Dangerous Dancing: Autobiography and Disinheritance

by Brian Castro

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A response to this article has been received from Moira McAuliffe.

One winter not so long ago, I began to write what I called an ‘autobiography’. I didn’t call it that to impress anyone. I wasn’t making any claims about truth and lies and real events. I knew that the word autobiographycarried a freight of meaning it didn’t really deserve: real life; true stories; family secrets. Writing, of course, makes oxymorons of these. I knew all autobiographies were highly inventive acts of dissimulation which sometimes had real or unfortunate consequences. I knew the public reaction to autobiography was one of overlooking its fabrication. Then why not write a novel instead?

I think I would have done that and saved myself the labour of messing about with terminology if it hadn’t been for one thing … the element of risk. A novel usually only risks one thing: its form. (There is a commercial risk as well, but that’s something I disdain in a novelist’s mentality.) An ‘autobiography’ however, does make some claims. Claims about oneself, one’s family, lineage, history. This is usually done within the ‘grammar’ of an accepted system, a cultural norm imposed by families, societies, nations.

A novel, (The Satanic Versesaside), rarely incurs wrath. But an ‘autobiography’, by the very nature of its definition, invokes a kind of dogma about what can or cannot be written. Often this says more about those making this kind of decree than about the writing, but nevertheless a responsibility exists for the writer which may not be as overbearing in the writing of a novel. A responsibility which may mean nothing to readers who are unaffected or removed from the issues. Why persevere then, with this artificial burden of self-imposed angst?

Precisely because writing doesn’t arise from absolute freedom and lack of constraint. Precisely because both aesthetic value and moral value are richer in opposition, when in tension with loyalties. Precisely because in this ‘disfigurement of monuments’ which guarantees the sustentation of personal damage, I found a vehicle for resistance. In the daily process of writing the ‘autobiography’ therefore, I mapped these resistances, which became almost incantatory:

As I write, I am already being disinherited.
For a writer, nothing has been passed down except a memory of desperation. There is nothing relaxed and comfortable about being one. You have to possess a sense of prodigality. I don’t think you can be a writer without it: some expansive wastage which also stems from vast prodigiousness. The etymology provides clear connections within this futile enterprise. Those who can hardly afford it are drawn to paying a high price for language. Those who, in a crisis, come up hard against it, know what it’s like to have nothing. Nothing at all; save the sacred duty of experiencing; spending their last twenty dollars on a couple of really good drinks.

As a writer, you are always two, then three, then more; beyond the mere sea of this life; fastened to a noise, sometimes a music, of literatures and languages beyond the idea of home. Trying to survive within this imaginary, I broached the shores of Australia. Literature, Australians seem to believe, should follow the triumphalist model. For years I didn’t quite understand that they meant a static homogeneity supplied with suitable agonies along the path to ‘greatness’. I thought of national anthems, marbled memorials, and then I thought of vaudeville.

I am being disinheritedbecause I write.
They hated having a writer in the family. For one thing, why is he allowed to spend his days scribbling? Write about us if you have to, they said, but make bloody sure you do it well. He thought long about the placement of the adverb, moved it back and forth with a wavering pencil. Treasonously. He had never dreamt disinheritance could have been the real consequence of a few well-written words. Maybe in a will, which is always ill-written. But not like this. They, the family, were the law. They came to take the little furniture he had: pieces of hyperbole; laughter hung on air. He has seen them; they are practical and methodical. They drill for minute errors. And he … well, he is not even in possession of himself.

A writer inherits nothing from his family without having to steal it first.
Everything goes by the board: honour, pride, decency, security, happiness … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate …so said William Faulkner, who knew about the delusions of which you had to rid yourself … then he set about creating his own world. They hated him. Hated his support for negroes. Hated his private county.

It is in your eyes, this arching ambition and fatal humiliation; days hunched by a low fire straining to catch a music you would never have trouble, once heard, in reproducing. The family only saw your laziness; how you didn’t fit into the laws of production, projects, quotas. They did not see the net you had already cast, singing right over them. And of course your music was an alien form, nothing to do with the industry of truth and falsehood. And because it was unspoken, it remained a threat. They arranged ways to have you declared remoteand inefficacious.

In order to write, you have to live with the constant threat of disinheritance.
For one thing, he had to shuck them all off before even beginning … responsibility; kinships; loyalties and disloyalties,and the worst of all: their anger at being misrepresented. But then again, how things get known is not made of long factual recordings, but a sedimentation of stories, losses, rendered with a certain sadness.

