No Document is an elegy for a friendship and artistic partnership cut short by death. The memory of this collaboration becomes a model for how we might relate to others in sympathy, solidarity and rebellion. At once intimate and expansive, Anwen Crawford’s book-length essay explores loss in many forms: disappeared artworks, effaced histories, abandoned futures. Written out of the turmoil of grief and the imperfection of memory, her perspective embraces histories of protest and revolution, art-making and cinema, border policing, and especially our relationships with animals. No Document shows how love, kinship and resistance echo through time.
I don’t normally use the publisher’s blurb to start a post these days, but I honestly do not know how I will sum up my reading experience with No Document, so the blurb is as good a place to start as any. My time with this book featured many fluctuating, oscillating feelings.
No Document was my work backpack book for the past few months, so it only got read a couple of mornings a week over my coffee before I went to work on the days I did the late shift. The new wait person at my favourite cafe asked me what the book was about when I was about halfway through. After I brief pause, when I wondered how on earth I could sum this book up, I said it was a grief and loss memoir wrapped up in revolution, refugees and rebellion. She gave me a pained look as if to say “I’m sorry I asked’, which reminded me why I love all of you out there in blogger land. You understand (or at least accept) my need to read so many grief and loss stories. Not to mention all of you who would jump at a chance to read a book that dealt with revolution, refugees or rebellion…and art and war and injustice and memory.
Some days, though, I found reading No Document absorbing and fascinating and some days I found it pretentious and privileged. Some days the themes resonated strongly and I pondered new ideas and ways of seeing the world and other days I was frustrated by over-generalisations and unfinished thoughts. I was reminded of recent reactions to the new production of The Picture of Dorian Grey that played in Sydney earlier this year, and is now in Melbourne. Mr Books and I both found the post-modern interpretation to be exciting and thought-provoking (Kate @Books are my favourite and best agrees with us). But another friend dismissed it all as a ‘post-modern wank’!
Curiously, I could see how someone might arrive at the conclusion, even as I thought it rather harsh and not really entering into the spirit of the whole thing.
That’s how I felt about No Document. Some days I was with the program (and with Crawford) and some days I was not.
Crawford is obviously intelligent and well-read with a moral compass deeply tuned into social injustice. Her essays have the earnestness and conviction of youth. Communal history is remembered, forgotten and unearthed again. But it was her grief and loss that struck me the most. The absence of her best friend fills every line, every space, every thought.
Which makes me wonder if the living share a tendency to imbue the dead with goodness, perhaps especially when the young grieve the young, for in these cases we have scarcely had time to disappoint each other.
No Document will not be for everyone. Some days I did not have the patience for this book either.
Many of Crawford’s ideas are confronting and challenging, the many intertextual references can be hard to keep up with and some readers will not like the staccato-like sentences and huge leaps from one idea to the next. In an interview @Antithesisjournal in 2021, Crawford explains that this structure,
[is] about trying to evoke that kind of nonlinear state, not just of grief, but of thought itself. You know, no one thinks in a straight line. I certainly don’t. And I’m a very digressive thinker by nature. So those stanzaic sections that are just one line, followed by one line, followed by one line–that that’s very much me. A lot of the leaps that are there are just because that’s the next thing that comes to mind, even if it seems a long way away from what went before.
These leaps took us from art and theft in WWII Germany, protests about the war in Iraq, the Tampa refugees, Sydney architecture and infrastructure, stolen First Nations artifacts now housed in museums around the world, AIDS, the nature of work, animal extinction and abuse, the White Australia policy and terrorism. Just to name a few!
Personally, Crawford’s Inner West Sydney memories resonated the most strongly. In her student days, Crawford and her friends roamed all around the area I now call home, making their mark with spray cans, adding their own layer of history to well-known landmarks, communal spaces and institutions.
No Document is a book that would benefit from multiple reads to unpick all the ideas and appropriated texts, but I won’t. It’s enough that every time I now walk through Callan Park or drive by the silos on Glebe Island, I will think of Crawford and her friend, Ned Sevil (1980 – 2010).
That there was you. But there is no place on this earth now that contains you: you in yourself, irreducible and irreplaceable. [There] is no longer a place – a living place – where we can meet, as you and me.
- No Document was ‘composed between May 2017 and February 2020.’
- Shortlisted Stella Prize 2022
Epigraph: You could say an event in history is over, the way a book is slapped shut when it is done. But where is the marker? | Fanny Howe | American poet, novelist and short story writer | The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation | 2009
no document can make you manifest
Title: No Document Author: Anwen Crawford ISBN: 9781925818611 Imprint: Giramondo Published: April 2021 Format: paperback Pages: 151 Dates Read: 23 May 2022 - 14 August 2022
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.