I do not understand. I cannot tell who is real, or who is imagined. I tell myself that it does not matter, but it does. I tell him that the book is strange, but I cannot say why; I tell her I will write to her about it, but I cannot begin. I am restless when the book ends, my right leg is shaking in the way that my aunt hates, and I am chewing on my lower lip because I want to say something, but do not know what.

So I pick on lines, and metaphors, on Lorrie Moore’s sentences that throw images at me before leaving them there and carrying on, unconcerned. They are hanging and unconnected to the larger story that should be more important, but it really isn’t. I have grown accustomed to the importance of this larger story, to focus on all that happens, and how people there react; I have grown accustomed, and forgotten to look beyond.

I both am and am not the Benna that Moore creates; it is easy for me to forget that her daughter, Georgianne, exists only in her head, that she is just differently real. I think of all the people I have made up, none with so much detail or feeling, I do not know what they look like, or sound like, or what they are wearing. In our conversations, I am saying the smart, witty, sensible things I would not have said otherwise, and these people disappear when our conversations grow old. But for Benna, her daughter is real—she hugs her, shows her the wisdom tooth she has had removed, finds her a baby sitter, and takes care of her when she is ill. “I made up a real daughter,” “I don’t go around making up imaginary daughters,” she tells Gerard. There is Benna’s real, my real, and the reals we have created.

There is a moment when Benna sees Georgianne standing at the top of a staircase. In that moment I wondered what she saw, but it is only a moment for me; Benna does not stop to think that her daughter is not really there, and her story moves on. I wonder what Benna is actually doing when she is with daughter—sitting, standing, teaching, or in a café—like the times she meets her friend Eleanor, who is as real as Georgianne. They meet at cafés and over dinner and talk about everything—poetry, Middlemarch, men—important things that matter, even if you do not want them to.  Eleanor and Georgianne are like the characters you want to create when you write, the characters that grow beyond your control, and take your stories where they want to go.

“Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters,” Benna says, as she talks about language and words. It is this reshuffling that she is always doing—in her metaphors, in the people in her life-both real and differently real, in the images that she creates, and the stories that she tells and retells. Benna’s story is a pack of cards shuffled perfectly for a game; hers is also more than one story. Then what is meaning?



She drew a hasty star. “No extra sheets”, she wrote next to it, leaving the last bit of chalk in her hand to fall to the floor. Starred. Important. Please note, keep in mind. They would not give us extra sheets. And sitting there, I worried. Next to me she had begun to write, her hair falling on her face, hand moving across the white sheet purposefully. She had something to say. So did the others—the boy in front of me wrote, hunched over the paper before him; the boy next to him wrote, covering his sheet with his hand. His story was his to tell.

I wrote. Five lines, more words. My single sheet of paper already quarter filled; a momentary pause, and almost no consideration—lines crossed out. No extra sheets and I was wasting paper. I tried to write, blowing at words towards a chosen direction because the air they hung in would not exhale and carry them there. Because the air had caught its breath and everything had paused, my words had paused; an ensuing silence, not oppressive, just waiting. I was waiting.

But I had just one sheet to tell my story; I couldn’t pretend to be looking at the various packets of chips in the canteen when what I was really trying to do was not see him. There was so much I wanted to say, so many stories I wanted to tell because I needed to process them, feel them; stories that lay like my clothes in a basket asking to be washed and worn again. Writing was dropping a chocolate wrapper from the third floor of a building and watching it get carried away by the wind; clothes going in circles over and over in a washing machine that would stop only when the cycle was completed.

The first side of my sheet, three quarters filled. Outside I see my friends making faces at me, waving, and I laugh. She, waiting to tell me what she has done, knowing that I always want to hear. Him smiling, as though he knows exactly what I am thinking, and what I am going to say.

I write to show myself what I see, to break down what I feel to know what it is I actually mean. I write, rewrite, and now I remember how the backspace key on my laptop is a friend I depend too much on. I used to write in notebooks, I remember how easy I found it to write then. There was just my blue ink pen, a carefully chosen notebook, a fresh page, and a story. No pause, no hesitation. In the end the words would lie there, clear, strong, and I’d be happy.

