The year I moved to Chicago I was cast in a play that rehearsed at the School of the Art Institute. Each day when I arrived, I would pause at the front desk while the security guard took a photograph of me, without looking at me or telling me when the photograph would be taken. The guard would print out the photograph on an adhesive badge which stated my name and the room number that was my destination. I was then permitted to exist inside the building.
But these photographs were not me. Beyond that, they were terrifying; in some I looked even wild or deranged. The fact that I always knew a photograph would be taken but that I would not be given the customary countdown of 1, 2, 3, meant that I was always preparing to be captured and always unprepared to accept the identity of the face inside the frame.
They were called Visitor Badges. All bodies that did not already belong in some way to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago were required to wear them in the building at all times. But my association with the building was theatrical; I was there to practice, for three months before the show opened, becoming a real person who was both me and not me.
The captured face allowed me to ride the elevator up six floors—sometimes ten, sometimes three—walk down a hall, and enter the room that matched the number printed on my badge.
I was not to enter a different room. I was not to wear a different face than the one I’d been given.
I arrived at the building on South Michigan only when my character, Sarah Fresh—the one I was becoming—had been summoned. Sarah Fresh was both me and not me. She wore my clothes—a sleeveless red cropped tank top and high-waisted, ripped blue jeans. Like me, she smoked cigarettes and hung out barefoot on the beach. Like me, she was a dancer. Unlike me, she possessed a kind of confidence I had only ever dreamed I could exude; a kind of confidence that I wished people could see in me. But I practiced. I was committed to becoming Sarah Fresh, my role in the play. I was committed to taking on the identity that had been given to me.
At eight or nine years old I watched my mother direct a stage adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut short story, “Who Am I This Time?” It was a story about a shy young man who fully embodied the characters he played onstage. Whenever he was invited to join a new play, he would inquire, who am I this time? He would become the role he was given, and then, when the play ended, he would return once again to a blank non-existence and wait for his next identity to emerge.
When the rehearsal process ended at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was left with a stack of photographs of faces that supposedly belonged to me but which I had never seen before and with which I did not identify. The only images with which I identified were the ones where I could see I had been channeling the confident performativity of my character Sarah Fresh—the funny faces she made inside the frames.
At the end of “Who Am I This Time?” the shy young man with no identity marries his co-star, another shy person with no personality of her own, and the two powerfully bland persons create for themselves an incandescent marriage—a union in which every moment is spent becoming characters through the reading of plays. They perform in plays and they read plays with each other at home. In this way they create their own reality and their own identities from moment to moment, never once dropping out of the storyline, never once dropping out of the performance which, for them, was no longer a fiction but truly real.
Octavio Paz elucidates the secret of the key figure that embodies this process for me—Portuguese poet and writer Fernando Pessoa’s secret “is written in his name: Pessoa means person in Portuguese and comes from persona, the mask worn by Roman actors. Mask, character from fiction, no one: Pessoa. His story could be reduced to the passage between the unreality of his daily life and the reality of his fictions.”
Like me in the anonymity of my solitary life in Chicago, like the man with no identity in “Who Am I This Time?” the real Fernando Pessoa was a nondescript bookkeeper in the earlier 1900s in Lisbon. Except for the way he created himself in writing through the invention of his heteronyms—writing voices to whom he gave style, dress, personality; in short, made real—he essentially did not exist. He existed only for the purpose of writing, as he could never bridge the abyss between words and meaning in his everyday life:
“My semiheteronym Bernardo Soares…appears whenever I’m tired or sleepy, when my powers of ratiocination and my inhibitions are slightly suspended; that prose is a constant daydreaming. He’s a semiheteronym because while he doesn’t actually have my personality, his personality is not different from mine, rather a simple mutilation of it. Me minus ratiocination and affection. The prose, except for the tenuous quality ratiocination gives to mine, is the same as this, and his Portuguese is exactly the same.”
Bernardo Soares is the author of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The voice of Pessoa’s which emerges when he is drowsy is the author of this somnambulant prose, these wandering pages written in that obscured space between dream and waking life when one’s identity is blurred, illegible. This is the voice closest to Pessoa and a voice who believes in prose above all other forms of art. Pessoa’s other heteronyms wrote in more traditional verse forms, but Bernardo Soares, a humble bookkeeper, writes in a voice and form that is closest to Pessoa’s most vulnerable, contradictory thoughts—the fragmented, segmented essay.
In encountering The Book of Disquiet, I am afraid I am supposed to feel more confused than I do; how can a book exist that is not fully fiction or nonfiction or poetry? How can a book be written not by a fictional narrator but a literary persona? On what shelf does one place such a book?
I am not confused when I encounter Pessoa or his writing because, like him, I often feel as though I only exist in the murky space between dreaming and living, and because I am an actor, which means that I am never, even between roles, entirely me.
I am not confused when I encounter Pessoa; instead, I feel as though I can see both life and literature with clarity for the first time.
I discovered The Book of Disquiet on a dark night in winter, in a different city I briefly lived in before Chicago, before I developed the strength to become a writer. I was young, only nineteen years old, and I lived in a perpetual fog, unable to bridge the abyss between things and words; between my spoken voice and my perpetual internal monologue. It was a temporary existence, sleeping on a couch in a friend’s apartment, folding my things away out of sight during the day. Each night, I went walking on cobblestone streets, beneath a deepening sky, and abandoned myself to a cold and all-consuming wind. It was during these nights I grew close to my internal monologue, to the questioning voice inside me that searched for shape and for meaning. It was only during the evening that I found myself able to dip my toes into this possible voice, this voice that had never emerged before but which seemed to be truly, unequivocally me.
