Book Review / Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill


“Letter to Pessoa is a collection that not only uncovers various minority narratives with its complex characters and themes, but weaves and unweaves threads of stories on a micro and macro level using language, voice, and structure.”


Letter to Pessoa is the first short story collection from Michelle Cahill, founding editor of Mascara Literary Magazine. Her previous published works include four books of poetry, and it’s easy to see how Cahill’s poetic influences have shaped the language and structure of her stories.

The stories span across many social and political landscapes, from Seville to Chiang Mai to Kathmandu and more. “The migrant or the refugee inhabits a disrupted flow of time, between countries, between languages, between histories,” says Cahill. “My stories don’t reconcile these differences.”

Cahill’s prose is both intensely beautiful on a line-by-line read (“Her eyes seemed to flit over every aspect of my face, like the wings of a moth held to light” — pg96), but also engages with the reader on a macro level, exploring the fragmentation of society, culture, and identity that Cahill speaks of. The more one reads the letters and short stories of Letter to Pessoa, the more one recognises certain patterns forming.

At first, the reader is unsure about these patterns and connections as there’s something ever-so-slightly off-kilter about them. But that is the beauty of this book: the questioning and the connections.

In this way, Cahill has accurately captured the essence of the poet Pessoa and his multiple ‘personalities’. Pessoa himself had over 70 ‘heteronyms’ that he created for himself.

This doppelganger-type doubling of the self is seen in Letter to Pessoa, with different characters that seem to use the same subtle turns of phrase or seem to express the same fears and obsessions. “They each live different lives and inhabit different moods”, Cahill writes in the ‘Notes’ of the book.

Of the stiffly scientific story, ‘Borges and I’, Cahill says she was “playing with the layering of real and fictional selves, past and future selves. I haven’t rejected structure, but I have trusted the spaces where narrative collapses…” This technique of duplicating identities to create dis/connections with the reader is interspersed throughout so many of the stories featured in Letter to Pessoa.

While Cahill’s short stories provide excellent character development and exploration of themes of longing, loss, and relationships, it’s her letters to notable authors that break up the text and provide a sense of strong displacement. Letters to Derrida, Woolf, and Coetzee contrast the narrative voice of the short stories with their epistemological tone, throwing the reader off guard and into a place of retrospection.

Letter to Pessoa is a collection that not only uncovers various minority narratives with its complex characters and themes, but weaves and unweaves threads of stories on a micro and macro level using language, voice, and structure.

Kyra Thomsen is a writer from Wollongong, NSW. She is Deputy Editor of Writer’s Edit and her work has been published in Kindling, Seizure, Space Place & Culture, Mascara and more. You can find more at kyrathomsen.com or on Twitter with @KyraThomsen.


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