Missing Fathers: Reading Hisham Matar in Glasgow

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Hisham Matar’s The Return opens with the author waiting at Cairo International Airport for a plane to take him back to Benghazi, in Libya, following the fall of Col. Muammar Qadaffi. It is 33 years since Matar, then eight years old, left the country for exile in Egypt and Europe. In 1990, Matar’s father was kidnapped by the Egyptian Secret Service and handed over to Libyan authorities, where he became one of Col. Qadaffi’s many political prisoners. Matar has not heard from his father since 1996.

Matar, born in New York but now resident in London, understands he was always going to return to Libya, because never returning “meant never allowing myself to think about [my father’s disappearance] again, which would only lead to another form of resistance, and I was done with resistance.”  The result is a memoir that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for autobiography, as well as the Rathbones Folio Prize.  The Return is an emotional but measured narrative of the disappearance of the author’s father, interwoven with Libya’s recent history.

I begin reading it on a train between London and Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. A return to Glasgow is not a return for me in the same strong sense that Libya is for Matar. My first visit there was 10 years ago, just after my own father went missing. It is his city. I caught the tiny orange underground metro, so “wee,” as the Scots say, you can’t stand up straight in the carriage’s centre. I got off in the borough of Ibrox; I had a vague sense that, as my father had supported Glasgow Rangers Football Club, whose stadium is in this part of the city, then this was the suburb in which he would have grown up, and disappeared into. To call it a suburb is generous. Many of the apartments in Ibrox are two-storied breezeblock structures with boarded up windows, although people still live inside; on that first visit there were no cars on the streets, and the trash of chip packets and Irn Bru soda cans filled the front porches up to the window sills. It was a frightening glimpse of a poverty-stricken city where the life expectancy for men can reach as low as 39.

Ten years ago, I searched for traces of my father but found nothing. Glasgow was impenetrable.

Young Hisham Matar is the autobiographical model for the protagonist of his first novel, In the Country of Men. The boy, Sulaiman, is the son of a dissident Faraj, and “the Guide’s” eyes and ears see and hear everything that his family say or do. The novel (and Matar’s second, Anatomy of a Disappearance) explores how State repression under Qadaffi threatened everything, especially love and trust.

“I don’t remember a time when words were not dangerous,” Matar wrote last year in an essay. “But in the late 1970s, when I was a young schoolboy in Tripoli, the risks had become more real than ever before. There were things I knew my brother and I shouldn’t say unless we were alone with our parents…Men were locked up for saying the wrong thing or because they were innocently quoted by a child.”

For six years after his father was arrested there was contact via letters smuggled out of Abu Salim prison (where the majority of Qadaffi’s political prisoners were detained). Then in 1996, the letters stopped. In what I can only describe as an inverse echo of our stories, in 1996 I was writing to my father to tell him to not contact me, precisely as the Abu Salim massacre—in which it is likely Matar’s father was executed—was taking place. One son desperate for a father’s safe return; another son desperate to break off all communication.

“I had never felt more capable of stillness,” Matar writes while waiting for the boarding call for his plane to Benghazi.

I had never felt capable of stillness, I write melodramatically as I sit in a Glasgow café near Queen Street train station, waiting until I can check in to my hotel.

Matar suggests it takes a conscious effort to remain still. “On the plane from London to Cairo,” he writes, he finally understood “the logic of the contradiction” that had caused his lifelong restlessness: “home” always felt impermanent. “It turns out that I have spent all the time since I was eight years old, when my family left Libya, waiting…A feeble act of fidelity to the old country, or maybe not even to Libya but to the young boy I was when we left.”

Still: to calm, quieten. Also: still, even now.

Ten years after his disappearance my father remains missing. On the anniversary, I’ve come back to Glasgow to look for him, with Matar’s words for company.