During daylight hours in this temporary city, I worked as an intern at a dance company, taking class for free in exchange for mundane bookkeeping. I trudged through administrative tasks for several hours each day, waiting for the moment I could shed that false, exterior identity and step into the studio where I abandoned myself to a mode of expression that bridged the gap that words could never close. I shed my button-down blouse and unclasped my administrative skirts, emerging thinner, looser, closer to the ground and to my body and the rhythm of drums thrumming our hearts to press bare feet into the floor.
I was afraid, during the day, of embodying my exterior self. It was a fear I didn’t know how to name and a fear that brought shame; ashamed that I only knew how to perform identity in circumstances where the world believed I was not being me. I was not afraid to suffuse myself with my body when my body was in anonymous motion. Instead, I was afraid of everything that took place during the day; riding the train, rushing through crosswalks, unlocking the office door, processing payments, cold-calling strangers on the telephone to ask them for money.
I had never been afraid to read until I learned what reading was for me—abandoning the exterior self that kept me from seeing; from suffusing myself with my internal monologue. That winter in that temporary city, I began to read with a depth that matched the way I’d always abandoned myself into acting and dancing, the way I abandoned myself on dark, evening streets in the wind. And ultimately, though the fear never left me, it became a fear I loved with abiding secrecy.
The Book of Disquiet, as Alfred MacAdam writes in his introduction, cannot be read but only reread. A compilation of fragments arranged after Pessoa’s death, gathered from the depths of an old suitcase, the book has no traditional beginning, middle, or end—only this voice, dropping in and out of its own ethereal monologue. To read The Book of Disquiet is to meander along with Pessoa; to experience his thoughts along with him; to become him.
But what does it mean to not read but reread?
In acting I learned that the meaning of ‘rehearsal’ is to give an account of, to go over again, repeat, to rake over, turn over, to drag, trail, rake, rip, tear, wound, repeat. To say over again, repeat what has already been said or written. It means to hear again the words you have set forth—to listen to the person you’ve become.
In acting, there is no fiction or nonfiction; there is only the poetic space of becoming, only the dream-like state of the in-between. It is a world created and embodied for a few hours each night—a suspended state of belief. To perform is to believe in multiplicity and the truth of an extended identity—a personality that blends beyond constricted contours of a singular self in order to step inside the contradictory, the imaginary, the perplexity of an enchanted reality.
The Book of Disquiet could be called one long walking essay, one long night in the silhouette of an urban-dweller’s soul. The silhouette—it pauses below a lamppost. The essay—it looks up through its eye-glasses at the rain. It tells the story of a man meandering through the streets; a man who only recovers himself once he has forgotten himself, forgotten who he might be. A man who becomes someone else with surprising frequency.
To act, to dance, to suffuse one’s spoken voice with one’s internal monologue, is to embody what Pessoa embodied in his multiple heteronyms—to use one’s own raw and primary material to create identities both real and not real; to allow oneself to sink into a somnambulant state and allow the dream, that non-place, to take on breath, voice, and cadence; to sleepwalk into a new, simultaneous world.
I think of Fernando Pessoa as a man without a face—with a hundred faces neither he nor anyone else can recognize. And I go to The Book of Disquiet when I need to dream, when I need guidance on how to become other than what I am or what I might be.
His fragments are like a greater mode of Method acting—total embodiment, beyond rehearsal, beyond the structures of the day, inside the realm of dream. I dip my toes into The Book of Disquiet as in a pool whose waters are a deceptively deep blue vantage point on the horizon. The further I dip, the further I go into construction. The further I go, the more I am unseen.
In a much more recent winter, when the snow piles around the exterior walls of the building that houses my home, I become silent. I become silent in winter—a silence that is full of all the night walks and lampposts and cobblestoned streets, all the reflecting pools and coats and red cheeks that accompanied my waking; my waking into voice, and shadow, and literacy.
I sit at the table with my books and papers strewn about me, reread an underlined sentence in Pessoa’s book: “Knowing that I don’t remember myself is waking up.”
I have walked through many winters, many silent city streets. I have undone myself beneath stage lights in theatres, on sprung floors in studios. Each time, it is never a beginning but a diving back into—casting away the falseness of the daylight hours and sinking back into a dream, the perpetual dream of becoming, of diving down, finding voice, suffusing meaning.
I carry it with me into a visual mode—a way of seeing what I’ve always hoped I’d find a way to describe. I sift through the stack of photographs that are both me and not me. In drawing these images, these simultaneous faces, thin black lines on clear white paper, white like the snow that surrounds me, clear like the water that reflects me, I can suddenly see.
Like Fernando Pessoa, I wake inside the essay. It is the awareness of doubt that shakes me, the awareness that I am so often made of multiplicity. I dive into a state of somnambulance, a sleepwalking dream, to perform possibilities. But I am hauled back to the surface—to waking—by the meandering prose of the essay; the form that calls upon the voice of the internal monologue that can’t emerge in other states of being.
So I am always rereading, always becoming, always embodying the shapes of my creations, so that each evening, I will discover who I am this time.
I duck into my coat, slip my keys into my pocket, and emerge on the other side of the door.
I go out into the night.
Naomi Washer is the author of a chapbook, American Girl Doll, forthcoming from Ursus Americanus Press in 2019. Her essays have appeared and are forthcoming in Sundog Lit, Essay Daily, The Boiler, Passages North, Split Lip Magazine, The Account, and other journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Columbia College Chicago where she earned her MFA in Nonfiction. She lives in Chicago where she is the Editor and Publisher of Ghost Proposal.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.