Root & Branch: Essays on Inheritance
by Eda Gunaydin
Published May 2022
What could be more humiliating than to write and be read, to be thought about and perceived by strangers? And then the worst: to be dissected, publicly and openly, for all the things we dedicated ourselves as teenagers to hiding? Time and time again, it strikes me that the worst thing that can ever happen to an author is for people to read their book. That’s when they start to think about it, write about it, ask about it, talk about it, and eventually give it back to the author, chewed up, wet and slobbery like a tennis ball out of a dog’s mouth.
Me, I am terrified of my work and my writing being read. I have been in active hiding for a few years, disguising myself and tucking myself away, away from essays and journals and magazines and festivals, hiding deep where I can think without having to be read. I don’t want anyone else to think of me or about me. I don’t want them to discuss me. I don’t want anything, ever, to be said about me in any setting. I simply do not want to be in a situation for even an hour. My fear of criticism isn’t because I question the adequacy of my words. But I fear that my words themselves will be cast aside in favour of critiquing me, the author, and that I myself will become a commodity for consumption aside from my work. Everything I write will be read as memoir, and the character I lay out in an essay will be mistaken for the very real and literal Lur who moves peacefully about the world. We are different people; she’s a character, I made her up. I’ve picked out her costumes, I’ve done her hair and make up, I’ve given her a tone of voice and a certain vibe that serves the purpose of her character progression. There’s no such thing as purely nonfictional nonfiction for this reason. The essay is a dramatised retelling of real events, and it is a performance. I fear that a reader will read my work and then look me up so they can devour my words and my self, my face, my person, my family and my relationships, and there’s only so much of me that can be consumed before I collapse and rot.
My fear is that a woman, particularly a woman of colour, cannot exist in dignity, not as the character nor as the author. Her work must always draw from lived experience and so she must always operate within the framework of memoir, whether she likes it or not, whether she’s actually writing a memoir or not. Readings of her work extend the colonial and aggressive consumption of her self and her body and her body of work. I fear that once she steps into the public eye, she is now the people’s own, made available for them to unpack and dismantle and gaze at and pick apart as indulgently as their hearts desire
In her debut book Root & Branch: Essays on Inheritance, Eda Gunaydin examines the impact of displacement, migration and class on a small Turkish and Australian family. In its twelve essays, Root & Branch takes us from socialist Turkish neighborhoods to brunch cafes and kebab stalls in Sydney, on the journey examining intergenerational trauma, class mobility (and disparity), interpersonal and state violence, and the political moments that shape or mis-shape the domestic household.
Perhaps it is because I consider Eda a friend, I find myself protective of the book as it gains traction and reviews and opinions and tweets start to arrive, and I find that I struggle to remain impartial. Is it because her book on belonging, loss, mothers who have certainly Made Choices and fathers we are trying hard to forgive hits so close to home for me? And every time I see a new judgement of the book my body tenses, my shoulders lift up and so do my defenses, I’m prejudiced and I’m ready to fight someone.
In Declan Fry’s review of the book, which reads like an assessment of Gunaydin herself, he writes that ‘“Bad coping mechanisms” could be Root & Branch’s subtitle. Gunaydin hungers for the parenting she was denied, for validation, a way out of fearing that nothing she ever is or does will be good enough.’ And when I read this I want us collectively to stop reading nonfiction altogether, cease and desist, put a ban on book sales, halt all operations and maybe even stop writing it ourselves, until readers can promise that they will never write about an author so personally again, and they won’t use their last name in vain, and they won’t comment on how they might have lived their lives or coped with their abuse or adjusted to living situations unimaginable to many. Maybe I’m getting defensive and partial again. Maybe I’m just always ready to fight someone.
In order to have an opinion on how the author is coping, a reviewer must be taking the personal essay to be a form of memoir, to be a form of life writing that narrates and details the author’s life historically and accurately for the reader to make a judgement; Root & Branch, though, is a collection of essays and not a memoir. The distinction matters because the essay does not present a life event in vacuum; it contextualises the life event via a preceding history, the economic conditions of the time, the political landscape, the internal turmoil of the characters, the traumas and reasons that have caused them to behave the way they do. The personal essay is a piece of commentary, and not a retelling of events. But to have an opinion about coping mechanisms means that the author’s commentary has been dismissed, in favour of the consumption of juicy drama. But if Gunaydin had wanted to write a book of memoir, surely she could have. This is where I locate Root & Branch’s strength; much of Gunaydin’s skill is not just a storyteller but as a champion of new form: Root & Branch is a protest against memoir and the consumable, voyeurism-inviting personal narrative. So to exercise voyeurism in the reading of the personal essay collection is, simply, to stir outside the cup.
