Other people’s stories

There should be an image here of the stage area for Daniel Kitson’s Keep, a memento of a south London performance of the show from early January this year. A small table and chair towards the front. Further back, directly behind, an impressive-looking piece of heavy furniture: a carpentered index card filing cabinet, some of its drawers pulled out. Nothing else apart from a lot of space. Members of the audience – quite a big crowd – standing around, having a look. Some hand-written index cards on the table. All of it framed by the big curved ceiling of the Battersea Arts Centre’s recently-restored Grand Hall. But I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to take the photo, so there isn’t one here after all. I’ll return to this.

Three short reports, looking back from the end of the month. The first book I read this year. The first show that I saw this year. And a personal anecdote from another time, a couple of years ago or so. Held together – perhaps, let’s see – by a theme, let’s call it the moral impossibility of the novel. I overstate, I know, but let’s keep going. Two aspects to that. Firstly, how – why – under what conditions – to tell other people’s stories, stories of lives that are not your own? And second, how, why etc, to tell a story – even if it is your own – that nobody has asked for? To speak, or write uninvited, without a ‘setting’ as it were. What is that about?

So, the first book I finished this year, just before my undergraduate students submitted their essays at the start of January, was novelist Valeria Luiselli’s short, non-fiction work Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, published in 2017. The book is about unaccompanied, undocumented children crossing the Mexico-USA border. Its ‘aboutness’ is framed as a reflection on the practical politics, so to speak, of telling one’s story, and having one’s story told. Luiselli recounts her work as a volunteer translator, in the company of her teenage niece, at an immigration court in New York City. In this way, she informs her readers of the violence of the situations that child migrants from Central America have been attempting to escape, the dangers of the journey (rape, abduction, death and disappearance), and the hardship, fear and disorientation of arrival and immigration processing in the USA. Much of her account is also about the how, what, why of having a tale to tell, telling it ‘to’ someone, and having it heard, translated (in various senses of the word), written down, and told again by others to others. Luiselli and the other volunteers interview recently-arrived children with a standard questionnaire (the forty questions of her essay’s title), which they use to draw out individual stories – as much as the children are capable of putting their experiences into words, in that situation, to an adult stranger such as herself. The aim is that the documented stories might be taken up by lawyers, who will work on those cases they consider worth pleading, i.e. winnable. In Luiselli’s account one particular story is given prominence, that of a boy called ‘Manu’, who Luiselli says happens to be the first child she interviewed. Some names, details, chronology are altered as cases were still in process when the book was published. The one case stands for others; stands also apart from the others. As all the others do. We, readers, outside and after the events, follow at a distance, to an extent represented by Luiselli’s infant daughter, who is hearing on a daily basis reports from her mother about the progress (or otherwise) of this and other cases and asking, from within the telling, ‘How will it end?’ We take that to mean: how will this other child’s story end, Manu’s story for example. But also, for readers, listeners – ourselves – how will this telling end? Luiselli’s telling. What is at the end of the book?

The way this one ends (although perhaps there will be a continuation of sorts in her forthcoming novel Lost Children Archive) is with some hopeful indications for Manu’s particular case, and an impressive account of self-motivated, practical activism among Luiselli’s Spanish Conversation students at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York in support of Manu and other young people who are attempting to settle in the local area. There is also a tail to the telling itself: a coda – ‘Eight Brief Postscripta’ – that brings the story up to date with a blurb from Texas Observer on the front cover of the publication: ‘The first must-read book of the Trump era’. The events narrated in the book take place mostly in 2015 and 2016 (Luiselli starts volunteering at the New York immigration court in 2015), during the time of the Obama administration, in circumstances intensified by that administration’s introduction of a ‘priority juvenile docket’ for deportations, with the effective result that undocumented children from Central America seeking refuge are obliged to ‘find a lawyer’ within 21 days or be deported. Hence the urgent need for translators. Luiselli’s coda brings the story into 2017, through the Trump election victory in November 2016. ‘We should have predicted it, but we did not. I should have foreseen some of it: I am a novelist, which means my mind is trained to read the world as part of a narrative plot, where some events foreshadow others.’ Her six-year-old daughter foresaw it, though. Some months before, they are playing with face-paint. The girl puts her finger into a bucket of white paint, smears it across her face and says to her mother: ‘Look, Mamma, now I’m getting ready for when Trump is president. So they won’t know we’re Mexicans.’ On the day of Trump’s election victory, Luiselli recounts clumsily muttering something about empathy and social responsibility to ‘a twenty-something-year-old man wearing a red Make America et cetera cap’ on a train to Penn Station. He laughs in her face. ‘So I took a seat and opened a book, forcing myself not to cry or look scared.’




