Sigrid Nunez. Photo: © Marion Ettlinger.
Certain books—the best ones—feel ordained, their creation inevitable, their nonexistence unimaginable. If the path to that existence was imperiled, the inevitable quality is only enhanced: the indispensable book exists not despite but because of those obstacles. Sigrid Nunez’s 1995 debut, A Feather on the Breath of God, suggests, with its title, haphazard travel, and in fact the book did follow a halting and elliptical path to existence. But the book is no feather. It sails to its mark like an arrow, laying bare an untold past at the same time as it lays out a suddenly imaginable future. The book is both arrival and departure, for both author and readers.
Sigrid Nunez is the sort of writer who is always going to say it better than the rest of us; better than me, at least. Already I find that, at the end of many months’ rumination and many hours’ active struggle I have, with my very first complete paragraph above on the subject of Sigrid Nunez, plagiarized her. Rummaging the drawers of expression in hopes of finding something adequate to the immediacy and power that so startled me the first time I ever encountered her work, I’ve grabbed hold of what turns out to be secondhand Sigrid, not even an accurate theft. In the fourth section, titled “Immigrant Love,” of this four-section book, Nunez writes:
The wish to be all body, the dream of a language of movement, pure in a way that speech (“the foe of mystery”—Mann) can never be pure—I would not have been the same lover if I had not danced. And it has been a real ambition of mine, thwarting other ambitions, coming between me and all other goals: to be a woman in love. In love lies the possibility not only of fulfillment but of adventure and risk, and for once I was not afraid—either to suffer or to make suffer. In more than one language the words for love and suffering are the same, and I have flung myself from cliffs, I have hurled myself at men’s hearts like a javelin. [final emphasis mine]
At readers’ hearts, too, she has flung herself like a javelin. Now it’s all too clear to me that my derivative arrow sentence betrays the marks, or perhaps the puncture wounds, her work has made on me. It’s all there in the paragraph I’ve quoted: the incantatory rhythms making deft use of repetition and variation; the virtuosic accumulation of tension—the staccato interruptions of the em dash—that deft turn from the prepositional “woman in love” to the declarative “In love lies … ”; the refusal to so much as signal what might arrive next and the sly subversion of our stubbornly formed expectations; at last, the dazzling blow of revelation. “For once I was not afraid—either to suffer or to make suffer”—When has this person ever been afraid? we cry in a protest Nunez promptly meets, with the effect that our shock is redoubled for having been anticipated: “The words for love and suffering are the same, and I have flung myself from cliffs, I have hurled myself at men’s hearts like a javelin.” That “wish to be all body,” that “dream of a language of movement,” which is pure in the way that speech “can never be,” has in fact been realized in the very passage that declares such realization impossible. To the extent that the dazzling unpredictability of Nunez’s prose can ever be mapped—hence predicted—here is one facet: this realization, in language, of contradiction. Nunez’s sentences are very like the ballet she describes with such breathtaking, almost cruel fidelity: sentences that press tension on tension until they prize themselves open, while still maintaining such a purity of form as to seem at once both ravaged and intact. “Straining beauty,” her narrator thinks, on observing a bouquet of peonies in a state of “overbloom”: “They have turned themselves practically inside out … There seems to me something almost generous about this.” A better description of her writing won’t be found anywhere else.
A Feather on the Breath of God begins as a mystery story. The first of its four sections, “Chang,” seeks an Asian father who has not vanished so much as failed to appear—at least, to his white wife and mixed daughters. One of them—our narrator—assembles him from paltry scraps, not least her own blindness to him. He was an ethnic Chinese man from Panama. He never really learned English and was rarely heard speaking Chinese. Of a relationship to Spanish, speculation is not even possible. He had mothers in both countries or neither; was called Carlos, or Chang, maybe both; was taciturn to the point of resembling an idol of clay, and also loved singing along to Hank Williams. In other words, he is contradiction, incoherence, and loss, the sort of subject a lesser writer might find was no subject at all. But for Nunez, his very absence from her gaze is precisely the subject, and her portrait of this man who cannot be portrayed not only bodies forth his absence but the contending forces that have made him that way and even—finally—his irreducible self, though this can only be sensed through its residue. The man himself is long gone, the seeker too late.
I first read “Chang” in the early nineties while in graduate school. Only Nunez’s third publication of any kind (one predecessor was a story in Ellery Queen!), “Chang” had been accepted by The Threepenny Review in 1989 after Nunez’s friend Leonard Michaels showed it to Wendy Lesser, Threepenny’s editor. Two years later “Christa,” which would become the second part of A Feather on the Breath of God, was published in The Iowa Review, and another two years after that “Chang” was reprinted in the Asian American literature anthology Charlie Chan Is Dead, which was where I encountered it. I had joined an Asian American literature reading group that year, a time when it still seemed possible to master that subject and maybe even, by extension, one’s own subjectivity, in a single semester. For me everything about the group proceeded from or resulted in discomfort. I had joined the group hoping to alleviate discomfort and instead found myself uncomfortable in new ways I hadn’t thought of before. Everything I read seemed to be a worse fit than before I’d ventured onto hyphenated ground, worse than my blithe trespasses on Austenian estates or to the Ramsays’ lighthouse, which I’d made without a thought to my credentials. Then “Chang” shocked me with my own discomfort—it seemed to have eyes watching me from the page. Of the numerous very good books, stories, and plays the group read that semester I retained nothing but “Chang.” I snuck off to make a photocopy from the anthology, ancestor to the photocopy I have to this day. More than a quarter of a century later, at the end of an introductory fiction-writing class in which I taught “Chang” for at least the fiftieth time, one of my students approached me, near tears. She explained she was the daughter of immigrants, an Ecuadorean mother and a half-Chinese, half-Mexican father, reminiscent of the father in “Chang.” She wanted to thank me for assigning the story. She hadn’t known there was writing like this: writing that could make her feel seen.
