Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, 2016), 223 pp., $30
Sometime in 2008 in Wellington, my good friend John Paul and I met for coffee at the Milk Crate in Quilters Bookshop. He told me about how his younger sister Ashleigh was studying creative writing and that some of the non-fiction pieces she was working on were about him. I asked him how he felt about that, and I remember how he said, resigned, that in order not to fret about what the people you write about might think, his sister’s tutor had advised the students to ‘write about people as if they are dead’.
John Paul is a friend who always inspired me to stretch my vocabulary, and I always admired his clever insights and beautifully unique way of looking at and experiencing the world. And these 21 superbly observed personal essays by Ashleigh Young show that this is something that must run in the family. And her family, from her brothers John Paul and Neil to her parents Russell and Julia, feature in many of these pieces. Young has a stunning sense of the quietly absurd, dryly hilarious, woebegone and wistful angles of life. She’s a sensitive writer and these are thoughtful and observational pieces written in an authentic voice.
Exploring family relationships and dynamics, domestic life, cycling, the physicality of bodies, growing up in small town Waikato and gig-going in Hamilton in the 1990s, it’s no surprise these perfectly pitched essays are so refined: they’ve been around for about six years, Young having won the Adam Prize for the manuscript after gaining an MA in creative writing from Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009. Her first book, the poetry collection Magnificent Moon, was a gem, and there are flashes of poetic observation throughout Can You Tolerate This? along with a knack for beautiful insights and turns of phrase. Young has a talent for activating the extraordinary out of the ordinary. The personal essay format suits her style, as she strikes a lovely balance between being direct and indirect, confronting things in an oblique way, writing through difficult thoughts and feelings, open, but never in a wimpy way. It’s impressive how Young can be so frank and revealing yet remain so cool.
Initially I didn’t like the title because it kept giving me the painful earworm of that terribly bombastic and earnest song ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, by the Manic Street Preachers. But when I came to the title essay and realised it was a reference to something uttered by a chiropractor, I laughed out loud at the scene.
Hypersensitive to chiropractic adjusting and spine-cracking manipulation, I winced through the piece ‘Can You Tolerate This?’. ‘Some people are so afraid of chiropractic that they become afraid of you if you mention your chiropractor’, writes Young, as her chiropractor pushes her spine so hard ‘it crackles electrically’. I am one of those people who dismiss chiropractic, much like scientology and homeopathy, as mumbo jumbo, but by the end of this essay I was really moved. ‘You come here to have your spine shoved or your head wrenched sideways’, she says, while highlighting her respect for and an almost platonic crush on her chiropractor, who ends up passing away.
Reading these essays, I was reminded of some forgotten far-out incidents that John Paul had recounted to me many years ago in letters. Young writes about her brother’s string of fascinating jobs: about the time he picked mangoes in Cairns, where he developed a skin rash from the 40 degrees Celsius heat and ‘caustic sap of the hundreds of mangoes that he lifted down the trees with a picking stick’. And about the time he spent as a shuttle driver in the high altitude of Denver, Colorado, narrowly escaping a treacherous crash one night. And then there’s the stint working at the parliament café Bellamy’s, and the spectacular time spent travelling the North Island giving a presentation called ‘The Logistics of a Manned Mission to Mars’, where fantastic storyteller John Paul educates school children about the ins and outs of space travel, complete with homemade cardboard props. Young describes her brother as someone who ‘could always get people to talk about themselves, to tell him their stories’; with this, one imagines, comes a kind of bone deep, emotional exhaustion.
Young writes with a warm fondness for her family, as seen in the essays ‘Big Red’ and showstopper ‘The Te Kuiti Underground’, which opens with this line from Russell Hoban: ‘It seems to me that the realest reality lives somewhere beyond the edge of human vision.’
Young writes about her hometown evocatively:
… the landscape of Te Kuiti created a delicious sadness in me. The hills, the rows of pines above a clay bank, the Te Kuiti sky, a smothering grey – these surroundings confirmed and enhanced my loneliness, showed me that it was real.
A wonderful work of family memoir, the essay goes on to detail her father Russell’s backstory, in particular his early experimentation with music with a group of friends which resulted in the mythical sounding ‘The Washhouse Tapes’. I remember John Paul giving me a dub of a dub of those tapes sometime in the late 90s, and I marvelled at how clever, funny and ‘outsider’ the songs were.
My parents would have dinner parties, and they’d get out the tape. I’d hear the familiar tinny racket, the voices crackling out, the piano with its yellow-sounding keys. I’d retreat to my room while they sat around crying with laughter. Every so often the battered cassette tape would be chewed up by the tape deck, and the creased magnetic spools would have to be teased out and rewound. Hutch and Jenny’s two daughters, Jessie and Sarah, hated the precious tape even more than I did, and protested vehemently, cruelly, whenever one of our dads put it on. Jessie once shouted, finally, ‘No one wants to hear your music, Dad,’ while Hutch, now a man in his fifties with greying ginger hair and aviator spectacles, acquiesced and gently ejected the tape from the machine.
While her writing is open and at times revealing (albeit in a measured way), Young somehow always manages to retain a kind of polite diplomacy. She doesn’t use the personal essay format as platform for payback or retaliation. She is never mean-spirited, only ever a class act.
The essay ‘Window Seat’ had me nodding with recognition. ‘We were still on the tarmac, and I was already feeling tired, because even though I’d enjoyed listening to the woman’s stories, I’d had to react with surprise and delight at them,’ Young says about being seated next to a chatty stranger on a plane trip. I was reminded of the time I settled in on a plane, ready to immerse myself in an Annie Dillard book, when the woman next to me (who practised homeopathy) proceeded to natter away at me for the entire duration of our flight. I engaged her, asking her about homeopathy and her backstory. Why do I always do that even when I don’t feel like it? I felt utterly drained and rinsed out by the time we reached our destination an hour later.
These essays tap into a personal, vaguely paranoid anxiety. On more than one occasion while reading these resonant pieces, I found myself uncomfortably wondering how on earth Young had such access to my own inner world. While these are personal essays, they feel so relatable and universal.
KIRAN DASS is an Auckland-based writer and reviewer who has written about music, film and books for the NZ Listener, The Wire, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Landfall, Real Groove, Rip it Up, NZ Musician, NZ Herald, Dominion Post, No, Pavement and Staple, as well as other publications.