In The Art of the Publisher, Roberto Calasso writes: ‘Literature loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility concealed deep within it.’ O Roberto! How cute he is with his quaint ideas—I want to pinch his cheek. Who talks of the impossible and magic anymore, let alone tucking it deep within literature? These subjects are not polite dinner party conversation—I wonder if they ever were.
Still, I would suggest there is something in Calasso’s comments, and not only because there usually is. I’m going to show that within the kernel of this thing we call literature is indeed the impossible, even the magical. Simple miracles which aren’t discussed nearly enough.
So I have a few stories to tell. These stories are about some writer friends—ones who are writers but are, at least in my mind, more than that. And I want to tell these stories because I wouldn’t be friends with them if we hadn’t met through writing and I think that’s important, because writing is hard. It can be challenging emotionally and financially, and if everything else in life is going wrong and the writing isn’t doing what you want it to either, it can outright depress. Writers I know write in the early morning or late evening, between school runs and grocery shopping and cooking dinner. Between office jobs, or teaching kids or young adults and fighting for tenure and despairing at attention levels. They have children with disabilities. They have messy, draining breakups. They have troubles with landlords, fear they won’t make the rent, leaky roofs, guiltily pray for an inheritance. They wonder if they should give it all up, if this whole thing is in any way worth it. An impulse to create drives them on—something primal, maybe—and little more. The writers I know have lives that are not the lives of writers.
One of my favourite reading experiences is knowing almost nothing about the author of a text. I read Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance in this way; I didn’t know much about Matar, and the Kindle hid his name and the book’s title—I soon forgot both and reading became daydream. This is one of the delights of the literary journal—discovering writing that thrills authored by someone you’ve never heard of. I had an especially Mataresque experience with The White Review: way up the back of issue 17 was a story by Kyle Coma-Thompson called ‘Spite & Malice’. It began with an illustration of the start of the card game for which the story was titled and was followed by 16 narrative fragments, none of which told me a single thing about its author’s life in the real world.
The story inspects and weighs language, and draws connections between the incongruous. Clear from the start is that it’s written by a writer who takes the craft seriously. It is the kind of thing that I wish I wrote—that I had the creative maturity to write. I said as much on Twitter then forgot I’d said anything. A few days later, I woke up to an email from Kyle with a PDF of Night in the Sun attached, the collection that his story was taken from. His wife Marie had seen my tweet and passed on my comments.
It’s a nice thing to have good literature dropped into your lap. I read the book and reviewed it and my correspondence with Kyle continued. I know that he is a deep thinker about writing and what creativity is. About what forms literature can and might take. We exchange emails across the planet and promise to buy each other a beer if our paths ever meet.
Kyle read an early version of the manuscript of my story collection. In retrospect it was probably too early. Anyway, I knew the value of our friendship when he emailed me his response. He said some nice things about my writing and put me at ease about elements I had been questioning. But more than that he focused on the future—on the work that might follow now that this work was to be bound and released into the world. The bookness of the collection would liberate me from its contents and, creatively, I could move on.
Don’t trust anyone who isn’t talking about what’s next. This is the creative impulse in its rawest form: creating so that there can be freedom to explore anew. Wacky, near-pointless perpetual motion for the sake of the artistic spirit—these are the artists I want to hear from. So Kyle said this is all well and good, but what now? Yes, what now? It is the question any writer—any artist—should be asking. It should trail them like the guilt of a murder.
If Kyle lived nearby, I suspect we’d meet for after-work drinks but also go to the occasional art show. We’d begin in the room with the moderns before moving to the classics, staying to talk while the colour of the day changes in the skylight.
I miss Aashish Kaul on most days.
We met via Twitter. We followed the same people, tweeted quotes from books with a similar aesthetic, began a waltz of likes and retweets, you know how it goes. He had written two books with poetic, evocative titles: The Queens Play and A Dream of Horses and Other Stories. We met in person for the first time at a Nepalese restaurant in Newtown where the main meal was delayed and delayed because I hadn’t yet eaten the final momo.
We hugged tightly each subsequent time we met and stayed at restaurants till closing time, the air around us electric with his intelligence. One time when his wife wasn’t home he offered the couch for the night and said he had a bottle of gin. Not staying to talk about life and literature and the world till the early hours of the morning would become one of my life’s few regrets when, unable to find a stable position at one of our universities and with his father in ill health back in India, he left Sydney for good.
Regret would turn into opportunity. Christmas was coming, I needed somewhere faraway to escape to, I wanted to see my friend. When I asked, Aashish quickly agreed; soon, I was on a flight to Delhi. In between tending to his father, Aashish escorted me around the city. I learnt why he was so sensitive to the strange ways of the world: here, all of it was all around. We ate and we drank and we laughed. We spent hours in traffic together—funny the things we miss when they are gone. New Years was spent around a bonfire on a balcony and his friends treated me like I was no stranger at all. We shared a wide bed in Shimla, ate rich curries and went for long walks in the Himalayan foothills—me hoping we’d avoid snow, him hoping we wouldn’t.