There is a single problem that arises at every non-fiction circle: workshops or panels or festival talks or brunches or group chats where we talk about writing about our families and our loved ones and our enemies. The problem is: what is our ethical responsibility to our loved ones? It is extremely challenging to write about our loved ones and our hated ones with the level of respect they (and the reader) deserve. They would have to see themselves on the page in the most unflattering light, regardless how kind the author tries to be, and they would hate it because it’s not the narrative they would have chosen for themselves. No parent ever writes or thinks of themselves the same way their child writes or thinks of them. How shocking to know what your children see, how must it feel, like a spit in the face or a punch in the gut even if the child is generous. I see the look of disappointment in my mother’s face and her hurt when she realises I have not forgotten the ways she tried to stop me, in all her power, from being a child like other children, because as far as she knew, only bad things happened to children. Our conflict, her anger, my breakdowns, her surveillance, my stubbornness and my naivety. I see her, and I see how badly she wishes that I would just forget.
To write migrant memoir is to deliberately cement oneself into the world with lucid images of these conflicts and hysterics and rage and breakdowns and cruelties, all the unsettled emotions that come with displacement. When the essayist cements these memories into history, how is anyone now meant to read them? How does one review a family album that is not pleasant all the time, and how does one leave a comment, how does one develop a thought about something that has already happened? There is no changing our mothers and no going back in time to undo their hurt or prevent their passing down of their pain, so how does anyone respond and how does one come up with anything to say?
In Arabic we say la hawla wala quwwata illa billah. Only god has the strength.
I’m acutely aware of the responsibility ethnic women have towards the two roots—parent and place—: responsibility for gratitude and positive representation, irrespective of merit. Reputational upkeep. Minding the parent’s and place’s emotions. Nursing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses and growing up to be seventy times as strong as reasonable for a child, so that you can make up for their gaps and shortcomings. Being critical of them, let alone doing it publicly, is near impossible; we’re not wired for it, because we have been told and shown that this criticism risks us being expelled from the family (or the place), or worse, expelled from experiencing peace within either.
In Root & Branch, Gunaydin fights the cementing of memory with temporal and fleeting language; Root & Branch sometimes reads like a tweet, elaborated: ‘once your life goal is to be an olive, it’s time to abandon the whole thought process.’ Gunaydin’s language undercuts conflict and tension with humour and absurdism. In her essay ‘Literacy’, young Eda has just won the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year Award and she and her family are on their way to a celebration dinner. The mother shares that she was encouraged to put the young author in foster care for all her ‘acting out’: ‘I said, from the back seat, loud so as to be heard over the wind rushing in through the open windows, which we wound down by hand, ‘Can you not ruin today for me?’ And my mother snapped back faster than she had ever responded to me before, ‘Why not? You ruined my life.’ And at moments like this in the book, which are often, I read and laugh. What a snappy response, as cruel and as harsh, it’s fuckin hilarious. Gunaydin writes out with acute awareness the dark comedy of her situation: ‘By the end of the car ride she denied the comment had ever been made. I checked with DIlek, who was in the car, and she refused to confirm that it had been said. My father was too busy cranking the gears furiously, working the stick shift like he was starting a lawnmower.’ Comedy is tragedy plus time, I suppose. Maybe I’m the only one who finds it funny, because what else can I do except laugh? The only other option is to be depressed. Root & Branch, like every displaced and traumatised immigrant woman I know, oscillates smoothly and consistently between both states. It’s funny because it’s true.
I have been reading Gunaydin’s writing about family and belonging since the beginning of her career, and I have watched her essays have become bolder and more powerful as she transitions from observation (quoting and describing her family—sparsely with comment— in ‘Gothic Body’, and keeping comment rather gentle when it comes to Australian food culture and class in ‘Shit-eating’) to now, in Root & Branch, fully entering the territory of Complaint. Complaint against inherited trauma, willingly ignorant settler colonialism, capitalism, resistance to therapy and the myth of merit. At its core, Root & Branch is a complaint against the migrant success story.
I keep getting ready to look back on my parents’ lives — I am eulogising them pre-emptively. I get ready to make myself believe that there is no migrant success story and no neat meaning that makes it all click into place, and no way that my success, such as it is, could make it all have been worth it, given how little of it had to do with me: that, therefore, they will go down in history as two people who just got their arses fucking kicked and battered by life, and it’s sort of their fault and sort of not, and it’s not mine. They came into my life pre-crushed by gargantuan forces like capitalism and patriarchy and brutal physical violence that proved insurmountable. To believe I could do anything about it would be grandiose, one of my therapist’s two designated ‘unhelpful Gs’, alongside guilt.
