The Letters Page, Vol 5, #10

This month we are coming to you at yet another time of change. Spring has arrived, and while things are still shaky, much of the world is beginning the journey to what will become our ‘new normal’. This letter from Nay Saysourhino seems fitting as it brilliantly describes the ups and downs of life, of change, and how lockdown has affected so many of us.

Nay Saysourinho is the 2020 Rona Jaffe Fellow at MacDowell and a Berkeley Fellow at Yale. In addition to having received the Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story in its inaugural year, she was also awarded fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, The Writers Grotto, The Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and Tin House. Her work has been published in The Funambulist Magazine, The Asian American Writers Workshop, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares Blog, Khôra and elsewhere.

The daughter of Lao refugees, she grew up in Québec, spent several years in Saskatchewan, and now lives in New England.

(The photo below is courtesy of Nay Saysourhino:

the view from her front door)

Letter to Ellen
By Nay Saysourhino

Hi Ellen,  

Thank you for giving me two more extensions on the essay. I am sorry I have not been in touch since, but I am trying hard to finish the work, and it is my hope that I will be able to send the completed edits by tomorrow morning. It is, I must stress, a hope. 

Time was slippery even before, because of my mental illness. My psychiatrist keeps telling me that routine is crucial to my emotional well-being, but that’s like asking me to open the floodgates of a dam to retrieve a single cup of water. Time, in my life, can only spill furiously. If I am up until 3 am, then I am up until 6 am. If I nap for 20 minutes, I nap for 2 hours.  

Have I ever told you that my real name in Lao is the name of a river? Sometimes when I can’t explain my failings, I blame my parents for burdening me with a river. I don’t get up in the morning so much as I monsoon out of bed. It is a visceral thing, an irrational thing, like knowing that the air in August has shifted, or that the light has changed in February; I just know.  

But how is it possible that I know these physical sensations so precisely, yet remain incapable of grasping the concept of time? 

I apologize for the digression. But perhaps this once, I should blame it on the quarantine, which has obliterated everyone’s calendar (though my parents have informed me that we are in the year 2564). You’d think I would fare better, wouldn’t you, having been thrown in a fluid dimension with the rest of the world; maybe even share a sense of grief with everyone else.  

But it has only been more confusing. Time is now crowded with other people who are also looking for directions. Time is invisible honey, lulling me, trapping me, slowing me down. ‘Quiet,’ I want to tell the world, ‘quiet.’ I need to think. I need to figure this out.  

Like this essay that I owe you, Ellen. As I have written in my draft, the poetry book I am critiquing is a polyphonic gem, using the spectacle of Guy Debord and the space of Gaston Bachelard to explore personal vs. public performances. But it has also been overwhelming. I hear the voices of all these French thinkers (Foucault, Barthes, Derrida) trying to deconstruct, structuralize, analyze my every thought. I think I have mentioned this before, but I was educated in French, and sometimes it feels as if a colonial corset has bent my mind along a certain curvature. 

This book is full of surprises; layered, rich in meaning, bursting with animals. But it also has made me not want to come up for air. I wish I could think quietly.   

I wish I could think quietly.  

All this to say, I will have the critical essay ready shortly. I am having a moment of lucidity today, and I am hoping to use it to read books instead of the news. It has been impossible to look away from all the articles covering hate crimes against Asians. It has been impossible for me to not cry in rage every time someone mentions bats, as if the French had not built a spectacle (!) and a space (!) for eating ortolan (one day I will write a short story about ortolan). See how I turned that corset around? Watch as I return my whale bones to the ocean, where they were stolen from. Watch me learn how to breathe on my own.  

I am digressing again. The essay, yes, the essay. It is about a zoo.   

That reminds me, Lapham’s Quarterly posted a fable by Lafontaine this morning, the one called “Animals Sick with the Plague”. How all the top predators, having flattered their leonine king and diminished their own crimes, turned on the poor donkey who stole a mouthful of grass out of hunger. The grass is always greener in the mouth of others.   

I should worry about my own mouth, and my own fingers for now. I have metaphorically eaten my fingers down to the middle phalanx. I am metaphorically writing this email with my knuckles. Nothing feels sharp, everything is an approximation. Is it my depression or is it the quarantine, is it the hate out there, is it just my loneliness? A blur. I write a blur with my knuckles, smashing together the keys of my laptop. 

I am so sorry. Again. This email went longer than I intended. I apologize for all this rambling and will send the essay soon. Tomorrow morning is my wildest hope. How many essays do I owe you for the rest of my contract? I have been thinking of Djuna Barnes.