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Image: Unsplash.

It all begins with Mona’s body, limp and grey in a vineyard’s wintry ditch. When locals of the French countryside are interviewed about the hitchhiker’s death, their foggy speculations are intercut with fragments from her life. Mona drinks champagne swiped from a conference of arborists, listens to music in lovers’ squats and receives alms from a nun. She escapes a philosophy graduate student turned goatherd who accuses her of wanting nothing. (She doesn’t deny it.)

Vagabond, the 1985 drama by late director Agnès Varda, at first intimates a familiar plot: the tracing back of a woman’s corpse into clarity through a history of destitution and mangled dreams. But how does Varda tell the story of someone who does not want to be known, a traveller who risks her life to avoid categorisation? As the film skims Mona’s ephemeral pleasures and pangs, the velocity of its images (combined with the shiftiness of its sources, from leering bikers to daydreaming maids) only makes her more elusive.


Two very common pieces of writing advice:

  1. Round out your characters.
  2. Show, don’t tell.

Ballooning characters with history, desires and dreams is, it would seem, equivalent to ‘craft’. Writing is in the business of making things visible in order to forge immersive worlds. To make visible is the beautiful, ancient drive of art itself. Yet this drive is also central to today’s systems of data surveillance, where personal information is an invaluable resource, extracted via coerced or non-existent consent. Online, identifying data is frantically seen, read and categorised. Within this framework—as, often, within stories—recognisability is prized.

In her essay ‘Tell-All’, Turkish Australian author Eda Gunaydin writes of a dumped memoir project. ‘I shit you not, I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe,’ she teases. ‘But why should I tell anyone about it?’ Gunaydin questions cultural obsessions with ‘confessional literature’, wherein such revelations no longer hold a specific purpose (such as religious salvation or political action) and have instead become commodities. In the ‘knowledge economy’, Gunaydin argues, confession ‘is the price of entry’.

Confession—as a style and ethos rooted in ideals of honesty, immediacy and specificity—has also made its way into fiction. The narrations of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Ella Baxter’s New Animal, for example, are drenched in bitterness and brash desire, furnished by intricate descriptions of the body’s daily contortions: eating, sleeping, self-medicating, having sex. The apparently ‘unfiltered’ self is meticulously drawn, the narrators’ focus near-forensic. Overwhelmed by visceral disgust, detail takes on a deadening effect.

To make visible is the beautiful, ancient drive of art itself. Yet this drive is also central to today’s systems of data surveillance.

This overtly confessional approach might have reached its peak with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, celebrated by audiences for its relentless candour. The unnamed protagonist batters the fourth wall with desperation. ‘I have a horrible feeling,’ she confides, ‘that I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.’ Quotes like these went almost immediately viral, their edge dulled by the sprawling ambiance of similarly self-abasing declarations in the form of tweets, TikToks or ‘Close Friends’ Instagram Stories. Skating between vulnerability and snark, writers like Moshfegh, Baxter and Waller-Bridge question the stale orthodoxy of likeability, exposing desires ‘as they are’—ugly and contradictory.

Image: Fleabag (2016).

There are gentler kinds of ‘confessional’ fiction, however. In Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the reader is compelled to keep reading by the inwards turn of Vuong’s first-person narrator, Little Dog, who frames the book as a letter to his mother. (Little Dog knows his mother, with whom he shares little language, will never read it, giving him permission to say ‘everything’.) Intimacy propels the story. The author utilised a kishōtenketsu structure, a form that avoids using conflict as a plot device. ‘It insists that a narrative structure can survive and thrive on proximity alone,’ Vuong told the New York Times. ‘Proximity builds tension.’

According to the Guardian, Vuong ‘mines’ the story of his own Vietnamese American family with ‘frankness and precision’, the poet’s prose ‘best pressing the words further and harder […] in his effort to capture in their net the fleeting sensations of a real moment’. These moments—from Little Dog’s grandmother’s death to his first, ecstatic experiences of queer sex—are rendered with striking, lyrical intensity. Nevertheless, there’s something troubling about the idea that literature must dig, scour and calcify in its quest for truthful interiority.


‘As far as my identity is concerned, I will take care of it myself,’ writes Édouard Glissant in Poetics of Relation. Hailing from the island of Martinique, the French Afro-Caribbean theorist challenges ‘transparency’ as a political and aesthetic ideal. For Glissant, Western thought privileges the visible, assuming that to empathise with another is to ‘grasp’ them. He rebuffs the logic that identities must be understood to be recognised and respected. As an alternative, Glissant envisions society as a tapestry in which the value of its ‘texture’ doesn’t depend on an excoriating analysis of each component. According to his theory of ‘opacity’, striving for unbridled access to other people’s subjectivity is more reductive than embracing unknowing.

There’s something troubling about the idea that literature must dig, scour and calcify in its quest for truthful interiority.

In Gunaydin’s Root & Branch, a collection of essays about resistance, inheritance and community, opacity manifests in the decision to regularly forgo translating Turkish dialogue into English. While Gunaydin is explicit in addressing her relationships—in trying to untangle their webs of love, obligation, understanding and misunderstanding—conversations with family members are often untranslated. Non-translation, indecipherable to some but not to others, is a feature often seen in the work of people who traverse multiple communities and landscapes. Its presence questions the idea that storytelling must be a certain bridge between differences. Resisting the internet’s primordial context collapse (the synthesis of stories into tags and algorithms), non-translation claims the value of not being readable to everyone.

