Sometimes, when you’re lost, the best way to be found is to get even more lost.
That’s why I quit my job. So I’d have time to figure out what kind of a writer I was, or if I was any kind of writer at all.
It was a good job. Had the title and the six figures, was exciting, and came with people who appreciated me, maybe even liked me. But I’d written and published two novels that were well-received and promptly filed under chick lit. It wasn’t right, I thought. Why was any story about identity and feeling out of place, about finding love or finding what you’re meant to be in this world, automatically chick lit? Was Jane Austen chick lit? (It kind of is, if you define it as I do: books for and about women dealing with social transitions and written in a personal, sometimes humorous way.) What kind of racist, misogynist publishing establishment… blah, blah, blah.
But I had a secret and it was this: I didn’t want to hurt. I wasn’t willing to dive into my mess (my real mess) to find my stories. In my reading and in my writing, I refused to draw blood. Kafka said a good book is supposed to stab you. I didn’t want to be stabbed anymore. Because, well, because I come from shit. I come from abuse of every kind, and shame, and crime, and poverty so absurd it’s comical, even farcical, and definitely clichéd. I hadn’t clawed my way out of it just to go crawling back. I didn’t want to keep inhabiting my own ghetto, half this culture, half that other one, more educated than the people I grew up with, but less educated than my college-teaching, many-times-published, amazing women friends, and always sticking out like the thing that wasn’t quite like the others on Sesame Street.
And then, recently, some things happened that made me feel even more lost, even less willing to look at loss in my literature. I’d written about a widow in my second novel and within a year there was a suicide in the family and the widows I’d written became mine to console. Meanwhile, at work, someone with power had a moronic idea and I couldn’t make my face say I agreed with it, couldn’t keep myself from warning them they’d destroy what we’d built (they did).
And that’s how it was on the day Amina Gautier’s The Loss of All Lost Things reached me, now a lost thing myself: my husband off to work, the phone silent, and only four emails instead of the dozens that used to prove I was needed, important. I had quit my job to see if I could do something I’d never really been able to do. Gautier’s dark little book with the ominous title was in my hand and I looked at my Dachsunds. They looked back at me, waiting. I found a worn-enough Kantha quilt and settled in my red corduroy chair to read.
The first story is about a kidnapped child trying to survive by rationalizing his kidnapper’s desperate desire to turn him into his son. In one scene, the boy remembers his parents and this remembering threatens his survival. He forces that door shut so fast he stabs me deeply at the same time. Only it’s like the stabbings I heard of in another life, the pain not immediately felt, just the transcendence of the moment, Gautier’s exquisite prose like a toccata, a classical piece displaying virtuosity, demanding you live in its moment. I emerge on the other side, stabbed but strangely alive. I run to my laptop and write and write about nothing, which as Patti Smith will tell you, is not easy to do.
After “As I Wander,” a delicately hand-sewn story about a widow sleeping with a boy who has committed a crime, I run back to the desk, write about choosing to love people who you know will leave you and never say goodbye.
I recognize something in the stories. These women, these men, live between cultures like me, and not just ethnic culture. It’s academic culture versus hometown culture; it’s the culture of “I made it” versus the culture of staying behind, the culture of achievement versus the culture of guilt. In “Intersections,” about a white man’s affair with an overachieving African American woman, and in “Navigator of Culture,” about a girl who goes back to the temporary hood that embraced her when her family was down, the weapon is hair, thick and coarse and nappy like mine, meaning present in every tense strand of dialogue, revealing the space between us all. I keep reading and I’m thrilled to hear the voices of the left-behind. They’re not dead, as I’d thought. What had I been so afraid to look at? The stories show me how we let our differences separate us, make us lonely, and I’m off again to write these things I’m feeling as I read.
“Resident Lover,” about a man who goes on a writing retreat to find out why his wife left him, makes me laugh out loud. It’s so darkly funny, feels so wise. Gautier’s stories are populated with accomplished people who are lost in their own knowing. I make a mental note to write about how I betrayed a job, mentally and emotionally leaving it before it left me.
An Indian woman tries to hold on to the child in her womb in “A Cup of My Time” and I want to kill her nosy neighbor noisily and messily, so instantly real are these people. They beat me green and purple and blue and nick me with the ends of their knives and make me feel whole and strong as I read.
The last story is the story of the beginning—when the parents who had lost their child decide in their hearts that they can’t keep looking for him, can’t keep making life stand by. That they must live, putting their little boy in a box of “some day we might get him back” so they can be here now for the one that was not taken. That’s the thing with loss. To survive it, you must accept its devastating finality. Survival is about choosing to live.
The sun sets. Outside, the dogs are barking to be let inside. But I am crying and smiling and thinking about my afternoon of feeling things deeply. The Loss of All Lost Things has shown me how to look at the pain of loss so I can get to the good parts, maybe even live to tell about them.