On staying in Chile

Somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020

I’m currently in the process of working out how I’m going to stay in Chile. Not forever, just for longer than my current visa allows. My Chilean friends think I’m mad. Why would I stay somewhere with such an unreliable social and political system? Why would I want to live here where the police are hostile and the government corrupt?

My family I think also struggle to understand why I would live somewhere that makes me so poor. We are living in different worlds, in more ways than one, and I’m like the squirrel Ratatoskr in the world tree, running up and down through the different places, only really belonging to the tree itself. Luxury hotel to shared dorm in a hostel, neither really fit me.

But why stay in Chile?

The truth is it being Chile doesn’t really matter. If the cards had fallen in a different pattern last year, it might have been a different country, but they fell as they did and I ended up here. I ended up beneath the military curfew in a house of Chileans and with friends who are Chileans and I watched as people began to speak about sadness in a way that I have rarely ever seen.

That squirrel in me that scurries around collecting stories, peering into other people’s lives, stopped and stared. Here there was something new, something as yet unseen but something incredibly familiar.

Deep sadness resides in all of us, even if we don’t often recognise it as being there

For me, recognising my own submerged sadness has been a battle of therapy and self-love. I do not always find it easy to identify sadness, but being resilient and strong depends on my willingness to put the effort to accept the sadness within.

Now the volume of my sadness has, I believe, reached a natural and healthy balance. Whilst I will never be ‘over’ my trauma, the event has been relegated to history. I have mourned that shattering of my being and I have rebuilt myself in a different fashion. Through that rebuilding, I have changed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I now have a great curiosity about this post-trauma period of change that is necessary to rebalance the self.

Chile is a place of scars

Graffiti covers the walls in town, screaming the people’s pain. The fear and the hurt are real, the question for me is how do the people recover, redevelop their own sense of their own identity. Is it possible to do it in a healthy manner, or the more this goes on, is it to be more of the same, more of the ‘us and them’?

It’s not just Chile where such an attitude leaves scars behind, the whole world is bathed in a painful mixture of fear of the other. It gets more complex in Chile because of the history of the dictatorship and the current role of capitalism, which has a weird Stockholm syndrome like effect upon the people. Nurseries in my town are advertised with pictures of smiling girls with yellow pigtails when in the yard such children rarely exist. Similarly, the smiling faces on my university notebook have had the colour zapped from them, leaving a set of images behind which would not be accepted in England anymore – they would be considered unrepresentative of our genetic diversity. Pale skin is also associated with those who are better off. Those who wield power.

Chilean Flag
Praying for Llamas
Near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, January 2020.
(Dear Mother – do you have the place name?)

When we were in the Atacama desert, an indigenous lady, in jeans and a t-shirt, showed us carvings in the stone walls of the craggy valley that ran beside her small town, pictures like llamas and birds. The engravings were done slowly, with rituals and deep meaning, focusing the people on what it was that they desired, focusing the community on the needs of the whole community. I asked if the people still make such images and she shook her head. Why not? Her face changed. She hesitated. Vergüenza. Because they were ashamed. They didn’t want to be laughed at.

But did she believe?

Undoubtedly. And as we drove back from the river I saw the flocks of sheep shuffling along together with feathers marking their woolly coats with signs of protection, protection that would spread from the sheep to the earth and to the environment and which would look after the people who depended upon the land.

In a world crumbling under climate change, I would suggest that such shame is dangerous. I listen to the stories and I hear about how much damage is being done to the wildlife through mining, or how taking sea-kelp from the ocean to give bathroom products that gel texture is destroying the wildlife beneath the waves, and I wonder who ought to be ashamed?

And I’m caught in my own curiosity

All this, the traumatised country trying to understand what it is, the fact that here there are people who really understand how to live with nature, the fear, the shame, the sadness. The contradiction of adulating and fearing the other. The continual struggle that goes on. All this adds up to a fixation on my part. A fixation that I cannot simply walk away from.

Theatre: Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor

From a village in the Limari Valley.
Chile, October 2019.

I went to the theatre. My friend asked if I wanted to go, and I said yes. On the way I asked what it was we were going to see. My friend didn’t know but said that it was set in a women’s prison. I considered that it might be a little violent, a tad uncomfortable. Racking my brain, the only theatrical production I could think of to base any assumption on was Chicago.

The production was nothing like Chicago.

You see, I’d missed one crucial thought that really should have passed through my brain, but didn’t. I’m in Chile. This was a Chilean production set in Chile. It was a La Serena production set in La Serena. For the poster they didn’t need to create some fake revolutionist graffiti, it currently decorates every wall in town. They stepped outside.

