Review of Arcan’s Burqa of Skin: Writings by Tara E. Friedman
Nelly Arcan’s collection Burqa of Skin: Writings (Anvil Press, translated by Melissa Bull), offers haunting yet exhausted examinations of cultural and gender stereotypes, coming to audiences from the dualistic vantage point of a writer who’s angry yet constantly on the edge - her and our attention divided between her life as author and object - the voyeuristic vultures present in her prose pecking at her every word, every part of her being.
Arcan’s body of work, her novels – Putain (Whore), Folle (Hysteric), and À ciel ouvert, as well as the posthumously published Paradis clef en main (Exit) – completed just days before her suicide – are as provocative as they are polished. They exhibit both the frantic beauty and boldness that was the author herself, always confronting the prohibited topics of a modern society often unwilling to grapple with issues of sexuality, suicide, and the self.
The dualism present in her witty lyricism stems from a deep distrust in both the public eye and the ‘I,’ and her writing is the way out, the only way to unify her identities and to rebuild. Two of the book’s previously published stories, “The Dress” and “Shame,” detail the harrowing discomfort of her public persona as a hired escort and the evils that originate from the commodification of the womanly body: “A whore is nothing more than a negligee,” she writes, “Her skin is a garment excommunicated from all that is not her body: love, friendship, marriage, begetting. A whore is the opposite of company, even if we pretend otherwise in the word escort. Nothing is ever escorted in this world. Everything is distance and frigidity” (43). Every sentence here earns a rereading as Arcan precisely denounces the cold and harsh realities that comprise her world. We see the gradual collapse of the self under the weight of society’s detached yet watchful eye. To Arcan, women’s burdens of beauty, of sex, of love are too much to bear: “We act like it’s nothing. We act as if something other than this emptiness, like love, exists. Love, not war, they say. And love, like beauty, can’t be revolutionized. It will always fall to women to be beautiful and to love. Women, always and without exception, will be condemned to shouldering life’s burdens. Their war isn’t really war. Their violence and their hatred are not really violence and hatred. Their destruction is only self-destruction” (44). Arcan forces readers to question the physical, emotional, and psychological costs of these burdens as well as the writer’s own destruction as her disjointed narratives unfold.
In “The Child in the Mirror,” Arcan struggles with looking for a probable cause of this self-destruction, a path that led her from the traditional life as an only child growing up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to one in Montreal where drugs, cosmetic surgeries, eating disorders, and suicide attempts were her realities. Arcan returns back to her young reflection in the mirror, where “I generally addressed myself by making a face.” These were “the good days when beauty wasn’t about a canon, beauty wasn’t soaked in men’s sexuality, or facetiousness, or self-derision . . . [i]t was the time before your face took its shape, before everything got remodeled . . .the time before undertaking the serious work of capturing men” (52). This loss of innocence, splattered over the pages of her work, acts as an impetus for answers, and when Arcan’s impatience gets in the way, she finds solace in other methods, such as cocaine; “since peace was tardy, I made it come by force” (51) she exclaims. Arcan’s constant questioning of self and the world around her leads to her bifurcation – but her forceful writing makes readers understand her message.
The two new pieces, “Speed Dating” and “Suicide Can Be Harmful to Your Health,” are short yet serious indictments of a modern world gone mad. “Speed Dating” magnifies the contemporary dating scene where “mediation eliminates the possibility of rejection” (114) – the person hiding behind the process. In these works, fear of the unknown is often the catalyst for the undoing of the individual. In the final piece, Arcan writes about suicide prevention attempts on the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Canada. Physical barriers were placed around the bridge in an effort to curtail the rising number of jumpers. Arcan argues that these barriers avoid the root of the problem: “Suicidal people prevented from jumping off the Jacques Cartier Bridge will jump elsewhere, that’s all. By building suicide barriers, we are behaving the way we do about prostitution and erotic commerce: we designate neighborhoods, we push them further and further out of the way, out of sight” (121). Nelly Arcan may be out of sight, but readers of Burqa of Skin will be unable to keep her out of mind.
The collection’s lack of thorough annotation, as others have noted, leaves readers with little background, perhaps in an effort to let Arcan’s writing speak for itself. However, Hurston’s Preface, “Arcan the Philosopher,” is exceedingly long and reads like a guilt-ridden eulogy: “I who regret having passed her [Arcan] by while she lived, not having read her before her death, I who resent the press for not having signalled with enough insistence the fact that she was astonishing, brilliant, original, gifted” (10). Though Arcan’s distinct voice comes through in her works to follow, a relocation of the contextual information may better suit the collection.
In “Shame,” Arcan asks for kindness from her readership, her viewers, and society. Instead, she writes, “the world preferred to regulate and to punish.” Those confronting her in all of her divided glory will hope she is finally whole, unburdened, and at rest.