I, Little Asylum is a short novel by Emmanuelle Guattari, newly translated by e.c. belli
as part of the Semiotext(e) pamphlet series for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
i asked someone recently if they had a happy childhood. they said yes, unequivocally. when asked the same i always have to qualify the question: what do you mean ‘happy’? with respect to what? what is a ‘happy’ childhood?
for me the question is always wrapped up in my refugee past, the specter of persecution, and living with a schizophrenic uncle.
the truth is i grew up around madness but i never really talk about it, and very rarely write about it. only lately have i begun the process of coming to terms with it: what do i mean by ‘madness’? with respect to what? what is a ‘mad’ man?
my uncle’s particular iteration of it was erratic with occasional bursts of violence. as a child i liked to play with him or get his attention. i learned to read the cues of how far is too far. by then my grandmother would step in, but otherwise my childhood imaginative territory was shared. my uncle and i led parallel lives in the house, he in his own world, i in mine, and sometimes our games crossed, sometimes they ruptured the other’s, and maybe this is what it’s like to live alongside madness or alongside happiness but not be mad or happy yourself.
to understand emmanuelle guattari i recognize her father’s name. felix guattari was something like a psychotherapist and semiologist. he ran a group clinic at la borde where emmanuelle grew up and which later became the heart of her first book, la petite borde, now translated into english as ‘i, little asylum’.
when my friend e.c. belli told me she was translating a book and thinking of me i knew exactly what she meant. we become our own asylums, don’t we, when we grow up around confusing versions of adulthood. and don’t we keep madness in ourselves, too, emily? emmanuelle? don’t we find people to play with and talk to, our own age or older, and sort of just experiment with being in the world and getting attention? don’t we get by even if displaced, like refugees? the subjective self, the self evolving, the self like or unlike others. learning, enriching itself, expanding and sometimes dissolving.
i heard that schizophrenics can’t tell the difference between themselves and the world. the border of the self is porous, the limits of the self dissolve, or skin itself is just an outline and the color sometimes reaches outside of it. i’m not sure how to describe the phenomenon.
i identify with emmanuelle as i’m reading, but that’s just reading. the space between my own experiences and hers is blurring. i want to relate. but that’s not the same as becoming her.
i’m talking to myself again.
reading leads you into a kind of madness, doesn’t it?
and in translation don’t you have to empathize with the writer and the original language? don’t you have to move fluidly from one framework of thought to the other? don’t you displace yourself over and over? how did you do it, emily? and you’re a mother now, so i bet you wondered how a parent lets their child see such things. how do you raise a child so close to danger, or violence, or war? and then what happens if you do? you have to become that child. and that parent. in that language. and then in another.
relocation as schizophrenia. translation as schizophrenia. or, as felix might call it, schizotranslation.
“We felt affection toward some of them, and some of them liked us very much. But above all, in the eyes of the children that we were, they were grown-ups. And as such, they were bearers of a certain authority and were stronger; that was the chief difference between us and them.”
how does emmanuelle stay so dispassionate? i want to ask emily if it’s a translation trick. if it’s a french thing. she isn’t angry like i am. she isn’t dismayed.
the way a child observes the world and hasn’t judged it yet, emmanuelle describes the people and places that made up her world in cool clear sentences. the reader can judge for herself.
“She hated rutabagas. Because of the war.”
“The life of others seemed rather quiet to me. In their white kitchens.”
it’s the endings to her sections that suggest a grown-up’s understanding of a kid’s experiences. typically hard-hitting, deft, last lines like these break up the logic with a pregnant pause, period. they split the sentiment into 2 parts: the real and the mad. between the two an abyss we move across sometimes, with our wits and our baggage and some new names. how could anyone hate rutabagas because of the war? what do white kitchens have to do with quiet lives? the associations are absurd but we make these patterns for ourselves, don’t we? maybe schizophrenics just make them more often. ever displaced. the self in transition. fleeing.
maybe in literature it’s called magical realism or surrealism but in real life it’s called madness. the desire to live in your head so hard you start to live there. emmanuelle runs into her dead father and has a conversation. emmanuelle wants to see her dead mother so she sits at a cafe waiting for her to show up.
is this fiction? no, the madness is real.
my uncle was always haunted by the past, before he got old and before he got sick. my therapist says they’re always mourning something, so the process is something like grief alongside the madness, alongside the dissolution of self, alongside the paranoia and delusions and the fist.
“My mother’s memories of the Occupation never dulled.”
neither did my mother’s.
neither did mine.
i can’t unsee it but i’m starting to get past dismay. how not to be haunted is letting go of my fear of ending up like him, understanding i am not like him, my skin is intact, i recognize my subjective experience, can empathize with others, can play well with others, can stay inside the lines.
and he is a person like anyone else, but he was not himself, it was the madness, and there were moments i was happy, and i’m an american now, and either way the past is past.
i want to ask emmanuelle how she managed to come to terms with it all. does she believe in therapy. does it help to have your own kids.
i want to ask emily how she manages everything. translation, children, multiple languages.
and then once the book ends i’m in my room again, a room in myself, some asylum.
“They left me with aches that never faded.”
what does it mean to ache? with respect to what? what are we without them?
marina blitshteyn is the author of russian for lovers (argos books, 2011). she curates the la perruque performance series in brooklyn, ny and serves as a contributing editor for apogee journal. her work has appeared or is forthcoming in handsome, 1913, no dear magazine, n/a, and elsewhere. she works as an adjunct instructor of literature and composition.