Saradha Koirala

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The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

the-lonely-cityA couple of months ago I was looking up my book, Lonesome When You Go (as you do), and was directed to a Loneliness Quiz. It was the end of a tough year having moved to a new country and struggled to make meaningful connections or feel at home. I scored very highly on the quiz and my results suggested I should be concerned for my well-being. It made me feel even sadder, but prompted me to really examine the issue – what is it that makes me such a solitary creature? Am I okay with it? Will it pass? And why, in this huge city full of writers, musicians, artists and people with similar backgrounds to me have I continued to find connection and friendship so elusive and difficult?

During that tough year I found myself reading about all sorts of things, from Synchronicity to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; books on Mastery, depression, loss, love. Both fiction and non-fiction books seemed to be all about searching for meaning and understanding ourselves and our relationship to others.

Most pertinent of all of these was The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. With the subtitle ‘Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’ and a purple night sky cover (a similar image to my phone’s background: the sky I snapped on my 35th birthday, as it happens), this book was already a favourite.

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Lonesome Moon: The night sky on Saradha’s 35th birthday

Laing ruminates poetically on some of my own queries and, in particular, the nature of loneliness through her own experience of living heartbroken in New York in her mid-thirties. She ponders the way society views loneliness and questions the belief that “our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession.” I often hear it said that humans are social creatures, our purpose is to connect with others and thus be fully realised ourselves. The fact that this isn’t always possible can be troubling, but I found comfort in Laing’s acceptance of this state and discussion on how it can serve a purpose of its own. She asks “What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being?”

Quoting Virginia Woolf, Laing writes, “Woolf described an inner loneliness that she thought might be illuminating to analyse, adding: ‘If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.’” Suggesting that there’s more to this feeling than a lack of something. It can perhaps be used to enhance our experience of reality.

Through her solo exploration of New York City, Laing focuses on the artists who have walked and documented the same streets. Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz all feature heavily and are connected through their shared experience of difficult childhoods, being outsiders and making art that examines loneliness felt amid a crowded city. The link between art and loneliness is strong and Laing’s fascination turns it into an art form itself.

Sometimes a book comes along that makes you feel better about being the you you are. Just as Susan Cain’s Quiet cemented my understanding of my own introversion some years ago, The Lonely City made me feel remarkably less alone; less worried about a state that, whether or not it’s fundamental to my very personality, will come and go and always lead to something creative or examinable. I’ve definitely been working on it, but see it now as less a failure to experience and more an experience all of its own.

(I just did the quiz again and have gone down from extreme loneliness, to moderate loneliness. I’ll be okay.)

 

Slideshows

Signing and glass-of-wining…

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Reading and gesturing…

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How does it feel??

Paige and Lily from Lonesome When You Go react to The Dylan News:

 

“Lily! You heard the Bob Dylan news?” I’ve run up behind her and grabbed her by the arm. I must be looking a little panicked. She whitens.

“Oh my god, Paige don’t tell me. Not Dylan. I’m still grieving for Bowie. I can’t…” her bottom lip quivers.

“No! God no! He’s still alive and he just won the damn Nobel Prize for Literature.”

“Oh thank god!” she breathes, “My Dylan life just flashed before my eyes – the first time we listened to Blood on the Tracks all the way through, every time I’ve been feeling low and then heard a Dylan song in a shop or café or from a busker… that road trip… he’s really been there for me.”

“I know.” I give her a hug, before remembering my excitement. “He won the Nobel! Holy shit! A song-writer – a musician!”

“You’re right, this is huge! Wow. I’m going to briefly ignore the fact that it’s yet another white American male being held aloft and also the fact that most of his songs in the last thirty years have been terrible and focus on the musician as celebrated poet part.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“It’s really cool.” she grins.

It’s Friday morning and we’ve just entered the school grounds. I have Like a Rolling Stone running through my head – “how does it feel?” – and whistle the next line of organ melody aloud. Lily stops walking and thrusts an arm out at me.

“Shut up! I was just up to that part in my head too!” Her eyes widen and we stare at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.

“I guess it’s pretty appropriate,” I say and we start singing it together, loudly and horribly, straining our voices on the lengthened vowels and ignoring the bemused looks from passing juniors. They probably only know Dylan songs from Miley Cyrus covers and references in young adult novels.

