is connected, created from Papatūānuku and Ranganui, earth mother and sky father. 

I was born under a mountain, Taranaki. Story has it that Taranaki used to live in the center of the island, with Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. He stormed off alone to the west coast when fleeing from a love triangle. My husband, who was born on the other side of the mountain, was told that Taranaki perpetually looked back over his shoulder, through a mist of tears. 


An international migrant may write of exile, of fleeing from or running toward. They may describe themselves as nomad, water lily drifting, rooted in water not land, a ball hurled high in the air, or, as I have, seedling, mangrove, pōhutukawa clinging to crevice. It is difficult to not look back, to draw on the once and always familiar. Sometimes memories trap the writer in nostalgia, a desperation to cling to the sustenance of home. The essay becomes a shell from which to explore identity and place, a protective carapace to poke one’s head from while questioning heritage and new environment. It is a suitable form to seek power and voice, to explore identity, question authority and subvert the status quo. I can ponder and interrogate, meander and digress, knowing that I have the space to change my mind or allow for nuance. I like that the essay isn't binary, it doesn't force the writer or the reader into a position or a singular way of being. It allows for my plurality.

I find myself listening closely to sounds and rhythms to find a way forward. I reach towards oratory from “home,” as a guide to the communal, the global, the body politic, our ecosystem. My earliest specific essay influences came from countries not my own. The first I remember were by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (I wrote a speech at high school based on Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception"). Then American essayists including Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis shaped my views on race, gender and power. The first local essays I registered were by New Zealand women writing for the feminist magazine Broadsheet. That included a pivotal essay by Māori writer Donna Awatere, called “Māori Sovereignty”— probably the first essay that made me question my world view. 

New Zealand lacks a tradition of reflective essays, although there exists reportage, anecdote, memoir, narrative nonfiction. Prose poetry and cross genre pieces are emerging. 

The closest I’ve come to experiencing “essai”—in the fullness of prose that expands and magnifies, digresses, and sometimes lyric—is in oral form. It is found in the wharenui or meeting houses, on marae, which are traditional Māori tribal gathering places or contemporary urban spaces open to all. Any manuhiri, guest, is first welcomed on the marae grounds in a ritual consisting of challenge, tribute to the dead, and mihi, welcome, that includes a poetic chant, a eulogy to the ancestors, a greeting to the living, followed by a song and formal reply from the guests. Inside the meeting house, discussions and disputes (perhaps about legislation, land use, other community concerns) are amalgamated with traditional stories, aphorisms, songs, riddles, responses, echoes from ancestors, in a blend of contemporary, historical, ancient and imagined. In Māori, the rhythms, open vowels and allusions speak of ancestors and the natural world—waves, waterfalls, birds flying, fish, light on water, and stars. 


Constellations change when you slip hemispheres. Te Punga, anchor, also known as Southern Cross, stayed south, but Te Marama, Moon, traveled with me. Looking into the garden from my night bed in New Zealand, I would watch the spring moon rise over the hill, sliding silver streaks across the camellia blooms. My husband buried the placenta, whenua, of our second-born son under that tree. Whenua, as written in my passport, also means my country, my land. The same silent bluish light washed the bed where our first child was born. We told our boy that he was brought to us on those moonbeams. 

In the first years of living in the United States, I woke nightly, watching the quadrilateral of stripes cast through the blinds, wondering if it was the same light that visited my homeland on the other side of a dateline, seventeen hours earlier. In my midnight aloneness, I fought tightening throat and temple and chest and fist. The words that bubbled my drowsy mind were from the ancient Māori tale of emergence, in which the world comes into being from Te Kore, the dimension beyond light and dark. The chant charts the changes from Te Pō to Te Ao, dark to light—from nothingness, to the void to nights great, long, deep, intense, dark, where nothing is seen, the darkest dark. Then the beginning of feeling, of restlessness, of turning, to the glimmer of dawn, until finally, Ki Te Ao Mārama, the light of day. Unbidden, the sound of the words comforted me. I was reassured of my connectedness, by knowing that darkness was unchanged, the light of the moon had followed me. Same-same.

Here on my desk in Illinois, a starfish floats in a drawing my son made in our homeland when he was six. Brown and black crayon lines imitate tapa cloth, siapo, Samoan bark cloth beaten and rubbed or imprinted with dyes. Amid the lines—nets for catching turtles or the pattern on a coconut leaf—he drew fa'a'ali'ao, trochus shell; fa'a'aveau, starfish; and something that looks like an upside-down sheep, but is probably a pandanus flower. The symbols are a visual language of the Pacific, passed from family to family, taken to Aotearoa New Zealand during the migrations of the 1950s, and into the language of elementary school children. Now, in a Virginia research facility, my freshly adult son writes the language of neuroscience, deciphering the conversation of one neuron to another. Different-same.

Then, on my Auckland dining table, words : Mercury Energy Bill, New Zealand Herald, card from my mother: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face.”

Now, here, in the United States, on a different table: Com-ed bill, New York Times, card from my mother: “Family ties are precious threads, no matter where we roam. They draw us close to those we love and pull our hearts toward home.” Same-same.

Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about borders, homeland, dispersal, heritage and family, published by Curbside Splendor. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Hobart, The Offing, The Rumpus, Entropy, Midwestern Gothic, The Prague Revue and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for a Chicago Review of Books nonfiction award. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She currently teaches and writes in Chicago, is Literary Editor of Newcity and co-editor of The Sunday Rumpus.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Elizabeth Dylan Bercovici: A Walk Through Boston

The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man” in a higher sense – he is “collective man,” a vehicle and molder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind.”  —Carl Jung

Paul was wrong.
     I knew in the depths of my being that he was wrong. He contended that the goal of the writer was to translate non-linear memory to a tangible, linear expression. We agreed that there was a process of translation, but it felt different to both of us. “Writing allows us to organize time,” Paul argued. “To help us investigate the matrices of memory and human experience.”
     “Yes, but it's so much more than that. Writing is about exploration of the soul and language serves as a vehicle to explore hidden aspects of ourselves. The goal of the travel writer is to connect the soul of the author to a place and its people.”
     The two of us were travel writers with very different views of our craft.
     Paul and I walked up Acorn Street, navigating a path through the narrow labyrinth of houses in Boston’s oldest neighborhood, Beacon Hill. This was my home, and I was anxious to share it. I loved the history, the cobbles underfoot, each brick a story.
     “Henry James called this the most beautiful street in America.” What I didn't say was This is my favorite spot in Boston, I come here whenever I can. We wandered up and down, feeling the uneven pressure of the cobbles beneath our feet. An American flag lapped in the breeze overhead. For a second I saw it divorced of meaning, a mere dance of colors—deep red, ocean blue, stark white—juxtaposed with the crumbling brick below.
     We emerged onto a nearby street, encountering a trail of black lampposts, the fragrance of fallen leaves crisp in the air. Trees tilted out of brick enclosures; I strummed my fingers against their bark. Even though Boston was small, I often felt overwhelmed and missed the woods. When I felt particularly lonesome for trees or firelight, I’d come and sit down on the cobbles, my legs curled up to my chest. Everything stopped, if only for a second.
     We crossed Charles St. and meandered up the overpass to the esplanade along the Charles River Basin—my next favorite spot in Boston. Blinding light poured onto the overpass, hitting the rim of the river below like freckles of stained glass.
     Paul had a charming smile that would have been considerably more charming if he were less aware of its effect. I never knew where I stood with him. His eyes were sea-blue and hungry to understand the world; they glimmered in the sunlight. I fixed my gaze on them haphazardly, senses otherwise ensnared by the hustle of downtown Boston. Runners skirted past. I heard the rush of cars on Storrow Drive to the left, the hum of the Charles on my right; tethered sailboats bobbed along the shore.
     We talked about our writing practices, which turned out to be very different, how our travels translated into our current works, but most interestingly, we talked about where writing came from. Over the course of our tour around the basin, Paul described his belief that writing was an act of the mind, that environmental and societal pressures shaped the writing vessel (what I refer to as the writer). I turned my head and said carefully: “For me, writing is an act of the spirit. I believe in the power of the soul to manifest on the page.” Paul laughed as though I'd made a joke and shifted on his heel, his body retracting.
     Idealistic, much? I almost felt him say. Perhaps, but my perspectives weren’t ill-conceived: I had carefully investigated, measured and demarcated them before claiming them proudly as my own.
     Inspired by female writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf, I perceived the necessity of connecting to the reader through the soul, that core being within all of us. I had recently read a fascinating essay, “Written on the Landscape: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” by Sarah Mills. As Paul and I walked, I thought of the essay’s connection to my understanding of literary creation. Mills postulates on the Literary Sublime, a concept understood to engage the reader through emotional responses to written descriptions of nature. Mills differentiates between traditional masculine conceptions of the sublime, where the landscape is perceived as other—something tangible to be conquered—and the Feminine Sublime, where landscape empowers the reader to heights of great adventure and universal understanding. The Feminine Sublime does not attempt to exhibit control over the landscape, but merges the rich interior world of the speaker with the external world of the reader.
     For example, in “Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” Wollstonecraft writes, “the rosy tint of morning reminds me of a suffusion, which will never more charm my senses unless it exists on the cheeks of my child” to describe her pain in being separated from her daughter. Mills extrapolates this line to denote that in Wollstonecraft’s letter, “emotions themselves and the landscape begin to infiltrate each other so that the colours of the morning sky and the blushes of her daughter are seen to be as one.” Here, emotion serves as a connecting force, the invisible link between the subject and that which it perceives. In her classic, lyrical style Wollstonecraft writes, “There was a solemn silence in this scene which made itself be felt. The sunbeams that played upon the ocean, scarcely ruffled by the lightest breeze, contrasted with the huge dark rocks that looked like rude materials of creation forming the barrier of unwrought space.” In Wollstonecraft’s epistolary recollection of her travels, the reader understands that Sublime beauty and engagement with Nature helps the writer heal her soul during an emotionally turbulent time. Likewise, the reader finds solace and connection. In “Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” I walked alongside Wollstonecraft as she traversed rivers and mountains; the lilting syllables in her lyrical prose allowed me to feel her emotions acutely, as though Wollstonecraft’s memories were mine as well. In the retelling of her travels and in the reading of her experience, Wollstonecraft and the reader are of one mind and soul.
