Creative Writing Process as a Form of Resurrecting the Dead

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The Creative Writing Process as a Form of Resurrecting the Dead

When we speak of a resurrection it conjures up religious images from Abrahamic faiths.  However, I will argue that the process of creative writing involves the act of resurrecting the dead.  During the writing process a writer ventures into the unknown, a dark place and brings back to life that which is dead and buried: be it memories, stories or indeed giving life to those long gone and possibly forgotten.

I shall examine my own writing process and the idea of resurrection with reference to my work in progress:  a novel, under the working title I Was Here. The book is inspired by the life of Shafilea Ahmed who was murdered by her Pakistani born parents in front of her siblings when she was just 17 years old.

Shafilea’s imagined voice speaks (mostly) from the reaches of her home life, but the text is also supported by the facts from the actual case: when in the aftermath of Shafilea’s disappearance in 2003, media appeals were launched by the police who regarded it, initially, as a missing person’s inquiry. As suspicions grew the police fitted covert listening device in the family home. Shafilea’s body was discovered in February 2004. Her skeletal and decomposed remains half buried alongside the river Kent in Sedgwick, Cumbria, were exposed following a flood. A Home Office pathologist, giving the most likely cause of death as smothering or strangulation.  Eventually, Shafilea’s sister gave evidence to the police which led to the arrest and imprisonment of the Ahmeds.  

I will consider the questions which have arisen whilst writing my novel and set out how I have navigated these questions by looking at the work of other writers, which has in turn informed my own writing process.

Margret Atwood in Negotiating with the Dead outlines a hypothesis that:

Not some but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality- by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.[1]

This is certainly true of my own work. I had not planned to write I was Here. Following the conviction of the Ahmeds I began to read more about the case. I was struck by the fetishisation of this crime by the press. I discovered similarities between myself and Shafilea.  The shared Pakistani heritage, her ambitions to become a lawyer, her struggle against the confines of family expectations, the strained mother-daughter relationship and belonging to a community where women uphold and enforce patriarchal values. I felt a strong urge to uncover Shafilea who was buried amongst reams of legal documents, newspaper reports, and to bring her back.

Atwood’s hypothesis with reference to the underworld, coupled with my own motivation to somehow bring Shafilea back, to resurrect her, naturally evokes the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.[2] In this myth Orpheus travels to the Underworld, to bring back his beloved Eurydice. The path taken by Orpheus from light to dark and back to light is a metaphor long used by artists and writers to describe their own creative journey.

Indeed, Maurice Blanchot in the Gaze of Orpheus says:

 But Orpheus has gone down to Eurydice: for him Eurydice is the limit of what art can attain; concealed behind a name and covered by a veil, she is the profoundly dark point towards which art, desire, death, and the night all seem to lead.[3]  

 It is evident that for Blanchot the path taken by an artist is a journey from light to dark. However, he goes on to state that Orpheus’ work is not limited to securing his path into the underworld, ‘his work is to bring it back into the daylight and in the daylight give it form figure and reality’[4].

The dark therefore symbolises the Underworld, a place where the dead dwell.  Conversely, the light is the world of the living.

This theme of light representing our world is also touched upon by Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited when he writes of his early years ‘common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between eternities of darkness’[5]

Further, in Negotiating with the Dead Atwo (Blanchot) (Wroe) (Cixous) (Rich) (Nabokov)od speaks of her discussions regarding the writing process with fello (Maso)w authors:

One said it felt like walking into a labyrinth, without knowing what monster might be inside[…]; another said it was like being in a cave- she could see daylight through the opening, but she herself was in darkness.[6]

Atwood’s fellow writers also align their creative process with a recurring theme of light and dark: the idea that one must visit the dark and bring something back to the light. This bringing of something from the underworld back into the light is the act of resurrecting the dead.

Interestingly, for Helene Cixous the death and resurrection is her own which she likens to a rebirth. In Coming to Writing and Other Essays Cixous states: ‘I have nothing to say about my death.  It has been too big for me up to now. In a sense, all my texts are “born” of it […] without it -my death-I wouldn’t have written’[7].

None is more direct than Hillary Mantle in making the connection between the dead and her writing process. Mantles preference is to write about real people from long ago whom she resurrects, ‘I like to write about people who really lived, and try to wake them up from their long trance, and make them walk on the page’[8].  Mantles description regarding her writing resonates with me. In my work, this is precisely what I am attempting: to bring to life a real person who died. I try to uncover the real Shafilea, how she felt, thought and what her ambitions and desires were. I am aware that I cannot truly know the answer to those questions but this is where the facts I have and my imagination meet. 

