The writer and critic John Gardner is perhaps best remembered these days for his novel Grendel, and for a quote on the writing life that has influenced generations of writers ever since: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection — a wound inherent in the nature of life itself — and is an attempt either to live with the wound or to heal it.”
Gardner spoke from his own experience. He felt responsible for the death of his brother in a farming accident, a death that took him many years to finally approach in his short story, “Redemption.” In his 1978 Paris Review interview, Gardner said, “Before I wrote the story about the kid who runs over his younger brother…always, regularly, every day I used to have four or five flashes of that accident. I’d be driving down the highway and I couldn’t see what was coming because I’d have a memory flash. I haven’t had it once since I wrote the story. You really do ground your nightmares, you name them.”
Trauma, of course, arrives from many sources: the death of a family member, sexual assault, the psychological and physical abuse wreaked by dysfunctional families, discrimination’s poison, the catastrophe of war or famine, or any crushing event that reorients a child’s understanding of the world. The list of harsh surprises is probably endless. Perhaps that is why Gardner’s description of an art-generating wound resonates with any writer searching for the truths of his or her childhood. Damage survived through one’s art can be a heroic story we tell ourselves, a suspenseful tale of personal struggle and possible transcendence. For me, Gardner’s insight certainly helped shape my understanding of the secret imperative behind my early attempts at writing short stories: they were ripples that arose from but could never undo two defining events of my childhood.
When I was just past 10 years old, my mother twice attacked my father: first, with a steak knife over the dinner table, and another evening she slammed his head between the rungs of a stairwell’s banister, wrapping a towel around his neck to strangle him. Each time, I threw myself between them, a mere child wrestling with an adult drama whose origins I knew nothing about. To this day, the motives for that violence remain obscure. My parents somehow managed to stay together, shedding their worst arguments and over time adopting quiet guerilla warfare. In spite of daily counter-evidence, an official line developed that we were a happy family. Any past violence was a story that couldn’t be told.
Other stories awaited me behind the closed door of my room. I entered a world of books. Though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I must have understood that the more stories and novels I read, the more I increased the real estate inside where I might find a place of my own. My life is unimaginable without books, and that inadvertent gift arising from my parents’ desperate disputes and then silence has provoked my life-long artistic gaze.
Gardner’s insight has helped many writers, but as the years have passed I’ve come to suspect that it also conceals a further truth. A psychic wound can be its own healing agent, may itself contain a gift, and may offer a form of unexpected inspiration. Yet how to embrace this elusive not-damage within the wound?
I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, by the Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, offers one possibility. This brilliant novel takes the form of a memoir-in-progress being written by one Sarah Nour El-Din. Every chapter in the book is a Chapter One, because Sarah can’t seem to find the proper entry into her memoir. She keeps beginning again, trying to start from this angle, then that angle, searching for the most fruitful approach to the rest of her life’s story. But these failed first chapters give the reader a deeper sense of her marriages, her lover, her son, father, mother, stepmother, sisters, grandfather, her life in Lebanon and in America, and her artistic ambitions.
Eventually a first chapter takes on one of her troubled family’s most shameful secrets: Sarah’s sister Lamia, a nurse who overdosed her patients to death. Sarah feels she can’t begin to explain her sister’s actions, so instead she announces, “I will let her speak for herself” and includes in the chapter her imprisoned sister’s awkwardly eloquent letters. By allowing her sister a voice, something breaks through to Sarah. She begins to see her sister from the inside.
Two first chapters later, Sarah writes about a harried day in the life of her despised stepmother Saniya, from what she imagines is Saniya’s point of view. A few first chapters later, Sarah imagines a walk through the streets of New York from her first husband’s perspective. Of course Sarah can’t really know what he contemplated as he navigated from university classroom to apartment, any more than she knows what terrain her stepmother’s thoughts might occupy. But by now the relentless I, I, I of Sarah’s memoir has deepened into the competing perspectives of her extended family. They are no longer mere actors in her story but people with stories of their own, and this realization enables Sarah to move from the role of victim to that of survivor, relinquishing blame through the transformative gift of empathy.
