An automaton made of junk
Nehal El-Hadi is the author of the short story “La Puerta” from The Puritan Issue 34, edited by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Here Nehal El-Hadi talks about the story, which crosses Toronto at night and bumps into grotesque mechanical mannequins on its way.
Three things. First, I’m Sudanese, ethnically African, culturally and linguistically Arab, and visibly black. I feel and think first in Arabic and write in English. I write about how we define ourselves and others as human, and our relationships, not with each other, but with non-humans and processes: pets, technologies, murder, and food. The truth about stories is that they’re all we are, says Thomas King. He’s talking about what makes us human.
Being human is what holds Zola back and keeps her miserable …
Second, I’m interested in the relations and processes that increase or decrease our humanity. Does owning a dog make one more human? Does murder make one more or less human? What about in times of war? In Orwell’s Animal Farm, the commandments the farm animals live by are altered and condensed into: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Why, how?
More than our relationships with each other, I am interested in our relationships with objects, with technology, and this is what “La Puerta” is about. A primitive robot, the automaton in my story named La Puerta, is a container. Being human is what holds Zola back and keeps her miserable, but rather than decrease her humanity, La Puerta makes her more vulnerable and more emotional.
We have relationships with the places we live in. I’m not from Toronto. I’m not from anywhere, really. By including the places in “La Puerta,” I claim both known and unknown geographies. That way, I get to say, no, I’m really from here, look, I wrote about it. I know these places, even when I don’t.
Third, the first line of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.” It’s about the angst of trying to make it when you haven’t. Larkin’s second stanza backgrounds Zola’s character, although I found this poem after I met Zola:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come ’round.
Lake Ontario rejects Zola’s presentation of La Puerta. It gives the pieces right back and it is a failed offering. “La Puerta” is about that poetry of mourning.
Nehal El-Hadi is a journalist, writer, and researcher living in Toronto.