When Writing Becomes the Way Out of One’s Well: A Conversation with Annie Syed
By Annie Agathopoulou, with additional reporting by Kat Yacovone and Lois Payne.
‘I know this too shall pass, but who knew everything is made of forever?’
When Annie Syed appeared on the other side of my screen, courtesy of the revered, overused, and somewhat dreaded magic of the infamous Zoom call, it only took a wave, a breath, and an observation, before our conversation began. Unsurprisingly, it was about words. Surprisingly, it was about what happens when words are not enough. And with an ease that comes from years spent amongst words, Annie introduced us to her forevers…
Born with a Southeast Asian heritage, raised into the multicultural society of the Midwestern United States, having lived on both the West and the East Coast and thus developed a citizen-of-the-world mentality, Annie ebbs and flows between languages. As much of a gift that is, however, it also makes the limitations of each language more easily pronounced.
‘There are certain words that I still continue to code-switch. I say um a lot,’ she says, and then immediately proves the truth of her statement by using that exact word. ‘See?’ she laughs, then explains that it is not something that happens when she is teaching, ‘but when I am having a conversation, a relaxed conversation, the um happens. And I think it’s because my brain it’s… it’s computing, it’s connecting in a way that we haven’t figured what um means.’
It is not long before the form and nature of words is brought onto the proverbial table, along with the intimate connection they share with our everyday reality. With the Covid-19 pandemic still at the epicentre of the vernacular, the politicisation of words was something unavoidable.
‘In the US,’ Annie says, ‘you can’t have a conversation without it meaning something about your gender, your race, your political affiliation. In so many ways, we are losing the larger conversation, because we believe that if we make it a specific conversation it will lead into something better for humanity, and that’s just not true. As human beings’, she concludes, ‘we just can’t seem to escape the narrative that runs in the background.’
Understandably, this emerging trend of constant self-filtering and re-evaluation of word choices, combined with the over usage of text-based communications necessitated by the pandemic, has led to a different type of loss. A loss that is being experienced far and wide.
‘I know there are articles being written in the UK, as well as the New York Times and stuff about the pandemic, our brain fog, all of that. But I have never been this much nonverbal,’ Annie admits. ‘I am speaking in emojis now, and I am not communicating as someone who writes. As someone who loves words.’
So where does writing fit into these transitions and losses?
‘Writing becomes a way to crawl myself out of a well,’ she confesses, ‘to find light, wondering if somebody else can hear me.’ Since the beginning of her career as a writer, back in 2009, finding that one reader that connects with her writing is what writing has always been about. ‘It’s like, hello hello hello,’ Annie says, and as long as you can hear the echo, ‘you may remain in that well. Because you know there is someone on the other side.’
Still, in the past year and a half, forming connections has attained a different kind of significance; our sense of what we knew to be familiar and normal is being continuously recalibrated, meeting friends and family has gone from challenging to outright impossible, and what we had once thought as mundane moments can now make all the difference.
In her recently published letter ‘What is it about a letter that grounds us?’ at The Letters Page, Annie directs us precisely towards this resurfacing need: amongst memories of past travellings, days spent roaming in Ireland, and an update on the on goings of her daily life, the recipient of her letter also witnesses Annie’s unexpected joy that, these days, accompanies her mail deliveries.
‘When you don’t leave often,’ we read in Annie’s letter, ‘receiving mail is receiving a visitor. Words fail me to describe the jubilation with which I look forward to mail. Except it has been slow.’
This mention of receiving mail then flows organically into the dying ritual of hand-written letters.
‘I have always written letters,’ Annie tells us during the interview, ‘and just to see handwriting… I feel like something happens in our consciousness. Not just in reading it, but in seeing the handwriting. When we see something… maybe it’s like the human cave response: it’s like you’re seeing someone’s fingertips, someone’s almost nakedness, even when you are unable to decipher it.’
Needless to say, this inability to decipher letters is a condition many of us have suffered through (and occasionally, mostly accidentally, inflicted upon others) but for Annie this only adds to the experience. ‘How mysterious,’ she exclaims. ‘If you had gotten an email, that wouldn’t have happened. Letters are one of the final mysterious things we have left.’
‘Letters,’ she continues, ‘are the last thread of what used to be the best part of us. With a letter it’s like I’ve taken a photograph of a moment, in some ways, in that I have captured this moment, this feeling, this argument. Letters might be like a translucent well, a well inside an ocean.’ In writing to someone, Annie says, ‘you are always aware that there are other people out there. Something happens when you take that pen to paper. No matter how many times you’ve sat to write a letter, something happens. It’s important to be in that vulnerable space, with another human being.’
Writing and reading are elements very much entwined, interconnected, shaping one another, in Annie’s life, whether it be cards, letters, or literature at large. The latter is what Annie calls her ‘Dhruva Tara,’ her ‘north star.’
‘I read, I read. My epigraph will say she read. For me, it guides me, especially when I feel very distracted. I will just go to poetry, and feel close to words. Lockdown has been positive in that regard because, with books, I’ve never felt alone.’
As the interview comes to an end, we find ourselves -ironically- drawn to the concept of time. ‘Some days I wake up and think ‘this is what it is to live at the end of the world,’ Annie confesses. However, she goes on to add, ‘I think that’s another thing that letters, writing letters, does for you: it slows down time, and it expands time, and you realise that you’re inside this moment, and all the strife and angst that we’ve experienced or read about… in that time, you realise how infinite everything is, and how you do and how you don’t matter.’
Annie Syed’s piece, ‘What is it about a letter that grounds us?’, appears in The Letters Page’s recent newsletter publication, Vol. 5 #11. Subscribe to the newsletter here.