The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes

“A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”

Emma Reyes was abandoned by her mother; left, as a six or seven year old, in the Colombian countryside. She grew up in a Bogota convent, where she worked long, arduous days under the cruel oversight of Catholic nuns. After her escape from the convent in her late teens, Emma made her way to Argentina. From there, she travelled to Paraguay, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Italy, and Israel. She won a scholarship to study painting in Paris; she paid her way to the French capital by offering to paint the ship as it sailed. In Paris, she became part of the cultural elite, befriending Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. When a friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas, suggested to her that she write her remarkable life story, she refused; instead, she wrote him letters. He was so impressed with them, the story goes, that he shared them with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Emma, encouraging her to keep writing. This breach of confidence infuriated Emma, who didn’t write him another letter for more than two decades. This book is a collection of Emma’s letters – 23 of them – in which she describes her childhood (a childhood that would have broken most) with a childlike and poetically dispassionate tone that is simply astonishing. It’s the unlikelihood of this book that truly moves me; without any formal education – Emma only learned how to read and write in her late teens – she managed to give us a stunning work of art. If only she had written more.

Reading ourselves awake

Image via Unsplash/Karim Ghantous

 

When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Venezuela to the United States, where I was immediately thrown into the American school system. I started my sophomore year in high school with passable English, spent a few months as an ESOL student, and struggled through the Harry Potter series. In the middle of the 10th grade, my English teacher assigned the most important task of the course: an analytical paper on a classic novel of our choice. Not knowing what constituted a “classic,” I Googled it. The first result was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I had all my winter break to read it.

Armed with an English-to-Spanish dictionary, I started reading. The endeavour lasted two months, but I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Jane. And while my rather limited command of the English language slowed my progress, and surely left much meaning in the novel uncovered, I could deeply relate to the novel’s namesake: her childhood, her love for Edward Rochester, and above all her struggle to develop both her moral and spiritual sensibilities. I found the inconsistency in Jane’s ideas and observations—her constant back and forth—strangely comforting. I was insecure, perennially unsure what to make of the world and my place within it. Suddenly, I was understood.

It was through this imposed reading of Jane Eyre that I began to see how literature can both live and give life. Books were not a form of escape, but rather a way through which I could plunge deeper into a human experience I was struggling to participate in and understand. I needed reading to do something of consequence to my soul.

Franz Kafka expressed a similar sentiment in a moving letter to a childhood friend:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

It’s in this way—books as axes that pick at our unconscious ways of being—that I think reading can be most powerful. Stepping into worlds of make-believe can awaken us from the deadening effects of habit. Reading can help us notice aspects of our internal and external experiences that the humdrum routine of life has silenced or numbed, like melancholy, frustration or disappointment in love. When we see these dimensions in somebody else, we awaken to them within ourselves.

Marcel Proust, known to have been a gluttonous reader, wrote:

“Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it. What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.”

My own hope is that through reading we can enkindle both curiosity and compassion for the inner workings of our being, as Proust suggests. As humans, we are wired to feel utterly alone in our experiences of inner turmoil. I suppose it is because of this loneliness that we often attempt to elude inner pain and discomfort. A book though, acting as a mirror to our inner workings, can foil our caper. I often find myself bewildered when another mind stirs me into awareness, sharpening into focus what I am thinking and feeling with such accuracy that it shrinks my common experience of loneliness and freakishness. Writers simultaneously connect us with our own uniqueness and help us feel like normal human beings trying, and often floundering, to capture meaning when it is most elusive.

A few years ago, I began to keep a “commonplace book,” a vault of the observations and ideas that you collect throughout your life of reading, thinking and listening. Michel de Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, HL Mencken and many others kept one. There are several versions of this practice today—mine is notecard based. Soon after I finish a book, I copy, on a notecard, whichever bits I want to revisit in the future. I then file the notecard thematically (love, loss, grief, friendship etc.) in a massive box.

The point of the exercise is to retrieve the notecards at appropriate times later in life, like when you lose someone you love, split up, lose your job or any of the other countless human travails we experience. It’s an emotional toolbox that serves as a lifeline for the times that test us, and as a never-ending, unbreakable connection to the wondrous and immortal life of books.

When I became a mother, I began to obsess about sudden personal catastrophe. The frighteningly labile, fragile nature of life. As soon as my son was born, I nursed the painful idea of losing him. And I felt the loss as if it was real: during my first few months as a mother, I was blown apart. This imagined loss arrived imbued with an unendurable story: that if anything was to ever happen to my child, it would be personal. That it would happen to him because he was mine. Because it was me. Somewhere along the way, I’d held onto the story that tragedy is individualised, not random, and that it is dictated by an intangible force over which I wielded no control. This story altered the nature of the imagined experience, transforming it from an uncomfortable ‘could be’ to an overpowering tale that left me frozen on my own planet of imagined grief while the universe continued in ceaseless motion.

I turned to my commonplace book. While leafing through the notecards, I found a phrase I had read, re-written and filed:

“No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.”

