Hemlock Forest

By Sarinah Masukor

13 November, 2020

This is the fourth column in an ongoing fiction series about the creative process. You can read the third column, Banana Study, here. 

There’s something I haven’t told you.

A woman in a dark red swimsuit lies face down beside a pool. She’s still, arms heavy, locked on the concrete. The air is hazy, windless. There’s a film on the surface of the water, the grey-green-blue marbled with trails of cream. The woman turns over. Ash falls from the sky into the pool and floats, charcoal on dusky, dusty blue.

This was the opening image of the film I wanted to make.

Shot: a swimming pool surrounded by grass, ice clear water, cold light.
Shot: a swimming pool, empty, cut into the side of a collapsing dirt drive.
Shot: a swimming pool at dusk, half bubble wrapped, half rippled water, behind a chain-link fence. Yellow sunshades folded in prayer.

There were things you were too angry to speak about.

‘Tell me about that,’ the therapist said. She began, as they all do, as if it were a long-term relationship.

It was when I got the rejection email, you said, then stopped. You smiled, half to yourself, as you took the pillow squashed under your left arm and put it in your lap. No, you were ok when you got the rejection email. I get a lot of rejection emails, you explained. It was when you saw the funded projects that you felt an unfathomable wave of sadness. They were all…you searched for the words. I saw they weren’t really looking to support new work, you went on. They were looking for stories that upheld the white version of otherness. You know the kind, you said, although perhaps the therapist didn’t. Stories about immigrants that make white-liberal readers feel good about reading them.

You hate being included in diversity initiatives. You hate it even more than you hate being in a room where everyone is white. I happen to know that when you won a fellowship for #culturallyandlinguisticallydiverse writers you railed against being in a room of Black and Asian writers all trying to outshout each other while the publishers, all white, self-congratulated on the ways they were working to bring about change. A ghetto where talent goes to die, you called it. You only include the fellowship on your resume when you’re applying for funding with a #diversityquota attached.

They talk about a trapdoor, you continued, that threatens to open whenever someone who isn’t white interacts with someone who is. I don’t know if those writers believe speaking is the same as being heard, or if they feel like they’re performing a struggle that is in most cases real but that gets fetishised in its reception, or if they think it’s smart to play the game, to take the money. Maybe they know but think, how can it hurt? But I think…I think it does hurt.

I told a friend, you said, and she told me I had a complex, that I was imagining things, being oversensitive. The friend evoked the poet, a man she’d fresh broken up with, born in Egypt, who saw racism everywhere—in the department store, on the radio, and in the university where he worked. Of course, it was all in his head. It became exhausting, the friend told you, she had to leave. We were eating pho, you added, in a restaurant that was too bright, laminate tables, fish tank, maneki-neko beside the cash register. I know it sounds crazy that she’d talk like that, so blunt, you said. If I were writing I’d say it was on the nose, I’d edit, I’d cut it out, but that…that directness if that’s what you’d call it…that directness is what was so disarming.

‘And how did you respond?’ the therapist asked.

Did you roll your eyes, or did I imagine it?

The therapist has agreed not to write during our sessions. She sits very still, doesn’t fidget. Her blonde hair whispers out like fairy floss around her open, curious face. I’d suggested a therapist with a shared experience of your being-in-the-world but you insisted on Jane Smith. Jane Smith had three certificates framed and hung on the wall behind her. A Bachelor’s Degree: Science (Psychology); a Master’s Degree: Clinical Psychology; and her registration certificate. Jane Smith had worked hard to get here.

‘What possible response is there?’ you asked. ‘Isn’t that the problem—there is no response.’

Another swimming pool. Azure, cerulean, turquoise, cobalt, royal blue, peacock, ultramarine. Blue. The water swells under a canopy of fig, dashing the sides and spilling out into the harbour.

Voice Over. Female.

The transition to a new age requires a change in our perception and conception of space-time, the inhabiting of spaces and of containers, or envelopes of identity.

It assumes and entails an evolution of a transformation of forms, of the relations of matter and form and of the interval between: the trilogy of the constitution of place.  

DESIRE occupies or designates the place of the interval.

