Finding the Form with Katherine Barrett
“Helen wouldn’t know the word umlungu, but it shaped her story and how I wrote it. Like the foreman-boss she watches from her third-floor perch, she likes to think she’s in control, at least of herself.”
My character chose the form for “Skin,” though she’s not happy with it. Helen is a poet. If she managed to get her story in TNQ, it had bloody well be in poetry. But Helen has to face it: a daily journal, a regular accounting for her time and production, is more suited to her personality. In fact, Helen is so determined to circumscribe her world that she fails to see it, much less engage with it, much less reckon her place in it. For me, it was a wonderful challenge to write from the point of view of a character whose point of view is so frustratingly constrained. It was a relief to let Helen leave the house!
This challenge was compounded by the setting: South Africa. I lived on the outskirts of Cape Town for almost five years. Every day, I wrestled with my place in that complex country. It was always uncomfortable. It could only and should only be uncomfortable (and, yes, it changed how I view my place in Canada too, though that’s another story). I sketched out “Skin” while still in South Africa but the working title at the time was “Umlungu.” This is a term for white person, especially a white boss. There’s some debate over the origin, but I was told it translated to “sea foam” or froth. I laughed when I heard that; it was exactly how I felt. Extraneous. Soft. Very white.
Helen wouldn’t know the word umlungu, but it shaped her story and how I wrote it. Like the foreman-boss she watches from her third-floor perch, she likes to think she’s in control, at least of herself. Unlike the boss, however, she considers herself removed from what happens around her. Even though—or because?—she is a writer, Helen feels she can observe the palm trees, the wind, the workers, the walls, the disparity and injustice, but have no effect on what she sees.
Helen made me think about the role of writers and how to broach topics that we can’t fully experience or understand. She is right to believe she can never truly comprehend South Africa, even in the microcosm outside her window. How could she? Her constrained point of view, full of blind spots, was therefore the only way to write the story. But of course it’s not enough to say: I can never understand your experience so I will simply observe. Helen does, in the end, leave the house. And her attempt to engage—feeble but with humility and a flicker of self-awareness—was the only way to end the story.
Katherine Barrett currently writes from rural Nova Scotia. Her work has appeared in literary and scholarly journals. Katherine is also editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine.