In the late nineteen-nineties I wrote a novel, The White Bone, told from the point of view of African elephants. While I wasn’t under any illusion that I would do them justice, I made the effort because I had watched a documentary about an elephant herd mourning its dead and was persuaded that elephants are conscious, prodigiously intelligent beings with life-and-death stories to tell. Still, and despite a full year of research, I never felt entirely comfortable speaking on their behalf. I’m sure that if elephants could read my book, they’d hurl it across the savannah.
We now understand how our brains process information and memories, but science has yet to agree on what makes us conscious, that is to say, how you can be sure you are you and not me, or—to get even more abstract about it—how you would experience yourself if there weren’t any me, if you were the only person, the only creature, the only thing within your sensory field, existing in a void, no external boundaries against which to calibrate yourself. Would your sense of self disappear? Or do you harbor a true, absolute self, independent of sensory experience?
In the majority of novels the true self is what we trust the protagonist will get a glimpse of after being pitted against various obstacles. We take for granted that the protagonist will “grow” a little, by which we mean he or she will become self-aware, despite how, in our own lives, self-awareness is at best elusive. We can list our preferences, dislikes, ambitions, regrets, memories—we certainly recognize facets of ourselves—but do we ever know who we are?
The premise of my new novel, Little Sister, is that a woman named Rose finds herself entering the body and mind of a woman named Harriet. At first I was simply interested in how this would feel and work. I imagined it would be like reading somebody’s diary, only a thousand times more intimate. Also, I liked the idea of a character inhabiting the consciousness of another character, just as I, the writer, inhabit the consciousness of the characters I create.
I wrote for a decade. I produced draft after draft. Everything that should have been simple proved to be complicated and then overly complicated. When Rose is inside Harriet, she is operating as though from the first person, so at such times is Harriet “I” or is she “she”? And since Rose is privy to Harriet’s feelings as well as and concurrent with her own, whose feelings is she feeling?
I was operating under the assumption that there is an absolute self, a self so durable that it can steal into another mind and return undamaged. I wanted this to be possible, and there were days when I had the unsettling sense that my own mind was hosting an eavesdropper. I let my unconscious go where it would. Occasionally it felt like the great engine it ought to be after the sixty-odd years that have fueled it. More often it felt like a worn thread still being miraculously pulled by whatever pulls us creatively onward.
For the past thirteen years I’ve suffered chronic lower back pain. Because it’s at its worst when I sit, I do all my reading and writing from my bed, pillows stacked under my knees and neck, laptop balanced on a tray that straddles my hips. As you can imagine, I’ve sought help everywhere. I’ve seen physiotherapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists and osteopaths. I’ve tried yoga, Pilates, the Alexander technique, Reiki, hypnosis, and a dozen whacky therapies I’d rather forget. I’ve been off and on powerful anti-inflammatories and opiates. Surgeons have injected me with nerve blocks, ozone and steroids. During one three-month period I subjected myself to daily, torturous bouts of magnetic brain-stimulation.
All the while I was working on Little Sister. If I decided to write an out-of-body narrative because I longed to escape my own pain-wracked body, I wasn’t aware of it.
Last September I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and my entire idea of myself changed. Back pain is one thing, cancer quite another. Back pain is a burden, a life sentence. Cancer is, or can be, a death sentence. I ceased to regard myself as a writer who works on her back. Now I was a writer who has breast cancer.
Soon enough I learned that, initially, anyway, you don’t battle cancer, you surrender to treatment. In my case that meant lying face up with my right arm over my head while strangers prodded my breast, stuck it with needles and blasted it with radiation. For all that the doctors were caring and gentle, I had the sense that I, Barbara, amounted to an anonymous mass of flesh surrounding a very interesting lump. No lover had ever subjected my breast to such scrutiny. Or to such pain, for that matter.
I had a breast-conserving mastectomy. And here’s when something unforeseen happened, which was that as I healed from the surgery I began to distance myself from the breast. It, the breast, didn’t look like mine: the nipple was bigger and the breast itself cockeyed and smaller. But more estranging was that I had let all these medical people go at it with knives and needles, and in order to accept this unavoidable attack on my modesty I seemed to have resigned myself to thinking of my breast as public property. I showed the fresh wounds to my friends and acquaintances—I, who had always refrained from showing even cleavage. I’m not sure why I went this far. Did I want to shock? Did I crave reassurance? All I know is, I stood there with my top pulled up above the breast and took in the expressions of surprise and pity and, yes, amusement in people’s eyes, and I wondered who I was.
Why did I become a writer? Now that I’m in remission and have finished my book, this is the question that dogs me. Did I become a writer because I had failed as a pianist? Well, yes, partly. But what made me think that at the age of thirty-two I would be able to write fiction when, previously, I’d never written anything other than essays and letters? And it wasn’t as though I was a natural writer, the pages flying out of my IBM Selectric. I struggled mightily. I still struggle. It’s hard making up people and arranging their thoughts as if an individual’s consciousness can be expressed in so many words.
It can’t be expressed in a million words. You know it and I know it, but the result that we both hope for—verisimilitude—is achievable. One thing I’m learned over the course of eight books is that your readers are pulling for you. They want you to get it right so that through your story and characters they themselves will emerge with a desire to be more sympathetic, to make allowances. At least that’s how I feel at the end of a good novel. Almost always it’s the case that when I leave the pages of a fully imagined world I feel better prepared to negotiate the real one.
Every once in awhile I imagine how I would write a novel about Donald Trump, told from Donald Trump’s point of view. To create a dimensional character, let alone one worth spending time with, I’d have to inject him a vein of true humanity. So there might be several paragraphs where he looks up at the night sky and experiences a brief, humbling apprehension of how small he is. He might see a disabled child on the TV news and wish he hadn’t once ridiculed a disabled reporter.
For all the reasons that novels work, I’d be obliged to create a man more conscious of his frailties than he appears to be from the outside. I’d cut into his breastbone and let whoever else is in there out. I’d have him lift his shirt and show his belly and ask people, “What do you think? Do I need to hit the gym?”
Of course, I’m sure that if the real Donald Trump were to read the book (a long shot, given that the only book he can remember ever having read is All Quiet on the Western Front), he’d hurl it across the oval office.
Barbara Gowdy is the author of seven previous books, including The White Bone and Helpless. Her work has been published in more than twenty-four countries. She lives in Toronto, Canada.