23rd November, 2022

In conversation with BOTY shortlisted author Anwen Crawford

No Document (Giramondo) is a grief-stricken book that tries to locate presence within the material layers of loss, finding hope in art, kinship and collective action. Anwen Crawford balances the emotional charge of the book with thoughtful experiments in how to use the field of the page to express and contain the way grief can be both intimate and political, a catalyst for resistance.

—BOTY 2022 judging panel

We asked Anwen some questions about her elegy, No Document, one of the shortlisted titles for the 2022 SPN Book of the Year Award. The award ceremony will take place on 25 November and will feature readings from Anwen and the other shortlisted authors.

To see the full shortlist, click here.

To book a ticket to the BOTY award ceremony, click here. All the shortlisted books will be available for purchase at the Independent Publishing Conference and at the BOTY award ceremony, through our conference bookseller, Readings. They can also be ordered through the Readings website.

Q. No Document is a non-linear narrative, but in parts you even go so far as to distort time or wind it backwards, for example, the line: “I change tense, and travel back across your death’s border”. This created a strong sense of grief existing outside of time. For you, what is the relationship between grief and time?

This is such an interesting question, and in a real sense an impossible question to answer, because the relationship between grief and time is so unstable. No one answer exists. But certainly, the form of No Document arose from my thinking about this question.

I read a number of books about grief, and autobiographical works about bereavement, in the months immediately after my friend died – my friend for whom I eventually wrote No Document. And I found myself both surprised and frustrated by the fact that so many of those accounts did have linear narratives, and very conventional forms: the writing proceeded very smoothly and rationally, paragraph by paragraph and chapter by chapter, when people were writing about the most shattering griefs. Language and form rarely showed the kind of pressure, or disintegration, that to me defines those emotionally extreme situations – bereavements, traumas, profound shocks. There is a reason why people say things like “I have no words” in the face of these situations. It’s not simply a stock response – or if it is, then it’s one of those cliches that reflects a truth. Those situations are fundamentally inexpressible in language. They leave us without words, beyond or before words. So I was looking for writing that grappled with this truth, and I rarely found it – only in works like Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, and Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole, neither of which are “books” in a formally resolved sense. Both are notes towards books that could never be written, because one runs up against the abyss, or the barrier, of trying to find language for losses that cannot be described or represented in language.

No Document is, I think, more formally resolved as an elegy than either of those two works – more of an actual “book”. But I did want its form to reflect my experience of grief, which is non-linear; I don’t find that grief exists outside of time, but grief can both collapse and elongate my experience of time, so that things that happened recently can feel very long ago, or vice versa. Nor can grief be resolved or ended: the beloved cannot live again, at least not in this world, so why aim for a narrative resolution, either? That seems to me like a lie, a lie on the level of form.

I think too, because my friend died young, in the immediate aftermath I had a terrible and frightening sense of the future – a future we might have shared, as friends and as collaborative artists – being wiped away, which is a difficult thing to grapple with in your 20s. I was 29 when he died. In fact, I had three friends under 30 die within the space of 12 months, and I began to feel very besieged by mortality, which is perhaps not a sensation we tend to associate with youth. That period of my life felt like the end of my youth, definitively. Welcome to adulthood: now everybody dies.

Q. When did you decide you would write No Document? How was the idea born?

Answering this takes me back to another aspect of your previous question, to do with grief and time. It was about seven years after my friend died that I started work on what would become No Document, and, in relation to grief, seven years is both a substantial period of time and not much time at all. But I couldn’t have begun it any earlier – at any earlier point when I had tried to write about my friend it proved impossible, my hands would shake so much that I couldn’t write. (If there’s anyone reading this who is trying to write about, around, or into a significant grief: maybe it will be 2 years and maybe it will be 20 years before you can write it. Maybe it will be never. Please be kind to yourself.)

