An onlooker at the Carnival of Snackery

‘When is the last time an actual human interaction made you laugh more than
a meme did?’
– Samantha Irby

If I hadn’t been immersed in the Sedarian worldview, I probably wouldn’t have made the offhand joke about ghosts to the ferry attendant. I definitely wouldn’t have caught that his intention, when he asked me about my beliefs regarding first ghosts, then angels, was to propound his own theories on the latter. And that would have meant not learning about how his personal angel recently saved him $18 at the car wash.

The Sedarian worldview is Jack Gilbert’s ‘A Brief for the Defense’, except the poor women laughing together at the fountain ‘between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future’ transform into a man encountering a rodent with a Cheeto in its mouth at Times Square. Somebody in the village is still very sick, and people are still dying in the Syrian civil war. We can’t weep all the time, so thank goodness for mice and ‘crumbled ham dummy’ and the pancake restaurant on Cox Road in Gastonia, North Carolina, that answers the phone with ‘IHOP on Cox!’

In the Sedarian worldview, everyone has the potential to share absurd and shocking revelations, if only we’re willing to listen and ask questions. Those questions can’t be how are you, how was your flight, how’s your day. Forget tedious small talk and jump straight in with ‘What’s your take on sausage?’

Everyone also has the potential to be an inconsiderate chatterbox holding up the queue at the airport Starbucks when you’re rushing to catch a connecting flight. And those people are never sharing their take on sausage, but droning on uselessly. Be compelling or get out of the way.

A Carnival of Snackery is the second volume of David Sedaris’s diaries, covering 2003 to 2020. Volume one begins in 1977, its 20-year-old author penniless and scrabbling for work in his North Carolina hometown, a man with artistic ambitions but only vague plans to realise them. It takes him years to get to art school in Chicago, then to scrounge enough cash to move to New York. By the end, he’s published to wide acclaim, winning major awards, and buying property in France. As a narrative arc, it doesn’t leave anywhere for him to go in volume two, except all around the world to meet his fans and shop for human skeletons (as a gift), and to upgrade from first class to a private jet (but only a hired one). When a fellow grocery shopper suggests how he can save money on brussels sprouts, Sedaris replies, ‘That’s okay. I’m rich.’

This could be off-putting to those who haven’t read the ‘David Copperfield Sedaris’ installment or his essays on growing up gay in the American South. Juxtaposed with the jet-setting, however, is his hobby of picking up roadside trash attired like a homeless man. That, and his love for his readers, his willingness to stay at book signings until midnight to ensure he engages with everyone. Billy Collins says writing is about the love of strangers, and this is at the core of Sedaris’s work.

What drives Snackery is a melancholy truth. Despite immense wealth and success – the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him into its exclusive fold in 2019 – Sedaris is stuck being himself. Teens whack him in the head as they pass on their bikes and he’s too cowardly to shout at them. A pool lifeguard’s scolding makes him want to cry. And despite talking to fans and strangers around the world, he lacks confidence: ‘I just can’t for the life of me figure out what to say to people.’ His youngest sister grapples with mental illness and commits suicide. His cantankerous father disapproves of him and crows about Trump. There’s blood in his urine, so a doctor sticks a camera up his penis. Life comes for you, even when you’re number one on the bestseller lists.

If starved, a humpback cricket will chew off its own legs, even though they don’t regenerate. ‘So it eats its legs, and, unable to escape danger, it promptly gets eaten itself.’ Which, Sedaris comments, seems like something he would do. What propels Snackery beyond cleverly crafted introspection and observation is all those conversations with readers and strangers. We get to contemplate the world from Sedaris’s experience and theirs. He tells a friend about someone who, back in the day, chose to defecate into his hand rather than end a call on a corded phone, and she responds, ‘Haven’t you ever shit in your hand?’ This would be the end of it for most authors, but Sedaris uses his book signing to conduct a survey on the matter, leaving us in terror of ever shaking hands again.

But then. After a hearing impaired cashier charges him 10 pence for a bag he doesn’t want, he riffs, ‘When we tell the disabled they can do anything they want in this world, don’t we mean … something, well, that can be accomplished at home?’ It’s the kind of ableist comment that would get him cancelled on social media, if he used it. And I get it, I get jokes, the humour sits in the disparity between the triviality of being charged a tiny sum for an unwanted item and the sweeping generalisation that millions of individuals should stay out of abled-bodied people’s way. Being disabled myself, it jars. Maybe that’s quibbling.