My father’s disappearance was nothing like Matar’s. My father was not a great man, a dissident whose disappearance made it into The Times, who had the U.K. and U.S. governments and international NGOs involved in attempts to secure his release. My father was an accident-prone engineer and lifelong alcoholic with his own inherited family trauma, who was finally thrown out by his second wife after 30 years of marriage when he came home after a three-day bender and fell asleep outside the house in the gutter. Like the ghost in the flat where my father first lived after leaving my mother (a ghost who, incidentally, stole all the tea towels), my father was a presence that could not be counted upon. He slipped through the net of our ambivalent care a few months later.

“When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him,” writes Matar. “You are the scene of a shameful private battle.”

When my father first disappeared we only half-hoped it would not be for long: he was an embarrassment most of the time, never violent, but unpredictable, always disappointed in everyone around him. He would, my uncle, his brother, assured me, “Come back when he’s licked his wounds.” But that did not happen, and as the years passed, I tried my best to ignore the “shameful private battle” of not quite looking for him hard enough. I turned to books as both education and evasion. I sunk into Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son with the intention to never forget its call for intellectual freedom from a father’s overbearing influence; it was some justification for refusing to devote my time to searching the dry hostels and homeless centers. I read and re-read Andrew O’Hagan’s Our Fathers, about three generations of Glaswegian men torn apart by alcohol and ambition; and O’Hagan’s The Missing, about lost persons, especially those, in a brutal exposé, who were victims of mass murderers Fred and Rosemary West. I convinced myself, and others, that if I were reading about fathers, especially the absent kind, the drunken, lying kind, as in John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father, then mine was a search of sorts, a reconnaissance into the mindscape if not the cold doorways of where a missing, stubborn, alcoholic might be. I kept this charade up for nine years. And then my mother died.

Matar’s books, despite the loved mothers, real and fictional, and the steadying influence of his wife, Diane, are stories about men: sons and fathers, despots, uncles, family friends and brothers, cousins killed during insurgencies, politicians, and, in a large section of The Return, Seif Qadaffi, son of the Colonel, who pretends, at best, but mostly dissimulates, to try to find out what happened to Matar’s father. There is an ease that Matar exudes in the company of men. I envy him. I grew up in a female household, my father absent beginning when I was two years old. I have no problem with yoga classes, but all-male bonding is a strain. This is even more true now in the middle of a cycle of therapy prompted by the death of my mother.

My mother’s death at 68 was not a surprise. She lived a difficult working-class life, with two or sometimes three menial jobs to support her two children, and always, we learnt later, carrying the sorrowful body-burden of being forced to give up her first child for adoption when she was only 16. I grieved my mother’s death well, if measured by a lack of diversionary tactics (I haven’t spent the last year reading Sons and Lovers). But the loss of one parent forces attention to your relationship with the other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the therapy focused on unburdening myself of the psychological armor I’d fashioned in childhood as protection against an unpredictable and alcoholic father.

Therapy exposed me to reality in a way that reading books about missing fathers could not—and was not meant to. In a year of curative work, I began, with the mental equivalent of a child’s brightly-coloured plastic hammer, to chip away at that over-protective armor. I still didn’t think I was ready to look for my father. But yet here I am, in my father’s city, 10 years after he stepped out of our lives.

In my hotel that night I delight in picking up Matar, my newfound travel companion. I relish travel for the contradiction Matar writes about; having the distance to reflect upon home as impermanent. Like Matar it was not “a casual desire for travel” I sought, “not a tourist’s curiosity for sites and landmarks and languages and new faces, but a precise and uncomplicated conviction that the world was available to me.” Wasn’t the world available to me now I’d sloughed off the chainmail that had, for 30 years, defied my father’s afflictions, but at high personal cost? Matar’s thoughts about travel come when he is back in Libya, and they surprise him: “Wasn’t this an odd thing to think now, now that I was finally home? Or is this what being home is like: home as a place from which the entire world is suddenly possible?”

Almost asleep, I read Matar’s story of watching a football game between Bayern Munich and Glasgow Rangers. Matar chooses to support Rangers (my father’s team) because they have a black player when such things were unusual.

