On “This Is How I Spell My Body”
A few years ago I managed to find Esmeralda, the girl in the “Breasts—Betrayal” section of my essay. I wanted her to hear me say that what I did to her was beyond cruel, to apologize, to tell her that I’ve carried the burden of my guilt for thirty years, to acknowledge my betrayal and ask for her forgiveness. I found out online that Esmeralda is a renowned psychologist and teaches at a private university. I called her at work several times, but her secretary/assistant would not put me through without identifying myself. Eventually I relented, left my contact number for her to call me collect. She never called. I called back two more times, and on one occasion I heard her voice in the background. I understood that she remembered me and wanted nothing to do with me. I understood that she had not forgiven me and never will. That evening I sat down and started to write the section. After that, it occurred to me that it wasn’t just my breasts that had a story to tell. My knees, my ovaries, my ears, etc. did too. And there I was, at the computer, thinking of body parts and memories, lost in an intricate maze of associations between my clitoris, my mouth, my cheekbones, and the men and women from a past life. That’s how the abecedarium got started.
I do a lot of mulling before I write down the first word. A terrible habit. This means that I spend more time thinking about writing the story than writing it. I contemplate different scenarios, openings, and closings in my head. I switch voices and content. I toy with format and levels of urgency. I do this during my long commutes to work in Qatar, where I reside. And just when I think the thing is ready to be written down, I sit at the computer and my mind usually draws a blank. I try to retrieve that clever bookend I came up with at a traffic light, the nifty sentence I created at the roundabout, that fantastic scene I managed to recreate so beautifully as I reversed into a parking spot. Sometimes the retrieval process is a success, although, more often than not, all the clever things I write on the road stay there, covered in desert dust.
The first abecedarium I wrote was for Looking for Esperanza: The Story of a Mother, a Child Lost, and Why They Matter to Us. I wrote it because some of the undocumented women I interviewed had shared with me snapshots of their lives which I wanted to include in the manuscript without in-depth descriptions. The abecedarium allowed me to do exactly this. I used this style to spell my body for the same reason: because it bridges body parts to stories without lengthy documentations of each story.
The oldest abecedariums hail from Etruria, circa 700 BC, when they were used as aids in the art of writing. Almost three thousand years later, the abecedarium has evolved into a stylistic tool used first in poetry and later in the world of prose. Modern abecedariums, unlike the Etruscan, are malleable, playful, and no longer require the use of every letter of the alphabet. “This Is How I Spell My Body” is an example of the evolution of this stylistic form. In the essay there are vignettes, relationships between the body and the past, alphabetical structure, humor, betrayal and sadness, yet there is a clear thread which is a deeply personal reflection on my body and how others and I have treated it.