Commenting on the term Latinx, Sedaris says he’s not in favour of rebranding, conceptually. If he doesn’t want be called queer, fine, noted. This comes from the volume’s closing passage, which builds to a joke about forgiving historical figures for being a product of their time and suggests, instead, replacing statues in order to give someone new the chance ‘to scowl down at some godforsaken traffic circle’, someone like Sedaris himself. This is genuinely funny, and the Latinx commentary isn’t needed to get there. That said, Sedaris isn’t railing against the term, just pointing out that he doesn’t understand the need for it, possibly because he ‘turned old’ – 64 – and is feeling the change in his lack of understanding.

In blood spatter analysis, forensic experts look for voids, places where one would expect to see blood but none is present. Likewise in edited diaries, the question is omnipresent – if you put this in, what did you leave out? Along with approximately 300 mentions of mice, Sedaris excised many of the offensive jokes he collects, lamenting our current culture of touchiness. Still, none of the jokes included in Snackery are about gay men. Most are of the misogynist ha-ha-my-wife-is-terrible variety, though occasionally husbands get bashed for a laugh as well. These aren’t Sedaris’s jokes, but ones shared with him. I’d rather read about a mouse with a Cheeto.

Gay men come up a lot of course, often when Sedaris comments on the news. They’re targeted in shootings, attacked with boiling water, conflated with paedophiles. When Sedaris and his partner discuss their experiences of sexual assault, he reveals he was raped three times, by different men. ‘Rape is not a word I use lightly, though at the time I wouldn’t have used it at all – didn’t know I had the right to.’ It’s a poignant moment, and still he manages humour, noting that at the time, going to the police would have been ‘like complaining about the blisters the axe brought on while you were chopping up the statue of Christ’.

Maybe it’s like that with humour. Share enough jokes and you’re bound to offend someone, especially these days. Like all those statues, Sedaris is a product of a time that is slipping into history. All the while, he encourages us to be more curious about the people around us, to open ourselves up to each other even though it’s awkward and we’ll probably misstep and encounter people who dislike us or are arbitrarily cruel.

Babies are still starving someplace, but elsewhere there’s a woman who will tell us about her volunteer work with monkeys, if only we’re willing to ask.

~

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Interested in developing your creative non-fiction skills? Join me for a six-week online course, accessible from anywhere in the world. Full details here >>

Ep 58 When your body betrays you with author Rae Cairns

After a broken finger brought on a debilitating illness, author Rae Cairns lost two years as her doctors searched for the right treatment. A bad reaction to drugs caused her hair to fall out. When her health had stabilised enough for her to return to writing, she lost her literary agent.

Undeterred, Rae self-published her first novel. After being shortlisted for a major award, she had a new agent and a two-book publishing deal with HarperCollins with a few weeks.

In episode 58, Rae talks to James and Ashley about living with chronic invisible illness, coping with brain fog, and cultivating the resilience to share a story that, in her words, she just had to tell.

Rae Cairns’s debut novel, The Good Mother, was shortlisted for the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for Best Debut Crime Fiction, and was published by HarperCollins in 2022. Her second novel will be out in 2023. Rae lives in Sydney.

Rae’s rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis came out of the blue. ‘My body had been my strength, and all of a sudden it was betraying me.’ Later she learned that at least one other person in her family had the condition, but when she first began experiencing the onset of symptoms, they came as a shock.

To return to novel writing and go on to achieve the huge success she’s had with The Good Mother, Rae has had to learn how to manage her symptoms, including the brain fog that still causes her to lose entire days and struggle to recall even the simplest words.

She wrote the first draft of The Good Mother by hand – ‘now, with joint issues, that’s not possible.’

‘I had to get a new relationship with everything in my life,’ she says, including her husband, her children, and her writing.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
The Missing Among Us by Erin Stewart (ep 54);
Daughters of Eve by Nina D Campbell;
Black and Blue by Veronica Gorrie;
Autumn by Ali Smith;
The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet;
Negative Space by BR Yeager;
My Name Is Revenge by Ashley Kalagian Blunt;
Goat Mountain by David Vann;
It by Stephen King

Listen to this episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 53 Happiness in a turbulent world with award-winning author Fiona Robertson

Fiona Robertson lived with migraines for years, writing short stories as a creative pursuit. Now she’s free from migraines and the award-winning author of the debut short story collection, If You’re Happy. Her work explores the lives of lonely people seeking happiness in a turbulent world.

In episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Fiona discusses the common threads that bind her stories, why they’re her chosen form, and how living with unpredictable chronic illness impacted her life and creative work.

Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia and the UK, and has been shortlisted for international competitions. Her collection of stories, If You’re Happy, won the Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. Fiona lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

Plus, Fiona and I talk about our fellowships at KSP Writers Centre in 2017, and how the benefits of such opportunities extend far beyond writing time.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
– Louise Allan
The Keepers by Al Campbell, plus her Sydney Morning Herald article, ‘The disappointing question I most often got after writing a book
Long Road to Dry River by Jen Severn
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
– David Vann
Denizen by James McKenzie Watson, out 19 July 2022!

Listen to episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

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Just announced! I’m teaching a one-day in-person memoir workshop for Writing NSW on Saturday 7 May. If you’re in the midst of writing a memoir, or hoping to start one, this is everything you need to know. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>

Ep 28 Burning out with Dr Yumiko Kadota, author of Emotional Female

Yumiko Kadota was a junior doctor and working hard towards her goal of becoming a plastic surgeon in NSW. But the demands of her workplace became increasingly extreme, and she found herself dealing with bullying, sexism and racism, as well as unreasonable hours. If anyone should know how important sleep is for the body, it should be health care professionals (and the people who manage their rosters). Right?

Instead of sleeping, Yumiko was working longer and longer hours, and was constantly on call. Her health started to deteriorate.

By the time she left her job, she was so unwell that she ended up back in hospital – as a patient.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast yumiko kadota quote

She recounts her journey from ambitious student to junior doctor to patient suffering burnout and depression in her new memoir, Emotional Female.

In episode 28 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Yumiko about putting your health first, how burnout affects empathy, and the stigma of invisible illness.

We also discuss Yumiko’s experience with chronic fatigue and the research it inspired: ‘I knew that what I’d experienced was real, and I wanted science to back it up.’

We also discuss why the working conditions of doctors are important for everyone: ‘One of the features of burnout is a lack of empathy [which] really affects the quality of care given to patients.’

Books discussed in this episode
– ‘A Room Called Earth’ by Madeleine Ryan
– ‘Earthlings’ by Sayaka Murata
– ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy
– ‘Thus Spoke the Plant’ by Monica Gagliano

Listen to episode 28 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 16: Living in different universes with Ada Palmer, author and historian

In episode 16, James and I interview author and historian Ada Palmer about living with chronic pain and studying the past to imagine the future. She offers excellent advice to those managing invisible illness, while also acknowledging how hard it can be.

Ada is an author of science fiction and fantasy, a historian at the University of Chicago, and a composer and musician. Her book series, Terra Ignota, published by Tor, explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations. The first volume, Too Like the Lightning, was a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo award. Ada teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, heresy, atheism, and censorship.

Ada has achieved all this and more while living with a number of invisible chronic illnesses, including Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

“There’s nothing more similar than history and science-fiction,” Ada says. “It’s studying long periods of time in which societies change, whether future or past.”

In our interview, she describes her academic research as the history of worldviews, and how she uses her research into the past to imagine human societies hundreds of years in the future, asking, “How does the future think about us?”

Ada also discusses how her Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome have resulted in chronic, sometimes crippling pain, and how she’s learning to cope with living with invisible illness.

“When it’s the same pain in the same nerves over a long time, it causes cognitive trauma damage.”

Ada describes coming to understand herself as disabled as “a powerful and interesting turning point”. The first time that she raised the topic with her university students, she was surprised by their enthusiasm to discuss and learn more.

“It helped me realise how powerful it was as a conversation, how powerful it was for the students for that silence to break, and how powerful it was for somebody’s who’s in a role-model position to talk about it with them.” Her students’ support gave her the confidence to speak to her department head and colleagues about her illness and its challenges.

In this episode, we also talk about authors Arkady Martine, Claire G Coleman, Gene Wolfe, Neil Price, Junji Ito, Julian Barnes, Anita Heiss, Evelyn Araluen, and of course, Voltaire and Diderot.

You can listen to episode 16 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

The Lost Hours Project

This is my fourth year with chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m so much better than I was, and I’m still so far away from reliably good health.

