So there’s this scene in the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), where Gilbert’s brother Arnie, says this to him:
You’re not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere Gilbert. You’re not going anywhere, you know. You’re not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere! You’re not going anywhere! Gilbert, you’re not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere!
He repeats this as he swings around and around the house post. Repeats this while his sister practises the trumpet in the background. Repeats this while he jumps up and down. Before long, he starts screaming, yelling at Gilbert.
But Gilbert already knows. Is beyond reacting. He’s stuck. He knows he’s stuck. Every year, a trail of caravans pass through his town. Yet, all he can do is watch. His father’s dead. His momma stays inside all day, suffering. He’s supporting his family. He’s not going anywhere. You understand this. There are minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, you repeat this during lockdown. Repeat this about yourself, your work, your writing.
‘Where are you going?’ Arnie asks as Gilbert, fed up with it all, jumps back into his truck and drives off.
You’d like to know, too.
In Lan Samantha Chang’s story ‘Hunger’, Min, in a dream about her late husband, Tian, a great violinist, recalls his toll of escaping from China, wading at sea clutching his instrument, scrambling into a ship, arriving in America, working tirelessly as a tutor only to be repeatedly ‘passed over’ while his white colleagues get promoted at university. Min reflects:
I want him to get away, escape his life, even though I know that he will not escape, cannot escape the punishment that invariably comes to people who dare to dream such flagrant and extravagant designs … The immensity of such hunger …
‘How was the talk?’
‘So great. What really struck me was what he said about himself; that he didn’t think he was good, or a good drawer.’
‘Yeah, I heard that,’ my partner laughs.
That was about Adrian Tomine. Amazing Japanese-American graphic novelist. Drawcard speaker at the Brooklyn Book Festival 2020. Works at The New Yorker as a cartoonist. Has written several books. Has won awards, too. At the top of his game.
As Vietnamese-American writer and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature, Viet Thanh Nguyen explains in the Paris Review that Tomine’s work pushes back against racial barriers; how his writing and drawing is about ‘someone who is both inside and outside of Asian America’; who navigates ‘the terrain of microaggression, sublimated response, and understated ambition,’ and ‘sees through and draws from these blind spots, mixing sympathy with scepticism in just the right doses.’
And yet … in the graphic novel, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, in a cartoon representation of himself, Tomine repeats this self-critical sentiment across several speech bubbles. ‘The only reason I got anywhere in the comics business is just that I was so obsessively, single-mindedly focussed for so long. / It doesn’t have to do with talent, training, ability…’
‘How can he still not think he’s great?’ I ask.
‘Only great writers will say that,’ my partner answers.
I once shared a space with a writer. On our first meeting, I knew it wasn’t going to be a good fit. They immediately demanded who I was, what I was doing, what I was working on. I said I was writing, and well, (insert self-deprecating, uncomfortable laugh) trying to finish my novel.
‘Oh, I already know my next novel, which I haven’t written yet,’ they confessed, ‘will be great. My work,’ pause, ‘will be published.
They were so self-assured; so ‘confident, comfortable, and oblivious’ of their white and ‘unearned skin privilege’ and story. They were the embodiment of so many points in Peggy McIntosh’s list in ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’. Like this one.
‘8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece [of] white privilege.’
Later, I read the news of their advance. Their not-yet-written safe, white work had already been accepted and yes, was on the way to being published.
‘Great,’ I thought. ‘That’s soooooo great.’
When I heard the ping, even before reading the email, I already knew it was a rejection. Two actually. Two different things. So far this year, that brings it up to thirty things sent out. Three yeses. Many no answers. Thirteen rejections.
More rejections, I thought. Great.
‘But people tell you your writing is great,’ my partner tells me.
‘Yeah, I guess.’
A former supervisor (and well-known writer). Students. A few random readers. But my novel, the major work, doesn’t get picked up. Isn’t publishable. Isn’t about polemics or told in an explicit slap-you-in-the-face kinda-language trend. Migrant stories. Already, that seems old. Unpopular. Displaced people. Intergenerational trauma. The past. Yawn. Not current enough. Too many languages and cultures. Not Australian enough. Too much about ‘them’ not ‘us’.