I came across this phrase within the pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir recounting the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In the bit of the book where this quotation comes from, Didion rejects the famous hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which extolls that a higher being is closely observing each and every living thing on the planet, even a bird as tiny as a sparrow.

Her form of belief is geological, not religious: human beings, she proposes, are as vulnerable to tragedy as the blue orb we live on. “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying,” she writes, “abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.” Natural disasters attest to the randomness of tragedy. Misfortune is not about you, it is not preordained because you felt yourself not good enough. It is indiscriminate in the way a devastating earthquake is. The pain is therefore transformed, if not in degree then in kind: the terrifying possibility of losing your child would not be your fault. This story, I feel, is one I can better live with.

We can connect with books on a spiritual, scholarly, moral and emotional level. Some books never become irrelevant because they change as we change. They have this magical ability to metamorphose into what we need at just about every stage of our lives. In some way or another, they are always us and we are always them.


I originally wrote this piece for Dumbo Feather Magazine

My Desert Island Library

Illustration by Jane Mount, from Ideal Bookshelf https://www.idealbookshelf.com/

 

Cast ashore on the proverbial desert island, I’d for sure need a bookshelf. These are the books I can read and re-read over and over again (in no particular order):

Stoner by John Williams

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

M Train by Patti Smith

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Walk by Robert Walser

The Complete Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor

Dubliners by James Joyce

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

(Subject to change, always).

 

Zadie Smith on the distinction between pleasure and joy

zadieportrait
Credit: Esra Roise, http://www.esraroise.com/news/2013/4/29/vinduet-zadie-smith/

 

I adore this essay. Here, Zadie Smith sublimely – and funnily – describes the subtle difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure, she writes, is relatively easy to find, instant, and replicable. For Smith, a pleasurable experience is embodied in a pineapple popsicle from a stand on Washington Square, or the ecstasy she experiences people watching on the streets of New York City. Joy, on the other hand, is a more tangled experience in which, Smith says, one can find no pleasure at all, but still need in order to live. To make the point, she writes of her experience in having a child:

“Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognise as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”

Joy is something you can lose and never regain (consider, as Smith does at the end of the essay, the loss of a partner or a child). It is painful, vulnerable and more often than not completely lacking in pleasure.

My Shakespeare by Kate Tempest

A stunning (as always) poem by Kate Tempest. Words below:

He’s in every lover who ever stood alone beneath a window,

In every jealous whispered word,
in every ghost that will not rest.
He’s in every father with a favourite,
Every eye that stops to linger
On what someone else has got, and feels the tightening in their chest.

He’s in every young man growing boastful,
Every worn out elder, drunk all day;
muttering false prophecies and squandering their lot.
He’s there – in every mix-up that spirals far out of control – and never seems to end, even when its beginnings are forgot.

He’s in every girl who ever used her wits. Who ever did her best.
In every vain admirer,
Every passionate, ambitious social climber,
And in every misheard word that ever led to tempers fraying,
Every pawn that moves exactly as the player wants it to,
And still remains convinced that it’s not playing.

He’s in every star crossed lover, in every thought that ever set your teeth on edge, in every breathless hero, stepping closer to the ledge, his is the method in our madness, as pure as the driven snow – his is the hair standing on end, he saw that all that glittered was not gold. He knew we hadn’t slept a wink, and that our hearts were upon our sleeves, and that the beast with two backs had us all upon our knees as we fought fire with fire, he knew that too much of a good thing, can leave you up in arms, the pen is mightier than the sword, still his words seem to sing our names as they strike, and his is the milk of human kindness, warm enough to break the ice – his, the green eyed monster, in a pickle, still, discretion is the better part of valour, his letters with their arms around each others sholuders, swagger towards the ends of their sentences, pleased with what they’ve done, his words are the setting for our stories – he has become a poet who poetics have embedded themselves deep within the fabric of our language, he’s in our mouths, his words have tangled round our own and given rise to expressions so effective in expressing how we feel, we cant imagine how we’d feel without them.

See – he’s less the tights and garters – more the sons demanding answers from the absence of their fathers.
The hot darkness of your last embrace.
He’s in the laughter of the night before, the tightened jaw of the morning after,
He’s in us. Part and parcel of our Royals and our rascals.
He’s more than something taught in classrooms, in language that’s hard to understand,
he’s more than a feeling of inadequacy when we sit for our exams,
He’s in every wise woman, every pitiful villain,
Every great king, every sore loser, every fake tear,
His legacy exists in the life that lives in everything he’s written,
And me, I see him everywhere, he’s my Shakespeare.

Zadie Smith’s golden rules for writers.

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle.”All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

From The Guardian’s Zadie Smith’s rules for writers. I also love the stunning, unforgettable talk she gave on the first story she ever told.

David Foster Wallace’s creative nonfiction syllabus

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

 

Just because I’m on a David Foster Wallace trip (the best kind), here’s the syllabus he gave out to his creative nonfiction students at Pomona College in Spring 2008. Found in the beautiful treasure trove that is The David Foster Wallace Reader.

Love this bit in particular:

“This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing.”

Pomona College
English 183D Spring, 2008

Logistics

Wednesdays, 7:00–10:00, Crookshank 207
Inst: David Wallace
Inst. Office, Phone, and Email: Crookshank 101, 607-8357, ocapmycap@ca.rr.com
Inst. Office Hours: Wed., 6:00–7:00, Th., 3:00–4:00, and by appointment.

Description of Class

English 183D is a workshop course in creative nonfiction, which term denotes a broad category of prose works such as personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on. The term’s constituent words suggest a conceptual axis on which these sorts of prose works lie. As nonfiction, the works are connected to actual states of affairs in the world, are “true” to some reliable extent. If, for example, a certain event is alleged to have occurred, it must really have occurred; if a proposition is asserted, the reader expects some proof of (or argument for) its accuracy. At the same time, the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel. An advantage of the workshop format is that it will allow you to hear what twelve reasonably intelligent adults have been induced to think and feel about each essay you write for the course.

Expenses

There are no required textbooks 1 and I will provide free Xeroxes of all outside readings. You will, however, be responsible for making [12] high-quality, single-sided copies of each essay you distribute for workshop discussion. I may also ask some students to produce [12] copies of some other document or exercise.

Total Writing Workload for Class

(1) Let’s say 24-39 pages of finished, high-quality nonfiction.

(2) A one-to-three-page letter of response to each one of your colleagues’ essays — figure 30-35 letters total.

(3) A couple letters of response, for practice, on selected published essays.

(4) Additional individual exercises, rewrites, or other work assigned at your instructor’s discretion.

Class Rules & Procedures

(1) For obvious reasons, you’re required to attend every class. An absence will be excused only under extraordinary circumstances. Having more than one excused absence, and any unexcused ones at all, will result in a lowered final grade. After the first two weeks, chronic or flagrant tardiness will count as an unexcused absence.

(2) All assigned work needs to be totally completed by the time class starts.

(3) All the essays that you turn in must be written specifically for this course. You may not submit any work that was substantively begun before 15 January 2008.

(4) You need to have a special pocket-folder that’s just for English 183D. This folder will function as your class portfolio, which must contain copies of all assigned work for the course (see (9) and (10) below). Please bring your portfolio to each class; and please put your name, the date, and some kind of rudimentary header on each piece of work therein.

(5) English 183D is to be a safe and serious critical venue. You should treat each peer’s essay-drafts as confidential documents. No one outside this class gets to read them or know anything about them — not roommates, not mutual friends, not distant email buddies. If you discuss peers’ essays with each other outside class, you must do so in a maximally private and respectful way.

(6) With a cap of twelve enrolled students, there is room in our workshop schedule for everyone to have three separate slots, and for each class meeting to comprise discussions of three different essays. This is a good number. Occasionally, though, a student will want to submit more than three pieces, or maybe two longer essays rather than three medium ones, etc. This is not impossible, but it makes for tricky scheduling — you need to confer with me individually (and soon) if you wish to submit something other than the normal three pieces.

(7) Once you sign up for a certain slot in the workshop rotation, that slot is yours. You can change or trade only with the whole class’s permission. So please choose with care. We will fill out the first portion of the workshop schedule tonight and the remainder on 2 February.

(8) All workshop essays are to be distributed the week before the class in which they’re to be discussed. There are two options here. Let’s say you sign up to have an essay workshopped on Wed., 12 March. Either you can bring [12] copies to class for distribution on Wed., 5 March, or you can place the copies in the special E183D box outside my office door by 4:00 p.m. on Thurs., 6 March. But 4:00 p.m. on the Thursday before your assigned slot is the deadline. Don’t be late. There are no “extensions” in workshop-type classes; your deadlines are obligations to [12] other adults. Finish editing and revising far enough ahead of time that you can accommodate computer or printer snafus.

(9) This class operates on the belief that you’ll improve as a writer not just by writing a lot and receiving detailed criticism but also by becoming a more sophisticated and articulate critic of other writers’ work. You are thus required to read each of your colleagues’ essays at least twice, making helpful and specific comments on the manuscript copy wherever appropriate. 2 You will then compose a one-to-three-page letter to the essay’s author, communicating your sense of the draft’s strengths and weaknesses and making clear, specific suggestions for revision. At the top of each letter, please put your name, the author’s name, the essay’s title, and the date. Make a hard copy of each and every letter of response you write. Staple the original letter to your marked-up copy of the essay, so that at discussion’s end they can all be returned to the author for private perusal. Place the copy of your letter in your class portfolio.

“All the writing blocks one goes through—the dizzy fits, the nauseas, and so on and so forth, which almost every writer has recorded—are a standard pattern for all kinds of creative things. They are simply forms of egotism.”

Lawrence Durrel

via Paris Review