Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Zenas Ubere’s nonfiction piece, The Hunched One
John: There is a beautiful, subtle structure here, the introduction of the physical pain at the beginning, and the exploration of the emotional pain of the condition at the end. I’m always interested in how writers make their creative decisions. Did you plan this to structure this piece in this way, or did it just happen as you wrote?
Zenas: From the outset, I knew how the essay would end. It was the beginning that was tricky to get. I worked on the piece, on and off, for about two years. And that was because I was struggling to find a suitable structure. The essay took several forms, with about five different beginnings before this one, all of which failed to give the effect I sought. But this was the one that worked, and when I found it, I knew I had come to the end of the essay. The emotional weight would resonate more with the reader after the physicality of the condition had been established. So, yes, this structure was intentional.
I also appreciate the honesty of this story, and your willingness to take us to a place of vulnerability for you. How difficult was this piece to write?
My first worry was that the deformity was not significant enough. It is just a finger, after all. But I couldn’t shake off how my day-to-day activities were affected by it, and how, for instance, when I am typing on my laptop and a person approaches, my left hand, on instinct, stops, and I hesitate or use my right hand alone to type, as a way to avoid that uncomfortable stare and then the question, both of which I’ve never gotten used to. I almost gave up completing the essay. But it was because of occurrences such as this that I continued working on the piece.
The first step was giving myself the permission to write, then acknowledging that however small I felt the deformity was, it was still worth writing about. Once I had done that, the next thing I did was to convince myself that everyone had something they were insecure about, something they probably also kept away from the world. Writing about mine, I thought, would, in a way, make my readers feel less alone. And it was this realisation that eased the process for me.
Another thing that struck me is the eagerness with which the medical establishment will set out to try to remove physical suffering, but while largely ignoring any accompanying mental pain. The mechanistic western approach to medicine has been very successful in reducing human misery, but have we missed out on something important in the process?
I really can’t tell. I mean, the removal of physical suffering is important. And that is what is in the control of the doctors. What comes after, however, is beyond their control. Also, when the physical suffers, it will always affect the mental. So, I guess it’s better to have one out of the way than to battle both at once.
Nietzsche said “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” And a number of the world’s religions would seem to agree with this idea—that suffering, if approached correctly, can bring us closer to, for want of a better word, grace. What are your feelings on this? Can there be a benefit to pain, whatever its form?
Most times, when you go through pain, you don’t only get to feel it in your body; you also become mentally aware of how others felt when they went through similar experiences. And this connects us to the rest of humanity in a way no other thing does. The first thing this teaches, I think, is empathy. You become more accommodating of the suffering of others, and you learn to extend grace. In essence, suffering, if approached correctly, makes us more humane.
And I think Hemingway agreed with Nietzsche when, in A Farewell to Arms, he wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” This also perfectly describes the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, where broken chinaware is mended with gold, becoming, not only stronger at its lines of fracture, but more graceful in its beauty—a beauty attained particularly because it was broken and healed. So, yes, healing rightly from suffering can bring one closer to grace.