John Grierson famously defined documentary filmmaking as “the creative treatment of actuality,” concisely capturing the purportedly objective aims of documentary in relationship with the artistic decision-making inherent to the filmmaking process. Nonfiction writing could be viewed in a similar vein, sharing the goal of telling a story with impartiality but also requiring the author to make countless creative choices about its presentation. In the case of memoir writing, these creative choices become infinitely more personal, making the task of writing an honest and engaging memoir a uniquely complex challenge for any artist.
Given the intrinsic similarities between documentary and memoir, it should come as no surprise that a seasoned documentary filmmaker—whose earliest film also happened to be autobiographical—would pen an excellent memoir.
Joyce Chopra’s memoir Lady Director offers powerful and personal insights into the life and creative development of a seminal documentary and feature filmmaker. Forthcoming from San Francisco’s City Lights Publishers in November, Chopra’s book is the rare type of memoir that synthesizes vivid narrative, self-awareness, and authorial humility to create a truly meaningful and impactful book.
While Lady Director could be classified as a written form of cinéma-vérité, Chopra’s storytelling also invites the reader into her memories in an intentional way. This balance between clear chronological biography and artful narrative makes this memoir a valuable artifact of nonfiction that is also an engaging read from beginning to end.
Chopra’s strength and acquired decisiveness as an artist enables her to vividly describe experiences, interactions, thoughts, and ideas, welcoming the reader into the different settings of her life. One of the early narrative strengths of Lady Director involves Chopra’s detail in recounting her life as a young woman in Boston, opening and operating Club 47 with her friend Paula. In discussing this period of her life as a young adult, Chopra is particularly frank about her self-doubts and creative insecurity, a move that quickly establishes Chopra’s approachable and inviting narrative voice. She also expertly conveys the evolution of her own artistic career aspirations in conjunction with her life and career experiences as a young woman.
Chopra sought to establish herself as a filmmaker at a time when the field was not only male-dominated, but male-exclusive. In several instances, reading the details of the professional injustices and disrespect directed at Chopra by powerful (male) collaborators at varying stages in her career (including demeaning interactions with such figures as Harvey Weinstein) will likely provoke readers’ frustration and indignation on Chopra’s behalf. Notably, Chopra is candid in describing her emotions in response to such challenging experiences in both her professional life as well as her personal life, accentuating her credibility as a memoirist. But even in the face of denigration and outright sexism, Chopra repeatedly refused to be outdone and persisted in establishing herself as a talented filmmaker.
At its core, Lady Director is a sincere book about a woman creating her own path in the world, building her artistic and professional trajectory in an industry undeniably hostile to her presence.
Joyce Chopra’s narratives in Lady Director struck me much more personally than I had expected, particularly as she describes her initial projects as a young filmmaker and the increasing intensity of challenges she faced even while building momentum in her career and establishing her professional reputation. For me, as a woman working toward a creative career in a creative industry with less than 3 percent of content produced by women, the experience of reading Lady Director was especially impactful.
Chopra directly references being asked by young women about how she maintained her determination and resilience despite the hostility she faced throughout her career, especially given a lack of female representation or role models when Chopra entered the film industry. Not only does this memoir provide valuable insights into Chopra’s own motivation and creative tenacity, but it demonstrates—without platitudes or vague cliches—how an individual can envision and fulfill her own goals.
For these reasons, Lady Director will likely hold a unique value for young individuals setting out to establish themselves as professionals in industries that may be less than inviting. Moreover, this memoir should assume its rightful place among core texts in film studies, based on the significant insights Chopra’s perspective provides regarding the evolution of the film industry and documentary filmmaking in particular.
While Joyce Chopra’s humility remains palpable throughout her narration, there is no denying that this memoir tells the story of a trailblazer.Chopra’s lived experiences could easily evoke notions of “being what you want to see in the world” or becoming your own role model, and elements of these ideas do naturally emanate from many of Chopra’s anecdotes.
However, the specificity and candor of Chopra’s writing enables her to illustrate that creating a new path for yourself, little by little, is not an easy or painless experience. It demands grit, determination, resilience, and boldness. And it requires a belief—even a faint belief—that whatever dream you’re pursuing is achievable. Joyce Chopra would probably tell you that it is.
STEPHANIE GEMMELL is a writer and composer currently living in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been featured in Just Place Chapbook, Capitol Letters, The Ekphrastic Review, The Rival GW, and in the poetry anthology Falling Leaves published by Day Eight. She also attended the 2021 Glen Workshop as a poetry and songwriting fellow. She recently graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Journalism and Psychology. Her work is motivated by the unique power of art to ask meaningful questions and inspire authenticity.
First published in 2009 and a recipient of the Philippine National Book Award, Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is at once an exploration of the Philippines’ revolutionary past, an evaluation of the challenges of translation and interpretation throughout the process of meaning-making, and an inquiry into the role of the intellectual1 in unveiling the politics of historical truth by countering the “authoritarian version of truth” with an “egalitarian version of truth.”2 In this story about a story, it is clear from the get-go that the author writes for the Filipino readers first, everyone else second. Gina Apostol masterfully entangles and unravels the skein of Philippine colonial history, presenting its messiness in all of its complexity.
Bold, utterly chaotic, and at times hilarious, Apostol’s novel takes the form of a fictionalized memoir by a certain Raymundo Mata, a night-blind bookworm, freedom fighter, and a fan of Jose Rizal. Providing snippets of his childhood and accounts of his participation in the revolution, Raymundo Mata’s memoir consists of forty-six diary entries, which are all muddled by a present-day foreword, footnotes and an afterword from three feuding intellectuals: a pseudonymous translator, an American psychoanalyst critic, and a nationalist editor.
There is a palpable violence and madness to Apostol’s hyper metafiction—that of the Philippine revolution and language. Our translator extraordinaire who goes by the pseudonym Mimi C. Magsalin (magsalin means “to translate” in English), the person responsible for the translation of Raymundo’s diary entries, comments how difficult it was to calmly translate the memoir and declares it “linguistically deranged.” For even though Raymundo’s first language is a curious variant of Tagalog, his manuscript has scatterings of Spanish, Latin, some pidgin, and other major Philippine languages such as Waray, Cebuano, and Ilocano. Only the last diary entry is completely written in English. The first entry is nothing but gibberish, which Apostol’s fictional erudite scholars can only presume as some kind of Katipunan code, a secret form of communication of the Katipuneros.3
Dr Diwata Drake, an American psychoanalyst critic with Filipino roots from her mother’s side, writes an addendum and describes Mata’s manuscript as something filled with “the misconstructions of the ego and the malapropisms of time” and “classic psychopathologies of the tongue (typical of the Filipino, who has an irritating penchant for puns).” For Diwata Drake, Mata’s diary is also replete with suggestive instances of “frustration, aggressivity, regression—the triad of resistances that mark revolutionary pathology.”
This madness in Raymundo’s language is symptomatic of the oppression and violence of the war against the Spaniards in which he participated. It is metaphorical madness: as the ink bled on the sheets of Raymundo’s notebook, the blood of his fellow revolutionaries stained their birth soil. The Spanish had guns while the natives4 had slingshots and slippers. As for Mata’s revolutionary circle, the Katipuneros wielded a bolo5,the literal weapon and symbol of the fight for independence. In one of his diary entries penned at the start of the revolution, Mata reveals he witnessed the rather tragic end of Matandang Leon, the first katipunero whom he saw fall in battle.
Completing the fiercely quarrelsome modern-day intellectual trio in Apostol’s novel is the nationalist editor, Estrella Espejo. In the section where she writes her notes on Raymundo’s patrimony, Estrella mentions that Raymundo Mata was captured by the Americans and was in Bilibid jail for much of his remaining days. Here, Gina Apostol hints at the unreliability of our memoirist. In entry #42, Raymundo writes down the battle of Balara as the first of the many battles of the Philippine revolution. Estrella’s footnote disputes this, citing that various commentators of our history have already noted this error. It is Pasong Tamo that is more likely the first battle, not what Raymundo has written in his diary entry. Estrella goes on to say: “Why Raymundo persists in this error is obvious: he was losing his mind.” But in the editor’s preface, Estrella also writes of Raymundo: “That the storyteller is, I must admit, flawed, maybe mad, does not diminish my faith in his story. In fact, his madness amplifies its truth.”
Apostol touches on the veracity of memory and the truthfulness of historical records over personal narratives, a recurring theme in her work. The process of remembering is a dominant topic in her more straightforward novel, The Gun Dealer’s Daughter, and in Revolution, this becomes evident throughout the fracturing narrative as Mata’s accounts are questioned, corrected, and interpreted by the three academics. As such, Mata’s fictionalized memoir serves as a montage not only of his life as reimagined in fiction but also that of the whole country. Through the linguistic interactions of Mimi, Diwata, and Estrella in the margins of the text, the reader sees how Mata’s memoir becomes a portrayal of the ways in which individuals and groups remember their past on the basis of recollected memories, both personal and collective.
The push and pull between external forces, in this case the relentless annotations of Apostol’s intellectual trio, add to the maddening cacophony of voices remembering the past and the stories about stories being told. One voice writes and records, another one translates, while another one edits, and yet another one opines. This goes on and on as Apostol, with her asynchronous storytelling, takes the reader through the various threads in her novel.
