The Art of Losing

My latest collection of short stories are pieces I have gathered from my experience of living on five continents, of living through war, dictatorships, a religious cult, working with refugees, of losing houses, countries, people and identities.

J.M. Coetzee claims that ‘all autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography’. The interesting thing about writing these short stories – and you will know this if you have ever grappled with transmuting real life experience into fiction, or discovered that your fiction is more autobiographical than you first thought – is that the story form itself dictates the trajectory of the story. I have tried to follow the truth of the events I describe (down to the details of the glint of sun on the fender of the Volvo that the Iraqi man is washing an hour before his daughter is killed by a roadside bomb), but I have had to also follow the truth that emerges when writing a story, a deeper truth in a language I am only beginning to understand. A narrative may begin with an idea, an image, an intent or a
slice of lived experience, but the act of telling transforms it into something else – art. And by art I do not mean ‘Art’ with a capital A, but the skill of crafting, words. The art of losing is also a skill one acquires through failure, betrayal, heartache.

Most of these stories have been published in various literary journals around the world over many years, but as I gather them together, I find that they have common themes, strands that twine through them – survival, slivers of glass or debris embedded in skin, the weight of relationships, and
loss. Losing things is the quintessential human experience. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’ (1979) was initially called ‘The Art of Losing’. On the surface, the poem is about how easy it is to acquire the skill of losing things. Start small, with keys, then move onto houses, continents, people. But she is being ironic – at a deeper level she is struggling with the pain of loss. ‘Write it!’ she says in the last line, and so transforms loss into art where writing about loss allows the author to regain something, ‘unlose’ it. After I wrote my memoir Soldier Blue (2008) about growing up in a civil war, for example, the PSTD and nightmares ceased. The past transformed through art into a thing of value, not a regret or a wound – but an artefact: art
as scar tissue, perhaps. These twenty stories lurch from continent to continent, from child to teen to adult, from past to present, from war
to peace, from me to you. Please accept my gift of loss, transformed by art.

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