“Here was an eighteen-year-old Arab Muslim praying in an English pub for a Scottish team because they had a black player who might or might not be African, while his Libyan family, exiled in Cairo, were rooting for a German team,” writes Matar. And here was an English atheist lying in a Glasgow bed reading a book by a Libyan man whose words jar memories of a missing Scottish father who could be homeless on the streets of London, or (albeit unlikely) imprisoned in Libya.

I put down The Return and think of Matar’s New York Times essay railing against the philistinism of Donald Trump: “Books have invited me into different countries, states of mind, social conditions and historical epochs,” he writes, “they have offered me a place at the most unusual gatherings.” This is what The Return offers, a more affecting book than either of Matar’s novels. In the fictions, the control of emotion in the narrative stymies empathy with the protagonists; in the autobiography, it is much clearer that this control is the author’s attempt not to lose his mind to a grief held in limbo.

Sometimes parsing life through literature reveals the greater truth. But, just as often, it does not. For 10 years I have avoided looking at the faces of the homeless men in Glasgow and London. But the paradox of having removed the armor with which I protected myself from his drunken outbursts (“You’re a child of hate!”) and the disappointment he could spear me with, with just that shake of his head, is this: now I no longer have the armor to protect myself, I am ready to face him.

And the next evening, there he is. After a day walking the streets and staring at people in cafés, I am leaning against the door of a packed metro carriage and look across to see my father. His greying hair is brushed back over the balding head. He’s wearing loose workman clothes, baggy blue jogging bottoms and a knitted jumper too big for him but worn to keep him warm while laboring. It’s splattered with flecks of white paint, as are his arms. His jumper sleeves are pushed up to his elbows like he always used to, especially when driving. He’s holding the rail above his head and I see one of the same hairy arms that I’ve inherited, crooked arms that don’t straighten at the elbow despite various yogis’ attempts to unbend them. Most importantly, he still has his yellow, drooping mustache. It makes him look sad, like Hulk Hogan post-sex tape. He’s carrying a newspaper rolled up in his other hand. He grimaces with fatigue. The lines around his eyes crease into that resigned expression I know so well but have not seen since 2007 when my uncle and I registered him as missing.

I watch him over the heads of the crowd. Impatient at the slow-moving train, he looks and sees me staring. What color are my father’s eyes? I can’t remember.

The metro pulls into the next stop. I stare again. Once or twice he catches my eye. Does he recognize me? There are too many people to move closer. Are those his ears? Does my father have ears that big? I’m running through the synchronicities that have brought me here; that I am here means that my father does have ears that could belong to a donkey. I’ve come to believe in synchronicity, in some special power of love to connect across time and dark distances. Why else would we both be here?

I can’t keep staring. What do I do? What I’ve done for the past 10 years?

The carriage pulls into Buchanan Street station and he maneuvers to alight. The doors open. I get out and stop so that he can pass. I make a show of having to pull up my trousers, as if anyone is paying attention. Two hundred people are heading for the exit. He walks past and I follow. I tell myself I have to do this. I follow up a flight of stairs. There’s a throng of people. I think I’ve lost sight of him. I don’t know where—then, there he is. Then we’re at the top of the stairs and he’s walking away. The crowd thins out on the concourse. There’s a space where an approach won’t bring embarrassment. I’m going to do this. I know what I’m going to say. I walk faster. Is this how tall my father is? Did he have that much hair left? Are those his ears?

I tap him on the shoulder. I ask if his name is Phil.

It makes sense to him now why I was staring. He smiles. He doesn’t have the bunched front tooth I inherited. He doesn’t speak English that well. He shakes his head. Says no, I think. But I don’t really hear him.

Sorry, I tell him. I thought you were a friend of my father.

He puts an awkward, friendly hand on my arm, then turns and exits to the street.

A bubble of blackness surges from my abdomen, where it has always been, hidden behind that armour. I’m in the middle of the concourse so I push it down and with it the tears. I say in my head, I’m really upset. I’m really upset but I don’t cry.

I’m okay, I tell myself. I’m 41 years old, and I feel like a child again.