     As Paul and I walked beside each other, the crisp breeze whipping our faces and sending goose bumps up our shoulders, I contemplated our varying perspectives. Despite our difference, there was one thing I knew about Paul that intrigued me, that connected us: Paul espoused a reverence for poetry that occasionally threatened to override his logic and analysis. It wasn’t that we were like-minded in regards to the themes or content we enjoyed; rather, both our souls latched onto the bliss of languid expressions and the quiet beneath the words themselves. Stop thinking. I kept wanting to say. Feel with the depths of your being. In poetry, Paul encountered the Sublime; or perhaps unwittingly a part of his soul went searching.
     That was our difference—I knew I was searching. I’d always been searching for something greater, a crack in the veil of existence linking the spiritual to the temporal. That crack is available to all writers, if we are willing to take the pen in our hands and serve as sacred vessels. Artists throughout time have held this responsibility dear and sacred. Renaissance painters and Romantic poets like Samuel Coleridge and Percy Shelley believed that inspiration came through divine channeling, from the mystical winds of another world, because the soul of the artist was attuned to such revelation. Bob Dylan was quoted once as saying that the songs he wrote already existed, they just came through him. This is corroborated by other great thinkers like Carl Jung who reiterates that although works of art “come into being at a definite time, they are and have always been timeless.” In moments of peak experience creating art for the world at large, Jung says, “we are no longer individuals, but the race; the voice of all mankind resounds in us.”
     Paul was searching too, he just didn’t realize it. We sized each other up, inwardly thinking how do I convince this poor fool of my side? I thought, Maybe I cannot.
     Paul said: “I was sitting under a tree and I was inspired to start writing a poem. The words came out, but then I thought ‘I could publish this’ and the inspiration left me.” There was a sadness to his voice. I had never published anything, but I was working on a memoir about my time teaching in China and traveling through Southeast Asia. I spoke up.
     “That’s why you lost inspiration.” I said. “You can’t write with the intent to publish. Yes, at some point writing needs to be shared with the world, but there is a truth to the human condition that needs to be honored and expressed without thoughts of publication.” Inspiration lives in a very special place, in the heart of all a man has ever loved, all the stories, all the moments, all the joy he has ever experienced and all that he hopes to experience. A writer must sing the song that is innately his, even if the constructs he contends with exist beyond form and space, beyond what is thought possible for words as a medium. We must resolve to channel the ineffable even in the face of adversity. How to express what cannot be expressed? How to quantify what cannot be quantified? Perhaps through images or the converging of sounds that tilt reality just enough to evoke what mere words cannot. When I write, I surrender to a force greater than myself and the words come out slowly, carefully, ripe with depth and meaning.
     “It’s all a construction.” Paul argued. “Words are construction. Language is a construction. Essays are construction.” So is memory then, by this logic, I thought sadly, but it feels delicate on the lips. There’s a sweetness that permeates the facets of a memory. A sweetness that’s real to me.
     The esplanade reminded me of the Hudson. My mother was born and raised in Edgewater, New Jersey on the banks of the Hudson, and my father was from Manhattan. When I was little, before I learned they met at work, I reasoned they met in the water, swimming, at the crossroads between two places.
     It’s a memory, a memory that never happened.
     The images I created of my parents meeting in the water and falling in love pass me by in the span of a second, and then, the turmoil that ended their marriage. To me this memory is real, for it was so dearly crafted, so pivotal to the way I interpreted myself and the world growing up. Yes, I have a memory of a memory that never was.
     “So we ‘construct.’” I countered. “Why should that make it any less real?"
     “The writer contrives.”
     “That’s too sterile a word.” I turned my head. “Translates.” I offered. He looked at me strangely for a second then nodded.
     “Translates is a good word,” he said.
     “The writer translates the experience of the heart. Construction implies artifice; I’ll have none of it in my writing.”
     “But the ‘I’ on the page is not real,” he argued. I found myself growing increasingly irritated at the difficulty we were having integrating our perspectives. We agreed that the ‘I’ on the page was neither writer nor reader, but a character in his or her own right. Still though, I saw the construction as evoking something greater.
     “In Plato, the idea of the chair is realer than the chair itself,” I said. As I reflected on this point, sections of Borges’ poem “The Other Tiger” flitted through my mind.
Afternoon creeps in my spirit and I keep thinking
That the tiger I am conjuring in my poem,
Is a tiger made of symbols and shadows,
A sequence of prosodic measures
Scraps remembered from encyclopedias,
And not the deadly tiger, the luckless jewel
Which in the sun or deceptive moonlight
Follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra
The poem continues:
But still the act of naming it, of guessing
what is its nature and circumstance
creates a fiction, not a living creature,
not one of those who wander on the earth.