The writers quoted describe their writing process as some sort of going deep into a place of darkness and bringing back to light something. If the dark represents the dominion of the dead then this conceptualises the assertion that to enter into the Underworld and bring back to light someone or something is a resurrection. This problematizes the route and directions to the Underworld.  In the absence of a map to guide a writer, each writers journey is individual and further compounded by their own lived experiences. For Rainer Rilke the way to the underworld was clear: ‘We, local and ephemeral as we are […] keep on crossing over and over to our predecessors, to our descent, and to those who apparently come after us’[9].  Cixous offers her experience, in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, she invokes a metaphorical ladder which represents the writing. This ladder is one that has been frequented by those authors with whom she feels an affinity[10].  She explains, ‘To use this ladder has a descending movement, because the ascent, which evokes effort and difficulty, is towards the bottom.’(Cixous, p.5)

 

This concept of a ladder as a means of reaching the realm of the dead is also embraced by Adrienne Rich. In her poem Diving Into the Wreck she writes:

There is a ladder.

The ladder is always there[…]

We know what it is for,

We who have used it […]

I go down[11].

That which the writer seeks does not simply lie at the bottom of the ladder.  The gatekeepers of the Underworld do not give up the dead so easily, there is yet more work to be done. Cixous describes this further labour as ‘being in a position to do this work of digging, of unburying’[12].  To summarise, there is a descent followed by uncovering, digging, mining of the underworld in order to recover and resurrect that which lies therein.

Before I had truly said yes to my novel, on a visit to my family home I took a detour to Shafilea’s graveside. At the time I did not realise the significance of my actions, upon reflection I understand that this was my ladder and descent. My foot on the first rung was my commitment to the book.  I found the next rung standing outside Shafilea’s family home. I stepped onto the next rung as I walked through the gate to her front door: the crossing of the threshold, entering into the Underworld.  Having made a firm commitment, I had no way of knowing what I would bring back from this dark place. As Mantle observes a new narrative is like standing on the verge ‘you stretch out your hand in the dark and you don’t know who or what will take it’[13].

The nature of Shafilea’s story meant that I had to wade through a place of deep secrets shrouded in silence. I reached out to those that knew her, inviting them to speak about her life and death, but to no avail, I continued my descent. I reached a place which was uncomfortable, I was forced to confront my own life experiences. In the midst of this unburying there was my own death, the death of being someone’s daughter.  My mother died very suddenly, three months later I suffered physical trauma which left me immobile for many months. I felt stranded in the Underworld questioning my motivation for writing. I asked myself how I could continue to write about a mother and daughter when my deepest desire now was to bring my own mother back?

During my confinement I re-read texts and gained new insights. I felt that I now fully understood Kafka’s pleas when he wrote:

You say I should go further still, but I am already very deep down, and yet if it must be so, I will stay here.  What a place! It is probably the deepest place there is.  But I will stay here, only do not force me to climb down deeper.[14]

In an effort to find direction and clarity I began writing letters to Shafilea. I was reminded that Shafilea’s murder had evoked a desire to respond to her death and to bring her story to light. It became obvious that writing in any form other than in the first person would create a sense of distance.  In the first person narrative she would have a voice that survives its ‘own performance’(Atwood, p.158).  Cixous reminded me to be truthful to my writing, ‘I will talk about truth again, without which (without the word truth, without the mystery truth) there would be no writing.  It is what writing wants[15].

I was preoccupied with more questions: what if the truth is inconvenient to certain groups within society?  In the wake of Shafilea’s murder trial the media grasped onto idea of her murder as an ‘honour killing’. This term is often assigned by the media to crimes committed (mostly) against women of the Asian diaspora by (mostly) male members of their own family.  If one must use labels, then the correct term is Honour Based Violence(HBV).  In ‘Honour’ Killing & Violence Theory, Policy & Practice Aisha K. Gill explains that there is no one set ‘honour’ system, there are many variations depending upon ‘location, their regional culture and their families socio-economic status’[16]. Drawing from my own experience as a woman from the South Asian diaspora, I am aware that HBV is rarely discussed and considered an unpalatable topic. When the media ‘others’ these crimes the instinct of communities is one of closing up. Why then would I tackle an issue which may attract a hostile response to the work and how could I avoid ‘othering’ of crimes committed by those from my own greater community?

Further contemplation led me to understand that to avoid the ‘othering’ I must write beyond the white gaze[17].  I do not write with an all-white audience in mind, but instead an intersectional one. Within the text I frequently use Urdu words, which I neither italicise nor explain the meaning of.  This way I am discarding the weight of having to explain myself for the white gaze, instead I invite the reader to fully engage with the text and to do the work of looking up words that belong to a culture different to their own.

Regarding potential hostile responses to my work, I found encouragement in Saadat Manto, who despite threats of imprisonment continued to write what he believed was necessary[18].  More recently, there is strength in the words of Arundhati Roy: ‘the point of the writer is to be unpopular’[19].

Another issue which troubled me was whether I had any right to tell Shafilea’s story.  I looked at the ethics of writing about other people’s lives[20] and sought the wisdom of other writers. Once such writer is Edna O’Brien, drawn to real-life stories from the Republic of Ireland, and deemed by many to have given the disenfranchised Irish women a voice by meeting head on social issues such as isolation, rape and loneliness.  In her thesis, Kirsten Allen Reader argues that ‘with the first publication of The Country Girls Edna O’Brien established herself as the only Irish writer to create an authentic female voice representative of the Irish condition’[21].

