Xiaole Zhan (Image: Archi Banal)
Xiaole Zhan (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksJune 7, 2023

Muscle Memory: winner of the 2023 Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Essay Competition

Xiaole Zhan (Image: Archi Banal)
Xiaole Zhan (Image: Archi Banal)

Xiaole Zhan’s vivid, award-winning essay about how music can shape the perception of one’s own body was originally published in Landfall 245.

I am seventeen with naked knees hacking into the trachea of a dead sheep. The smell will stain me, like bloodshot snow, or the taste of cigarettes and alcohol from somebody’s lips the night before on my toothbrush in the morning. I am one of the teenagers on a science camp in a white laboratory at Auckland University. I am dissecting a pluck—the heart, trachea and lungs of a carcass. The noun ‘pluck’ is derived from the act of plucking the viscera from a body after it is killed. It makes sense to me—I think of the gut strings of baroque instruments, cords prepared from the walls of intestines. I think of what it means to play a passage in pizzicato; to pluck the string. I begin to dissect the heart, approximating the lines of the left ventricle, scissoring through the discoloured fat. I breathe through my teeth, my head spinning. I am

there again, fifteen, a groundling at the Pop-up Globe. I am looking up into the stage lights at Lady MacBeth’s hands, blood-splattered. My vision narrows, my breathing is shallow. Half-conscious, I stumble past bodies onto the wet grass outside. I am drowning; the horizon is at my throat. My body wants me to escape but forgets that I can’t escape my body. Somebody appears above me and I look up. I smile, sheepishly. Yeah, I’m fine. Oh, this happens at every show? Thanks, yeah, I’ll take the sugar. My hands are pale as they unwrap the orange lozenge. The sweetness draws my body back toward myself. No, I didn’t feel stressed at all. No, this hasn’t happened to me before. I’m usually fine with seeing blood. It’s like my body did its own thing, and I suddenly realised that I was seeing in tunnel vision. It’s like I sometimes

see myself beside myself, as if I’m not entirely a part of my body. As if I could approximate my own heart apart from myself, the size of a fist hovering from an arm that happens to belong to me. When I was fourteen, I started learning to play the cello. Playing never became easy for me. Every movement was body-heavy; each note carried with it the abdomen, the back, the shoulders, the length of the arm, the joints of each finger. The curve of the wooden body bit into my sternum and thighs, leaving red rashes. In the winter, my fingers stung with blisters oozing yellow pus. The blisters hardened into calluses, which I would bite off mindlessly when I was anxious. The shape that music takes within the body is different for every instrument. Sometimes I close my eyes

This essay was first published in Landfall 245.

and I can feel the music in my hands. The curve of a palm against somebody’s forehead becomes an open fifth upon the piano. The opening E minor chord of the Elgar Cello Concerto stings against the pointer finger of the left hand. Learning music made me realise that I am not a genius of the body. Musicality and physicality are one and the same muscle. Knowing how the music moves is not enough; you also have to know how to move the body in a way that follows. The genius of knowing one’s body can be seen even in childhood; in the prodigy dancer, in the small fingers that find a home on a quarter-size violin. You can learn to sing before you learn to speak. Sometimes you need the ease and the instinct of

screaming. When I was sixteen, I sang in my high school choir. My high school singing teacher always told me I thought too much before opening my mouth. I could never find a way to release the nervousness from my tongue and my jaw and my shoulders. My singing teacher told me that sometimes you must stop thinking altogether and trust what the body knows. He said that singing is just controlled screaming. I didn’t know until then that what happened in my mind would also bury itself in the tightness of my throat and the lump of my tongue. I remember singing Bruckner’s motet, Os Justi, as one of the first altos in the choir. The psalm is sung in Latin—the line, Lex Dei ejus in corde ipsius, translates into, The law of his God is in his heart. I learnt then that corde in Latin means both string and heart. The chordae tendineae, the connective tendons in the anatomy of a heart, are more commonly called the heartstrings. Every time the choir reached Bruckner’s repetition of the phrase, in corde, corde, corde, I couldn’t help but begin

to weep, secretly, in the tightness at the back of my throat so that I couldn’t continue to sing at all. My body betrays me again and again as a musician. My piano teacher joked in my first year of university that my unconscious movements at the keyboard made him seasick. I want to save the tears for the audience, but sometimes I can’t control my own body’s screaming. Tears, milk and blood—the emission of these fluids from the body led writers in the Renaissance to refer to women as ‘leaky vessels’. When I was nineteen, I read about how a woman’s self is split in two. She watches herself being watched; is at once the surveyor and the surveyed. I don’t remember if it seemed strange to me at the time for John Berger to write so authoritatively about being seen as a woman from his vantage point as a man seeing women. “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female.” What happens when women

see each other? When one isn’t entirely at home with the way their body is seen? When I was twenty, I realised that my body had always been symbolic against my will. The body cannot escape language as language cannot escape the body. We are lily-livered, cold-hearted, wrong-footed, hard-nosed, hawk- eyed, and ask day after day if we can offer each other a hand. When I looked at myself, all I could see was a collection of limbs articulated by a language that didn’t belong to me. My body would change and then change again and be claimed by words handed to me by the same culture that described bodies like mine as leaky vessels. When I was nineteen, I learnt that I had clinical depression. I stopped having my period for four months at a time due to physiological stress. When I started taking antidepressants, my body gained weight and my skin became covered with stretch marks like the lines left in sand by the tide. At twenty-one, I’ve stopped trying to escape my own body. I realise that bodies are fluid things that will keep on changing. The body

remembers, my high school counsellor told me. The body remembers the muscles it uses when you laugh so hard that your stomach hurts. You have to think of those muscles when you’re performing those giddy staccatos, my singing teacher told me. You have to imagine the sound keeps travelling even after your hand presses the key that moves the hammer that hits the string, my piano teacher told me. You have to imagine your bowing arm is like a pair of lungs helping you to breathe, my cello teacher told me. The body has to remember because the problem with music is that it disappears. I’m not sure where the music goes once the hands leave the keys. I’m not sure what it is that strings one second to the next second, on and on. I think a melody is the strangest thing—a row of ghosts holding hands across

the death of each second. At twenty-one, I’ve gotten used to slipping in and out of existence. Sometimes I feel like I’m dragging the weight of a body that belongs more to the continuation of systems of oppression than to myself as a person in my own right. Sometimes I’m just too tired to assert the existence of my body. Why do you want to make things difficult for yourself ? Isn’t the world already too divided? Why do you want to go on creating yet another category? My friend’s uncle grills them with these questions at a family wedding. I think of the boys’ school across the road that changed the pronouns of a love song so it wouldn’t be gay. Why do you want to make things difficult for yourself ? Sometimes I just want to leave the supermarket with my groceries, or agree with strangers so that I can step off the tram at the next stop and walk home. I am misgendered and forcibly defined by the violence of a colonial language more often than I am recognised on my own terms. There are moments, though, when I am surrounded by people who listen to the language I use for my body and speak it back to me. I am always articulating and rearticulating myself with a language that I’m still reaching compromises with—learning and adapting and destroying and creating. I think this articulation will change and change again as my body does. The body unfolds over time as music does. We need to be listening.

‘Muscle Memory’ by Xiaole Zhan was first published in Landfall 245: Autumn 2023, edited by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press, $30) which can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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