“Dear Life” – by Alice Munro (or Some Personal Reflections)

I’m cheating a little here because I haven’t really finished the book yet. And this is more of a reflection on my life for the past few months during which I haven’t been able to write, rather than a book review per se.

I haven’t written anything ‘voluntarily’ for almost over a year, and just like a foreign language, the skill, no, the sheer will of writing slowly disappears with its lack of usage. You lose its grammar, its vocabulary, its syntax, its flow.

I have spent every minute of my ‘free time’ this semester watching Netflix and Amazon Prime shows, YouTube videos, and browsing through meaningless Buzzfeed articles or shopping sites to fill in the gap in my life. Because none of these actually required me to take a minute to reflect on and acknowledge how shitty my life was. For the few minutes or hours my brain was wired to the moving images in front of me, I was allowed to forget I was still making mistakes in life well into my 30s (okay, not ‘well into‘ really, but you know). I didn’t have to face the fact that I had the tools to get out of the shithole I had dug for myself, but I just couldn’t push myself to use them. Or maybe I didn’t have the tools after all.

This is why I haven’t really written anything or even read anything (besides scholarly articles) to, however cliché it sounds, ‘feed my soul’, because writing or reading require you to face reality, your reality. And that’s absolutely scary when you’re still writing and re-writing your reality, and you have no idea how the ending will go. They demand that you pause your life for hours and face your joys and your demons. They cannot afford your brain to shut off, which is what you do when you laugh at Kimmy and Titus’ banter on “Unbreakable” or shudder at the thrill “Bosch” provides. They want you to understand the grammar rules, to finish the vocabulary, to review the syntax, and to analyze the flow of your day, your week, or that moment you decided beer would solve everything but didn’t.

“Dear Life” has, in this context, come at quite an opportune moment. I did learn earlier of the beauty of ‘that is not said’ that short stories provide; and today, as I read through Alice Munro’s words and sentences, they make a little more sense, and provide me with some sort of comfort. The comfort that just like her short stories, things can be left unsaid, yet still matter. The relief that I can still write my own future, with its good and its bad. It’s okay to make mistakes even at 31 years old. 31 years old is not too old to get heartbroken, procrastinate, or lie down in bed well past 9 am because you just can’t be bothered with life.

My life doesn’t have to be a 300-page novel with a clear start and ending. It can be a series of short stories; some find their happy ending, but most of the time, I am and will be left troubled with the missing details and at a loss as to how I should feel. But it’s okay. Each story matters.

“The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan

I never really liked short stories.

I felt like I was being cheated, when I had invested the same amount of interest and enthusiasm as when starting a 200, 300 page book, to see the stories cut short after 10 pages or even less. They seemed like sorry excuses from authors who were too lazy to develop all the details of their characters.

I wanted to know the shade of the color of their hair, the places they lived in, why they had decided to move from A town to B city and vice versa, and the small incident ten years ago that prompted their tears on a quiet Sunday evening.

Short stories rarely gave me any of that.

But what even Jhumpa Lahiri failed to show me, or maybe I knew it all along but simply had failed to realize it, Keegan’s collection of short stories did.

Sometimes, not saying everything is harder than saying everything.

Being given the opportunity to linger on the meaning and the past of the unexplained looks and words is a privilege only the reader of short stories can have, I have come to realize. It is in the process of such uncertainty, curiosity and exploration that we connect with these characters that never existed and give them life. After all, rarely any of us are really open books, we have our secrets and feelings and experiences we don’t necessarily want to see materialized in explicit words.

The buzz around this book didn’t exactly convince me to buy the book in the first place, since I’m one of those “I’m too good to like what everybody likes” type of people. But somehow curiosity won this time and it’s hard not to say it wasn’t a bad choice.

Some reviews have pointed out that beside the fact it is indeed a tragic story of a promising and full of life 22-year old who would never blow another birthday candle, her writing is not necessarily, technically, mesmerizing.

Maybe so. Maybe there were one or two stories I didn’t quite bond with either. However, Keegan’s power in creating a world of unwritten and unspoken words to allow us to explore beyond black letters on white paper is, simply, beautiful. Moreover, the simple and unapologetic honesty she provides in her non-fiction part of the collection is a breath of fresh air.

I don’t know if she would have become one of the great writers of our times, had she not succumbed to that tragic accident.

I don’t know if she would have become one of the many disillusioned ‘adults’ of our era to end up taking a job as a consultant, like the 25% of her peers at Yale, with her ambition to become a writer silently tucked away in the drawers of her past.

But the short story of her life she’s left behind grants me the hope that she would have been one of those who pursue their dream.

“Story-Wallah” ed. by Shyam Selvadurai

For, in terms of being a writer, my creativity comes not from “Sri Lankan” or “Canadian” but precisely from the space between, that marvelous open space represented by the hyphen, in which the two parts of my identity jostle and rub against each other like tectonic plates, pushing upwards the eruption that is my work.

These introductory sentences by the editor Shyam Selvadurai to the collection of short fiction stories from South Asian writers embody not only the essence of this collected volume, but also the essence of what/who many of us are. We (I) often struggle so much defining and identifying ourselves through single terms and single ideas, because we think that’s what identity should mean, that we forget that what defines us best and most is that ‘hyphen’, that ‘open space’. When the two (or more) worlds of identities we have carelessly been assigned to, either by birth or by upbringing, clash and open a whole new world of discoveries, novelties, and differences, we are overwhelmed by the falling of barriers and walls we had set for ourselves. But the fact is, it is through these ‘open spaces’, often mistaken to be conflicts, that we embark upon a truer and more in-depth journey of self-discovery. Our identities are made richer by the connections and the conflicts we carefully delve into, trying, not to separate ourselves exclusively in this world or the other, but to belong to both worlds.

This volume of short stories is a compilation of these journeys, where conflicts are inevitable, but not necessarily in the negative sense. They are conflicts between different genders, different generations, different cultures, or different perspectives. Yet, as straining and complex they may be, these ‘conflicts’ provide doors and windows to beautiful and sad interactions that tell us clashes are not locks to what we are and what we represent, but keys to what we can be and want to be.