Xanthi Barker’s story Paradoxical was highly commended for the Life Writing Prize 2018. Here she tells us about the story, writing, and the personal benefits it brings her.
I was trying to get to the bottom of a feeling I had about what it means for someone close to you to be dead, a realisation that it wasn’t anything like the gulf of monotone sadness I’d imagined, more like being dropped into another world. For months after my dad died I heard him laughing, like he was hiding in the corner of the room. Perhaps I was a typical case at the denial stage of grief, but I felt very clearly that it was everybody else who was in denial about the nature of death. I felt closer to my dad than I had for most of my life. Yet recognising this meant acknowledging that I might have felt differently if he hadn’t been an absent father.
Because of the way our relationship was, nothing much changed in my life after he died. He’d always been a voice in my head, a man made of emails, and he still was. I didn’t know what I’d lost. For the first six months it seemed very likely he would call me up and want to see me. The last words he said to me, two nights before he died were “We’ll have a meeting!” It was the kind of grandiose way he made arrangements. He had drunk a lot of wine and was necking morphine from the bottle, having just given a reading of his poetry. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to turn up. It just seemed like the kind of thing he would do. At the same time I was furious with him for leaving, doubly furious that he’d done it not once but twice. It was partly an attack on him to say that nothing had changed. Writing this piece I was trying to think about that ambivalence, to put that anger and resentment at the centre of the love I felt for him, and see what it all added up to. Apart from that, I think I really believed I could prove he wasn’t dead. In fact, now that it’s written, I don’t have the same conviction. My feelings have shifted. He still stands at bus stops, waving at me, regardless.
There’s something inherently lonely in being a person, secluded inside your own head. Literature is one of the ways we get to know what it’s like to be someone else. Life writing has the further intimacy of being without disguise. It feels illicit. It breaks that boundary, so that it’s possible to come into contact with much more of the other than is usually possible.
Read Xanthi’s story and the other winning stories here.