‘5. I can … open to the front page [of this novel] and see [my people] widely represented.’
As the screenwriter and filmmaker Oliver Stone explains about his early struggles in ‘Grounded with Louis Theroux’:
… it was really painful because I couldn’t sometimes take rejection. Any novelist or writer knows, you’re right, people don’t publish it. And you don’t listen sometimes about what they’re saying about the criticism … because you’re wounded, it hurts your pride … It takes time to learn.
This week, over Zoom, I get up the nerve to tell my old Hong Kong writing buddies about my latest rejection. I’m upbeat. Like it was no big deal. My voice is higher than usual.
‘Hey,’ one of them says. ‘I know it sucks, but I also know it’s still great!’
But for days after, I’m depressed. I cry. I’m angry. Hurt. Humiliated. Don’t want to speak to anyone, though I’m already isolated. There’s Covid. We’re in lockdown. While over there in Hong Kong, people are on the streets fighting for their freedom and democracy. With everything going on globally, politically, locally, admitting a rejection, just feels – so selfish.
‘A rejection means someone read your work,’ the friend in Hong Kong who writes about Indian diaspora adds.
Someone will pick it up. You need to wait for the right fit. There’s nothing worse than someone … not understanding it. You need to find the right home for your book. Hang in there, I know you’ll be published. I can feel it. It’s just around the corner.
Maybe because they are so upbeat and positive, I feel a change.
Maybe because they are writers, too, they understand rejection.
You walk around the block with your partner. You’re allowed out for an hour’s exercise. You tell your partner how prisoners at Pentridge were given an hour exercise a day. You also tell them about the conversation with your HK writing buddies.
‘You know what’s around the corner?’ your partner asks. ‘The corner!’
They laugh. You laugh too. Because they are right.
‘Rejection,’ writes John McNally in his book The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding, ‘is multifaceted, and it sometimes hits you when you’re expecting a lift – when you deserve a lift.’
I go for a walk around the block when I need a lift. Or need a break. Or to clear my head. Or when I don’t want to think. Or want to think. Or want to sort stuff out. Or want the wind to blow things away. Hush. When walking, things somehow have a way of getting organised. Like Tetris. The oddly shaped blocks that are your thoughts, falling down from the sky. Fitting them into the right space, then ping, the lines form. The more lines you form, the better you feel. Ping ping ping. Soon, the blocks start to fall even faster. Ping ping ping. Lines and lines disappearing before you fully get to grasp them.
Another day. You’re listening to Zimbabwean writer Tsitisi Dangarembga at your working-from-home-zoom-classroom-set-up in the kitchen. She’s talking at the Brooklyn Book Festival (2020) about the difficulty getting her novels published. Years. Her country’s politics. Independence/change of government. Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Former literary hub. The Brain Drain. Writing about a young/black/African/woman/protagonist. No one willing to publish her book. Seeking a publishing house in London. Sending her manuscript. No response. End of dream. Years later while in London, deciding to find them. Explaining herself. Her manuscript?
‘If you posted it, and it had arrived it should still be here.’
Fetching a dusty envelope full of cobwebs from the cellars from the unread pile. Reading it. Overnight. The next day, a response. The book was published. Yet her life going in new directions. To Berlin. Film school. Her second book engaging in race relations. Land reforms. A black girl in a school with predominantly white people. Life. Family. The publishing house folding. Still writing. Completing her next book. Politics. Engaging as a creative as a concerned citizen. In The Guardian you read of her arrest. Anti-corruption protests in Harare. A court appearance scheduled for late October, while her book This Mournable Body is shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
She doesn’t win.
Yet listening to her read, you know her work is great. Hear it. Sense it. You see her character Tambudzai. Understand what it’s like to be told you’re too old, that you need to move on, find another place. You step right into her cheap black Bata plimsolls. You feel the pain as Tambu forces her feet into her good shoes, the two-tone leather Lady Di’s so she can fit in to walk the posh streets on her way to find a new home. You notice the other writer on the panel shift during the reading. Perhaps they feel this too.
