In her essay, Alice Hill-Woods discusses the positioning of self in the spaces and places of Ann Quin’s short story, ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’, which is part of her recently published collection, The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments.
Ann Quin was a working-class writer born in 1936 and raised in Brighton, deploying language that defied formal and stylistic conventions until her suicide in 1973. ‘Quin’ means ‘from’ in Latin, which is both surprising and affirmative; her semantic experiments allow for language to shapeshift from one signification to another, thus destabilising normative readings. In a recently published collection by And Other Stories, which includes fourteen short stories and fragments, Quin’s imaginative and daring voice is rediscovered, particularly in fragments that were unpublished prior to this collection. The short story ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’ is nestled amongst other vividly textured narratives and is a visceral reimagining of a woman coming to terms with dislocation and a fraught relationship. These fragments contribute to Quin’s generative, starry vision; like a disco ball, Quin’s prose is sharp and glittery in its exploration of light and darkness. Her sumptuous, abrasive words function as an extension of a mind that appears hungry to indulge in the varying frequencies of human nature.
It is generally understood that we inscribe meaning on to spatial dimensions we exist within, and space is transformed into place according to lived experience (Creswell 2015). Known mainly for her seaside settings and textual engagement with grimy, out-of-season Brighton, it is significant that in Quin’s short story we encounter place as vividly foreign, constructed upon bright hues and olfactory cues that are specific to Cuetzalan, Mexico. This sense of spatial unfamiliarity is fundamental to Quin’s depictions of emotional and physical displacement. The protagonist superimposes her interior turmoil and nostalgia onto the environments she finds herself in. In my own reading, a question arises: how do we place ourselves when we are inhibited by sadness, nostalgic for somewhere that seems to operate between daydreams and memory? Quin’s textual position refuses closure, but it is illuminated by her use of jarring phantasmagoria which is interrupted only by detailed snapshots of the land.
The story is also about different forms of gazing: gazing at one another, gazing into the abyss, gazing back at oneself and into the bricolage of experiences…
The protagonist is framed by the raw and ancient curves of volcanoes, which exist in deep time and are etched with the historical signs of folktales: ‘Popocatepetl contemplating Ixtaccihuatl’ (p. 109), their relationship encoded into the land. But the story is also about different forms of gazing: gazing at one another, gazing into the abyss, gazing back at oneself and into the bricolage of experiences that sequence the narrative and give birth to embodied memory. Mexico’s dramatic topography provides a vivid mise-en-scène for other kinds of relationships: human with human, human with nonhuman, both painted on the mind with saturated ambiguity; the ecological backdrop an audience observing the characters’ failed attempts at connection and scenes of violence spawned from misunderstandings.
Spatial dynamics not only reside in the semantic content of Quin’s writing, but also in her formal technique. One of Quin’s key strategies is her use of a line break within a paragraph, explicitly tracing the visual potential of disrupting spatial conventions, which perform dialogically with the narrative. Consider the deictic fragment of ‘and here’, isolated briefly in white space before the reader is plunged into vibrantly location-specific imagery:
well here there was a stillness, a gradual regaining from the landscape. The maize as tall as trees. Bananas unripe, and oranges. Coffee plantations surrounded by mountains, layers of deep blue fading into clouds, mist. Shrillness of insects. Locusts. A startling brightness from the poinsettia, flowers of Christmas Eve, above her head bent low. Now high, watching the turkey buzzards circle, in their search for snakes. Then down at the line of leaf-cutter ants coming and going. Armies of them. A moving line of leaves, twigs along the track, up over the rocks into a small dark hole (pp. 111-112).
The artistry of Quin’s prose treats the page as a primed canvas, allowing it to fill up with a kaleidoscope of objects and colours. It is through her close attention to form that scenes appear so porous they bleed into each other. Furthermore, her language supports the notion that space/place dynamics involve not only the act of moving, but the sensation of being moved; ‘the sense of this land, a kind of timelessness caught her often by the throat’ (p. 112). Perhaps it is the protagonist’s rootlessness that allows for such sensitive engagement with spatial tapestries; she is adrift, seemingly without any real sense of purpose, enabling her to drink up the aesthetics of Mexico’s minutiae with fluidity.
…the unnamed female character lacks defining traits and barely comments on personal history, allowing her to assume a kind of formless figuration, trapped and governed by her situational ennui
Philip Stevick describes Quin’s spatial paradigm as ‘a claustrophobic, hothouse world, largely cut off from history and larger patterns of social action, in which the slow dance of a very small group of egos is as important as it is because it is all there is’ (p. 237). Indeed, Quin’s ability to destabilise conventions and create solipsistic characters that float within a wave of self-obsession are aspects of her writing that critics have come up against, although her longer pieces of writing are more in tune with Stevick’s analysis. ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’ has a softer approach: the unnamed female character lacks defining traits and barely comments on personal history, allowing her to assume a kind of formless figuration, trapped and governed by her situational ennui. Quin-esque chaos is replaced with the milder residue of self-reflection and directionless wanderings. Instead of becoming hypnotised by a portrait of the protagonist, we learn about the intricacies of specific places that are meaningful to her: the beach, a cave, a town, a rock on a mesa. By mapping her surroundings, the protagonist invites us to look outwards as she meditates and negotiates the limits of her inner topography.