Much like Sarah, for too much of my life I focused on my younger self’s understanding of my parents, turning them into an easy story to tell. We children of dysfunctional families try on certain emotional techniques to survive our parents, to dodge or undermine their worst behavior. Yet if we’re successful at protecting ourselves, in later life we run the risk of holding on to our hard-won tactics too long, and using them — often futilely — against the world, as if the world were our parents. In doing so, we remain locked in childhood without even knowing it.
For writers, the key to avoiding such a fate may lie in our urge to shape our characters’ possibilities. We labor to bestow a depth that allows them to take their first breaths, and by accepting their surprises we may be led to fruitful, unfamiliar territory. These skills we have learned and forged in our writing can be applied elsewhere.
My mother’s name was Edith, not Mom. This is an important distinction for me to remember. Too often, in remembering my parents, I still think of them by their official titles, the names that defined their relationship to me. Yet they were individuals fully existing in their own lives long before I was born. My mother’s father died when she was three. My father, at about the same age, was locked in a rat-infested shed for a day by his older brother. Perhaps the parallel traumas of early abandonment eventually led them to each other.
Throughout her adult life Edith, my mother, smoked heavily but never, ever was her persistent cough to be associated with that smoking. To suggest such a connection invited certain fireworks. My mother also developed an obsession about cholesterol, that dietary evil of all evils. Whenever my mother went into a hacking fit and coughed up phlegm, she announced with some satisfaction that this was a “cholesterol ball” that she had managed to release from her system. She would proudly display her handkerchief to any interested parties.
My mother also developed the habit of driving from our home in Long Island to a town 30 miles away, a 60 mile round trip, to buy a hamburger at McDonalds. I can only imagine the countless unworthy McDonalds she drove past on her journey, but she believed that particular outlet served the best hamburgers, no other could compare. It was wise not to contradict her, or to express disbelief when she asserted that all the traffic intersections on her ride home had been deviously programmed to delay her car at one red light after another.
My mother’s imagination, in these and many, many other examples, used to drive me to infuriated distraction. Why couldn’t she see the foolishness, even the danger of these beliefs? Of course, at the time my exasperation was fueled in part by fear—would I one day become like her, impervious to even elementary logic? Now, I realize that as a child I studied with a master. However emotionally isolated and frightened my mother may have been, she unknowingly gave me the gift of her imaginative skills, and I had just as unknowingly received them. This gift became the key to many of my fictional characters, including the increasingly desperate multiple personalities of the mother in my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, and the construction of fantasies that threaten to go awry in my various characters’ interior lives in the story collection Interior Design.
The empathy I needed to create these characters led me to a belated sympathy for my mother. I came to look at her invention of cholesterol balls as an attempt to convince herself smoking wasn’t dangerous. They served to mask her secret fear. My mother’s championing of a singular, incomparable McDonald’s hamburger outlet simply added a little spark into her life, a way to quit the house and the hours of solitaire she played, and go on a small journey. Those malevolently programmed traffic lights on her return drive offered another sort of excitement: despite this conspiracy against her, Edith, my mother, always triumphed and made her way back home.
My father’s name was Bill, not Dad. He was a quiet man who never learned to say, “I love you.” He’d stiffen in a welcoming hug, a nervous smile pasted on his face. His heavy drinking created an invisible wall between himself and his family. He held inside more than I could imagine. By the time of my teen years, he had stopped arguing with my mother and let her have her way, accepting any derision silently. When I was a young man, his passivity symbolized everything I wanted to avoid in my life. I didn’t understand that he had given up on his marriage and further battling meant nothing to him.
Bill, my father, worked for an import-and-export firm that owned a number of commercial buildings in downtown Manhattan. His job was to make sure the company’s buildings came as close to full occupancy as possible. One of the ways he achieved this was by regularly making the rounds, floor by floor of each building, developing relationships with tenants who hailed from Jamaica, India, and Pakistan, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn and Chinese businessmen and women from Hong Kong.
