“They’re All Dead Now”
There, and yet, not
Some reading to start your week off right, from the talented Becky Manawatu from Issue 13. We’re examining how absent characters work in stories, and how writers make them feel real to the reader, despite their non-appearance.
Becky Manawatu talks about the absent character that helps shape her narrative in 'Abalone'. Becky is a reporter for one of the smallest independent daily newspapers in New Zealand, The News, Westport. She gained a Diploma in Writing for Creative Industries from the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and now teaches fiction writing at NMIT part time. She was shortlisted for The 2018 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency Award in Association with The Spinoff, and has had work published by The Spinoff and NMIT’s literary journal, Kiss Me Hardy. Her novel, Pluck, is to be published by Mākaro Press in May 2019. Her short story published by Headland, ‘Abalone’, was long-listed for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
“They’re All Dead Now”
You’d be hard pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent, or missing person. It is an imitation of life, really, or your coffee cup. Where would your long-black be without that empty space? You wouldn’t chug it, scalding hot, right from the machine. You’d go without.
One of the characters in my story ‘Abalone’ is a dead father. Not necessarily his death, but his no-longer-being-alive helps drive the narrative.
I wrote ‘Abalone’ directly after reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall at your Knees, which begins: ‘They’re all dead now.’
That is the entire first paragraph: ‘They’re all dead now.’
Ok. Great… If they’re all dead, why the fuck should I care, right?
But of course I did. I just had to know why, just had to know how, just had to know where and when.
But most importantly I just had to know who. Who is dead? Because knowing who is dead, is understanding the space that they’ve left behind.
And it is human nature to want to know that space. We might be secretly choosing the song that should be played at our funeral, and we might secretly hope that more than a few people will shed more than a few tears as that song plays, and we do these things partly because we are often denied a chance to understand.
I once took a selfie in the toilet following a funeral. I don’t know why, in fact I am almost embarrassed by myself, and yet here I am sharing it. I’d been sad, and I had cried, and in the bathroom mirror I had wiped away some mascara which had run a little – but then I smiled a little bit, just a little bit, and I went back out and drank a beer and ate some pāua, and doing those things when someone I’d held dear no longer could felt both very heartbreaking and very good – almost luxurious.
We are interested in the space we’ll leave ourselves. This interest compels us to read, write and watch movies, and we are most attracted to those which include both loss and laughter.
Colum McCann wrote in his book of practical and philosophical advice, Letters to a Young Writer: ‘Never forget that art is entertainment. It is your duty to reflect the world, yes, but it is also your duty to bring a bit of brightness to it too.’ As Nietzsche says, we have art, so we shall not die of too much reality.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent or missing person.
Furthermore, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful novel thick with loss and not lightened by a writer’s touch, lightened by humour – even in the tiniest detail, a flicker, a fleeting image.
The deaths of fictional characters, and their grieving survivors, are the most accessible (and abundant), because when real people die, the space they leave is quickly covered, quickly sanitised. It gets filled with words like, as Sunday Star Times Magazine editor Emily Simpson comically mused in a recent editorial, ‘He would have done absolutely anything for anybody,’ or ‘She was happy-go-lucky, bubbly, life of the party,’ and ‘She was so kind, so thoughtful.’ Dead people are most often the very, very best people that the world is so much worse without.
We can be shunned from the space by terms: ‘the investigation is ongoing and the family requests privacy.’ And, yes, that privacy must be respected.
But, it is still another closed door. It is another door that we can’t help but imagine, and wonder what is going on behind it.
Wonder would drive us to madness if it weren’t for fiction. Even if you only watch movies, it is my guess those movies – in fact all the stories that have shaped society- might have saved you from overstepping a line, from knocking on a door you shouldn’t knock on.
I mean, we’d be barbaric without stories. We’d be barbarians driven mad by wonder.
Fiction waits patiently, to answer every question and satiate any curiosity (to an extent) the real world denies us. While real doors shut, art lets us in. To listen to the aching echo, to feel how deep and desolate it might be – to watch a relative acid trip through a funeral, or to see the Happy Birthday song Bella sung for Ricky Baker before she keeled over, as she was hanging out the washing. That’s art. That’s story.
When I wrote ‘Abalone’ I wanted to explore the space a man’s dead father leaves, and exploit the way his mother tries to fill it. Her extravagant over-compensation. The compulsive way she bears down, fills the space with her excessive presence and intrusion, and desperately tries to protect her son from falling into the void his father left.
I wanted to expose that dark space, but as it is stark reality that will kill us before we’re even dead, I hoped to write something to counter it.
In ‘Abalone’ the mother fills and fills and fills the space her son’s dead father left – until the earth literally cracks at their feet.