In the footnotes of the three feuding intellectuals, Apostol leaves clues on how to approach, and what to expect from, the text: “[K]nowledge occurs by distortion—for a mirror is never truth, and yet for a while it relieves us of the burden of not knowing,” and “[T]he storyteller at one point indulges in infinite recapitulation to avoid decapitulation, a literal instalment.” The narrative spawns these infinities in the translation, interpretation, and retelling of Mata’s telling.
Where does the modern Filipino reader lie in this vast labyrinth? How does one reexamine the relationship between the past and the present and the manifold functions of cultural memories for the constitution of one’s identity? Gina Apostol does not provide clear-cut answers. Instead, through Raymundo’s accounts and the dizzying annotations of the intellectual trio, she shows that the rendering of cultural memories tells a lot more about the rememberer’s present than about actual past events. Their unquestioning acceptance or vehement denial is proof of the role of memory and the social dimension of dialectical truth6.
This layer to the novel leaves the present-day reader with a simultaneous sense of hope and dread. In the era of post-truth where historical revisionism runs deep in Philippine society, it is a revolutionary act to read Apostol’s novel. The victims of our country’s bloody history (whether they be 19th-century revolutionaries rebelling against colonial forces or the Desaparecidos of the Martial Law Era7) may remain just footnotes, their memories suspended over time, their stories negated by fascist narratives. In the case of Apostol’s protagonist, a freedom fighter once a footnote in history but granted his own footnoted memoir through historical fiction, there’s barely extant evidence in the manner of physical details to allow an effective tracing of his life. But we later see that dates and localizations are largely insignificant in the discourse of pain and violence. To borrow Diwata Drake’s words, “I have no wish to deny Raymundo’s story.”
Apostol’s novel does not deny historical truthfulness. It does, however, question historical accuracy. This is evident in the blending of the fictional with the factual. Raymundo Mata, with his initiation into the secret society, meets the founder of the Katipunan—Andres Bonifacio. In the teaching of our history, Andres has been inaccurately portrayed as the Great Plebeian, when in truth, he came from a middle-class family. Mata’s memoir depicts him as the well-read person that he actually was, a reader of novels like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. The annotations of the nationalist editor, Estrella Espejo, prove especially helpful, filling in the gaps in our history where Andres Bonifacio and other key players of the revolution are concerned.
One rather intriguing twist is a comparison between Mata’s fictionalized memoir and Dr Pio Valenzuela’s actual (and very controversial) autobiography. When news of poet-ophthalmologist Jose Rizal’s exile in Dapitan broke out, Andres Bonifacio commissioned Dr Valenzuela to seek Rizal’s advice. Would Rizal give the green light to rise against the Spanish authorities?8 As Raymundo is half-blind, Andres deemed him fit to accompany Pio to Dapitan. Any contact with the exiled Rizal would have been suspicious, so it was only fitting that Mata be introduced as Valenzuela’s patient and that their trip to Dapitan was only made in pursuit of Rizal’s medical opinion.
Our historians have long since noted the inconsistencies in Valenzuela’s version of events. And Apostol blends fiction with history to demonstrate this. In Raymundo’s thirty-first journal entry, we read about how Valenzuela travels under an assumed name, Procopio Bonifacio, and was accompanied by our night-blind bookworm, Raymundo Mata himself. Editor Estrella adds a footnote on the discrepancy in the two versions of Valenzuela’s memoirs. The first one states that Valenzuela was accompanied by Raymundo Mata and Rufino Magos, both residents of Binakayan, Kawit, Cavite. A later edition specifies that Valenzuela was with Mata the blind man and Magos as Mata’s young aide. Estrella notes: “The truth of Raymundo’s memoirs asserts Rufino Mago [not Magos] was an old man while he was the young patient. In addition, while they were both from Binakayan, Kawit, they were residents at the time of Manila: further proof of Valenzuela’s notoriously unreliable testimony.” In writing Raymundo’s fictionalized memoir, Apostol offers a counter-narrative where Valenzuela has written down misleading or inconsistent information.
In the novel’s last chapter titled “Epitaph”, Diwata Drake states that Raymundo’s memoir “seems cousin to other vibrant forgeries and textual ambiguities that have plagued this fervid democracy’s highly imaginative history.” A neo-Freudian psychoanalyst critic right through to the end, she maintains that the textual deceptions in the annals of our history “underline without a doubt the eternal trauma of the Philippines: like everyone else, it is a contingent being, born of words.”
The nationalist editor, Estrella Espejo, writes that “the Philippines may be the only country whose war of independence began with a novel (and a first novel at that)—Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (‘Touch-Me-Not’). Our notion of freedom began with fiction, which may explain why it remains an illusion.” Before that statement, she writes: “The American revolution had farmers and dentists; the French revolution had a mob of lawyers. Our prime mover was a poet.”
A longstanding debate is whether the national hero Jose Rizal was in favour of the revolution. It is said that Rizal believed a premature revolution would only set the country to failure, the blood of freedom fighters unnecessarily shed, their deaths unwarranted. There’s also the inconsistency in Pio Valenzuela’s memoirs, which simultaneously incriminates and vindicates Jose Rizal. For Valenzuela was never clear on what transpired during his meeting with Rizal in Dapitan. Gina Apostol’s gifts of insight enabled her to humanize Rizal, who has long been idealized by radical propagandists and the general public alike.
Before Raymundo Mata joined Pio Valenzuela to meet the exiled hero, he too put Rizal on a pedestal. We read in the thirtieth entry in his fictionalized memoir: “Despite my bravado, this is what I knew: I would be terrified to speak to the man. I was glad that I had not brought my copy of the Noli—no need to ask him then about an autograph and risk looking like an idiot.”
Apostol sets enough tension in the scene where Mata eavesdrops on the conversation between Pio Valenzuela and Jose Rizal. Raymundo notes his admiration towards Pio, fulfilling his mission as the Supremo’s secret messenger to seek Rizal’s signature, the sign that the hero has given the go-ahead. As things stand, there is only one right answer for the Katipunan. Raymundo then shifts his focus to Rizal, noting that the hero knew damned well what they were up to. Here, we read a moving epiphany from Mata:
“It’s true. His bones did not matter. We wanted of him what was air and nothing, such as his name, a ghost louse-scratch. As for his novels, his words? Not futile but culpable. Blameless, but still: bloodstained. This pained him. I was shocked. This is what I got for my crime, arrant listener. Struck dumb: for this must be our Medusa, worse than a hero’s death was a hero’s truth.”
Through Mata’s eyes, we see Rizal in his humanity—a gifted polyglot, polymath, and patriot, who despite his knowledge of medicine, mathematics, and engineering, is stuck in a bind. To agree to a revolution or to warn against a premature one? In humanizing the national hero, Apostol provides a critique of the nation and nationalism.
And like a rabid member of the Rizalist cult, Raymundo Mata steals the manuscript of Jose Rizal’s third novel, Makamisa(a mix of Tagalog and Spanish, ‘after the mass’ in English). Apostol cleverly crafts the last entry in Raymundo Mata’s memoir as passages from the stolen manuscript. In the words of Diwata Drake, Mata’s conclusive memoir entry, written completely in English, interlaces with Rizal’s third novel. Our pseudonymous translator Mimi Magsalin adds that there is a resemblance between Rizal’s Spanish and Mata’s English. The novel’s anti-colonial sentiment shines here; the interlacing of Rizal’s Spanish and Mata’s English is symbolic of their motherland’s long colonial history. First, under the Spanish and later, the Americans9.
Gina Apostol takes the revolutionary fervour and psyche-searching of a historical novel and moulds it into a kaleidoscopic work of reflecting mirrors and looping intrigues. As per Raymundo Mata’s thirty-sixth entry, written in English and unpunctuated: “Like a novel revolution is never finished.” The statement could be interpreted as a subject-puzzle, as Mimi Magsalin suggests in her footnotes: “Like a novel revolution, [something] is never finished.” Another interpretation is conventional, using splice, “Like a novel, revolution is never finished.” Or perhaps it is none of these or all of these at once. In the end, the reader is left with an awareness that there is something beyond the intellectual exercise of writing, translating, and reading: something inexplicable, unfathomable, but still somehow understood.
1 Filipino poet, fiction writer and playwright Eric Gamalinda writes this blurb for Gina Apostol’s novel: “The role of the intellectual, according to Edward Said, is to present alternative narratives on history than those provided by ‘combatants’ who claim official entitlement to official memory and national identity–who propagate ‘heroic anthems sung in order to sweep all before them.’ In this fearlessly intellectual novel, Gina Apostol takes on the keepers of official memory and creates a new, atonal anthem that defies single ownership and, in fact, can only be performed by the many–by multiple voices in multiple readings. We may never look at ourselves and our history the same way again.”
Intellectuals, according to Antonio Gramsci, fall into two groups. Firstly, there are the “traditional” professional intellectuals, literary, scientific, and so on. In the second place are the “organic” intellectuals, distinguished less by their profession but are nevertheless the thinking and organizing element of a particular social class. For Gramsci, the intellectual has the responsibility of keeping society together and in harmony, creating a new consciousness for a social strata and bringing meaning and understanding to one’s role in life and society.
Gina Apostol’s novel asks the question: who are the intellectuals, what are their social functions, and are they even relevant in the modern world?
2From Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual. Drawing upon Gramsci’s views of the roles of intellectuals in society, Said writes that the intellectual should critique power and authoritarianism of all kinds at any cost to ensure social stability. The critical concern for the intellectual, according to Said, is the search for the Truth, which would counter oppressive power structures and fascist narratives.