Because CFS is an invisible illness, and because I sometimes post pictures of myself out doing things, it’s understandably hard to reconcile how sick I still am with the public image I create.
Person with invisible illness sleeping
I understand this – it’s hard even for me sometimes. This week I had five very good days in a row, and caught myself thinking, for the ten-millionth time, ‘if I feel this good now, how could I go back to feeling sick? This must be the end of it.’

On Friday I made a list of things I wanted to get done this weekend. It wasn’t an overly ambitious list, just the usual getting priorities organised. It did include a few important things, like working on the copy edit for my new book. I was also hoping to write a fresh interesting post for y’all.

By noon on Saturday, my body was not having any of it. I spent the rest of the weekend curled underneath my weighted blanket. I have no idea how this week will go.

This year I decided to track how many hours I lose each month to illness, as a way of sharing the reality of chronic fatigue syndrome, and also as a way of (hopefully) showing my erratic but gradual improvement between now and December.

I’m doing this now in part because the number of hours will be tolerable to calculate. In the past they would have been too depressing.

In January I lost 89 hours. If you assume the average healthy adult should have 16 waking hours per day, then in January a healthy person should have had 496 waking hours. I lost nearly 20 per cent of the month, and that’s doing really well compared to previous years.

In other words, I lost 1 in every 5 days and I can still call that ‘doing really well’.

The numbers help, because even the photo can’t convey the reality. It doesn’t show the achy, flu-like symptoms, the cognitive struggle, the hours leading up to this moment that I’m still calling ‘productive’ even though I was struggling to hold myself upright, to think straight.

You can follow the lost hours project via Instagram. Whatever else is happening for you, I wish you good health. 

Ashley
xo

Two furry weirdos make your day

Those who have been closely following my journey through chronic fatigue will remember my tedious recovery routine, which I described back in March. The routine involves multiple daily rest periods in which I’m allowed to do very little except drink tea and look at trees.

I’m also allowed to pat a pet, but as I wrote at the time, ‘This sounds great, except I don’t have a pet (I am in the market to borrow your pets, if you don’t mind bringing them by five times a day, or just donating them for the duration of my illness).’ Someone suggested I get a cat, but I was pretty certain no cat would permit the strict patting routine my recovery program requires.

I was right.

Still, when I was offered the opportunity to look after two cats over the holidays, I wasn’t going to turn it down. Especially because the cats live in a gorgeous house in Singapore, a house belonging to a friend who is both a talented artist and art collector.

Cat One would occasionally allow me to pat her for part of a break. When she was happy, she’d headbutt me. She also had a tendency to drool huge puddles when I scratched her ears. She was a sleek goddess of a cat with pure silver fur, always slinking off. Cat snuggles during chronic fatigue rest break
Cat Two loved sleeping on keyboards. That was his thing. Here’s his little tail twitching in utter delight because of all those plastic keys under his fur.

They had fancy cat names, but I was too tired to remember them, and they didn’t answer to them anyways. They’re cats. We called them Cat One and Cat Two because that was the order we met them in (Cat Two managed to get himself locked in a bedroom before we arrived, and required first locating, then rescuing, hence his secondariness).

Cat Two almost never allowed me to pat him during my rest breaks, because my breaks didn’t involve a keyboard. But he loved it when I sat down to write, which I managed to do most days for an hour or two. As soon as I sat at the desk, he’d appear in the doorway, jump onto the desk, and flop onto my keyboard and papers. This earned him the nickname Flopsy Mopsy.

He’d lie on the keyboard, purring like a little engine, and stretch out his paws one a time, like he was doing cat yoga. He also liked to rub his jaw on the corner of my laptop screen. When I wasn’t looking, he’d try to drink from my water glass. He did this so often, I eventually I brought him his own water glass.

When he tired of me, he’d leave abruptly and head to the hottest room in the house to spend the day roasting. He’d lie in the sun, and when it had moved past the windows, he’d press himself against the wall to absorb as much heat as possible. I was surprised he didn’t shrivel up like a raisin, though perhaps this is because I followed him around with his own personal water glass.

Results of the study: my hypothesis was correct, cats are not ideally suited to chronic fatigue recovery routines. However, I felt better in Singapore than I have for the past few months. So perhaps patting a pet at any point during the day can have positive health impacts. If anyone has several alpacas or a domesticated fox they would like to lend me, I’d be happy to continue the study.