The collector of maladies

The highlight of today’s writing workshop for my freshman composition class was a story about pain. A 16-year-old boy had written a piece about a 25-year-old woman, a self-confessed masochist who inflicted pain on herself (cutting through her skin, punching walls until her knuckles bled, inserting barbed wires and barbecue sticks into “her womanhood”), not to feel pleasure, but “to relax,” to numb emotional hurt, to “find freedom” from the circumstances of her life. The boy worried that his piece was “too brutal.” I said it was not brutal enough. His classmates all said they could not feel any sympathy for the protagonist, because they could neither grasp her avowed fascination for pain, nor understand the emotional conflict that supposedly fed this fascination. As one of his classmates pointed out, the character’s woes were workaday: Her father cheated on her mother and took off with another woman; her mother could barely make ends meet; she dropped out of school. The classmate said, I know people in the exact same situation. They don’t go about poking barbecue sticks up their coochies.

The classic fault of the piece:  too much telling, hardly ever showing. We were told that the girl bled herself to keep calm. We were not shown the rusty blade held between the tips of her brown, bony fingers, the way it sliced across three inches of skin in her inner thigh, the blood snaking down her legs, dyeing a small clear puddle on the chipped white tiles of their bathroom floor as she hummed to the steady dripping of the broken faucet and the bawling baby next door. Pain, if you think about it, is fascinating. Feeling it fully, acutely, holds you in rapt attention, puts you out of time—past, present, future blur into a relentless drone of hurt hurt hurt.

The boy’s piece reminded me of a story I had wanted to write after reading Wittgenstein’s discussion of pain in Philosophical Investigations, a story about a collector of maladies. The protagonist of this story is also a woman who travels alone, inscribing in her body an archive of pain. She has three conditions for pain to be included in her collection: 1. It should be a particular sensation she has not felt before; 2. It must be self-inflicted, and it must leave a lasting, visible mark (burnt tissue, a scar, a broken tooth), and; 3. It has to be a reconstruction of another person’s injury. So this woman travels from city to city to meet the damaged, asking them the story behind their wounds, and writing the same scars on her body. The woman in that story in my head is in her mid-thirties. Five years of traveling and self-maiming has so disfigured her that she is no longer recognizable to her friends and family. People shun her, bearing so many grotesque wounds. Her body is failing, yet she does not want to die.

I cannot yet write that story. I don’t know how to access and describe such variegated pains, and have yet to think through the motivations of someone who would so ardently seek out hurt and own it. If one thinks through a feeling body, what could be going on in her mind? How could her self have changed through a connoisseur course of hurt? Do I have to feel pain myself to accurately describe another person’s pain? In inflicting the same wounds on myself, could I be said to have the same pain as that felt by the person whose wounds I recreate? If I open myself to another’s expression of his hurt so that I may, even on an intellectual level, “feel” it, could I close myself up again and be whole?

I told the boy, if you wish to write about pain, you must know pain, feel pain, express pain. If the kind of research and reflection that rewriting your piece demands proves to be too difficult, feel free to change your topic.

what eases sadness (is painting pretty)


This gallery contains 9 photos.

“The key to mastering the medium is understanding how water behaves,” the art teacher said. I thought of things that evade control, things that fall, things that flow. I have been drawing and withdrawing. I try to ebb, but feelings surge.

here and there

 (or how I came to be drenched in a thunderstorm one Monday night)

“You’re making me look like a villain,” he says, as a tricycle driver turns to stare at us walking on the rain-sluiced asphalt—me, shivering in my drenched black dress and strappy sandals, while he keeps dry under the purple umbrella I gave him, its color almost neon under the orange streetlamps. “I should hold a placard proclaiming, ‘Nag-iinarte lang siya!’”

In the courtyard of Shwedagon Paya, after we had prayed at the Sunday shrine and poured water from silver cups onto the statue of Garuda, while walking barefoot around the gilded stupa surrounded by spotlights and glinting against the dull indigo sky, a young man held my arm to keep me from slipping on the marble tiles wet with rain.

Andami mong alam,” I tell him. “Who cares if I’m walking in the rain?”

“You’ll get sick,” he says.

“I’ll take a bath later.”

“Use your umbrella already.”


He moves to shelter me. I wave my hand.


When I was traveling in Myanmar, the young man would call me five times a day, and with the little English he knew, would ask me where I was, what I was doing, and if everything was okay. “Mingalarbar!” he would greet me. It was the first word of Burmese that I learned, and the only one I remember still, aside from the phrase for “thank you.”

Two hours before we left the restaurant and a hundred minutes before the rain started to pour, I stared dumbly at the man across from me at the table, his eyes and fingers stuck to his phone, again. “Wait,” he said, answering emails. “Wait,” he said, replying to Facebook chats. “Wait,” he said, looking up something on the internet. “How much longer and why should I?” I didn’t ask. Instead, I took a book from my bag and pretended that I was dining here alone.

At five in the morning, when I arrived in the overnight bus to Yangon from Bagan, I found the young man already at the transport terminal, waiting for me. It was raining. Across the potholed tarmac he led me to a cab, which drove us to a restaurant, where he treated me to a breakfast of noodles and coffee. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything that day, or the days before that. “I want you to be happy here in my country,” he said. “Are you happy?”

“What are you reading?” he asked.

I held up my book, and he reached across the table and took it from my hand.

Stolen Air,” he read. “I like the title. The cover art, too”—a discordant, discoidal scrawl, mad lines that look like they were drawn by a five-year old in a fit of tantrums.

“Yes, they suit his poetry well. Osip Mandelstam. He’s my favorite poet. He wrote his best poems and died in a Siberian gulag, where he was exiled by Stalin. No other poet I’ve read expresses anguish and despair with such particularity, and transforms them into something terribly beautiful, and sometimes, bizarrely, tinged with hope.”

“Of course. If he practically lived in an arctic tundra—”

“You know how I found out about him? I follow this blog, called The Floating Library. Its owner used to post excerpts of prose and poetry that struck him from books he was reading, including Stolen Air. I like that blog very much and still go visit it, though it hasn’t been updated in years.”

“Why not?”

“The author killed himself.”

Whenever he asked me how I felt, I told the young man that I was happy, though I didn’t feel like it. Around him, I acted like a smitten colegiala, just to be Someone Else, which was the point of going to this Somewhere Else. I bought a longyi and wore it, walking slowly—unaccustomed as I was to donning ankle-length skirts—like a nice Burmese girl. When walking, he enjoyed being ahead with his longer tread and turning back to look at me, blowing smoke from his cigarette and teasing, “Hurry up, woman!” Outwardly I giggled and inwardly I snarled. I pretended to see in him someone he was not.

I refused to look at him. I bit my lip to suppress a cry. I wondered, again, why I stayed, why I still saw him, if I was only wasting my time. I opened my journal and read Timothy Steele’s “Sapphics Against Anger” thrice.