‘I didn’t know’
‘I didn’t know’
‘I didn’t know’
Rhys’ words in Smile Please. She was referring to a failed affair. Why is it that, as women, both our past and present are ruled by these two phases, I didn’t know, I don’t know? They say everything and nothing, the futility of who we are or think we are in relation to others. What is left to utter in regards to our future? How to cast away the weight between I and know, so that we may just become, without others?
We pass from phrase to phrase as if they were different countries, while being strangers in both. ‘Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place?’ thinks Helga Crane, the mixed-race protagonist of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. She goes from the United States to Denmark and back again, forever not knowing but wanting to know, never arriving to a place of knowing, just wanting to be. To be wanted for the self that is in two places, yearning to arrive, never home.
The weight between I and know, the quicksand. The space that pulls and holds us down, in a place where we do not recognise our past, present, or future self. Where do we go to be free in our thoughts and desires, in our very skin?
‘Loneliness is political …’ says Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City, in a 2018 piece in The Times. Such statements seem to afford a curious luxury of afterthought, when one is no longer lonely; at the very least, in a position where that loneliness, even if present, is held at a certain distance. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear—but it’s so easy to forget when surrounded by the safety of others. The lonely, especially the extremely lonely—those with no one at all or who exist in a sphere where social interaction never extends beyond functionality or superficiality—do not have that particular benefit of a self-aware voice of reason, where hope can be articulated. Loneliness at its most intense is an abyss where you can hear nothing but the echo of your thoughts, a sound that emanates from deep within, silent and deafening. The truest part is as E.M. Cioran says, that there is no wisdom to be had in being alone, no epiphany as is often expected; only you and the terrible reckoning of self and nothingness.
The separation of loneliness and solitude seemed not to be a question for me because I had always been a solitary child for various reasons: illness, detachment from my peers in school as a result of being promoted a grade, again later when I was placed in a ‘special’ programme, and simply due to a liking for my own company. But the contentment of the latter is rarely strong enough in absolute loneliness to withstand the echo of despair, the certainty that there is, can be nothing else but the despair. That kind of company erases any confidence or contentment that previously existed: we go from dream to nightmare, from words to silence. This ultimate loneliness is still one we do not speak of, for it is deemed faulty—in a social culture, the truly alone and lonely are a combination seen as both defective and abnormal. We still think of these others as living on the fringes or in the subcultures of society: the homeless, incels, the old-story stereotype of the crazy hermit. In writing, the extreme lonely tend to be fictional, or classic stereotypes—because we cannot conceive of such a person without equally extreme faults or in tragic terms, certainly not amongst our peers; they do not look like us, and a peculiarity of human nature is that we pride ourselves on retrospectively spotting those who we deem abnormal while lacking the empathy to recognise their sorrows when they are beside us.
Loneliness at its most intense is an abyss where you can hear nothing but the echo of your thoughts, a sound that emanates from deep within, silent and deafening.
What Hannah Arendt referred to as a duality that still exists in solitude and loneliness—that is, the awareness of consciousness, as if that in itself was enough of a comfort even when ‘deprived’, as she put it, from others—felt the same to me in both states. An echo is a kind of illusion, and if my consciousness seemed to me nothing but that, then how could I believe in the concept of duality as a proof of my existence? Loneliness exists even in plurality, especially if one’s acquaintances or friends are not their own, but belonging primarily to someone else; they become your others by proxy. Even with others, I was without, in the sense I was outside of their ‘real’ knowledge of me: to them I was a wife, but the reality was that I was not; who was I then, if I was not the person they thought? A false consciousness, the echo of a person.
And so no one is willing or able to imagine women like this, the lonely ones, disguised by crowds, by the form we think a woman must take, unless they attach a necessary fault to them: there must be something wrong with her, no one doesn’t have confidantes, at least one. Any woman can get a partner, every woman has friends—two false statements that we still uphold as truth inviolate. The final excuse? She must not be normal. And so we wash our hands of the extremely lonely, before their stories can even be told. Perhaps women themselves are the wariest of this type of woman, for we communicate in groups—we must, for protection, amongst other reasons. What do we make of the women who do not, can not enter this social sphere; too paralysed by their loneliness to believe they can be a part of a group of their own again? What do we make of the women who deviate from the supposed paradigm of what a woman should be, its ideal form?
The other day a small sentence ran through my head: you write for no one. It was pessimistically optimistic, the realisation that I write for myself (stripped of a tangible purpose), the non-writers and non-people—those out there like me who are in-between hope or beyond it, the ones who do not write for therapy, redemption, or a martyr-like self-exploitation, because pain can still be private in its exposure. That is something, at least—to write for no one, it frees you to write anything. But when you are free to write anything you begin to realise how little there is to say eloquently, that is yours alone. And so I retreat into that other normal thing in my life, hunger. And once again, I find myself doubled. I hunger and I want nothing. Our hunger doesn’t ever seem to abate, but then it has the luxury of not having the cares of daily life.