At 2 a.m., I’m sitting on the hotel’s broken toilet seat shitting out everything I’ve eaten for the past 24 hours. In the next two hours I go back and forth between bed and toilet 15 times, taking The Return and reading the same pages over and again. “The dead live with us,” writes Matar. “Grief is not a whodunnit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back. It is part of one’s initiation into death and—I don’t know why, I have no way of justifying it—it is a hopeful part at that.”

Sitting sniveling on the toilet seat I cannot see much hope left.

Yet I went up to that man who I thought was my father. At least I did that.

“What is extraordinary,” Matar continues, “is that, given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light. It is in that direction that there is the least resistance. It is somehow in the body, in the physical knowledge of the eternity of each moment, in the expansive nature of time and space, that declarative statements such as ‘He is dead’ are not precise. My father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future.”

At 4:30 a.m. I climb back under the covers to find myself without warning crying deeply and painfully, sputtering through tears and snot and vomit:

I wanted it to be him. I wanted it to be him.

“The truth was, at that moment I didn’t believe Father to be dead. But the truth was also that I didn’t believe him to be alive either,” writes Matar as, back in Benghazi, he hears what he has always feared: that those who last saw him in the Abu Salim prison did not see him come out alive when the remaining prisoners were finally released.

About two thirds of the way through The Return, Matar raises the idea that one should know the moment one’s father dies. It troubles Matar because he has not, he believes, felt the moment his father was killed. Matar recounts the story of a Syrian poet who he hears talk on the radio about the way he (the poet) knew the moment when his mother passed away. The poet was in London to give a reading, and took a stroll around Grosvenor Square. “I walked under the trees. It was a beautiful day. But I could not get rid of a desperate sadness. I longed for my mother. When I returned to my room I found a message telling me that she had just passed away.”

Matar agrees and thinks it “impossible that I should fail to detect the moment when someone I love dies.” And yet, he adds, “now that it is unimaginable that my father is alive, I am unsettled by the failure.”

Matar is not a consistent diary keeper, but he did at times maintain a journal. He goes back to look at his entry for the day on which his father most likely died, at the Abu Salim massacre on June 29, 1996. At that time Matar was going to the National Gallery five days a week to practise a form of looking at art where he would sit in front of one painting for 15 minutes every day, and not move on until he felt he had exhausted the picture. He did this on June 29. Here is his entry:

“Could not get out of bed till noon. Walked up to NG. Done with Velásquez. I’ve switched to Manet’s Maximillian. Never speak about money worries again.”

The time is out of joint: an early riser, Matar couldn’t get out of bed. Strictly private about financial affairs, the night before he was moaning about money. On the day that the massacre of 1,270 prisoners took place, including most likely his father, “I chose to switch my vigil, which by then I had been keeping for six years, to Édouard Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximillian’, a picture of a political execution.”

I wonder if I’ll know the moment of my father’s death? “Trust thyself,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” For a son to know his father’s moment of death, such a connection must have been threaded with iron strings. My father loved me despite the unpredictability, the curses, the dissatisfactions. Has a whisper of my father’s last breath come to me?

The next morning I check out of the hotel, sit in a café and finish The Return.

“We need a father to rage against,” writes Matar. “When a father is neither dead nor alive, when he is a ghost, the will is impotent…I envy the finality of funerals. I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”

Standing in the middle of Buchanan Street, in my father’s city, I say it out loud:

“My father is dead.”

There’s still no answer.

What I Learned on My Debut Book Tour From the Books I Read Along the Way


In her collection of essays and talks The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin wonders why we have book tours at all. “It wasn’t until the seventies, I think, that publishers realized they could sell more books by sending their author to two hundred cities in eight days to sign them,” she told a Women in Language conference in 1998. “So now here in Berkeley you have Black Oak and Cody’s, and we in Portland have Powell’s and the Looking Glass, and Seattle has Elliot Bay Books running two readings a day every day of the week and people come.”

I packed The Wave in the Mind into my luggage as I set out from Britain for North America. Not least because I’d be visiting Portland, Ore., Le Guin’s home city; and not only because 35 percent minimum of my carry-on is reading material; but as an unknown British writer, I needed to holdfast to Le Guin’s promise for my 12-events-in-seven-cities first book tour: people come!