3 The members of the revolutionary secret society organized by the Supremo Andres Bonifacio, they launched the Filipino independence struggle in 1896.
4 Spanish colonists called the natives of the Philippines indios. Interestingly, the term Filipino did not exist then as we know it today. It was once synonymous with Insulares, the term used to call Spaniards born in the Philippine islands.In one of Magsalin’s notes on translation, we read: “Spanish caste terms are particularly troubling for a translator of nineteenth-century Filipino society.” Magsalin asks what a translator should do when met with the term indio when translating colonial era texts. Using such a denotative term would mean taking on the Spanish prejudice but using Filipino would mean translating the text inaccurately. She writes, “I took the path of least resistance and just footnoted.”
5 Only using traditional pre-colonial single-edged knives, Filipino freedom fighters had little chance of victory against the Spaniards armed with guns and cannons.
6 On Hegelian dialectics. Hegel postulates that Truth is correspondence. We uncover Truth in the idea of others, questioning them and revealing their myriad contradictions and convolutions.
7 During the Marcos dictatorship, over 1,600 people disappeared. None of them were ever found. The fate of the disappeared remains a question mark in our history.
8 Although Jose Rizal was not a member of the revolutionary secret society, the Katipunan revered him for his revolutionary novels and sought his advice on whether or not they should start a revolution.
Rizal thought otherwise as he believed the freedom fighters needed more sophisticated weapons and a more organized strategy to mobilize the masses into rising up against Spanish authority.
But in the end, a premature revolution broke out when the Spaniards learned about the secret rebel society.
As for Rizal, he was tried and convicted of sedition. The Spanish authorities believed his novels incited indios to rebel against them.
9 The Spanish-American war ended with the Treaty of Paris. Spain sold the Philippines to America for twenty million dollars.
Born and raised in the Philippines, HAZEL ANN fell in love with reading and writing at a young age and went on to pursue Literature as her area of study in university. Her writings have appeared in national and regional publications in the Philippines, including a now-defunct multilingual folio of performance poetry Bukambibig and an anthology project telling the struggles and joys of being a young Filipina, Inday-Inday. Her review of Gina Apostol’s TheRevolutionAccordingtoRaymundoMata is her first work to be featured in an international literary magazine. She shares mini-book reviews and literary musings on her bookstagram, @literary.hazelnut.
“The virus is not so bad, it is only really concerning for the old or people with pre-existing conditions,” is a sentence I heard loud and clear too often to count at the beginning of a still ongoing pandemic now spanning more than two and a half years. I have heard it in different iterations ever since. Disabled and chronically ill people have been forced into prolonged isolation as covid continues to rage. In some cases, even that is the privileged form of dealing with the pandemic; others do not have the option. Just like they have been warning since early 2020, disabled people have been either “forgotten” or easily dismissed. Eugenicist logic is voiced by politicians and media without sustained and visible pushback. Disabled people did realize early on that this pandemic has the potential to become a mass disabling event if careful measures were not put into place. But as is so often the case, their analyses were not taken seriously.
In January 2019, the Black queer disability activist, writer, actress and model Imani Barbarin created the hashtag #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow on Twitter. As a direct response to critiques on Barbarin’s take on disability representation in Hollywood, but also in general to the constant dismissal and ignorance of knowledge disabled people hold, disabled people shared their experiences and nuggets of knowledge under this hashtag. There is so much disabled people, especially those living at the cross-section of several marginalisations, know. This knowledge—which, of course, is also shaped by different experiences depending on the kind of disability or chronic illness the person lives with, if the person has moved through this world disabled right from birth or acquires it later in life and other factors—might include an on-point analysis of societal structures which add to people being disabled, nuanced critiques of capitalism but also information on how to keep things sanitized as well as possible.
In the midst of the daily onslaught of ableism provided by people negating Covid, I found myself drawn to books written by disabled and chronically ill writers, especially non-fiction that engaged with our possibilities to live and to create lives worthy for all. I was hungry for the wisdom, humour, poetic phrases and biting commentary of fellow chronically ill and disabled people to counter a world in which our very right to existence is daily debated. I longed to see disability and chronic illness as a well of possibility, a lens which enables inclusive thinking.
The first time I felt truly seen in my experiences of pain, was when I read Sonia Huber’s essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, in 2017. One of the essays is titled “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick” and I felt that embrace while I leafed through the pages. In the book, Huber writes about her experiences as a white woman with chronic illness and pain, looks at the (US) health system, analyses common discourses on health/ illness, and asks what pain actually is/ means/ does. This might sound dire but this book made me full-on belly-laugh, especially while reading Huber’s take on the pain scale. Even if you are not chronically ill/ disabled, you might have been asked by a doctor to judge your pain on a scale from 1 to 10. And while other more complex and accurate pain scales do exist, this is still the most common one employed in a medical setting.
I have my own devastating experience with this scale as I was asked to name a number a few years back in an ambulance on the way to an ER after not one, but two trains were stalled as the conductor—seeing the amount of pain I was in—did not feel well leaving me at the train station without knowing that the ambulance had arrived. In the ambulance, I named a fairly high number for the pain I had just experienced though I already felt better. The ambulance driver ridiculed me and replied that this number was only appropriate for a woman if she was giving birth. Without unpacking the gendered (and surely cis-normative) assumptions, the full irony is that when I was finally diagnosed a few months and many ER visits later, I found out that a lot of people who had the same illness and had given birth compared the pain levels and judged birth to be less painful. But even if taken seriously, a privilege many chronically ill and disabled people—especially multiply marginalized ones—never have, one sole reply to the pain scale as a single data point seems so utterly useless. Huber’s tongue-in-cheek “alternative pain scale” instead is practical, relatable, and more importantly, funny. Her steps include: “4. Couch. All I want is my couch and Netflix”, “8. Do you still love me? Someone tell me they love me because I worry you hate me when I am in pain. Am I irritating? Is it hard to love a near-invalid?”, “13. I can’t read. The sentences are too hard. Remember when books?” and “20. Am I going to puke? Would I feel better if I puked?”.
The tone within the collection changes from lyrical to outright snarky, the form from essay to open letters to lists. The writing and stylistic choices themselves are an echo of living in constant pain. It is not just the content but the form as well which changes, adapts, and makes room for new approaches. A lot of the texts are fairly short. Some of the texts do not have long paragraphs but are written in a sort of poetic staccato: sentence, sentence, sentence. This way of writing reminds me of how my mind works under the stress of pain and the accompanying brain fog. It takes a lot to even formulate one coherent thought in one sentence as the concentration span is often incredibly short. Another lesson here: The specifics of your disability/ chronic illness does not only affect your perspective on things but also the ways you will be able to convey the knowledge you have.
I will admit that it is not always easy to truly embrace such lessons. While I nod reading and agree with what feels like my entire being, there is a lifetime of ableism lying like heavy sediment on all my muscles. It’s difficult to shake that off. It’s hard to divorce oneself from societal values and expectations around health, productivity, and what makes a good life. Eli Clare takes the metaphor of a mountain and runs (stumbles, moves carefully?) with it in their 1999 essay collection, Exile and Pride. Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. They ask how many marginalized people have tried to get up the mountain and how many marginalized people measure their lives assessing how close they get to ascend the mountain. Clare writes: “We’ve hit our heads on glass ceilings, tried to climb the class ladder, lost fights against assimilation, scrambled toward that phantom called normality.” They go on to explain that all our lives we are told the summit is worth it and the only reason for us not making it is that we are lacking in one way or another.
But the thing is, this mountain and its paths up were never meant to enable everyone who wishes to make the journey: the paths are not accessible for wheelchairs, the signs are only ever in one language, the necessary gear is too expensive for many, and the knowledge of how to use the gear is not widely shared. But even knowing all of this, it is hard to not want to even try for capitalism also tells us that if we don’t even attempt to achieve the arbitrarily set goals in this society, we are losers.
Reading Clare’s beautiful descriptions of this struggle helped me partially reassess my priorities. During the pandemic, I found myself sicker than I had ever been before. When I was diagnosed, my body was ready to shut down. I was told that I could fall into a coma at any given point. I was given the choice that either the specialist doctor in whose office I sat would call an ambulance and send me to the hospital or I could go home to monitor my situation and come to the doctor’s office every day in the mornings for check-ups. I chose the latter and was told that if I were just five minutes late, they would call an ambulance to my home as they would suspect that I am in a coma or dead.
In 2019, I would have chosen the safety of the hospital without a doubt but in February 2021, I was afraid I might contract Covid in the hospital. On top of everything, that would be the last straw. I was also afraid of not being able to keep in touch with anyone. I of course didn’t even have a phone charger on me. As you read these words on your screen, you will have already rightfully concluded that in the end, I made it through. I did not die and I also did not fall into a coma. But even after this harrowing experience, for a couple months more, I tried to run up that mountain.
I would like to say that I returned again to Clare’s words immediately—or similar words by other fantastic disabled writers—let them speak to me, and found the strength to do the necessary cuts in my life. But even if all this knowledge is out there and we can consume it, sometimes it still needs therapy, weeks of crying, and a full breakdown in the middle of the night to not only intellectually get the message but actually feel it and act on it accordingly. A few weeks after I committed to a very difficult decision in order to make my life more livable, I fell ill with a rare, but often curable, disease on top of the chronic illnesses and issues I already carry. Now, one year later, I still wait to hear the words: “You are healed from that disease.”