 In O’Brien’s novel In The Forest she writes about a true life event: the murder of a mother and her child. The columnist, Fintan O’Toole criticises O’Brien’s choice of subject matter:  ‘this revisiting of unspeakably traumatic events is an unwanted and unjustifiable intrusion that can only do harm’[22].

 The idea that O’Brien’s work gives a voice to those unheard can be interpreted as a form of bearing witness.   This concept asks one to speak up about events in history, to tell a story naturally this brings to mind the vast literature about the Jewish Holocaust. Giorgio Agamben draws a distinction between witnessing as a primary act and to bear witness as an act that is carried across a boundary[23].   In Bearing Witness Partition, Independence and the End of the Raj Sukeshi Karma writes:

fiction is the form in which many painful subjects are first raised for consideration, and the majority of these stories appeared to be fundamentally concerned with testifying, acting as witness to a historical crisis of truth, lest it be forgot.

To bear witness therefore is to give meaning to an event that has taken place. The charity Karma Nirvana sought to give meaning to the lives of those women killed as a result of HBV.  They led a successful campaign named ‘Britain’s Lost Women’ for a recognised national day of remembrance, the date chosen for this day is 14th July, Shafilea’s birthday[24]. I believe that my writing attempts to bear witness and give some meaning to Shafilea’s story.  I hope that my words will honour her life, again that word ‘honour’ which must be reclaimed.  It is essential for people like myself, to tell our own stories, to claim these narratives, to show them as we understand them with the experiences and histories that we carry within us.

Returning to the concept of a resurrection, Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld began as a quest to bring his beloved back with him, what was resurrected was something different. During my creative writing process I have navigated through difficult questions, the resurrection was not what I initially imagined it to be.  In the end the title itself speaks, I Was Here – as in the author’s pen, the writing, her name on a spine. I am here/she was here. I remember you/her, an inscription like a name on a tomb is carved. I was here is the very nature of graffiti.  On the wall of the Chauvet-pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France is a handprint, made some 30,000 years ago, someone trying to say ‘I was here.’

Finally, I do not claim to be writing anything close to brilliant literature, and its ultimate destination is unknown. However, during the most intense period of my writing process I felt that I was in conversation with Shafilea and we spoke to one another. I am not alone in this sense of communion.  Perhaps the writer Carole Maso articulates this best, in Beauty is Convulsive The Passion of Frida Kahlo Maso writes:

 I see Beauty as a book of devotions […] An attempt to be in some kind of dialogue with her across time and space […]it did feel something like being alive together, for a little while.


 

Bibliography

  • Atwood, Margret. Negotiating with the Dead. Anchor books, n.d.

[1] Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer On Writing (London: Virago, 2013), p.156.

[2] Michael Grant, The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, available at https://search-proquest-com.abc.cardiff.ac.uk/docview

[3] Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus,

[4] Ibid, p. 99.

[5] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

[6] Ibid, p. xxii, xxiii

[7] Hélène Cixous, Coming to Writing and Other Essays ed. By Deborah Jenson(Harvard University Press,

1992), p. 36.

[8] Hilary Mantel, ‘Ghost Writing’, The Guardian, 28th July 2007, available at

http://www.theguardian.com/books /2007/jul/28/edinburghfestival2007.poetry [accessed 8th January 2019]

[9] Ann Wroe, Orpheus The song of Life (Pimlico 2012), p. 139.

[10] Hélène Cixous, Three step on the Ladder of writing (Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 4.

[11] Adrienne Rich, Adrianne Rich’s Poetry and Prose      (W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, p. 53.

[12] Ibid p. 6

[13] Hilary Mantel, ‘Ghost Writing’, The Guardian, 28th July 2007, available at

http://www.theguardian.com/books /2007/jul/28/edinburghfestival2007.poetry [accessed 8th January 2019]

[14] Hélène Cixous, Three step on the Ladder of Writing (Columbia University Press, 1994), p.5.

[15] Hélène Cixous, Three Step on the Ladder of Writing (Columbia University Press, 1994), p.5.

[17] This term often arises in discussion of Black American literature, but equally relevant in British literature.

[18] Sarfraz Manzoor, Saadat Hasan Manto: ‘He anticipated where Pakistan would go’, The Guardian, 11th June 2016, available at

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/11/saadat-hasan-manto-short-stories-partition-pakistan [accessed 8th January 2019].

[20] By ethic, I do not mean an academic philosophical debate but more so to do with considering cultural sensitivities, the appropriation of others’ lives and trauma.

[21] Kirsten Allen Reader, The Unheard Voices of Irish Women in the Novels of Edna O’Brien available at

www://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article.

[22] Fintan O’Toole, A Fiction Too Far, The Irish Times, 2nd March 2002, available at

https://www.irishtimes.com/news.a-fiction-too-far-1.1052404 [accessed 8th January 2019].

[23] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz,      (Zone Books, September 2002)

[24] Remembering Britain’s lost Women available at

http://womenmakingwaves.com/rememberingbritains-lost-women/ [accessed 8th January 2019]

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