Gail Ashton's autobiography, Not the Sky finds a unique way through memory and family history. In this article, she talks a little about the book.
2019. The fortieth anniversary of my mother's sudden death at the age of forty. 2019. The year, too, in which our aunt, my other's youngest sister, dies, also suddenly, the third of five sisters to be killed by breast cancer and its terrible insidious offspring. And this is the year that Cinnamon Press publish Not the Sky. I couldn't have hoped for a more accidental happenstance.
Tom Robbins says, "People write memoirs because they lack the imagination to make things up." A comment such as this assumes that memoir is in the business of recording facts, and, that, in so doing, it yields some kind of truth, for the author, perhaps for the reader too, else why do we read or write them? If I ever intended to write Not the Sky as that kind of memoir, such ideas soon fell away.
We romanticise the family 'past'— its collective tales, vignettes, colourful incidents, its characters and their sayings, their larger-than-life hues. Such stories help us bond. They inhere as 'fact' when they're nothing more than half-cocked remembrance, strange Chinese Whispers, even speculative fantasy. Hilary Mantel's words in Giving Up the Ghost resonated with me when she writes that "once a family has acquired a habit of secrecy, memories begin to distort." We fill in the gaps, make and remake newer narratives from which timelines slip away. I too was trying to make sense of missing sequences, of things never quite told, and, like Mantel, my memories flooded in, synaesthetic and sensory, which lends them but an illusory reality. They "come complete", wearing clothes that disguise their unreliability, so that the story of childhood "is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me."
I (re)constructed my family, and our collective past, so often in psychodynamic therapy that it came to seem increasingly alive and 'real.' There's no doubt that ghost do live and intersect our present day lives and selves. But at the heart of this is an essential paradox which is that as fast as I was apparently authenticating this 'story', its complex narratives were nothing more than constructs. I could edit and hone in as many therapeutic sessions as I liked. I could revisit and let things harden as 'fact' in as many conversations with my sister as I liked because she shares this history too. In each of those contexts, I had a seemingly captive audience. In each of those contexts, I and my addressees had different vested interests. So, I grew frustrated, even bored, with this story, a story that had been demanding to be written for many years. This story, I soon realised, was never enough, never anything other than partial, always incomplete because of course the dead can't answer questions, though the dead do talk back, and they never say what you want them to say. As fast as I confronted a secret, that secret twisted and bucked with a life I never suspected it had. And as much as I wanted this memoir to be a life, mine, my mother's, my father's, it refused to go anywhere near a destination that might incorporate a final sum of its parts. It remained chaotic, marked by upheaval, quarrels, estrangements. It was full of second-hand glimpses and third-hand lies — turbulent, alive and kicking all the way to its last pages.
Writing always ask the past to justify itself, to give its reason… What we want is a narrative… a tale… That is why most people write memoirs using the conventions not of history, but of fiction.
I write in this memoir that there is truth; that is to say there are historical documents and dated events. And there is gospel truth, as in believing that Mary in the Bible was a virgin. But gospel truth is more: it's re-creative, imagining, a juxtaposition of then and now, or now and to come, tonight's moon, tomorrow's moon. Its voices are as alive as they are dead, which is how I come to take tea with a dead mother or have my late father appear in our garden, how aunty May becomes a skylark. Not mere wish-fulfilment fantasies but possibilities, imaginative leaps, attempts to fill in the gaps that create yet more gaps, and, guess what, none of it matters as 'truth.'
My tale raised questions and try as I might I can't answer any of them. Moreover, I don't wish or need to — which is why my sister and I have yet to take that DNA test — and neither does the reader. One reader spoke of "trying to tease out truth between the lines and then realising it doesn't matter" (Angela France). The book starts, or appears to start with truth. My father's funeral is fact, it happened, and at the time I say it did. Likewise, later, my mother's death, also fact. What of the rest of this memoir? The solution to that conundrum lies in its chosen form.
Chronological time offers dates, times, history. It structures itself and assumes a more or less commanding version of what is fact, what is real. It is coherent: we are born, we die, and somewhere in the middle we may, or may not, live. Not the Sky and the 'truths' it imagines is not that kind of life, not that kind of memoir. Italo Calvino calls for genuine, modest things: memoir, notes, short stories, the things I've always written, my poems increasingly short or elliptical, the fragments of prose half-formed creatures without a traditional beginning, middle, end. To try to impose any other kind of form on Not the Sky was not authentic. Moreover, the book wouldn't let me. Calvino also calls for "books that are open, without a preconceived plan." It would be disingenuous to claim I had no plan for a book that's been drafted to within an inch of its life. And, of course, I know what happens and how the events pan out; the standing joke in our house while I was writing it was 'has anyone died yet?' I had thought it would be two parts, mother, father. Father insisted on speaking first. Other voices crowded in. Narrative came, like memory, in sharp vivid bursts and demanded its own ways of telling, so that, in the end, the book almost wrote itself: three parts echoing the title, interrupted and interrupting narrative sequences. It was a noisy book, as argumentative as some of its characters. It gained its own ground, full of black humour and upheaval, its dialogue brutal working-class Brummie dialect. Then another tone arrived. This one spoke to loss, was sudden and lyrical, a contrapuntal music that I'd not considered at all. It may or may not work. But there was no other way I could have written it at the time I wrote it.
My mother says, "Where are we? What's going on?"
She is like a balloon rising on an air. I call up to her, "You never remember a thing. Surely you know?" I say. A balloon, rising on an air, higher. "You died," I say. "It was a long time ago."
"I did no such thing," she says. "I'd never just up and leave you girls."