At fifteen, I was told by an art teacher that my face was impossible to draw. Our particular assignment was to do a pencil self-portrait, and although I could sketch my outline and a few features—angles of my cheekbones, lips, and eyebrows—the eyes and nose remained elusive. My eyes were so narrowed and dark that no pupils could be seen except at extreme close-up, the nose had no sharpness of line. I struggled so much that he came over, took pencil in hand and tried for himself while I sat in front of him. I watched as he started, erased, started again, erased again. In the end, what was on paper was me, all features correct but somehow an unreal version. All around my portrait the others were straight-lined and wide-eyed—realistic. When I think of it now, I remember the eyes most clearly—precisely because of their lack of clarity. I did not have aniridia, the condition where there is no iris, causing the eyes to look simply black, but the colour was so dark most of the time it had something of the same effect. The narrow almond shape and dark lashes only added to it. When something that defines the face becomes its indefinite feature, the resulting impression
is that of loss.
I think of the way my face has formed since I was born. There is a Polaroid of me, taken at birth, only my head, covered in matted near-black hair, eyes almond-shaped, almost devoid of pupils and wide open, mouth literally blood-red and smiling, although I could not have realised the idea of smile or what it meant to do so. Fast-forwarding in my mind through photos I never wanted taken as a child: my eyes are strangely much more rounded, my hair softened to brown—bright copper in the sunlight, an inheritance from my father. Then slowly, the eyes begin to narrow again—this is the most radical change my face will make, but it is enough to set me apart, for children to scrutinise me as not one of them, bringing with that scrutiny jokes about rice paddies and Chinamen. My sister’s skin is darker than mine, and her eyes have remained much rounder. As a teenager people often thought she was of Mexican heritage, and I was envious, because even though it wasn’t true, there were so many other Latinx kids in school that her looks were adopted and embraced. Thinking there were some forms of otherness more acceptable, I wanted desperately to be able to pass for anything that would result in people only glancing at me and then paying no more attention. When I smile in those high school photos—and it was always forced back then, although I remain uncomfortable to this day, almost hostile towards having my photograph taken—my eyes are near-black narrowed slits, two strokes of my mother’s sumi-e (calligraphy) brush, but people are forever trying to guess what culture I belong to.
The answer is that I don’t belong anywhere. If there was a way, a place to begin with in those round smiling eyes, before they lost their smile and narrowed in tiredness; plagued with ceaseless questions like what are you, how long have you been here, where are you from.
No one asks where I am going.
Even now this legacy of questioning follows me. On moving into a new flat not so long ago, a neighbour came to the door wanting to introduce themselves—or rather to find out all about us, for the latter is usually disguised as the former, like in Zola’s Pot Luck: ‘Oh, they’re the most respectable people!’ I am always hesitant to introduce myself and the long years of experience still cannot prevent my jaw clenching, waiting for the inevitable. It’s Japanese, my mother is Japanese. I could hear the words rushing without pause from my mouth, that tiresome automatic litany. The man bowed deeply. This was not the first time it happened, but I always find myself struck dumb and cleaved, looking at both halves of who I am, unable to recognise the half that the other person so clearly sees. To others, my face is an expectation of something I am not, never have been, never will be, at least according to the myth of their own making.
Impossible to draw. How can I be drawn if I cannot be seen?
Something which remains indefinite does not have the foreboding of the infinite; it was not that I looked at my reflection or the ensuing drawing as a puzzle with no possible completion. But when watching someone else grapple with what is the simplest definition of all—the lines of my physical form—a darker thought appeared. What intangible thing inside of me blurred other people’s perceptions as well as my own? Was I an equation missing a figure; some sort of aberration?
Half this, half that. The first summer I was old enough to remember, in Japan, was my first experience of being studied by the other half of my blood culture. My mother spent some time away visiting friends with my infant sister, so my grandmother would take me with her on daily errands. I remember new yellow cloth shoes with tomatoes on them—a gift—on my feet, walking in that funny way children do as they admire their footwear at the same time. At a busy street market, we stopped while she bought tiny clams, something that sounded like kokina to my childish ear. I leaned over the bucket, delighted as they spat little jets of water at me. I don’t know what was said, except that I heard my name and looked up to see an elderly Japanese woman examining me with curiosity. My eyes were still round, hair bright copper in the summer sun; pulled into thick wavy ponytails while all around me hair was black and shiny and straight, or pulled back in clean buns. I was accepted because of my grandmother (and she loved my sister and I unconditionally), but it was clear this was not my culture; I was merely a tourist, a protected guest. I was looked at with curiosity and frankness wherever I went with my relatives or mother. No one was anything but kind, but at the same time I felt the distance of unbelonging, the novelty of the strange.
What intangible thing inside of me blurred other people’s perceptions as well as my own? Was I an equation missing a figure; some sort of aberration?
More and more I looked at the lines of letters in an attempt to define the indefinite. The boundaries of twenty-six letters seemed paradoxically able to hold the infinite. I thought—just maybe—I could find myself within that space, see my true reflection in words.
After all these years, I know there is no such thing as a true reflection; like the funhouse mirrors in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, I don’t know what words define me completely. What I do know is that sometimes other people look into the endless combinations of letters that pour from my fingertips and see a truth, a mirror they are looking for; that is the reflection I want and need. It is the closest thing to being able to understand how you are perceived, to write to someone and have them write back to you. Each of those fragments of perception go towards making a delicate kaleidoscope that shifts and changes over the years—the myriad colours brought by people and experience.
Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her essays can be found in in Lapsus Lima, Empty Mirror, Berfrois, 3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She is co-editor (with Andrew Gallix and C.D. Rose) of Love Bites: Fiction inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat
Art by Yanina Spizzirri.