As I write it I do not know myself, I forget myself. The I who appears in this book is not I. It is not autobiographical, you all know nothing of me. I never have told you and never shall tell you who I am. I am all of yourselves.
I feel within me a subterranean violence, a violence that only comes to the surface during the act of writing.
–Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life
Writing scares me. I’m scared of what might come out of me, and I’m scared of what can’t come out, what is forever trapped in my own mind. It’s cliché to say it, but, for me, writing is bleeding. When I write, I open a wound. I’m not a creative writer. I’m not all that imaginative. Instead, I want to write my insides. I want to write unspeakable things. My life is my subject, my muse. Everything that I feel must be translated into words.
Does writing make a woman a monster? By that, I mean the kind of woman who, like me, blatantly writes about her own life, who uses her family and friends as subjects and inspiration? I asked myself this question as I watched Ana Urushadze’s debut feature film, Scary Mother. It’s about Manana, a woman obsessed with writing. Each day, she locks herself away from her husband and three children and writes her book. She’s so consumed by writing that she scrawls words all over her arms; her body becomes a kind of page covered in language.
No one appreciates Manana’s writing. When she gathers the courage to read it aloud to her husband and children, they are horrified by what they hear. The protagonist of Manana’s book hates her family and has sex with the neighbor. Manana’s family cannot separate her from her creation. The woman is and is not Manana, just as Esther Greenwood is and is not Sylvia Plath. The work of women writers is all too often reduced to autobiography. The woman’s life determines how the work of art is received and interpreted. All writers borrow from their real lives. The great writers take that personal source material and transform it into a work of art.
The only person who thinks Manana has created art is Nukri, the owner of the local stationery shop. To him, Manana is a genius. In his stationery shop, Nukri creates a room for Manana; it’s a room of her own, bathed in red light. The space resembles a womb or a wound. When Manana leaves her family for this room, she defies the expectations of a mother and a wife. Instead of cooking dinner and washing clothes, she walks around the city and writes on her arms. Her scariness lies in her intensity, her strangeness, and her subversion of gender norms. She is an outsider, haunted by childhood trauma and an absent parent.
Does writing make a woman monstrous? It makes Manana selfish, obsessed, absent. Manana prioritizes her creative vision. Words consume her. As I watched Manana scribble all over her arms, I recalled learning about a disorder–it’s called hypergraphia–that causes sufferers to obsessively write. I either read an article or saw a news segment about the disorder. I remember that one of the sufferers even wrote on the walls of their shower. In Scary Mother, there’s a scene of Manana showering with her arm hanging outside the curtain; she doesn’t want the water to wash away her words. In another scene, Manana sees shapes in the shower tiles, imagining stories about them. Her husband thinks she is going mad and even threatens to commit her. One woman refuses to publish Manana’s book because she thinks Manana is a psychopath.
Is Manana writing or is she bleeding? Do her words make sense beyond the page of her own skin? How do you make the world understand writing that speaks the unspeakable, that articulates troubling emotions? Is Manana a bad writer or are people not able to comprehend what she has written? Manana is not a monster. She lives in a world that prefers a silent woman to a writing woman, a world with no place for a woman who writes on her arms and explores disturbing desires, a woman who, at times, prefers writing to mothering and will never stop being punished for it.
Manana’s family is supportive of her work to a point, but when they disapprove of her book they burn it. They tolerate her writing as long as they can dictate what she expresses, denying her the right to her own creative vision. Manana is nothing like me. She isn’t scared of what comes out of her. She is ready to capture it on the page or on her skin. She writes even when nobody will publish her unconventional text. She writes even when her family denigrates her work. She is fearless and maybe that’s what makes her scariest of all. She won’t stop writing no matter what.