As I’m far from fluent in Spanish, I thought that I might have difficulty following the play. I didn’t. I understood. Not all the words perhaps, but I understood. Sometimes I fearfully felt that I knew what was being said without being certain. And I hoped I was wrong, whilst knowing I was right. As if I could excuse myself from the truth with a lack of comprehension. As if anyone can comprehend such abuse. No, even when you can relate personally, it still manages to remain indecipherable.

But, I realised, if I could watch Shakespeare, and get it, although I never understand everything that’s said because the language is not my English, I could get the gist of this familiar Chilean Spanish. I did not know this story, but the Chilean story is something I’ve been wincing at again and again over the last few months. I read Chilean authors in translation and I listen to my colleagues and friends. The pain and shame in their faces when they talk about their country strangles my breath.

There is nothing comfortable about the current Chilean misery.

But telling these stories matters. Sitting on the rickety construction that served as seating, that bounced rather when someone moved, surrounded by a local audience pained by a history that many of them had lived through, I laughed and I sang.

And I watched the solemn faces in the audience and wondered what had brought these people here, what made them want to watch such a horrible tale, even a tale woven with moments of sweetness. When I told a friend afterwards, he was amazed that I had managed to find a theatrical production here in the city. It is, I’m told, a rare occurrence. La Serena, he said, lacks culture. He misses the theatre.

The conversation reminded me how valuable the theatre is, how in a country with poor public education telling stories through theatre could teach truths in a more accessible fashion if only there were more productions.

We walked home, after the show, making wishes on the stars, talking about corrupt pension schemes and Dickens-esque orphanages and I found myself thinking about the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Lithuania, previously known as the Genocide Victims Museum, where I’d wandered alone down in the underground prison of the old KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Until I couldn’t. Because although the corridor went on, my legs wouldn’t walk any further. I couldn’t step into any more rooms. It felt like their walls screamed at me.

And it’s like someone holds my lungs in their grubby hands and inside I feel the actress’s jerking movements, the shaking of her body and I tense. This is no ‘all that jazz’. I may be foreign and European, privileged in every sense, but as she’s acting, I’m remembering. She’s telling a story that I need to hear. We all need to hear.


Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor by Héctor Álvarez directed by Juan Diego Bonilla at Casona La Gaviota performed by the Escuela Teatropuerto, La Serena.

Incomprehensible Chile, I still love you

Bunting in the Elqui Valley
Chile

I cycled home from my yoga class this morning, keeping to the roads which, although not smooth, provide a gentler ride than the haphazard pavements. I wasn’t in a rush and even if I had been, I wasn’t going anywhere fast. The city centre was jammed with traffic, the reserved horn-beeping of previous months has given way in the agitation to a cacophony of angry noise. The crossroads fail to function and cars crawl past, winding around each other having to think without the guiding green, amber, red of the traffic-lights. The poor, decapitated green-men, how I miss them.

On my journey, I passed a hotel which has been sacked, looted, pillaged, think broken glass, burnt out rooms, every window above the ground floor open to encourage fresh air in, every window on the ground floor sealed with metal sheets, soldered in place. This isn’t like reading a newspaper. It isn’t happening somewhere else to someone else. It’s different cycling past in person, knowing that people I’m acquainted with were pouring their customers drinks here just a few days ago.

Quietly, I wonder what they’ll do for jobs now.

Back home I let the coffee percolate and try to recover enough energy for the day’s real task. I don’t have work this week, actually, I haven’t had work (expect for the occasional meeting) since the state of emergency was declared, and so I’m making headway with writing my novel. No. Editing the novel. The damn thing has been written for ages, I’m now buried in the line-editing stage and this goes on and on.

The mother interrupted my preparations asking when she was going to get something to read on Happenence. I explained that I was working on the novel. The thing is, I have written things for Happenence, I have a few drafts stored, but I can hardly face doing any more editing. I don’t fancy rereading what I wrote a month or two ago and trying to work out if it fits with my new, more nuanced view of Chile. After all, the Chile I arrived to and the Chile I’m living in are two very different countries.

So here’s what I’m thinking, or perhaps, more accurately, what I’m feeling.