I hoped my other reading would be as encouraging: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and, on the recommendation of a friend, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I’d pick up others along the way. All would be serendipitous. I’m going to learn from them not only how to handle a book tour better, but how to be better, fully stop.

Lantern Books, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“This is how I want to spend my life,” writes Gilbert in Big Magic, “collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.”

This was how I wanted to spend my life, too—as a published author. I’d come to Brooklyn for the launch of my debut, The Pig in Thin Air. The event marked a psychological “end” to writing the book; despite having done publicity events in the U.K., New York provided closure on the book’s making. Lesson one, perhaps: writing a book is a desperately personal thing, and only you know when it’s “finished.” I needed a public introduction for that. I needed that moment to be recognized.

Pig is my first published book. I’ve always written: journalism, non-fiction, short stories, flash fiction, and I teach writing too. I have a mob of novels complaining bitterly of unfinished business from their various stashes. Pig came after a 2014 tour of North America working with organizations and individuals changing our species’ relationship to nonhuman animals. I approached Lantern Books with an idea based on this trip: a carnivore-to-vegan literary memoir, and a study of how we come closer to the animals we eat. The publisher was keen. I wrote the book in six months. Another nine of rewriting, copy editing, and proofing later, and Pig was published.

Then the hard work began. If you’re Thomas Merton, it’s okay if your books “stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption, and destruction.” For the rest of us, there are sales to make. A publisher to please. It means months of emails, organizing events. It means the people at Powell’s and Elliot Bay saying, “We’ve got Murakami that night…what did you say your name was?” It means more time on social media than is good for any writer, in an attempt to secure an audience.

I’ve got an audience in Brooklyn. Readers, artists, wine buyers, magazine editors. My introduction is conducted by my publisher. I calm my nerves (will I read well?; answer clearly?) by recalling Big Magic’s closing exhortation: “we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.”

On the face of it, you couldn’t get two more different books, or writers, than myself and Gilbert; Pig, and Big Magic. But in other ways I couldn’t have chosen (okay, it was a recommendation) a better book as company. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was a writer without fame or fortune. She had three well-received books, and still worked full-time elsewhere. But like Gilbert, “my intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing” and that meant finding a way to be the professional writer; maybe even making money from it. Because I was not making any money from this tour. Lesson two: in Gilbert’s words, “I became my own patron” to make this tour happen. Even mid-list authors at big publishing houses are expected to organize, and usually pay for, their promotion and travel. And that’s okay.

Lesson three: opening nights will always be nerve-wracking. But that’s okay too. The evening is full of goodwill and good sales and good food and fireflies and my new shoes start to break in; and, yeah, I’ve finally achieved something I’ve dreamt of for 35 years. I count myself lucky; a little bit of big magic has found its way to my door.

Various Locations, Including a Chicken Slaughterhouse, Toronto
The last two chapters of Pig tell the story of my involvement with the Save Movement, a group advocating for the end of the exploitation of nonhuman animals, which holds regular vigils to bear witness to the vast numbers of animals killed every day. Pig is one of the first published accounts of this movement, and it’s important for me to return and support their work; okay, as well as sell my books.

On the flight from New York I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. As a vegan writer, there are few representations of veganism or vegetarianism in literature; I want to study them, to see how we come across. Pig is a vegan memoir; in my fictional writing, also, I experiment with vegan characters to explore difference, especially around toxic masculinities (the macho need for meat). The Vegetarian was—or should have been—the ideal book to read before hosting a potluck, reading to a crowd outside a slaughterhouse, and giving a talk to activists at the University of Toronto.

But The Vegetarian is a disappointing book (Jon Yargo and I will have to disagree on this one). The emotions are “vague” and “almost.” The female protagonist is passive; we hear her voice only through italicized fragments or the eyes of of other people. As Kate Tempest says, “there’s a temptation to create passive female characters. It’s a narrative trap set up by the male standard that you’ve got to fight. I don’t know why I fell into it. I don’t even know any passive women!” It’s easy to see what Kang has tried to do by exploring the ways in which male culture objectifies women—but do you do that by again objectifying a woman?