This transition to a new age comes at the same time as a change in the economy of desire.

Looking back, my friendship with Ana ended the afternoon Sylvie asked me to come to her concert. The three of us were crammed onto Sylvie’s fire escape, smoking. ‘Pass me the bottle opener?’ Sylvie snapped the top off a beer bottle and the beer fizzed up over the lip. ‘Shit,’ she said, shaking her hand so the liquid sprayed over my leg. Chatter drifted up from the restaurant on the ground floor and the rush of cigarette smoke fused with the smell of warm oil, carrots and thyme. Through a half open window in the facing building I could see a man’s soft stomach, lathered in soap.

‘I just don’t think it’s that easy, to overthrow a whole system, you know? It’s one thing to feel like change is happening in the middle of a protest but what happens afterward? Things slide back to where they were before.’
‘That’s like saying you don’t want things to change.’
Sylvie flicked ash through the grill. ‘How is it like that?’
‘You’re saying no one should try to change anything because…’ Ana broke off and started again. ‘You’re saying protest doesn’t work and I disagree, I think it does work and I think it is working.’

Ana and Sylvie were in disagreement over the protests that were happening in Cairo. I hadn’t been following the news so I couldn’t follow their arguments. I’d seen the images of course, it was impossible to avoid them, but you can see something without understanding what it is you’re looking at and I’d made no effort to understand. In any case, Ana’s brother had been in Cairo and had sent her footage of the crowds camped in Tahrir Square, of protesters running from tear gas and of buildings aflame, so it seemed Ana had the upper hand.

Sylvie laughed. ‘Ana, you don’t even vote.’

Did I disagree then, as I do now, with the European running toward a conflict that was not his to assume, toward an outpouring of frustration without having lived through the tension that preceded it? To flirt with the practice of struggle without having to wear it. To record, only so that he might later say —I was there. A line in his personal bibliography of events. A footnote to the practice of—becoming interesting. I can’t remember.

She turned to me. ‘You’ll love the space,’ she said. ‘It’s sculptural, what they’ve done inside.’
‘Eric’s film is Thursday,’ Ana said, grinding out her cigarette.

Eric was a filmmaker Ana knew through her mother. Ana’s mother had arranged for one of Eric’s films to be screened in Istanbul with Turkish subtitles instead of the usual English and this, apparently, was a big deal. Eric’s film was shot in Tokyo and Beirut, part documentary, part lyrical ode to two cities with a past connected by various displacements. It opens with a slow, uncertain pan, a hesitant inch across a bank of trees (pthalo blue + cadmium yellow, black + yellow ochre, ultramarine + cadmium yellow, ultramarine + naples yellow, viridian + pthalo emerald, green + green + green), past the upper level courtyards, balconies and windows, dirge grey and clustered together under a sky of satellite shells and loose wires. Beirut. America’s future might be Lebanon, The Atlantic announces. The camera, Super 8, records, with grainy impartiality, the texture of the city.

I’m telling you this because these were also the details I remember from Sylvie’s fire escape. A torn awning shade, smog-caked air conditioning units wedged into splintering window cavities, pockmarked walls, hard rhomboids of light, and the rough edge where the courtyard wall met the ground, weeds and dust.

Yet Beirut was the place where Palestinian political information and expression flourished. Beirut was the birthplace for thousands of Palestinians who knew no other cradle. Beirut was an island upon which Arab immigrants dreaming of a new world landed. It was the foster mother of a heroic mythology that could offer the Arabs a promise other than that born of the June War. Each held on to what he cherished in the idea of a Beirut so fascinating that all had made mistakes, though she didn’t enable anyone to define a comprehensive meaning for this fascination. Thus in the absence of the state apparatus that repressed citizens everywhere else, the link to Beirut became an addiction to language so metaphorical as to allow a claim of citizenship in Beirut, where one (anyone representing a state within this state) could carry on as he thought fit and turn this presumption upon the city into one of the forms of Arab training for an imagined democracy. Beirut thus became the property of anyone who dreamed of a different political order elsewhere and accommodated the chaos that for every exile resolved the complex of being an exile.1

‘I’ll come,’ I said. Sky bleached. The colour lost in a mutable haze and then, an adjustment’s made, and it’s blue again. Sylvie blew smoke through the railings.

