Tim Upperton reviews a new collection of essays by Wellington writer Ashleigh Young.
Some essayists shine a torch in the darkness, and propose a way forward. Another kind of essayist – the Ashleigh Young kind – whispers, “We are lost, we are lost. Let’s try this way,” and, taking us by the hand, leads us deeper into the dark wood, into the mystery that is our life.
One of the slighter pieces in her collection of 21 essays concerns the 19th century postman, Ferdinand Cheval, who over the course of his working life built his “Ideal Palace” from stones he found on his daily walks as he delivered mail. It’s now visited by tourists from all over the world. The question, of course, is why Cheval devoted his life to this monumental structure. In his own account he has trouble explaining this himself: he refers to a dream in which he built a palace, but what prompted him to action was tripping over an unusually beautiful stone. “Fifteen years later,” he says, “when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn’t thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it.” He took the stone home, and fell in the habit of collecting others like it, stuffing them in his pockets; later he used a basket, and finally a wheelbarrow. It took him 33 years to build his palace.
It would be easy to caricature Cheval as some kind of endearing eccentric. Young’s essay invites us to ponder the mystery, how something extraordinary can arise out of a solitary cast of mind (though he married twice and had children, Cheval appears to have been essentially a loner), and a trivial chance event, such as tripping on a stone.
Solitude is a theme that recurs in this book. The solitude of adolescence, or the solitude of being marked out from the herd by physical abnormality. The first essay describes “Harry,” who suffered from a rare condition known as Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, in which the body is gradually ossified by the growth of a second skeleton.
A later essay, “Wolf Man” (winner of the Landfall essay prize in 2009) begins with Paul Henry’s infamous, repellent comment on a Greenpeace female activist’s facial hair. The obvious thing to do – what most essays would have done – is to rebut Henry’s comment. Instead the author describes her own tribulations with this subject, and this extends into a meditation on the perception of women’s face and body hair through the ages – from the 17th century diarist John Evelyn’s record of Barbara Urselin, “the Hairy Maid,” to the 19th century freak-show exhibition of Julia Pastrana, “the Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman,” to Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits.
What Young notes about Evelyn’s description is its “gentleness”: “Barbara is unusually hairy but she is still a lady. By writing about her in this way Evelyn transforms her condition into something that might be beautiful.”
Young’s essay has the same effect: it restores the agency, the power to these women that someone like Henry would take away.
Another kind of solitary is the person who retreats into voluntary seclusion. History is replete with saints and mystics, hermits and prophets, those who have withdrawn from the world and its physical enticements in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. But a relatively recent phenomenon is the hikikomori – young Japanese who don’t venture beyond the walls of their bedrooms, their only connection to the outside world being the meals their worried parents push under the door, and the virtual realms of online forums, movies and videogames. “Mori” is a homonym, in Japanese, for “forest,” and Young speculates that the ever-constricting world of the hikikomori must feel like being lost in a dense forest, and then segues effortlessly into a description of the Aokigahara Forest, the so-called “Sea of Trees” surrounding Mt Fuji, where many Japanese commit suicide each year.
In another associative leap, the essay moves to consider Keiko Agatsuma, the Japanese woman who retreated to a cave on Stewart Island in the 1970s. Agatsuma spent no more than a week in the cave, but her story has become one of legend – the stuff of folklore, fiction, even a film. Young doesn’t attempt to explain why hikikomori and people such as Agatsuma seek to escape the world, but wonders what it might take for them to find their way back into it: “The paths the isolated must build are yet so modest, using whatever tools they can find – some left by others, some scattered, almost forgotten, within the walls – to help them walk, howsoever briefly, into the world outside.”
Other essays reflect on childhood and teenage years – growing up in Te Kūiti in the 1990s, the Hamilton music scene, the curious bonds and intensities of family. The longest essay, “Big Red,” encompasses all of these. The title is the name bestowed upon the jacket her brother JP wore at the time: a jacket that is hideous and talismanic, ridiculed and revered. It appears as the front cover illustration, both disembodied and full, its sleeves impotently – or perhaps powerfully – raised aloft.
It gets the detailed description it deserves: “The jacket was soft and puffy, with a gathered waist and a high collar with odd tan stripes on it. It was essentially a bomber jacket. It had snap buttons down the front. Its flight-silk sleeves were full and shiny, but the cuffs were snugly elasticated. A stunt pilot from Reno might have stepped from his plane wearing such a jacket. It was a true red – a Postman Pat red, an American sunset red, almost the red of the saveloys our grandmother ladled onto our plates in Ōamaru.”
A good writer might conjure up the grandmother’s saveloys, and would note the resemblance to a bomber jacket, such as a pilot would wear. But “a stunt pilot from Reno”? That’s a little bit of genius. Can You Tolerate This?, following Ashleigh Young’s 2012 collection of poems, Magnificent Moon, is more confirmation of an amazing talent.
Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays (Victoria University Press, $30) by Ashleigh Young is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.