Review: Eloise Grillson fictocriticism

Does Trauma Need a Witness?

I am sitting in a café in North Melbourne adjacent to the hospital. It’s filled with older people anticipating or denying or recovering from the usual bodily attrition, sporty-looking medical staff with lanyards drinking long blacks, and people on break from day-programs in street clothes trying to blend in. These are people with enough money to sit in a café and eat something and to dawdle while doing it, not worried about = being asked to leave. A very limited inner-city melting pot, in other words, of which I, on my laptop typing this essay, am a part.

I am eating the pastry I promised myself I wouldn’t buy (custard and raspberries baked in brioche with a syrupy, gelatinous glaze and icing sugar), with a pot of green tea (the green tea ameliorates the pastry). I am avoiding thinking about calories, about the bad thoughts my brain has been trained to run away with when I consume these calories, about the bad thoughts built on top of bad thoughts about having the bad thoughts.

ANNA GIBBS: We might, for the sake of simplicity, boil ‘intertextuality’ down to this: all texts are made from other texts, both in a broad cultural sense and in a more narrow literary sense.

We might, for the sake of simplicity, call a human body a result of the things it has eaten and the things it has excreted; the things it has said and done and had said and done to it. The things it has read and pretended to read. The things which I have recently read, such as these books by Ellena Savage and Emma Marie Jones (you know the titles already, they’re up the top).

Emma Marie Jones’ short experimental book, Something to be Tiptoed Around, uses a fictional-narrative to comprehend the jarring and self-obliterating, life-unravelling nature of grief. She entwines feminist theory, queer theory, and mythology in an attempt to comprehend the death of her sister, to find a way to live with it, to contend with the ghosts that remain. In the foreword to her book, she discusses fictocriticism and how it has shaped her book, elaborating on Anna Gibbs’ work.

Gibbs theorises fictocriticism, specifically in an Australian feminist context. In her 2003 essay, ‘Writing and the Flesh of Others’, she outlines the evolution of the term fictocriticism, describing it as polyphonic form of writing that mixes genres, and allows for overlapping and contradictory voices to exist fluidly on the same pages. Fictocriticism emerges in response to the masculinity of much academic writing, eschewing grand old narratives which privilege the masculine over the feminine, thought over feeling, facts over contradictions. As Jones writes, the ‘fluidity and defiance’ of fictocriticism ‘often acts in direct contradiction to the authoritative conventions of traditional, quantitative academia’.

In fictocriticism, theoretical texts are treated as sites of multiplicity rather than individuality; they are threads amongst other threads. As Emma Jones confesses in the introduction to her text, she cannibalises texts, without italics or quotations, and enters a chaotic, poetic relationship to works by Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, Sigmund Freud, Maria Tumarkin: ‘Butler’s words and ideas become threads, and my words and ideas are threads, too. I am braiding them – fictocriticism is the loom on which I am braiding them – into a cloth, a rug, whatever, a story.’

In ‘Fictocriticism, Affect, Mimesis: Engendering Differences’ (2005), Gibbs writes that fictocriticism is a ‘haunted’ writing. In devouring other texts, fictocritical writing can repeat their inadequacies, and (in the worst cases) be paralysed by the superego of the academic voices such writing attempts to subsume. However, ‘[i]n an act of defiance, an attempt to exorcise the paralysing interdictions of disciplinary academic authority, feminist writers in particular have sought other relationships to such forms of authority than those of simple submission and unthinking repetition.’

How to enact such an exorcism? How to write without simple submission and unthinking repetition? Gibbs continues: ‘the necessity of haunted writing [is] to move from citation, the kind of repetition you have when reference is deference to disciplinary authority, to recitation – the performance of repetition, a repetition of repetition in order not to reproduce identity, but to try instead to engender new differences’.

In an increasingly unknowable, fragmented world, how do I situate myself, as a reader, as a critic? How to shift beyond mimesis, to synthesis, to recitation? I wish to build an interpretive frame which does not merely eat and excrete, but which digests, imbibes, allowing for the density of the texts to be integrated without oversimplification. I want to approach these books by Emma Marie Jones and Ellena Savage in order to feel for (or attune to) their affective dimensions, an embodied and messy form of reading.

In Yellow City (a chapbook also included in the recent collection Blueberries), Ellena Savage writes about an assault (‘a sexual assault?/ an-almost rape’) that happened when she was eighteen, travelling in Lisbon, and her subsequent investigation of it to find the ‘truth’ of what happened. The narrative dissolves the boundaries between the remembered self and the writing self; different Ellenas interject, undermine each another: ‘ – I mean. Who speaks like that?’

This is a narrator who distrusts her own voice, her experience, her body: ‘Well, the way I remember it, – Or, you don’t’. Savage wills us to ask, how does one trust the self when the self has been corrupted, parts of it erased, through trauma? How can we trust memory, documents, or any form of knowledge, authoritative or other, when the essence of life lived is so evasive, coloured by the accumulation of years, traumas, stories?

The narrator (one version of Ellena) attempts to give shape to the events that occurred ten years ago but other voices interrupt and discredit her (‘She’s lying.’). The interlocutors threaten the narrator, add colour, or simply insist that they be heard, shifting in tone from argumentative to droll, sarcastic (‘To this day, I have never met a monster. – You haven’t?’) The interjections might be affirmative, descriptive, or anxious (‘— Why had she not chosen you?’). They might relay the thoughts and desires of current and past selves. They infer competing forms of knowledge: (‘ – “Memory is the scribe of the soul” (Aristotle)/ – That’s romantic. Ergo, bullshit.’)

And so multiple versions of Ellena exist simultaneously on the page: there is the law student who wore ‘whimsical fur-collared coats or charming hats from the 1920s to suggest the possibility that I am interesting’. There is the Ellena in 2017, eating Chinese food with her boyfriend, following the discordant threads of bureaucracy to their logical provenances to somehow be able to know, definitively, what happened to her, what happened to her attackers.

And there are voices of unknowable provenance: ‘— You thought you could evade me’. Is this the voice of the law? Her superego? Her attackers? These multiple voices undermine Savage’s sense of self, and her past selves, as when she includes a letter home to her brother after the assault, that claims she is ‘fine and dandy’, which the narrator then proceeds to mock, knowing the untruth of this light-hearted confection.

Savage is distrustful of old signifiers of knowledge: the archive, the law, the ‘slice of hot photocopied paper’ which recounts the outcome of the trial of her attackers. She simultaneously wants and does not want the truth:

It does not escape me, either, that what I’m looking for doesn’t exist. I want a copy of the investigation, which has been archived for ten years and is seemingly impossible to dredge up; I want to find out how Ricardo and Francisco described the events in their words… But none of this really matters. None of this pushes down on the factory reset button, or assists my interior life, except to make me remember things my body has buried.

Emma Marie Jones, too, braids voices in her texts, and she creates a character, Jeannie, to carry the central narrative of her book. It is Jeannie, the mirror-her, who must grieve for the mirror version of the author’s sister, Harriet.

EMMA JONES: Jeannie’s sister Harriet died when Jeannie was seventeen. She drowned in a backyard pool. This is also what happened to my sister, and I am lending that story to Jeannie for a while, mostly so I don’t have to keep carrying it by myself.

Trauma is the volatile centre of the book; around it Jones wraps nonlinear narrative threads: Jeannie goes to work, faints near a flower stand, goes on a Tinder date. In this way Jones writes around her own hurt and loss. The death of her sister is a rupture that cannot be resolved. Jeannie, the girl subsumed by grief, grows snakes around her head like Medusa does. Jones sends her surrogate to go into the underworld, to bring back her sister, an impossible task. The mythological invokes the theoretical; grief is plural, shifting and incoherent. In her attempt to map it, to understand it, Jones turns to Julia Kristeva:

Grief doesn’t link across time: it transcends it. A temporality in which the past is not past but is not present, in which the present emerges from a continuity, but not continuous trauma. The past enters the present as an intruder, an unwelcome guest… Grief is not the aftermath of death. It is death. It is death, infecting life. It is death, whispering in Jeannie’s ear and in mine, poking a small hole in life, in now, and drawing our roots back, always back to its slow contagious spread. [emphasis added]

‘Death infecting life’; a trope borrowed from Kristeva on abjection. Jones intertwines the tendrils of Kristeva’s thinking with her own to show how grief itself is abject: death, infecting life. She demonstrates how grief ignores chronology, the past breaks its borders.