‘I’m going to yoga,’ Ana said, and stood up, brushing the dirt off the backs of her legs. A beer bottle rolled to the edge of the narrow platform then dropped over the edge, airborne for a glittering breath before smashing onto the concrete below. Sylvie laughed again. Ana climbed back through the window into the apartment. A few minutes later, we heard the front door slam shut.

When Sylvie met me on the corner with a clarinet backpack slung over her shoulder, I realised she was a professional musician. I’d never wondered how Sylvie paid for her apartment or what she lived on but now I learned she was a member of an ensemble that performed 20th and 21st century music and ran classes in contemporary composition for young musicians. The performance we were going to see involved students from the creativity and improvisation workshop Sylvie led on Saturday mornings. As we walked, she told me about her students. ‘They’re all around fifteen,’ she said, ‘very accomplished players but they’ve had traditional training—of course you have to—and so they’ve learnt to interpret but not to create.’ I mentioned I thought interpretation could be creative. ‘Oh it can,’ she said, ‘but the work we do is about freeing yourself from the rules around sound and how a composition holds together.’ She described one of the exercises they did—improvisation after a dream. ‘The students record their dreams and each week one of them shares a dream with the group. Then I turn out the lights, we stand in a circle with the dreamer in the centre, and, with that person leading, we improvise together in response to the dream. The room is dark to minimise the reliance on sight, we have to sense aurally when to join, when to abandon, what type of sound to make and for how long. Two lines will come together in ways that wouldn’t be thought of if you were composing according to plan.’

Tonight, they’d play a work developed from the dream improvisation process, a set of etudes for clarinet composed by one of the young musicians—‘a sensation,’ Sylvie described it—and works by Boulez and Gabriela Frank. ‘We have a strong focus on women composers,’ she said. She still wasn’t wearing a bra.

I told her about a film I’d seen that morning. In it, a group of middle school children sit in a circle and discuss race in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. One girl describes being looked at with mistrust when she’s out with her father, who has a beard. She sits on the front edge of her plastic chair, her legs stretched out into the centre of the circle, her blue jeans wrinkled around her ankles. She keeps offsetting her story with doubt, like she’s trying to articulate a feeling she both wants and doesn’t want to articulate, as if she wants to speak plainly but is afraid the articulation might shift her inner equilibrium, unsettling not only how her classmates think of her but also how she thinks about the world and her family and herself. She starts speaking, stops, tries to bat away her words with her hands, starts again only to falter almost immediately. Ch-chi-ch-eh-wah-eh-ch. After a while, she gives the floor to someone else.

You’re right of course. I couldn’t have been describing the film with the middle school students as we walked past the oyster bar and the wet bodega because it hadn’t yet been made. I can’t remember what we talked about and, in truth, it was probably Sylvie who did most of the talking. But if I’d said anything it would’ve been a bid to capture her attention and the state of the world mattered to Sylvie. She was worried about the war in Afghanistan. She cared about the conditions of the workers building the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. She was upset about Gaza. I wanted to care about all these things but around me the light was dipping with such ardent beauty and I could feel the water getting closer the further west we walked, passing the coloured whorls of the children’s playground as the blister on my left big toe stung and the heat chafed my skin under my dress, which clung in all the wrong places. And, as I told you, Sylvie wasn’t wearing a bra.

The performance was on the fifth floor of a warehouse that housed textile workshops. During the day the building shuddered with the sound of knitting machines and mechanised looms, but at night an empty floor was transformed into a concert venue with a stepped stage built from timber waste. A glass of wine was put into my hand and a friend of Sylvie’s, whose name I can’t remember, asked me something about whether I knew the work of Gabriela Frank. I said no, I didn’t, but that I was looking forward to hearing it. I sat down and put the half-filled wine glass under my chair, willing myself not to kick it over.

The lights dimmed and a spotlight lit each of the players. Sylvie was at the back left of stage and a young woman with a cello was at the centre. A long breath and then a rope of sound pulled me from flesh as the reedy caress of the cello in its upper register soared over a dry bed of percussive bursts from the clarinet, trumpet and harp—shellfire and starburst, the sugary snap of fruit loops in cold milk.

I flew through the cosmos, inky night and constellations.

Vija Celmins, Falling Stars, (2010)

Have you ever spent the day working only to find that all you’ve produced is cliché? 

Questions: What is the scene about? Why this combination of bodies, this staging? Why these lines and not others? Who wins the scene?

After the concert, I started spending afternoons with Sylvie in her apartment. She bought a dildo from a sex shop downtown and fucked me on the threadbare rug under the window. After a few weeks, I took my bag from Ana’s apartment and left it under Sylvie’s kitchen bench. 

Sylvie knew almost nothing about me. She didn’t know my middle name or if I had any brothers. When I sat on a stool shelling chickpeas for hummus and her colleague Joseph dropped by, she hesitated over what I did. ‘I don’t do much right now,’ I said, protecting her disinterest, ‘I’m just living while I work out what I’m going to do.’ Sylvie dropped the chickpeas in the blender and we dipped carrot sticks into the creamy spread while Sylvie put a chicken in the oven.
‘How do you like New York?’ Joseph asked.
‘It’s great,’ I said.
‘It is great,’ he said. ‘I don’t know about this area though. So many Muslims.’ He considered the hummus. ‘Sylvie? I don’t know how you live here. You know, walking around and seeing them—it just makes me feel so uncomfortable.’
The trapdoor opens. I see my body standing at the bench. I will myself to click back in and take hold of the moment but the room is suddenly so far away. Like the middle school girl in the circle I ch-ch-kah-ke-i-uh-re. ‘Don’t be so passé, Joseph,’ Sylvie said. ‘9/11 was a decade ago.’

Something I hadn’t told you. How do you feel now the thread has been cut and I’m no longer you but an other—abject, different, shed from under your skin and nails, stranded now on the other side of an impassable channel? Is it I who has broken your trust? Or you who has broken mine?

I told Sylvie I needed to speak to her and she took me up to the roof and licked my cunt until I shuddered quiet.

She gave me a book of essays by Agamben. I read half the first page then spent the rest of the morning watching porn on my computer.

A lifted phrase: I started with those two paradigmatic images, the one of the forest, of nature, and the image of the subway car, a very urban, social kind of context.

At the time, I was hooked on videos of girls fucking in swimming pools. The girls were always white, with large breasts and smooth undimpled legs. Their cunts were waxed and their eyebrows plucked. I preferred the girls with real breasts and short nails, slightly sagging bellies over the ones who looked as if they’d been moulded from plastic. I always watched the videos with the sound off, so the pitch of the girls’ voices didn’t distract from the direct and otherworldly connection of image to body. I heard someone say it’s in fashion right now, for women to write sex into their work, to make their text as explicit as their lives but weren’t we always told to write from a place of what we know? And what we know is sex.

I found a Super 8 camera in a carpark flea market and, while I was buying some film for it, I ran into Roman. I filmed Sylvie and Roman fucking on the old chair by the window, Sylvie on top with the light falling across her face. I pulled my bag out from under the kitchen bench, wrapped the camera in two woollen jumpers to keep it safe, and packed it inside. I got the film developed and telecined. The file ended up on a small green USB.

I left the USB in Ana’s mailbox and flew to Buenos Aires where I sublet an apartment in Once. I knew no one, met no one. My Spanish wasn’t good enough for anything more than ordering the coffee and dry, orange flavoured medialunas I ate because I couldn’t stand the rich bloody steaks, sizzling over coals in every restaurant window.

I walked.

Shot: a plant pushing through a crack in a wall.
Shot: a newly built condo on the freeway, already weathered, adrift in the river of traffic streaming on either side.
Shot: a shuttered shopfront, painted corrugated iron shades pulled down over the windows, rust at the edges.
Shot: a shard of tile pressed into the sidewalk.  
Shot: peeling paint, a lot of it, for some reason in black and white.

  1. Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut 1982, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 134