This week: The value of personal essays, a memoir about growing up as an untouchable and a wide-ranging reflection on losing things and people.
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What counts as ‘too personal’?
I’ve always liked reading personal essays, I gravitate towards them at a far greater rate than poems or novels. I don’t care that it’s currently a derided form. But the act of actually writing one is something that baffles me – why be vulnerable when you can choose not to be? Despite my love for the genre, I’d never really been able to articulate why I enjoy personal essays so much. As these things go, I found it in a piece titled ‘The Personal Essay Boom is Over’. After explaining the factors that have contributed to the form’s disappearance from the internet (itself a very controversial opinion) Jia Tolentino, concludes by summing up why she likes personal essays, “I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.”
And that’s really where the thrill lies, for me, I think. That our lived experiences may be stories rather than just life. (By the way, I too am guilty of turning lived experience into a story for public consumption. I wrote it before I knew how to navel-gaze properly.)
Whether one agrees with Tolentino’s assessment or not, she makes some points that are certainly worth considering. The condition of the media industry (strapped for cash and in need of more content) definitely aided the proliferation of essays, mostly by women, that many would consider ‘too personal’. For a while, the kind that focused on “identity and adversity” could be found everywhere. It still exists in many places. (I often find it on Cosmopolitan’s snap stories.) But many women who wrote personal stories to connect with others and make it as writers, gained neither professionally nor personally from their by-lines. They found disdain instead of support and often were paid little or nothing for their work.
And as others like Scaachi Koul (who recently published a book of personal essays) have said, the whole issue with the form only cropped up once women took to it. The world seemed happy to consume pages and pages of men writing about themselves without too much thought to the value of the form.
Of course, this week’s newsletter is all about personal essays because I read an alarming amount of them this past month, which in turn made me return to older ones that have gotten stuck somewhere in me and rattle my consciousness from time to time.
‘Your life is your caste, your caste is your life’
Sujatha Gidla starts her piece, ‘Growing Up as An Untouchable’ with a line that seems to flow directly from Tolentino’s concluding paragraph, “My stories, my family’s stories, were not stories in India. They were just life.” But moving to the US made her realise that from another perspective, one which doesn’t understand the caste system, her experience of being untouchable, carried the weight of the significant. It became something that was worth probing.
Gidla spends some time explaining the caste system to her readers, how no matter where she went in India, she was presented with a choice – to risk exclusion by admitting she was born an untouchable or use her educated status to her benefit by lying about her caste. But lying meant she couldn’t share stories of her life with any of her peers because her stories would reveal her caste. “Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life.”
In an essay about why she ultimately prefers writing novels to essays, Zadie Smith points out that all writing is artificial and performative. What we choose to reveal and hide tells a story in itself, so the personal essay too is a form of narrativising that is no ‘purer’ than the entirely fictional novel. In Gidla’s piece, her narrative choice in the very beginning is plain to see – she has to explain caste to people who don’t understand the system, who have no easy analogies they can reach for to make sense of what she will say next.
She describes growing up thinking her family were treated poorly by others because they were Christian and the others Hindu. But then movies and then college threw up different questions for her. Gidla recalls watching a movie in which a Christian girl’s family rejects a Hindu boy. She had not known that rich Christians could exist before then. At college, she wondered how certain Christian girls accrued so much social capital compared to her relative anonymity. And was then introduced to the idea of ‘brahmin Christians’ and therefore caste.
Gidla’s story is not limited to her own experiences with caste, in India and then the US. Her new book, Ants Among Elephants, is a memoir that recounts her family’s experiences of untouchability over generations.
She writes at length about her uncle K.G. Satyamurthy, known as SM, who “was a principal founder in the early 1970s of a Maoist guerilla group” and her struggles in interviewing him and other aging members of her family about their experiences of being untouchable.
Every time I’ve read a book that deals with a not-so-recent past, the kind that involves collecting the stories of a generation that’s fading into non-existence, I’ve wanted to ask the author, “Did it make you sad? How do you deal with the grief of losing each person you’ve preserved in your book?” It’s not exactly an easy question to ask, but Gidla’s piece finally gave me an answer.