Chile is in a mess. Like me, it’s suffering from a trauma that it has tried very hard to ignore for much too long. It pretends to be fashionable and modern but when you really look you see a sad people in terrible credit card debt. Its people are carrying grief that they don’t seem to understand. I wonder if they know how much they need to grieve still? The sadness is palpable. The people act out, as I did, although I screamed and shouted, wailed and cried whereas there are people here who are inclined to violence. Setting fires in the local hotel for example. Others sink into passivity, drinking too much, dabbling in drugs to feel or to not feel.

I have struggled for weeks to see how to understand the country I’m living in when everything feels so incomprehensible, but the thing is, I know these feelings because they are familiar. I know grief and sadness, I know helplessness and powerlessness, I know how it feels not knowing how you’re going to go on, not knowing what the future is going to bring, worrying if things will ever be normal, or if normal even exists. No wonder it’s incomprehensible, it’s all happening on an emotional level, it’s incomputable. You can only feel it. On paper nothing makes any sense. And I know what it feels like to forget how to laugh. I know fear, real, heart clasping fear.

I don’t understand Chile, but nor do I understand myself. That’s okay though, and I can accept myself, we can accept Chile, as it wrenches with agonising pain, trying to recover from the horrific violation that took place and continues to take place against its people.

It’s a journey of reclaiming one’s dignity. And this is something I can relate to, intimately.

The Rescue Day: How I manage when my mind begins to unravel

By Posted on Location: 5min read
Details in the walls of the Alhambra, Granada. Arabic Designs.
A glimpse of light in the dark: details in the walls in the Alhambra in Granada.
March 2019.

Here in my Southern Spanish town, you sometimes have to think ahead. On a Sunday or a festival day normality ceases. When it rains nobody goes out as, due to a lack of adequate drainage, the streets flood. During the working week, many places close mid-afternoon, and places like the post office simply don’t bother reopening until the next day.

Here you can’t depend on a 24 hour supermarket or the bus arriving on time. On festival days (or during rain) the bus may or may not choose to run. Living here means that you have to be prepared in advance.

Planning ahead is also how I manage my own, unpredictable mental health. Since last week ended with a random burst of unsleepable madness, I thought I’d reflect a little on my ‘recovery day’ process to make sure that Monday morning had no choice but to go to plan.

I’m going to briefly cover…

  1. The things I drop from my to-do list
  2. The actions I take to get me back on track
  3. The importance of good transitions

Sometimes the most important is what you don’t do

On Saturday night, before I went to bed, I wrote down a list of all the things I had to accomplish on Sunday. Then I removed everything I deemed unnecessary and could be put off. Writing this article wasn’t important enough to make the list, even though my original plan had it being edited by Sunday. Practicing Spanish was removed from the list too. Anything related to work was scribbled out. Any admin, scratched through.

It wasn’t that I was ruling out practicing Spanish, not at all, if I fancy practicing Spanish then that’s fine. But the thick black line removing it from my list affirmed that it wasn’t the priority for the day.

A rescue day, as I think of it, is not a normal day

On normal days I practice Spanish and I write articles. I stick to my bigger plan of learning goals and creative ambitions. On rescue days I rescue the little part of me that has been neglected and is screaming for attention through my sleep (or lack of sleep) and through all though ugly ways that stress makes itself known.

So what does this mean that I doing?

This morning I followed my morning routine, although much slower than normal. I had my coffee and my cereal. I watched a video about learning watercolour and I did yoga. Later I meditated.

Routine is important to me because when I’m working within a set routine I don’t need to waste energy making decisions.

Then I put my bedsheets in the washing machine and tidied my room. While the washing was whirring away I painted a pine cone and emailed my mother updating her on my life and my yoga practice. Keeping my mother vaguely in the loop is important.

The lady who I live with invited me to eat lunch with her.

In the afternoon I went out for a walk

It’s been raining here, most unexpectedly, and I perhaps lacked some fresh air. More importantly though, I needed to create space for my mind to mull over why it’s so upset. In the evening I went out for a coffee (descafeinado) and chocolate cake with a friend before going early to bed.

Which I guess doesn’t seem all that mad…

In fact it’s not all that different to what I normally would do. The difference comes in the transitions. When I’m picking myself up off the ground it’s rarely the activity that matters.

What matters is how I approach each activity

In one of his books I remember John Kabat Zinn suggesting we take special care to note the attitude we bring to the beginning of a meditation practice and the attitude with which we leave it. I try to apply this wisdom to each of my activities. Of course, it’s only possible for me to do this when I’m willing to slow right down.

