On Not Writing About Death
For my 69th birthday in June, one of my sisters gave me a book called The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat. The subtitle is Writing the Final Story. It’s from The Art Of series edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press. In it, Danticat examines death scenes from works by Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy, and others while also reflecting on the deaths of her some of her own family members.
Danticat writes: Death is an unparalleled experience, so we look to death narratives and to the people in our lives who are dying, for some previously unknowable insights, which we hope they will pass to us in some way.
My sister gave me this book, I think, for two reasons. One, I’m a writer, and two, I tend to bring up death in our conversations. Maybe I’m in search of unknowable insights.
Death is on my mind a lot. Death is part of life, albeit the end of it. And barring accidents, disaster, or sudden illness, the older we get, the closer to death we come. My siblings (three sisters and a brother) and I are in our sixties and seventies and, like everyone else, getting older by the day. The hour. At this age, we are exactingly mindful of time.
When we were kids, we used to think that we would die in the order that we were born. That we would each somehow be given the same number of years to live. That seemed fair and when you’re one of five bickering siblings, fairness is always the argument. Until you learn that life isn’t fair. You get what you get and then you die.
In her book, Danticat says: We write about death to make sense of our losses, to become less haunted, to turn ghosts into words, to transform an absence into language.
In my first book, When the de la Cruz Family Danced, the protagonist who is loosely modeled after my father and his circumstances, is ill and dying. I started writing it in an airport as I waited to board a flight for my father’s funeral. I suppose I was trying, as Danticat wrote, to make sense of my loss. Years later, I wrote an essay about my mother’s death, again for all the reasons Danticat named.
Aside from these examples, I have seldom written about death. I am a wimp of a writer when it comes to imagining death for my characters. It seems to me to invite death into your life, to tempt it. “If you build it, they will come.” If you write it, it will happen. As if writers have such power. And yet, why tempt fate?
I’m writing a novel now about five siblings who are all in their sixties until the oldest one has a birthday and leads them to age into the next decade. But I know there won’t be a death in this story. I can’t write it. But there are ghosts in it—the already-dead. I like to imagine them still part of our lives, them in their ethereal realm tracking our blunders in our earthly one and slapping their vaporous foreheads in disbelief and hope.
Danticat says, “We cannot write about death without writing about life.”
So for now I’m writing about life, though as I mentioned, I think about death a lot. The inevitability of it and what we leave behind.
When I die, the people I leave behind will be okay. Grief subsides. The world keeps spinning. But the imagined people I create and that live in a file on my laptop will be abandoned, their lives unfinished, their fates eternally in limbo. I would be sad about that to the end—when I would no longer feel anything. Unless? Unless I am one of those ghosts slapping her vaporous head at the antics of the living.
Here are the Miscolta siblings in the last few decades. No photo of us in our 60s and 70s since we haven’t been all together since the start of the pandemic, but you get the picture. The years pass. Changes happen. And yet, what’s with the recurring Hawaii theme?
Another thoughtful sharing from you. Thanks and keep them coming.
Thanks, Dave. I appreciate your comments especially since I know you are a wonderful writer.
Such an insightful post! “As if writers have such power.” I know you’re shrugging it off with this line, but the fact that you don’t like to write about death belies the truth of the line. I believe we do (have that power as writers)–and am afraid of it too!
Are we oracles? I’m not including a death in the novel I’m writing now, but there is a psychic in it so maybe that’s as close as I’m getting to the topic.