Reading Susan Sontag has always felt like gentle rain coming down on you midday, on a quiet street with no shade in sight, no umbrella on hand.
So you soak all of it in. You let her words seep through your pores, a place where water meets itself.
After reading her diaries and journals, I was eager for more.
I was curious: would these stories be different from her journal entries, musings and observations, each a pseudo-short story in itself?
Surprisingly, I settled within each story naturally.
Sontag’s rhythm even in prose is unmistakable, and I sought to find her in each one as I did with her journals.
And there she always was, gleaming in between action or whatever emotion came hurtling out of the page.
In Pilgrimmage, Sontag writes how two curious high-schoolers, also voracious readers, managed to get themselves invited to their favorite writer’s home. The story is an ode to reading and writing, both ends of the literary spectrum where the writer meets the reader in the pages. But in this particular story, the writer meets the readers in real life in an encounter so surreal it had me sitting on the edge of my seat.
After all, isn’t it every reader’s dream to meet/have coffee or tea with their favorite author?
Then there’s a story that reads like Sontag’s journals, called Project Trip to China wherein she notes a myriad of topics and things coming up for a trip to the country. I love how meticulous she is about this particular topic, as she weaves facts about China and her presuppositions. She writes about her own observations about the political conditions of the country, at a time of Mao Tse-tung’s reign.
In it, she explores the tangential experience of communism in theory vs. in action. I find her voice in this story at times refreshing but also confusing. There are passages suffused with faith in Mao’s leadership, but also lines where she questions everything. From conditions of the Chinese people to her own musings about what it means to travel and accumulate ideas, knowledge, experiences — her perspective continue to expand the reader’s mind and heart.
In The Dummy, a different Sontag emerges: one whose storytelling captivates even more so than the usual ruminations.
And finally, the one story that struck me most was called Old Complaints Revisited which was, once again, resembling the Sontag I was familiar with. But instead of pointed illustrations of art, literature, people and the self, this story revolves around an assessment of the character’s (presuming Sontag, with “I”) involvement in a particular party, as part of a movement.
Similar to the back and forth Project Trip to China, it conveys an internal struggle between what the narrator gained and lost after spending time doing work with the organization and the movement. In this story, the narrator excavates and analyzes the different ways s/he has contributed to the work. She points out contradictions and different struggles within the organization, as seen in the individual.
These stories are only a few reasons why Sontag is one of my mains, because every time I read her it feels like reading parts of my most intimate self. I guess whether it’s journals or short stories, I’m someone who will ride hard for her.
* * *
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.