Reading that passage, I was remembering that day in 2016. It was a day on which I had made a mistake. A silly sort of teacher’s mistake, which I have not repeated, as yet. My intention that evening was to watch a bit of the American election night coverage on television and then read the essay I happened to have set, some months before, for my undergraduate class the next morning. The mistake I had made was not to read the text myself before setting it on the module; and not even to get around to the reading until the evening before the class. I had looked it over of course, and the topic, the set-up, the main examples looked ideal for the course I was teaching. And indeed they were, and are. And it is a fine essay, a reading by Alice Rayner of Hamlet and some texts by Samuel Beckett, thinking through complex questions about agency and responsibility, about the sometime dread of decision-making, about how we understand the transition between thinking and doing, how we might take responsibility for our thoughts and actions by attaching our own names as it were to the acts we commit to doing, to performing, and the ways in which our actions – singular and collective – may become – and be recognised as – historical, as part of the drama (social, political, interpersonal) we participate in; as belonging, in short, to the times and places we share with each other, part of the stories we may tell of ourselves and have told about us in turn. An excellent essay to share with students, then, except – or so I thought when I read my photocopied sheets later that evening – it was too difficult. Or to put that better, the type of arguments and frames of philosophical reference were such that my own professional responsibility, as teacher of this class, would require better preparing my students for how to read and use this material, or – alternatively – giving it them to read at a more appropriate moment in their careers as learners. None of which I realised until some time later in the evening, when the news from the USA was already looking odd, disturbing, but I obliged myself even so to turn off the television in order to do my day job. Which took me, then – reading and making detailed close notes on Rayner’s essay – a large part of the night (the essay is ‘difficult’ also for myself).

The class the next morning with the group of twenty or thirty undergraduates – and with Trump’s election victory by this point confirmed, and ourselves perhaps only beginning to imagine what that event in America signalled for, and of, our own worlds here in London and elsewhere – was as intellectually sober a class as I can remember. The students confirmed that they had found the text difficult to get a purchase on. I apologised for pitching it to them, unprepared, in the way that I had, and committed to talking it through with them, page by page, as much as we could deal with in our three-hour session. We talked about the topics in Rayner’s paper, of course, and about Prince Hamlet, and Beckett’s clowns. We also talked about difficulty as such: about the importance, I suppose, of recognising difficulty in the world, in our lives, and not being seduced by what appear to be easy solutions. It turned out this group of twenty-something-year-old men and women in the room already knew plenty about that. I still remember one particular moment from the conversation. We were discussing the bit in Rayner’s argument – or else it was something that by this point we were spinning for ourselves from out of her argument – about naming one’s action, or having one’s action already named (as ‘revenge’ or ‘waiting’ or ‘arrival’ as it might be), and about opening our actions to alternative interpretations, a naming that is still to come, a naming that we might, in one way or another, perform ourselves, and for each other. One of the students said then something like ‘Even me, Jenny —-?’ She named herself. As if to say, might a play that names who I am and what I do – even a play that could be being performed right now – have some consequence in the world, be a tale worth telling?




