Updated: Jan 6
I start the new year with a desire (which is less disciplined, less onerous and less defined than a resolution), to write the book I’ve been gestating for several years. I signed a contract with a publisher which had a deadline of December 2021, but that initial proposal – that early scan – was misleading. The embryonic idea has become other than what it started out as, lacking anything as clearly defined as form. It’s like watching clouds on a windy day, shape-shifting, drifting and curling, gathering and dissolving, bringing sunshine and threatening rain all at the same time.
The themes are still the same – the book’s DNA, perhaps. I want to write about language and silence, about homecoming and alienation, about the poetics of life in its modes of survival, endurance and delight. All this I call theology, though I write that enigmatic word "god" in smaller and smaller letters until it vanishes into the gaps, fades into the silences, finds its proper place for it has no proper place. This feels like an act of purgation, following advice attributed to Meister Eckhart to “pray God to free us from God.”
The first act of writing is to pick up a book. In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixous writes,
This is what we do, we pick up something in the dark. We don’t know what we will pick up. We always do this: we pick up a book, but we don’t know why. And it happens to be our parent, since the only way to find our real parent is to pick up a book in the dark. It is mysterious. Maybe it is the parent on the shelf that has chosen us, but it can’t be explained. Anyway, this is the way we happen on those books that will change our lives. (p. 24)
Books give birth to us. The Word precedes the world. Language cuts the umbilical cord, releases us from animal necessities and biological dependencies, and sets us free into imagined infinities of becoming.
To write is to live as one’s other – to inhabit language and its possibilities as the real self, the ghosted body which flows into the ephemeral other from brain cells and tongue, from throat and fingertips, from flesh fuelled by food and drink but forgetful of these origins as it shape-shifts through the parallel universes of imagined times and places.
To write is to carry you within myself, a neighbour who is a burden and a delight, an eternal life, for language survives – only the body dies. In language I become my resurrection, my truth and my life, my other, my neighbour, my you.
You must always be there before a word can be uttered. Writing is futile without you. You are always waiting, always patient, attentive to every word, and oh so critical and discerning. You mock me, raise your eyebrows, tell me to keep quiet. You are the most vigilant and harshest of critics. Under your command, I discard drafts, delete chapters, begin and begin again and again, but you compel me to write. Without you I am hollow. I fritter away my days and I’m restless in my bed at night. You are the scab I must pick at, the itch I must scratch, the slave master who drives Sisyphus up the hill again and again and again, but you are also the one who awaits me at the top of the hill with a surge of ecstasy that is worth the daily toil.
What books did I pick up to begin this new year act of writing, this desire to pin down the clouds before they change shape, to affix words to their contours and hold them in place for long enough to see what they signify, to write that book I’ve promised you? I scanned my bookshelves and randomly picked up two: Paul Durcan’s collection of poems titled The Laughter of Mothers, and Mahmoud Darwish’s prose poem collection, Absent Presence. Flicking through Durcan’s poems, I came upon “Women of Athens”, and it made me want to pray the way these women do, with voluptuous erotic extravagance:
Then I turned to Darwish, and that is how I was inspired to begin this writer’s journal. Here is the opening sentence: “Line by line, I scatter you before me with a capacity which I am given only at beginnings.” (p. 3) Who is the you that Darwish addresses? A lost lover? A lost homeland? His parents or ancestors? His own blithe spirit running ahead of his mortal flesh, but patiently waiting for him to catch up? In truth, the you I address is the interwoven stories of all these memories and imaginings.
I chose Darwish’s book because I thought it would inspire me to return to the chapter about Home for that book I’ve promised you. It's a half-formed chapter which I began writing several years ago when I read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and Edna O’Brien’s novel The Little Red Chairs, at the same time as I was reading Pope Francis’s magnificent but flawed encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si’: Our Common Home." (My reading life is a littered landscape of finished, ongoing and abandoned projects, symbolised by the piles of books and papers beside every chair, the clutter of titles on my Kindle, the files saved to my laptop …)
Darwish had no place to call home. His was the exile of the dispossessed. Mine is the exile of the postcolonial. He writes as the colonised. I write as the coloniser. Yet it remains true that neither of us has anywhere to call home. That’s why I want to write about home – because it exists only in the imagination and therefore it has infinite possibilities.
But that’s for another time. Meanwhile, serendipity once again comes dancing into my life. Serendipity is grace. It’s what makes us alight on one book rather than another, on one place rather than another, on one life rather than another, on one beloved rather than another. Serendipity this morning takes the form of the person who delivers our post, who in these days of shape-shifting language I can only call by her proper name – Donna. It’s one of the small pleasures of living in a small town for the first time. I know the name of the postlady/postwoman/postperson, whatever.
The book delivered by Donna is a second-hand hardback edition of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, published in 1985 so that the cover still bears the banner “shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1985”. It's a mythical, lyrical story about an imaginary home and a strange child who comes into a life uninvited –the way every story arrives when it longs to be written. Like Darwish, maybe also like me, Maori/Scottish/English author Hulme must imagine what home would be like, for there is no homeland to speak of. It is the book that I’ve been waiting for, the inspiration I’ve been looking for.
Keri Hulme died last week. Her book is available new only in paperback, and I preferred this old hardback edition. It's a cautionary tale for those of us who think that, as self-published authors, we must promote ourselves through every possible avenue and form. Kindle. Audible. Paperback. Hardback. Kobo. Ingramspark. Amazon. etc. etc. etc. No mainstream publishers would accept The Bone People unless it was heavily edited, which Hulme refused to do. It was first published by a small feminist collective (Spiral), and its author was so lacking in the expectation of success that she didn't attend the Booker prizewinning ceremony.
I read The Bone People in 1985, the year it won the Booker Prize, before academia crowded out my lifelong habit of reading for pleasure. Those were the days when I could inhabit literary worlds because they made more sense to me than the shifting, drifting landscapes of the places I could never call home, when writing could float free and did not have to be pegged to its sources with dozens of footnotes. I’ve lent my copy of The Bone People many times and replaced it twice. Now I want to gift it to the last person I lent it to, so I’ve bought it again.
In searching my bookshelves this morning I did not alight upon the book that would start me writing again about home, but now it has been delivered, and I can begin.
To be continued (maybe).