Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays, Ashleigh Young, Victoria University Press, 2016
The other day I was on a plane about to fly to New Plymouth to go to the Ronald Hugh Morrieson Literary Award ceremony in Hawera. It was tight timing. I was going to jump off the plane into a car, drive for an hour, and walk into the function in the nick of time. But the plane’s lights kept switching on and off, the engine sounds rising and falling. It was faint-inducing heat. Babies were screaming, a high pitch of chat drowned out the safety talk. I had Ashleigh Young’s book of essays on my lap to finish on the plane. In my head I shouted, I just want to get off this place. Seconds later as though my wish made it true, we were told the plane had been cancelled and we needed to get another. I was right down the back of the plane and still not up to running in my foot-recovery regime but knew I really really wanted to do my job as judge. So I started running towards the ticket counter, foot alarmed.
I am running like an elephant or our duck-waddle cat. I can hear all these other flights that have been cancelled due to engineering problems. Everyone is running and scrambling and agonising. Three-quarters there and I hear our plane has now switched to delayed. I limp back to the regional cafe and start reading Ashleigh Young to blot out the panic. She is on an aeroplane. She is sitting next to a woman who tells her life story and her life story is extravagant. We hardly know what to trust – and that is what makes it such a gem. I can’t focus though. I can’t pick another story now with my skewy focus so hobble back to the ticket counter and hear all sorts of rumours. Our new plane was the cancelled Taupo plane. Everyone else is being bussed. I keep thinking about the woman with her extravagant stories and it reminded me of an Italian author Gianni Celati who collected the stories of others where the feather line between real and unreal is flighty. I am in the muddlewash of queues when a woman calls out asking if anyone needs special assistance. I ask for a wheelchair. I am being wheeled. I am back on the new plane next to the same young woman. She is studying physiotherapy. I could embroider my life.The fact I even tell her where I am going is like a little character warpslip as usually I don’t say a word on planes. We talk about injuries and homes. I have two of Ashleigh’s stories to go. I don’t get to read them. I walk into the ceremony 40 minutes late.
Asleigh Young’s collection of personal essays is an addictive read, but it is the kind of book I wanted to eek out (I read the last two stories on the plane home!). What would fill the gap? What would deliver the same sustaining mix of wit, revelation and aromatic detail. Ashleigh gathers in stories from her own life and replays them in sentences that flow so sweetly. Each essay is like a musical composition but it is the content that offers the reader gold. I love the shift in perception from child to adult, in reflecting back. I love the way stories harness what is intimate and personal but also venture out into the world, a world filtered through reading and the experiences of others, fascinating or strange. Perhaps it is all to do with a wry and agile mind that likes to roam and fossick.
Here’s a tasting plate of things I loved
Now and then you fall upon the way story comes into being. This one is especially good. It’s in in a terrific essay on her brother, JP:
‘My enthusiasm for the story was such that I felt it would write itself. The story was virtually already made. All I needed to do was grab hold of one end and pull the rest up behind it like an electric wire out of the ground.’ from ‘Big Red’
In the same essay this gem:
‘Just as JP was abandoning fashion, Neil and I were finding it, and fashion equipped us with new ways of being embarrassed.’
Still in the same essay, Ashleigh gets thinking about story again when she thinks about her film-making brother Neil:
‘Write your way towards an understanding, a tutor told me in a creative writing class. But what if you went backwards and wrote yourself away from the understanding?’
This strikes me as the kind of thing a Chinese philosopher might say in that going backwards is in fact your way forwards; in not knowing what you know, in knowing you don’t know.
One of the poems in New York Pocket Book picks up on Frank O’Hara’s accent. I loved reading the Frank O’Hara segue (pp70-71).
‘I returned to his lines over and over.’
Reading Frank’s lines from ‘Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul,’ got Ashleigh thinking about continuity:
‘I fixated on these lines because they made me think about ways in which to continue, and what continuing meant. Getting up in the morning was one way. Getting dressed, facing the people around you–these were ways of continuing that kept your life open to possibility. But there was another way of continuing, and this was the continuing of silence. Our family had always continued to continue through events that we did not know how to speak of to one another.’
This from the plane story ‘Window Seat’:
‘I made my mind up to not decide there and then whether she was telling the truth. I wanted to stay open for as long as I could. I was wide awake when she said with resolve, ” Now, I’m going to tell you about you.”‘
I found this story moved me on so many surprising levels. The woman and her extravagant tongue. Especially the portrait of Ashleigh. I was holding the book on a plane and squirming. Squirming too at the way we reveal ourselves in shards that might embarrass. The book made me laugh out loud. Or just smile at that coiling thought. Or the deep-seated warmth of family, whatever the ups and downs. I thought the last essay, ‘Lark,’ an essay in which Ashleigh’s mother is encouraged to write, was the perfect ending. The mother rode her bike alongside them on the way to school, she used jackhammers and stripped paint off furniture. I adored the shadowy overlap between mother and daughter. Here is the gorgeous last paragraph of both book and essay:
‘A wine glass with tidal marks is on the table beside Julia’s father’s desk lamp. The lamp is doubled over like something in pain. From our desk inside the house where we are studying, we can see her through the caravan’s oblong window. Tonight she is at work on the book. She is trying to remember things. It is like practising another sort of language. It leads her to herself and it leads her away. Sometimes it unsteadies her until she finds another small friend to hold on to. A moonish light comes from her window. Her cloudy head bends over the table as she writes.’
This is a fabulous, symphonic collection. Ashleigh dares to imagine as much as she dares to admit. She has no doubt prompted us, from Cape Reinga to Rakiura, to get out pen and paper and write our way backwards, pulling electric cables, making room for extravagant tongues and familial love. I cannot recommend this collection highly enough.
Victoria University Press author page
National Poetry Day event at the National Library in Wellington this year. Ashleigh is also appearing at the Ladies Litera-tea event in Auckland on October 3oth (sold out!).