Last night I dreamt that a ghost held my hand. It was one of those half-lucid dreams, hovering on the border between mundane imagination and sleep paralysis. Over the past fifteen years I have mostly learnt to control my sleep paralysis, but episodes still happen, triggered by stress, sugar, unresolved tensions. With my right hand I gripped the hand of the real boy in my bed. But the other hand, which should have been free, held someone else’s. Earlier that day I’d half-watched the first episode of the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, by one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson. Even in my dreamlike state I got the reference. In one of the novel’s most terrifying scenes, the protagonist Eleanor Vance thinks that she is clutching her friend Theodora’s hand, only to find, when the lights come on, that her friend is somewhere else altogether.
It is 11:07pm as I type this, and I’ve scared myself. Let’s change the subject. I wanted to talk about a different kind of haunting: the everyday emotional and cultural inheritances that we carry with us across different countries, different borders. In a more quotidian sense, for example, I feel haunted by targeted advertising. It is as if the price of an online social life is to be bombarded with increasingly personalised, sometimes offensive auto play clips and aspirational collages. All these things are geared toward making me part with money, in small or large increments. One of these things is a self-improvement course. Image: a wooden gate at sunset, rays of light streaming through the slats. Caption, a Rumi quotation: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
If we were to apply those same rules to fiction, how many stories would be written? I’ve seen that targeted advert so many times I have started to internalise the Rumi quotation, but I don’t find myself any kinder yet. Once a year I get a bout of nasty laryngitis that mutes me for a week or two. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something about how I use my words. Two days ago, I started to lose my voice. Now it is almost entirely gone. Usually I’m a mile a minute talker, rapid and excitable. Today in the corner store I pointed at my throat and shook my head at the man behind the counter. “Honey and lemon, honey and lemon,” he offered sympathetically. I remember the internet tips from when this happened last year: that whispering is more of a strain on the vocal chords than muttering, salt water is my foul-mouthed friend, not to go swimming or I’ll infect everyone else.
On this day last year I was pacing around and writing mostly small non-fiction pieces in a square room full of dark furniture in the University of Iowa. I was on a writing residency with thirty-one other writers, all from different countries. For three months we were sequestered across two floors of the Iowa Memorial Union Hotel. Iowa City was flat and broad, impossible to get out of at ease without a car of your own. At times, the residency felt like a cross between a social experiment and a reluctant re-enactment of some sort of American campus life very few of us had experienced firsthand, both reminiscent of and nothing like what you see in Hollywood movies. I look back on it with fondness now, but at the time I remember missing the vivid anonymity of big cities; a sprawl I could decipher and escape into.