     “Let us look for a third tiger,” the poem concludes, “The other tiger which is not in this poem.” That Tiger exists somewhere, as does Plato’s chair; we just have to breathe them onto the page. For me the process is not one of agony or a frenzied quest for publication, but gentle release—staying quiet, and being, surrendering to the words. Writing is not an act; writing is a gift of being. ‘Be the writer’ is different than ‘Do your writing.’ Doing is an act of the mind and body, being is an act of the soul.
     “I am determined to translate the essence of my being.”
     “Good luck with that.” Paul gave me his usual offhanded smile. Something in its sincerity caught me off guard and I started laughing for a second before he joined in.
     “We all have a spark of life within us, unadorned, waiting to get out. And there's a spark of life in every word, we just have to let them meet one another.  The call of the artist is to transcribe the entwined pain and ecstasy of existence. Is it so unbelievable that words could flow forth freely and that we could trust them to be true representations of our experiences?”
     “But even if you convey your personal truth, as a travel writer you inevitably colonize the people and places you visit. And then 'the truth' is lost.”
     I inhaled deeply.  I had at times been guilty of this alleged 'colonizing' of the other. Once in an early draft of my travel memoir about China, I recreated a moment in Shandong Province where I saw two trees intertwined in an old growth forest. On the page I rendered my immediate thought at the time: the story of Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple in Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to the story, Zeus and Hermes disguised themselves as beggars and wandered through the town of Tyana. They were turned away everywhere they went, until they came upon the house of Baucis and Philemon. Though the pair had next to nothing, they gave everything they had. Deeply moved, Hermes and Zeus revealed themselves and promised the couple anything they wanted. Baucis and Philemon asked the gods for a way to be together forever, so Zeus transformed them into two trees with a single set of roots, their bark and branches forever entwined. I'd always loved that story, but when I showed a colleague the scene I’d written I was told I’d colonized Shandong. I was seeing China and its trees through my lens as a Westerner; I had imposed my sentiments and my history on what I was perceiving.
     Yes, this was true. Wherever you go, you bring your perceptions, your limitations, your stories. Is that so wrong? The story that came to me was a Greek love story, but the same story has been told a thousand times in different ways across cultures. It's not a Greek story—it has a Greek setting—it is a human story. My perspective may not render me objective in a conventional sense, but aren't stories and their motifs universal signifiers of the truth we all share and search for, day in and day out? Colonization of 'the other' in travel writing implies that an 'other' exists. Why let ourselves be consciously limited when we seek access to the universal?  We have the choice to rise above the illusion of separation, to transcend mind and ego and arrive at the truth of a shared human condition. I want to tell my story and Paul's, because they're different, yet one.
     The travel writer needs to step out of the way and let place flow through him or her. Just as when one is speaking, a story rushes forth thick on the tongue. It’s only words that pin it down, quelling and consuming the rush, directing the torrent into harmonious drifts and serpentine echoes. Words are life breathed onto the page, they create reality. Virginia Woolf said that words have identities of their own; they don’t ask that we talk about them, but they do ask that we use them. Our experiences have lives of their own too; we translate them through language but they exist beyond those bounds.
     Yet, without language time doesn’t exist. It operates as mere construct. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting the leaves in bright auburn and russet red, I argued: “Experiences are not linear. Nor is time.” Paul nodded. It seemed we agreed, until he elaborated.  Paul saw thoughts and experiences as matrices a writer had to unpack slowly, pockets that served as a direct result and reminder of the place where one had come from geographically, sociologically and emotionally.
     “We don’t have a core identity. We don’t have a true essence to render onto the page. Even identity itself is variable and constructed and contingent on societal and anthropological influences.”
     I disagreed: “There is something deeper.”
     It became clear our conversation was about something neither of us had originally planned to investigate—what Paul termed objective vs. subjective reality. Paul persevered in his argument that there was no universal core or source and that people’s perceptions were formed by the environment in which they grew up; because experiences occurred in that space, they had to remain in that space and were only real in that space. And yet Wollstonecraft writes: “if a light shower has chanced to fall with the sun, the juniper, the underwood of the forest, exhales a wild perfume, mixed with a thousand nameless sweets that, soothing the heart, leave images in the memory which the imagination will hold dear.” Her depictions convey to the reader that whenever and wherever the scent of juniper touches her nose, Wollstonecraft will return to the underwood. She can write about the memory of juniper in the forest, but said writing is not meant to confine juniper to a select time and space. The scent itself, and the feeling she places with it, exists outside of time, like Borges’ tiger, or Plato’s chair.
     I shook my head at Paul’s understanding of ‘writing’ in relation to the soul of both reader and writer. The sun was setting up ahead, skyscrapers melting into orange light. Everywhere you go in the world, you’ll see the sunset, I thought suddenly and hailed the sky, “Carl Jung investigated an amazing phenomenon. Different cultures throughout the world, which could never have come into contact with one another, amassed a variety of the same symbols.”  According to Jung the Collective Unconscious “is a structural element of the psyche we find everywhere and at all times; and it is that in which all individual psyches are identical with each other, and where they function as if they were the one undivided psyche the ancients called anima mundi or the ‘psyche toukosmou’” (Carl Jung, Letters Vol. II, Pages 398-400). Carl Jung’s theories of universality and oneness tie into Sarah Mills’ literary concept of the feminine. Both emphasize a oneness with nature and the universal understanding of human connection between one person and another. The Collective Unconscious, according to Jung, allows cultures across the world, during different periods of history, to create a shared understanding of the same core concepts and symbols.
