map The Biography of ___________

by Kharys Laue

Published in Issue No. 193 ~ June, 2013

Photo by Gernot Schreyer (Weiden, Germany)

What shall we name her?

Because we must start, you understand, by endowing a name, by designating a blank space wherein potential meaning may be generated.

So let us call her Dalia. Just Dalia.

Would you agree?

Because then you may delete the ‘a’ that draws up the rear (Dalia – a) and extract your own host of conclusions. Or you might smile cunningly as if surfacing from an epiphanic moment, remembering, perhaps, the importance of names in narratives, and forthwith whip out your computer to Google dahlia. Or, if you’re really a desperate critic, you might mutter (thinking yourself wise), yes yes, subtract the ‘al’, and add an ‘ry’ at the end (Dalia – al + ry); that’s what the real author was trying to say – and the metatextuality! Good god, I must make a note on the metatextuality!

But I’ve got ahead of myself now. Literary convention deems it unwise to help you further than these hints in such an arena of meaning making; from here you must draw your own individualised interpretations and act as the co-creator of meaning. Indeed, what a grand convention! to leave all the work of interpretation to the befuddled reader while I sit back and smile enigmatically, tilting my head from side to side in implication maybe, maybe not. But I’m sure you will agree that this convention makes things so much more interesting. Especially given that Dalia loved writing in diaries. She was consumed by the activity, in fact, and apparently had a collection of over thirty diaries at the time of the unfortunate event. Every one of them was bursting its margins with a multitude of multicoloured words. Moreover, it can be stated with complete certainty (assuming: a] we are not dreaming, b] a deceiving God does not exist, and c] we are made-well-by-chance) that during Dalia’s lifetime the only other occupation that ever enjoyed the same magnitude of significance as her diaries was her study of biographies. She would set her target at four a week, minimum, and kept slavishly to this target even if it meant making sacrifices – like skipping all her meals, or missing a high school reunion, or leaving her children at school (a common sacrifice that tested the limits of her husband’s sanity). The writing of diaries, however, came first, so let us begin there if we are to consider her life chronologically.

It seems that Dalia began writing diaries as soon as her right hand grew steady and acquired the ability to shape words. Let’s say, then, that she completed her first diary by the age of seven. That seems plausible enough. From the beginning her enthusiasm for the activity was quite obviously unnatural, but her parents were overjoyed by her fervour, deeming it to be the sign of an incipient protégée, definitely a genius. And it was true that her gift was uncanny; she flew ahead of her contemporaries (in the area of writing and spelling anyway) as a result of this daily diary practice, and was often left up to her own devices at school, which was promptly turned to further writing.

In time, Dalia’s diary-writing became a fully-fledged obsession complete with all the prerequisite anguish. I say ‘prerequisite anguish’ because every obsession involves fear: fear that the fixation will be curtailed in some way, the anguish caused by the constant dread of possible scenarios in which the object of obsession is confiscated. At last recognising the mark of a mania in their child, Dalia’s parents’ pride and amusement steadily faded into uneasy concern. And justifiably so! The child never allowed so much as a toe to exit the house without her diary, and once, when she was fourteen, she misplaced her diary and soared into such a spasm of wails and unproven accusations, followed by insane stillness, that her parents rushed her to hospital. It was not the screams and shocking words of revenge that had alarmed the parents so much as the strangely quiet anguish that soon replaced the spent fury. She sat quivering on the floor, resigned but rigid without her diary. Eyes fixed accusingly on her toe, she internally admonished it, quite sure that it had crept over the thresh-hold without her permission and thus (she was certain) caused the vanishing act of her diary. At regular intervals, let us say every twenty seconds, she would sob and one great voluptuous tear would alternately roll down her right cheek and then her left. It would hang on the side of her jaw as a shimmering jewel until the next sob arrived, and then it would fall and be balanced by the roll and hang of the next tear on the other side of her jaw. Other then these consistent sobs, however, she recoiled into muteness and refused to be touched.

Dalia’s parents, disillusioned by the wild despair of their usually gay child, bundled her up in their arms and conveyed her to the car (to get her to the hospital quickly, it was necessary that I allow them a car; they were, after all, relatively well-off). Simultaneously, a wail feeble as tissue issued from her limp body. They rushed her to hospital, compensating for the sudden stillness of their daughter with their own frantic fears.

