Notes on Method
Throughout the years of writing—sometimes while on the road, guided by the fever of the incident, or sometimes back at my desk, long after the moment had passed—the image of what I hurtled toward was indistinct, a form seen from afar in a vast plain, where every bulge has potential.
Could I write a sentence capable of saving my life? If this nagging question is too grandiose and romanticizes what writing can do for a writer—that is exactly what I want: an overestimation of my capabilities, since at the beginning of writing A Stranger’s Pose I thought experience primary and form secondary; an underestimation of where I’ll arrive after years of work on a book, like a slight touch capable of hurling a burly body down a flight of stairs. But experience is only as interesting as the manner in which it is recalled. Hardly anyone who can convey emotion is incapable of telling a story. Few can set down a narrative without dross. Thousands of worthless words later, attempting to avoid the trivial, I sought a method.
I began to write in fragments, in spurts and bursts, not with the aim to resolve, but to reveal. I was setting two sentences in conversation. The first sentence from A Life Full of Holes, a book by Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, translated by Paul Bowles from Magrebi Arabic: “Even a life full of holes, a life of nothing but waiting, is worse than no life at all.” The second sentence from John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos: “Without a home, everything is fragmentation.”
I came to Charhadi through Yto Barrada’s A Life Full of Holes – The Strait Project, her photographic project examining the dreams of North African migrants and their influence on Tangier. In the early months of writing, I turned to photographs—whether by photographers I traveled with, by those I encountered on the road, or—on a number of occasions—those I found when neck-deep in the subject, flailing. The photographs, some of which I include in the book, most of which I do not, became signposts on the road to greater acuity. And yet, much of what I hoped the photographs would illuminate—for instance, the extent of the despair of those who made their way from Africa to Europe—was ineffable.
For, when I returned from Morocco, where I met an Ivorian man, who said, “The Sea is the only way,” pointing past quaysides, toward the Mediterranean, each sentence I conjured in tribute to him seemed trifle, the difference between setting out in an airplane and on a dinghy. To work with the knowledge that it is alright for a sentence to contain silence, for an ellipsis to stand for a journey whose end is unknown, a life of nothing but waiting.
The number of people leaving their homes to make a better life elsewhere is unprecedented in human history. The technology to disseminate the extent of despair that results from such mass movement is equally unparalleled. Both facts, once combined, is of great interest to me.
Could my book be read as a collection of reflections on photography? I hope so. While I was a student at the School of Visual Arts, my conceit was to consider criticism as a narrative form—to explore meaning in photography in relation to the irresolvable mystery of experience.
This morning I darted between books—a preface, introductory paragraphs, passages between chapters—wondering which ideas would settle, a glimpse of my mind's state in true form. A reader touches a multitude of proximate strangers. I suspect I am my truest self in light of another’s perception. Cast in vicarious light, held under the scrutiny of a definite pronoun. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, when I read of Milkman in the third person, when his life enters mine as one of many, I weigh all the claims made of him against those I make for myself, in search of middle ground. Could I become, have I become, when would I become?
Suppose we didn’t have the stories of others to consider. Could our lives advance with little complication, like strands of an unfastened knot? No life is a single story. No action is without an echo. Remembered or imagined, the stories of others inflect ours in dreams and thoughts, bearing consequence. Like this we regard the pain of others. Like this we aren’t alone.
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