One summer my father found me a job operating the freight elevators for his company’s buildings — an easy enough task once I got the hang of it, and completely off the books, since I was replacing the regular elevator operators as they took their vacation time. Sometimes my father would take me along on his rounds during my lunch break, and I watched his easy banter with the tenants, the jokes they threw back and forth, his attentiveness to their concerns. Though they all called him Bill and not Mr. Graham, their affection and respect was obvious. I took it all in, shocked that he was so admired, since he’d long been an object of contempt in his own home.
Only many years later did I begin to suspect that my father, Bill, offered this glimpse of his business life so I would see a side of him he buried at home. He attempted to transform himself in my eyes from a one-dimensional to a three-dimensional character. Here is another gift I accepted without knowing I had accepted it — or without acknowledging, unfortunately, that I had any clue I understood what he was trying to give me. Too often I have been a slow learner, and in this case I learned too late to thank him for this, and for something else, perhaps my father’s best gift: his easy camaraderie at work with so many different types of people. I believe his example helped me appreciate my high school encounter with the Middle-English thicket of The Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer’s sly generosity revealed the voices and contradictions of the bawdy Wife of Bath, the corrupt Pardoner, the vain Squire, and the rest of that motley group of pilgrims, and showed me how to use, in my first budding attempts at stories, what I’d already gleaned from my father: a necessary curiosity about everyone one encounters.
James Baldwin, with his usual wisdom, has written, “Any writer, looking back…finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way.”
We writers are used to looking back, locating in our rough drafts any glimmer that might show the way forward. A story, a poem, a novel, or a memoir won’t reach its best destination without the labor of reconsideration, without the ability to see afresh what is obscure, or incomplete. And neither will the story of our lives.
Let’s say your family has given you…a sweater. A common enough gift, but it’s a terrible, perhaps even an evil sweater. The combination of clashing colors resembles several things you might have once stepped on, in a nightmare. Worse, it doesn’t seem to fit. There are three arms, each one a different and incorrect length, and no hole for the crown of your head to peek through; instead, a round empty circle in the back gapes open about halfway down your spine.
What to do with this? It can’t be worn in any comfortable way. Hide it in a drawer and hope the moths will find it? Place it in the middle of a box of old clothes, deliver it to Goodwill, and rush out the door before anyone notices? Or take the sweater out to the backyard, improvise a ceremony, and then burn it, trying to read the smoke trails as they slip away in the air?
Each of these tactics is a possibility, and they may even be the most popular choices. I’d like to suggest something else. You cannot wear the damn thing, it will never fit, so stop trying. But you can’t ignore it, either. And its destruction would only be an illusion. Instead, take the sweater apart. Unravel it thread by thread. Examine the length, thickness, and color of each thread and discard nothing of what you’ve been given. Then, prepare your own pattern and make a new sweater, one that fits. Or make a set of gloves, a hat with the warmest earflaps, hand puppets, or a scarf. If you don’t like the scarf, take that apart and make a tea cozy.
Whatever you create will still be made from that evil ugly sweater. There’s no escaping that, it will always be there. So make it into something you can use.
An early version of this essay was initially delivered as a craft lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Image Credit: Pexels/Nguyen Nguyen.
Most writers are willing to make sacrifices for their art, but in Philip Graham’s case, the sacrifices of 1979 were literal: a chicken and, not long after, a goat. That’s what happens when you move to rural West Africa with your anthropologist wife, to an area of Côte d’Ivoire steeped in the supernatural. You develop writer’s block and then you go to a diviner, who insists that a jealous colleague back in your country has cast a spell on you. Sacrifice a chicken, she says, and if you’re a certain kind of person you might thank her kindly and be on your way. But if you’re Philip Graham, that thought doesn’t cross your mind.
The sacrifices worked. Who can say why? Maybe the ritual of villagers gathering under a sacred tree, spilling the blood of a chicken onto the ground, has a way of motivating a writer. Or maybe the placebo effect performed its magic, like a sugar pill lowering blood pressure. Or maybe the explanation is simpler than all that. Maybe the spirits were appeased, grateful for the token, happy to release the writer from torment.