Of the dog, Tsitsi Dangarembga, in her novel, This Mournable Body, writes:
Lips are all you see to begin with and you are terrified … The lips are arranged in a snarl around yellow teeth.
Here you turn another corner. This is what goes around your head walking down this street. To be a writer is to be a suburban flâneuse. As you walk the same streets over and over again, you recall things. Return to other’s journeys, their rough passages, these writers, their truths. You’ll imagine the poor, shitty, rough roads they’ve/you’ve walked to get to the safe, white middle-class streets to where you are now.
So you’re listening to Kurt Cobain on repeat. Your Covid earworm. His trembling, growling, snarling voice; the waves of rage emerging from a life of depression. The pain as he yells the lyrics to Lithium, ‘I killed you, I’m not gonna craaaaa-aaaaaack.’ Grunge bands like Nirvana and Hole. Cue loud electric Fender guitars. The smell of your poor, shitty, suburban teen spirit.
You’ve gone for a walk. You’re at the corner near the roundabout when a sudden wave hits. You cross the road and begin typing notes into your phone, so you won’t cry in public. The walks. The talks. The lockdown. Reading Hashim Matar for your Zoom writing class. Your students’ collective depression. Their anxiety and isolation. You’d read Matar before, but this time his passage rose like an unexpected swell of water, swallowing you inside its violent whitewash. How darkly his words affected you. This time around. At this point. At this intersection. At this corner. And the next. And the next. Recalling. Those people. And ones like the Hungarians who’d escaped the 1956 uprising.
As Vivian Gornick explained in 2020 at the Brooklyn Book Festival (2020):
When you have an uprising, you make a little bit of progress, but you don’t win the whole game, you know.
The 1956 uprising is important for your father. It brings things to light, though his country loses. Here, he gets his break. He escapes. As Paul Simon sings with Ladysmith Black Mombazo, ‘he’s a poor boy/empty as a pocket … with nothing to lose.’ Alone, this boy/your father, gets on a ship and ends up far away, in another place. He tries to forget. Yet, these points of his past, are always intersecting your present. Memory theorist Marianne Hirsch explains:
A point is … small, a detail, and thus it can convey the fragmentariness of the vestiges of the past that come down to us in the present – partial [memories] on scraps of paper.
Because things go on. He did and he didn’t. After he flees, I don’t think he is ever the same.
The passage you were reading before you went walking, where Hashim Matar in ‘Trapdoor’ writes:
Without knowing how it happened, I found myself on my knees, looking in. I could not find a trapdoor … anything leading out. It came over me suddenly. I wept. I could hear myself.
23 October 2020: A message from your cousin in Argentina.
13:30: ‘Es el aniversario de la Revolución en el cual se escapó Tu Papa …’
14:37: ‘Sí… tenía 16 años’
Sixteen when he fled. Seventy when he died. On this date, in the year 2020, he would have been eighty-one. The last of his siblings died earlier this year. Buried in Budapest. A Covid funeral. You remember getting that text thinking, there’s no one in his family left. Your Hong Kong writer friend, on hearing this, responds:
The uprising itself may not be your story. You have your own stories. But claiming your voice is a valid life purpose … it’s terrifying but all the more reason for you to write your stories because they will represent your voice and your voice will persist.
So you read ‘In Dark Times, I Sought Out the Turmoil of Caravaggio’s Paintings’, where Teju Cole parallels the struggles of writing and making great art, and the pain of rejected migrants and boat people:
I made notes of what I was seeing. I observed the details, wondering how I might set it all down in writing. What happened next took me by surprise: I suddenly collapsed to my knees and began to sob. My chest pulsed, my tears flowed and between those boats with their strong smell of human bodies, I buried my head in my hands, ambushed and astonished by grief.
Here, in Italy, Cole goes on a walk to talk to two Bangladeshi migrants who have just landed that morning. ‘They looked dazed,’ he writes. ‘Their fatigue was apparent – the fatigue of having just that day survived an ordeal at sea. That’s what I kept thinking about: that they had lived but others had died. Why had things turned out that way? It was a matter of luck …’.