And so it was on this day that Dalia’s parents grew gravely worried. It was also on this day that they turned the house inside out to search for the diary – the flagrant cause of so much grief – realising that their daughter would not survive to see subsequent sanity without it. When the difficult procedure of turning the house inside out produced no tangible results, they resorted to the even more exacting task of turning it upside down. At last, twenty-four hours after the start of their search, the family tabby cat was dislodged by the chaos of her upturned world and the parents found Dalia’s diary beneath her opulent belly. It seems that the cat had reckoned the book’s small parameters an ideal napping spot.

Though Dalia’s parents were relieved to recover the only object that would placate their sick daughter, they were still grievously worried. They decided, after a much heated discussion, that they would have to take steps to wean their daughter off her feral habit by providing other distractions. They knew (taking that day’s events as a guide) that it would be impossible to confiscate the diary and end the obsession immediately; it was a process that required patience and a careful hand. Thus, it was also on this fateful day that Dalia’s parents brought to their convalescing daughter a biography and unwittingly introduced in her a second obsession. Little did they know that, at my command, it would rise to the status of the first obsession and, rather than weakening it, strengthen it into an unbreakable material quite beyond earthly methods of intervention.

Still oblivious to the new seed of obsession that they had sewn in their daughter’s imagination, Dalia’s parents began their anti-diary project, the motto of which went: Kill the Obsession Kindly. It was a sweetly mild procedure, but irritatingly insistent. At first Dalia was bemused and vaguely annoyed by her parents’ sudden interest in her every activity. She could not fathom the sudden influx of coaxes and bribes that ensued whenever she settled down to write in her diary. And then slowly, since Dalia was a rather dull-witted child despite her early potential, their ulterior motives dawned on her. For a few mean weeks, Dalia acquired the callous habit of tumbling into fits of hilarity in response to her parents’ hopeless attempts to draw her away from her diary. This taunting mirth was soon replaced by pity however, and a dose of fear, for Dalia noticed that her parents’ faces grew drawn and pale, and always looked slapped. She did indeed love them (such sweet, mild, bewildered parents!), and realised that harsher action would follow from their hands were she to test their patience further. Thus Dalia the Wise began removing her First Obsession to a private sphere and began exercising her Second Infant Obsession, which was sturdying handsomely, in public.

Predictably, Dalia’s parents were pleased to no end by this travesty of improvement and quite thoroughly beguiled. They were so overjoyed, in fact, that they bought her hoards of biographies, never once realising that they were feeding the gut of a Second Obsession while fanning the flames of the First Obsession. For Dalia’s manic diary writing, you see, was far from dampened. If anything, it became more excited by its new conditions of secrecy and furtiveness. Despite her careful stealth, however, once or twice Dalia’s parents caught her writing in her diary, and they in turn, thinking that the final steps needed to end the obsession was discipline, responded harshly with punishment and anger. In this way Dalia came to associate her diary entries with teenage rebellion. The activity became a means of subverting the repressive authority of her parents, and she carried it out with a great degree of adrenaline and scandalous excitement.

In the above environment, then, Dalia’s weird obsessions grew thrivingly. She would escape into the privacy of her room and lock the door, and there she would stay writing for hours. God only knows the subject of her diary entries. I have no clue as to the substance of their content. I do know that she spent more time writing whatever she wrote then actually living through activities or experiencing a life worth writing about. This does not explain their content though, so sadly their subject will forever remain a mystery. Such ambiguity allows space for guesswork on our part, however, so: perhaps she wrote about writing. That too seems unlikely, though, because her narrow mind did not seem capable of thought beyond the fixed parameters of her own life and those lived out in her frivolous biographies. What seems more likely is that she wrote about herself. Perhaps she conjectured possible titles of her life chronology:


it may be entitled, though that was rather plain, so perhaps:

A Chronology of Dalia

would embody the spirit more thoroughly… But that too was still rather boring, so maybe she would manipulate it into a more catching form to declare:

Chronology of Dalia’s Life and Works

She may be satisfied with that for a moment, but then, after admiring the beauty in such a profound asseveration, it may strike her that her Life had not yet produced any Works. She would then have to consider scratching it out and replacing it with Diaries, which still had the desired effect. At this junction perhaps she would pause and consider the facts of her life:

2011 (20th October) Dalia born in ___________, South Africa. The first and last child to _____________ and ______________.

2018 – completes first full diary. Moved up a grade at school.

2029 – marries her high-school sweetheart.

I will stop there, held back by the literary convention of suspense. It is, after all, pure speculation that her diaries followed this format (even if it is a well-founded speculation).