Now, 25 years later, the fruits of Graham’s unblocked mind are many. Dzanc Books has just reissued his critically acclaimed fiction, a novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, and two short story collections, The Art of the Knock, and Interior Design (with new introductions by Kyle Minor, Roy Kesey, and Alex Shakar) under their electronic rEprint Series. He has published a collection of prose poems and a travel memoir set in Portugal, and he and Alma Gottlieb, the anthropologist who gamely accompanied him to the diviner, have published two co-written memoirs about their extended stays in Côte d’Ivoire. Throughout their careers, both Graham and Gottlieb have felt the influence of what he calls “Africa’s tight weave of invisible powers and unseen presences,” and their work is a testament to the idea that you can go home again, of course, but you can’t necessarily go alone. Sometimes the spirits of a place will accompany you, taking up residence, influencing the way you live.
For example: Upon selling their first memoir, the award-winning Parallel Worlds, in 1993, Graham and Gottlieb set aside half of the advance. They intended to share it with the Beng people who had hosted them twice, first for 15 months in 1979-80 and then again five years later. Both of those trips had been motivated by Gottlieb’s research, and the first had been compounded by the fact that neither the Beng people nor the Beng language had ever been studied. Recalling that time, Gottlieb shudders at “the foolishness of going to a place where you can’t learn the language.” But they did learn, slowly, after hiring a young tutor and setting up home in the village of Kosangbé, population 250. Later, they lived in the larger village of Asagbé, and in each place they adapted, made mistakes, embarrassed themselves over and over again, absorbing Beng values and beliefs along the way.
One core value, says Graham, is that “if you’re doing well, you share the wealth. You help out. You don’t abandon people that have treated you very well.” In writing Parallel Worlds, Graham and Gottlieb had two goals: to craft a memoir, told in the alternating voices of an anthropologist and a fiction writer, that captured the difficulties and delights of insinuating oneself into rural African culture; and to use the proceeds of the book to help the impoverished Beng.
In 1993, the couple returned to Côte d’Ivoire, bringing along their six-year-old son and the money they intended to share. In the capital city of Abidjan, they secured a matching grant from the U.S. Embassy before heading to the villages. But like everything in Bengland, philanthropy requires careful negotiation. The village secretary of Asagbé wanted to use the funds for a new political building, while the elders of Kosangbé requested 50 plastic chairs and a stereo system. The dilemma, Graham recalls, was “how to distribute money without turning into a colonialist asshole, saying we know what’s better for you than what you know.”
After diplomatically skirting the village secretary, the couple discovered that the people of Asagbé actually wanted a mill, which was exactly the sort of civic improvement they’d imagined. In Kosagbé, the elders asked for repairs to the village water pump so that girls and women would no longer have to rise at 4:00 AM and walk miles to a water source, but they also really wanted the plastic chairs and stereo. As the tribal seat of Bengland, they explained, the village often hosted regional events, and it was embarrassing not to be able to offer seats to older people who had walked many kilometers through the forest. The chairs would restore a sense of pride to the village. As for the stereo, too many young people were moving to the city for its social life. With a stereo system, Kosagbé could host dance parties to attract Beng youths and keep the village population from shrinking. Graham and Gottlieb’s response was swift: You’ve got it, friends.
That sort of help continues with the proceeds of their most recent memoir, Braided Worlds. This book tells the story of the summer of 1993, made all the more engaging by the presence of the couple’s six-year-old son, but it extends forward as well, to the Beng college student who came to live with the family in the U.S. The son of poor farmers, Bertin was smart and accomplished enough to have received university grants in Côte d’Ivoire, but as civil war loomed, the grants were cancelled. Graham and Gottlieb brought him to the University of Illinois where they both teach, and after completing a bachelor’s degree, Bertin went on to earn both a master’s and a Ph.D. Recently he resigned his assistant professorship in the U.S. in order to return home, where he is now a professor of International Relations at the Graduate School of Management in Abidjan. That’s good news for Graham and Gottlieb. Their advance for Braided Worlds paid for once again repairing the water pump in Kosagbé, which was damaged during the war, and the couple is working with an internationally-focused legal firm to start an NGO for small development projects in the area. Bertin’s presence and position in Abidjan makes that process easier.
