Family matters: Ashleigh Young on seeing, place, and her debut essay collection

“I wrote this book in quite a state of confusion,” says New Zealand writer Ashleigh Young about her acclaimed 2016 volume of essays, Can You Tolerate This? The collection’s title, which has a literal connotation, can also be taken as referring to a state of mental unease or discombobulation, something that Young says is especially germane with regard to her home life growing up. “We never really talked about anything directly,” she says with reference to her father. In many ways, the book represents Young’s attempt to sort through her muddled understanding about the relationships closest to her in an effort to reach a positive answer to the question in the title.

What precisely was she seeking clarity about? “My family,” she says. “And just why we were the way we were and still are. Just this question of, why is it so hard?”

The essays in the book take up a variety of subjects – Young’s relationships with her relatives, in particular her father and her brother; her experience with chiropody (which lends the volume its title) and yoga; body image; an encounter with a stranger on an international airline flight; Harry Eastlack, who suffered from a condition known as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva that resulted in him essentially growing a second skeleton around his first one; and Ferdinand Cheval, a French postal worker who built his own mausoleum out of stones he collected and cobbled together over a period of years.

In each case, Young observes her subjects from an angle that is canted or off centre, simultaneously zooming in and backing away in her presentation. “I had a little book of poems called Magnificent Moon and there were a couple of people who said that same thing, that I seemed to be approaching things and then retreating from them at the same time,” she says.

“Absolutely Flying” addresses the subject of seeing – something that is pervasive throughout Young’s collection – via her family’s experience with degenerative eyesight. Young’s brother, JP, is legally blind without glasses, and Young herself relies on contacts to navigate the world. “With lenses in, I could do things at speed,” she writes. “Sprint down hills, ride my bike through the tunnel with lights flying past like Frisbees – I had wind flying around my face, over my eyes, my eyelashes, and I could see.”

The metaphor of flying is literalized in the essay when Young’s father – an enthusiastic amateur pilot – mistakes her contacts for his own before heading out in his plane, prompting panic for his safety among his family. “Having bad eyes is a fact that wants so badly to be a metaphor for something else,” Young writes.

Or, as she puts it in conversation following an onstage appearance at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, “I was aware it could be a little heavy-handed – not being able to see well and then being able to see clearly. It lends itself to quite a cheesy metaphor.”

Young comes by her approach and her affinity for esoteric subjects naturally. “My family had a real fixation with these quite strange endeavours that no one would really think to do but that were exciting and to be celebrated,” she says. “My parents and their friends would put on a mini Olympics in the back yard. It was probably quite dangerous: there was lots of leaping about. And my brother, JP, once walked a huge distance from one city to another. So, it’s just these strange little endeavours – we’ve always admired them.”

Ashleigh Young (Photo: Russell Kleyn)

One other source of inspiration was the place in which Young grew up and still calls home. The author, who now lives in Wellington, grew up in the small New Zealand town of Te Kuiti, which serves as a setting for a number of the essays in the book. “It’s just always going to feel like home,” Young says about New Zealand. “There have definitely been times in the last few years where I’ve said, ‘Ah, I have to get out of here,’ or have felt this urge to go elsewhere for a bit. But the wonderful thing about New Zealand is coming back to it. You start to see and appreciate everything that you didn’t before.”

Young’s lifelong relationship with her home country helped spur a number of the essays in the collection, including “Postie,” the piece about the Frenchman Cheval. “I wanted to write something about the New Zealand postal system, because it’s sometimes called the unofficial Creative New Zealand,” Young says, referencing the country’s major funder for the arts. “New Zealand post has employed so many writers and artists and musicians over the years. Even [poet and playwright] James K. Baxter was a postie.”

It was only after deciding that she would not be able to do the subject justice that Young began researching famous postal workers and stumbled across the story of Cheval. “I loved that story and found it weirdly beautiful as well,” she says. “I just found it kind of amazing and sad. Also, he sounded quite deranged.”

It is somewhat unsurprising that a sense of derangement would appeal to Young, given the sensibility at work in the essays, and extending to her own tastes and those of her family. Young confesses an affection for The White Album, perhaps the most notorious and divisive record of the Beatles’ career. “I think it’s incredible,” she says. “It’s so bizarre and rich and lush.”

Young’s brother, JP, is a musician who is similarly prone to strangeness in his lyrics, some of which Young quotes in her book, and in his source material. “He’s got a shark-themed album, which is called Anniversary Day,” Young says. “The title refers to a guy called John Balmer in 1852. He was a young trombonist in Wellington who was attacked by a shark. It’s the only fatal shark attack we’ve had in Wellington.”

This story inspired Young’s sibling to dedicate an album to the doomed swimmer, but his fascination didn’t stop there. “He now holds an annual swim on the day that John Balmer was attacked,” she says. It would appear that a common sensibility persists throughout the family.

In fact, had Michael Ondaatje not already laid claim to it, Running in the Family might be a suitable alternate title for Young’s own collection, which probes a variety of human relationships and encounters in a manner that is simultaneously forthright and questing. The essays surprise to the same extent as they offer a window on an individual striving to find moments of connection and understanding in the midst of conflict and uncertainty.

As for her sense of confusion, Young claims that it remains intact, though the process of writing has allowed her to come to terms with it in some measure. “The book didn’t help my confusion at all, but I kind of think that’s okay,” she says. “Some of my favourite essays don’t end up in a place of certainty. Maybe they’re running away from knowing anything.”

Family matters: Ashleigh Young on seeing, place, and her debut essay collection
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