Books for the Dented Self



by Neela Vaswani



I would venture that most writers find reading healing. Find solace in words and craft and the quiet of turning pages. I usually feel that way. But at various points in my life, when I’ve been in need of healing—from trauma or loss or illness—I’ve found myself incapable of reading. I can’t get my eyes to move horizontally across sentences. And the literary fiction I normally find comforting feels inedible.


During the years I spent in hospitals as a primary caretaker, I could only bear small sips of literature in the form of poetry in a female voice: Elizabeth Alexander, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton. I would read the same poem ten or twelve times a day and feel satisfied. It was the same after working as a first responder during 9/11 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With prose, I could handle animal books: Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey; Mind of the Raven; National Velvet; The White Bone.


In the past ten years, in times of trouble, I’ve turned to Scandinavian mysteries. Characters who don’t mince or waste words. Live stark, ragged lives. Stories set in dark (or brilliantly lit, depending on the season), cold places. Dogs. Despair. Food descriptions that turn my Hindu vegetarian stomach. A clear moral dilemma. A crime to be solved. Wrongs to be righted. People wading through their worst moments in bleak emotional landscapes.


I haven’t read the more popular Scandinavian mysteries like The Dragon Tattoo series. I like the Scandinavian mysteries whose English translations aren’t simultaneously published along with the original Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic. It feels special and thrilling, from an older time, to have to wait for a translation to be printed. The most healing authors for me have been Asa Larsson (all her books), Arnaldur Indridason (all his books), Kerstin Ekman (Black Water), Karin Fossum (her early work), Kjell Eriksson (I never remember his titles or characters but always enjoy his writing), Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall (husband-wife writer team; all their books). And one Swiss author: Friedrich Durrenmatt and his slim series, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries. All go deep into human psyches and don’t flinch from hardship.


Usually, as a reader, I’m drawn to work that upends the idea of genre and plot. But when I’m low, plot and genre are the only balm. Knowing that some kind of justice will be served by the last page. That good will trump evil. There’s a lesson here for me as a writer who doesn’t write in the style or genre that most comforts me. Something about human trauma, about the essential value of story.


I always read with a pencil and use a shorthand in margins: one dot for something interesting or powerful, two dots for something I can use for teaching, three dots for something I can use for writing. I do this even in library books, though I erase all my marks before returning the books. Since my MFA and PhD, it’s harder for me to read in the way I did as a child, to shut down my writer-teacher brain and melt into pages. But I don’t read Scandinavian mysteries with a pencil; I let their power and craft go unmarked. In strained times, when I feel least myself as a reader and most myself as an individual, I reconnect with the fundamental pleasure of reading, with escapism and comfort and connection. And it soothes my dented self.


This essay was published in Creativity & Compassion: Spalding Writers Celebrate 20 Years, published by Good River Books. Copyright © 2021.


 

Neela Vaswani, a member of Spalding’s fiction and creative nonfiction faculty, is the award-winning author of the short story collection Where the Long Grass Bends; the mixed-genre memoir You Have Given Me a Country; the middle-grade novel Same Sun Here (co-written with Silas House), and the picture book This Is My Eye (which she wrote and illustrated). She has also received a Grammy and multiple Audies for her audiobook narrations. Vaswani has a PhD in American Cultural Studies and is an education activist in the US and India. She lives in New York City with her family and serves on the board of Kweli Journal.