Musician as celebrated poet. I walk into class feeling like anything is possible today.

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Saradha’s Dylanesque nod to the poets and poetic nod to the man himself.

The Persistence of Fiction

I’ve been insisting on the non-autobiographical nature of my novel for ages, but now I think I might actually be turning into my character. It’s okay though, she’s pretty cool. Yesterday I bought a second-hand Epiphone Les Paul Standard in sparkly blue and cream and although Paige in Lonesome When You Go is actually a bass player, there are substantial rumours circulating that there’s a sequel in the works in which she makes the switch to lead.

I’ve even found myself being ever-so-slightly more assertive, refusing to put up with histrionics in the staff room and flicking the hair from my eyes pointedly to signal the end of a conversation.

And of course I’ve been a long time plagiariser of Blood on the Tracks lyrics.

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Photo by Richard Wise

Perhaps this is proof that my fiction writing is just one step ahead of my real life desires, or perhaps life really is imitating art. It does happen. People look to literature – as readers and writers – for a better understanding of the world and themselves. I’ve always learnt something about myself through my own writing and, in lieu of safe, trustworthy and compassionate adults to talk to, people – especially young people – often look for emotional support by reading fiction.

I don’t think this means authors bear the burden of providing therapy or a safe and perfect world in their novels to which people can escape. Nor need they ensure their characters are ideal and consistently positive role models, but we do have a responsibility to keep in mind if we truly believe in what we do as writers. Otherwise what’s the point?

When I’m not writing or buying sweet axes, I’m a teacher. I have been for years. It’s given me a broad view of the world and an understanding that not everyone has the benefit of feeling safe all the time.

Sometimes I get to teach analysis of great literature, introduce students to writers and concepts that will hopefully stay with them as they take on the adult world. Often I get the pleasure of encouraging a young person to write something they never knew they were able to write. Other times I just read them books that help put feelings into words, their own emotional vocabularies so limited.

Always I stress the importance of language to our sense of self and well-being, and one day, maybe, I’ll even tell them about my secret life as a teenage rock star; how life is just an imitation of art imitating life.

Tuesday’s Poem

Those waterproof pants
haven’t seen much use
bought on another whirlwind trip
ferrying towards family surprises
old friends and the waves
rolled through us.

I roll myself through Royal Park
cross the tram tracks
follow the train
cycle past pale trees
reflecting back morning light, faint
eucalyptus smell of Here Now.

Warmth spreads
to gloved extremities
my angled reflection
in the Red Rooster window
turns to habit and blossom
blows gently over the schoolyard fence.

Yard Duty

I’m teaching again. Students smile at me and say hi as we pass in the corridor. Sometimes they ask how I am. When we’re practising writing they might ask me the name of that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement. It’s anxiety I tell them. Oh, anxiousness, they say.

On Monday and Wednesday lunchtimes I’m on yard duty. I have to shoo all the students out of the corridors and I have a walky-talky that I assume works, but have never used, except to pretend to call for back-up when someone’s trying to ask too many questions of me. I hold it near my mouth and make a fake static noise. Kkkkkk. They get the idea and move on.

Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the unopenable window at the top of the stairs; wouldn’t move from the windowsill. It fluttered its wings like the butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d opened at the end of the empty corridor.

Advice to My Younger Self

It’s going to be okay. There are many times when it won’t feel like it, but these times will pass. Have faith in your ability to do the right thing and get out of situations when they don’t feel right.

Luck has a lot to do with it all, of course, so never deny how fortunate you are because of the time and place and family you were born into. You are growing up in a paradise. Look around and be grateful.

Stick to your principles. Being a vegetarian in the 90s is hard work and you will endure a lot of salads with the bacon picked out, but in twenty years’ time you can feel proud that your existence has not harmed thousands of other living beings and your highly-developed taste for vegetables will serve you well in The Great Kale Hype of 2016.

Don’t worry about the fruit thing, they’re starting to say it’s not really that good for you anyway.

Be proud and passionate about the bands you like. Music really doesn’t get much better from about 1997 on.

Stay close to your family, they’re a good bunch. Nurture friendships – I still have no idea how these come and go.

