On the Writer’s Desk

The lie in fiction is on the reader’s part; convinced what he’s witnessing is all the musing of a compulsive, uncontained imagination.

All fiction is autobiographical. What a delightfully tormenting truth. You’re always hoping that it’s not─ that your imagination is somehow as vivid and wild, original and infinitely replenishable; a world of its own, and anyone who encounters your work would echo such sentiments. How your mind, in this turn of phrase has us enraptured with feeling, encapsulating the depths of what it is to be human. And yet truth, like time, always catches on. You trade in the editing of memories; polishing, threading them with stories you came to second-hand, concepts, and philosophies you learnt, patching them all up into… well, whatever the end product is.

You’ve had to shelf this story for quite some time now because writing demands honesty. You reckon maybe your mind is blocking you from it for your own good.

You know the opening line: This night we could watch the moon go to sleep. You know what the mood should be: slow, immersive, waltzing from thought to another, your characters breathing in the romance, tentative despite the years. You know the setting: a restaurant, the lighting right above, spotlighting them, a gentle purple pouring on her face. The meticulous description pays homage to John Williams, saying things like, it was as if the light was illuminating from inside her. You’re smiling just as you visualize it. The waiter inobtrusive, haunting the table from a distance; as she flaps through the menu, conscious of your gaze; the other customers, out of focus, almost inexistent. You know that there’s a ring on her finger, clinking on the glass as she carries it to her lips, precise, she swirls the drink and then heaves looking into the glass. Her other hand, ungloved, hangs gaily as if afraid of ruining the dried henna art on them. Your eyes drinking in all of her and you can’t remember the last time you simply lived a moment like that. She’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever written and you’re still in search of the right model in reality, you can clay her from. Characters aren’t made from thin air. You must yet know who she is, and unless you overcome that, the story’s stale and goes nowhere. Tragic as you have to shelf it another time.

In long walks in the evening, you keep thinking of this story objectively; a story that seemingly won’t let go, so desperate to be written yet it plays sneaky. In its refusal of discovery, you resign you won’t know what it is. Funny how you never can write about anything outside of yourself. It’s always anchored by some form of experience or dream, or in this case, person. You know the cost of digging her out too quickly, the repercussive cost of giving her a face, and yet you do not dwell much on that. The art demands it.

The blocks you struggle with in writing are often your mind refusing to flounder into some inexperienced universal truths; be bent and conform to the story you’re trying to tell, it seeks to work in revelatory terms, demanding confrontation to something it no longer can tuck away. Who knows how much more damage can be done from the inside-out?

So here you are again, staring at this woman with a face you can’t discern, but you believe distinguished in its own right. She swirls the drink in her glass absent-minded, looking away. When her gaze lands on you again, you flash her a smile, notice how her cheek muscles fold right below her eyes, a light rush of red on them─ this welcome mat for conversation but you won’t write her any dialogue. Your words aren’t holy enough for her lips. You entertain the prospect that maybe the story could just be a feeling. But where’s the fun in that. You’re moved to write a few lines to flesh her out: it feels like a surprise every time I see her face, a gift forever wrapped up for me. Examining the statement, it hits you, she’s a niqabi and it doesn’t sit right with you romanticizing the niqab but the story wants what the story wants. You line up all the niqabis you know and start eliminating.

The past is purgatory; it only functions to torment us; the intrusive thoughts of all previous failings. We can’t choose which memory to enter or how we remember what we already lived. The illusive control our minds convince us we have, and yet we know the truth. A memory once touched never goes back to what it was. It’s renewed differently, becoming a memory of the last time you remembered it. The constant revisits further diminish it, diverging further away from what actually happened. We’re our own unreliable narrators.

If your mind was this massive hallway and all the memories were doors; you wander in search of this door that beholds this face. Recognising your failings, a light flickers behind you─ flickers above you in the restaurant, and just maybe, you think, this is a ghost story or at least one that Kaufmanesque’s, the likes of ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things.’ A seemingly serialized straight-forward narrative only for the blurs in reality to manifest as the story progresses. The flickering light to act as interference, in the ever-changing figment seated opposite you. You think you’ll hint at that by subtly changing her name 3 times as you go on. Or maybe the story’s happening in your bed in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling and your mind can’t seem to stop. The title will be The Constellations on My Ceiling as you keep imagining and re-imagining every woman you met at some point that there perhaps was a spark there that you wouldn’t follow through because of the kind of person you are. But if she’s ever-changing, isn’t it supposed to lead up to one woman, one point of reference. A philosophical pay-off to your reader trusting you with their attention. That maybe throughout your life, you’ve been comparing all these women to the one that got away. Maybe all these girls you felt a spark with were always niqabis because it saved you the hassle of seeing their faces. Maybe you’ve always wanted to pretend it’s always been her underneath it. How far back the story goes. If your mind was a hallway, and memories a series of doors, you’d be staring at a revolving one, rapidly spinning. That’s the story but it needs to stop at some point.

You might’ve just figured out the emotional core to it and if you’re honest, that’s basically what all your stories are. How your indecisiveness has always had you at this crossroad where you always convinced yourself that you weren’t ready for it. The settling down into this boring life where eventually the most interesting thing would be abandoning your kids at home and sitting quietly in a restaurant wished-for-words but fine without, the simple comforts of your life being interwoven with someone else’s. That is the story, yeah?

You think Kafka, how he maybe might’ve preceded with his short story The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man. You haven’t read it but you own the copy and you imagine that’s maybe what it’s about. What possibly could you contribute that the great Kafka might’ve left out? Your religion? Wow! You shelf it again, frustrated that the concept won’t grow legs and take a life of its own in the world.

“You can’t depend on the past…” This long quote you loved as you watched Bly Manor seems to have stirred something. You notice the parallels between their story and yours. There it is. It’s not loneliness. It’s about the lurking past that no longer wants to be suppressed because it finally wants to move.

That same day, you get a phone call and hear that the one that got away is finally off-limits. ‘What could’ve been’ now can never because now you know, ‘she’s married’. She has been for some months now. If you calculated correctly, you’d find she was married around the time this story incubated inside you.

It’s been years since you heard her name. The finality of your teenage years. There have been others who shared her name; we possess no exclusivity to names, but with all the others, the name didn’t dance on your tongue the way hers did. You kind of always hoped that she was happy somewhere but now that you know for certain, there’s a hollowness where you once wished well. A tad bitter. You’re not sad but… the absence of evidence is no evidence of its absence. You feel… hollow. A memory of someone who isn’t. A figment of years past. You don’t even know her face anymore. A ghost and her memory, haunting.

What hadn’t even begun has totally ended and your mind kindles in remembrance of the last thing this friend sent you all those years ago. On our lives that needed to change; how the two sexes weren’t supposed to interact without boundaries; without discipline. She insisted on eliminating the need for boundaries because men and women should have no business with each other. Some bittersweet goodbyes and the last thing she sent, “you will be missed.” That would echo in you for months before you would give in and hit her up with ‘Hi’ and the response, ‘What do you want?’ You’ve never smiled like that again, so proud of her resolve. You can’t be sad once parted with someone for the sake of their Lord. On the contrary, you were happy. You heard of her less and less as she became a footnote in mutual’s conversations. Then your mind without consultation decided the admiration of this formidable woman, in love with her Lord, should bud into a desperate yearning. There must’ve been something there. There cannot not have been. The decision she prior made sparked something, ignited a flame that you hadn’t planned to follow through and now you’d want nothing more than spending the remaining of your weekends, eating at boring purple-lit restaurants, with her.

You decide to change as well, take the path she’d chosen ahead of you, fall seriously in love with your religion. A good woman makes you want to be better even when… well, she’s rather distant. With nothing to your name, you decide, you want to marry this girl. This niqabi who… wow, and words will fail you every time. The bottled letters you tossed into the ocean come back, the proposal you sent she decided to be pending cause any response without anything concrete could only lead to fitna, and in a few months, you’d no longer be teenagers. You can’t afford to be stupid and ruled by your whims at that age, and just like that, the two roads in the yellow wood diverged further and further, that perhaps each forgot, there used to be the other.

The poets, the writers, at least ones whose art is infused with an intolerable melancholy have a similar sort of origin.

As I said, most of writing is discovery, your subconscious trying to tell you something and most of it won’t be for an audience. As personal as can be. Seated under this purple light, still wished-for-words, staring at her; the image so tangible, intelligible, more real that had ever been, her smile now fading away, as very soon, the rest of her also will. Her face is still her face, the purple light giving her that new bride glow, and I look at her, more intensely, reminded of the person I promised myself to be back then and think if it’s not too late to get back on that. She nods resignedly. This time, when the light flickers and I look up, I won’t be as startled as I was the first time. I’ll just stare and keep looking up till the darkness gives in and fades before me.

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Memory, writing


Hassan Kassim

Hassan Kassim is a Mombasa-based Creative non-fiction writer, recently longlisted for the Toyin Falola prize, blogger and translator of Kiswahili work. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union(E.U), and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management. Hassan writes about the ill-documented Communities of Coastal Kenya. His work has appeared in Writers Space Africa; his 2 non-fiction stories published in the anthology 'Twaweza,' a collaborative effort of 12 African writers on the African identity and set to appear in the forthcoming anthology for the Toyin Falola prize.

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