September 11, 2013
Some thoughts about Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave
I recently read most of a very strange and fascinating novel by Jennifer Quist called Love Letters of the Angels of Death, a novel I had to ultimately quit because it was just a little too strange, mostly because the characters kept saying “dang” instead of swearing properly, and I just couldn’t get past that. But I was disappointed to run into trouble with the book because it really was remarkable in so many ways, and I keep bringing it up in conversations. Talking about this novel which is about a happy marriage, its curious second-person narration that makes so much sense upon the book’s conclusion (which I did read, though I skimmed bits in the middle), about how two people long-time married experience a kind of merger of self.
I thought of this book again this week as I read the stunning memoir Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, when I encountered this line near the end of the book: “I often think I utter Steve’s words, not mine.” Steve, Deraniyagala’s husband who died in Sri Lanka along with their two sons, her parents and hundreds of thousands of others when the tsunami hit that country’s coast on December 26, 2004.
I remember that “tsunami” was once a word I looked up in the dictionary, not long before December 26, 2004. In the years since, while it has also become every headline-writer’s go-t0 metaphor, the event in its enormity has remained something of an abstraction, cemented in history. And yet born of that hugeness, born of so much death and sprawling awful, is Deraniyagala’s slim memoir, so spare and deliberate in its prose.
Wave is the book I thought I couldn’t bear to read, but then such a claim is sort of precious because I always wanted to, a peeking through my fingers as I hid my eyes sort of thing. I listened to Deraniyagala on CBC’s The Sunday Edition last winter one morning as I fried banana pancakes, and found the way she told her story so impressive. She was so articulate, interesting, and I found nothing shameful in being witness to her pain, the way I might have with a woman less in control of her own story.
“That Deraniyagala wrote down what happened is understandable. But why would some unconcerned individual, someone who has not been similarly shattered, wish to read this book? Yet read it we must, for it contains solemn and essential truths… In witnessing something far-fetched, something brought out before us from the distant perimeter of human experience, we are in some way fortified for our own inevitable, if lesser, struggles.” –Teju Cole
“Sometimes, usually when the weather is base and the freeways are black with ice and the commute takes too long, you try it on–my death. You take it in–shallow but still very much beneath your skin. It’s a tiny injection of grief and fear. It’s meant to protect us, like an inoculation. You stand in our kitchen as the sky outside gets darker, and you let this contrived, imaginary tragedy immunize you against real sorrow. In your imagination, you marshal the possibility of my death into the small, controlled sphere–one you hope cannot coexist in the same world as a truly dead one. It’s a bit like Halloween–playing dead, acting it out to keep real death away.” –Jennifer Quist, Love Letters of the Angels of Death
There are books I’ve read, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, books I’ve read imagining some sort of usefulness, that they might possibly “fortify me for my own inevitable sorrows”. But they won’t, of course. You can’t read up on this sort of thing, prepare for it. Instead it’s more like what Quist writes about, these vicarious griefs something that we try on, a kind of dare. But then we close the books, put them back on the shelf. Maybe it’s that we imagine they’re fortifying wherein lies the attraction. But they’re just not. They can’t be.
Though perhaps they help us better understand how life is, its shape, to glimpse its darkest corners. There is is usefulness in this, I suppose, deepening our vision of the world around us.
What makes Wave intriguing as compared to other memoirs and what makes it so profound is that instead of Deraniyagala casting herself as central character, she tells the story as filtered through her own perspective, what she sees and feels rather than who she is, or what she has become (though we do get a sense of that). She writes, “And I cringe to be bereft in a way that cannot be imagined, even though I do wonder how impossible this really is.” Her narrative exists to aid us in making that imaginative leap, in bridging the chasm between our experiences. Her self-effacement enhances this.
Though it is also a product of her tragedy–when she loses her family, Deraniyagala loses herself, and hers is the story of a reclaiming of her identity in the face of what has happened to her. So firmly anchored in her own perspective, we are to understand how time slows and spins in the immediate onset of grief, the confusion and the fury. She can’t bear to sleep for fear of waking and having to remember her loss all over again. She can’t bear to remember her family at all, can’t quite believe she ever had them, and it is years before she is able to return to their home in London, to confront what had been taken from her. The house is a museum, and she wants none of it disturbed. The pain of being there is overwhelming, and yet the pain of not having it to return to is worse. “I lost my shelter,” she writes, which seems to stand for everything.
This is the story of how she allows herself to remember her family and her love for them, to feel the pain of their loss because that pain is how she keeps them close to her. “I suspect that I can only stay steady as I traverse this world that’s empty of my family when I admit the reality of them, and me.” It take years for her to get to this point, and the book documents her journey closer and closer to the heart of the matter. And along the way, she brings her family back to life, her sons, her husband, her parents. She paints them each as distinct and striking characters, creating moments of levity that infuse her story with such light. It’s a story as sad as it is happy, what she lost underlined by what she had. Which doesn’t make it any easier that she doesn’t have it any longer, but neither are her loved ones thus entirely gone.
The key to this book, I think, and its usefulness for us, lies in a particular word that occurs at least twice. First, when she returns to her family’s London home and comes upon their back garden in early morning, the sight of a snail making its way across the patio table: “They would be so stirred by this.” Later, she writes about her husband who’d grown up on a council estate in East London, and his first trip to the Natural History Museum when he was six years old. At the sight of a life-sized model of a blue whale: “this was the most stirred he’d ever been.”
To be stirred then, to have our quiet disturbed. Perhaps this is why we should read this, or any book. A gentler version of Kafka’s frozen sea, and I like that. Not fortifying, but instead (and not merely) our reason for being.