The first book I read about disability which also touched upon the Covid pandemic was Shayda Kafai’s Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid. As the title shows, this is not a book about the pandemic as such, but how could you write a book within the pandemic about disability justice and not refer to the ongoing onslaught on disabled people? Sins Valid, founded in 2005, is a performance project rooted in Disability Justice and centers, in particular, disabled BIPOC and LGBTQ artists. In Crip Kinship, Kafai documents the history and praxis of Sins Invalid and analyses how the project tackles or relates to topics such as community, storytelling and art-making, education, the titular crip kinship, sex and pleasure, beauty, and manifesting futures. The book is an incredible source detailing not only the work of Sins Invalid but it also deepens one’s understanding of Disability Justice as a concept and as praxis.
Kafai’s words deeply resonated with me when she describes how living through this pandemic, the climate catastrophe, and just the day-to-day of this world has affected her in the past few years. She writes: “I used to have expectations for humans that I don’t anymore. It’s sobering to experience a pandemic and see how difficult change is for people. It’s sobering to see how much pain the ocean can be in and how few fucks humans can give. It’s painfully sobering. I’ve had to do some serious expectation management of our species. You can only get heartbroken so many times before you recognize the nature of the beast.” I have read this paragraph so many times. It has fueled my anger but it has also soothed something in me. To see a person outside of myself give voice to these ideas actually ignited brief sparks of euphoria as in the middle of the often isolating experience of living during Covid, I felt deeply connected to others who are experiencing the same things as me.
As a result, Crip Kinship is not a sad book but a hopeful one. Shayda Kafai celebrates the knowledge production and inventive praxes of disabled, chronically ill and Mad people. She refers to the archives they carry and the intergenerational memory banks which exist, the stories which are told and retold and the effect this can have, especially when the perspectives of “radical disabled, queer of color contemporaries, elders, and ancestors” are centered. This knowledge could enable us to dissect white supremacy in all its forms and layers for colonialism, capitalism, racism, ableism, hatred towards trans and queer people and other forms of suppression are interlinked in their roots and effects. Kafai sees disabled people crafting themselves new routes to follow, the routes which will hopefully show us all how to circumnavigate the metaphorical mountain once and for all.
Disability knowledge–or whatever term you might find for it–is so rich but, thanks to ableism, it is all too often disregarded. Disability knowledge is about how we observe the world, how we understand and make sense of the world, how we move through the world, and how we make our own existence possible. Disability knowledge spans from vast and complex theories to the exchange of information on the nitty-gritty of navigating everyday life. One writer, artist and activist who exemplifies this is Leah Lakshmi Piepzna‑Samarasinha and during the last two years I found myself re-reading two of her books I had at hand: Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice(2018) and Tonguebreaker: Poems and Performance Texts (2019).
In the former, Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about the history of disability justice and their justified fear of this movement being co-opted, about rethinking care and access, suicidal ideation, new models of survivorhood, so called call-out culture, and making space for disabled/ chronically ill elders. Again centering the experiences and knowledge of disabled/ sick/ Mad QTPoC, especially femmes, Piepzna-Samarasinha documents activist history (which is (made to be) forgotten or over-written), offers practical tips (for example in her essay “Chronically Ill Touring Artist Pro Tipps”), and discusses conceptual work like “care webs”, which describe ideas of collective care outside the medical industrial complex. The content and context of creation is also reflected in the different text forms: there are essays, lists, and conversations with other artists and activists.
Tonguebreaker takes up a lot of similar themes but sees them reflected in poetry and other kinds of performance texts. The variety of forms Piepzna-Samarasinha employs throughout her works offer access points for different kinds of people but it also might speak to different parts of one and the same person. The texts help me to think through specific problems but also lead me to my emotions. In Tonguebreaker, they describe disability as “adaptive, interconnected, tenacious, voracious, slutty, silent, raging, life giving”. It is this contradictory truth which many abled people seem not to grasp at all but which is also often difficult for disabled and chronically ill people to access as we too have to wade through ableist thoughts and teachings. Still, for us to be able to think about disability in such a way is a lifeline.
This essay was due months ago, and then again a month ago, and then again yesterday. In my early twenties, I prided myself on making deadlines work, on being reliable, and pushing through. I still often make plans as if my body with all its realities wasn’t mine to handle. But in the last month, I had to suppress my immune system to treat one illness (a special joy in an ongoing pandemic which many treat as if it’s over) and the domino effects of medication led to me having to inject myself four times a day for a totally different illness. I have been struggling with extreme fatigue, not making it through a day without sleeping. I have been constantly in heightened pain. There have been changes in medication again and again. There are new tests scheduled. This is draining.
Living with chronic illnesses and disabilities often means to balance feelings of “more of the same” and “wow, not another drastic change”. It means ongoing adaptation. It means grieving a version of yourself which you will never be (again)–often not only once, but again and again and again. Dealing with it in the middle of a global pandemic often is more heartbreaking than usual as everything we know to be true about our ableist societies seems even more acute, dangerous, and damning. And while books are not the only source to disabled knowledge–and books and longer written texts are not accessible for everyone—they are one important source. Picking up non-fiction books by disabled and chronically ill authors allows us to feel connected, allows us to dream up better futures and to find some tools which help to manifest such a future. In October, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna‑Samarasinha’s latest book will be published. It is aptly titled The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs and I, for one, cannot wait to take another step towards a new world which includes us all.
When CHARLOTT SCHÖNWETTER was ill as a child, her parents always gifted her reading material. Now as a chronically ill/ disabled adult she feels she always has the perfect excuse to get herself new books. Her writing on pop culture and literature has been published mostly in German language publications such as an.schläge,ak analyse&kritik and WASD – Bookazine für Gameskultur. In English, she shares her thoughts on books, culture, and politics regularly on Instagram (@half_book_and_co) and less frequently but more in depth in her literary newsletter Have You Read…? (https://tinyletter.com/haveyouread).
In the beginning of summer, when I read I Have Not Seen Mandu, I thought of this line from Shakespeare that Swadesh Deepak quotes in his book. Mandu is a book of loud silences. I wonder if this is one of the few books that chronicles the life of an individual with bipolar disorder in India, written by the individual themselves. Deepak is telling us that there is no language to communicate his experience. Beyond all that is written on page, the rest is silence. His is an attempt to breach the silence, an attempt to leave us with more of it.
In 2006, Swadesh Deepak went out for a walk in his hometown Ambala and never returned. This was the last book he wrote where he tried to present a collage of his seven years of mental illness. Jerry Pinto has translated the title from मैने मांडू नही देखा: खंडित जीवन का कोलाज, into I Have Not Seen Mandu: A Fractured Soul-Memoir. The second half of the title is not a literal translation, but it sums up an important aspect of the book by highlighting that this is a broken memoir of the soul. The body, which Deepak tried to abandon three times, does not have memories. It is the soul which transcends time, which remembers the dream that the body inhabited for seven long years, which felt the memories that are relayed in this memoir. Deepak himself puts it thus: “Memory lives in the soul and therefore the soul is immortal.” It was, and still remains, the assertion of that immortal soul.
The question worth pondering, for me, was how do I begin to understand this fractured memoir? How do I inhabit this language, which is borne out of a lack, a madness whose central theme is its failure to be articulated? At the beginning of the book, Jerry Pinto, puts a caveat for the reader, “Where you think fit, add the word ‘perhaps’. For some unsettled memories are fractured.” Hence, we begin with mistrust, or maybe a warning of the fantastical events that will subsequently transpire. Against Swadesh Deepak’s gun with which we hunted his characters, all we have is a ‘perhaps’, rendering the space between language and truth infertile.
The reader is presented with an interesting choice from the get go, which is absent in the original Hindi version. They are provided with the ability to approach the book with suspended faith, as a clinical examiner would, adding ‘perhaps’ wherever necessary and thus staying within the bounds of sanity, separating the mad from the lucid, the dreams from reality and, in an extended metaphysical way, the realm of Swadesh Deepak’s body from his soul. This ‘perhaps’ supplied to us by Jerry Pinto adds an entire dimension which not just questions or saves us, but also opens up a whole new world for us–to interpret something that we don’t understand yet, to add a hint of indecision and remind us to not be too certain about our realities, to say that just like Swadesh Deepak, as we try to understand these fractured memories, we can add the word ‘perhaps’ where we see fit.
In a Hamlet inspired sentence, Swadesh Deepak writes, “There is no method in this madness.” As I begin to delve into this fractured memoir, the paradoxical need to understand the absurdity of the structure becomes the central tenet. Despite the lack of method, we need a spatial and temporal “method” to understand both internal and external events. Events which are fractured in time jump forth as isolated memories strung together with a thin thread. They offer the reader the challenge to allocate them in neatly defined temporal slots in order to make sense of it all.
Spatially, the terrain of the narrative itself jumps between reality and dream. The lines between internal and external drama are often blurred. We move from the internal chaos to an external stasis. The temporal and the spatial tie into each other, as we jump between time and space, or are stuck in an elongated moment that refuses to pass. Often time flows linearly, with him stuck in his hospital bed. People keep arriving and leaving. While, at other times, time abruptly stops in the middle of a sentence and we are transported to different places and different realities. As we search for a “method”, this narrative style offers an insight into both the fractures in thought, and often thought itself. It gives us, not an objective truth but an attempt to retrospectively reconstruct the thought process of a particular time.
