- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Original Essays | February 6, 2014 0 comments
One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary... Continue »
Wordlessby Alison McGhee
Once through customs I emerged into a dark night and got into a cab. I had memorized the name of a hotel in the city, and I leaned forward and recited it to the cab driver, who nodded and then laughed in amazement when he saw my white American face.
"Your Chinese is great!" he said.
No, it's not, I thought, which was the truth.
And then we were off. Neon twisted around buildings, lighting Chinese faces with its weird and garish light. Crowds of Chinese people moved like liquid through narrow streets and alleys. Old wooden shacks leaned against new concrete apartment buildings; smoke from charcoal braziers plumed from open doorways. Men and women squatted on the sidewalks, sucking spears of orange fruit and sipping cups of tea.
It was late evening but dark haired, almond-eyed toddlers were everywhere, wearing jackets so padded that their tiny arms stuck straight out.
The cabdriver suddenly crunched on the brakes in front of another gray building that turned out to be the hotel. When I got out of the cab the people on the street stared at me. This was more than twenty years ago, when foreigners were few and far between in Taiwan. A toddler looked up at me, way up, and screamed.
I felt like screaming, too. I had no trust in my ability to speak Chinese or to understand it, and I was filled with fear. Once in my hotel room I realized that I was starving, with only fish-flavored crackers left over from the plane to eat, but no matter how I tried, I could not force myself out of that room. The bathtub was deep, almost three feet deep: a narrow rectangular box turned on end. In order to sit in it I had to draw my knees up to my chest. I stayed in this tub, more or less continually, for three whole days, dreaming of the string beans in my favorite Chinese dish.
On the fourth day, I emerged. It was not bravery that drew me forth, but the thought of those green beans in their salty, spicy oil. At the front desk three Chinese men milled about, chattering softly. At the sight of me they stopped abruptly.
"Nihao," I said. "Fanguar zai nar?"
All three nodded, smiled, and pointed across the street to a small building. I couldn't understand the characters on the sign above the door.
In that long-ago time, three days alone in a Taiwanese bathtub, waiting until starvation drove me forth, I was voiceless and lost. I wanted desperately to be my American self, waking up in my Vermont dorm room, gazing out at the Green Mountains, chatting in the cafeteria with my friends, but I was a world away from that life. That college girl was a ghost inside me. Everything I wanted to say, and everyone I wanted to say it to, was nowhere to be found.
I've been without language before and since that time. A few days into a cold, laryngitis sometimes reduces me to gestures and hoarse whispers. Once, standing in a church giving a eulogy, my throat closed up from grief. And sometimes in the hours before dawn, when I can't sleep, my nomadic self pauses at the doorway of my children's rooms to watch them dream; their hearts, my heart.
Sometimes I want language that does away with the translation that is inherent in words and voice, language that transcends the black marks on a white page that you are reading now. Music can do this to me. So can the curve of a face in a painting by Caravaggio, lamplit in oil on canvas. The yearning of a dancer's outstretched arm on a silent stage. A lover who knows by instinct how to touch me. That bridge between the language of the body and the un-language of the soul.
Before I began my novel Falling Boy, I wandered in an idea-less wilderness for some months. The day came when I looked up at the grim sky outside my window and said, out loud, "Please, give me something to write about."
The boy appeared to me then. He looked to be about sixteen, long dark hair half-obscuring his eyes, gazing up at me, his hands gripped on the armrests of his wheelchair.
"Write about me," he said.
I looked at his eyes, dark and intense and hidden, and the set look on his face, and the way his fingers moved to the wheels as if he were ready to shove himself away. What did I know about wheelchairs? Nothing.
Still, there he sat, looking at me. It came to me that he was waiting. We are all waiting, we who are living, and the ghosts that we hold within ourselves, the ghosts of who we used to be. We wait for the path that will lead us to our next selves. This Joseph would grip the wheels of his wheelchair, and he would shove himself away from me, and I would follow him, led by his silence.
Over the next year, the silent boy revealed bits and pieces of himself to me. Bees were drawn to him, and he set out small bowls of lemonade for them at the bakery where he worked. Every day he pushed himself around one of the lakes in Minneapolis, the city where he lived. I knew those lakes. I've walked them thousands of times over the years.
One night, Joseph pushed himself to the top of a small bridge over a channel that connects one lake to the next. He gazed out at stones, floating on the surface of the water. Then he saw that they were geese, gazing at the moon. It struck him that he was witness to a kind of ceremony, the church of the geese and the moon. The geese were silent, and so was Joseph.
What is writing, anyway? A magician's work, in part, an act of translation that transforms real life into something that can be contained, something that gives us a way to understand what happens in real life, when most of what happens in real life is messy, complicated, hard to piece meaning from. Geese, gazing up at a moon trailing light-fire over a lake.
Twenty and more years after my three days in the Taipei bathtub, I went to Venice. Partly because I'd always wanted to go, and partly to work on the novel about Silent Joseph, as I had come to think of him. I brought along my computer and a hard copy of the first draft. My intention was to type the entire book back into the computer under a new name Falling Boy revising as I went.
Venice, too, was a world without words. Here is what I know how to say in Italian: Insalata verde. Vino. Ciao. Each morning I rose and worked for a couple of hours, went downstairs to the little restaurant and had cappucino and a croissant, then walked the city. Returned to my room and worked for four or five hours, then headed out again into the slanting afternoon light, and walked again, for hours. The beauty of that sinking city, those cobblestone streets, is almost tragic. The light, the water, the crumbling plaster and the unearthly colors, all of it made my heart ache.
And Joseph, my boy with the strong arms and the unfeeling legs, this boy with the dark hair and the cloaked soul, he made my heart ache too. Who was he? Who was I, to be writing about him?
When my heart aches I walk. And that is what I did that entire week in Venice, through the city time and time again, two or three times a day. Walking is how I've gotten through the hardest times in my life. Death, divorce, sickness of those I love; name the hardship and I'll tell you the routes I took, the miles I trod, the way my muscles tense and then, ultimately, relax after hour upon hour of rhythmic strides. Walking, too, is a means of transcendence.
Silent Joseph, in his wheelchair, couldn't move his legs. Had he been a walker? He didn't tell me for a long time, and then one morning in Venice, as I moved through the dawn streets, he gave me the image of himself, reflected in the glass windows of locked stores. He flashed past each, and I saw he was running. Silent Joseph had not been a walker. He had been a runner.
At the end of that week in Venice, after hours of wandering over cobblestone bridges that brought me to more twisting streets, small plazas, clusters of small leather and paper shops, I came across a Chinese restaurant.
"Nihao," I said to the waitress.
"How are you?" she said, unsurprised at my Chinese.
"Do you by chance have any crispy and juicy string beans?"
"No, not today."
I really wanted those beans. She saw the look on my face.
"Wait a second, I'll go check. Maybe we got some more in that I don't know about."
She went in the back, into the kitchen, and I sat waiting. All week I had been focused on my boy Joseph, alert for anything, no matter how tiny, that he was willing to reveal to me. I had been silent, and waiting. These few lines, bantered back and forth with the waitress, were the longest conversation I'd had in a week.
Would that girl I used to be, twenty and more years ago, have been stunned if she could see into the future, see the fearless way her grown-up self made known her hunger? We are alive and at the same time we are ghosts, carrying within us the knowledge of our former selves. The waitress came back bearing beans, and I ate them.