ESSAY ... Michelle CAHILL
COMPASSION AND SOLIDARITY IN READING AND WRITING
MICHELLE CAHILL talks about what literature means to her
WHAT I REGRET IN LIFE are the books I have yet to read. Good literature takes me to new frontiers, places where my imagination and my facility for understanding the human condition deepens. Reading J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, was a profound awakening to me of the brutal potential we have within our human societies. More recently, Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma speaks to me lyrically and realistically about the stark contemporary history of China from a personal perspective. In a very different way, something resonated for me when, in my teens, I first read the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I felt a commonality of experience, an involvement that makes the intensity of the emotions Plath articulates, such as anger and despair, somehow more fragile and raw. At the same time, I was thrilled by the pyrotechnics of her language. The lucidity and originality of her images was a counterpoint to me for these dark moods. On reading Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, I could identify with the feelings of sexual repression and dislocation, though they were far more extreme than anything I had felt.
The act of reading is one of intimacy; it allows us to enter the voice of another person, to follow the map of that voice as it travels across memories, cultures, languages, and landscapes. Far from being passive, the reader breathes life into a text, transforming the characters and symbols on a page into something vibrant and fluid. The Dominican-American novelist, Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, speaks of reading as a compassionate and creative vocation where the imaginary intersects with the real. “Writers,” he says in a speech at the 2008 Sydney Writers’ Festival, “might be word magicians but we readers are the new alchemists.”
I think of compassion from a Buddhist perspective, and I think of the literary process as being characterised by a sharing, an exchange of experiences. The Buddha, who was, in his time, a social reformer, taught that compassion or karuna is the ability to understand suffering in universal terms. Through compassion we see the world as an endless caravan of sentient beings burdened with sorrow and pain. Our narrow hearts become opened, wide as the world. We are no longer alone in our subjective apprehension of disappointment or loss. Compassion is an informed emotion, one which, to a varying extent, is implicit in the tension between aesthetics and ethics. As a writer, there is an interplay for me between the language, tone, and images of a piece of work, and what it represents. This is not to say that my writing has a message, but there is a sense in which my work is developing as a process of identity, one which attempts to place myself within a syncretic framework defined by historical and cultural gaps. My journey, as a migrant writer from a hybrid background, has been to explore those gaps.
Being able to enter the margins of literature, the memories of oblivion, or the unspeakable is a way that writers and readers can exercise solidarity. Arundhati Roy achieves this so beautifully in her Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things. The novel touches on the conundrum of entrenched caste oppression through the affair between Ammu and Velutha, a Hindu untouchable. Roy aligned herself with the Dalit cause by donating the proceeds from her book to the Dalit Sahitya Akademi, for translation into Malayalam. She recognised, I think, the risk of Anglophone writers and intellectuals attempting to speak for those who are marginalised, in the name of solidarity. Perhaps a literary expression of solidarity requires sensitivity to the heterogeneous nature of our collective communities. Or, we might be called to defend the rights of free speech.
There are many books I’ve yet to read. But I also regret those occasions when I postpone my writing, for the quotidian reasons of work, family or society. I write as a way of exploring my consciousness, my identity, as a way of testing my beliefs and values against my experience. Not as a way of replacing experience with something iconoclastic or controlled, but as a heightened way of thinking and feeling. There is this intensity about the process that leads me towards greater awareness and sensitivity to the detailed nuances of living. In such a space I feel more open. Writing is a search for this space. I see it as a journey of resistance, one that absorbs all the daily difficulties, insecurities and isolation of the imaginary life, one that transforms that imaginary life into something palpable and real.
Words are a source of violence to others, and ourselves, but they are also necessary to us as sentient beings. I believe that language and more specifically literature has an essential and ethical value. Writers, more so than politicians, can raise people’s awareness. By reading, we can reverse our own ignorance about some of the terrible things that are happening in our world today. One of the things that disturb me most are the human-rights abuses against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka; likewise the genocide of the Tibetan culture and people under Chinese occupation. Words can address these atrocities, inspire protest through articles and blogs. There are things we get right in language; there are things that we fail in life. Perhaps it is a small compensation that we are able to unlearn. We find imaginary and temporary recoveries in our reading and writing of literature.
THE TWO SOULS
My cat cries when I enter the garden, as
if I have aroused her from winter’s dream,
or as if she wants to sing to me, her name.
What do cats dream of Lord Krishna?
A coconut shell of milk, or a glittering fish?
Now her slender limbs complete their asanas.
Now her neck arches, her jaw, an elastic.
The sharp eye constricts, discerns wind
in the quivering grass from a grasshopper’s
camouflage. But there’s no mistaking Maya.
My cat rehearses the accurate lunge of her paw.
She cries, as one compelled; hungry, yet not.
Perhaps my being here, deserves an answer.
For weeks, I too, have watched her, how
she hunts. I’ve heard the moan of her catch
at dusk, which is your hour, Lord Krishna.
Then, no bird sings and only a cat with two souls
dreams of death, her stigma left on a lizard,
or on a butterfly, whatever moves towards
the shadow of meaning. As I am born of fire,
I burn, my Lord, but I sleep in your arms.
I am one Upanishad moon, on fragrant nights.
By day I am the consort of oceans, rice fields,
pale and invisible to you as the sky’s temple.
The poem first appeared in Seva Bharati Journal of English Studies, February 2009
MICHELLE CAHILL is a Goan-Anglo-Indian who writes poetry and fiction. Her collection, The Accidental Cage (Interactive Press, 2006), was shortlisted for the 2007 Judith Wright Award. Cahill edited Poetry Without Borders (Picaro, 2008) and co-edits Mascara Poetry. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Muse India, Heat, Meanjin and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. More is forthcoming in Asia Literary Review, Antipodes and Drunken Boat. Her forthcoming collection, Vishvarupa, is themed around Hindu gods, and she is completing a fiction manuscript entitled Riding Without Krishna.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine