Ashleigh Young is a writer and editor of essays and poetry currently living in London. Her first book of poems, Magnificent Moon (Victoria University Press), was published in 2012, and in 2009 she was awarded the Adam Prize for her essay collection Can You Tolerate This? In this interview she speaks about digression, isolation and the process of writing her essay 'Sea of trees', which addresses the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori and the ways interior and exterior geographies can intertwine.
I know you won the Victoria University of Wellington International Institute of Modern Letters' Adam Prize for your essay collection Can You Tolerate This? in 2009, so it's clearly a form you're comfortable writing in. What's appealing about the format of the essay to you?
Some of my favourite essays are those where I feel like the writer is grabbing me by the hand and going, 'Look at this! Look at it. What is going on?' And then together we look at it. And under it and around it. I think the essay is the form in which I feel most able to reach out and grab someone. Having said that, I'm not comfortable comfortable writing in the essay form. I think if I ever got really comfortable, it'd be a sign I was being kind of lazy or dull. But I love the essay form a lot, and it's probably for similar reasons that anyone is drawn to any literary form. I think it's a form that openly encourages someone to disentangle meaning from events that can feel meaningless and cold and disinterested. I think the form itself acknowledges that the experiences and observations of many different people – some of whose voices are small or even silenced in other areas of life – is valuable and is relevant, and that consequently there are many truths. This validates a reader's experience, too. I've noticed that essays have had a bit of a backlash recently, particularly personal essays, particularly personal essays by young women – they're accused of self-indulgence, navel-gazing, time-wasting. And, well, it's true that there are many personal essays that don't strive to go much deeper than pure reaction, that drum about mosquito-like at the surface. As in other art forms. And the more memorable essays are often the bottom-feeders, I think. (I want to call them the bristleworms, the sea cucumbers.) But the accusation of self-indulgence has always struck me as odd. What one person might read as self-indulgence, somebody else will read as generosity, and even as an affirmation of their own experience too.
Structurally, something I loved about your essay was the way that the writing is digressional, how it makes connections between disparate topics. It reminded me a lot of Rebecca Solnit, who's one of my favourite writers. To me, that meandering structure which is 'all over the place' before it runs to a conclusion is much closer to the way the human minds thinks, and it makes for a richer reading experience. Is digression something you've tried to develop in your writing, or does it come naturally?
Digression comes too naturally – it's something I have to control, otherwise it gets out of hand and I end up with a piece of writing like a bag of dishevelled snakes. Often I abandon pieces because they're just too wayward and I can't locate their centre – which I guess is the way the human mind often works, too. I think that in even the most digressive essay you do, finally, have to point the way towards a centre, because that's where the hope is. I was recently trying to write a piece about charisma – what is it, exactly? How do you get it? – and leapt from a scene of a friend performing Stairway to Heaven in front of a timorous small-town crowd to getting my 'guardian angels' sketched at one of those Health and Spirit type expos. It just didn't work. Though, often, in a blog post, I'll give myself permission to cobble scenes together without much of a 'through' narrative – maybe it's like using big slap-handed brushstrokes instead of delicate, detailed ones. There are pleasures in both. The first can feel freer, more spontaneous. Some of the writers I've had a hard time with and have ended up loving often take a digressional approach: W.G. Sebald, Martin Edmond, Robert MacFarlane, Montaigne. I love that sense of freefall, then of being slowly, surely caught. I love best the moment just before I am caught, when I'm a bit afraid I won't be.
You're a poet as well, and I feel like, if only in this essay there's something poetic in the way you organise your thoughts and the images your mind naturally jumps to. I know this is a maddeningly broad question, but what do you find appealing about writing poetry?
I'm going through a real anti-poetry phase at the moment. By which I mean, my own poetry. I feel like I've lost my voice. When I'm enjoying writing poems, though, it's because I'm carving out some kind of sense that eludes me in ordinary language. I like pursuing a sense that I couldn't pursue in any other form. I like trying to see something that I can't clearly see elsewhere. I recently wrote some assessments of undergraduate poetry folios, and afterwards I noticed that one of the students whose work I had written about had posted a tweet saying, 'I got my poetry feedback. They said I had no insight. But that's the point. There is no insight.' It threw me a little bit. I wanted to say that a poem doesn't need to contain any shining observation or great universal truth that resonates with everybody. Actually that'd be kind of dull. A lot of poets would be out of business. I think insight can mean communicating a way of seeing, unlocking seeing. One of the things I like about writing a poem is trying to give different eyes to somebody else. Or to mysel
How did you first come across the idea of hikikomori and link it to landscape?
