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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Conversations with Siri Hustvedt: on writing as therapy and The Dr. Guislain Award

“We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition,” write Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy, a book that was published toward the end of 2013 and that echos some of the ideas that American author and essayist, Siri Hustvedt, had already been toiling with for a number of years.
      A native of Minnesota, Siri Hustvedt taught creative writing to inpatients at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York from 2006 to 2010 with the firm believe that writing could bring about healing.
“I discovered that writing truly does have a therapeutic value for psychiatric patients. I saw it in my classes, and I have been thinking through why it has the benefits it does. I believe these benefits are achieved by all forms of artistic practice,” she says.
      But why would a novelist with a PhD in English have an interest in psychiatry and what it means to be a patient with mental illnesses, what he or she has to go through?
      For almost as long as she can remember she's had to cope with migraines, with their unpredictable and blinding pain, which in turn made her become interested in anatomy and physiology from an early age, and in 2006 she suffered a seizure from the neck-down – she recorded her experiences in The Shaking Woman or the Story of My Nerves. And it's been her unabating curiosity, her desire to make the world question the boundary between normal and abnormal, that made her become a jury member for the Dr. Guislain Award, which is presented every year to people or organizations who make an effort to break the chains of stigma linked to mental illnesses. The Award was created in 2012 and is an initiative steered by the Dr. Guislain Museum in Gent, and Janssen Research and Development. The jury receives nominations from December until April, with the winner announced in October.
      “The award has not only been given to art therapy causes,” Mrs. Hustvedt says. “It has also been given to individuals or groups that foster the diminishment of stigma still attached to mental illness everywhere, although in some cultures it is far worse than in others. It is crucial to understand that suffering from a mental illness does not make people stupid or ignorant. There are other causes for those afflictions. In fact, countless people with psychiatric diagnoses are creative and original. No doubt, this truth comes from both the physiological realities of their illness and from their experience as marginal in a given culture.”
      But life can be complex, some of its aspects often too difficult to grasp. Clear and simple rules are marred with exceptions. Contradictions abound.
      She explains to me that in her classes there were always patients who were relieved to be in the hospital. There were others who couldn't wait to get out.
      Why do humans have trouble dealing with ambiguity, I ask her.
      “What a deep question,” she exclaims. “I think ambiguity is uncomfortable. It is like an itch in our thought processes and the continual scratching of that itch is annoying. We want it to end. We want certainty because it brings calm. Embracing ambiguity is important because it means being open to new thoughts, and it keeps us humble in the face of the astonishing complexity of human experience.”
      Finally I ask her about suicide, a topic she's written about. Can an initiative like the Dr. Guislain Award help reduce the number of suicides?
“Suicide is very difficult to parse. My intense reading on the subject left me in awe of the complexities involved. To be blunt: despair and suicide are linked, but despair like happiness is not a permanent condition. For people with mental illness who are also suicidal, the right word at the right time or some form of dialogue or intervention can and has prevented a person from taking her or his own life. So, yes, initiatives matter.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A letter to Santa, from the son of Mexico's President. Maybe.

How does it feel to be at a movie set, with cameras and lights and assistants and gaffers? This morning, as I sat down at my desk, the answer was delivered in doses, first of people and cars, then of something else which, to my chagrin, had no end.
     It is mid morning and I'm trying to weave some sentences together, the usual struggle. Outside, a few meters from my window, the engine used to power cameras and equipment has been turned on for over six hours, and no, it doesn't help to close windows, turn on the music, wear earplugs. The noise is still there. Maybe I should walk over and tell them that I am sleep deprived, about to miss a deadline, or that I suffer from some nervous condition, capable of hooliganism under distress. No, that wouldn't do much. They would laugh, jeer at me, or even cast me as the neighbor who has gone mad, and who wouldn't, these days, with what's been going in Mexico: civil unrest, beatings, people missing, corruption scandals. For sure I'm missing plenty more.
     It's a bit over two weeks since I'm back and there've been so many things, so many surprises, and it never stops, Mexico, always leaving me in awe, with its beauty and its contradictions, and this, the contradictions, is why I keep coming back. It never ends, the fascination I feel, but there's also sadness. Forgive me, Mexico, but this I must say, too.
     Santa Claus, the three Magi, what can Mexican children wish for, write in their letters to them? Yes, toys, video games, a puppy, a bicycle. And then? To play where, in what kind of country? 
     I've been spending time with my niece Ximena, and with nephews Rodrigo and Chemita. So far I haven't asked them how they feel; I don't have to. Ximena and Rodrigo are older; they feel disappointed, embarrassed at what's happening with the government, at all levels, with Congress, the way politicians cover up corruption, larceny, nepotism, and then they go and pretend it's Mexico they serve, that their sole goal is to work for a better country. They'd die for it, they swear. One question is all I have: better for whom?
     Chemita is only two and he likes to run to my  bed in the morning, wrestle with me or play hide-and-seek below the table. If he could write, this is what I imagine his letter might say

     Dear Santa,

     I hope you remember what I asked for last year and the year before that. Let's keep it between you and  me; mommy and daddy will get used to it, they are both easy to convince, believe me. Besides, it will be fun, I've seen them, just last Sunday, how they like to play with my cousin M. They don't fool me, no, they want a little sister for me too.

     There's been some talk, Santa, here at home, when we watch the news, and it feels strange because it makes me think of X, what he will write to you. His father works for the government, an important man, very; I saw him only once, big car, with body guards, one car ahead and one behind, following him all the time. But now there is the scandal, the mansion, so big it fits ten houses like my house. What's wrong with buying a house, I don't know, but everyone says it's not the house but what it means. 
     Does X wish for what I wish, I don't know, but it's because his dad loves him, the way my dad loves me that I have hope. 
     X sees what I see, at a traffic light, when the car stops and a woman walks over, dirt in her face, no shoes, a baby in her arms, and she begs for a coin, for the hope to keep her baby alive. Is she invisible to X's father? No, it can't be, and yet, he feels he's above her, from a different world, but why? He's grown up with privileges, unscathed from the struggles of life. Everything is owed to him: money, respect, power, even the law has to bend, vow before him, because that's how it's always been.
     But if X sees what I see, Santa, couldn't he help his father, show him what he's not able to see? Perhaps you will get a letter, who knows, and X will ask for something, a gift I hope you could bring. Will you make his father change, see the world, Mexico, differently from the way he's been used to? 
     I hear steps now; it must be mommy. Nite nite, Santa.



Monday, December 1, 2014

On dreams: Wajdi Mouawad and Antoine Volodine

I had a dream where a cat fell from my arms -- it had writhed and then slipped from my hands. On the ground, it lay immobile, belly up. It happened in an instant, it seemed, and I rushed down the stairs to pick it up. The dream was in my parents' backyard, and I had been coming down the stairs that lead to the roof. I knelt down and picked the cat up. I held it against my chest, stroking its back, muttering words of affection. In the dream I could see my face, pale, my lips dry; there was anxiety in my eyes.Then I was in the street, walking fast, trying to find someone, anybody who could help. After a minute I turned my head to check on the cat and I froze, stopped completely in the middle of the street. I was no longer carrying a cat but a woman, her hair pulled back and wearing golden earrings; she was smiling at me. "Where are we going?" she asked in Spanish.

Dreams like these make me wonder: how did that happen, my brain, how did it create those images, that sequence where I managed to surprise myself, not knowing what was going to happen? As I write this, by the window, at my friends Erika and Oscar's place, I can't help but being mesmerized by those dreams.

And of dreams is also made the work of novelist and playwright Wajdi Mouawad. Last week I had the chance to attend one of his workshops where he talked about his way of working, the challenges, the uncertainties that every writer has to face. One evening he decided to present a French film from 1963 called Méditerranée by Jean Daniel Pollet.
"There is no narrative," Wajdi repeated three times before the film started, more than a warning, an invitation to "enjoy the poetry of the images."

An exercise for most of us, viewers used to a narrative thread, the film presents a collage of images that gives the audience space, freedom to interpret the forty four minute film without any constraints, only our own thoughts, experiences and sensibility. The film ends without warning, it just freezes -- a wide shot of a sailboat in the Mediterranean sea.

A similar experience, that of suspension, I had the following day when, thanks to my friend Nathalie, I had the chance to meet Antoine Volodine, winner of the Medicis prize 2014 in France for his novel Terminus Radieux. His work, unknown to me, came as a pleasant surprise with his use of interrupted phrases, long sentences and unusual syntax. Excerpts from one of his previous novels, Le Post-exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze, were shown on a screen along with the translation in Spanish. Carefully selected by the philosopher Agnès Mérat, those passages made me feel dizzy, elated, even a bit jealous. They leave the reader hanging, as it were, just like Jean Daniel Pollet did with his film. Here are some of the examples that Agnès chose and that have stayed with me.

          D’où, quand la pression atmosphérique baissait, la puanteur qui.

          Il n'y avait plus un seul porte-parole qui pût succéder à
          C’est donc moi qui

I hope you can find the magic in these sentences, enjoy them as much I did. Because it's you who

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cosi Fan Tutte and Other Stories: Haneke, Mendelssohn and Ozick

Today I'd like to tell a story in two parts. The first one begins like this:

I take the viewer seriously. That's why I know I can show him serious things on the screen. And there's no need for Michael Haneke to repeat those words. The images, the dialogues, the refusal to reduce the viewers discomfort; all of them are Haneke's.

It's all about observing closely; finding bits of reality that, woven together, make drama more intense, more immediate. It is the work of a craftsman.
This weekend I saw Michael H - Profession: Director, a documentary on the artist, the screenwriter, the drama professor.  

"There's no one like Chekhov for dialogue," says Haneke, rimless glasses on, ever serene in front of the camera. In the documentary we see him sitting behind a pupil's desk, observing how a young couple argues: he, pleading, she, firm and unmoved; they're giving all they have on this dialogue. Haneke then tells them to stop and, without holding back on the irony, explains why the scene is, simply not believable. He knows the reason too well; he knows what it means to sit in Chekhov's chair.
"When filming, sometimes I need a break after a dialogue scene," he says. "I just feel too much the pain in my characters."

Chekhov, the Doyen of all times at capturing our misunderstandings, was born in Taganrog, Russia. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis he left Moscow and spent the last seven years of his life in Yalta, Ukraine.

Bolekhiv, also in Ukraine, is where the second part of this story begins.
In the mirrored room of La Monnaie, we are all quiet, bedazzled by Daniel Mendelssohn's words - the interviewer, Annelies Beck tilts her head and keeps her microphone away.
He tells us about the time he went to Ukraine, to Bolekhiv, where his grandfather had been born. He goes on to describe the moment when he went for a walk just outside town.
He sees children playing, running around and chasing each other. He asks one of them, "do you know what this is?" The boy, almost chuckling answers, "why, of course: the Jewish cemetery."

He pauses for a moment, looks at Annelies, then goes on, "So I decided to ask him a second question: 'do you know what a Jew is?'"
There is silence.
"The boy didn't know," we hear him say.
His eyes are glazed, his stare lost somewhere amid the audience. He then clears his throat and continues: "If my grandfather knew; if he could see what has happened; see that nothing, nothing of what he knew is left, his heart would split."
He has nothing more to say; there are tears in his eyes.
Annelies, who's brought about the session expertly, leaves those words to linger, just enough so that our heads feel heavy, our backs are hunched; sadness now covers the room.

And that was just one of the moments, captured forever in memory, that Annelies Beck and Daniel Mendelssohn treated us with at the foyer of La Monnaie. During those two hours there was talk of Greek tragedy, our need for closure, the nature of desire, all of them revolving around one topic: Michael Haneke's production of Cossi Fan Tutte.
When I left I felt giddy, almost tripped on my way out. I had so many thoughts, so many ideas firing up in my head.

That evening, as I lay collapsed on my couch, a glass of Carménère in one hand, a book in the other, I read a short story by Cynthia Ozick called "Save My Child!" In it, Ruth Puttermesser, a Jewish Russian emigre in her sixties and living in New York, hosts her cousin Lidia, who's just decided to leave Soviet Russia.
A few pages in, I encountered this sentence and I couldn't help thinking of Daniel Mendelssohn, as it could have been his own mother's words:

"An ache fell over Puttermesser. It was grief for her papa's grief."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Break It Down: Meet Lydia Davis

I first discovered Lydia Davis in a sleight of chance - a very fortunate one.
It was in Oslo, a few years ago, when the days were growing short and the hours of energy left in me grew even shorter. It was in an anthology I picked out from the shelf because of its title: Let's Call The Whole Thing Off, Love Quarrels.
And that was all it took. I read her story and I laughed a big hearty laugh. It was just a tiny story, no more than a paragraph, but there was depth and rhythm and, as it often happens in her prose, a profoundness that stands out not despite but because of the conciseness.
I thus went on and looked out for more.

And so it happened that those laughs turned into a heavy heart when I read her story "Break It Down". Perhaps it was the sadness, perhaps the feeling of immense loss in the narrator's voice, the longing that grows like a shadow, boundless, and that it suddenly becomes overwhelming.
But there is also tenderness in his voice. A tenderness that makes you think there used to be happiness in his heart; that he lived moments that will never be erased from his mind. It makes you even jealous. And how could you not when you read phrases like this:

"And no matter how long you crawl over each other it won't be enough...and you look over at her face and can't believe how you got there, and how lucky, and it's still all a surprise. And it never stops."

I met Lydia Davis in March, at the Passaporta Literary Festival in Brussels.We talked about other writers as influences - her life changed after reading Russell Edson's work, mine after James Salter's. And at the end of our conversation she said to me: "Just keep on writing. Don't you worry about the rest. It will come."

Not surprisingly, only a few months later after we talked, she was given the International Man Booker Prize.
Congratulations, Lydia Davis.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

On Why I write and Living in Norway

While I was growing up one thing was clear in my head: writing is about having something interesting to say.
The more I read and the more I talked to people, the more the idea was confirmed.
In the Peruvian Amazon or in the mountains of West Bengal, I'd often find myself surrounded by children waving their hands and giggling, all of them asking the same thing: did I have a pen I could spare?
They, too, had something to say.

But with time I've come to realize that for me, writing is about something else: it is about trying to understand.
Understanding means listening, asking questions, reflecting on the answers and then, asking yourself: have I asked the right question?
Living in Norway has been a blessing for me. My ear has become finer and more nuanced.
Many Norwegians are introvert and also, extremely attentive listeners. One can notice it even in the language when there is something they don't know they'll say to you: "Hør med Henrik, Hør med Hilde," go and hear with them, where as in other languages the suggestion would be: "Go and talk to, go and speak to."
It is in their culture to pay attention, to listen, and to try to understand.

The novelist Lionel Shriver, whom I had the chance to meet in London, recently wrote about her latest book: "I didn't want to publish dieting tips and slimming recipes, to write a thinly disguised self-help book....
A literary novel needed to dig down deeper."

I, too, have tried to dig down deeper in two of the stories that will appear this month in an anthology published by Holland House.The stories are about motherhood, loneliness, guilt and discrimination. All of them topics that I've put under my pillow hoping to understand, even if just a tiny bit more about.
In the anthology there will be also pieces by fellow writers Audrey Camp, Chelsea Ranger, Brian Talgo, Bree Switzer, Anna Maria Moore, Evelinn Enoksen and Zoe Harris, who also leads the Oslo International Writers' Group.

The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf once said to me: "Finish it. Whatever you do, finish it."
And so I listened to his advise. The e-book will be released on the 17th of May and the print version on the 7th of June.

Lionel Shriver at the London Book Fair, 2013

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Keanu Reeves & Rachmaninoff: l'amour, les larmes

"Am I K in your book?" That is what Katherine wonders. Is she K in count Laszlo de Almásy's logbook? To those of you who can remember, the year is 1996 and the movie, The English Patient.
I remember going to the cinema not knowing anything about the film other than the fact that I would get to see the small, slightly pulled-up nose of Juliette Binoche. And back then, that was enough for me.
I never really imagined that it would make such a memorable impression on me. The story deals with topics that continue to fascinate me: history, exploration of the world, marriage, adultery, love and subsequently, loss.

This weekend, during the Oslo International Film Festival, I had the chance to see a couple of movies, one of them being the documentary called Side-by-Side, where Keanu Reeves interviews several movie directors (Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, among others) to discuss and debate the use of digital cameras versus film cameras. The film gives an excellent tour of how a movie is made and how digital technologies have made their way into the film industry. An eye opener for those of us who don't really know all that happens behind producing a movie.
And it was there, in the middle of the film, that I found out The English Patient was one of the first movies to be edited with digital technology (with a tool called AVID). No wonder those incredible aerial shots of an expansive desert, fading into the face of de Almásy, learning to speak with a Bedouin who describes a mountain the shape of a woman's back.
The debate is far from over but one stark conclusion is that film-based equipment producers have stopped research and development altogether.

To wrap up the weekend I saw the movie that won the 2012 Palme d'Or in Cannes: Amour. And I don't want to say too much except that it is a heartbreaking story about being human: loving, growing old together and inevitably, parting.
There is no background music to the film but there were grief stricken moments when, inside my head, I heard the melody of a piano piece being played. It was Rachmaninoff's Les Larmes - the tears.
And it continued to play on and on, without wanting to leave my head.