There is pleasure and catharsis in intimate storytelling. I am a confidant, an accomplice, a lover, a mother. I melt into the story. Often, to see a character so wholly is also to feel seen.

Yet, in an age of mass surveillance, is being unseen becoming equally desirable?

Cher Tan explores this in a 2020 essay, recalling the comfort of using anonymous social media accounts. Splintering her online presence into nameless profiles dedicated to niche interests, Tan wanted to resist the attempts by algorithms and data collectors to synthesise her into one identity—that of a fully integrated consumer. ‘As a queer person of colour,’ she writes, ‘I am already simultaneously hypervisible and invisible in society; how do I circumvent the desire for exposure or representation and harness the strengths that come with invisibility instead?’

How, then, can stories utilise invisibility and opacity?


Whether in text or in film, stories always have gaps—the implied movement from one location to another, the most banal moments of a character’s routine. In the process of curation, certain facts must be missed, details glossed over. Often, the challenge for a writer or filmmaker is to maintain a watertight sense of continuity in the midst of this artifice—to create a flow of images that feels natural to the audience. But gaps can also be blown up, becoming perceptible sites of absence: abrupt pauses in narration, sudden time-shifts between scenes or chapters, ellipses signposting the unsayable.

In an age of mass surveillance, is being unseen becoming equally desirable?

Seeking opacity in fiction is counterintuitive insofar as its purpose is to forge empathy by squeezing the reader into somebody else’s (carefully described) shoes. It follows that omissions, cuts and jumps are a kind of secrecy, capable of threatening solidarity. However, by making a story’s spillover visible, such absences can hint at the limitless: at the rage, pain and euphoria that exceed narrative logic. In this sense, while gaps can be tears or fences, they are also passages. Like Tan’s burner accounts, elliptical storytelling withholds at the same time as it spawns possibilities. And what is fiction if not the profusion of the possible?

Replacing overexposed images of brutality and trauma, a story’s breakages can reveal the limits of a given reality, becoming entry points to speculative worlds. Throughout Vagabond, Varda plays upon the desires of Mona’s audience and alibis to reach the grisly, cathartic spectacle of her demise. Yet, at its would-be climax, the film lurches into phantasmic absurdity: Mona is chased by a gang dressed as grapes whose origin is as inexplicable as her own.

Image: Vagabond (1985).

In Toni Morrison’s fiction, acts of violence are often deferred beyond the page, while the effects of complex racial trauma arrive as rifts in narrative logic. For the formerly enslaved family at the centre of Beloved, the appearance of a silent, uncanny ghost signifies the collapse of realist logic under the ongoing force of systematic cruelty. Meanwhile, narration in Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is knotted with repetition and streams of conjoined, code-like mantras, as the impact of white supremacist indoctrination and violence sends language into loops. In a later foreword, the author describes her approach as an ‘attempt to shape a silence while breaking it’. Through these visceral ruptures, Morrison’s work focuses not on documenting trauma at a distance but on surfacing its deeply felt sensations—a mode of revelation that can contend with both the extreme visibility and invisibility of Black suffering.

Opaque storytelling, then, does not have to sacrifice honesty, emotion or intimacy. Today’s confessional fiction has discernible roots in the sexy, mercurial autofiction of late twentieth-century writers like Chris Kraus and Kathy Acker. Kraus’s I Love Dick takes on the form of a collection of diary entries, and sent and unsent love letters which document the swelling perversities of Chris’s desires for a man named Dick. As her immune system falters with obsession, Chris provides us with a full induction into her shame spiral. Through the winding tunnels of art, psychoanalysis and literature, Kraus desperately chases desire into a rabbit hole of referentiality. Meanwhile, studded with dates and addressees, these passages call attention to temporal gaps and remind the reader, over and over, of their own voyeuristic intrusions. Similarly, the high-octane eroticism of Acker’s novels is at once murky and revelatory. ‘Story’ is obscured, yet emerges from, sensual pileups so intense they dissolve punctuation.

Elliptical storytelling withholds at the same time as it spawns possibilities.

The embodied fervour of Kraus and Acker’s writing feels refreshing—a reminder that self-narration is always an unstable act, capable of forming rifts through its own excesses. While today’s confessional fiction reflects an impulse to ‘tell all’ in pursuit of catharsis, connection and co-commiseration, it too often forgets about glitches. ‘If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning,’ writes Morrison, ‘it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.’ While enigmatic storytelling can be a protective barrier, it also goads imagination. As mystery becomes an increasingly rare privilege, now is the perfect time to stretch holes in our stories.


‘All drivers talk to their rides, so I make things up,’ says Mona. A cigarette slouching from her lips, she is sitting in the passenger seat next to a glamorous academic. Lonely on a business trip, the woman offers Mona a ride and buys her crisp, sugar-capped treats. In return, all she asks for is a good story. As she drives, she shells Mona with a series of probing questions:

‘So, you sleep alone outside?’ asks the academic.

‘That’s it,’ Mona replies.

‘For the fun of it, or because you have to?’

‘That’s it.’

‘You don’t have a home?’

‘Yeah, that’s it.’

‘No family to go to?’

‘Nothing much.’

Eyes set on the highway ahead, Mona flicks on the radio, silencing her driver’s cordial barrage. Tired of cruelty masquerading as curiosity, she takes pride in diversion. Escaping narrative’s explanatory pull, even in death Mona’s identity—as a dreamer, drifter, strawberry picker—continues to rove.