The other challenge in developing a method to understand this memoir lay in building a shared narrative with Deepak. In an intensely personal work, we share the truth offered to us. However, in a memoir of his meandering thoughts, we are not privy to all the details of the paths we tread with him. The reality we build around him is formless. He sits at a party and wanders off into his dreamland. The parking lot gives way to a fever dream of a stranger prophesying his death. Symbols present themselves in disjointed realities, with varying meanings. It hints at a broader theme, where Deepak is a reader of his own experience.
While he tries to write a memoir true to his fragmented thoughts, he has to build within it a method with which it can be understood, not just by the reader but by himself. When he writes “But there, I was back from my frightening dreamworld. From dreams, in which I change form, change form endlessly, dreams which do not end or break or fracture until someone drops the curtain…” there is a need to drop the curtain to extend beyond this frightening dream world. The only method that we develop is to approach the fragmented reality on its own terms and when the curtains drop, to introspect about the frightening dream world that he has offered to us.
We are invited to take part in this fragmented reality, which is not just fragmented at a singular level of identity, but at multiple levels, which does not necessarily form a hierarchical structure or move in a fixed direction from outwards to inwards or vice versa. They form a chaotic jarring state that Swadesh Deepak is able to bring out through an honest account of his words. The fragmentation is visible at the outset with his body being a shared inhabitant of both the Psychiatric and Burns Wards. It enters into a linguistic relativity with him being torn between Hindi and English–the two languages he switches between, his multitudinal feelings for the Seductress who visits him constantly, and him dangling between life and death. His dreams are formless and his identity takes various forms in them. Sometimes he is a tiger, sometimes a hunter, sometimes the hunted, sometimes a bird in a cage, sometimes a wolf, and in certain moments of lucidity, a patient tied to his bed robbed of time.
The language of this fragmentation, of this divide that Swadesh Deepak feels within himself, is a space to meditate on the symbology of his language and to form a bridge to the internal psychological state of a person which is both limited and enabled by this language. Throughout the book, we get glimpses into the strained relationship of a writer with his own language and words. He calls English the language of lies, and yet in his most vulnerable moments of breakthrough, he switches to English. There is a threatening quality to English offered throughout the memoir. The language offers alienation and disdain, and yet demands reverence. It is when Deepak switches to English that everyone cowers down and listens to him and yet everyone, from the boy next to his hospital bed to his wife Gita, asks him to never use the damned language. Deepak himself reprimands his children when they show a disregard for Hindi and use English, and yet goes on to quote English authors to transmit some of his most honest emotions.
The constant tussle between the two languages is present even in his play, Court Martial, where English is given an aristocratic, alien quality, that implies a disregard for the lived reality of the people of the country and yet some of the most sublime moments in the play is when English itself is employed against the colonial and aristocratic heritage it defends.
Deepak complains of having lost his words and how his illness has not just taken them but his hands with which he held his pen. His break from reality, and its relationship with language comes forth: “When it is an incurable disease, we generally forget even the mother tongue, for one lives in a land of forbidden memories. That’s when we withdraw to a foreign dream world.” In this foreign dream world, the tether to one’s own language is broken. One has to inhabit a foreign language to emote and communicate. The untethered desires and memories need to be translated into a foreign language–the “language of the mad”, as he calls it–to be transmitted to the world. The manifestation of the disease, the Seductress, does not exist in Hindi. “Hindi has no seductress. The only way to talk about Mayavini is in English.” In this confusing relationship with the two languages, I wonder if the disease of alienation from oneself drew him to English more and, at the same time, made him hate it. The use of language by a writer could be a statement in itself, a way to communicate how it feels to be stuck in a self that feels untethered.Yet, we cannot be sure if this is the exchange of one language for another or a hatred of the limited nature of language itself. All language eludes him. He confesses to Giridhar Rathi, when asked to write about his illness, “I don’t want to write about my illness. I don’t remember the events in any order.” Lost in time, there is no language for the spaces he inhabits: “We are international citizens. We have no language.” His distance and unease with literature is also filled with duality. He talks about writers and artists extensively, and then goes on to lambast them. He quotes everyone from Plath, Shakespeare and Eliott to Nirmal Verma, Soumitra Mohan and Faiz, and then writes, “Now I will not sin by reading. Wisdom destroys.” Perhaps, in one of his lucid moments, when asked to talk about his illness, he acutely sums it up: “What do I say? What do I tell you? Words have become enemies. They punish me.” With dreams that cannot be translated, he has to rely on the words of others and a foreign language.
In the foreign dreamland, there are ominous signs of an impending disease. This dream reality carries meaning. Symbology of his dreams comes forth in various forms. He is always looking for signs. Just like the reader’s attempt to establish a method to this madness, these disparate symbols are also an attempt to emote something of value to us. He is enraptured by a Seductress, who he first finds after the premiere of his play Court Martial, in Calcutta. She asks him if he would come to Mandu with him, and he insults her in return. Thus starts the fall, the revenge of the Seductress on Swadesh Deepak. The Seductress appears with three parrots.
When he meets Arun Kamal at an art exhibition and watches the paintings, he recounts looking at a particular painting. “When I asked Arun Kamal about it, he said: Swadesh, I don’t know much about painting. In our folk tales and fairy tales, we always have parrots. They are never female. For the epitome of beauty is always masculine, never feminine; and a female character always wants to bring a beautiful male character into her control. And if she can’t find a man then at least a symbol, the parrot in a cage, will do.” I wonder if each of those parrots is a life offered to Deepak. Having tried to kill himself thrice, he tries to fly away but is captured again and again.
It is often difficult to decipher if the Seductress is a metaphor for his bipolar disorder or if he was literally haunted by a seductress. I carry both interpretations in parallel as they both together offer a richer view into his inner life than either in isolation. The Seductress becomes a common recurring symbol, which prompts us to ask various questions. Why is the Seductress a woman? Why is the Seductress intermixed with symbology of animals, with birds and leopards? What is the relationship of the Seductress with his impending death? What is the significance of Mandu? When we approach the text, with all these questions in our mind, several symbols jump forth. With most of Swadesh Deepak’s literature filled with violent, male-dominated, testosterone-filled characters, the presence of a woman as both an object of disdain and desire, offers us an avenue to investigate this dialectical relationship.
In his conversations with the Seductress, he alludes to the trope of the femme fatale, recounting the tale of Helen of Troy and Draupadi. He is misogynistic, and yet finds himself surrendering and belonging to the seductress. He often gives into his lust for the seductress, and finds books on tantric sex in her bookshelves. He is often torn between his immense desire and hatred for the same thing, where he both longs for her to arrive and yet knows that her arrival means his demise. His lust for her often rises to a spiritual sense of oneness and yet shows a lack of religiosity in his life. In his conversations with Nirmal Verma and his repeated allusions to disenchanted Gods, I wonder, if in all his disillusion, he did search for a broader faith that he could hold on to rather than this dangling, constantly oscillating desire.
It makes sense, even when I extend this to a metaphor for mental illness, where mental illness manifests itself as a mystical being—a being he could not make sense of properly and yet he engaged with it in an integral and complex relationship which lies beyond words. The seductress, at the same time, also occupies the complex terrain between life and death in which Swadesh Deepak finds himself. On some days, the seductress wears a white sari and sings a dirge in his name, whereas on other days, she appears as a three-breasted deity, which might be an allusion to Meenakshi, the three-breasted goddess of fertility. She plots revenge on him and then cradles him in her arms and offers the only tether to belong in this world.
The symbology of the seductress also hints at the fragility of the machismo he inhabits. This space between life and death is not just inhabited by the seductress, but also premonitions and prophecies. Most premonitions offer a feminine character to the impending doom. When he meets Faiz, he is told, “You will suffer at the hands of women. But why fear? Mirza too suffered much. May Allah protect you. But you are fated to suffer.”, while Amritlal Nagarji tells him, “Swadesh, beauty can often be dangerous….you will be destroyed. Be careful. Be watchful.” In yet another conversation when he travels to Madhya Pradesh, Malay diagnoses his illness as a fear of his machismo being shattered by the non-Hindi speaking audiences of Calcutta, at the first screening of his play Court Martial. In most of his plays, the characters are violent and loud. He is touted to chase his characters with a gun. In the language of his illness, those characters return, seeking revenge for their death. There are limited moments of tenderness, in a disease that has an immense requirement of it. Rather, all tenderness is suspicious. The moments of tenderness are also displayed as distant, acts of sympathy or through self absorption.
I am never sure if the misogyny and the fragile masculinity is a quality of Deepak himself, or a disease that negates all classically feminine traits, until they arise from the disease itself. However, it does hint at the deeper malaise of the ingrained machismo and the inability to ask for help when brought up in a deeply patriarchal setting. This violent machismo also appears in his description of the Seductress, where he oscillates between conquering her or being destroyed by her. It is in his moments when his machismo falters, that he lets her cradle him and ask him to come with her. And yet, later, in his moments of rage he detests his supposed weakness. In a lot of ways, it opens up a conversation about mental illness in men, and how patriarchy can make it an incredibly violent struggle, both physically and psychologically.