He was studying an itinerary, trolley-bus routes. He had found a bundle of tickets his father had saved because of their lucky numbers: 888. That, at least, was what his sisters told him. But in his investigations he discovered that these red tokens were call-tickets for prostitutes in Shanghai, circa 1934. You could redeem them for two types of massage: clear or muddy.

When people say the facts are muddied, it is not that they are buried and then discovered. Facts are always constituted, like history. Put together with gaps. His sisters complained that he was defacing the epitaph of his father. See how angry they’re getting? At the cavalier leap from knowing to storytelling? At such rash employment of coincidence? They tried to push him into the gaps. But then again, they only think what they know, never hearing the song, as George Steiner said, which leads us home to where we have not yet been.1

To push for disinheritance… in order to call down those worlds which only exist between translations.
He wasn’t claiming truth with the imperialism of the monoglot, generalising it; universalising it. There were too many other voices, too many other worlds, a world of difference between facts and truths. Truth slips sideways, falls between languages, words, the weather … a meditation, a layering, a personal testing. There is truth in the weather, but not in facts. Facts may look bare, but never entirely.

For part of his autobiography, he had gone in search of a relative in Paris. They met at the Relais, a kind of café, inn, coach-house, chop-house, staging-post, restaurant. Pour se réchauffer. I don’t know. That’s quite untranslatable: To warm oneself by the fire? Re-acquaint ourselves? Rehash the quartiermentality of those disaffected Portuguese, refugees from dictatorship and from another era well beyond imagining? Nothing seems right in translation without the drift of alcohol and coffee and harsh tobacco and the eighteenth-century walls through which you can hear the horses stamping and the old woman’s fastidious grooming of her poodle. Paris had protected these refugees once, but now everything has changed. The Nation. Razored youth. Jackboots.Yesterday, the old woman said, looking around suspiciously as if it were a shared secret between you, I saw Marguerite Duras in a bookshop. You would not believe she once had a lover.

He thinks: I am the lover who has not been allowed to speak. The ‘Asian’ is always the one who is not permitted to speak, despite the availability of translations. An ‘Asian’ man who is not ‘feminised’ into silence and submission can only be portrayed as brutal and corrupt. This is the inheritance of belief passed down within families. A short step from a national myth.

The desire to be disinherited is so final and contagious that one would think I was trying to gain some advantage over belief.
The facts are in the law: affidavits, codicils, alterations and amendments. But in claiming fiction, you said, you were making it easier for families, by simply avoiding their literalness … which is their game all along … assimilation: a literal repression of difference … or deliberately assumed ‘authenticity’ which legitimises difference. Too many have struck out their lineage when it suited them and claimed factual documentation when they needed to call upon it. Ironic then, that all their lives some members of your family have felt the need to deny, claim, declaim and counter-claim their origins, only to be left without a language, without a song, without imagination.

You went back through the palimpsests in your family letters and found discarded things; things covered over: Jewish things; and you began tracking them down.

Inheritance, of course, can also be a willed invention.
In the 1930s, Roger Caillois proposed a theory called legendary psychasthenia.In his study of insects he theorised that moths, for example, assumed the colour and form of a tree not for purposes of camouflage since colour did not necessarily feature in the vision of their predators, but did so out of a desire tobetheir host. Caillois claimed this was the result of a kind of depersonalisation by assimilation to space.Mimesis occurred, he said, when one was dispossessed of vision.

You see it often: the desire to become the family; to look like it, reproduce it, blindly. But you see this even more often: the yearning to become the host, resulting in the metamorphosis of immigrants into native informants. People who reinforce their subaltern status by trying to change their skins.

Assimilation, of course, makes it easier to keep out those who don’t really fit; people who are less than ‘normal’. Outside our shared consciousness.A moveable yardstick if ever there was one, if you consider the huge reality of Asians in Australia and their virtual non-existence in this country’s cultural consciousness. The heritage of Australian film and television occupies a museum-space where Asians are depicted as never having left the Burma Railway or the Killing Fields. As the gratuitous Other, they have no narrative position. They do not feature as part of everyday Australian life or of the sanctified Australian Family. They are either silent, or they make strange noises.

In a novel by the Portuguese author Antonio Lobo Antunes, there is an Australian character. He wears nothing but a wetsuit and goggles and only ever sayswacker-wacker-wacker.