In Yellow City, Savage uses dates to mark different sections of the essay, which ironically often show the meaninglessness of time in relation to trauma. She marks one section ‘February 6, 2017, Absolutely no meaning whatsoever.’ This last is the reply she is given when she asks for archived documents from the court case relating to her assault. When she phoned the police to ask, they say: ‘So, the problem is, eleven years later our paper has absolutely no meaning whatsoever’. Thispoor translation from Portuguese into English conveys that no litigation is possible, but in Savage’s text it also becomes a metacommentary on the arbitrariness of legal epistemologies. Both Jones and Savage write their trauma, and both share it. But for what purpose?

Am I, after reading these two books, a product of them, a thread amongst these other threads which I try to disentangle to write this criticism? If I am capable of such empathy, is it something I can perform with sensitivity, with purpose? Or am I, as Saidiya Hartman argued, using empathy to repress the trauma of the traumatised subject, smothering Jones and Savage with my urge to understand their trauma? Is this merely a ‘masochistic fantasy’ predicated on consuming another’s trauma? Many have written about the limits of identification. What I am interested in is the urge to write about it in the first place.

In 2016, I know that my parents separated. I know that my mum was sick – very sick, hospital sick; that my partner was extremely ill, hospital ill, too. I know that my grandmother died. I know that I got sick, too sick to go to work for over a month, so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. This sickness, which was a sorrow-sickness, also happened to me in 2010 and 2013, though that was as much to do with careless men, as it was a response to the banal horror of being alive. I remember the circumstances of these periods but I can’t retrieve them fully. I can see the outline of the image but I can’t fill in the details. Savage writes:

Sometimes I think it is possible to live with anything. That we’re wired to survive-survive-survive, grip onto the gnarliest thread until life is pried from our bones. Other times I think it’s not possible to live at all. Not at all.

Or as Jones writes, in an earlier essay called ‘Swimming’:

I catalogue trauma. My memory touches on it, a thumbnail of anguish, but it won’t let me zoom in.

In her essay, ‘The Language of Pain’, Anne Boyer disputes the claim that it is impossible to find a language for pain. She writes:

A widely held notion about pain seems to be that it “destroys language.” But pain doesn’t destroy language: it changes it. What is difficult is not impossible. That English lacks an adequate lexicon for all that hurts doesn’t mean it always will, just that the poets and marketplaces that have invented our dictionaries have not—when it comes to suffering—done the necessary work.

When I try to write the darkest events of my life, I can barely heave them onto the page let alone allow myself the possibility of a reader picking them up, holding them, carrying them. I can barely imagine surviving a return to them. Doing so, returning, is an act of generosity by these writers’ parts, and perhaps it is a compulsion.

Jones and Savage are wary of memory and the way it is shaped by the body, by trauma, and by systems of knowledge – yet they continue to attempt to retrieve it. Savage unspools a variety of contradictory thoughts on memory in her book: ‘— If memory is not a tape recorder starting at zero, then how can a self exist, truly’; ‘— “My first memory”’; ‘— Is buttressed by recalling it‘; ‘— ‘Well the way I remember it, / — Or, you don’t’. She distrusts the way memory is distorted, fictionalised, and made untrue through revisiting it. Jones, too, shows how memory is distorted through re-treading it. She knows that by attempting to access Harriet, her sister, through this narrative, by venturing back into her memory, each time she adds a ‘layer, a trace’: ‘Her lush sunny face appears in Jeannie’s mind… Freckles appear where they weren’t… or were they… Jeannie can’t remember anymore, and it’s this desperate clawing at memory that undoes memory, it’s this picking at the scab that opens the wound’.

A few years ago, when I was tutoring children living in out-of-home care, I learned some basics of trauma theory. I saw how trauma warps, rearranges, and sometimes destroys memory. That it can stall brain development, and change neural pathways, blank out swathes of time. We survive by the most brutal scorched earth method: blanking out the thing that meant to kill us and wiping out everything else in the process – good memories and bad. I remember thinking: how fucking unfair.

Savage’s book provokes me to ask: what point is there to witnessing, annotating, writing trauma when the law, the body, and memory do not allow you to access it? What is the point in accessing documents which cannot account for what has happened, not in any real way? Why does Savage invite us to read, to comprehend, that which she herself cannot? Perhaps Yellow City is its own ‘official’ document, an annotated, beguiling, self-disciplining, and castigating record.

And perhaps Jones’s book is a fragmentary attempt to convey her loss, and to be heard, and understood. To use stories and myths to comprehend her story, a mirror onto which she can look at it without being turned to stone. In one particularly memorable passage, she compares her relationship to Jeannie to looking out of a train window and seeing a face of another person reflected on top of yours. ‘We can slide into the guises of one another in this way, like trains pulling into the station. Arriving at our destinations. We can try one another for size, briefly, through the glass buffer. Our selves interact, reflect, but never truly touch.’ This exchange can occur momentarily, before the illusion is broken, as with Orpheus seeing Eurydice for a second before she disappears.

Telling this story through Jeannie allows Jones to tell her own story. The fiction gives her a freedom she cannot otherwise possess: ‘she and her snakes can inhabit the spaces I have written for them in a way I can never fully inhabit my body, my own world’. The story is the buffer through which we can half-see, but not touch, her loss.

Jones directly addresses us, gently, allowing us to understand her, in one section literally asking us to play a memory game with her: ‘Let’s play a game, you and I.’ Savage intuits the reader, cannily, asking ‘—Does trauma need a witness? If it does, you’ll need to have this published. Or else you will be your own witness.’ They invite us, ironically, honestly, performatively, to read their trauma, messy and incomprehensible as it is to them.

We are invited into an impossible dance with these two writers, to try to grasp that which is incomprehensible, that which retreats as we lean towards it. We are reminded of our own dances with unknowability, we pick at our own scabs. We get further from one truth, the lousy, institutional truth, but perhaps, we get closer to one another. Perhaps we can move out of this mess of the past into our possible futures.

At the end of Savage’s book she rips the rug out, as one of the supposed integral ‘facts’ of the attack turns out not to be true. Despite all out knowledge of the unknowability of memory, we are still left confused, bereft. We are thrown into the ocean of opacity that Savage writes from, and we are left there, floating, with no life raft. Just as she was.

What then of this essay? Maybe it is a leftover parfait, made from all the other rotten breadcrumbs of my life that could but did not happen: the version where I do not eat the pastry, or I did not finish the essay; the version where I quit writing to become a masseuse (an enduring fantasy). The perfect version where I locate myself within a tradition, where I acknowledge these words’ power and I do them justice. I spend so long consuming the texts, eating them, sucking their juices until they are husks. But what do I owe them? (And yes, I believe I do owe them – something.) How do I give it over? How will it be received?

Works Cited

Anne Boyer. ‘The Language of Pain’. LitHub, September 17, 2019.

Anna Gibbs. ‘Writing and the Flesh of Others’. Australian Feminist Studies, 18: 42, 2003.

Anna Gibbs. ‘Fictocriticism, Affect, Mimesis: Engendering Differences.’ TEXT, 9:1, 2005. Online.

Anna Gibbs. ‘Bodies of Words: Feminism and Fictocriticism – explanation and demonstration’. TEXT, 1:2, 1997.

Emma Jones. Something to be Tiptoed Around. Melbourne: Grattan Street Press, 2018.

Emma Jones. ‘Swimming’. TLB Website. April 8, 2015.

Ellena Savage, Yellow City. TAR Chapbook Series: Brooklyn, 2019.

Ellena Savage, Blueberries. Text Publishing: Melbourne, 2020.

Published April 27, 2020
Part of Emerging Critics 2019: Essays by the 2019 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Eloise Grills, Madeleine Gray and Melissa Thorne.  Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2019 essays →
Eloise Grills

Eloise Grills is an award-winning essayist, comics artist and poet living in Melbourne. In...

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