Don’t pluck your eyebrows too thin – they will never grow back the same. Fashions change, but authenticity is timeless. Don’t be ashamed of the long genetic history that makes you look and think and be the way you are. It’s amazing, really. You’re part of that.

Read everything. Read poetry and fiction and hard stuff. Care about politics. Your brother was right to argue with you in 1991 when you were ten and said talking about Ruth Richardson’s ‘Mother of all budgets’ was boring you and it didn’t affect you anyway. It all affects you. Be one of the people who realises that. Be informed.

Your childhood is full of announcements about how special you are. You are, but so is every living thing here. Stay humble and remember the world doesn’t owe you a thing.

You don’t owe the world anything either, but try to do as much as you can. You will need time out from it every now and then and that’s okay, because – if I know you – you will always be striving to create, contribute and be part of something greater.

Have adventures, fall in love, listen, and remember to let other people love and care for you too. They’ll like that.

PledgeMe – Lonesome When You Go

I am completely thrilled to have my first Young Adult novel published by Makaro Press!

It’s so so close to coming into existence and just needs one last push from you, dear readers!

Makaro say: ” Our press is only three years old, and for the past two years we’ve had books shortlisted in the NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults: The Book of Hat by Harriet Rowland (2015), The Red Suitcase by Jill Harris (2015), and just announced … Sylvie the Second by Kaeli Baker (2016), which is in the main awards with stellar writers like Bernard Beckett and Fleur Beale, and the Children’s Choice Awards.

This is exciting for a small press. It means we’re on to something. But it puts us under pressure reprinting a book to satisfy all those who want to read an award finalist.

And now we have another Young Adult book all ready to go. It is edited and designed and the printer is lined up. We believe we have another winner on our hands, and that we need a good-sized print run to bring this story to as many people as possible. But with our award commitments, we can’t do it justice.

That’s why we’re asking for your support. This is a book that music lovers of any age will enjoy. Lonesome When You Go is a book for all those students playing in a rock band, and even for those who aren’t. It’s written by a teacher who played the bass in a band at school, so she knows her stuff. And if you’re not in your first band, maybe you’ll remember when you were in one, and all that mattered was playing as often and as loud as you could (and, if you were lucky, winning something along the way). Or maybe you just like to read an exciting story – then this book is for you.

Help us get Lonesome When You Go published! And if you can’t pledge, then spread the word.”

Please check out the campaign and add your part if you can  https://www.pledgeme.co.nz/projects/4650-lonesome-when-you-go

x Saradha

The Diarised Life

 

No need to re-write or correct reading back
through notebooks, over notes. Overlook your
diarised descriptions of precise actions.
Pronouns, dates, exact recollections –
A detailed log of the daily grind.
There’s no poetry in a list of facts.
Look instead for the angle of the hand-
writing, denoting the slouch or the strength
of posture while writing, the scrawl or script
an indication of a mood now paled,
a reminder that these things come, and pass
like pen over paper. Be not troubled.
The end is not yet and sorrow’s age
ends again with the turning page.

From Wherever Glory Dwells, sonnet series in Tear Water Tea

The rest of my life started 22 years ago with a floral pink book that smelled of talcum powder. A diary gifted to me by grandparents. Before deciding to write in it every day, I covered it in black fabric, locked it with its tiny key and kept it stashed in the drawer beneath my bed. A typically Grandad message was inscribed in the front: “May this be the start of the rest of your life.” And it was. Just as every day is, but keeping some kind of notebook or journal has been a habit ever since.

In 1994 my daily tasks and interactions were recorded in a very prosaic form: Conversations with friends, orchestra practices, boys who may or may not have smiled at me in the corridor…tedious to re-read in the future and very self-conscious as if I knew it could be discovered and read by a family member at any moment (something that happened all the time on teen TV in the 90s). But also perhaps testament to two other things: My inability to express my inner experience of the world beyond the quotidian and my not-yet-formed understanding of how thoughts and feelings could be validated, made indelible with ink and paper.

More recent notebooks can be quite devastating to re-read. They can immediately bring back the feelings they express and if these are dark and brooding, then so too can become my day. If they’re light and fluffy – well, perhaps a reminder to myself to record the light and fluffy moments in notebooks too and not just on social media (the ultimate form of public diarising).

But notebook writing is rarely for the future self to look back on. It’s a very immediate process and a way of conversing with myself, reconciling difficult feelings and making sense of the world. The diary of my fourteen-year-old self would have served a similar purpose – laying down the facts of the day and putting them in order – and what I chose to pay attention to actually says a lot about the person I was or thought I was, or thought I should be at that time. Maybe the ‘angle of the handwriting’ on those pastel coloured pages is more telling than the words themselves.

 

Digging – Writing, Work and Sci-fi Stereotypes.

At the start of last year I was sifting through some old posters in the English department, trying to make the classroom walls less grim, and found a laminated copy of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging.’ Perhaps a poem about potato farming wasn’t quite the thing to liven up the walls, but it was a nice reminder of my love for the work of the poet who had just died a year and a half earlier. I felt strongly it was a poem I needed to share with my classes.  It was my tenth year of teaching (a fact I found many opportunities to proclaim with both pride and astonishment) and, as it turned out, my last. For now at least. Teaching is hard work.

I’ve used the word “work” twice there very deliberately, of course. And I’ve been thinking about Digging again. There is such respect in Heaney’s poem for the hard labour of his father and grandfather, who “cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.” It’s not the kind of work the poet will do, but it’s purposeful, necessary and skillful work nonetheless “Nicking and slicing neatly,” – there’s a craft to it.

The comparison between physical labour and intellectual / creative pursuits is pronounced in this poem and it’s easy to feel defensive of the latter as equally worthy, even if the results are not always as palpable.

Recent Netflixing of Sci-fi films brought up a discussion point in our house that the scientists, analysts, intellectuals and academics in movies are often portrayed as either very rigid in their thinking or a little bit unhinged. They have social anxieties and neuroses and we could attribute their obsessive interest in their particular field back to some childhood incident that needs resolving, rather than a sheer love of it. There’s little respect for curiosity and wonder.

Meanwhile, the ‘heroes’ of the films tend to be the working class – soldiers, tradespeople, the deep-core drillers who are the only ones who can save the world from an in-coming asteroid with their highly-trained and specific skills. They are physically, not intellectually, strong and they’ll need to be – combat is key to world-saving. It’s a triumphant uprising of the blue-collar as sparked by 90s Hollywood. These characters have hardships too, but they toil, construct and contribute. Science is both mocked and idealised as the final victory lies with the most ordinary, humble and unassuming character who’s just doing his job the best he can. Albeit with highly sophisticated, carefully researched, meticulously designed technologies.

Of course Sci-fi films are known for their extremes and Hollywood notorious for unrealistic and unfair portrayals of all kinds of members of society. It almost seems pointless to even bring it up, except that it feels like a constant and powerful theme.

Perhaps this is partly why I often find myself trying to justify the importance and effort involved in the work of the writer and end up reading all sorts of reassuring articles about writing, such as these ‘non-rules’ for writing by Elizabeth Percer. The third of her rules seems to fit nicely with what I’ve been thinking (daydreaming, wondering, lying around contemplating): The idea that writing work looks different to other kinds of work. Percer says,

About 80 percent of the writing I do looks nothing like writing. It looks like reading, or daydreaming, or driving, or drawing, or listening to music, or lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

Many other authors have discussed their ideas about writing as work (e.g. Ford, Eugenides) and often approach it as a desk job or nine-to-five. But to Heaney’s father it must not have looked like he was very busy at all, with much of what he did being possible from the same seat all day and hardly sweat-raising stuff.

As my students read Heaney’s poetry last year they discussed ideas about the importance of writing especially during difficult times, as Heaney was doing; writing as a craft or calling as worthy as potato digging when potato digging needs to be done; and that constant voice in our heads trying to tell us that what we want and do is just as valid as what anyone else is wanting or doing with their time on this earth. It was a fine moment for an English teacher to ‘retire’ on.

Heaney ends his poem with the decisive lines, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests. /I’ll dig with it.” It moves me every time.

When so much in the world is Hollywood constructed, media-manipulated, target marketing and just plain inauthentic, to find moments where people are doing what they do because they genuinely love and believe in the value of it – well, it keeps me digging, “down and down / For the good turf.”