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The Story Is You Can’t Know the Story

2015 March 15


Jamaica Plain, the part of Boston where I live, is known as an artsy community, full of liberal-minded artists and families. The sense of community is one of the reasons I chose to move here. Up until November, though, JP was missing something vital: a bookstore. Enter Papercuts, the tiny, but beautifully curated, new independent bookstore that opened just after Thanksgiving.

I have to limit my visits there because I buy something every time I go in–not only because I want to buy books all the time, but because I want the store to thrive and succeed.

This weekend, I attended a conversation between Celeste Ng and Joan Wickersham at Papercuts and it was one of the most interesting conversations about writing I’ve heard in a good while.

The topic was loss and family tragedy. Both authors have written books that deal with grief and death in the family. In Ng’s novel, Everything I Never Told You, a young girl goes missing and is found drowned in a local lake. Her family is left to deal with the aftermath of her death, trying to piece together why and how she died. Wickersham’s The Suicide Index is a memoir written about her father’s 1991 suicide and how she and her family attempted to make sense of tragedy.

I haven’t read either book, but I bought both of them after the event because I was so intrigued and moved by what the writers had to say. Death, as it happens, has been something that’s been weighing on me recently, and it was helpful to hear others talk about it, and perhaps more importantly, to talk about writing about it.

As Ng said, “the story is, you can’t know the story.” I don’t think this applies to only mysterious deaths–I think it applies to our entire existence as humans, living together and trying to understand one another when deep down, not a single one of us can ever fully know another person. For writers, the act of writing becomes a way of trying to make sense of this knowledge, this unknowability of the world around us. “A lot of writers write because we don’t know,” as Wickersham said.

Both Ng and Wickersham talked about how they used structure in their books to make meaning of their stories. In Wickersham’s case, she struggled to write about her father’s death for years, both fictionalized and non, before she settled on the index structure. Suicide, as she pointed out, is a kind of death that causes questions. When her mother died, she was sad, and she misses her, but she “knew who she was missing.” In her father’s case, everything she had known about him was called into question by his decision to take his own life. By writing her story in the form of an index, the section of a book where you go to find answers, she felt closer to being able to make sense of a senseless tragedy. For Ng, writing her novel with sections from the past and the present was important, because she feels the past and present run alongside one another in a person’s life–they work together and inform one another.

Wickersham pointed out that it was ironic to have a conversation about the messy process of writing a book in a bookstore–a showcase of beautiful, orderly, finished products. They agreed that it’s important for writers to talk about this painful process because, otherwise, how would anyone know how truly difficult it is to actually write anything, let alone a book?

In the end, though both books share death and loss as a major theme, they are mainly about the “flavor and texture of family” and how families deal with events, both catastrophic and mundane.

I’m looking forward to reading both books and also attending more events at Papercuts (and buying more books…so many more books).

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