The Body (and Life) You Want without the Suffering

Friday, November 26, 2010

Between the Lines by Linnea Ashley

By the time I left the US to live in South Africa in 1999, I had almost forgotten about my actual written self; the part of me that wasn’t held hostage to copy-inch space and the need for literal understanding to outstrip the slightly more opaque, but also more eloquent prose that was my own. I’d hired my words out like hookers, and like hookers I’d learned to fake the pleasure of writing – I pretended I enjoyed what others paid for instead of the freedom and pleasure of what I needed to say.

In middle school, writing became a physical addiction. I had to have my hand wrapped around a pen, a pencil, hell a piece of chalk would do. With time it intensified, tand he medium didn’t matter. I couldn’t resist marking the smeared edges of old newsprint as I scrawled in the small margins of the day’s news. My uneven chicken scratch bled into the neat rows of Times New Roman. My ball-point indented the top of a Styrofoam container at lunch. A Crayon yielded slightly into the indentions of the white wall. The need intensified with age.
The desire was never about tagging, it was never about leaving a mark. I just had to get it out. It was like some magical toxin that underwent a chemical reaction into something cathartic once released. But I had to get the words out, the feelings down, to initiate the transformation from poison to salve.

My subsequent writing years were punctuated by the orderly rituals of daily newspapers. I wrote without the flesh-driven urgency. I harnessed the poison, muzzled it, and in the process, muzzled myself. Looking back, I think I dried out my words and settled instead for the occasional sentence that almost resurrected that need, that drive, to recreate the world around me in a way that made sense, in a way that made me make sense in it. It was fleeting. That moment of clarity would blur into the next line manufactured for a paying audience.

I fled the limiting rules of newspapers and found myself in a village in South Africa dotted with concrete houses wearing tin roofs and traditional houses made from mud and thatch. A broken water pump, dull metal contrasting against the dun sand around it, stood useless just beyond the shade of the towering Marula tree reaching toward a cloudless sky.

In that village English was spoken without nuance and cultural touchstones. A second language for those who spoke it, if at all, English was a way to translate the world in literal terms – the food is good, my family well, the rains coming. There was no room or understanding for metaphors that likened the womens' daily sweeping of their compounds to South Africa’s attempts to sweep away its bloody history; no metaphors to convey the beauty of flames dancing, magically suspended under a moonless sky. I could say South Africa’s government was changing and that the countryside was beautiful. It was English, but not my English.

I had forgotten context and perspective; assumed words alone explained the why and the how, showcased the cynicism and splendor. Unwittingly I’d brought the literal rigidity of my newspaper world with me and it was inadequate to explain my new world and how I fit into it.

I scrounged for my pen and a piece of peace to write in, the need finally resurfacing after so many years. The need to convey a world bigger and more profound than simple facts could express. I wanted to hint, hide clues, but never reveal specifically because the beauty was in broad strokes that painted the greatest detail.

South Africa took the tactile urgency I’d been accustomed to once and transformed it into a different kind of need. All of a sudden it was an urgency of understanding. Sure, I might be able to tell my friends back home what I saw, but they were worlds of understanding away. So I had to write about how the jacaranda trees’ leafless limbs wore royal lavender coats, and the heartrending reality that the jagged tufts of straight hair peeking out beyond tightly coiled afro kinks on little girls’ heads were the result of lye – black wasn’t beautiful in African villages.

It didn’t take much: rural isolation and relearning everything I never knew prompted my words, my poetry, my personal lexicon to return. The process was sporadic. It was also without the ego that expected everything to stop in anticipation of an artistic revelation.

Two years later, I returned to America, where people understood me when they wanted to; where my existence – removed from the challenges of cholera and a burgeoning democracy- seemed less worthy of the ink and the energy required for me to capture a moment and paint it in words.

Everything changes. I slowly realized that life’s beauty and worth are not the exclusive possession of extremes of politics or suffering. The desire to be understood a continent away is no more profound than the need to be understood by friends, the tragedy of one person’s fight with a familiar sickness no less heartbreaking than the fight against an “exotic” one. Realizing that, I found cause to again describe the world and my place in it.