I got back from his city and was depressed for two weeks. I had to remind myself that the toxic smog meant it was wiser to stay away—but returning was all I wanted. I missed the energy, the blaring horns, the metro crowds, the cows on the boulevards at midnight. But most of all I missed my friend.
I describe Aashish as being born in the wrong time. He has a classical sensibility, dresses properly, quotes literature in everyday speech and is baffled by the technological knot we have tied ourselves in. The irony not lost on either of us, we text on Whatsapp and have the odd long distance phone call. My most treasured moments with Aashish include our talks over dinners in Sydney and Delhi, but if he were here, we would leave our phones behind and go on long bush walks—one of us hoping we’d manage to find our way back, the other hoping we wouldn’t.
It feels like I’ve known Saudamini Deo forever but this can’t be right, can it?
Again, we moved in similar Twitter circles and supported each other’s experiments in writing online. I didn’t think I’d ever actually meet her but, in a happy coincidence, my last days in Delhi overlapped with hers as she passed through the city on her way home from South East Asia. Saudamini lives in Jaipur. She is a writer and photographer of rich and sensual things. We each had a free morning so she came to the centre where I was staying for breakfast. I waited outside and soon saw little Saudamini coming towards me up the centre driveway. We hugged then ate in the stifling breakfast room. I had to sign her in as my guest which I attempted with minimal awkwardness, failing. We walked through Lodi gardens, with squirrels and peahens running across our path, then sat on a bench to talk about writing and why we write and the future—about what was next. In my memory, the morning is foggy like a dream.
Saudamini is the editor of RIC Journal, which regularly publishes interviews with the dead and haunting, minute-long sound recordings. She is writing a novel which I will read selfishly, as though she has written it for me. I know her thoughts from her work. I know her voice from her audio recordings. Now I know her wise frown from the other side of a Delhi breakfast table. Maybe she wouldn’t want me to tell you this but there are times that she struggles for the motivation to write on, because what is really at stake here? Of course, the stakes are that she is a writer and so must write. We correspond via emojis and email but there are times, mainly late nights, when I wish she lived nearby and we could drink Bombay Sapphire in the dark and laugh about lost love.
The only person I know who can match wits with Saudamini is Italian writer Daniela Cascella.
Daniela is the author of FMRL, Enabime and Singed. She reads widely and wisely and occasionally misreads dramatically. Typically, missing the point is a problem, occasionally disastrous, but in Daniela’s hands, the misreading surprises and illuminates. Of course, this is less the result of chance than it is Daniela’s extreme intelligence—the way her brain weaves connections and resonances between otherwise discrete concepts. To watch her pick apart then make something out of the pieces is a sight to behold. It is the magic Calasso speaks of.
I’ve never met Daniela in person. I don’t know how to pronounce her last name. I only know her musical and accented English from YouTube videos. I hope to change this because even though we are good pals—I’m name-checked in her latest book not once but twice; this is what writer friends do, I suppose—we are pals across time and space. We joke about which circle of hell we’re currently in and, together, worry about the precarity of the writer in the twenty-first century. Maybe she wouldn’t want me to tell you this but she had immense difficulty placing her latest book with a publisher and when it finally happened it brought her extreme relief. Relief—not the emotion one should be experiencing at such a time, but such is publishing.
Daniela looks like a night owl but if she lived nearby we would meet somewhere noisy for endless lunches. Instead we correspond via Twitter DMs, which will have to do till a wealthy but long forgotten aunt passes away and Daniela inherits a castle by the seaside.
TS Eliot dedicated The Waste Land to Ezra Pound: ‘Il Miglior Fabbro’—the better smith. In their own way each of these writers are better than me. Maybe that’s why I am friends with them, because they make me want to be better. In fact, if any of them lived close, I’d probably be burdensome, not banging on their door for money but to force a manuscript into their hands and asking Is this good enough? What is friendship? Aashish would hate to know this but he is my moral guide. When I’m about to make a contentious decision, I think of having to explain myself to him. I know his eyes would widen and he would exclaim, My God, before turning away in bafflement, and that is something I want to avoid.
They are also all operating on the margins. Kyle is making magic in Louisville. Aashish thinks anything but the great is a waste of time yet doubts he can write anything great. Saudamini is trying to find the energy to write in pre-monsoonal Jaipur. Daniela is trying to live in London while building an archival fiction out of the ephemeral. They have each given themselves crazy, Sisyphean tasks, but the reality is most literature has been written on the side. In a recent email, Kyle wrote: ‘The conditions under which you have to create will differentiate you from others, will temper your work.’ Will, in other words, make you the writer you become. Despite everything, they are writers—and I’m fortunate to call them friends.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney. He is co-editor-in-chief at 3:AM Magazine. His short story collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is forthcoming from Transmission Press.