“When these deaths come, they traumatize me. I cannot speak or eat or sleep. I cannot stand or sit up. When Nallamma, a peripheral figure in the story, died soon after I spoke to her, it nearly killed me. No one could understand. When friends, not knowing how I felt, tried to coax me out of bed, I turned violent.”
She writes about her disappointment that her mother’s other brother Carey, was always too drunk to be intelligible and so his stories remained inaccessible to her. (He also refused to tell her about things like his sexual conquests, despite Gidla’s assurances that people in the West don’t view sexuality with shame). There were other cases too that frustrated and saddened Gidla, but she admits that what she was truly bothered by was the loss of their stories. (“And then my father’s aunt Dyva Vathi. She fell. Lost her memory. Her memory!”)
Gidla’s book, ‘Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’ is set to be released soon. However, given her emotionality over these deaths, Gidla’s mother decided to protect her from such news. She knows that SM had a stroke, she recounts not understanding much of what he had to say when they last met since he had lost all his teeth. But, here’s the real problem (or story): “As of this writing, I do not know if this book’s principal subject is alive or dead.”
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On losing things (and people)
‘When Things Go Missing’ is one of my favourite pieces from this past year. I’ve come back to it several times since it was first published, in different moods at different times because it covers such vast emotional territory so eloquently.
“The verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in forlorn. It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from a still more ancient word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. In the sixteenth century, we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and one another and has been steadily expanding ever since. In consequence, loss today is a supremely awkward category, bulging with everything from mittens to life savings to loved ones, forcing into relationship all kinds of wildly dissimilar experiences.”
Katherine Schulz starts innocently enough, recounting a summer of losing things. Schulz, who is not a habitual scatterbrain, started to inexplicably forget a large number of things one summer in Portland – wallets, keys, where she parked an enormous truck, a tshirt. Which led her to muse on the various unsatisfying explanations we have for losing things. The scientific one (we simply didn’t register an action in our memory) and the psychoanalytic one (we subconsciously wanted to lose the thing that we misplaced).
Schulz is mildly, easily funny in her narration of the “staggering” number of things it is possible to lose. “The only thing in the real or the digital world harder to keep track of than a password is the information required to retrieve it, which is why it is possible, as a grown adult, to find yourself caring about your first-grade teacher’s pet iguana’s maiden name.”
Then she turns introspective, musing on our human need to lay blame with someone, our search for causality and how lost objects defy that urge.
“Being human, we’re often reluctant to assign it to ourselves—and when it comes to missing possessions it is always possible (and occasionally true) that someone else caused them to disappear. This is how a problem with an object turns into a problem with a person. You swear you left the bill sitting on the table for your wife to mail; your wife swears with equal vehemence that it was never there; soon enough, you have also both lost your tempers.”
And then just like that, Schulz transitions into talking about her dad, who “in addition to being scatterbrained and mismatched and menschy and brilliant, is dead.” She does the heartbreaking work of creating context by describing his life, his many illnesses, the inevitability of his demise that was routine yet seemed improbable.
And so Schulz describes her second season of loss, one in which she tried to make sense of losing her father, during which she lost her appetite for reading and her will to write.
Grief is such an intense feeling that it drives many people to write, yet it is so personal that writing about it is incredibly difficult. Schulz manages it beautifully. She writes,’“Lost” is precisely the right description for how I have experienced him since his death.” And adds:
“With objects, loss implies the possibility of recovery; in theory, at least, nearly every missing possession can be restored to its owner. That’s why the defining emotion of losing things isn’t frustration or panic or sadness but, paradoxically, hope. With people, by contrast, loss is not a transitional state but a terminal one. Outside of an afterlife, for those who believe in one, it leaves us with nothing to hope for and nothing to do. Death is loss without the possibility of being found.”
It seems like it should be difficult to conflate or understand both types of loss as somehow similar but she sums it up well here, “Regardless of what goes missing, loss puts us in our place; it confronts us with lack of order and loss of control and the fleeting nature of existence.”
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