But The Vegetarian was the right book to read for Toronto. It made me observe more closely the active (not passive) and present (not withdrawn) women who lead the advocacy movement in the city. The vigils are organized and run mainly by women. There are men participating, but the Save movement is led and shaped by proactive, intelligent, and compassionate women. So across my three events, I prioritize reading the sections that speak to the ways in which feminist ethical thought has shaped my work. That feels the right thing to do for this white, British, middle-class man with a book in his hand.

I need a new book for travelling. My host Lorena, who runs healing circles for those who attend the vigils, tells me about a second-hand store 10 minutes walk away: Circus Books & Music. Within half an hour I’ve got four new titles, including The Beluga Café by Pacific Northwest writer Jim Nollman, a book that will come in handy later.

The FARM Animal Rights Conference, Los Angeles
Four days in a hotel. I’m here to “work the room” and promote Pig to hundreds of animal-loving attendees as well as help out on the Lantern Books table, and do my first official signing. Conferences can be good places to sell your book if the theme is aligned. But four days? That’s a lot of “working the room” for a writer who prefers early nights.

By Day Three and the awards dinner it’s all a bit much. I’ve done my “meet the writer” signing. I need time out. I get caught reading a novel at the bar while the other 1,700 delegates are, mostly, attending the gala. At least the novel is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the most well-known fiction to explore our relationship with the animals we eat. The only “appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb [the novel],” says Costello, “is in silence and in solitude.” It’s too cramped in the gala; too many people; and too much weird singing. For an introvert writer, a book tour is a many-peopled challenge. And the conferences at which our books might sell are one long, tiring, smiling engagement.

A Hollywood music producer comes over and starts chatting. This is the type of contact I should be cultivating, says my promotional brain; she produced the sound for the new advocacy film Unity. She’s attractive, too. “Does the mind by nature prefer sensation to ideas; the tangible to the abstract?” asks Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello’s son as he lies in bed with a woman he’s just met at…okay, a conference (albeit one at which his mother, not he, is the invited writer). Well, tonight the mind prefers the ideas, the abstract. I need quietude; to read.

As soon as I say this, the music producer admits she’s overwhelmed by all the people too. She squats down—I don’t ask her to sit—and we talk about the need for creative solitude. I didn’t expect there to be much on this tour—but this little? Another lesson: you cannot, as Le Guin says, be both a writer and a person on the book tour. “People line up to ‘meet the writer,’ not realizing this is impossible,” she continues. “Nobody can be a writer during a book tour […] All their admirers can meet is the person—who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner.” Right then, probably all three.

Writers live with this contradiction. We read in solitude, and we write in solitude. But in between, we need to make connections, and it can be a trial, a judgement. We do it as person or writer (or both); and yet who this I, this you, this writer/person is, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, as Le Guin says, the book tour “recovers for us the social act.” It brings us out into the world again. It might feel like the gates of hell, but it is also a doorway to other people.

Phinney Books, Greenwood, Seattle, Wash.
The dreaded fear on every tour is, of course, that no one will turn up. Well, not no one. That would be okay; you slink off with only the bookseller’s disdainful smile and a few hours saved (nothing more welcome than a cancelled social engagement). But if two people and a dog turn up, you have to sit through the embarrassment and shame that they know that you know that hardly anyone came out for you. And that despite your author-status, in this town, on this night, you’re still a nobody. That smarts.

Apparently there’s an anthology about book reading failures. I cannot find it, and perhaps the included writers have thought better and sought injunctions to have it censored. Or maybe it’s that, as Gilbert says in Big Magic, failure is not what it seems to be. According to the acclaimed Anne Enright, “failure is what writers do.”

Tell that to a writer waiting for a crowd to arrive on a warm, sunny evening in Seattle. Warm and sunny means people don’t want to come inside. Great.