However, the symbology extends beyond the seductress, where premonitions and prophecies abound. A strange man meets him on a lonely night, and tells him first in English, and then in Hindi, that he will die. The wind knocks against his window and whispers to him. He moves in pictures, and the pictures talk to him. The sparrows and the Jungle Babbler, arrive in groups of seven to narrate his death to him. He is warned by the likes of Faiz, Amritlal Nagarji, Ranjit Kapoor and Abrahim Elkazi about his future. Death is represented in all his dreams. He travels to the space between life and death, where tigers abound and recite the poetry of Nirala, and W.B. Yeats makes friends with him in heaven. Leopards arrive along with the Seductress, and he chases them in his dreams, and is chased by them. He is both the hunter and the hunted. He sees horsemen in his dreams, which might be an allusion to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In chaos that exists in his mind, there are still moments of lucidity. There are moments when Swadesh Deepak, the English professor, the radical playwright with his sharp critique on social issues, and the gifted writer is on display. He talks to his son Sukant and opens up to him about his mental illness. There are moments where he realises his own lack of power with his debilitating condition. The subject of the societal treatment of the mentally ill, though scarcely addressed, also presents itself in a conversation with his doctor who talks about how no one understands the illness properly and there is no language to talk about it in India. In another instance as Deepak sits in his home, an unemployed man working on his next book, we are shown his existence as a non-entity. It is a depiction of the resources and the respect that the mentally ill lack in our society. Perhaps, that is why he could not find the right words, the right metaphors, in his own mother tongue to talk about his state. Maybe our mother tongue still lacks the accurate vocabulary to talk of mental illness, to discuss it with our close ones. That is why his attempt to create literature out of his experience becomes even more significant.
I am reminded of a line of Soumitra Mohan he quotes, “भाग्य कहीं थमा हुआ है। (My destiny is stuck somewhere).” Swadesh Deepak offers us an insight into the complex life of an equally complex man. All I have is to offer theories and methods to understand a part of his experience but beyond all these analyses, all the literature he left behind for us, he teaches us empathy. He leaves us with an intensely human experience, creating a place where we can suspend our belief and exist in contradictions. A place where we can try to open conversation not just about mental illness but the nature of reality in itself and how the imagery processed by the human mind can create such a unique piece of work.
ABHEET SRIVASTAV is an analyst working in the field of Artificial Intelligence, and an avid reader. Always curious, he likes to learn about everything ranging from philosophy to science, and is always tinkering with both ideas and products to create something of value. His work has appeared in The Medley, an anthology of short stories, and various online platforms. His writings can be found on his Instagram account @abheet_srivastav, and also his monthly Substack newsletter Figuring.
The light in the room is a dim, dark blue. Shadowy people crowd around the bed where I am lying naked on my side, but they are without definition: a busy, blurry hoard.
I don’t feel my skin. I’m not aware that I am crying, though I have been almost continuously since the morning before, when my midwife said that if I went home, my baby would die.
Raising the mask to my mouth, I try hard to fill my lungs even as my body involuntarily compresses and tightens. Then, I have to let the mask fall away since the rubber around its edges only allows air to pass into my body, not out.
Raise to inhale, lower to exhale. Repeat and repeat and repeat. But there’s no change. The pain of the tide rippling through me — electric, uncontrolled — doesn’t recede with the inhalation of the gas. My work becomes still heavier: in addition to the waves engulfing me, I can’t quite catch my breath.
I get my movements mixed up and exhale into the mask and it is as though I am trying to add air to an already full chamber — it goes nowhere, or backwards down my throat. It cannot leave my mouth. In those moments I’m drowning and, though the medium is my own breath, I feel I’m deep in black water.
There are stories so ordinary and widespread that they quietly permeate every human life. They are tales we learn passively, through mention and missive, of water and floods, fire and disaster, of disease and illness and death.
The stories’ cultural commonality makes fear of what they portend rarer than it probably should be, until one or more of their subjects comes into lived life and reinstructs in human smallness.
Wildfire in Northern California is one such teacher, as, every year now, we must live through fire season with bags packed, always ready to evacuate. Flooded streets and subways, buildings that give way in the night — these happenings remind us that we are not in control. That technology and systems fail. That safety is an illusion.
Childbirth, too, can renew this old human awareness of frailty, of our passing nature. I know this from recent experience.
2 / Cyclical Torrent: thirteen months earlier
In May of 2020, my grandmother — my last living grandparent — died. When my spouse, David, and I showed up at her assisted living complex in Troy, Michigan, there was still snow on the ground. The cold loss I felt came from more than just my grandmother’s absence. The Detroit suburb itself felt bereft — the streets wide and slick, the landscape brown and untended. If I had been from there, I probably would have recognized this as spring, but it was bleaker than any California winter I’d experienced.
Stepping inside her apartment, we found half a cup of coffee, the shower full of cheap shampoos, the fridge still stocked with Tupperware containers of food that no one was going to eat. Our task was to sort through the small mountains of paper and dollar-store jewelry that she had accumulated during her eight decades.
Our work began right away. We sifted through her belongings, placing most things into black garbage bags to be donated, and saving some others — old photos and letters, a notebook containing simple accounting of her monthly bills calculated randomly across its pages, and hand-embroidered handkerchiefs.
Grief and the sorting of her possessions tired us. When we went to prepare for bed that first night, David pulled down the left side of the covers and found that someone — probably my cousin or uncle — had pulled the blanket up over a large brown spot on the sheets. A strong body smell — of perfume, stale laundry, excrement — wafted up from the bed.
This must have been where she had had her stroke and soiled the sheets before falling to the floor. I felt my throat close, and my eyes burn as they filled. She had been alone for hours.
We searched for but couldn’t find replacement sheets. Even if we had found them, the problem would have remained: the stain had soaked through to the mattress. There was nothing to be done, and nowhere else to sleep. David covered the stain back over with the blanket and, pulling me into his side, told me he would sleep there.
That moment conjured the old realization: now she’s gone, my time for knowing her has run out. But the writer and physician Atul Gawande suggests that we ask questions of our dead. That there is more to be discovered, even when the person can no longer physically answer back. Though he means the questions to be asked in the form of autopsy, postmortem inquiry can also be extended to the emotional and ethereal, to things we cannot see.
So, I asked questions of my grandmother’s life there, as we sifted through the remnants of it, and I continued to query after returning home, as I was forced to add others to the group of addressees.
My dead haven’t all died. In the months after my grandmother’s rainy funeral, my birth family fell apart. Fights erupted over differences that had long been there, unconfronted: views on Trump, Black Lives Matter, vaccines, and the pandemic. Siblings blocked other siblings on social media. My mother stopped speaking to me. Though I’m the middle of nine children, and this should mean always being part of a group, I found myself quite suddenly and shockingly alone. It was the final razing of an already shaky structure.
Querying my grandmother and her life brought a still resolve about my future that I hadn’t previously had. Though she had dealt with the alcoholism, abuse, and neglect of family members, worked in a factory for years, and lost my grandfather a decade and a half before her own death, my grandmother had always been ready with a quick, unoffending joke. She regularly drove her friends and grandchildren around town. When she dressed up for her Bingo group’s Halloween party, she chose a cow costume and won the contest. In short, she didn’t wait for others to change before living and loving her life. I didn’t want to wait anymore either. The point, I began to see as the losses accumulated behind me, was to make the choice to take a chance.
So, back home in California, with the awareness of my gutted family life ever present, I made an appointment with my obstetrician to get my IUD removed. Two days after my doctor pulled out the little copper T and set it, still a little bloody, on the blue-papered tray, I got pregnant.
3 / The Present Flood
Just after my child was born, I thought that the sadness I was experiencing was due to the way the birth had gone. Low amniotic fluid. Fetal intolerance of labor. Stress and stress and stress. My baby was taken out of my body with a knife and swept to a see-through bassinet for inspection. It was a full ten minutes before I saw my child’s face. When they* were finally placed on my chest, I was too shaky from the drugs flowing into my system through the epidural catheter in my spine to hold on to their tiny body.
I don’t remember being taken back to the room where I would have given birth, and I don’t remember breastfeeding them there for the first time, though there is a photo with a timestamp showing that this happened. This forgetting is a common source of sadness after C-section, and for a while it was mine, too.
At home, my body healed both too quickly and too slowly. My belly was gone and too soon, to the outside world, I must have looked quite like the person I’d been before.
But the line where I was cut open still stood up red and shiny right beneath the place where I zipped my pants. The adhesive from the tape that had held catheters, monitors, and IV in place sat in persistent patches across my body, blackened with lint from my sweats and t-shirts.
Each day in the shower, my grief was Homer’s wine-dark sea, spreading to the limits of the bathroom.
During my first attempts to pick open the knot of my sadness, I thought these quick bodily changes and my absence of memories of our birth were the reasons my heart was broken, despite my healthy baby. But as I gathered up the days between my various presents and the static, murky “then,” my understanding of exactly what I felt I had lost was changed. My child’s difficult birth drew out the many other deaths in my life — the many people and relationships that I couldn’t resurrect. It brought to my awareness the very small amount of control I had over the family I had brought into existence by creating my child. I could not mend my first family with the birth of a second. I had not bought myself safety, but greater than ever vulnerability.
With them napping on my chest, their head close to mine, their tongue working inside their mouth and smiles flashing across their dreaming face, I realize again and again that they will die. That this is the reality of what I have made — that they are something that will live briefly, hopefully beyond the span of my own life, and then die, as we all will.