I took Japanese classes at high school in the '90s. My mother was the teacher, in a small-town school, and as well as studying the language we studied Japanese culture. Most years, Japanese exchange students would come to stay with my family for a few months at a time. There were several students who were so shy and quiet and who seemed to find it very hard to leave their rooms. (Though I'll always remember how the most reclusive student, a seventeen-year-old boy called Takuro, left a note for me under my pillow, which I found after he'd left for the airport to fly back to Tokyo. 'THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING ASHLEIGH! GOODBYE FROM TAKURO.' It was a sweet gesture – we'd never really talked.) I read about hikikomori much later when I was considering moving to Japan to work. I think most people of my generation think, at some point, 'I could go to Japan!' as a solution. I didn't go, in the end. But I thought back to learning Japanese at high school, a time when I often felt isolated from other kids and had this strong urge to escape not only from the place, but from myself. I also thought about those exchange students and how deeply strange it must have been for them, to be airlifted into this tiny town with its muddy paddocks and sheep and its fixations with rugby and beer and Lotto. Because my town was quite isolated geographically, the two ideas became linked in my mind.
One of the things that struck me throughout your essay is that in the cases of hikikomori, Agatsuma and your own experience in high school there's a sense of wanting to renounce the self, which is a desire that runs so counter to the narcissism and cultivation of selfhood which is pretty much at the centre of contemporary society. Was that something you wanted to emphasise in the essay?
Yes – but I think it's a tricky thing. By disconnecting yourself from others you can become numb; you can trick yourself into thinking that your self has gone, and this feels like a relief. But I believe it's also possible to trick yourself into thinking that you are freeing yourself, that only in isolation are you your true self. Your sense of self can, in brief bright moments, seem heightened. I think that can be a dangerous thing, because it takes you away from others, and not many people are strong enough to withstand that for a long time and to be okay. As a teenager, wanting to disappear or to hide from others is a very scary feeling, because no one teaches you what to do. I was always taught, implicitly, that those who shout the loudest are the ones who succeed. I was also taught that being by yourself was shameful, a symptom of something being very wrong with you. I very much wanted to protest against that, but also suggest that eventually you do need to come back, somehow, even if it takes a lifetime.
In the essay, you don't make an overt argument about there being anything inherent to New Zealand which intertwines the issues of place and solitude, and the importance of exterior and interior geography. But you do begin the piece with an epigraph taken from the NZ Department of Conservation, which turns the reader's thoughts in that direction. I wonder how strong you think that connection between New Zealand and isolation is, if at all?
It's something I feel really keenly every time I leave – the sense of New Zealand being far away. The epic flight reinforces it: watching the graphic of the plane crawling painfully slowly over that blue line towards its destination on the other side of the earth. So many people I've spoken to in the UK have said about New Zealand, 'It's very beautiful, isn't it, but it's so far away. How do you stand it?' There's the assumption that being far away is a terrible thing, even something to be feared. I still don't quite know how to answer, because I feel conflicted about it too. Something about Wellington is that you don't have to walk very far to feel intensely that you're a million miles from the rest of the world. Standing on a rugged, blustery coast always does it. But later I realised that you can get that feeling anywhere in the world. You can get it in a street in London. I'm sure you can get it in New York City. In Beijing. In Tokyo. New Zealand's size and its geographical distance from other countries has made it a kind of isolation symbol, but there is deep isolation to be felt everywhere. I guess, though, in the UK for instance, there's a sense that you can run away from it more easily. You can always go somewhere else; you can try to outrun it. But there aren't many places to run to in New Zealand.
Obviously, you're living in London at the moment. It still seems to be important for creative people from both New Zealand and Australia to go elsewhere – to the UK or America – to develop. Was that part of your reason for leaving New Zealand?
I'm writing this in a pub in Brixton, drinking a pint. There's a fire, and a couple of guys in big woolly jumpers with dogs – in coats – on their laps. I just really like it here. I'm here on a short sabbatical – back in New Zealand soon, for work and study. I lived here for a couple of years earlier, but life complicated things and I couldn't stay. I feel a really strong pull to this part of the world. I feel energised by its history, by the sense of something always going on, by the anonymity, by how it's completely okay to hang out on your own here. My first reason for leaving New Zealand wasn't to develop as a creative person or even to become a better person, it was just for love. I got on the plane with no idea what to do at the other end. But of course I'm glad I learnt how to be in another place. Back in New Zealand, I now feel an undercurrent of wishing I was elsewhere, which I didn't feel before. It's a funny paradox, to love a place deeply but also feel uncomfortable about committing to it. There's this line in Lawrence Arabia's song The 03 – the area code for the South Island – 'If I stay longer, I'll feel my mind surrender, and I'll write a dozen letters to the editor.' And that's the end of the song. In New Zealand, I often battle an urge to write letters to the editor. But maybe that's okay. Maybe the trick is to become friends with the editor. Or to become the editor.