Each text holds a secret, whether intentional or unintentional. Sarvat Hasin investigates and encounters ghost versions and inspirations that shape a text ‘like teeth hidden in a close-mouthed smile’.
During a poetry class a few years ago, a teacher said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head. I think of it when I edit, when I read other people’s work and try to understand what I love or hate about it. The best poems, she said, have a secret running through them. She made a motion with her hands, as if the secret was a rivet, the thing holding everything together. I love this idea — that what binds all these thoughts together is something you cannot quite see. Mystery is not just what keeps a plot or a poem moving forward. It holds a text together, an absence that can be felt before it is discerned. To my mind, there are three kinds of secrets in a text: the one the author withholds entirely. The one that is kept from the audience for a time, only to be revealed later. And the last, the kind that the author is sometimes not quite aware of themself.
The first kind of secret is the one I think my poetry teacher was talking about. The way a secret can hold a piece of writing together, like invisible scaffolding that holds up the building. The omissions are meant to echo, the absences take on meaning: the way not knowing the name of the narrator in Rebecca allows us to merge more fully with her experience of the world. How would we read it if we knew the narrator’s name? Or Tell-Tale Heart? Or Written on the Body?
These secrets have a reach — everything that happens off the page is still shaping the story, still sculpting it. Most of us keep banks of pages that go deleted, backstories for characters that never appear on the page but inform the way they react to things, their little quirks and personalities. I could build whole manuscripts out of details I’ve cut, the darlings I had to sacrifice for a tighter story. These darlings exist just outside the periphery of what we as readers are allowed to see, small off-camera details that hang in the air.
Every piece holds the ghosts of itself, the versions it could have become.
Sometimes, the secret is the thing that gives the plot shape, the turning point reveal that makes an ending satisfying. This is almost impossible to orchestrate without seeming fussy. Secret reveals are usually the domain of murder mysteries and thrillers, difficult to pull off in other genres without seeming like a gimmick, the sort left best to Agatha Christie novels.
In Annie Baker’s John, a play about a crumbling relationship, and a bed and breakfast with a spooky landlady and an American Girl doll, the secret is the title: it glows under the text of the play but never overwhelms it. The play is never about finding out who John is. Unlike in a thriller, where the reveal is constantly on the reader’s mind, in John, we are barely conscious of where Baker is leading us. There is a textured languorous nature to her work: heroic pauses that linger between the couple, completely unhurried and yet heavy with meaning. They fight and make up and drift apart again, and we are caught up in it so completely that when the reveal happens – the phone beeping with a text, the word John explaining everything – it is not quite an aha moment, it is the softly satisfying reassurance that the journey we’ve been taken on is now complete, that the gaps in our understanding of the couple’s fights can be filled.
In a sense all art is based on secrets, on these things hidden behind the curtain. When I read a friend’s novel or poetry, I can sometimes glimpse behind the top layers — see the person in their life who inspired a certain turn of phrase, or the real home that the setting of a scene is based on. It clicks in my head like magic, like a small lamp switching on in the corner of the stage, outside the spotlight. But these secrets are not intentionally withheld. Sometimes, people don’t even know what they are hiding. I look back at the things I’ve written, sometimes months and years after it was first put to page and see it differently.
I can see the fingerprints of other people, things they said or did shaping the way an idea comes onto the page. Sometimes these have been hidden, even to myself, for a long time.
Inspiration works this way also, texts hiding their origins in other works. We are all borrowers and thieves. In other people’s work, we find templates for our own. Sometimes these are abundantly obvious, even sales pitches of the books — a retelling of a certain myth or a new version of an old story. Other times it is more insidious, the original hiding behind the new work, like a person standing right behind the other at some distance so you cannot quite see them, or like teeth hidden in a close-mouthed smile.
What is a secret? A sign of restraint or an excess of something else: plot, tension, ambiguity. The balance of what appears on the page and what doesn’t is in constant play. We might hold the secrets of our own stories but we can never see them quite clearly, never as they are meant to be seen — by someone who is discovering them anew, someone who has not lived with its ghosts.
Sarvat Hasin was born in London and grew up in Karachi. She is the author of the novel This Wide Night (Penguin India, 2017) and the short story collection You Can’t Go Home Again (Penguin India, 2018). She is the fiction editor of the Stockholm Review.