     “I believe we all have a soul and those souls are connected to each other,” I said.
     “You believe that?” Paul grinned. I thought of Jung’s words: I do not need to believe. I know. I felt, I have always felt, something deep and intrinsic to my being, something shared, that pushed me to utilize words to connect my thoughts, experiences and feelings with the rest of the world. It is something that cannot be quantified, because it lives within me and has for as long as I can remember. Nor will I attempt to quantify it for the sake of this essay. I am a writer, I have always been a writer, I know too that others have this feeling; this inherent knowledge of the self. That is The Collective Unconscious; it must be felt to be truly understood.
     Despite this, Paul maintained that “Each person is island to himself. Because of his or her lifetime of experiences, everything is filtered through a subjective lens and exciting as it is, traveling doesn't bridge the gap.” He brought my attention to “Questions of Travel,” an Elizabeth Bishop poem we’d previously discussed. “Think of the Long Trip home / Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” In "Questions of Travel" Bishop postulates that there is no need for the traveler to go anywhere; wherever the writer goes she brings her own unyielding perceptions, which anchor the destination in previously existing fixtures and limitations of the mind.
     I resonated slightly with Bishop, but again, I wanted to delve deeper into conceptions of self, traveling, and writing. My parents were both psychologists, and growing up, I’d sensed the limitations of the mind. I’d wanted a more profound understanding of existence and the compulsion I felt to connect with others through words.
     We asked the same question in different ways. Why write? Why write? Why write? Why write about adventure in foreign lands? Because you can’t escape life, but you can wake up to its beauty. It’s a question of what we’re willing to see. We become conditioned by society and sometimes it takes a stark difference to undo our conditioning; the travel writer helps the reader to question their reality.
     Because question it we must. If our experiences shape our perceptions then we need to experience as much as we can; we must travel to broaden our horizons. Wollstonecraft writes: “Generally speaking, the sphere of observation determines the extent of the mind. The more I see of the world, the more I am convinced that civilisation is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress; for it not only refines our enjoyments, but produces a variety which enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations.” In this Wollstonecraft is correct; the sphere of observation does, for the most part, determine the extent of the mind. So, travel is the antidote for this malady; travel broadens the mind and expands one's understanding of cultures, people and history. Foremost, travel connects people. “When the world’s disgusted me and friends have proved unkind, I have considered myself a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind. I was alone; till some involuntary sympathetic emotion, like the attraction of adhesion, made me feel like I was still part of a mighty whole, from which I could not sever myself.” Travel, Wollstonecraft theorizes, acts as a unifying force, showing the true nature of the human psyche, as unconsciously aware yet connected to all things that surround the corporal body.
     Travelers learn how truly connected we are when real understanding is forged between people who do not share the same language. Spoken language and pre-symbolic language serve to connect us to the vastness of time and space. Society and environment are subject to change, but the true soul of a person, whether traveler or reader, is constant. Writing, therefore, must be an act of the soul; the words should bleed with feeling, as though a dam breaks in the writer and the words cannot be stopped.
     The light hit Paul’s eyes as a hint of rain tilted down from the heavens, its thick beads collecting in vertical torrents. All at once I saw our reality clearly—a work of stained glass—each of us looking at the other from behind a rosy pane. I wanted to hold my hand out and break the glass, but knew not how. In the moment, language failed us. We could not express ourselves to make the other fully understand. We started to run, and the rain billowed down, both of us more confused than ever as to what to make of the other. I looked back over my shoulder for a second and saw the world again divorced of meaning, just color to be shared.
     How could he not feel it? When every step spoke to me of the past, the present, but most of all, the eternal? The edge and breath of nature harkened to me. Our walk was steeped in history, bricks solid and quiet beneath our feet, hay amidst the cobbles. I could feel Boston in my boots. I found love in the murky water of the river; in the uneven pressure of the boulders beneath my feet, as though they held me, as though all who tread their path were held by time itself, in an eternal present that existed beyond the constraints of language, beyond the bounds of consciousness that Paul would call construction.
     Moments and memories from our walk come back to me, the ones that matter and the ones that don’t. My hair soaking wet as we crossed the overpass back to Beacon Hill, rain rushing at our faces. Life is motion. We live to move and explore places unfamiliar to us, as humans have done for millennia. This migration—this search—lies at the heart of humanity. We are all seeking. Travel facilitates the merging of worlds seen and unseen. Travel writing, then, allows us to experience what cannot be seen, only felt.