You have to be the inventor of your own legacy.
Not to soak up the static accumulations of what has gone before, but to light upon what can be constructed. To invent in the old sense of the word; invenire:to find written or to come upon in writing: a montage built by blasting out the myth of the past. To dispense, as Walter Benjamin suggested, with the continuum.

Just say if Walter Benjamin didn’t commit suicide beneath the noses of the Gestapo on the Franco-Spanish border … just say if he made it to Australia. Why, he would be declared a Communist.

But the thing that struck you most about Walter Benjamin was his declaration that he could not live without his library.

You furled your umbrella and danced out of step.

Disinheriting works transitively both ways.
Disinheritance may be the cause or the consequence of autobiography, whose riches depend on nothing. It may be that to write oneself you have to court no public. Along with yourself, you say, families, nations, sugary-sweet celebrations and ideologies, are all cast into the fire. Your ashen hair.Somewhere you had read Celan and had never shaken him loose. You see the point at which you divided. A cancerous cell. Dislocating those who would make you a token, legacy, braid of their wonderful tolerance or beautiful theories.

To enjoy dispossession.
For one thing he didn’t have to send any more Christmas cards. Spent the time imagining lovers for whom he had to pay expensively. You see, his sisters said, that’s the kind of person he is, completely unstable, fickle … a writer.He thinks, North China? Annamese? her hair sliding down his back as he kisses the sweaty forenoon, while his sisters, chattering like monkeys in the trees, book flights to the Maldives. He was left nothing, not even a wrist watch. Inheritance, geography, time. He could set them whichever way he liked.

You see, he said, running the tap so that his voice was lost in the shame of this avaricious research, I should have used other names, invented a whole family tree which was impossible to climb.

At least he should have used a pseudonym. But he no longer wished to be masked; to be submerged in assimilative mimicry.

You always inherit something, even against your will.
He shook out a folder of newspaper clippings… photos of his father: dancing, playing the clarinet, at the piano, bandaging a bleeding fist inside his limousine. A rickshaw passes. A courtesan folds her silk handkerchief and drops it through the window onto his lap. Throw it away; throw it away!upon the coolie dying in a gutter a few yards up the street. In Shanghai, in the 1930s, there was only this performative; the intrusion of death upon promise and profit.

The concept of the strange is nevertheless handed down, folded into silk, which when opened, expresses something fatal.

Disinheritance clears away the clutter.
Suddenly it doesn’t matter about archives and memory, the swill of recall, evidence, letters, the public and the private. The human genetic pattern, evolved over thousands of years, still subjects us to real experience as the partial beginning of all invention. Halfway there, things begin to be erased.

My mother started to lose her memory early. It was as though emptiness preceded the storm of history; or was it such deep repression that forgetting became willed and then a habit to numb the pain? No. She was reinventing herself daily. I’ve never seen her so happy. But Ido little exercises of sadness, walking fast from room to room to capture the terrible emptiness; loss, abandonment, desperation.

Autobiography as pedagogy.

War and disinheritance.
Stateless people are hungry for adjectives in order to invent their lives. The future before them bears no memory, only dreams of joy. This is why refugees have such a legacy of invention. Few nations can appreciate the uncluttered enigma of their lives without facts, where there is only what goes before; this strange procession of hearts passing over the bright stones.

In the air, the whispered legacy of manic autobiographers.

Whenever we write, we write an other.
It is no longer us; so don’t include me. Writing is a separation. It is also entropic. It reaches towards complete erasure. It is the opposite of monuments and edifices. That’s why you find it distasteful to see plaques and coigns monumentalising writers; to fit them in with the cult of death which is entombed within nations, memorials, archives. Having read the inscription of death, you cannot read their books. The blankness of erasure is the only path for a writer: awriting outtowards an exaltation of everything and nothing in a life-long narrative that goes nowhere except around a self continuously combusted into light.

It is possible to disinherit yourself.
Your ashen hair.Forever named, the autobiographer is forever masked, exiled in the homeland of the book.

Take a name: Fernando Pessoa.His name means a person. Personne.Nobody. Portuguese. You began to read him. He was many others as well. He not only invented alter-egos, but what he called heteronymswhich are still, more than sixty years after his death, impossible to track down. One of the greatest writers of this century … if you could find all the parts that sum up his whole, that is. His heteronyms promoted and expounded each other’s works in dazzling critiques. In time they wrote themselves and Pessoa himself opted out of being.

