Deborah Levy on writing and womanhood

Writing is a journey in itself. Experience plays a vital role in a writer’s life. With experience, you learn your mistakes and how to outgrow them. There are good and bad experiences. Some of them you will like to remember and some of them you will wish to forget about. “Things I don’t want to know” by Deborah Levy, is the first book in her three part living autobiography. In this mini memoir she talks about her bitter-sweet memories and how writing came to her rescue in forgetting the bad ones.

Deborah Levy
“Things I don’t want to know” by Deborah Levy

About the author

Deborah Levy is a British playwright, poet and novelist. Born in Johannesburg in 1959, her family emigrated to England in 1968. Her books Swimming Home and Hot Milk had been shortlisted for Man Booker prize in 2012 and 2016 respectively. She is better known for her hallucinating and weird writing style.

This book is of interest for

  • Budding women writers
  • Anybody, interested in knowing insights of a contemporary writer

Premise of the book

This is not a typical autobiographical book written in a chronological order. Deborah Levy wrote this as a response to George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I write’, in which Orwell talks about things that motivates his writing: Political Purpose, Historical Impulse, Sheer Egoism and Aesthetic Enthusisam. Levy has divided this book, into these four chapters, stuffing it with examples from her personal life.

Political Purpose

In this chapter, Levy recalls her time in Majorca, where she was on a vacation after being at war with herself. After getting separated from her husband and having a hard time in life, she talks about how she used to cry on escalators at train stations. For her, being carried by escalators was like having a conversation with herself, which turned out to be a danger zone for her. Those days, she tried to keep herself busy by keeping sufficient material for reading.

Even in Majorca she has brought her well thumbed copy of Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because she was able to relate to the character of Bernarda Cabrera, the dissolute wife of a Marquis who has given up on life and his marriage. Secondly, her notebook labelled ‘Poland, 1988’ which comprises notes she took on her visit to Poland, after been invited to write about a performance directed by the renowned Polish actress Zofia Kalinska.

In Majorca, after seeing her notebook, she recalls her meeting with Zofia. When she was giving some notes to her theatre actors, Zofia tells them that “content should always be bigger than form.” So, emotions should be used carefully in theatre. There is no such thing as imitating emotions or imitating reality. This advice of Zofia to her actors, Levy has indirectly used in her writing life as well. Instead of experimenting too much with the form, the content should be given priority.

The second advice, Zofia gives to a young actress that,

“To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish. We always hesitate when we wish for something.”

Zofia prefers showing hesitation in theatre. A hesitation is not pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish. Levy used this strategy in her writing as well. She talks about how a writer of fiction should write in way that, her characters should attempt to defeat a long-held wish of the writer. For Levy, her point of writing is telling this story of hesitation.

May be, by crying on those escalators and not being able to figure out what’s actually wrong, she had been asking herself something else too. That was a point of hesitation for her next book.

Historical Impulse

In this, she talks about her childhood in South Africa during Apartheid. When she was five, her father was arrested for being a member of ANC. At school she was a quiet kid and teacher knowing the fact that her father was a political prisoner, didn’t miss a chance of punishing her in small things. Seeing the discriminating nature of people in her school, she was young enough to realize- not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

After that her mother sends her to live with her Godmother Dory in Durban for a few months. There she was not able to fit in with the people. Like Dory’s ignorant attitude and Williams(Dory’s husband), who was such an extreme hater of Black people, that he had put ‘Armed Response’ warning outside his house.

But in between these, Melissa, their daughter, nudges her to speak her thoughts loudly, instead of keeping to herself. This forced her to write things down that she really want to forget about and don’t want to know like arrest of her father, discrimination between black and white people, then attitude of Williams and his wife. Writing this made her realize the power of speaking up through writing.

Then, in her convent school in Durban, Sister Joan made her realize that she shouldn’t be scared of something ‘transcendental’ like reading and writing.

“…there was a part of me that was scared of the power of writing. Transcendental meant ‘beyond’ and if I could write ‘beyond’, whatever they meant, I could escape to somewhere better than where I was now.”

Sheer Egoism

In this, she talks about her time in England in 1974. She was fifteen and her parents were just separated. The absence of her father, was unacceptable to her. And even after leaving South Africa and coming to England on an exile, some part of her was not able to forget about her experience in South Africa. She wanted to be on an exile from being on an exile.

In these circumstances, when everything was falling apart, her life, her parents, writing came to her rescue.

“Writing made me feel wiser than I actually was. Wise and sad. That was what I thought writers should be.”

At this time, she realized she wanted to be a writer. She wanted to say so many things and was overwhelmed by everything around her. Writing was her only escape.

Aesthetic Enthusiasm

In this chapter, she returns back to Majorca. There she has an encounter with a Chinese Shopkeeper, that she can not forget. After getting to know about her past experiences, the Chinese man gave an advice to her:

” Sometimes in life, it’s not about knowing where to start, it’s knowing where to stop.”

Then she comes back to her hotel room and starts reminiscing the way she used to eat oranges in her childhood. By making a hole in the peel with her thumb. She recalls a line from a poem by Apollinaire: ‘The window opens like an orange.’

All of these things, this line, her hesitation and her Polish notebook were connected to her then unpublished book Swimming Homes, that got shortlisted for Man Booker in 2012.

It is not surprising to read Deborah Levy’s hypnotic writing style in her books like Hot Milk. The way she talks about her musings as a child and growing up, its not surprising to know that she always had this aura of a great writer present within her. Her thought-provoking writing style when she talks about unnoticed things like kettle lids or mute piano, seeing the human skeletal as a societal system with torrid emotions will make you think. In fact, reading about her small observations on things like Armed Response board outside Dory’s house was interesting. Levy’s thoughts are loud that become louder when she writes. Such is the power of writing.

” What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?”

I guess, there is no need to answer this question. You must be knowing the answer. 😀

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