Elizabeth Dylan Bercovici is a life long writer and observer of the human condition and beauty of nature. She has a BA in English Literature from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY and a MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.  She is currently working on a lyrical memoir describing her travels and journey through China and Southeast Asia, where she lived and taught English for a year. For more information you can find her at

Monday, February 6, 2017

Paul Haney: On Truth and Perception: The Travel Writer’s Dilemma

Two Septembers ago, Steven Pinker delivered a presentation from his book, The Sense of Style, at Emerson College in Boston. A grad student at the time, I missed the lecture, opting instead to take a stroll from campus, up through the West End, and over to the Esplanade with my friend and classmate Liz. We were both working on travel memoirs—hers set in Southeast Asia, mine in Amtrak cars and cities around the U.S—and previous conversations about our writing practices had revealed a fundamental difference between us. Liz believed in a core, universal truth underlying her experiences, an unwavering objectivity that presented her with a transcribable reality. I argued against such essentialism, submitting instead to the relative nature of subjectivity and perception, the fluidity of fact and identity, and the artifice involved in rendering those provisions into writing. Liz saw her writing as an extension of her inner self. I saw mine as another construct derived from an erratic reality.
     Down Acorn Street with its cobbles the colors of the fall leaves we touched on narrative perspective.
     “I know what I thought and saw and experienced,” Liz said.
     “I believe you do, I said, “but doesn’t that knowing shift in relation to your present circumstances?” Knowledge grows and conditions change, I was thinking, as do our moods, all of which color the way we feel about our memories.
     Along past the sail boats bobbing through the Charles River Basin we veered into the dynamics of audience, temporality, and materiality.
     “The message depends on the medium,” I said, “and who reads it and when.”
     Liz said, “My message is my message—that doesn’t change.”
     By the time we'd circled back to Boston Common, it had started to pour, the raindrops wetting our faces as we debated whether art could relay anything more than a determined series of choices; art’s (in)ability to represent core human experience; the utility, or futility, of attempting to convey core experience, core individuality, core and objective anything at all. These were huge subjects, the kinds that take whole shelves—or wings—of the library to examine. As writers, too, these topics were deeply personal. Their implications could alter how we oriented ourselves to our subject matter, how we understood our work. Not surprisingly, our beliefs on these matters were deeply entrenched, hardly budging.
     We hugged in the rain and I dashed, head swimming, into the subway.
     The next day the word on campus was that Pinker’s lecture was provocative and compelling. I cued it up on YouTube and found the content was not unrelated to the topics Liz and I discussed. Pinker’s thoughts on style, derived from cognitive psychology, can inform our understanding of truth, perspective, and persona in travel literature.
     Though Pinker's lecture works through topics such as classical constructions and the usefulness of passive voice, his claims about the ways in which a writer translates a field of thoughts into comprehensible written language reveal the most about the discussion Liz and I had. “You can think of language as an app for converting a web of thoughts into a string of words,” Pinker says in his lecture, calling this cognitive structure a “semantic network, a kind of mind-wide web.” From this view, the web extends throughout the linguistic realms of the mind and presents memory and language in an associative, rather than linear, sequence. We take a trip in real time from point A, to moment B, to impression C, but our recollections don’t honor that chronology. The web-like structure of memory places little value on timelines. When the travel writer writes from memory, then, she struggles to recall stored tidbits of experience in the order she first perceived them. She finds her attention flitting between stored remembrances (and her hands grasping for a notepad to put it all back in order.) Pinker employs a sports metaphor to describe these cognitive movements: “surf(ing) from any concept to any other concept in any direction.” He continues, “but when it comes time to package some portion of your knowledge so that you can communicate it to another person, you have to code it into a sentence, and a sentence is a linear string of words.” This distinction between the nonlinear nature of experiential memory and the linear demands of writing as we know it creates a tension the travel writer addresses through narrative tools such as time markers, character development, plot arc, and the like. Though travel contains an inherent circularity—we go, we reflect, we return—these craft decisions yoke scattered memories to a timeline and flatten the web of thoughts into a string of words.
     The string of words imposes narrative structure onto the trip. For example, in my telling of the stroll Liz and I took, that journey proceeds from cobbled streets to picturesque sailboats to a soggy city park, even though in my memory these place markers become disarrayed—a constellation. What’s more, to my mind the most important element of our conversation, now pinned to place and detail, resides in our contrasting views of personal wholeness: Liz insisting on the eternal yearning core of the spirit, me arguing that our identities are a mishmash of cultural and environmental influences. Yet this depiction privileges a shapely conversation proceeding from our topic (narrativity), to our disagreement (subjectivity versus objectivity), to complexity (truth and experience), and finally to a conclusion. Nor is this narrative imposition constrained to the page. Within my own thoughts, stringing together fragments of remembered experience—semantically, imagistically, emotionally—helps me understand our stroll. And I internalize and reinforce what that experience felt like.
     We perform this “stringing together” all the time. After hitting every aisle of the grocery store, for instance, snagging produce, dry goods, deli meats in the order they come, we later elide the five minutes we spent reading cereal-box labels and recount instead the cute kid in aisle seven dancing to the store music. The image of the pudgy-cheeked child explains our progression from routine boredom to surprise to remembering to enjoy the mundane. We leave out the calorie content of Wheaties versus Raisin Bran, but the kid becomes a frame employed to reconstruct our experience—a link in the narrative chain.