He asks the two young men about their journey and their hopes now they’ve landed. Their journey was difficult, they reply. Now, they just want the freedom, to work. A place that will help them fulfil their dreams. Cole studies their faces, their shock. Witnessing and writing and eventually overcome by their trauma. He knows, like you know, they’re still not safe.
In another passage, there’s a black-and-white photograph titled, ‘Migrant boats at port of Pozzallo’ that Cole took. The empty wooden boats used by the newly arrived migrants lean awkwardly; seem unable to stand on solid ground. Old boughs bent into boat shape. Cut holes for windows. No glass. Maybe it’s deliberate, you think. Makes it easier to jump out. When the boat is being tossed about on those dark waves. Who falls out? Who drowns?
So as you walk, you think, even after these migrants think they’re safe and settled, have learnt the language, customs, place, how trauma resurfaces. A compulsion. A tear. Trauma piercing and wounding like Barthes’ punctum. A ripple. Waves. Watch the wind blow blow blow until the water ripples. Waves break, but they never stop.
All this thinking and walking leads you to 2015. You are overseas, in Berlin on the other side of the world. You are walking to meet Herr X at an arranged café on the corner, near Checkpoint Charlie. Your reason for this meeting was that you wanted to hear a political prisoner’s experience of torture under the Stasi. Why? Their techniques were employed in other Eastern Bloc Communist countries, like Hungary. Herr explained how the Checkpoint was now a tourist attraction. He seemed disgusted. He’d helped East Germans escape to the West before his arrest, you see. Him calling to arrange the pickup points. Being betrayed. The person he met was not who he was meant to be meeting. Yet, he knew of betrayal and what the Stasi did, so was not angry. Him being taken away in a waiting car. He showed a picture of his trial where the sentence was that he was already convicted. Them taking the blindfolded prisoners away in unmarked vans to an unknown final destination, a Stasi jail. Later, realising they’d been driven in circles to deliberately confuse them. The prison was only blocks away. His fish van. ‘Ha!’ his sudden laugh. ‘I was fresh fish.’ His time imprisoned. The mental torture. The isolation. His story. One that he was willing to share because you’d asked. You had to hear it. You were glad your partner was with you. You were frightened. Of Herr. His voice. His twitching manner. His fragmented mind. His abrupt departure. The black coffee you bought for him left untouched on the café table.
You read ‘Unmournable Bodies’ (2015), where Dangarembga found the title of her novel and Teju Cole asks the black-and-white question:
[are] certain violent deaths … more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.
This thought is still reverberating worldwide. Are certain lives or bodies worth more? Or a certain group or people’s pain or trauma? Or certain writers’ skin coloured experiences or privilege? What has more worth, who tells the story, or, who are they telling it to? Is it the single reader vs the mass audience who collectively deems this story more worthy? What makes something – a journey, an event, history, a story, a book, an image, a drawing, a cartoon, a painting, a person, a body, an artist, a writer, great, greater? How do you even begin to measure your stories and voice against such worth?
After hearing the great writer Maria Tumarkin deliver the 2020 State of the (Writing) Nation address, talking about writers releasing first books this year in the pandemic:
…Years and years of their lives and hearts in those books. Such a scary thing to do.
To put a book into the world, your first book, maybe you never write another one again,
and for your little boat to be swallowed like that. My love to you dear writers of first books, the waves are receding, and your books will resurface.
Thinking of all those little boats, you too like her, struggle to breathe.
So you keep thinking as you walk. About writing, your father, refugees, and migrants. The not well wo/men. Paranoiacs. Alcoholics. Nervous tics. Beaten men with missing fingers and teeth; heads filled with entire (Eastern) blocked memories. The silent/violent waves. The drowned (three-year-old-Syrian) children (Alan Kurdi) washed up on foreign shores. Ghost families. The smell of freedom. Failed uprisings. Supressed lives. Whispers of torture. Camps. Detainees. Minorities. Refugees. Behrouz Boochani. Waiting. Writing. Winning an Australian Literary Prize, yet barred from entering Australia. This past/present channelled into a novel you were writing about migrants no one wants. Like those little wooden boats. That keep getting rejected.
So you’ve been lockdown since March. It’s October. Outside, it’s suddenly very windy. You turn a corner. Walk down the street. What makes the wind howl like that? you think. What makes the boughs bend? What causes the trees to break? Whose cradle is falling this time?
…His shadow chased him
from corner store to church
where he offered himself in pieces.
(From ‘Becoming a Ghost’ by Tanaya Winder)
‘Sometimes, all you need is a break,’ another writer/actor friend tells you.
With rejection, little pieces break off at different times. Sometimes, it’s a splinter. Other times, a bough. A broken limb falling from the sky. Do you catch it? Make a wish? Or make a wand?
‘The actors that make it are the ones that are still out there acting, and because the pool has gotten smaller,’ the writer/actor friend adds. ‘Sometimes, it’s about not giving up, you know?’
They’re hopeful. For themselves. For you. For your writing. That you’re still writing. You hear it as their voice lifts and changes, as they say this. To you.
In the recent respun reboot TV series High Fidelity, featuring African-American Zoe Kravtiz (instead of white guy Rob), one of the female record-store clerks, African-American Cherise, talks non-stop about her musical dreams. The other store clerk, Simon, listens. Says to her, you need to define your style. Be specific. Spell out your niche. Cherise does. Then realises she needs ‘a tool’ to achieve her dream ‘to become’ great. Her tool – a 1960’s Fender, Daphne Blue electric guitar. As she explains to Simon:
Kurt [Cobain] had one … This, is an instrument of creation, you understand what I’m saying? Like I have the songs going off in my head all day long. Songs for days. This will allow me to play them songs. And I’m (she growls) writing them songs like here I am, you know what I mean? You feel me?
Though Cherise is strong, straight up, and talks shit right back, deep down you see she’s afraid – not of starting, she’s already envisioned herself as an artist, a great one, but what frightens her, is failure. Just when she thinks no-one is listening, Cherise is gifted a guitar. The Fender. Here, this is her break. In the second to last scene of the episode, as Cherise strums those strings, you feel her hunger, sense her potential greatness, even though there’s still a long way to go.
So you finish Tomine’s book The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. You recognise throughout what writer and academic Cathy Park Hong’s terms as ‘minor feelings’ (in her book of the same name), where trauma and everyday racism is constantly dismissed as a slight; how the ‘Adrian’ graphic character and writer, embody the contradictory sentiments of American positivity vs the racialised reality, where you’re told: ‘‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure’.
In Tomine’s chapter, ‘Philadelphia 2017’, after Adrian has a panic attack and ends up in the ER, in the final panels, he talks to his partner about the nurse he meets in the hospital: ‘And she told me, ‘Your life is about to change.’’ He recognises the turning point; then realises after all his reflections about life, art, and his fears, his partner has fallen asleep.
But … just when you thought that was THE END, due to the wrap up, the following blank page, you’re surprised to find the sneaky ‘Twenty Minutes Later’ postscript, where ‘Adrian’ sits up in bed, laughs, goes to the desk, turns on the light, opens his moleskin notebook to a blank page, and begins his story. This new story. The one you just read.
Ping! Your story gets published!
‘So, how was your reading?’ your partner asks.
For the reading, you read the start of your story about a young migrant girl who always gets their name said wrong. The person who introduces you, gets your name wrong.
‘That’s too funny,’ your partner says, cracking up.
‘Nah!’ you laugh. ‘I think it’s great!’
Sharing this with your Hong Kong writing buddies on zoom, they laugh but also remember:
‘Ha! That’s the first story you ever wrote!’
You forgot you wrote it for your first ever writing exercise, ‘Write what you know’. The first time too you read aloud and heard your Rita Dove-like ‘singsong’ voice where worlds and words and lenguas mixed. Where you wrote your truth about yourself, home and familia. You needed to write this story. The intense hunger the moment you finished your sentences. You wanted so badly to learn how to write well. For your work to be great.
You still do.
So you watch the end of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. It’s after Arnie’s birthday. After big momma dies. After the siblings move all the furniture out of their poor, shitty house. After they watch the house burn down with big momma inside. Gilbert goes. Yup. He gets the fuck out.