I’ll give you an example

I posted my pine cone painting onto Instagram and was about to scroll through the feed, but noticed that I hadn’t consciously decided that this was what I wanted, so I paused, set a timer for ten minutes and then returned to Instagram. When the timer went off I stopped it. My thumb hovered over the feed for a moment while I thought. I knew I wanted to keep reading, but I also knew that I’d decided ten minutes was more than enough time, and so I stopped.

Or another example

At the end of the meditation track I play, the background soft noise continues some time after the meditation itself has ended. Normally I stop it playing and just get on with my day, but today I paid attention to my need to get up and be busy. I decided to wait until the very end and only stand up once I knew exactly what it was I was going to do.

But of course this is not easy

Rescue days might contain fewer tasks, but they are anything but easy. It is much easier to be busy. It’s easier to keep pushing yourself because that’s the muscle that you’ve spent your life strengthening. If you’re anything like me ‘more’ feels more natural than ‘less’.

But to slow down and catch myself, to not march but amble and take note, to set myself up for Monday morning and from there the rest of the week, this all means that I won’t just survive the week ahead but that I have the opportunity to enjoy it.

Living here in Spain the pace of life is slower

You can’t brutishly charge around expecting to have what you want when the rest of the town is busy having their extended lunch break. And you can’t expect that dinner is going to be an option at the moment you feel hungry. You have to learn to slow down to the pace of life around you. And you always have to be prepared for when, maybe, things don’t go your way.

So yes, I did less with my Sunday than I could have

I focused on what matters to my mental health most, and I made sure that I was aware of how I start and end each activity. I want to be the one choosing how I live rather than allowing myself to be led by compulsive desires.

And now I am prepared for Monday morning.

Do you actively change your behaviour to recover from a bad day? Or do you keep pushing on?

Written a few weeks back.

Lessons from my mother – part two: People don’t stay the same

By Posted on Location: 7min read
We spent quite a while staring at the changing landscape here. The rock worn away by the river, the man-made dam, the broken bridge… Comunidad Valenciana, February 2019.

A few weeks back I found myself having a drink with an acquaintance, who turned out to be a reader of tarot cards.

I have a literary fascination with tarot cards, by which I mean I love a bit of magic realism sprinkled into literature and so my tarot card knowledge comes almost entirely from Chocolat (and the sequel the Lollipop Shoes) by Joanne Harris, and one of the Philippa Gregory historical fiction novels which touches upon the life of Joan of Arc.

So later that evening, quietly, I asked if I could possibly see the tarot cards for myself. Sate my curiosity. Which is how, in a mixture of English and Spanish (for the session was conducted in Spanish but I was instructed to think in English) I learnt that things in my life would change, in a good way, but not in the expected way. And that I apparently have issue with the patriarchy…

Which perhaps means nothing, but at the same time did get me thinking about how people change.

In the last article I wrote about meditation and how I’d slowly, and reluctantly, gone from random commitments to meditation to a more consistent approach. And that this idea of daily practice, had impacted my daily routine, forcing it to change.

Now I’m going to start part two of ‘things I learnt from my mother’ by looking at the early hours of that daily routine.

I have never been good at mornings

Going back a bit it used to be that I was simply grumpy in the mornings. Having a strong cup of coffee didn’t seem to help much. The only cure for my grumpiness was time, and so I simply got on with accepting myself as a grumpy morning person. My dressing-gown through my teenage years read ‘grumpy but gorgeous’ on the back, but I can assure you that in the early hours of the day, weighed down with so much grumpiness, I am far from gorgeous.

Things hardly improved at university and got progressively worse when I had a 9-5 job. Except my job was 9:30 to 6:30 because there was no paid lunch break and my boss recognised that it would be better for all concerned if I was given the extra half-an-hour to become more humane.

My mother meanwhile considers seven o’clock to be a lay in

As a child I would wake up to discover her taking a freshly made shepherd’s pie out of the oven, although it wouldn’t surprise me because I was used to being woken by my mother’s battle with the pan cupboard long before my alarm went off.

I learnt to be a heavy sleeper.

Back home as an adult, dealing with trauma, sleep became challenging in a whole new way. In the evenings I would have to convince myself to go to sleep, knowing that I would wake up amid engrossing nightmares. At times I feared sleep. Even now I occasionally have evenings where the idea of sleep suddenly fills me with a sense of dread. Although, I also believe good sleep to be one of the best things ever.

In my darker days, in the mornings my patient mother would wake me up gently with a cup of tea and slowly I’d emerge from my dreamworld. I couldn’t force myself out of the dreams, but having that moment of being cared for early in the day really helped. It gave me something less frightening to cling to.