If I tried to protect my child from all risk, they would grow up fearful, and I knew from experience that fear inhibits love and the ability to engage with the world in joy. We are not safer when we are afraid. The fear itself offers no protection.
4 / Coda: Without Inventing a Life Preserver
In her poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich has her speaker intone: “there is no one / to tell me when the ocean / will begin.” When I first read this poem aloud to myself sometime in 2016 while taking a poetry class just because, I hadn’t yet lost my brother-in-law to overdose, my graduate school mentor to heart attack, my grandmother to stroke. My family, though troublesome to me, still felt like a coherent whole. And so, I didn’t quite understand what “the wreck” might be, or why an experienced diver would need someone else to tell them where their medium of travel — the water — began.
I know now that the water is engulfing sadness. The boat ladder from which the speaker must descend is the bridge between the “normal” world, calm and unaware of that which lies beneath, and the other. The wreck is the thing lost — the source of grief — drawing the mind like a circling explorer, again and again. The equipment is insufficient because you can never, no matter how many times you’ve made the trip, be prepared for what you’ll find below.
I was lucky: My expedition wasn’t doomed from the start as some birth adventurers find theirs to be. But there is still no one to tell me when the next ocean will rise up and swallow me whole. You might call it postpartum depression. But that doesn’t help me understand what this period of life is or means.
Grief is one of the skeletal structures of life, always there but not felt until something breaks. As I labored that late spring night, I wore my grandmother’s earrings. In that dark passage, I met her— myself engaged in birthing and she in dying — both of us knowing that this was the end of life as we had known it.
It is not a hormonal condition to grapple with the glimmering mortality of love and life.
My story is not the one I thought I would tell, of pushing my baby out and pulling them up onto my chest. I never had control over the process. That was taken the moment I learned my baby might not survive. But I know, even before that, I had only the illusion of it. That is one point of the common tales of destruction and loss — to remind of frailty and vulnerability. Another is just to tell of the endings that visit us all. I am grateful to share a beginning, though difficult, with my child.
I birthed my baby as ports birth ships — with the help of a large crew. We don’t know yet the voyage we’ve begun, though that horizon, always, looms.
*My spouse and I refer to our child using they/them pronouns.
SARAH HOENICKE FLORES studied creative writing (BA) at Mills College in Oakland, California, and journalism (MJ) at UC Berkeley. They are now working on their PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. They write about many different subjects — from inequities in the maternal healthcare system to Jesus Christ’s Instagram account — for a range of publications, including the New York Times, Literary Hub, and many others.
On 6th June 2015 I came to Bangalore. On 10th June 2015 M and I sat in the same classroom for the first time. On 23rd November 2019 afternoon with a little help from M I confirmed I am queer. On 23rd November 2020 we met for lunch and talked about her impending marriage while the sun burnt bright. Perhaps the brightness stopped her from looking into my eyes when she said how much she loves him and how great it feels, this socially sanctioned love business. The café caramel sundae is an ice cream that I blame for inducing queerness in my veins. It is the coffee, yes the deep dark rich coffee which makes me feel heady and wants to live a little more than I have been made to believe I am allowed. That ice cream tastes of liberation with the roasted cashews which I tasted on your tongue. Since then I have always spared some an extra moment of thought because when I taste those cashews I taste you, I taste that afternoon, the afternoon of my queerness and your continuous denial of it.
M, have you ever stood under the bright scorching sun for a very long time? The same kind I stood under when I waited for you outside Coconut Grove holding the chocolate coated biscuits wrapped in golden paper just for you. Standing in the bright sun for a really long time makes your vision momentarily blurred when you walk indoors. Blurred patches of black, red and purple swirl in front of my eyes as I wondered if it was going to be an afternoon of blurred lines. The drinks made us tipsy and our hands accidentally touched while we searched for poetry among the bookshelves of Blossoms. We kept chancing upon the same books, wanting to read the same blurb at the same time. I wanted to hurl myself miles away but stayed rooted to the ground.
Later in the evening we sat under bright yellow lights. I had just tasted the bitterness of the coffee at the back of your tongue. You took pictures of me because the light deepened the brown of my eyes. But you didn’t meet my eyes; I guess lasting eye contact was not for phases. You asked “How are you feeling?” I said, very asexual, still asexual. Once again you asked me to just wait for the right person to come along. Oh M, the right and the wrong people had come and gone. But my heart, oh my heart, stayed frozen, denied to beat while I stewed under your simmering gaze and lingering touch. I had wanted for my heart to skip a beat, feel breathless and goosebumps. I had none. I could be buying vegetables, making my bed, chatting with the sales man or having sex; it was all the same for me. The same when I kissed M, D who came before M and ABCs that have come after. It’s all the same, it always been the same. I had exhausted my explanations. M, your continuous denial was the force that pushed me to continuously accept. That evenings and, many evenings after that when we hurriedly dressed ourselves because your roommate could knock at any moment, I said out loud I am asexual. You gave me a long look and excused yourself.
We left when the sun had set. I reached for your hand, one last time. You gripped it tightly. We walked till the parking lot in silence. I wanted to look at you but it was sufficiently dark and our eyes couldn’t meet. You asked me one last time, are you okay? I said, “Yeah sure! Enjoy the biscuits; hopefully the chocolate has not all melted due to the heat”.
In 2015 I came to Bangalore. I finally had a home of my choosing. I knew no one in the city and prized my anonymity of just existing without scrutiny. Bangalore came with its canopied roads starching far off into the distance. I got what I had always wanted, hoped and prayed for- a clean slate, a fresh start. I was Priyanka and for the first time I could be who I wanted to be. The possibilities were endless and then I was hit by my queerness and M’s continuous reminder that it was just a phase.
Now, when I walk down the same long winding partially canopied roads, there is a cacophony of, “You are queer” on loop. Moments like these, my barely held together self is in grave danger of scattering on the roads. In an odd way, the city is reflects my interiority; while I am perilously close to spilling over, the city is already spilling over in every direction. My home in Jayanagar and some ruins in MG Road next to a sparkling Starbucks gives an inkling of the city I glimpsed when I occasionally visited, before finally settling down in this city. But it was quickly demolished. Concrete hurriedly pored over and the old parts kept getting replaced with new, shiny and gleaming parts. This city doesn’t know what was supposed to be and why does that resonate?
Enlarged, well lit closets often create the mirage of freedom. I am sitting in a locked room staring at the door. Taking in the stunned silence, the smallness of my metaphorical closet starts to close in on me. I share a poem on my instagram stories which goes as End of love should be big event/It should involve hiring a hall. M responds to that message; just want to let you know I wouldn’t ever stop loving you. I respond, I know that and I believe you. There is a cruel charm to this story; I shudder at what would have happened if the afternoon of 23rd November 2019 had turned out differently. Would I have continued the lead the straightjacketed life? Every time I think of kissing the razor blade of your collarbones I remind myself, the ones that entice also leave with a warm gush of blood.
M, it is grossly unfair and unjust, to leave me drowning in the sludge of queerness. I know you have said your apologies and I said it’s alright. You tinged me with queerness and I accepted it ; every time I reach for my favourite ice cream to drown the weight of living you are there in every bite, that afternoon is there in every bite. How much of what I love do I have to give up, to forget?
The fag end of Sunday and I am standing on the highway staring at the sky watching shadow of the half-moon peeping out. The sky is a sharp blue preparing for sunset. Slowly the sky swirls into an innocent yellow which has lost its capacity to scorch and burn. The yellow merges into the lovechild of orange and pink. My sister picks up the phone to capture the sunset. The dark green of the trees became black silhouettes on the screen against the setting sun, quietly shadowing the sky willing to lose its colour for a while. I lower the car window and let the wind smack against my face. The lingering winter chill reminds me of swiftly changing seasons. The queerness runs in my veins and the shadows of cost linger while the sky turns a pitch black.
Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking wrote Life changes fast/Life changes in the instant/ You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. I sat down to café caramel sundae and life as I knew it changed. My life was suddenly marked by absence. The presence of queerness marked the absence of M. The presence of asexuality marked the absence of sexual desire. My absences were also my certainties. Life changed fast. I had a closet to maintain, identities to explore and reassess the business of living and loving. I spent many nights wishing queerness was a piece of clothing that I could wear when I wished and folded away neatly in the closet hidden from plain view. But queerness was my skin; sewn into the very fabric who I was and with options to peel it away like paper. My body is the only body I will ever inhabit and it is queer. I am queer.
PRIYANKA is a law student living in Bangalore. An ardent reader of prose and poetry, she has keen interest in social justice and human rights movement. She is a queer person and aspires to be a human rights lawyer.
You drop the children at the sitter and hurry to your car, their protests grating in your ears like bad brakes. You tell yourself you have the right to a bit of private life; this isn’t the Dark Ages, you know, women pining for knights in shining armor. You’re taking the afternoon off, to hell with diapers and soap.
It’s springtime in Santa Clara and the apricot, pear, and cherry orchards are ablaze in their pinks and whites. Traffic on Prunedale is sparse, Silicon Valley light-years away. The station wagon you drive, a ’64 Olds, is the size of a hay barn.
Nick’s fuzzy-fuzzy slips to the floor from the mattress in back. He’ll wail for it all afternoon; should you turn around? Well, he does have his bottle. Bruce’s lunch pail is open on the floor, leftover cookie disintegrating, juice can rattling. Earlier he complained about his preschool teacher; seems she didn’t care for his drawing of a pony on purple grass. Purple, she said, is wrong for a meadow. Why’s it wrong, he asked you. Purple’s not wrong, you wanted to say but didn’t. American teachers, who knows what they think.
