I wrote about my cousin’s death in at least six different essays before I came to write “Finding the Holy in an Unholy Coconut.” I started writing very shortly after his death, in the days I spent with my aunt and uncle trying to help them sort through all of the logistical complexities that accompany unexpected death. It’s not enough to grieve, in America. We also need you to contact Social Security, close out credit cards, and notify banks as quickly as possible.
My first writing was accounting—asking questions about who knew what and when. It was very much the “bleeding into the typewriter” that T Kira Madden critiques in “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy” and that Penny Zang referenced in her post on the SR Blog last month.
From extremely raw accounting, I moved to narrating, and trying to patch together a complete story even though so many of the details were missing. And, once again, it took very little time to realize that this stage of writing was strictly for me.
The only person who read these early essays was my mentor, Jane McCafferty, whose gentle response, effectively, was to say, “I love you. And no one else should read this.” Jane’s point at the time was that there is a difference between writing as a way of grieving and writing about grief for an audience. I would find my way to the second eventually, but it was going to take time. Still, she urged me to keep writing the story as many times as I needed to.
It took three years to move from accounting, to narrating, to actually crafting. In Geeta Kothari’s creative non-fiction workshop at the Kenyon Review last summer, she asked us to use description of a concrete object to enter into an essay. I had brought a tiny silver bell with me that usually sits on the altar in my pantry, and this bell somehow allowed me to write about my cousin’s death, and my grieving, through the lens of faith and ritual. The next day, she asked us to visit the art gallery on campus at Kenyon, to choose a piece of art that resonated for us, and to use that piece of art to enter the story a second way. And again, I found the themes in my story shifting.
By entering the story from these different angles, I found myself able to move further and further from the specific details surrounding my cousin’s death, and closer to a story about how faith and ritual can both be essential to mourning—and also fall completely short.
After Kenyon, I went to Los Angeles as part of a West Coast road trip. I attempted to submerge my unholy coconut. And last fall in a writing class at Grub Street, a writing organization here in Boston, I found my way into the essay published at Superstition Review this spring, a full four years after my cousin died. The coconut allowed me to enter our story from a different angle, one that enabled me to write an essay that was no longer just for me.
Ultimately, the coconut at the center of this story serves three functions in the piece: It serves as the concrete vessel for the character Neema’s grief. For the writer, Neema, it serves as a symbol that makes the abstractions of grief less abstract—something that can be described, can be held, and can eventually be cast away. And, for the readers, the coconut is the central image that they can carry with them through the entire piece. It gets introduced in the first paragraph, appears even when the story shifts in place and time, and is still sitting on the shoreline at the very end of the story.
It took four years, six vastly different versions of the story in structure, content, and style, and four different entry points to arrive at this published essay. I try to remind myself of these facts when I am stuck in the middle of a draft and can’t seem to find a way forward. If the story is worth telling, I say to myself, then my task is to find the right angle from which to tell it.
Most importantly, I tell myself to be patient. I may have not yet lived, or seen, the angle from which the story is best told.