Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Kasia van Schaik : A Writer in Eight Landscapes


I wake up at 10am and make a path through the clothes on my floor – my floordrobe – to the bathroom. In the shower I think of incredible things: the humpback whale I saw off the coast of South Africa, the red weather on Jupiter, a subterranean termite kingdom that runs the length of Brazil, a story told from the perspective of a woman who regrets nothing, not even her murder at the hands of her lover (it was the most attention he’d ever given her). I get out the shower, stand in the hallway, dripping, reaching for my notebook, which immediately grows damp. For the next hour I write, frantically, naked and cross-legged on my towel. When I return to these passages, weeks later, I find that the text has dissolved into the paper. All that remains is an inky illustration of a whale’s mouth, a hundred straight lines to indicate its baleen plate.


I climb two flights to the small glass room on my roof. In it, a school desk, a straight-backed chair with a velvet seat, and a teacup-sized cactus, nothing else. Here I sit and sharpen my tools. For the rest of the morning I write about ordinary things: Portuguese custard tarts, the pair of miniature wool gloves found under a barstool last night, a conversation with my sister in which she didn’t ask me any questions, except for: what time is it where you are?

This glass room may seem invented but it does exist because I saw it once, on the roof of a house in the suburb where my father lives, and decided it would be my ideal writing space. Since then I’ve entered it several times (in fantasy, in dreams) to sit at its bare desk, under its prismatic ceiling, like a spy in her tower, beaming messages to the world. Occasionally I receive a signal that I am on the right track. Follow this inquiry. This code. Suddenly the whole city is vibrating. Even the cactus, the only unimagined object in the room, communicates with its tiny spikes.


Three boiled eggs, a slice of fruit. A military breakfast followed by a solemn procession to the library. I choose a floor with no children. For a moment, as I open my laptop, I am convinced that I live in a future that doesn’t belong to me. No children, only skylights. Across the aisle, a serious woman on her telephone.

I sit in the section of the library dedicated to mystery novels, beneath a poster of Agatha Christie surrounded by floating umbrellas. I am beginning what promises to be a long and graceful sentence, which is unusual for me (my students accuse me of having a partiality for short sentences and, consequently, of shortening theirs) but today I begin this long, nimble, multi-clausal sentence when my phone interrupts. Someone I haven’t heard from in six months. Since the spring. I need affection, he writes. And just like that, the past vandalizes the future.


If I had a dog I would take her out for a walk before I start my daily writing practice. I would watch her rush up to strangers, emphatically greeting them before turning abruptly and loping back to me. She’d have a long dark face. Her feet would disappear in the snow. She’d drift towards me, like a gradual memory and then away from me, a ghost of something already forgotten.

I don’t have a dog and so I have no excuse not to write. See how you’ve found me, alone at my desk, unexcused.


I am standing before a class without my notes. They are somewhere in the floordrobe. One student raises a hand. What is the ‘space of innocence,’ she asks.
It’s the space before anything has happened, I tell her. The space that hasn’t yet been corrupted by plot. She frowns at me and then looks down at her lap, where her phone lights up with important messages. I wish I could write as unapologetically and dexterously as this student, who devotes herself, for the rest of the class, to typing quick responses into her phone.

I return to the lecture. A book hangs open in my hand, on the front page a photograph of a cactus. Photography makes the particular universal, I explain to a silent room. Text is the opposite. 

Is it? The sun is high in the sky. I’ve lost my train of thought. The roof of my imaginary glass room will be hot by now.


It’s not that I prefer sorting laundry or cleaning the bathroom drain to writing (though both the former, I must admit, are satisfying), it’s just that writing is the more terrifying of these tasks. It seems that when given the choice, like most people, I choose tedium over terror. Even though, as a notable horror film critic has argued, terror is the more progressive medium. Once I have pulled a sparrow’s nest of dark blonde hair from the drain, terror exchanges places with tedium. Now I am ready to write.


I have no routine. I wish I did because people with routines are happier, as are people with dogs. This has been empirically proven by scientists, whose profession it is to turn speculation into fact. It strikes me that this is the opposite task of the writer, who turns fact into speculation. And then there is yet another reversal in which fiction, due to its ability to capture collective experience, is mined for truth.

I am a scientist without a routine, without a pet, searching for abnormalities. This is what we, people of science and people of letters, have in common: an appreciation for things that have no histories, or that harbour hidden histories, things that don’t fit.


It’s midnight and I am alive and revising an essay that has been rejected from several literary magazines. I’m tempted to retitle it, ‘The rejected essay’ and file it.  Should I give up? Or should I continue to send it out on its feeble quest into the world, to appear for a brief salute on someone’s blog for an audience of five or twelve or twenty-five. Give it a proper burial, my friend, a more experienced writer, advises me. By this he means, publish it.

Kasia van Schaik is a South African born, Montreal-based writer. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Prism International, The Rumpus, This Magazine, The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology, Jacket2 (forthcoming) and elsewhere. Kasia is the fiction editor of carte blanche, the Quebec Writers' Federation's literary journal, and she teaches Creative Writing in McGill's Continuing Studies Department. Her chapbook, Sea Burial Laws According to Country, came out with Desert Pets Press this past fall.

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