You find yourself touching your hair, your cheek: you’re still among the living—and stylishly dressed for your afternoon; none of the women you are about to join would guess you sewed your Coco Chanel look-alike while the boys slept. A blues singer on the radio is a motherless child a long way from home. Your own song, equally as sad, is a country a long way from home, a refrain that goes, You’ll never be mine again. Never my love. Words of regret roll in the mouth like pebbles.
The Olds will be a pain to park. Your husband bought it used, the safest thing around, he said, so what if it’s a few years old? Some weekends the whole family camps in the monstrosity, the dog sleeping underneath the car. The afternoon with Lawyers’ Wives, Inc., will make up for Bradley’s idea of family time.
They’ll serve Danish and coffee. The pastry will be sickeningly sweet and the coffee a mockery of what you used to imbibe at Weise & Monski, where you translated letters to clients in England and France, described fish pumps, sewage pumps, oil pumps, flipped through dictionaries for the names of pump parts. Herr Olle, proud of his language skills, liked to dictate in French. You and Annfried corrected his malapropisms, giggling behind his back, Herr Olle pretending not to notice. Everyone in the office—the department bosses, the engineers, and “the girls,” translators all: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, although Brigitte handled mostly German correspondence—everyone drank one cup of coffee twice a day during the rigidly-scheduled 15-minute mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. At lunch the chef of the Kantine scooped noodles onto employees’ plates with his bare hands, likewise the salad greens. You used to mutter under your breath to co-workers, but it would not have occurred to you to raise the matter with the men who run things. Bosses don’t mingle with cafeteria eaters; the Herren partake in the dining room. In California, though the coffee is lousy, you don’t have to put up with the server’s hands in your food.
At the meeting you’ll refrain from alluding to your past, the bread and pastries of those years; you quite understand why television Nazis get laughs from your in-laws. Thank God Brad’s dad and stepmother live fifteen hundred miles away and show up only once every three years or so. But there’s that figure of speech your husband uses on you, German Boots. Today you’ll try to minimize your inflection. Say vegetables for me, someone said last time, I love the way you pronounce your vees. You wish you could eradicate your accent, your past, your existence in another country, that sense of being left out. If only a woman was in your life: a cousin, sister, grandmother or aunt. The longing for female companionship eats on you even here, among the well-meaning ladies. In another time, friendship existed: Annfried, in France with you as au pair and later as co-translator at Weise & Monski; Nancy, an American high-school senior from Detroit, here for the summer, who would return the following year to study at a German university; Isolde on that cruise down the Rhine where you and Brad first glimpsed each other; your cousin in Neibsheim, a few years younger and named after you. These women live in your mind as your country, your birthplace, your mother, your longing for love.
Your mother died at forty-two, which stopped the insistent wheedling of her cancer yet did not silence it, for you, too, take it as a given that you will live in a body wracked with pain. Impending doom is your family story. Your mother’s line, Just you wait till your father comes home: Do you use it on your children when you’re tired or cross? If you could say to them it’s nothing but a woman’s fantasy, the Law of the Father translated into something else. Laws are inaccurate perceptions, interpretations that don’t go by the book, there’s no such thing as a father with capital F, there is only this guy remembering his hurting. Your dad the baker, away at war and prison camp the first eight years of your life: your idea of a father was your mother’s idea, a hand-me-down fantasy of the male as persecutor, judge, and executioner, a man to whom one says, Father forgive me for I have sinned, a creature who would unite in himself all the kings, knights, gods of all the family stories and fairy tales, the Übermensch, the prince and redeemer. At the Eastern front, a stranger in a foreign country, he maimed and killed his fellow humans for their perceived inhumanity. And then to come home to Father forgive me! If you could tell your children their father, too, is an ordinary mortal, a man who has suffered, who’s been defeated, who wants to be loved for a change. As a child you could not love your dad, and now that part of your life its gone for good. From your mother you learned to withhold love; your mother likely learned from hers. Is it possible to write out your sorrow, look at yourself from a distance?
A branch of Lawyers’ Wives works with delinquent girls. You signed up some months ago. Since then, some of you have traveled weekly to Juvenile Hall, where you stand beside a teenager cutting into fabric pinned to a pattern. You sit next to her at a sewing machine and demonstrate how to insert the reel beneath the slide plate, guide the thread from spool to threading points, adjust the tension of pressure foot, regulate stitch length. You work slowly, deliberately, with gestures that are easy to copy. Now you try it, you say to the young woman.
She is a girl with black eyes, a child of color. Her foot experiments with the pedal, accelerates, slows down. The machine stitches at uneven speeds, careens forward in jumps, coughs into almost-halts, but eventually begins to hum along, basting a neckline here, joining sleeve to armhole there.
I’ve never made anything for myself, the girl says, too hesitant to allow astonishment into her voice. I didn’t know I could do this.
What’s your name, you ask.
Amina, she says.
Amina, what a lovely name. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
My brother’s been drafted, she says, tears dripping on green-and-blue paisley. He’s leaving for ’Nam in a week. I won’t be there to say good-bye to him. I’m so scared! She continues to rattle away at the sewing.
You nod, you glance at the young woman, a child yet, a girl of fourteen or fifteen. You want to tell of airplanes that terrify, toddlerhood disrupted by air-raid sirens, weeds cooked into soup.
Amina, you say, putting your arm around her shoulders, I know what it’s like to be scared. The girl continues to sew, snuffling down on her work, making sure the fabric scoots along beneath the pressure foot.
Touching is against regulations, the hall supervisor tells you. When you violate the rules, you’re only hurting the girls.
You stare at her mouth, thin lips pressed together. The mouth can shape itself so lovingly; surely it shapes itself even for her?
And today, listening to the drone of minutes read at the meeting, it occurs to you that you should have protested at the German pump-manufacturing company, raised your voice to the chef or else to Herr Weise or Herr Monski. You and Annfried should have lodged a complaint. But girls don’t complain to authority figures. German individuals do not complain. Their fear of passion. Their deference to authority. Everyone is an authority in his field, even a cook dishing out noodles with his bare hands.
But this is America. This is California, the trendsetter state. It’s time you opened your mouth. At the meeting of Lawyers’ Wives you complain. In Juvenile Hall the girls don’t get to sew except with our supervision. The machines, half a dozen of them, go unused until we get there once a week. By the third week Amina has gone home or been transferred, the half-done dress and remnants still in her cubby hole. Before Amina you worked with Debbie and Ruth and Maria and it’s always the same. None of the girls finishes what you helped her begin. You’re agitated now, you practically shout at the women in their coffee cups.
There’s only so much we can do, the president says, a woman in high heels and matching accessories, groomed and exquisitely coiffed.
You slink down in your seat. It’s hopeless.You’re unaccustomed to standing up for yourself. You think of your babies, driven from the womb into your arms like rag dolls. For this you drag them to the sitter?
On the way to the sitter’s housing tract you interrogate yourself. Why did you marry a lawyer? To hitch yourself to a mouth that does the talking for you?
He wasn’t a lawyer when I married him. I am trying to find my way in the world.
Why did you decide on California? To escape some cook in some cafeteria?
It got me a ticket into middle class. Bradley got things too. We both chose this.
Someday you’ll have to take a closer look.
Your fear of water. Mother gave up on life early on but her fears have become your own. How often you fantasize about death, about loss, about dying! King Tut, the boy king of Egyptian antiquity, played at funeral all his life. All sixteen years of it.
The voyage from Amsterdam to New York, the stroll across deck. On the fourth day you wondered why the ship wasn’t making any headway. Waves heaved and lapped, but the Nieuw Amsterdam rocked in place. You imagined a shipwreck, and you unable to swim. The ocean appeared to becalm. The many small teeth below seemed to be at rest. Yet the ocean, mother of all, would swallow you alive. The future—marriage, love, sex—would slip beneath the waves.
I am going to sign up for swim classes, you decide as you exit the car at the sitter’s. Gonna learn how to swim. Presently you scoop the kids into the Olds and roar off. Nick, rolling around on the mattress in back, gropes for his fuzzy-wuzzy. A pony, says Bruce, will I have a pony someday? What does pony-grass look like? Safely home in your three-bedroom bungalow you groan with relief.
In the kitchen with an American cookbook you chop celery and onion for a tuna-noodle casserole, but the children are restless. Hungry. You should feed them right now; why wait for the man of the house? To build a tale for him: look at the good wife, how she nurtures and feeds—myths passed from mother to daughter? Wait ‘til your dad comes home, you burst out. I’m sick of it, get out of my face.
I want to be hugged myself, sink into lullaby arms, return to the mother country. I am a daughter unloved. Mutti, my mother! Where has she gone?
EDITH COOK worked as translator before immigrating and marrying in California, where she functioned as administrator in her husband’s law office and they raised three boys. She has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including two Historically Black Universities in Tennessee. in Wyoming she has been a recipient of the Wyoming Arts Council’s Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary magazines, both in hard copy and online. Her poetry chapbook, A Slip of the Tongue, was published by Graham Press in California. From 2011 to 2017 she wrote weekly newspaper columns for Wyoming’s two main newspapers. Visit her at www.edithcook.com