During the pandemic, I began writing a book that had been knocking around in my mind for a year. It’s about a distant relative whose oversized personality and bewildering life captivated me. She lived at the turn of the century, a post-Victorian woman who made unusual choices for her time—even for today: no marriage, no children. She pursued her art, her work, and many personal projects, traveled constantly and seemed to exist without barriers, letting adventure consume her, free of the hassles of domesticity.
I wanted to know this woman!
She was an Aries (the Ram)—the first sign of the Zodiac. Aries’ mantra is “I Am”, and, true to her sign, she was headstrong and persuasive, a natural leader who took initiative in her personal life, professional matters, and in issues of social justice relative to her time.
In getting to know her through research, I’ve become fascinated by the pronoun “I”. In one letter, she writes, “I am quite alone” then goes on to mention her Syrian housekeeper, five Arab servants, and the villagers who come to her for medicine. Buried in her “I”, then, is a host of unnamed and invisible characters. Her narrative of aloneness is a fiction and I must always “read between the lines” to imagine who she is leaving out when she says “I” in her letters and interviews.
I’m also reading Out of Africa, which is of the same time period. The author, Baroness Karen Blixen, never thinks of herself as alone and always acknowledges the presence of “others”: her servant, Farah, is always at her side; villagers, houseboys, and “her squatters” fill her stories, always described as being like plants or animals. A whole universe of others are part of her wallpaper, scenery that serves to bring her “I” more alive.
In wanting to know these post-colonial women better, I’m listening for what they don’t write; attuned, now, to all the unsaid things in their lives and minds. In the process I’ve begun to question my own “I” and what I mean when I say anything about myself—who else hides in there and who have I removed?