Andrew Paul Wood
Ithaca by Alie Benge (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 264pp, $35.00
I have a love-hate relationship with personal essays. More often than not, they would be better as short fiction without the pretence of being autobiographical. As a rule of thumb, the personal essay should be avoided unless you have something exceptional to say or you can say it in an exceptional way. But as the poet Paul Valéry once said in a lecture: ‘Sometimes something wants to express itself, sometimes a means of expression wants something to say.’ It sounds better in French.
Auckland-born Alie Benge’s alarmingly brilliant debut collection of essays, Ithaca, generally manages to satisfy my two conditions. It is both something that needs to be said, of yearning, loneliness and belonging, and it is told in an enthralling style, full of striking images that go off like firecrackers when you least expect it.
I won’t call it a memoir per se because that makes Benge sound ancient, nor is it autobiography in the sense of a contextualising and cohesive record of the self. Indeed, at times I find myself pining for less interiority and more of an interrogation of the bigger, deeper social and political topology in which these events and experiences are nested. But this is not that kind of book and must be taken on its own terms.
There is a strong element of travelogue to Ithaca as well, though of an intensely personal perspective that sometimes doesn’t leave much impression of landscape or people. The spare prosody has wonderful, fluent flow. Benge is undeniably a great writer finding her stride, and any cavils I have must be understood in the context of this being a debut. Ultimately, each essay functions like a sort of literary selfie: we are looking at Benge and seeing the world over her shoulder.
The title underscores the theme—Ithaca was the home island of Odysseus that he spends the Odyssey trying to get back to. Home and voyaging. Which is the substance of Benge’s picaresque life. And heck has she lived. From a childhood in Ethiopia with her Christian missionary parents to winning the Landfall Essay Competition in 2017 for the essay ‘Shitfight’ (included in Ithaca) and an MA in Creative Writing from the Institute of Modern Letters at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington in 2018. She has been published in The Spinoff, takahē and elsewhere. In the spirit of full disclosure, she and I are both on the takahē editorial board.
And now she’s back in Europe. She is like an epiphyte, lacking roots, moving from tree to tree. These essays seem to be a working through of identity and a seeking for home, belonging and a sense of place (if you count the self a place). But to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there isn’t necessarily a there there—or at least a there, a place, as it is remembered. This provides the angst and the energy that fuels several of the narrative threads of Ithaca.
But there’s also an odd distance to the writing—as if Benge isn’t quite aware of how unusual these peregrinations are. The narratives often seem conducted at a cool, detached remove, as if she is writing about someone else’s life. It’s not a bad thing by any means, but much like Bryan Ferry’s tremulous falsetto, you can never quite tell if it’s unfeigned and authentic or a deliberate and clever aesthetic irony. Either way, it works well. The parts that are, perhaps, most relatable are those that deal with love, infatuation, family and the precarious minefield of dating in a time of plague.
In the first story, ‘The New Jerusalem’, there are some vivid passages describing Benge’s return to Ethiopia, such as bursting into tears at a waterless public toilet and refusing to drink water away from the hotel. But I’m not sure what to take from this. Is this the result of poverty? Crumbling infrastructure? A water shortage? Very likely all three, but this is never addressed and that bugs me.
The Ethiopians in the story barely register as anything other than functionaries, guides, helpful strangers and infrequent snippets of exposition, and they rarely demonstrate any agency or interiority. It also seems odd that as a New Zealand or Australasian author, and therefore part of a milieu currently immersed in postcolonial discourse, Benge never overtly raises the problematics of her parents being Christian missionaries in a country that was Christian even before most of Europe was.
Admittedly these are minor quibbles, but I’m preconditioned to be conscious of the politics. Even so, I can only wonder enviously at Benge’s deftness with compression to tell an entire story in a few lines, as in her account of Debre Birhan Selassie Church:
The trees surrounding the church were brown masses of beehives. When the Sudanese Dervishes burned Gondar, this church had been saved. The smoke reached the church before the Dervishes did and irritated the bees. When the gate was broken down, the bees swarmed out and the Sudanese ran, dropping their torches, swatting their hands about their faces. The churches in Gondar that survived were the ones with bees.
A beautiful, pithy mini-story within a story, but unless you’re a massive history nerd like me, you would be forgiven for not knowing this took place during the Mahdist conflicts ripping through the Horn of Africa in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Benge often sacrifices details like that as unnecessary or a hindrance to the flow and mechanics of the story, and it probably shouldn’t bother me. But it does.
Given the potential in the material, issues like this make ‘The New Jerusalem’ the least satisfying essay in the collection. I feel it was a mistake to make it the book’s first essay because I imagine many readers will find it a stumbling block. And that would be a terrible shame as the next essay, ‘Shitfight’, detailing Benge’s year in the Australian army, is marvellous.
Like most of the remaining essays, it’s short, and the brevity rewards the tight focus and self-deprecating humour—‘I knew how these things worked: I’d read Wilfred Owen’. It also opens with a killer observational line: ‘The grenades aren’t shaped like pineapples, as I thought they would be, but more like cans of Coke.’ The counterpoint of implied violence, absurdity, sharp observation and subverted stereotype is masterful in the handling and weighting.
The essay ‘Immigrant’ is one of the best in the collection, both gentle and raw by turns, opening a window to the complexities of the immigrant experience and Benge’s Croatian heritage. It is also one that I published in takahē when I was essays editor. This was quite some time before Benge joined the board. For me, ‘Immigrant’ remains an exemplary display of what it is possible to accomplish within the essay form.
In ‘Good Girl’, the author opens up about a sexual assault, clinically and candidly dissecting her trauma. This is one of the more psychologically complex pieces in Ithaca, not least because Benge avoids the temptation to perpetuate a cycle of self-retraumatisation. Instead, she provides a measure of detached and therapeutic self-observation. So, although heartfelt, it is less driven by anger and hurt than one might expect, but rather by the impact on Benge’s relationship with external touch and her own body:
How else can another body hurt me somewhere that my own body can’t reach? I cannot enter in and pluck out the splinter that was left in me. Unwanted touch induces in me the same sick feeling, of an intimacy that isn’t right, isn’t real. It confuses love.
‘To the Holy Place’ is personally my favourite essay here. There is something original and right about working through a relationship on the Camino de Santiago, the 800km medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the shrine of Saint James. It has a remarkable balance and feeling to it, although, again, I would have appreciated a bit more historical and geographical context.
Reading to the end of the book, one is left deeply impressed with the style, pacing, wit and intelligence but with a lingering dissatisfaction. Individually the essays are scintillating but never quite coalesce into an overarching whole in the way, for example, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green (2006) does.
While ambitiously oceanic in breadth, scope and range, Ithaca does tend to restrict itself to what it says on the tin and doesn’t plumb the profundity or analysis one might expect of someone casting themselves as a wandering outsider. You’re not going to get Katherine Mansfield’s social observation or Janet Frame’s existential tightrope. But you are going to get some marvellous, artful writing that rewards a bit of patience.
Based on this polished and sparkling but also vexing effort, I look forward to Benge’s next book. I am sure that it will surpass the mixed bag of Ithaca and be something that will consistently astonish us all.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Timaru-based critic, independent cultural historian, arts journalist, translator and factotum. He is art editor at takahē magazine and his latest book Shadow Worlds: A history of the occult and esoteric in New Zealand, was published this year by Massey University Press.