If “Chang” is a mystery story of absence, “Christa” is a reckoning with presence—not only the outsize, operatic presence of Christa herself but the presence of all the ramifying complexities unleashed by “Chang” and “Christa” in tandem. In her life as a beginning author, Nunez had initially been content to publish “Chang” and “Christa” as two solo acts; in art as in life it was when the pair drew ineluctably together that the problems began. An early agent of Nunez’s sent the pair on submission as a novella-length book; the unanimously negative responses ranged from at best “a kind of pleading” that Nunez make both sections longer, to the sort of outright condemnation (“Horrible! Garbage! This is not a novel”) that would prompt most writers to throw in the towel. What none of the naysayers seem to have considered was that the pairing of “Chang” and “Christa” might be incomplete not because either of those pieces—each as perfect as anything that has ever been published—ought to be padded out further, but because the two pieces, set next to each other, reactively ignite the sort of fireworks that require a different and ample horizon against which to be seen. The Chang/Christa story so far—of origin and displacement, identity and erasure, of native land and native tongue and unrequited searching—has to move out of the past: into the present, and the body.
Nunez has said that after the widespread rejection of the Chang/Christa novella, she considered never folding the two pieces into a single book at all. We can be glad she changed her mind. “Chang” and “Christa” conjoined not only point forward to the thematic complexity Nunez achieves with all four parts of the book united but also to the unmistakable and indispensable voice that, after its perfection in this book, would go on to be resurrected in two (to date) brilliant descendants. Early in “Christa,” a seemingly throwaway joke belies all that A Feather on the Breath of God isn’t, and is:
One day I came home to find her with a copy of Lolita. The woman who lived downstairs had heard it was a good dirty book and had gone out and bought it. Disappointed, she passed it on to my mother. (“So, is it dirty?” “No, just a very silly book by a very clever man.”)
Like Nabokov, Nunez is a writer forged from conditions of exile, homeland loss, and language unease. Unlike Nabokov, Nunez persistently diminishes and complicates her own narrator’s authority, whether by her admission that she cannot see her subject clearly (Christa) or that, until his death, she never even tried (Chang); or by detailing, in all their unsustainable spuriousness, her justifications for the abusive culture of ballet, and the abusive acts of one beloved man. What sifts into the multitudinous and deliberate fissures in the novel’s narrative authority is empathetic identification: with the subject of inquiry, with the self, with the reader, with conditions of life that are far from unique to the immigrant, the unsheltered, or the dispossessed. It is ironic that our literary culture so elevates Nabokov as a writer of exile and loss, despite the enormous and damaging failures of his work to achieve empathetic identification, particularly with displaced and dispossessed women. When Nunez’s Christa—a European exile like Nabokov himself—dismisses Lolita as “a silly book by a clever man” (and in a parenthetical, no less!), the moment, like all moments in Nunez’s book, passes swiftly—Nunez never sets up a flagpole, never seeks to attract the label “clever” to herself—but even tossed off the reference is telling. Their similarities in subject highlight their stark difference in style: Nunez’s being so transparent, so attuned to the sound of voices other than her own, so uninterested in demonstrations of her own cleverness, that her own presence and project are consistently effaced in favor of the subject under consideration. That subject is not merely Christa but the defeated German nation of midcentury, and the indelible fairy tale of white supremacy, and the equally indelible and discredited gospel of European cultural superiority; not merely Chang but the existential conundrum of Asian “racial” identity, the untold losses of the Asian diaspora throughout the Americas, and the persistent emasculation of the Asian male—a racist tool forged so effectively by American society that it most easily comes to hand not to hostile strangers but to the man’s own family. Unlike the sort of writing that takes from its subject of consideration the opportunity to make a point, or move a plot, or—as especially in Nabokov’s case—showcase virtuosity, Nunez’s prose gives: a pure attention and illumination. Nunez’s writing bestows.
Nunez has described A Feather on the Breath of God as autofiction, a term that, she told me, she understands less with reference to such contemporaries as Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner than to forebears such as Rilke and Proust: “It’s always in the first person and the ‘I’ is the author … It’s recognizably Sigrid and her background, who’s always transparently engaged in writing this book you’re reading, in which ‘I’ am the consciousness and everything I observe is mine.” Nunez attributes many of the rejections of the early Chang/Christa submission to genre confusion provoked by this voice: “People said, What is this? Is it fiction, or a memoir? It can’t be both! It really seemed to throw people.” Hewing to that voice, Nunez not only finally completed the book that for me sits alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus as one of the very few truly great debuts in American literary history, but also set the groundwork for 2018’s The Friend and its follow-up, 2020’s What Are You Going Through. “After I finished [The Friend] I realized how close that narrator is to the narrator of Feather: same consciousness, interest in reading, tendency to quote readings, solitariness. And as soon as I started writing What Are You Going Through I realized the great similarity between its narrator and that of The Friend.” The troubled and halting trajectory by which “Chang” and “Christa” became A Feather on the Breath of God had been a swift arrow’s flight all along—to our present moment, at which Nunez is finally gaining the wide readership she has always deserved, and to her work’s future. “When I finished The Friend I thought, ‘Oh look what I did, I went all the way back to my writerly roots!’” Nunez told me, laughing. “And this is where I’m staying— at least for now.”
Susan Choi’s first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, received a 2014 Lammy Award. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, received the 2019 National Book Award for fiction. She has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2019 she published her first book for children, Camp Tiger. She teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives with her family in Brooklyn.
This essay appears as the foreword to the reissue edition of Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God, out from Picador on August 31, 2021.
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