May 3, 2013 6:10 pm

The Diary: Sheila Heti

The author of ‘How Should a Person Be?’ attends an Irish literary festival and wears a nightgown for lunch with a Nobel Laureate
An illustration of Sheila Heti©Adam Fisher

Last week I was driven from Shannon airport to Galway, for the Cúirt literary festival, and I watched tiredly out the window at the beautiful, low, limestone walls and the green grass and sheep, and listened to the man who was driving tell me about his life. I asked about his wife. Did she work too? “Yes,” he said, “she works Thursday, Friday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Then she’s off Thursday, Friday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”

An illustration of Sheila Heti©Adam Fisher

I turned the beguiling phrase over for 10 minutes. Why didn’t he simply say “Monday to Friday”? I supposed that everyone in this country was a poet before realising he was telling me that she only worked half the week.

At the hotel, I was trying to check into my room – the concierge had just told me the room was still being cleaned – when Páraic Breathnach, the energetic festival producer, gathered me up in his bearish enthusiasm and shunted me into a waiting taxi for a festival lunch. I didn’t have time to protest.

We emerged from our cabs on to a cobblestoned street, where Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley stood chatting (or pretending to chat) as they were snapped eagerly by some waiting photographers. They moved slowly down the street and the rest of us followed behind them to the restaurant. I was distressed over which would be more rude: to have lunch with a Nobel laureate with my coat on, or to sit there in my chalk-white, thick cotton nightgown, which I was still wearing from the all-night transatlantic flight. I decided I would drink a lot and take off my coat.

. . .

Later, a little tipsy, back at the hotel, I checked my email. I saw that Miranda July had attached to her letter a story she had written for a special issue of Playboy magazine; a commission. It was about the romantic relationship between a woman and her dog. It turned out the dog was out-of-this-world sexually, just a really natural and forceful lover, so that the woman was non-stop trembling from the intensity. I imagined a middle-aged man, heretofore satisfied with his Playboy, putting the magazine down and feeling just awful.

It often happens that when a friend sends you a piece and says, “It’s a very rough draft,” you see how it’s perfect the way it is. You want to say, “Don’t touch it! Don’t let the editor touch it either!” Her story had a crazy energy – a how-am-I-writing-this? excitement. Editing it would dampen that. Going through the sentences over and over again, she would grow numb to the strangeness of what she had done, and she would numb the sentences, too. I wanted my friend’s story to remain, like the woman who loved her dog, eternally trembling and wild.

. . .

A few days later I taught a workshop to a group of 14-year-old Irish schoolchildren. The session was about questions. One of the three exercises we did was called Q&A – an adaptation of a show created by my friend Darren O’Donnell, a brilliant theatre artist who lives in Toronto, my hometown. All his most recent pieces involve regular people, not actors, performing not in a theatre but in the public realm, and they tour the world. Haircuts by Children is his most popular show, and it’s much like it sounds.

In Q&A, one person from the audience sits on stage while the audience calls out questions. The person on stage doesn’t have to answer but they tend to. It’s a beautiful show that unravels gradually, and it’s about how surprising and unique each person is. The pale young girl who ended up on stage in our session (people don’t choose but are semi-randomly chosen) was shy, serious and sensitive. So was every question she was asked. The kids intuited the point immediately. One question came from a boy: “Do you prefer the sun or the moon?” She answered without hesitation, “The moon.”

One girl asked if she believed in ghosts. She said she did not. Then a boy asked right away if she had ever been haunted by a memory. This seemed so smart: of course! I had never thought of a haunting memory as being like a ghost but didn’t it fulfil all the requirements? Or at least feel like a haunting? She was asked what she thought a hero was, and said it was someone who stepped back from the attention of the world so someone else could have the stage. She hoped to grow her hair long. She felt bad that the teachers always wrote on her tests, ‘Perfect work!’ Being a good student, she felt sort of not really looked at. The teachers only paid attention to the ones who did badly.

When she said she wished she was more confident, we felt certain she was perfect as she was. The questions kept coming. A tall boy near the window asked, “Don’t you think everyone is dissatisfied with who they are? Don’t you think if you were loud and confident, you would wish to be quiet and considered?” She considered it quietly. “Yes.”

. . .

That afternoon, I saw A M Homes interviewed by Elif Batuman. Batuman wanted to discuss women in fiction and the recent Wikipedia scandal: while all American writers were once classified on the site as “American Writers”, now suddenly there appeared a subcategory of “American Women Writers”. Anyone looking at “American Writers” would find only men there. Homes was unhappy about it, too, and pointed out that it began decades ago in the bookshops, when black writers and female writers were placed on their own shelves, leaving the white men to stand increasingly secure, untainted and calm in the middle of the store.

The young girl who preferred the moon would have been on a segregated shelf. Miranda July, too. Really, anyone in a nightgown. I remember when the girl was asked whether she believed in God. It was the only answer she could not say aloud. She simply shook her head.

Sheila Heti is author of ‘How Should a Person Be?’ (Harvill Secker)

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