Either way, unfortunately or fortunately, her beguiled parents misinterpreted the long stretches of time that she spent in her room, attributing them incorrectly to an increased work-load at school. As a result, they rarely bothered her, never suspecting that her disorder (I think you will agree that I can safely categorise it as such at this point) had swelled profusely, more engorged than ever.

Somehow, in between all these diary entries and biographies, Dalia met a character we shall embody as a male. If you prefer, this entity can just as easily be female; it would only complicate the action insofar as I require children to emerge from Dalia’s loins four paragraphs from here. I therefore suggest leaving him male (I will gender him thus from now on), but if you are attached to the idea of artificially inseminated babies, your imagination has my blessing. So indeed, either way, whether male or female, a high-school sweetheart! To Dalia, this seemed a favourable development for surely it would give a new flavour to her writing.

In the beginning, he interpreted the devoted dedication she demonstrated to her diary as something admirable, and quite cute. Whenever she paused their wildly fumbling teenage caresses to scribble down several pages in her diary, he would look on in adoration, watching as her countenance wrinkled up in singular pleasure, and was only a little frustrated (due to his unquenched tumescence). As time continued its circular course, however, and their relationship grew more serious, such halting of his passion began to aggravate him more severely; his masculine pride was offended by her more avid interest in a clump of inert pages. And so, at a certain stage of their relationship, Dalia was forced to hide it from him as well as her parents.

Dalia matriculated with below average grades – the first blow to her parents’ self-esteem. Moreover, accompanying these low grades were complaints from markers that she wrote too much, and that, in all the content that she submitted, most of it had nothing whatsoever to do with the question. To her parents’ further disappointment she showed no interest in university. They did their utmost to flaunt its benefits – still clinging to the dwindling belief that their child was a genius who merely needed the right environment in which to flourish – and left catalogues from both national and international universities lying in strategic places all over the house. Dalia ignored them. When at last her parents were forced to approach her more directly, she refused. Mildly. That, I think, was when she dashed her parents’ hopes completely and they were forced to sadly reassess their method of child-rearing, feeling more like failures than Dalia herself.

Having nothing else to do, Dalia married her high-school sweetheart. They accomplished nothing spectacular. Actually, if Dalia’s two obsessions be exempted, their life brushed the most banally ordinary (dare I say normal?) type of existence. They attended church twice a week. Sunday was especially important; they prayed to be forgiven their week’s sins so as to begin the new week of sinning sin-free. They had a white picket fence. And a Labrador dog that underwent a rigorous puppy-training course to ensure that he pissed in the proper place. Additionally, they had a cat; the daughter of the tabby cat that had put Dalia in hospital when she was fourteen. They argued sometimes, then made up, had sex, and invited friends over for a braai. And, to my fallible knowledge, they both had the correct number of teeth. The only asymmetrical aspect of their external situation, in fact, as if standing as a reminder of Dalia’s abnormality, was the paper-bark tree that stood peeling in the centre of their otherwise preened lawn.

In due course, as a result of their frequently solved arguments – though this would not apply if you decided on a female partner for Dalia – she got pregnant and had a baby. Then she got pregnant again, and had another baby. When she got pregnant for a third time with twins, her high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband got cross and blasphemed God’s name, exclaiming that that was enough, he was having a vasectomy (again, this also wouldn’t apply to a female partner; your imagination may want to replace it with something more fitting). So Dalia didn’t get pregnant again, though she continued writing diaries and reading biographies with unrelenting zest, quite indifferent to the way in which reality unfolded around her.

If you will permit, let us pause and back-peddle a few years to allow for a better understanding of events. From what I could gather and subsequently interpret from the situation, it seems that when Dalia was presented with her first biography she was caused to experience an epiphany. As Dalia, a malleable fourteen year old, read the opening pages of that first biography – which referred to the letters, notes and diaries (diaries!) of the biographical protagonist – it seemed as if her Calling came tumbling, dancing, laughing like an elusive nymphet into her mind. She stared at it, aghast with tremulous euphoria. Then she seized the creature by its vain neck and fastened it around her mind, binding it down with the ligatures of her obsession. Acutely aware of the efflorescing exultation bloating her person, she finally understood her love of diaries, of writing, of biographies. The existence of biographies, in fact, was all the proof she needed to exonerate her obsessive behaviour; biographies became encouragement to continue writing. Thus, as the years stretched on without anyone to tell her otherwise, this epiphany strengthened into a callus around her weak mind. Her very sanity came to depend on its support.

