From Spain

Caren Beilin




In the bookstore in Philadelphia, Jean-Paul bought me Self-Portrait Abroad, in translation. He said, “It might help.” He did not know it.

It helps to be bought something right in front of you like that. Sunday boldness.

Women are humiliated in this little book (a travelogue) but the narrator, a character like its author (the author, Jean-Phillipe Toussaint), protects in his esteem and in his writing: his wife and also a little daughter. They are well taken care of. He exalts and treats as equals these particular females.

I had a professor in school who told us all the time like a siege on education: “My wife is hot.”

No one said she wasn’t, man. We hadn’t seen her. I mean, he was our professor. He kept saying it like that, like “Fuck you fuck you my wife is hot.” It was like a trump, “My wife is hot,” he kept saying it to us angrily keeping his wife as “wife,” keeping her appearance (like what is she, blonde, man? Is she Jessica Rabbit Hannah Arendt, what?) in our class, alive at any moment, the threat of who we weren’t being and never would be, married to him and hot hot hot hot, coming down on us all the time, the heat, like a US bomb in this American writing program, where we were writing what, coming-of-age curios? No one knew what she did for money. I felt worthless (there).

Toussaint reveres his wife and daughter. Besides his wife and little daughter, women all over this deranged little travelogue, Self-Portrait Abroad, by this Belgian like King Leopold are treated so roughly in his rough little book, clearly. They are so fucking clear: It’s clear what they’re for.

He attends a writers’ conference, for instance, and in attendance: four generations of Vietnamese writers and internationals like him and Tahar Ben Jelloun. No women. Olivier Rolin and Tahar Ben Jelloun . . . a row of Vietnamese writers in grayish short-.

Him, his, he. It’s not anywhere announced there are no women involved in international cultural meetings, in writing, no, it’s not said, but the pronouns fumigate the pages of pussy energy. But women then come, even in this despicable little book. Two young women in fact appear in the writer’s room, distractingly silent and discrete, who with a furtive swishing of their silk tunics start to clear away the teacups the men have been given, replacing them with cans of soft drinks and Tiger, the Singaporean beer (although it was just after nine in the morning), before bringing them soup bowls, salads and spring rolls, cold meats, rice, and raw vegetables.

There they are. There they go.

And Toussaint spots Jane Birkin.

She is asked in his book to sing a song to the conference something from her repertoire. She doesn’t need this shit. She declines. She says no. The men insist: No, no, really, repeated Jane Birkin, who continued laughing and smiling.

Four generations of Vietnamese writers, those who’d fought against the French, those who’d fought the Americans, everyone in the big meeting room was clapping their hands and chanting: a song! a song!

We all chanted around the large U-shaped conference table.

Toussaint has her laughing like that. You can make anyone do anything, in writing. Laughing and smiling.

Jane Birkin couldn’t refuse any longer, you can’t resist four generations of Vietnamese writers.

No, you really can’t. She sings a song. And he has her sing:

Et quand tu as plongé dans la lagune. Nous étions tous deux tous



What would I say to him? Should I write to Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, the Belgian writer, what, a little email?

In his book he has a fangirl who follows him around. A professor (a man) arranges for this meeting but they shove her off—“scram”—when what they want is to be left alone, to be just men, and to go to a strip club. It’s an extra-permissive place on the Asian continent and you, for instance, can even put your fingers into the pussy of the attendant.

I hate Toussaint. I hate his writing. It has all the restraint of good writing pooling all the restraint and commanding it, to restrain, what you or I could do, too, if want for what we ever write was waiting for us like that, with calm and open affirmation, for whatever we produce, the produce of our first wrist. But it’s not like that. I have to shill off many wrists to find any place. It’s like suicide. Any place at all. Toussaint, he publishes with what Dalkey Archive Press?

You can write anything, good restrained writing like his, into the pussy, the cushioned hole of having a publisher. He has his fingers up the attendant’s cunt. It’s more interesting for him than the fan who was following them around, that girl-duckling, a sheepette. They ditch her, him and the professor. Raison d’écrire, to shill women. Go on, spend my time. Women are like that, waiting rooms for royalty checks.

I am restraining myself. Work without hope. These are my best restraints.


Caren Beilen will be performing as a part of the Letters Festival in Atlanta, running November 8-10 at the Atlanta Contemporary. Visit the fest’s website for more details.