And slowly I got better. At which point I moved to Spain and started working again. At a school, where my first class tends to begin at 8:30am!

Which, I admit, was at first a challenge

Which is why I’m obsessive about having a strict bedtime. I used to laugh at my mother for heading to bed at half past nine, but nowadays at half past nine you are very likely to discover me in my pyjamas preparing my coffee for the next morning, whilst my house-mates contemplate what they’re going to have for dinner.

But what’s much more surprising is that by 7am I’m no longer in my pyjamas. In fact, this morning at seven I was in leggings and on my yoga mat, as I have been for the last couple of months.

Now I wish I could give a profound reason for it

I wish I could give you a sensible explanation, but the only one I have found is that I finally got fed up of starting the morning trying to bully myself into waking up. I’ve seen the mother in the morning and she too has a dazed look about her. And yet, she just gets up and starts the day and bakes shepherds pies. And by 7am she’s shook off all grumpiness.

So, having surrendered in my morning battle, I have surprised myself by discovering, I love mornings.

Which brings me to: people change

When I was in the routine of therapy, nightmares and feeling sorry for myself I could have easily become stuck in the idea that ptsd was going to be who I was forever. My psychotherapist described it as a chronic pain, something that I would carry for life.

And then the mother would put on some eighties songs and we’d be hula-hooping in the kitchen and making up silly routines, laughing at ourselves and I would forget that I was broken and miserable and instead stare at the incredible woman in front of me who had taken the place of my mother. Because the mother of my childhood did not suddenly think three o’clock in the afternoon was the time for swivelling her hips to Abba. It was for work, jobs, lists and hoovering.

My mother’s mentality isn’t to say, “Have a nice day.”

My mother says, “Have a productive day.”

But between Super Trooper and Waterloo my mother taught me an incredible lesson

People change.

And if people change, then I can too.

But the question becomes, to what?

At the same time my psychotherapist was drumming home the importance of knowing what it is I want. If you know me quite well you might think this is a bit odd because I am always doing things and am clearly quite ambitious. The difficulty I have had has been that I’m not always sure what it is I want and what it is I think I should want.

My psychotherapist suggested that I needed to practice acting on my frivolous desires. She said that if I wanted to run up the hill to the ice-cream shop and buy an ice-cream then I should run up the hill and buy an ice-cream.

I pondered this. At the time I had no income, and even now my income is erratic. I’m lactose intolerant, so I could not have a milk-based ice-cream unless I took a lactase tablet. If I were to run up the hill for an ice-cream, as my psychotherapist suggested, was I supposed to tell her I’d done it, and could I also do it combined with another task such as posting a letter.

Which, you’ll gather is missing the very valid point

When you extrapolate these analytical thoughts into the whole of life you can begin to comprehend how knowing what I want from the start is a much healthier option. Life’s to short to waste on all this meaningless analysis. Rather than trying to please everyone and then having a tantrum and being manipulative to get my subconscious needs met, I need to pull my wants out into my conscious mind and act on them.

Tomorrow I will probably practice my having what I want by passing by the bakery on the way back from the market.

These little lessons began to congeal

And I began figuring out that I didn’t have to be the person that I’d planned to be when I was fifteen but that I could be the person who I want to be today. As my mother was vibrantly demonstrating.

Pulling together all these thoughts, here’s a quick summary:

In part one I wrote about meditation, and about how having a daily practice is much healthier than an ad hoc approach.

Then in part two I discussed my history of mornings, and how coming to terms with waking up in the morning and learning to love the early hours has been a process of surrender.

And finally, I wrote about how my mother gave me belief that people can change in the cliché of ‘show not tell’. And how my psychotherapist started me along the process of knowing how it is I want to change.

Okay, I admit it, despite not believing in magic, I want my own set of tarot cards

Old-fashioned ones, softened by age and use. The rational physicist in me says not to be silly or frivolous, but the girl who was fascinated by a book on witchcraft from the school library and stories of magic-realism wants the tactile ownership of the magic for herself.

Maybe, today, there’s something frivolous you can do, just for you. Just because you want to.

I challenge you to do it.

The way books make me feel (and other tangents)

Photo of a wild flower in the Spanish countryside, because something delicate is needed before a darker blog post.

On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.

My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.

Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.

“How do you feel today?”

“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”

What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?

When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.

That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.

I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.

It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.

On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.

Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.

For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.

This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.

I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.

I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.

Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).

Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.

María takes control of her own story.  She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.  

Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.

Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.

*Or translator…