For the above reasons, then, she was in a very vulnerable position when, one mild Saturday after her weekly shopping spree, the unfortunate event transpired. Dalia returned home to find her entire house burnt to its foundations. Not a thing remained standing (except the dog which had been taught to piss in the proper place and the daughter of the tabby cat that had put Dalia in hospital when she was fourteen). First she stared, uncomprehending of the import of such a sight. And then slowly, as if constrained by a dream, she sat down on the cement driveway, among the yells of neighbours and fire-engines and ambulances, and wept. Then moaned. Then screamed.

This hysteria did not permeate Dalia for the reasons a rational reader might guess. It was not stimulated by the shock of seeing her high-school-sweetheart turned husband-with-a-vasectomy smouldering among the remains of their television set. Nor because her spawn were dead. Nor because she had lost her most sentimental possessions, such as the one-eyed teddy bear that had been handed down through three generations. Nor because the computer, TV, iPod, fridge and oven had all been destroyed. Nor because the paper-bark tree was now a mere stump, ashen as a mental patient and horizontal instead of vertical. Nor because she was destitute, either, without a home or an income or a degree.

Do not be alarmed by what you might judge as mad insensitivity on the part of Dalia. The fact of the matter is that Dalia did not actually see, could not see, any of these things as destroyed. Or dead for that matter. Let me elaborate. As Sartre points out, we only judge a thing as destroyed if we attach some kind of value to that thing, a meaningfulness; somehow, it has to be tangled up in our concerns or interests. Take, for example, the explosion of star – a shooting star – and the explosion of a house. We do not judge the former as destroyed. Rather, we interpret its mass as redistributed to become something else; it is no great loss to us. A house, however, is tangled up in (most of) our concerns or interests. As such, when that house blows up, we judge things to be in a state of affairs where they are not as they should be, and this, in turn, causes us to attach the word destruction to the event. Dalia, however, saw all the objects and people listed above in the same way that one might see an exploded star: as great masses of molecules that had been modified and redistributed by the fire. No interest or concern of hers lay with them. Thus she was unable to see them as obliterated; they were merely changed masses in her eyes, no less than before, just having a different form of existence.

Dalia wept, therefore, for none other than her chest of diaries, locked away that morning from all prying eyes and now devoured and utterly destroyed by the grand conflagration. Moreover, she wept not so much for the loss of their sentimental value, but because she was confronted by the realisation that no one would ever be able to write an accurate biography of her life story. This realisation gored her to a suicidal degree. In one short afternoon, her entire past had been reduced to a blank, had been thrown mercilessly back to square one, and now she would have to start all over again and how would she reproduce all that material of her life since the age of seven? This realisation culminated in an all-encompassing despair and Dalia panicked, began thrashing to and fro on the cement driveway, tearing insanely at her fictional hair. In that moment she did indeed consider suicide. In a flash of sanity, however, she resurfaced a moment to realise that suicide was not an option – it would only result in her future biographer having absolutely nothing left to work with, not even a shred, not even a word, in assimilating her biography. And Dalia could not face being effaced completely. She understood then that she could quite easily drop dead right then and there, along with the rest of her family, and the world would go on as if she had never existed at all. The thought rendered her bereft, grief-stricken, quite devastated.

Astonishingly, it had never occurred to Dalia, even briefly, that nobody would actually want to write a biography about her in the first place. To Dalia, it was a necessary condition – a given assumption never once doubted – that one day a famed biographer would discover her diaries in a large spiderwebby pile, dust them off and then sit down to write her life story with an excited flourish of the pen. Unhappily, she did not realise that a biography required a person to do something vaguely interesting, an unconventional something that took at least a modest step away from the norm. Biographies were only interested in someone exceptional in some way. Or, at the least, someone who caught the public’s attention. Dalia had done or achieved nothing. Except write a few banal diaries. And that hardly qualified her. Ignorant to these facts, however, the destruction of her diaries also saw the destruction of her only dream.

Her life lost its meaning; she was humbled into non-existence.

And so I took pity on Dalia, my fictional friend, plucked her from my imagination and wrote her down. I proffer you her biography. Though it’s short and not quite a biography, it is a testament to an unremarkable woman made remarkable. Why, you might ask, how so. Why, because she was born from a narcissistic thought, and how so, by dying in a humbled reflection. And in this sequence she is made singular.

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Kharys Ateh Laue is a 22-year-old student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. She is currently reading towards an Honours degree in English Literature, after which she plans to begin her Masters and continue her exploration of the dynamic nexus between Literature and Philosophy. To date she has had three prose pieces published in Itch Magazine, a literary journal based in South Africa.