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Critical Writing

Written in Parallel with Shug Avery’s Kiss

Hannah Black

Dear — but I forgot the form of the letter. It escaped and multiplied.

It went to live in the forest where I was coincidentally being raised feral, without antecedents or a shared language. And where are you from? With polite inquiries I proceeded toward an alphabet through the vegetation lining the inside of the head. What hole in the sky or the ground did you, the most mystical of the pronouns, fall or crawl out of?

Dear whoever, if you can read and want to I can tell you this: the book is made of unread letters. Writing, like praying, is consenting to not know if you will be seen or heard. No one can fix their meaning like a skin to a surface.

I learned nothing about instinct from animals; I had to go and live among humans to learn the words instinct and animal. I watched a video of the 1984 Kathleen Collins masterclass at Howard. She tells the students, and me in her afterlife: “If you look very carefully at the history of black literature, to a large extent, up to and including writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, with few exceptions it is the history of creating mythological or mythical black people.” Collins is passionately uninterested in the mythological: “If you are the outsider, if you are the sinner, you are by definition extraordinary. Meaning you are either super good or you are super evil. You are super sexual or you are super ascetic. You cannot arrive at normality because that is the one thing that has been denied you… No one is going to mythologize my life.” She believes in the normal and the human, and to sustain her belief she ignores the mythological structure of both of those concepts, normality and humanity.

I mean (let me run for just a second from the mythic to the vernacular) isn’t the artist hired to be a kind of mythic figure, to distribute her mythic affect around in a space? And language even when shared always turns back to the forest where it once made its power known by its absence. The skin of language crawls with nostalgia for this forest. Writing makes living a mythic practice, though the mundane intervenes—the two converging in the cinematic, in archival dreams.

When the living Kathleen Collins submitted some of her stories to Ms. Magazine, Alice Walker, then an editor there, wrote back. She had to let Collins know that the stories were good but that it was not possible to publish them: “We kept these so long because we liked them so much…The friends who told you you are good, are right.” The stories almost slipped away into obscurity, undelivered messages. You try to fix a skin to a surface. No one can.

Of the imposition of the mythic, Collins says, “It’s almost like one part of your spine is normal and one part is this huge person that is bigger than life.” One part of the spine holds the body up and another part is another person entirely. Perhaps dear You writes myths, writes letters, to give a voice to this extra character growing out of the spine.

The letter says everything important that, despite its importance, has so far gone unsaid. The letter will dissolve loneliness and make love possible in its place. But it is intercepted on the way to its intended reader. Both Celie and Nettie remain in their separate lonelinesses, sealed and netted. The book is made of loneliness. The letters rise up out of loneliness, to make their black marks on the blank world. The writer must consent not to know if she is seen or heard.

I’m really moved, always have been, by messages that don’t arrive, even more by messages that almost arrive — that arrive and go unreceived. I think this is because or why I talk so much since I left the forest. But no amount of talking, writing can ensure that someone is listening, reading. Perhaps the sad glamor of the unread letters indexes the vague feeling that part of the self goes unread always. Yes, I would like to be known better than this little that I know about myself.

Dear Tiona, I think of how you have sifted through lost letters, lost archives, the kind fully accessible only in dreams. You told me of Brad Johnson that when you went to get all that was left of him, it was six box files, in the dream archive that was in this case also real. Imagining the box files in your arms, I realize slowly while writing this that the image rhymes with that of the

bereaved mother who told me long ago how the heavy urn fell into her arms in the exact same position the arms would hold a baby. But we are too old to be so interested in sadness, and I left that forest. Let’s say instead it’s something like how the midwife transmits the living baby to the parent’s care. And now we bring up the dead, quietly, in a half-inherited house.

To be raised again, to pass the alien baby along to its archive, we will have to make a decision about the fate of messages. We will say, the non-delivery of the message is the message. We will say, the message is, nothing works till it works. We will say among ourselves, the message is, nothing works. We will say, the message is, nothing. We will say, the message is. And in the remote peripheral vision we will perceive as a wordless blur of green the forest.

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