I go onto social media to seek advice from fellow writers. The best is from ethicist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. “Don’t judge by numbers. Give those two people (and the dog) everything that you’d give a larger crowd. Then you know you haven’t let them down. Or yourself.”

And so that’s what I do. Seattle is my smallest event. But there are some people, including a friend, and including a woman from the mid-sized non-profit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, who happens to be in town. She buys a book, and is generous in her praise of the talk. And yet that isn’t the magic. About halfway through, two young girls (and a dog! called Fenway) slip in at the back. When the questions begin, one of the girls shares her story: she was diagnosed as diabetic, and was on her way to losing her sight and having a foot amputated. But she adopted a vegan diet, recovered her sight and saved her foot. She’s still diabetic, but her health is massively improved.

I understand that—while it is no panacea or cure-all—vegan food practices are healthier for humans, and the only way to feed a planet of nine billion. Others in the audience give the girl incredulous looks. But the woman from PCRM corroborates her story with direct reference to medical research.

Then I understand: this event isn’t for me. I didn’t organize it to sell books. I organized it so this young woman could have her story validated by the woman from PCRM, who she would never have met otherwise. And I learn this lesson well: you don’t write the book for yourself. Once it’s published, it’s not yours. It’s theirs.

Before I leave, I ask Tom the bookseller (and author of A Reader’s Book of Days, essential desktop material for all writers) what he’d recommend. He puts in my hands The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

“It’s an old book, but reissued,” he says. “It’s my favorite right now.”

“Okay, then I’ll take it,” I say, equally unequivocally.

I’m full of relief the evening is over, eager to settle up and have a drink at a bar. So eager in fact that I trade the sale of three Pigs for which Tom has taken the money, for The Last Samurai. This is a learning in itself: that getting out of the bookstore with your profit can be an escape act—not because of the bookseller, but because of a) the relief of selling any at all; and b) what else do you do with cash in a bookstore?

So I leave two bucks down, and four copies of Pig heavier, taking back some advances I’d sent ahead. I start reading The Last Samurai that night. It’s a sublimely written tale of the life of Ludovic, a child genius, and his mother Sybilla, that explores the limits of genius (or knowledge porn, as Brian Hurley puts it) through Ludo’s search for his father, told through his prodigious learning—dozens of languages, engineering, history, literature, film. All this is sieved through their mother-and-son obsession with Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai

It’s only now that I wonder if my fear of the low turnout and the, well, actual low turnout, was on Tom’s mind as he recommended The Last Samurai. In the last pages, when Ludo’s narrative arc has come to its end, he meets another genius, a pianist his mother once took him to see in concert. This pianist cannot play concerts any longer because of his unconventional and noncommercial approach. Their discussion turns to what art is worth making and how to put it into the world.  That is, even if there are only five people in the world who will buy the pianist’s CD (my book) but they are the type of person who will buy his CD (my book) and get off their train (path in life) to work for a sculptor in Paris (challenge themselves and do something amazing)…does he (me) need 10,000 people to buy his CD (my book)? Does he (I) need 1,000 people at his concert (my reading)?

Or just the five people (and dog!) that matter? Discuss.

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.
Or, let’s talk about fathers. Jim Nollman’s The Beluga Café is an enjoyable book. Considering it was published in 2002, it was weird how often it turned up on shelves during my tour. Perhaps the most magical element is that, for an adventure with “art, music and whales in the far North” the artist-adventurers never actually see any whales. There’s a hint of this when Nollman quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” But it’s a good book for touring the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of the clash of cultures between Western colonial whites and the Inuit. It would be a lifesaver during the reading at Village Books.

I’d fallen on a successful pattern for book readings of less than 20 people. I’d introduce how I wrote Pig, then read for 10 to 15 minutes and open it up to the audience to hear their stories, before reading another section. I ask Clarissa, a local vegan who’d given me support on Twitter in generating interest for the event, to share her story. Then I open it up to the wider audience; a man in his ’60s puts up his hand.

“So, you, as a vejjan [sic]” he says to me, “what do you think about the Native Americans hunting whales?”