     Narrative entices us, saturates communication, interprets the world. But the world is not a narrative, nor are we, at least not until we perform our duties as writers and travelers and insert ourselves into one. For the travel writer, this narrative drive sorts together disparate locations while imposing rising action, climax, and resolution onto perceived experience. Held at arm’s length, the I-character of the travel narrative is always distinct from the writer at the moment of writing, and from the writer who constructs the text. The travel writer then becomes triply iterated to herself. I am the memory of the person who strolled with Liz to the Charles River and back; I am the pronoun who chats and strolls here on the page; and I am the person who writes about the experience. This narrative displacement applies also to my subject—Liz—and appears in the same triple dimensions from the reader’s point of view. Narrative, then, even while it aids communication and understanding, further removes the live subject from the lived experience.
     Asking the tool of language to mimic the traveler’s experience exposes a particular set of shortcomings. Pinker expands on language’s inadequacies when he says, “(There is) an inherent problem baked into the design of language, namely that the order of words in a sentence has to do two things at once. On one hand, it is a code of meaning; it signals who did what to whom... At the same time it necessarily presents some bits of information to the reader before others, and therefore the linear order of words affects how the information is absorbed.” The earlier words in the sentence establish the topic, which the later words refer back to. I skipped a lecture, took a stroll, and chatted with Liz. This first-person scenario privileges the speaker over the spoken-to, though a recasting of the sentence—“Liz and I took a stroll...”—as a compound subject privileges neither one over the other. Rather, the latter example presents a pair of individuals already tripled through narrative retelling, therefore distorted and distanced from their own experiences. Neither writer nor subject can elude this estrangement.
     This rigid explication of language and perspective, I realize, smacks of severity, both in terms of subject and self. Yet I won’t deny our experiences, our very existence seems significant, feels profound. It’s no wonder words fill our mouths and fly from our fingers attempting to transcribe our travels, even if language can only approximate, never strictly convey. Given this linguistic impoverishment, the question becomes not why travel?, but why travel write? 
     For complication and illumination, we can look to poetry. Elizabeth Bishop, in “Questions of Travel,” attempts to delineate how we travel write, and how we write travel. “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams / hurry too rapidly down to the sea,” Bishop begins, her description of a specific “here” echoing Pinker’s mind-wide web. The numerous waterfalls channel through streams branching out toward the sea, just as we arrange our webs of thought and memory into lines of speech and writing. Bishop’s setting also contains “clouds on the mountaintops,” which run like water, “turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.” The descriptions carry a romantic affect in which the landscape inspires grand visions, but those thoughts, projected into a future where the water runs dry, reveal that “mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled.” Bishop’s setting alters and transforms depending on her speaker’s relative mood and orientation, along with the weather, the season, the year. Perception is at least as slippery and fluid as the language we employ to describe it.
     Whereas Liz might freeze that experiential moment in front of the waterfall, highlight the shift in thinking, and frame it as dynamic Truth, I’d call on us to indulge the uncertainty and redouble the doubt. Bishop may or may not have envisioned the dried-up waterfall; that unprovable is irrelevant. But we do know the poet rendered the image through writing, a medium subject to the limits of language. In writing, even the most vivid memories and sincere philosophical disagreements are contingent upon text-based communication, and Bishop seems aware of this problem when she begins her second stanza by contemplating even the value of the travel experience: “Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” In these lines a tone of weariness seeps into the speaker’s voice as she imagines the “long trip” back, but there’s also a tone of wariness about the necessity of the trip itself. The alternative to travel is to stay at home and imagine exotic places, informed perhaps through other texts, or performed through the act of travel writing. “Oh, must we dream our dreams / and have them, too?” the speaker asks, conflating internal and external experience. While traveling, our minds convert sensory input, consciously or unconsciously absorbed, into memory even at the moment of perception. (These cobblestones are crooked; she’s challenging my beliefs; this rain is wet, and so are my clothes.) Our experiences, then, when filtered through the psychical apparatus, always occur at a remove from tangible reality, wherever that may be. This remove opens a margin of doubt which lingers around even the most fact-faithful writer, calling into question the traveler’s advantage over the homebody. Despite our adamance, Liz and I may remember our walk differently. The eye-witness can be dead wrong. Travel happens out there, but it happens in here, too. In any case, we’re destined to wade through sensory perception as we tend our mind-wide webs, our permanent homes.
     Within those homes there’s housework to do. The engaged traveler expends much of her energy sorting, interrogating, and integrating experience. Knowing comes from the inside out, just as lightning strikes from the ground up—but it unquestionably strikes. Nevertheless, as we process the world, external forces act upon and enclose us, too. “Identities cling to us, or even produce us,” Karen Caplan writes in the prologue to her critical work, Questions of Travel. “Many of us have locations in the plural.” I would take Kaplan’s point one further: all of us have locations in the plural, and the travel act brings into relief the internal-external exchange that creates this plurality.