But the imperative to give back is only part of what the couple absorbed while living in Bengland. Of their first arrival in Kosagbé, Graham recalls feeling underwhelmed. “I remembered all of these museum exhibits I’d gone to where there was always amazing African art, and we just weren’t seeing it.” What he soon realized was that “most of the world is invisible, and most of the things that formulate what people do come from interior landscapes that you don’t have access to.” The cultural production around him, in other words, wasn’t something he could see, but it made demands on him nonetheless. When Graham learned that the Beng suspected him of being a witch because he spent his days indoors, he moved his desk into the dirt courtyard and typed in plain view of villagers walking to the fields. When he realized that left-handedness is also a sign of witchcraft, he learned to use his right hand. And when, during the 1993 trip, his father passed away in New York and the news arrived too late for him to attend the funeral, he asked his good friend, the high priest Kokora Kouassi, for a funeral.
In Bengland, ancestral spirits reside not in some far-away place in the heavens, but right here on earth, in an invisible dimension side-by-side with the living. So it made sense to the Beng that Graham’s father, a man who had never set foot in Africa, would be accessible in the afterlife. The weeks-long funeral included all the songs and prayers and ceremonies performed for the newly deceased, and Kokora Kouassi reported dreams in which Graham’s father appeared to him, seeming content and, like any Beng ancestor, requesting small offerings of food.
All these years later, Graham remembers the solace of that time. “When Kokora Kouassi placed my father in the Beng afterlife, he gave me access to an invisible world where my father could be present, where I could imagine him. And I found that a profoundly touching thing for a friend to do.” Graham doesn’t get caught up in interpreting Kokora Kouassi’s dream; he simply accepts the invisible reality it gestures toward. “Spirits exist because people think they do,” he says, “because people live their lives accordingly.”
The spiritual world of the Beng has affected the fiction Graham writes. Before moving to Africa, he’d been drawn to surrealism, but in Bengland, he lost the taste for it. “I lived in a culture where people believed in things that were, from an outsider’s perspective, surrealistic,” he explains. “They believed in spirits and witchcraft and in the spiritual world really impinging on the lives of human beings. And so I began to see that what we consider surrealism is actually something that doesn’t lodge outside of the world but actually lodges inside every person, mediated through their culture.” In a shift he describes as lengthy and painful, Graham began to write “stories in which people lived ordinary lives but had not so ordinary interior lives.” One found a home in The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, others have been published in The New Yorker, The Washington Post Magazine, and elsewhere, and have been reprinted in Germany, India, and the Netherlands. And the experience of imagining his American father in an African afterlife has influenced the writing of his novel-in-progress, Invisible Country.
For her part, Gottlieb wrote the kind of dissertation expected of a cultural anthropologist, which she then revised into an academic book. But co-writing a memoir about Bengland, she says, liberated her from being chained to one genre, even within scholarly work. Her books range from The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa, to a co-edited anthology, A World of Babies, that offers creative accounts of childrearing around the world. Her chapter describes the Beng custom of festooning babies with jewelry, not just for decoration but as a way of enticing their spirits to stay in this world.
These days, Graham and Gottlieb remain in touch with their Beng friends — despite time and distance and civil unrest — the way people everywhere do. They email, use Facebook, make calls from Skype to a cell phone half a world away. In the middle of Kosangbé, their friend Yacouba answers, and within minutes all the villagers gather around, shouting and laughing and calling out greetings to their friends, the couple they renamed Amwé and Kouadio, the couple who came back again and again. It’s a marvel, really, all those voices floating back and forth, all those people at once invisible and, according to the Beng, eternally present.