These days I continue to traverse both foreign and familiar countries. Settling long enough to get my bearings and provide commentary on the initially interesting and eventually mundane, I write for a hybrid of my original reasons. The physical addiction removed, I still have cravings. I still write from some deep-seeded need to communicate and trust that I am understood.

Uganda as my current home, I document the different-ness. Toupee chickens, bare necks accentuating the tuft of black feathers sprouting at the crown of the head like a duster combover punctuate the point. Children singing “mzungu” –foreigner - as I walk to the crowded market accentuate my feelings of otherness as paler mzungus’ glance over, past, beyond me, unrecognizing unless they hear my accent. I see it, feel it, and need to write it all down.

Small notebooks scrawled with seemingly innocuous observations line my daybag, temporary lodging for my life in whatever “here” I’m in. Experiences, revelations, and insecurities I seldom read about compel me to write to ensure that someone, somewhere understand, even if they can’t relate.

Editors Note: Read more of Linnea's travel writing at The Happy Homeless

Friday, November 5, 2010

Life Hungry Stupidity

I’ve been taking time to work and think of why I would do the wholly ignominious task of blogging about my writerly aspirations. Aren’t there better things for me to do? Yes, certainly, but every morning when I go into my closet I stare into my toolbox of writer craft books and, even just subconsciously, I am reminded there is as much science to this craft as there is art. There is so much to learn! When I read Susan Orlean or Yann Martel, I am transported, and I am always convinced that they sprang fully-formed as writers into the world.

Then I find their early work.

Often I see the glimmers and the big looping stitches that will become thought comets and tautly wrought language in the early stories. My response is always the same. “Hunh! They are human too.” Po Bronson in a closet with a head full of sandy hair is a version of the guy with silver foxiness who writes with authority on a range of topics. Neil Gaiman plying his trade as a journalist for a very long time to keep his family fed is the person who created the Stardust juggernaut, the genius beloved for Sandman’s haunting brilliance and an unprecendented Nebula award. Alice Walker had 10 books in print before she became a “name” and Toni Morrison was just a mother writing books in the wee hours of the morning before packing her children off to school and clocking in at Random House.

I look at the progression of Ms. Walker through Meridian, then The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and The Color Purple. There, I say, are the themes she kept wandering back to. Here, I say, s the leitmotif of the Mister character, but there is the science and the alchemy that makes Mister palatable and three dimensional when Grange Copeland is too exposed. Maybe it’s just perspective, which is another element of craft Ms. Walker adjusts kaleidoscopically in her books until she hit the perfect series of notes in The Color Purple.

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi rocked me to my core the very first time I read it. I was in the backwoods of a small island, surrounded by mosquito netting, lurking out back of a government hospital overrun with people in profound need. Life of Pi is a beautiful survival story and contemplation of life, and I’ve spent most of my life surviving one calamity or another. Some of us just belong to volatile times, or come from volatile people, or both. When I felt darkness begin to outweigh the buoyancy of my spirit, I would read of Piscine Patel on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger and think, “I can make it though this, whatever this is.” I could no more attest to the life of this character being fiction than I could imagine an alternative to the physical and mental pain that had defined my life since the onset of puberty. Read this passage:

My face set to a grim and determined expression. I speak in all modesty as I say this, but I discovered at that moment that I have a fierce will to live. It’s not something evident, in my experience. Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others - and I am one of those - never give up. We fight and fight and fight. We fight no matter the cost of the battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight to the very end. It’s not a question of courage. it’s something constitutional, an inability to let go. It may be nothing more than life hungry stupidity.

To read that passage is to wonder what cosmic hand caressed the writer with such care and love as to make these feelings words on a page.

Then I go to an earlier collection of Martel short stories and despite feeling very game for the experience, I struggle, founder, stop, restart, and struggle more. I research Martel and his yen for seafaring, his peripatetic upbringing, his current whereabouts and writings and come to a conclusion (c’mon reader, you see this coming).

It’s as much science as art to this craft and I’m determined to learn the science, practice the art, build this craft. It’s why I stare at the toolkit daily, why I push poorly formed ideas and sentences into the mawping void of the Internet. Maybe I hope someone will read and relate, or just read, but there is real satisfaction in seeing my thoughts out there - beyond personal journals and lucid dreaming.

I do this because it pleases me; it is pleasurable work and my heart sings for the effort alone - regardless of the result.