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Burqa of Skin

by Nelly Arcan; Melissa Bull (trans.)

Writers cannot control how their work is read, and this becomes infinitely more complicated after writers take their own lives. Especially pretty, young iconoclasts who write about sex work. Quebec author Nelly Arcan, whose debut novel, Putain (Whore), was a sensation in Quebec and France and a finalist for two of France’s most prestigious literary awards, committed suicide in 2009 at the age of 36.

Burqa of skinIn each of her books, Arcan discusses suicide, despair, and shame, but critical writing about her work has often been singularly concerned with her body, in a way that uncomplicated or trivialized both her and her work. “She was read, photographed, filed, interviewed – though never taken entirely seriously,” writes novelist Nancy Huston in the preface to the troublingly titled Burqa of Skin, a collection of Arcan’s unpublished works.

When women who write about their experiences in the sex industry die, people who didn’t know them often clamber to moralize, revise history, and gawk at the ghostly bodies, in an effort to make sense of their choices in ways that betray the observers’ own insecurities and obsessions. Huston – whose work I admire, for the record – hadn’t read Arcan until after her death. Her reading is admiring, but her lengthy preface does what it purports to critique – it is unable to deal maturely with Arcan’s work as work, and instead fixates on moral and antiquated obsessions with prostitution.

This is not to say that Arcan doesn’t also wrestle, obsessively, with the role of the whore in her prose. She writes, “A whore is a woman in appearance alone. She is a woman made expressly for perversion.” One of the strongest but most unsettling segments of this book describes her humiliating experience being interviewed on CBC television and her subsequent inability to recover from it. (The essay is called “Shame.”) When Huston fixates on Arcan only as the prostitute – and the role of prostitution as “poison” in society – she engages in a hetero-feminine version of the dehumanizing done by the male journalists who stared at Arcan’s cleavage during the CBC interview.

Without the preface – which takes up a quarter of the book’s page count – the work itself consists of a collection of unpublished pieces, and – like all collections, especially when there is no author present to re-write and polish – the result is uneven. Occasionally, it is striking and beautiful, blunt and frenetic, exposing just a segment of what could have been if Arcan had continued to live and write. At other times it reads like any writing springing from the mind of a deeply depressed person: solipsistic and tiring, but painfully authentic in a way that simultaneously dares you to put it down and makes you unable to.