An essay on disinheritance necessarily crumbles around the family.
As a writer you cannot have a family. If you have one, they always seem worse than many others. The writer with the worst family usually has better material. Alternatively, the worst politician usually pretends to the best family. Not in terms of their pedigree, which is usually invented, but in terms of the lived clîchés which can afford much unreflective happiness within hypocrisy. The family can be essentialised into nostalgia. The family of the nation can be monumentalised into an absurdly phatic utterance: the friendliness of our people.Have a nice day.

Disinheritance is a necessary condition of pluralism.
It was important you explained your natural rebarbativeness. You were bearded by the notion that all families, and therefore all nations which essentialised their identity in terms of the family, suffered the occupying force of a colonising and oppressive patriarch. Ironic then, that some writers cannot see that they unwittingly act as homogenising agents for a national consciousness steeped in a fabricated idea: national writers.These oxymorons are welded painfully together … as if all were involved in a single project. And these writers aren’t even dead.

A triumphalist model: You picked up, against the law, a melted clump of barbed wire outside a death camp in Poland; melded together was the familial project of a national evil: suffering and glory.

Economic inheritance is cultural disinheritance.
Without being alienated, you could not have spoken. The repression would have been too great. Isaiah Berlin saw the process in three stages:

  • (1) industrial progress deprived a society of emotional and social security,
  • (2) producing alienation, anomie and spiritual homelessness,
  • (3) which urged deliberate policies for the creation of old values.2

The ‘old’ values, are of course, only imagined ones. Alienation, anomie and spiritual homelessness are opportunities to escape normalisation in order to reformulate thinking about the myth of community. Without this questioning, there can be no art movements. Alienation, anomie and spiritual homelessness are transformative values with an individual, linguistic and artistic base. The preservative and violent role of stage (3), a return to the imagined hearth of the family, is avoided by adopting a different paradigm: a moving outtowards a sophistication, a civitas— a state of being, distinct from the shallow ‘civility’ seen as the preserve of homogeneous societies which almost always exhibit high degrees of racism.

Identity, you remarked, was non-essential. Every time the word identitywas mentioned, you used to reach for a pen to re-write it, until it was thoroughly erased. You also noted that while identity was an essential ingredient for making war, those caught in wars had to re-write, erase, forget, reinvent.

You dream that the concept of the strange is your inheritance, and in the winter that is ever modern, in that season seemingly rendered jaded, irrelevant and ineffectual by the postmodern, your dreams transform whole worlds without touching what was gained or what was lost.

Inheritance is not transformative.
He thinks, Australia: the way almost everyone uses the word ‘we’ unquestioningly; the obsession with territorialised landscape rather than with its spirituality; the proletarianization of the intelligentsia through intense concentration on leisure and recreation; above all, a fear of being seen as unpatriotic.

In most spheres of artistic endeavour there are usually three phases: the establishment of mythology, the debunking of this myth by oppositional subcultures and the eventual parody of and absorption of debunking. In Australia phase two is commonly avoided, perhaps out of concern for intellectualism’s low status. Phase three is reached through an almost invisible compromise with apathy. Australians, ever ready to play, have forgotten how to engage in seriousness. A lack of seriousness is an invitation for all kinds of fundamentalisms to fill what is considered a moral gap. Everywhere, he sees the constructionist idea of nationalism turned back into patriotic essentialism with its racialistic landscape and its attendant agon.He can almost map its physicality. Needing to feel good about itself, the nation imagines its history naïvely. But this pretended innocence fools nobody. He would have to parachute from metaphors behind the lines.

Autobiography as opposition.
He thinks: An autobiography which is outside the parameters of this patriotic dependency stands against the nation and its single, imagined andhypotheticalcommunity. It is a mental life lived elsewhere. He believes Australian culture at the end of the twentieth-century is caught up in a possibility of meaning that never delivers, since it was never earned. Without an artistic dialectic, a contestation and a clarity about its historical mistakes, it is propelled into a vicarious absorption of other nations’ commercialism, a shop-front managed by ‘export-narratives’ buffered by, at best, a languid Pyrrhonism and at worst, irremediable nostalgia.

Whether as monarchy or republic, the arc de triompheof national myths stands at the end of a path bloodied by racial assumptions of cultural unity and diversity. Such monolithic views guaranteefragmentation. Then again, substitute the word ‘fragmentation’ with ‘responsible pluralism’ and that might not be such a bad thing … if you discount the monolithic assumption that diversity is synonymous with conflict, he sighed.