A few days after reading Luiselli’s book I had a ticket for Daniel Kitson’s solo performance Keep at the BAC. Reporting on the theatre – what one saw that night, how it went, what it’s about – has an arbitrary aspect. One can’t quite pick a show to see to chime with what is going on, with whatever you happen to be thinking about, in the way you might choose a book to read. (That said, my reading habits are arbitrary enough too: I picked up Luiselli’s volume from a London bookshop display table in the new year on the basis of enjoying her novels The Story of My Teeth and Faces in the Crowd last year, having bought those to supplement a 2018 holiday trip to Mexico City and Oaxaca. It was the writer’s name I went for with this one). At the theatre, meanwhile, you see what’s on. It was early January and not much had been on for a while. And Kitson is always good value (this particular show you get a lot of Kitson for your ticket: it’s quite long). And sometimes it’s hard to get seats, he’s popular, the shows sell out. So I booked ahead. I was committed, then, some time before. I even got into the venue early and sat in the front row. There was a considerable crowd behind me, looking forward to being entertained. I didn’t really want to be ‘among’ all that. Kitson, it turned out, has been thinking about how to meet our expectations. He comes into the performance space in a sort of pre-show bit, pin mic between his fingers rather than pinned to his jacket – this isn’t the proper start yet, we are to understand – not quite looking us in the face (as if we had one face to look into), apologising in advance to those who may have come for a stand-up comedy performance or for the sort of award-winning experimental storytelling performance (his phrases) that he is well known for. This isn’t going to be either of those. (The audience are already laughing as he tells us this). It’s going to be more avant-garde (although he doesn’t use that phrase) and also at the same time more mundane (although he doesn’t use that phrase either). What he will be doing this evening, he tells us, is reading out the twenty thousand index cards – stored in that mightily impressive index card cabinet in the centre of the stage – on which he has itemised the entire contents of his home. Everything in his house – a house in which he lives alone – that he has kept. And itemised. Over several months of labour. It will all be spoken. Kitson is a professionally successful performer. He has – we are given to believe – a decent-sized house. And he has kept a lot of stuff. He has a lot of history. A sort of Krapp’s Last Index Card, then. And, when he comes back on stage ten minutes or so later, pin mic properly pinned on, that is what we – start to – get. He pulls a drawer from the cabinet, sits down at the table and starts to read: ‘Basin. Biro. Brick. Brick. Brick…’ (I don’t remember the exac items, but there were several bricks).

Things fall apart soon after – as we might have expected. And when they are eventually put back together again, a couple of hours later, it is to a different order and purpose than he at least – or so he pretends – was expecting. I won’t tell. He does it much better. But it will have become a tale of interruption, of something unforeseen inserted into the system, rogue fragments of unattributed prose caught up in the alphabetical list of possessions and keepings, which he – the finder and keeper – takes at first for forgotten bits and pieces of himself, notes for as yet unperformed actions (ideas for shows, fractions of life, of wisdom), but which turn out to be the bits and pieces of a stranger’s story, a record of things done already, happened and – by him at least, it seems – forgotten. Or so the tale would have it. The stranger has – or gets given eventually – a name: ‘Sarah’. The name gets attached to a reassembled memory, an encounter on a train, a dollop of grief, a conversation in passing, some sort of kindness shown and shared. A re-encounter, or an unforeseen sighting, happens some time later at a theatre. Tonight, for instance. Somebody sees somebody else performing, acting, in their own name, telling a story all about themselves that turns out to be a story – there is no other sort – that depends on other people. That weaves other people into it. No-one was invited, unless we all were. We just turned up. A message arrives, which was there all the time. Somebody forgives someone else the story, or its telling, or its forgetting. It’s not entirely clear. Maybe they just forgive them for being there, or not being there, or having been there once. Or so the story claims, forgiveably perhaps. Kitson says at the end: ‘It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.’ The applause when he goes off sounds like less than you would expect from a crowd this size. He isn’t called back for a bow. You get the impression he may have set it up like that.