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  • Sophie Buchaillard

Why otherness?


My own writing is littered with authors hand-knitted into a fascinating creative journey – authors shaped by ‘movement’ and thrown into a state of ‘other-ness’ – outsiders looking in; women-writers rising from the mundanity of cloistered life into worlds of their own making; observers, bursting out. To me, the creative process is at the cusp between those states - corporal and ethereal; visceral and emotional. Growing up, my impression of a writer’s life was similar to that of Irmgard Keun’s child-narrator in Child of All Nations- a man travelling from country to country with family in tow, eventually leaving wife and child behind in pursuit of inspiration, fame, a publishing contract. A man. Doomed and destitute. It would have been hard to relate, yet I loved books and devoured stories. I longed to know where stories are born.

The origin of stories seemed elusive at first. The writer who creates them requires talent according to Hemingway; persistence, according to Flaubert, who is said to have agonised over the first sentence of Salammbô. Margaret Atwood considers whether “[…] such a person [is] special, and if so, why?”. To her, the writer is a conduit between experience and expression, detached from the self. Talent, craft, and detachment. The first is innate, the second a matter of practice. Only the third seems problematic, a dark place where plethora of authors lost their lives; a place which fills me with dread. When I suffered from depression, I found words were lost, not found. Suffering is an effective way to tear ourselves from our-selves, however it elicits a most unhelpful tendency to navel-gaze, quite incompatible with writing. Perspective must play a part, therefore. My own creative journey taught me three things: suffering makes us blind to the world; writing requires a certain quality of seeing; and a writer must find inherent joy in the creative process itself.

Mandelstrom asks “how many pairs of shoes Dante must have worn out in order to write The Divine Comedy, because, he tells us, that could only have been written on foot, walking without stopping, (…). The true poet is a traveller.Initially, we travel through the writing of others, or as Richardson advises in his eponymous book, first we read, then we write. I was at school when I discovered the concept of intertextuality. It made perfect sense to me that what we have read before gives meaning to what we read next, but also, by extension, defines how we experience the world around us. I imagine this as a sort of literary bank which holds our identity. The writer is the robber, ready to break in, steal the pieces and run off to Mexico – or in my case, Wales.

For Atwood, “[a] book is another country”. Cixous urges us to leave home behind. “Go toward foreign lands, toward the foreigner in ourselves.” The travelling is symbolic of course, what she calls the back door of thoughts - our unconscious. We must travel in ourselves in order to retrieve those building blocks says Cixous.

The book brings us to the frontier of the forbidden and helps us to trespass it. It is about going beyond, about breaking through the known, the human, and advancing in the direction of the terrifying, of our own end…there where the other begins.

Otherness is a recurring theme amongst authors describing their creative process. To write, the author has to step outside of herself, become an-other, segregated from ‘real life’. Cixous believes that “[w]e are shaped by years and years of all kinds of experiences and education, we must travel through all sorts of places that are not necessarily pleasant to get there: our own marshes, our own mud.” Our own intertext - the way we understand the world around us, is challenged by life experiences. At the point where intertext and movement intersect, we are forced to question our own sense of identity.

This questioning is at its most acute when we experience grief. To me, the need to write was triggered by the grieving process which came from moving to another country and coming to term with the loss of my heritage, my identity, and the reality of what it means to be a foreigner – a permanent outsider, looking in. Cixous traces back the beginning of her own creative process to the experience of losing her father:

The first book I wrote rose from the death of my father. I don’t know why, perhaps it was the only thing I had to write then, in my poverty, my inexperience, the only asset: the only thing that made me live, that I had lived, that put me to the test, and that I felt because it completely defeated me. […] until the day things changed colour and I began to see other scenes – including everything I could imagine that was less consoling – without overinvesting. I had moved on to less idealised reflection, to reconstruction. I could imagine various scenes without my father […]

Grief challenges how we understand ourselves. Parents, loved ones, are part of the fabric of us, our intertext. Before my father’s death, I ran away from my past, towards a future I thought I could control. I forgot everything. Faces, names, events. I became a wanderer. When I heard of my father passing, I bought a notebook and a pen. I sat at the airport on the way to his funeral and wrote my own grief. The more I wrote, the less I felt the enormity of what was no longer there.

It is no coincidence that the authors I love are all exiles (Zweig, Keun, Szerb, Cixous, Wilde) who wrestled with their foreign-ness, their externality. Movement is my heritage. My grandmother was exiled twice. Once from the country of her birth when it ceased to exist – Indochina - then when she had to return from Morocco, France’s protectorate, abandoned. Each time, she packed her bags and started again, reinventing herself. My mother, in turn, left Morocco for Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, only to return to France, suffering from what the Welsh call hiraeth. By the time I travelled, colonies were a thing of the past, replaced by the economic migrant in a new form of self-imposed exile. Movement. Rationalised. Salaried. Chosen. On the surface at least. I chose to move, yet I was running away. It was a temporary move - one year, yet I remain - twenty years on. In France, my identity had been pre-determined. In exile one is free to reinvent themselves Reid writes: “A foreigner has a curious perspective on the country [s]he alights in. [Her] foreignness more or less absolves [her] from being attached to any particular class (…)” It is quite freeing.

Reid notes that we are foreigners by necessity, choice or accident, however it is our attitude once we have moved which will define whether we are doomed or not. In Le Monde D’Hier, Stefan Zweig depicts the betrayal he experienced being forced into exile. The fear of losing his identity, of losing himself. Unable to accept this perceived loss, he died at his own hand in Brazil. I wish this sense of not belonging felt less courant. For two decades, I strived to weave a new identity for myself, to become assimilated. On the 23rd of June 2016, I woke to realise I would always remain the other. It was a brutal epiphany, one which brought me back to writing. For Cixous, “[all] great texts begin in this manner that breaks: they break with our thoughts habits, with the world around us, in an extreme violence that is due to rapidity." The one whose perspective is static can never truly grasp this feeling of never belonging. In the face of an uprooting, there is a choice: either wither in a state of despair or embrace the opportunity for re-invention, or as Reid puts it “unless [the foreigner] regards being a foreigner as a positive state, he is doomed.”For many years, exile went side by side with a deep darkness. I came to hate those equal opportunity forms which required me to define my true nature. No longer did I belong to that country called France, nor would I ever be considered fully British, let alone Welsh. ‘White – other’ is what I am. The length of the stay is irrelevant. Where are you from, they ask; when what they mean is what kind of foreign are you? There is bitterness in being displaced, at first. The death of one’s identityfrom which to forge another. Over time, “[f]oreignness itself becomes a fantastic nationality” to use Cixous' words; an independent space with its own language. Foreignness, both symbolic and spatial, breaks our static perception. We become the outsider looking in.

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