Autobiography is a form of disinheritance: a disowning of yourself.
The word autobiographysignifies an impossible act. But readers have not yet uncoupled the autoand the biofrom writing. The last strains away from self and life to speed back into the night, her hair cascading over his face, the slow and narcotic smoke etching figures into the carpet and the sirens of a war-torn city filling his ears with a language unknown to him.

You see, there is this continuous voice,which runs riot, straight into the pit of hell, taking on the part of evil. It cannot be indulged, not for one conscious moment. But there it is, working its way through the text, smearing your reputation.

What of dancing and disinheritance?
That’s an easy one. There are steps which you must follow to execute a recognisable figure. You are rewarded by grace, a partner perhaps, perfume, a beating heart, the gaze of others, your dance inscribing ecstasy and jealousy. But if you alter the steps … if you insert the transformative language of writing into the grammar of culture, into the law of the prescribed dance, well …

The language of disinheritance.
I’d always believed language transformed reality, and not the other way around, he said. In Australia, language has always mirrored a colonised landscape — language which is brutal, laconic, sly, ‘taking the micky’ out of fear, distance, alienation and isolation. Disinheritance, he said, is a way of wresting language back from this domination — a way of allowing a Baroque effusion to transform, mix, merge, concatenate, Creolise.3 Beneath this, a deconstructed heterotopia; demystified homogeneity; non-partisanship. There is nothing in the hanging rocks, nothing in the myth of red deserts and spouting seas except hanging participles … unless you mean global warming, bulldozers, uranium mines. There is only a formulation leaping time and borders; a literary ‘noise’… a specific quality of language that cannot be spoken.A form of overload and variation.

Sometimes there were lost languages; sometimes arrested ones. Sometimes a language is discontinued or fragmented, as often happens in wars, when his father returned to the courtesan houses in the French Concession of Shanghai and found them bombed and in the smouldering room, her ashen hair. His father had never spoken to him of first wives, of love, of war.

But languages are reformulated out of their spiritual homelessness, dancing a slow narcotic over a barren floor. Languages warm themselves in quarters that were once forgotten and in the ever modern winter react, subvert, attach, transform and mine for lives, worlds, failed dreams. A disinheritance which is not a loss.

Writers who speak inheritance,therefore, may do the greatest damage by demolishing these resonances.

Disinheritance and African Chicken.
The dish African Chicken is a marker of the strange and the different. It claims no real inheritance. In Macau, every restaurant serves it differently, some in a perceptibly ‘fake’ way with roasted cashews thrown in. Sometimes it is recognisably Chinese Chicken.

How did African Chicken get to Macau? Portugal, of course, had a series of African colonies. My cousin, he said, was drafted to fight in Angola. It was a terrible slaughter. But he loved African Chicken. In Lisbon, before 1975, they forbade it. It is sometimes called Chicken Creole, a mélange of chicken, shallots, onions, garlic, potatoes, chilli, coconut, tomato purée, peanut butter and paprika. You can taste the flavours of Umbundu, Portuguese, Kikongo, Bantu and Araby and that Macanese mixture, a centuries-old compression of European and Chinese. After the meal you are inspired to speak the worlds of disinheritance and autobiography as though a symphony had been embedded deep in your bones, a glitter from the next table catching your eye; and if you are brave enough you will ask for a dance by and by, listening for the unknown tongue of the evening’s smile.

pollo:sb.a border crosser.

Autobiography and African Chicken.
African Chicken is a Creolising of forgetting and memory. In the end, it is a working around a subject in order to get beyond it, and having turned and turned about, to find yourself disowned by it is also to discover its own autonomy. Autobiography isdisinheritance.

So as with all things in the realm of the strange, he realised that his own father, having ordered a couple of cocktails with his last twenty dollars, had died in a gutter outside his club in Sydney, in the ever modern winter of memory and forgetting.

Brian Castro is currently working on a fictional autobiography,Shanghai-Dancing,based on his family’s life in China during the 1930’s. His latest novel,Stepper, was published by Random House in 1997. This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

1. Steiner, George, Errata: An examined life, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p 67.
2. Berlin, Isaiah, Against The Current: Essays in the history of ideas, (London: Pimlico, 1997), p 351.
3. Stratton, Jon, race daze: Australia in identity crisis, (Sydney, Pluto Press, 1998), pp 15-16.

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