Michelle Cahill, Letter to Pessoa and other short fictions (Giramondo Press 2016)
There’s a device that writers known for their children’s books sometimes use when they write for adults. They put some serious swearing or almost-explicit sex on the very first page as a coded warning: ‘This is not suitable as a gift for little children.’ Have a look at the first page of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Margo Flanagan’s Tender Morsels.
Letter to Pessoa has a similar device, right there in the title: If you have to ask who Pessoa is, it warns subliminally, this book may not be for you. It’s no idle warning: of the 24 short prose pieces in this book, about half are framed as letters to other writers or otherwise assume that certain writers are part of the reader’s mental landscape (either that, or the the reader is happy to do some research): [Fernando] Pessoa, [Jacques] Derrida, Jean Genet, Tadeusz Rózewicz, Virginia Woolf, [Vladimir] Nabokov – I could go on. For the uninitiated, the reading experience is a lot like listening in on one side of a phone conversation as Michelle Cahill and her narrators engage – playfully, critically or earnestly – with those writers and their creations.
Such intertextuality not only limits a book’s potential audience. It runs other risks as well. When I read ‘Aubade for Larkin’, for example, I looked up Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’, and was bowled over by it. In ‘Borges and I’ and ‘Letter to John Coetzee’ I found it hard to focus, because my mind kept drifting off to the remembered pleasures of Borges’ stories and the challenges of Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. I was grateful to Michelle Cahill for sending me (back) to those other works, but found it hard to pull my mind back to the writing in my hands.
The less intertextual stories are much stronger. They feature a huge range of narrators and central characters – from a cat (in ‘Biscuit’) to an Argentinian poet with AIDS (in ‘Duende’). Those in the best stories, including the cat, are travellers or members of diasporas (or both), mainly sharing the author’s South Asian and African heritage. These stories involve rich cross-cultural encounters.
‘The Sadhu’ captures brilliantly a complex interplay of spiritual power and seedy sexuality, exoticism and nostalgia, naiveté and wariness, as a young woman from Dee Why meets the holy man of the title in Nepal. In ‘Fever’, a young woman of ‘part-Nepalese, part-Australian background’ visits an older Nepalese man, her uncle, a Cambridge scholar who now trains rebels in arms and explosives, and the story refuses to give us relief from her discomfort as she feels the gap between her world and his. The protagonist of ‘A Wall of Water’ recalls moments from her childhood in northern India, but the present tense of the story is in jacaranda season in Sydney 2010, and the Christmas Island boat disaster is on the television. Again, the discomfort:
Cocooned in the safety of her peaceful apartment Sarita is numb with grief for those drowned and those who survived: Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds. She knows what happens to missing people, how they become little more than a monthly statistic, how the past is a territory. So much has been excised. There are walls of water and walls created by bureaucratic bias. Ruminating on the foreseeable enquiries and broadsides Sarita slumps down with a vodka and soda.
I don’t know that that deserves the first part of Hilary Mantel’s praise quoted on the back cover – ‘Line by line, Cahill’s writing is musical, assured’ – but it does exemplify the second part:’her seriousness is evident, her ambition impressive.’
Letter to Pessoa is the eleventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is a generous gift from Giramondo.