Outside Inside: Eluned Gramich’s digital exchange
Welsh writer Eluned Gramich‘s Ulysses Shelter home residency took the form of a series of digital exchanges.
She attended the virtual meeting for all Welsh participants and followed this with an online collaboration with Greek writer Marilena Papaioannou.
This led her to write the piece we are proud to publish below:
Outside Inside by Eluned Gramich (2021)
I am sitting in front of the screen. There are people with me and also not with me; they are looking at my blurred computerized self and I am looking at theirs. We are pretending to have a meeting together, in that we are having a meeting together while ordinary life is happening all around us, pressing in on us, our consciousness, so that it is very hard to keep to the agenda. Behind me, my daughter is crying. Every time I speak, the others in the meeting hear two voices, a dissonant choir – my words and my daughter’s rageful screams.
‘Everything ok? Do you need to go?’
‘No, no. It’s fine.’
The dining table has two laptops: one personal, one for work. A pile of laundry, dry and folded, but somehow still inexplicably on the dining table. A plate with crumbs. Small pots of colourful playdough. Next to the kitchen table is the sofa, the Christmas tree, the television. It is the third lockdown – the one that surprised us at Christmas – and I have spent many hours moving between kitchen, table, and sofa. Occasionally, there’s the park and the shop. Everyone else is the same, the others in the meeting, peering out from their own kitchen, table, sofa set-up. We are all inside. We are all, I imagine, looking inwards much of the time. Too much. The interior world seems as urgent and dangerous as a car hurtling towards us on the street.
I glance at my phone at another news update. It seems to be all happening out there, but it doesn’t feel that way. It is all happening in here: the phone screen in the palm of my hand, my tired eyes, my body hunched over the table. It is like being a dog chained to a kennel, I think to myself miserably. I know the concrete road leading to the playground like my phone screen: the pieces of old rubbish, the brown snow-smudged puddles, the grime.
This meeting ends but another one will begin in thirty minutes. I make myself a cup of tea. No. A cup of white wine. It’s been in the fridge for four days. Is it drinkable?
I decide it is. I return to the table. By this point my daughter is playing with the baubles of the Christmas tree. She likes to pull them from the branches, break the little silver loops, and wait for me to retie them, which I dutifully do.
This meeting is different: I must talk about my writing with other writers. It will be streamed on Facebook, something that I did not know was possible until today. The streaming is part of the residency that I am on – a pan-European residency that has become a residency of the mind. I have exchanged Greece for the table, Croatia for the sofa, Slovenia for the concrete road to the park. Still, suddenly, I find myself in a flat, pixelated room of writers. My daughter is destroying the baubles; the writers are speaking about creative process, about projects transformed by the pandemic.
‘I am writing my fourth novel,’ says one writer. And it reminds me that I should perhaps think of writing my first. I’m grateful for the faces on my screen, their voices emerging from far away but sounding, of course, as though they are sitting next to me. They are telling me about writing: I’d forgotten about it. The last months have been of the kitchen-table-sofa variety, where there did not seem to be any space to write without pushing the laundry onto the floor. They were telling me about writing – how it was possible to just keep doing it, even with the lockdown. Especially because of the lockdown.
One translator gives me a list of books I should read. I’m grateful for this, because it reminds me that I could read; that reading would give my days significance and joy. When we finish speaking, I buy the books second-hand – Maja Haderlap, Engels des Vergessens – the angel of forgetting. I’m already forgetting the times before this time.
My daughter has finished with the baubles and says, ‘Help Mami’. I tie the baubles and put the television on. So goes the next part of the day: the commute from table to sofa.
On my phone, I can see the Facebook recording has been uploaded. There I can see my tiny pale face among the writers. I scroll down and see all the other events: artists and poets and writers. It is a strange thing, to live so inwardly and yet, despite the best efforts of the Virus, the outside makes itself known. It cracks open the kennel door, lets in light and air. Today, I have spoken with writers from Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Slovakia. People I would never have met, I think to myself. I would never know their names. I would never have received the list of books with the title of that one book, the Angel of Forgetting, which I will read, and which will change me.
Later, I speak to a writer from Greece. She is sad because the sky is grey in Athens. ‘When the weather is bad, it really gets me down,’ she says.
I can hear the wind howling. It cuts through the gardens, bends the overgrown rosebush horizontal. Rain lashes against the window, as it tends to do in December in Wales.
‘I don’t know what to do with good weather,’ I say. ‘I always feel like I have to do something special with it. It makes you feel guilty.’
‘Oh,’ says the writer from Greece. ‘Well, here the sky is mostly blue and the sea is blue too. That’s why I came back to live in Athens.’
Every time she says the word Athens, I see ancient white buildings against a sapphire sky. The writer from Greece has written many novels and she tells me it’s important to write one sentence a day, to practise.
My daughter is walking up and down the living room demanding particular television programmes. ‘Pig!’ she says, for the cartoon with the pig. ‘Broga!’ for the one with the frog. She doesn’t know these are separate languages. She thinks we have many words for the same thing, which, on reflection, is true.
When we finish our conversation, I try to write my one sentence: it’s raining! No, that’s cheating. The television is blasting The Ants Go Marching. No, that’s bland. I think about my sentence. Any sentence! No, it’s impossible, I realise, to write a sentence.
My partner talks to his parents loudly in Portuguese. I hear him coming down the stairs SIM, SIM, CLARO. TÁOBVIO MAMÃE. MAMÃE! TÁ CORTADO. TÁ CORTADO.
The line drops. Then it’s retrieved; he sits cross-legged on the floor in front of me, and orders our daughter to say hello to the grandparents she has never met. She obliges: Oi! She gives a coy wave before returning to the television screen. I can hear my in-laws asking after me; the lilt of Brazilian Portuguese is so familiar to me now. When I hear the ‘No’ I think of the light stone buildings where they live, the sound of my sandals ringing against the shiny heat-reflecting plazas. The outside breaking in again.
It’s bedtime for the little one. The same routine, unfailingly. I read the same books with the same sentences. The sentences of children’s books are perfect in their simplicity. For instance: Helo Sali Mali! Or Mae annwyd ar y pry bach tew. Mae’n tisian o hyd. You cannot improve them; they could never have been any different. The most beautiful book in the world is Where the Wild Things Are – a poem which is also a novel which is also a dream.
I read it to my daughter. She used to like the wild things, but she has grown afraid of them. She begs me to stop reading. She only likes the parts where Max is in his room, because it is familiar to her. But, I want to say to her, everything is in Max’s room – the ocean, the wild things, the island. All the things you think are outside are inside. There is no difference. Max, you see, goes on a residency of the mind.
Instead, I wrap her in the blanket and take her to her cot where, after long resistance, she finally sleeps.
I go downstairs purposefully. To the kitchen table. No! I tell my husband. I will not be watching Masterchef. I will be composing my sentence.
I push the laundry from the table to make room for the notebook I received for Christmas the year before. It smells of plastic wrapper and new paper. I take a pen: I remember the man who has written four novels and how he said, ‘You can only write so many novels in lockdown’, and how I thought then, Well, what am I doing if I haven’t even written the one?
This doesn’t help me write the sentence.
I stare at the paper for a long time. My Athenian friend had said, Just describe something. Anything you see.
I turn to the window and the billowing night, the neighbour’s paranoid outside light illuminating both our gardens. As though the outside also belongs to them: the darkness, the night. The overgrown rose bends double from the wind, taps on the window, asking to be let in. I’m still here, it seems to say. Notice me.
I notice. I take my pen. I press it to the paper.
Eluned also took part in the online residency in Mljet organised by Sandorf.