I’d wanted the moment to be a sharing of stories, not Q&A, and whales hadn’t featured; but okay, I’d read Nollman so I was prepared. No, I’m not another white British colonialist telling the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest they can’t hunt whale. But for myself, as for Jim Nollman and his companions, I just don’t believe people can “own” whales.

It settles him. The conversation continues, I read another section, and then there’s the Q&A. The troublemaker raises his hand.

I often read from the first half of Pig, a memoir of growing up as a meat eater, and the family consternation at my attempts to go vegetarian. So I talk about growing up, and explain how my father is/was an alcoholic, and in 2008 went on a bender and went missing—and remains missing. I read this bit, admitting that it’s also for affect. I want to move people with my writing; and this bit moves people.

I never guessed anyone would actually ask me about it.

“So can you explain the relevance of your missing father to this book?”

Later, a friend says she wanted to hug me (and slug the guy). But wasn’t this why I’d written the book? To answer that question: not for him, but for myself?

I say that toxic masculinity is a major global problem; the perverse need for men to dominate others, to own or consume their flesh, is wrecking our world. And maybe having a father whom I rebelled against at such an early age, who left my mother when I was two, providing my sister and I with a childhood shaped more by women who cared and less by men who drank, made me feel this way. Staring down the crises we face—climate change, deforestation, water pollution, our common health problems, gender inequality, the suffering of other species—calls for care and interdependence, not more toxic machismo.

Another guy in the crowd thanks me for what I’ve said, and shares his own story. After the reading is over, the troublemaker comes up.

“You know, I rescue those little black and red ladybugs from my car windscreen and put them into the grass,” he says. “So maybe I’m a little bit vejjan too.”

Hey, maybe. Isn’t that a start?

Silently I thank Jim Nollman and his sober failure in the Arctic, a failure that, as a writer and artist, he suffered, but was able to blend into a humble story of adventure and commitment. “Few professionals make their livings describing internal demons,” writes Nollman. “These professionals have decided that the internal story must be excised from their documentaries and non-fiction accounts, best left to novelists and feature-film writers to invent. What is it? Sissy? Too difficult? Too personal? Or is it just deemed uninteresting?”

Too difficult? Too personal? I don’t know. What I do know is I’m glad I wrote that part about my father. I’m glad I read it out. And I’m glad I was asked that question.

Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the End
There are two more stops on the tour—Portland and Vancouver, B.C., and five more lunches and readings and dinners and signings, including a talk in a church to 150 people, which emphasizes the lessons I’ve learnt. Not least of these is that having locals on the ground organizing and supporting makes the event go swimmingly. So what practical things have I learnt for the next tour?

two people and a dog is okay, too—and sometimes, better
invitation is better than confrontation
rely on social media only so far
don’t think that you’ll get downtime in between events
being professional counts; those sore shoes, trimmed nails, suit jacket all go towards the impression you leave on the individuals who turn up

I may have laid down on the floor of an Airbnb apartment and cried that I did not want to get up and travel for another six hours to do it all again. But I did get up. I did do it all again. And what I earned from doing that will not be taken away easily.

What did I earn? Freedom. Freedom from the fear that your work doesn’t count. It counts. Even if it’s for the five people who buy your book, but those five people, as Ludo says, cross the bridge, take a train, and go to work for a famous sculptor (or some similarly beautiful thing) because they read your book (or listened to your CD).

“The most ancient, most urgent function of words,” writes Le Guin, is “to form for us ‘mental representations of things not actually present,’ so that we can form a judgment of what world we live in and where we might be going in it, what we can celebrate, what we must fear.”

We create books or write essays and invest in the infrastructure around that writing; we put it into people’s hands and ask them to read, or listen. This is an auxiliary but no less essential part of the writer’s craft. It is a hard slog; there is little downtime in the downtime. But the joy of meeting people and having them hear your words; the emails and reviews that emerge from the ether; the connections made between people who ‘get’ the same mental representation that you do… All this means that maybe you’ve given them something to think about, and that changes them.

And remember this: you will never have a first book tour again.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.