I couldn’t be happier that Michelle Cahill’s mesmerising short story collection Letter to Pessoa has just won a NSW Premier’s Literary Award. I’d been feeling it deserved more attention, so I’m glad it’s been recognised. It’s a seriously good book, so let’s go on a date with it now to find out why …
What are we talking about?
Letter to Pessoa is the first short story collection from prizewinning Indian-Australian poet and essayist, Michelle Cahill, who is founding editor of Mascara Literary Magazine and a Doctoral Candidate in Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. The collection has been praised for its breadth, inventiveness, bravery and profundity.
Elevator pitch …
Cahill’s skilful and poetic prose brings an array of complex characters alive, revealing their longings, uncertainties and obsessions. These impressive short stories, set in contexts as diverse as Boston and Chiang Mai, Nairobi, Seville, Kathmandu and Krakow, include stories in letter form to literary greats. The collection shines a light on the comforts and limitations of language, the effect of trauma and transitions, and the discontinuities of history, cultures and countries, encountered by many, including migrants and refugees.
The buzz …
Michelle Cahill has just won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing ($5,000 – sponsored by UTS) in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel has also said that ‘Line by line, Cahill’s writing is musical, assured: cumulatively her seriousness is evident, her ambition impressive.’ Australian novelist, essayist and playwright, Nicholas Jose, said of Letter to Pessoa: ‘One of the most exciting books I’ve read for a long time, just brilliant — rich, bold, moving, stimulating, pleasurable.’ I agree.
The talent …
Cahill is a Goan-Anglo-Indian poet and essayist who was born in Kenya and lived in Britain and in Sydney. She has published four poetry collections, including The Accidental Cage (Interactive Press), which was shortlisted in the ACT Premier’s Literary Award (Judith Wright Poetry Prize), and Vishvarūpa (5 Islands Press), which was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the Alec Bolton Prize, and highly commended in the Wesley Michel Wright Prize.
Her most recent poetry collection is The Herring Lass (Arc, UK) published in 2016.
In an interview in Tincture in November 2016 about Letter to Pessoa she said, ‘I do believe the self is a performance, a relation, a series of incomplete and impermanent events: consciousness, feeling, thought, memory, imagination.
‘Conventional narrative does not represent, politically or aesthetically, my experience as someone who has lived in several countries in exile from my home.’
In a nutshell …
This one won’t fit in a nutshell! With its broad range of cultures, contexts and narrators it’s hard to distil the book’s essences. What I can say is that these stories are the work of a clever and compassionate writer who easily shifts the reader’s focus across time and space, and from character to character.
Favourite story in the collection?
The atmosphere and characters in ‘Duende’ hooked me from the outset—as did all its beautifully placed details. For example, I loved that Julio, who has been suffering from writer’s block, is reading Bolano’s The Romantic Dogs and trying to be ‘inspired by the breathless posthumous voice’. I could also clearly imagine the softly spoken hotel owner in Sevilla conferring with his mother ‘in a darkened corner behind the reception desk’.
By the time Julio watches a bull killed at a corrida in Sevilla, it is clear that his relationship with Miguel is threatened, his own life is ebbing away through illness, and his poetry involves the ‘mutilation’ that art demands. The interplay of cruelty and tenderness in ‘Duende’ is superb, and it is easy to see why it won the 2014 Hilary Mantel International Short Story Award.
Tell us about one or two others?
In ‘The Sadhu’, Sarita goes to the Hotel Buddha in Kathmandu to meditate, and to try to forget her ex, a young man named Logan. She visits a sadhu called Baba and comes away questioning his relationship with a young Italian woman called Gabriella. Gabriella is pregnant with Baba’s child and Sarita thinks she is little more than a slave. And so she wonders: ‘“What could she do about the girl” The whole worship thing was complicated, risky. Gabriella was as vulnerable to Baba as Sarita had been to Logan, the politics and faith dangerously entangled.’
In ‘Chasing Nabokov’, Nabokov and his wife Vera are living in Willoughby next door to a young girl who’s been learning to surf. Nabokov and the girl have an affair—so it is almost impossible not to compare them with Humbert Humbert and Lolita (Nabokov’s protagonists in his controversial novel Lolita), which makes this both a disturbing and thought-provoking story.
