Can You Tolerate This?: Personal Essays
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
The title of Wellington poet, blogger, and editor Ashleigh Young’s new collection is a challenge issued in somewhat the same spirit as the title of Hera Lindsay Bird’s poetry collection: Hera Lindsay Bird. That is, it is a challenge delivered without apology. This is a personal book. Here you will encounter a young woman writing about – or at least from – her life. This has traditionally been a dangerous position to speak from, with authors liable to be dismissed as self-indulgent and “over-sharing” or, at the other end of the spectrum, as liable to generate too much, and too prurient, an interest. But Young’s and Bird’s position (like that of American phenomenon Lena Dunham) is, if you don’t like it, read something else. They also, however, invite you to take up the challenge to read their writing. Can You Tolerate This? You’re likely to find it worthwhile.
Some readers will find they have encountered versions of some of the 21 essays contained in Can You Tolerate This? on Young’s blog, eyelashroaming.com. On a blog, the gap between writing and dissemination can be infinitesimal, the relationship between author and reader immediate and intimate. Young’s blog posts tend to come across as direct addresses, working in the territory between diary and letter, complete with digressions and apologies for not having written more regularly. Her comments feed shows readers responding in kind: with advice on breathing while taking exercise (“Go forth and puff your heart out!” in response to the blog post that became the essay, “On Breathing Noisily”); responding with their own experiences; and responding with sympathy. One regular commenter, whose friendship with Young appears to be a purely online one, writes: “I love your mesmerizing monologues. Feel like we could be sharing a coffee or wine and you would talk to me just like this.”
This sense of intimacy, and of the conversational, sets the tone for Young’s essays. While the pieces in Can You Tolerate This? are certainly shaped, Young largely elides claims to authority or to argumentative structure. Ultimately, she refuses any imperative to “construct a meaningful-sounding statement” when she doesn’t have one, instead dwelling on the uncertainties of life, working with her poet’s tools of anecdote, analogy, and image. In the longer essays, she also emerges as a fine narrative storyteller. While she is certainly funny at times, her tone is more in the vein of Leslie Jamison in her quietly thoughtful essay collection The Empathy Exams (2014) than of Lindsay Bird or of Dunham in Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’ (2014).
The most personal or confessional essays in Can You Tolerate This? detail the shyness of a teenage girl growing up in Te Kūiti, explore a struggle with eating disorders, and bring out the embarrassments of the female body. The second short essay, “Witches”, written in the first person plural, evokes the shift from a time when the body feels “inconsequential” to that unremembered moment we must have come to self-consciousness: “We must have stood up on the beach, covered in sand, and felt suddenly heavy, as if wearing many layers of petticoats.” In a characteristically resonant image, Young here pulls the constrictions of 19th-century petticoats forward into the present. Another essay, her Landfall essay-competition-prize-winning “Wolf Man”, unfolds from her father’s seemingly casual observation that she has a “little moustache” just like he used to have. In this essay, Young brings forward Frieda Kahlo and a whole history of bearded ladies to help understand and excavate her own response, concluding:
I think my response to my moustache, and maybe also my father’s response to my moustache, came from the same well of fear and fascination that once insisted that a woman like Julia Pastrana belonged in a freak show.
Here, there is not just her response, but her father’s as well; not just fear or fascination, but both. There is neither embrace nor rejection of the freak show; neither just her own story, nor simply a disembodied history of women and their bodies. It is in such elastic, fascinating dualities that Young’s essays dwell. “Wolf Man” contains as close to a call to action of any in the collection, arguing that we need different ways of looking for beauty. “I had an argument,” Young writes, “but it belonged to a first-year essay. ‘In itself, hair is meaningless,’ the essay began, ‘It is only our way of seeing that makes it socially unacceptable.’ ” These personal essays show us that life, and in particular our relationships with our own bodies, as well as society’s response to them, is never that simple. Young takes her topics and turns and turns them.
Then there are the essays on family, which read more like non-fiction stories than essays. I confess to finding these, in particular “Big Red” and “The Te Kūiti Underground”, more compelling than the essays that revolve around female embodiment, such as “Wolf Man” and “Bikram’s Knee”. Perhaps, in the end, the quiet introspection feels like a bit much, so that as a reader I yearned for some kind of (feminist, sexual, whatever) release. I wanted the narrator to transcend her situation, to momentarily take off and find a way to open out into the world. But I am also wary of this desire in myself as a reader, in particular because of the subtle ways in which Young herself plays with the need we have for narratives of overcoming. “If this were fiction,” she writes, “what would happen is that on Christmas Day the girl would strip off and jump into the water.” But in life: “There are only ever small ripples of change, and they move so slowly we can’t feel them moving.”
The family pieces are poignantly situated in small-town New Zealand, in particular in the music scene of the King Country. In these stories, a cast of characters emerges, appearing and re-appearing across different essays, in particular Young’s amateur pilot father and her two brothers, J P and Neil. We come to feel we know these people, so that when tragedy touches Neil in one of the later essays, “Anemone”, this has a different pathos as a result of being part of the wider collection. These essays make sibling relationships one of the great, too often unsung, themes of Can You Tolerate This?, as we watch Young and her brothers grow up together. Often it is not the first person “I” who speaks here, but the “we” of family. These family essays quite literally get off the ground and into flight.
In other essays, too, the first person singular recedes into the background. It is notably missing from the opening essay, asking us from the outset to question what is meant by “personal” essays. This essay, “Bones”, is about a man whose skeleton is preserved in a museum in Philadelphia. His bones would not stop growing, so that it was as though his inner workings were on display, allowing us to “look on the contained explosion of his skeleton, the way it seems forever breaking but never broken”. We are invited to think about how this might also apply to the narrator of these essays and to turn this explosion of the interior back onto ourselves. Can You Tolerate This? presents us with an array of “contortions” through which the human body has been put and invites us to look again. In the end, Young’s essays that look away from the personal in order to turn the body inside out are the most compelling, although these perhaps work precisely because of the intimacy with the reader established in the more directly personal pieces.
At her best, Young transforms the freakishness in all of us into the beautiful, but never just the beautiful – things are always more nuanced than that. Another short biographical essay in the collection focuses on Ferdinand Cheval, a Frenchman who collected rocks his whole life for a single sculpture. Young suggests that we might see him as a model for the “extraordinary” things that can be made from picking up a single rock at a time: “how wonderful it is if we just keep going”. “And yet,” Young adds, and it is in such “and yets” that much of the wisdom of her writing lies: “And yet both Cheval’s work and his life are imbued with solitude and grief, and even misery.” But it is also wonderful that “out of solitude can come something that rises”.
You can read a sample essay from Young’s collection here: Te Kuiti Underground
Ingrid Horrocks, a Wellington writer and critic, teaches at Massey Wellington.