Much of the force of Root & Branch lies in the shadow of a tree Sara Ahmed planted, from the book’s embrace of the complaint to its intense pessimism and protest of the ‘happiness agenda’ or ‘happiness duty’, where it’s expected that if we do good things, if we do the things we were meant to do, that will make us happy and make other people around us happy. The happiness duty is frequently thrown at Gunaydin by external agents. Her rejection of this duty, her ‘it is what it is’ spirit can be mistaken for defeatism, but I strongly believe that a little bit of pessimism and surrender is the only way we can move forward. Root & Branch exists in tandem with Ahmed’s repudiation of the premise of happiness, and the idea that the happiness we know is the end goal we should work towards.
A case for a feminist life can be made in a moment of suspension: we suspend our assumptions about what a life is or should be. […] To proceed without assuming there is a right direction is to proceed differently. To say life does not have to be like this, to have this shape or this direction, is to make room for hap. To make room for hap can be experienced and judged as snapping a bond.
And the following paragraph from Gunaydin’s essay ‘Kalitsal’ (translated: hereditary) reads as a gloss on Ahmed’s work:
In reality, most of us don’t get pulled out of the mud, no matter how hard we wish or work. Most of us lose games of luck and games of skill: for there to be a winner, most of us have to be losers, most of us don’t get plucked up out of the shit. Most of us don’t get discovered and don’t win some prize and we don’t get granted exemptions from everyday indignities. Most of us will not be saved nor save ourselves. What I believe is that we have to alter the conditions of everyday existence, so that there’s nothing that we need to be saved from.
Only when we exercise knowledge and awareness of injustice, as unpleasant as it may be to not be so delightful about things all the time, and as burdensome as a woman of colour with complaints may be perceived, can we start to shift that path and allow for other people younger than us to be less traumatised than we are. In her recent review of about Ahmed’s book Complaint! Gunaydin reflects on an Australian Defence Force cadet who made a joke about sexual assault. She didn’t laugh, keeping a stoic expression and looking away. ‘Later in the evening, the joker leaned down towards me, and said in a low murmur meant just for me: ‘You know, women like you need to be really careful.’ Women like me, in those moments, are deemed neither fun nor frisky. For the crime of not laughing, we are rendered frigid and humourless.’ While Root & Branch is a book that is very funny at times, it is also a book that refuses to laugh. There are a lot of jokes in this book, most of them quite cruel, and most of them at the author’s expense, written by an unfair universe for an unlucky set of characters. Gunaydin refuses to laugh at the joke of writing towards healing, the joke of the state of academia, the joke of the Australian dream, the joke of class mobility, or the joke of the confessing society.
For the migrant reader of colour like myself seeking refuge in Root and Branch, the work is not free of the clichéd third culture kid discourse, the kid who is ‘here without really being here,’ questioning their right to belonging and whether they have the license to belong at all. This kid is made up of ‘two half-people’; they can neither be a full person in the ‘homeland’ because their native tongue isn’t a hundred per cent or maybe their accent is clunky or perhaps they now carry too much privilege truly to blend in with their distant relatives (it is a tired trope, because no one blends in with their distant relatives. That’s why they’re distant), nor can they be a full person in the host country where they are never treated as equal to the dominating coloniser. ‘Where are you really from?’ Over the years I have fully developed into a cliché of myself, a caricature of who I’m meant to be as the child of parents who Had It Real Bad In Remote Countries: over-achieving, burnt out, people-pleasing, rebellious inside the home yet palatable outside of it, up to my elbows in guilt (the survivor’s variety and others), thinking I am both the worst and greatest person in the room, and thinking I am the only person to have existed in the world feeling what I feel, the loneliest (and most untrue) imagined place. So I understand that the ‘neither here nor there’ talk is hard to avoid completely. But Gunaydin’s awareness of the ‘two half-people’ migrant and their place in the world stops Root & Branch, on the whole, from becoming predictable. Thinking about what level of control we could possess over our lives, and how little it is, Gunaydin estimates that her talent, merit and hard work (combined) sit at 10 per cent, privilege at 45 per cent, and luck at 45 per cent.
On one hand I know it’s vital to cede control over outcomes, for my sanity, but not so much so that I won’t at least hit the brakes if I see another car approaching. I don’t want to just roll over, but I don’t want to always feel hyper vigilant either, like my success is entirely up to me, like if I fail, or someone treats me poorly, or I find myself broke one day, then I am entirely to blame for not simply being better, faster, stronger, waking up earlier in the day and going to bed later at night… [I] vacillate between accepting that I am nothing and brainstorming ways to be more.
This is not a new complaint, that the migrant is juggling fatalism, defeat and pessimism and a complex to be the best, fastest, strongest person and the earliest riser and latest sleeper in the room (there comes a point where we realise there’s no one else in the room and we only compete against a monster of our own creation). But, as Sara Ahmed has manifested, ‘a complaint can open a door for those who came before’.