It’s great that …
There are stories here I will read again and again so they can yield up more of their secrets. ‘Duende’ is obviously one (and I’ve read it three times already). Another story I’ll revisit is ‘To Show a Little Hustle’, which highlights how two women from very different racial and socio-economic backgrounds have unequal ‘options’ in relation to their emotional lives, work, sex and bodies.
I’ll continue to enjoy how Cahill uses words I’ve never seen before! Perlustration, for example (which apparently is a thorough inspection and survey, especially of letters for purposes of surveillance), and luculia pink (I haven’t found a definition for it yet—so I’m happy for readers to help me if you can).
Favourite opening sentence?
The borders of yesterday and tomorrow are surely abstractions. (From ‘A Mika Coda’.)
Second favourite opening sentence?
‘Every time it happens he is never dead.’ (‘Dirty Ink’)
Top three descriptions or metaphors?
‘I passed clots like aspic that smelled tart.’ (As the protagonist says after a caesarean in ‘Letter to Virginia Woolf’.)
‘The jacarandas bleed, their velveteen carpets layer memories of the past and the indignations of whatever crisis the present moment inhabits. The trees mutilate themselves uniquely and exquisitely. Their dismemberment continues for weeks until they are completely stripped of flowers.’ (From ‘A Wall of Water’.)
‘You dream like an argument without feeling.’ (From ‘Letter to Pessoa’.)
An elegant paragraph?
‘I drank a shot of vodka; I lay down in that warm room submerged in the quietness. I pictured the dark oil-lit room of your house in Rodomsko, the gilza filled with tissue-paper flowers, the oval mirror hanging in the kitchen, the white porcelain vase you could not stop yourself from breaking as a young boy, just because it was flawlessly beautiful. I had your memoir on my desk, I had your verses in my thoughts, tinged as they are with intensity, secrets and a faint luminosity of light from the far side.’ (From ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rósewicz’.)
What’s unusual about the collection?
Cahill says her characters ‘Sarita, Jo, Nabina, Hemani, Luke, Logan, Nathan and Viresh can be read as other selves, heteronyms in the Pessoan sense. They each live different lives and inhabit different moods.’ Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese poet who created more than 70 literary alter egos for himself.
Letter to Pessoa also contains seven stories in the form of letters to authors, including John Coetzee, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf, Borges, Pessoa, Tadeusz Rósewicz, and Derrida. As Cahill says, ‘The letter form … creates a double address and a double narrative between two subjects, reader and author. In this way it can question the status of identities.’
I think ‘Letter to Virginia Woolf’ is my favourite of these. It’s a moving meditation on motherhood and the push-and-pull of writing and of raising a daughter in tandem with the girl’s father, who lives elsewhere.
What themes are explored?
The use of heteronyms thrusts the nature of self into the limelight, which means pondering: What relationship do our imaginary selves have with our selves that are real? How do writers lose and find themselves in their writing? How do we navigate the fluctuating boundaries of, confidence in, and expressiveness of the self?
Other themes include longing and loss in relationships; illness and nausea; cruelty and tenderness; the fragmentation of culture, society and identity; the shifting dynamics arising from globalisation; the effect of war and love on individuals; gender dynamics and inequality; being caught between worlds; and wondering what constitutes home.
You’ll like it if …
… you liked The All Saints Day Lovers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Boat by Nam Le and Wood Green by Sean Rabin; the moods, the shifting contexts—from Chiang Mai, Kathmandu, Seville and more and the intelligent ruminations on existence in the 21st century. You’ll also enjoy it if you like your literary fiction to be stimulating and poetic.
Why read it?
There’s a disorienting feeling to the collection, which will keep you on your toes and make you think. Cahill describes the writing as hybrid and hallucinatory, and the book’s epigraph, from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, is ‘I feel as if I’m always on the verge of waking up.’ The dream-like verge is important in this collection: It carries you and can also illuminate you; and it means the moral questioning and existential rumination peppered throughout the stories can float towards you with a lighter touch.
Why reread it?
A second reading will give you the chance to pause and enjoy the lyricism of the sentences, to reflect on the well-chosen details that build credibility, and to relish Cahill’s playfulness and ingenuity. This time give yourself permission to Google some of the literary references! Cahill’s scope is wide and her gaze is penetrating—so it felt good for me (on second reading) to have at least a bit of a clue about the sources she’s drawn on to create the stories.
The details …
Letter to Pessoa