Nor can I say that No Document began out of one, central “idea”. I started writing it because I had an instinct that various things I was haunted by – this friend’s death, a particular Franz Marc painting, a particular film, memories of certain protests I’d been to, and more – could be brought together in the one work. But I could only find out how to bring them together – or even if I could bring them together – by writing it. I’m not a planner, and one reason I have always been drawn to the essay form is that it’s a form well-suited to writers who work on instinct. Most often, when I begin to write, I have a nebulous feeling about something: like a mirage, a kind of mind-mist. It hasn’t risen to the level of articulation, but an essay is a form through which to think myself into that articulation – the essay traces the movement, the development of one’s thoughts. I can only find out what my thought is by writing it, but nor am I a “first thought, best thought” kind of writer – more like a “378th draft of the thought is the best thought” writer.

Q. Some of the themes in No Document include: grief, loss, history, animals, collaboration, love, hope. Did you decide what themes you would include before you started writing, or did you write your way into these themes?

Again, to circle back to my previous answer: I decide nothing in advance of writing it. That to me defeats the purpose of writing, which is to discover one’s thoughts, to discover form, to discover one’s language, word by word and sentence by sentence in each piece (or to discover that no language exists for what you are trying to discover). 

I had lots of index cards with jottings on them, and lots of research material both visual and textual. I had a post-it note on which I wrote the word “accretion”, and, early on, I drew a spiral with the 2000 S11 protest at one end and the 2002 Woomera protest at the other, and that was as much planning as I ever did. A lot of the process was about moving things around and sifting things out – drafting two pages and then using one sentence, for instance, if I could find the right place for it. I probably drafted more than 80,000 words, but the published book is only about 25,000 words long. I was very fortunate to have a publisher and an editor, Ivor Indyk and Nick Tapper at Giramondo, who trusted my process, and who understood instinctively, as I did, that the book had to be found in the writing of it. There were plenty of times along the way when I really doubted that I could actualise this mirage in my head, and I think they doubted it, too. But that kind of trust from a publisher is rare, and I remain thankful for it.

One more thought about time: perhaps it’s the case that losing my dear friend and collaborator brought my subjective, internal experience of time into resonance with what had always been my feeling about history, because I don’t think historical time is unidirectional, either. I’m one of those people who never recovered from reading Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” at a formative age, and I remain guided by Benjamin’s suspicion of, or resistance to, the notion of linear historical “progress”. He was a very unorthodox Marxist, in that sense, in resisting the teleology that underpins a lot of Marxist philosophy – the notion that progress towards a classless society is inevitable. As someone of the radical left, I resist it, too: my political hopes, such as I have them, are born not out of the conviction that change is inevitable but that it isn’t – and that discovering how to intervene against a class that holds all the power, money and resources is such an unlikely thing, and therefore all the more potent in those times and places when we (re)discover it.

Q. Can you tell us how you settled on the book’s title?

The title came very late, after I’d submitted the initial manuscript to Giramondo, which was about three years into the writing process. I had a working title for a long time that couldn’t be the actual title, because it was already a book title several times over. I made long lists of potential titles and my editor didn’t like any of them, hah hah, but “no document” was a phrase in the text and, in fact, I had put it forward once before as a title without it seeming “right”. But eventually it was right, and that was very clarifying, because it allowed me to do the manuscript revisions with that title and all of its thematic connotations in the forefront of my mind: it really helped me to tighten the manuscript. (I must say that about the only “upside” of having a book that was originally meant to be published in 2020 rescheduled because of covid is that I had six more months than I initially expected to do the revisions, and it’s a much better book because of it.) 

I like the fact that the title is phrased in the negative – it tells you what the book isn’t. No one will believe me, given what I’ve already said, but it wasn’t until about a day before it went to the printer that I remembered that the title is also in Benjamin’s essay, when he writes: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” This is essentially the thesis that I took years to try and realise in No Document, and which Benjamin distilled it into two sentences, the bastard.

Anwen Crawford is the author of No Document (Giramondo, 2021), shortlisted for the 2022 Stella Prize, and Live Through This (Bloomsbury, 2015). Her essays and criticism have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The White Review and Sydney Review of Books, and in 2021 she won the Pascall Prize for Arts Criticism.

She is a long-time zine maker and collaborative visual artist. She lives in Sydney.

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