Back then I always wrote the same story.  I wrote to remember Amma, because at twelve I worried that I would forget her. I wrote to remember little details—the sound of her voice, her smell, her laughter, our rides home from music class in the evenings, her office. I wrote because I worried that her passing did not seem real to me, because reading the letters she had left me when I was twelve made me cry, and at fifteen made me happy. Because that night I had believed that nothing could go so terribly wrong; I clung to something, perhaps to Appa repeating over and over that he could feel a pulse. I wrote because I was strangely calm as I watered the plants next morning and told the neighbours what had happened when they asked me how Amma was, and the woman ran into her house; because I later cried as I had a bath and realised how dramatic the scene was. I looked at photographs and created stories around them because memories with empty spaces are not really considered memories, and in a frantic desire to have anchoring, vivid recollections, the empty spaces are often unconsciously filled, leaving an almost whole fragment.

One-and-a-half sides of my sheet have been filled, and there is now a distance when I write. I tell the same story differently; perhaps I will continue to do so as long as I tell the story. Words are suddenly emerging as easily as before, briefly I wonder if it is because I do not like to see crossed out words on a paper, because I like it when things are neat. I remember all the stories on my laptop, mostly uncompleted, and think of all the stories I have wanted tell. I write because writing is creating, and words can make me realise the normal. Now, I don’t only write to remember.

I have finished my sheet of paper. I look up at the board, the words have been erased. No extra sheets. No longer starred, no longer important. Do not keep in mind. The air had exhaled.

What Nabokov did

In the end, I was ‘she’. ‘She’ and ‘him’ were always together, a pair, ‘they’. And since ‘she’ was I, I was a part of ‘they’.

In ‘Symbols and Signs’, that’s what Nabokov had done—I sat in the subway and saw her husband’s hands, my husband’s hands, “twitching” on the umbrella, with their “swollen veins and brown-spotted skin”. I watched the girl cry on the shoulder of a woman who resembled Rebecca Borisovna.  I looked through my son’s photographs—“As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies”, I saw a picture of our maid in Germany with her “fat-faced fiance”, and I saw Aunt Rosa.

If this is what Nabokov intended, he had succeeded. As I read the story over and over, the questions that had struck me the first time faded away and they didn’t matter. I was ‘she’, and so there was no need for me to name myself, my husband, my son. But who would know the others? If indeed names created identities, then they had to be named. They were nouns.

When I feel like writing, I look so hard to find something to write about. Sometimes I spend most of my time thinking, worrying that I have nothing to say, and no stories to tell. I look for larger things, and what these things are I do not know; things I consider important, because I feel like I must have something to say. And so I forget to do what Nabokov does—talk about everyday things, things that have become normal and I no longer see as if for the first time. There are sudden, isolated moments when I’m intensely conscious of things around me, when I see for instance that Appa’s beard is more grey than black now. But those moments seem to come only when I have nothing to do, and I have never written then.

Recently, a friend of mine got glasses, and suddenly things around her seemed so much clearer, she said. Reading ‘Symbols and Signs’ was something like this—I noticed “the last dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights”; I heard the “dutiful” beating of hearts on the stopped train, and then the rustling newspapers; images and sounds so normal, that though I don’t like to admit it, seemed as though I had never previously experienced them.

I am convinced that details mean so much more than just words on a paper, that they show, and are a way of seeing and experiencing. But when I write, details seem to support a story, help it stand and be noticed—they aren’t the story. They are real but not real enough; they are present but can be passed unnoticed rather easily; they are mere frills, accompaniments. In ‘Signs and Symbols’ the details are the story, what ‘she’ sees is what we see. The details that Nabokov chooses might seem unnecessary; they don’t answer questions. What is the dark haired girl on the train with “grubby red toenails” crying about? Who is the girl with the “toneless, anxious young voice”? What is the phone call about, who is Charlie? I will never know. Initially, I felt deceived.

“If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not!” writes Nabokov in his description of referential mania. And just as his other descriptions of the mania reminded me of writing, I felt hidden in this construct a questioning of the nature of writing. While I sit and wonder if writing is about creation or representation, writing for Nabokov seemed to be about reminding a person of what they see, hear, smell and feel every day—the most real things that we experience, but hardly remember.

In the end, it was all about writing.