It has been too long but in this time, I have been again to Saint Petersburg. I hoped, rather optimistically, to edit Birch in-situ, but instead spent time finding new ways of experiencing the city that informed most of my writing.
I remember a moment of panic on the Sadovaya canal, the first morning I went alone into the center’s beating heart, fearing completely: the city has forgotten me. There is no other way to describe it. It had been nearly five years since I saw it last, and ten years since I first travelled to Saint Petersburg. Suddenly I had a strange feeling I was a character in a story, and not a human being.
The writing journey is forever transformative. As I approach Birch again, with tentative understanding and hope, I am also experimenting with other forms. I want to examine something different, something I never dared write about before.
I want to write about skin and flesh torn open from the carapace of a walled self. I want to put into words the way touch transforms entirely a body that has never known it before. The way a kiss tastes like water.
I think of three writers who have approached this world with honesty and painful self-reflection.
Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), who wrote without fear. “When ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.”
Lee Kofman, who I discovered as The Dangerous Bride. Her most recent work of non-fiction, Imperfect, intimately exploratory, contains too many relatable fragments. I am unable to read more than a few pages at a time. Writing of her self, Kofman examines a “walking, talking deception.” She writes of lovers and their relationship to her body surface, her scars. In my case, it is my mind that is scarred.
And Shu-Ling Chua. In 2018 I happened upon an essay published in Meanjin. It was called Through the Looking Glass (later a winner of the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Award).
I had never read a contemporary woman’s account of her sexuality written with such painful, relevant clarity – including the agonising lack of understanding of wants, the shame and confusion of desire as it mingles with fear.
Chua sees her “sexual awakening as a cumulative process, where the physical, psychological and intellectual bleed into one another.” It is a gloriously brave text.
There is a frankness about these written sexualities, so fragile and fraught with cultural and social barricades. Add into the mix the personal, which wracks the tellings into even more dangerous territory.
At the beginning of 2018, I felt broken in every way. Socially, physically, creatively. I was afraid for my future, and began to tend toward settling on an option kept always in secret. I fell apart in jagged, sharp pieces. Looking back, I’ve been asked what changed to buoy me back to the surface – what was the turning point? I’m still uncertain about a definitive answer, though I’m realising one thing:
However it happened, I was the one to put myself back together.