Wednesday 19 December 2018

What makes an ordinary life so compelling to read?

Martina Reilly

Charles Ellis was a barber. He lived in Altamont in Illinois in 1927. So far, so ordinary. But add to this that he was the only black man in a town rife with racial cleansings and the ordinary suddenly shifts into more sinister territory.

Charles Ellis survived by remaining invisible to the white men whose hair he cut on a daily basis. As they sat in his shop, they did not realise that the subservient man trimming their beards had a rich, diverse and creative life.

Charles Ellis was a writer and at the age of 40 had begun keeping a diary, chronicling his thoughts on life. He wrote for more than 40 years and, by the time he had finished, he had written thousands of words and had lived through important times.

He wrote, his daughter said, as an outlet for his feelings. His diaries were published posthumously. Titled The Barber's Diaries they have been hailed as "the powerful voice of an invisible man".

I first heard of Charles Ellis when I was writing my novel What If? I was trying to chronicle the life of a woman who wrote to survive her stifling existence in a small town.

I began researching the voices of the 'invisible', those who would have been forgotten but who managed to achieve immortalisation through their diaries. Was it because of what they wrote? Was it because of the times they lived in? What makes an ordinary life so compelling?

Of course the first diary one thinks of is that of Anne Frank. What makes her story so memorable is her innocence in the face of evil.

She was living as the world around her was dying. Anne names her diary 'Kitty', which suggests to me that she used it as a confidant, as the friend she didn't have in hiding.

Perhaps closer to the spirit of my book, and to my heroine Lily, is the diary of Nella Last. Nella's diary is simultaneously historic and modern. Nella Last would have remained an unknown housewife if it were not for the Mass Observation Archive project in Britain.

The aim of this archive was to chronicle common life using untrained volunteers to record their daily experiences by way of diaries.

Nella Last kept her diary during World War Two and beyond.

Nella's life was characteristic of the time but, because of her war experience, Nella discovered that she had more to offer society. She eventually compares her role within marriage to that of a slave.

A dawning sense of widening horizons punctuates the text as Nella realises that the role of women can be greater than she'd ever known. It is ironic that she begins writing by saying that she had always wanted to be a writer and the end result, one she didn't live to witness, was that she became one. Her diary, in a sense, had set her free.

A diary taken in the Vietnam War became a vehicle for peace. In 1966 during 'Operation Indiana' an American marine, Robert Frazure, came across the body of a Vietnamese soldier. On the soldier's chest lay a red book, a photograph and some papers. Frazure took them, presumably wanting some souvenir of the war.

For more than 40 years he kept them in an antique pottery urn. Finally, in 2012, through a History Detectives programme, the family of the dead soldier was located and the diary returned to them.

The need for this young soldier to keep a diary at probably the worst time in his life speaks more than any words he could have written.

Diaries, I realised, become the thing we want them to be. A blog becomes a gateway to the world, Anne Frank's diary was her friend, Charles Ellis's was his salvation, Nella Last's her illumination and, in the case of Robert Frazure and my character Lily, they are ultimately a way to ask forgiveness.

It is the simple truths that resonate with readers. While celebrity autobiographies get a lot of attention, they are self-conscious, written to be read and are of their time. Diaries of anonymous people, living in extraordinary times, seem to be the chronicles that survive.

So, my new year's resolution? Keep a diary. Now, who's going to bid for my memoirs in 40 years . . . ?

Martina Reilly's new novel What If? (Hachette Ireland) is out now.

Irish Independent

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