Perhaps a major element of the discordant energy of the text is its constant engagement with spatial and experiential dualities. In Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space, David James suggests that ‘defining place in fiction is a task that can’t be divorced from the way different literary settings spell moments of empathy and estrangement, contrasting moments of immersion and recoil’ (p. 25). The dichotomy of desire and disgust shudders at the periphery of Quin’s settings. Animals are subjected to acts of violence in the daytime, while at night the protagonist curls into the heady eroticism that saturates the muscle memory of her dysfunctional relationship. Observing the ritualised tragedy of a local bullfight, the protagonist recognises the kind of space it signifies: ‘the meeting place of challenge’. However, the gory performance is unable to upstage and distract readers from the resentment writhing below the surface of her relationship; the couple’s silence is spurred on by ‘the challenge not met’ (p. 115). Quin agilely positions exterior spaces that gesture to the intangible space operating between people so that we may observe our own assumptions regarding emotional and physical proximities. Her characters reveal that physical intimacy has little effect on emotional distance.
Quin’s text…is heavy with the kind of liquid melancholy that foregrounds and outlasts the cadences of the narrative
In many ways Quin’s text may be read as an absorbent piece of fabric cut out of a larger, unknown one, heavy with the kind of liquid melancholy that foregrounds and outlasts the cadences of the narrative. The briefness of the protagonist’s physical intimacy with her lover signals a momentary beacon of light in the dark expanse of disconnection. They both have their personal spaces that the other cannot reach, and she describes his as ‘crablike’ (p. 116), indicative of the strange inertia of ‘carrying the weight of the past. In himself. To himself’ (p. 117). Formulated with the same semantic intensity, the protagonist’s lover buries her in the sand before she seems to enter into a disembodied trancelike state that is ‘a space in herself, yet outside her body. […] She was jerked out of an area she did not recognize’ (p. 117). Portrayed as a significant place within the narrative, the beach interrogates normative associations; it is complex and lonely, severing body from mind and distorting stable reference points.
The oppressive aridity of the story’s setting melts away with the climactic rainstorm at the end, signalling a release of tension. A denouement is reached: she will venture forward, alone, and accept the shifting states that follow, waiting for ‘a place where they could contemplate each other. From a distance. An area they could meet in. Separate. Touch in silence’ (p. 124). The image is reminiscent of the initial volcanoes, fixed in space, time and the aural contours of folktales. The self, then, is finally reached: there is a sense of completeness inferred by this final motion to a place that resists collapse, for such distance is pivotal for reorienting perspectives. The self is recognised and given adequate space to transform and heal. The vagaries of the narrative dissolve alongside its cacophonies, and this allows the protagonist space to recover from the psychic pain that lingers in the past. Paradoxically, it is only when she considers traversing the boundaries of Cuetzalan that she is able to arrive at her own emotional destination; the notion of her moving beyond him is imbricated in the expanse of her own conclusion.
Reading Quin’s text through a lens that elucidates the significance of space and place allows for a perspective immersed in the ontologies of closeness, foreignness and distance, elements performed gaudily by the evocative mosaics of Mexico. Themes as common as love, pain and travelling take on fresh significance, and the interior workings of the protagonist’s subjective realities are intensified. Fundamentally, however, it seems clear that the text’s lucid delineation of space and place is highly engaging, and thus Quin creates a new domain of avant-garde literature, surpassing and transforming well-trodden routes of storytelling with sparkling ease.
Cresswell, Tim. 2015. Place: an introduction, 2nd edn. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.)
James, David. 2008. ‘Landscape and Narrative Aesthetics’, in Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space (London: Continuum), pp. 20-40
Quin, Ann.  2018. ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’, in The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, ed. by Jennifer Hodgson (London: And Other Stories), pp. 108-124
Stevick, Philip. 1989. ‘Ann Quin: Style and Consciousness’, in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, ed. by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 231-239
Feature image of Ann Quin is by Oswald Jones.
Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments is published by And Other Stories and can be purchased online and in all good bookshops now.
About Alice Hill-Woods
Alice Hill-Woods grew up between England and South Africa, and now lives in Glasgow where she is studying English Literature. She is interested in collisions, overlappings and blurrings between poetry and visual arts. She set up a free workshop in 2018 investigating ekphrasis after being awarded funding by the Nurturing Talent – Time to Shine Fund. Her research interests currently focus on ecocritical approaches to trauma in avant-garde women’s fiction, but Alice often finds herself in all kinds of discourse rabbit-holes. She is the creative workshop director for Glasgow University Magazine, and has developed and led various creative writing workshops in Glasgow. Alice favours richly elusive language entangled in complex writing, and thus approaches literature as a site to be excavated, with its meanings returned to, and sees text as pliable and multivalent. Her poems have been published by The Speculative Book 2019, From Glasgow to Saturn Journal, Gargouille Literary Journal, The Corrugated Wave and The Poetry Society, amongst others. One of her recent essays was published by SPAM Zine, and is featured on Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog. She is also passionate about film photography and experimental methods of filmmaking, and is always open to creative-critical collaborations. You can find her at: www.alicehillwoods.wordpress.com or via Twitter.