BOOK REVIEW: No Document by Anwen Crawford

No Document book cover

Review by Miriam Webster

Anwen Crawford’s No Document is many things: a letter to a lost friend; a history of art and protest; a practice of redaction and remembering; a call to action; and a lament. No Document is a text made up of fragments. Crawford leads her readers through white spaces and heavily redacted government missives in which linger the ghosts of people and works of art. Sentences end abruptly only to be picked up later on different pages, and boxes hold space for memory and forgetting. To read it is to feel sad and disquieted, but Crawford is interested, I think, in where being sad and disquieted will lead you.

Crawford’s uncanny approach to composition and prose mobilises a thoughtful affect of strangeness throughout the text, which thinks through histories of violence in unsettling ways. If this is an elegy, it figures mourning as a powerful, ongoing process. And Crawford finds in this process neither silence nor absence, but reasons to go on.

By going on, I mean reasons to keep living, making and resisting oppression in a world that too often inflicts violence upon both the singular and collective body. As Hayley Singer suggests, No Document emerges from ‘a desire to forge solidarities with life and open rebellion against what is anti-life’. Crawford’s elegy not only addresses the untimely death of a friend and collaborator, but also becomes paradigmatic for how we might think about writing as a practice of relationality which multiplies, rather than diminishes, the connections between us.

Personal loss can connect you to the world, and No Document vibrates at this point of connection. ‘Your death took the best of me,’ writes Crawford, ‘and if I claim it now I still want to say we could have been anyone’. Then there is a beat, a blank space, before: ‘Could we have been anyone?’ Anonymity here is not so much a question of erasure, but of connection to collective pain and lament. Grief opens you to sympathy and solidarity with others. As Crawford muses, ‘there is only a membrane/between us.’

I have been thinking a great deal about elegy since my father died last year of cancer. I was grieving as a steely winter settled over the city: new lockdowns were called; my classes at university were cancelled (again); so-called ‘freedom’ rioters stormed the Westgate bridge; an aboriginal woman was shot in the street in Geraldton, and her murderer was acquitted.

One year later, I am still grieving; as floodwater engulfs, recedes and rises again in NSW and QLD, and as a situation unfolds in Ukraine such that I never expected to see in my lifetime. Grief, I sometimes feel, is unending. It would be easier to be uncaring — but that would be a waste of good feeling.

This is where No Document does its most powerful work: the juncture between history and grief. History, of course, is not just an individual experience but a collective reckoning – or, as is often the case, an erasure – of the experience of the many. No Document refuses to forget. It refuses to forget violence and destruction, racist policies and settler narratives, or chronic illness and death, attempting instead to bring them closer. It is as if Crawford’s writing is not only her responsibility, but her work of love. Crawford shows us here that to write elegy is to remember, and in so doing, to invest in our shared future.

I am reminded of something Maggie Nelson wrote: ‘the question is not whether we are enmeshed, but how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment.’ Elegy, I have come to believe, is a dance with enmeshment. It should make us desire ways of thinking and being together, even if it makes us sad. No Document makes a case for letting grief invigorate our relationships, our creative practice and our politics.

I have spent a lot of time with this book over the past year, and each time I read it I find something different to be sad for. But also, deep within this sadness, I have found other things: anger, to rouse my desire for change; inspiration, and a remarkable way of thinking about space, drawing lines, and arranging words on a page; excitement, over a more experimental approach to form than I have witnessed in any recent Australian work; and so many moments in history which demonstrate the goodness of people, or how to be good, or at least how to try.

As Jacques Derrida said in one of his elegies, the worst position to take in the wake of traumatic loss would be ‘silence or absence, or a refusal to share one’s sadness’. Crawford shares hers. And I have come to conclude that what No Document gestures toward, with such intensity, is the transformative power of sadness.

No Document was published by Giramondo Publishing and has an RRP of $26.95. It is available from most online and local retailers.

Miriam Webster studies a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing and has been published in various places; including Aniko, Sticky Fingers, swim meet lit mag and Island.

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