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These Narcissistic Selfies

Posted on 11/02/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Writer In Residence Michael Mendis
There’s something to be avoided about selfies. Maybe it’s the stigma: how condescendingly everybody looks at this new, scary generation of narcissists, these vacant creatures of vanity. Maybe it’s the betrayal: how, with every nicely framed shot of yourself, you betray a little of the insecurity inside you. And how, with every public post of yourself, you are seen to be crying out for attention, for admiration almost, maybe even redefinition. Or maybe it’s the risk of self-description: the chance you take that this photo you took of yourself will be seen by others in the same way you see it; that others can be persuaded to see you in the same way that you see yourself.
Admittedly, among those who know me, I am not unknown for the occasional selfie. But selfies are only circuitously relevant to what I want to say here.

A stray question

I’ve always hesitated calling them ‘poems’, those short-lined sentences I sometimes write that don’t make it to the other edge of the paper. And there has at least been one occasion when I bristled at someone who made the innocent and putatively admiring remark, ‘He wrote a book’ – and not because I stashed it in an old hard drive and packed it away, this impugned ‘book’, within months of having written it. I think the insecurity lies in the description. The baggage that comes with being a maker of things others liked to call ‘books’ and ‘poems’: the expectations, most predictably. And, more tenuously, the approximation.
I don’t remember writing at a very young age. In fact, although the adults who watched me grow would swear to the opposite, I don’t even remember being much of a reader until about the age of nine – though from that age on, I turned out to be quite undeniably bookish. When I was about six or seven, however, I remember calling Radio Ceylon to participate in some sort of quiz competition after being cajoled into it by my aunts, and one of the first things the kindly old presenter asked me while on air was, predictably, ‘What will you become when you grow up?’, and my answer, nothing if not instant, was, ‘I want to be an author’. I remember this incident vividly, because after the call had ended, my aunts dutifully corrected my English, telling me I should have said ‘writer’ instead of ‘author’ – and, to this date, whenever I use either one of these two words, I wonder vaguely if I might be using the wrong one.
Where I had come up with that answer – ‘I want to be an author’ – baffles me now, since at that age I was as indifferent about story books as I was about the evening news broadcast or the Cricket World Cup (which Sri Lanka apparently won around that time).

A discovery

Fast-forward to 2004. I am 14, and standing in front of a classroom of about forty students, reading out a homework assignment. This incident, too, baffles me. Because, in Grade 9, I never handed in my homework – unless there was a possibility of a caning – and the teacher who took that particular subject, First Language (Sinhala), was a young man in his late twenties called Sanjeewa: a fun, laid-back sort of man, not known to punish too harshly. So much so that, besides me, only one other person had completed the assignment. No one in the class was punished. The assignment? After reading a Sinhala translation of Guy de Maupassant’s ‘The Necklace’, write a short story under any theme of our preference.
I wrote mine overnight. In Sinhala. It was about a debt-burdened man walking down the main lane of his neighbourhood, on his way to commit suicide. The action of the story consisted of the man’s thought process, as he struggled to act normal through the small talk he repeatedly got pulled into by each of the other inhabitants of the lane he encountered on his way – people he had known over all the years he had lived there. Even though the story ended, quite frivolously, with the man discovering at the end of the lane, with the help of a friendly lottery-ticket vendor, that he had been carrying a jackpot-winning ticket in his wallet all along, I remember looking up from the last page of the story to find an entire half of the classroom staring at me with a weird, almost suspicious look in their eyes. (The other half had inattentively dozed off or were dozing off.) Sanjeewa Sir said something like, ‘If you’re sure you didn’t plagiarise that story from somewhere, let me tell you it was very, very good.’ Apparently, as my friends informed me eventually, they were all quite moved.
This, to me at 14, was like discovering a new superpower.
I was thrilled by the possibility of evoking emotions in others – and the possibility of receiving and then holding their attention for even the shortest span of time, while they traversed through a world, or a person, or both, that was created by me. I still revel in this ability, each time I discover again that I possess it. (Of course, ten years later, today, I write for more reasons than the above, some of them intimately private – but that’s a topic for another post, to be left for another day.)
I say ‘discover again’ because that is exactly what happens. I am not always certain that my work will elicit the reaction that I hope it would. But, when someone writes back to inform me that after reading a story I wrote, they had to then sit in some sort of solitude for a while, I know I have made my impact. Of course, she could be the only person who felt that way. Everyone else could reject the same story as boring, predictable tripe. But you can’t have it all, I suppose. And having it all is not what you set out to do in the first place.

A discomfort

So, every time someone says something derisive about a selfie, I stop myself from pointing out what might not be obvious to them – that, today, in this world, quite a lot of the things we do amount to “selfies”: standing up in a roomful of seated people; picking out a new hairstyle; having strict rules about how you want to be introduced; how determinedly some of us keep our middle names secret.
And, of course, writing a story.
Writing is about a lot of things, but very few can validly deny that it is an expression of the self. The things we write are not necessarily about us, unless you consider memoir. But, they still comprise us, consist in us, and include us. It’s the most ambiguous self-description, yet also the most accurate.
No wonder, then, that the stigma that attached to selfies affected me, not in relation to selfies themselves, but when claiming this identity of ‘writer’ of ‘books’ and ‘poems’. To me, somehow, doing so would have betrayed too much: it stood to disclose a narcissism that I haven’t, for the longest time now, fully understood. It brought too many possibilities of expectation, approximation and even appraisal.

A coming out

But I think I am making some progress: upon winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Asia last year, I was invited by a local television programme to come on the show. While I was waiting in the green room, with lots of sticky makeup on my face, a production assistant approached me with a small notepad. She said, ‘Please write your name and how you would like to be described.’ Taking the hint from my baffled expression, she explained, ‘You must tell us how you would like to be described on the on-screen banner that appears below you during the show.’ And she left.
Of course, the name was easy. But the rest wasn’t. How on earth do you describe yourself? I spent a couple of seconds wondering if I should say ‘Michael Mendis, law undergraduate’, ‘Michael Mendis, Commonwealth regional prize-winner’ or something along those lines. But, when the correct answer came, it was the easiest thing. I quickly scrawled it across the assistant’s paper: ‘Michael Mendis, writer’. I only hesitated a split-second, as I vaguely wondered whether I should say ‘author’ instead.