     The most veracious travel writing explores these interchanges of place, identity, and ideology. It takes artifice to turn travel into writing, sleight-of-hand to pull off the trick. But the process comes inherent with frustration, a frustration that emerges in Bishop’s third stanza, which begins, “But surely it would have been a pity / not to have seen...” and proceeds to enumerate scattered observations from the writer’s travels. There are “trees ... exaggerated in their beauty ... like noble pantomimists, robed in pink”; “wooden clogs / carelessly clacking”; “the broken gasoline pump / in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque.” Like the poem's initial waterfalls, these sensory observations come pouring out of the speaker in a randomized litany that mirrors the flow of memory. The poet recalls “whittled fantasies of wooden footwear / and, careful and finicky, / the whittled fantasies of wooden cages,” calling attention to the “whittled” nature of observations themselves. It would be a pity, Bishop submits, “never to have had to listen to rain / so much like politicians’ speeches,” a rain which prompts the poet’s own reflections. The poem reflects the scrambled sequence of images, after the trip, arrayed nonconsecutively within the poet’s imagination. But while Bishop’s form challenges linearity, it cannot escape it. The travel experience, rendered in language, adopts a new progression, from trees to clogs, bamboo churches to rain. Because we read left to right, front to back, even a scatterplot stanza succumbs to language’s insistence on yoking image and observation into line.
     Thus Bishop’s poem, too, arrives somewhere: two concluding stanzas that, bracketed by quotation marks, seem plucked from the poet's own notebook. “‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?’” the speaker asks. The switch to first-person plural here signals that Bishop is attempting this query on behalf of all travelers who journey to places they’ve only envisioned. But “lack of imagination” seems to implicate more than the luxury cruiser; a lack of imagination would imperil the travel writer who loses herself within the romance of the journey and neglects her subjectivity. “Or could Pascal have been not entirely right / about just sitting quietly in one's room?” the stanza concludes, alluding to Blaise Pascal’s infamous adage that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” By challenging Pascal’s claim about the harm done by travel, Bishop’s speaker suggests that physical movement, though culpable for some portion of humanity's problems, is not solely to blame. But there is doubt in her claim, a conspicuous “could” that reserves the possibility that, no, Pascal was right all along. What’s true is this: it’s impossible to sit quietly in a room, because the restlessness of memory and imagination, and the process of integrating sensory perception, keeps us always on the move.
     Personal memory, sensory perception, narrative understanding—all of these facets of selfhood and experience morph and shift, warp and decay. “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” Bishop concludes, questioning the existence of a “home” at all, within or without. That said, the impossibility of nailing down a self, a location, or the arc of a journey doesn’t negate the compulsion toward travel imbedded in human identity. We still want to see the mountains and the waterfalls, the clogs and the churches; the cobbles, the boats, the Boston Common. But we struggle to capture the journey through language, a medium which can never portray the fullness of experience.
     About this struggle, Pinker has more to say. “Why is it so hard for writers to use the resources of language to convey ideas effectively?” Pinker asks, positing that “the best explanation is ... ‘the curse of knowledge,’ the fact that when you know something, it's hard to imagine what it is like for someone else not to know it.” This curse of knowledge helps explain both the passion and frustration Liz and I bring to our conversation. Before we begin, we assume we’re like-minded: we’re both, after all, living in Boston and writing travel memoirs, and we both appreciate a good dive bar. But through our dialogue, differences emerge. Assuming my friend perceives experience in the same way I do, as a borrowed complex of cultural references, I construct a string of sentences that take for granted a shared worldview; she, assuming I recognize an immutable core identity, does the same. We are inhibited by belief structured as knowledge. To overcome this impasse, we string together additional and more convoluted sentences, spin anecdotes and recite readings that illustrate our points.
     At best, Liz and I internalize and integrate fragments of each other’s explications, altering our viewpoints by shades and degrees. But we can never access the histories bound up in each other’s claims. The fragments we incorporate come to us bare and we clothe them with our own experiences, situate them in our preexisting webs, and, more often than not, reify our own worldviews with the content at hand. Language provides bridges between people; those bridges are jammed with wrong turns and pocked with potholes.
     So Bishop’s question, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” poses the ostensible option between staying or going, but the question contains a paradox at heart. Its inverse, “should we have travelled here and thought of home?” asks the same fundamental question. When perception is a traveler that accompanies the individual wherever she goes, it’s impossible to stay at home, just as it’s impossible not to “think” of elsewhere. We continually do both whether we like it or not.
     For the travel writer, however, the query becomes more complex. Why travel write? emerges as the core question, especially when the very act of writing can only make lines from constellations. Writing can only represent the journey through signs and symbols—a translation, not a transcription.
     The good news is, the translation harbors its own significance. Travel writing needn’t convey every aspect of experience; it exists as a distinct journey in itself. It allows writers and readers to reach across space and time to stroll the cobbled streets and gaze out over the river, to ramble over subjective and objective realities, to study the distinct quality of clouds pouring over precipices—all from a discreet subject position. Language may not perfectly bridge realities, nor might we want it to. But when we do desire a bridge from one mind-wide web to another, it’s the best tool we have.


Paul Haney's work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Sweet, Slate, Redivider (where he later joined the staff and now serves as Editor-in-Chief), and more. He holds an MA from Florida State University and will soon complete the MFA in nonfiction at Emerson College. He's currently working on his first two books: a travel narrative following a summer spent riding the Amtrak, and a collection of essays about Bob Dylan. Follow him @paulhaney.