Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Loss for Words

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Sometimes, a passing comment sticks like a burr. Recently, I bumped into Ralph and his dog as I was walking mine. Ralph’s son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter had visited from out of town. It was the first visit since Ralph had lost his young grandson, one of those one-in-a-million long shots where a child succumbs to a virus that turns deadly. For the family that is the one in the one-in-a-million statistics dissolve in the face of unspeakable sorrow. Ralph noted that there is no word for a parent who loses a child. We speak of widows and orphans but do certain losses elude the grasp of language?

Judith Thompson’s latest play, Such Creatures, features two braided monologues performed by women: a young, street-smart teen gearing up for a fight with a rival, and a cancer-stricken Holocaust survivor who returns to Auschwitz four decades after the death camp`s chimneys no longer filled the air with the stench of inhumanity. To be shipped in a cattle car to Auschwitz as a young girl. To endure in a world where daily life meant daily death. To bear witness to the unbearable. To survive, and to return.

“To be back here, 40 years later is…”

Sorele, the survivor, pauses, the silence as revealing as her words. She continues.

“I don’t think there is a word for it.”

Perhaps there can never be a word for certain experiences. To create a word is to suggest that the experience can be understood. What of those experiences –painful, nightmarish, indescribable – that can’t be reduced to a word or phrase, experiences that can only be known first-hand. Are there not experiences for which there are no words, situations where language simply falls short and is inadequate. Perhaps the most we can hope for, the most we can reasonably expect, is for words to surround an experience, for in some places language cannot take root.

For the Holocaust survivor who returns to Auschwitz, perhaps we have to make do not with language that can’t fill in the blanks. Sorele is right. There is no word for it, “it” being the particulars of her pain. Instead, we are left with words that reveal that the absence of words is its own declaration. At best, we can walk around certain experiences, words the stones in the path that lead us there. But the path stops. There are limitations to words, in the same way the certain sorrows are limitless.

We might yet embrace a word that Ralph was searching for. That word would be a noun, as in orphan or widow. A single word cannot shed light on a singular experience. Words define us but can`t explain inexplicable losses. The burden is too heavy for language to carry. So an Auschwitz survivor, a parent mourning a child, a child who wakes up to a parentless world is left to swim alone in the cold waters of their own thoughts. We who stand on distant shores can only wonder, knowing there is no final word.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page