Speaking Brother | Will Harris | Granta

Speaking Brother

Will Harris

‘Something vertical when it should
have been sideways.’

– Bhanu Kapil, Schizophrene

I don’t have a brother; I’m an only child. But a few years ago I started writing poems in which a brother appears.

When I tried to explain what they were, I described them as ‘memory exercises’. I had invented a brother to help retrieve memories I thought were lost, or didn’t know I had. But the writing took the form of direct addresses (‘Brother you . . .’). I was talking to this brother, and talking to him gave shape to events that had grown fuzzy over time. I remembered a cricket jumping into our car on the motorway, a funeral in Portsmouth, eating instant noodles in front of the TV. It was what I imagined having a sibling would be like. We constructed a world together, and sharing this space – whispering secrets at night – made the outside world less frightening.

But I felt guilty. What had begun as an ‘exercise’ – with all the distance that implies – took on a life of its own. My brother was there and not. Though I spoke to him as if he was real, I refused to give him a name or describe his appearance (if I pictured him at all he looked like me). I felt squeamish thinking about him in any detail. Just as it feels wrong to imagine the death of a living family member – for fear of tempting fate – it felt wrong to describe the life of a non-living family member. So I left him in limbo.

This way of thinking about my brother – keeping him present and absent – shaded into elegy. He was the listener, the correspondent voice I’d always wanted. But he was silent. I played a Candyman-style game in which I stood in front of the mirror at midnight saying ‘brother’ to myself. Though nothing happened, speaking as if he was there changed the quality of the silence; it filled it.

In Siblings: Sex and Violence, the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell writes that ‘we all have or expect to have a sister or brother and this is psychically and socially crucial’. It was this expectation that hovered over my early childhood, when my parents considered having another child. The decision was eventually made for them. They worked a lot and didn’t know when they’d find the time, then ten years passed and it was too late.

My mum says I used to ask her for a brother. I’d ask her in the way I asked for new toys: ‘Can I have a brother, please?’ There were siblings all around me – in the playground and on TV – and I must have felt a sense of something missing. But my desire for a brother wasn’t as clear-cut as I made out. Like Mitchell suggests, the expectation of a sibling precedes any conscious desire for one. And I think, in asking my mum for a brother, I was picking up on what was already there, testing her, trying to gauge whether or not she wanted another child and what that would mean for me. Would a new child change my role at home? Though I had an urge for kinship, I also felt what Mitchell calls ‘the fear of annihilation’, a fear directly evoked by the prospect of siblings who might replace me.

Mitchell uses ‘replace’ and ‘annihilate’ interchangeably. One sounds milder than the other. Replacing a person won’t necessarily destroy or annul their existence; most likely they’ll go on being, just with the knowledge of their own replaceability. But what replacement entails is a break in perspective. The only child develops a picture of themselves as a subject, irreplaceable in their ‘I’-ness, shaping the world around them. The arrival of a sibling turns them into a replaceable object (‘you’, ‘he’, ‘they’), one among potentially numerous others. In asking my mum for a brother, I was toggling perspectives, seeing myself as a subject and object, through my eyes and hers, imagining how replacement would feel.

Those perspectival shifts felt normal. Now they make me think of Jacques Lacan’s description of the ‘fragmented body-mind’ experienced by the child during the mirror stage. The mirror stage isn’t, as I once believed, when a child recognises themselves in the mirror for the first time; it’s when they realise the strangeness of their own reflection in the mirror. Jacqueline Rose writes that ‘the mirror image is central to Lacan’s account of subjectivity, because its apparent smoothness and totality is a myth.’ During the mirror stage, this myth is evident. The child sees that the mirror offers only a partial form of identification. How could that weird figure miming along with you be the same person you feel yourself to be?

I remember a period in my childhood when, after bath time, I would play in front of the mirror. My facial features were like different parts of a puzzle. I’d pinch my nose and suck in my cheeks, wet my hair and give myself a side parting like my dad’s. It was around then I started asking my mum about siblings. I could see her in me and me in her. There was something malleable about the face, about family. It was obvious that the person staring back at me wasn’t simply ‘I’: ‘he’ was an object in the world, over which I had a limited degree of control.

There was a racial aspect to this, manifest back then – I was always playing with my eyes – which became more marked with time. I entered my teens frozen by shame, unable to reconcile the growing dissonance between my subjective experience and the image others saw. My self-image had previously felt fluid and playful; now it was fixed by the assumptions of others. It wasn’t just when a barber lectured me about my ‘Asian hair’, it was in the eyes of strangers everywhere. I stopped looking in the mirror, because I didn’t need to: I could see myself in how others saw me.

Lacan says that the mirror stage comes to an end when ‘the specular I turns into a social I’. He gives no sense of how racialisation might distort this process. For him, the ‘fragmented body-mind’ is transformed into a smoothly socialised self. But in a long footnote in Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon comments on the relationship between the mirror stage and race. The white subject, believing in their reflection, forgets about it. The Other, by contrast, looms into greater view, coming to be perceived, in Fanon’s words, ‘absolutely as the not-self – that is, the unidentifiable, the unassimilable’. The racialised subject can’t help but internalise this perspective. You see your own body as ‘unidentifiable’ or ‘unassimilable’. Stalled at the specular stage, you take the mirror’s reflective membrane with you wherever you go. It becomes impossible to move beyond your own reflection.

Maybe my brother came into being in that moment of self-splitting in front of the mirror. He looked like me, but wasn’t. He was the reflection I couldn’t move beyond, the Other in me I was fascinated by as a child, and then spent my teenage years avoiding. He was unassimilable matter left over.

Recently I discovered I was wrong: I’d written about a brother years before. Visiting my parents, I found a blue exercise book filled with stories from primary school. I flicked through the pages, pausing at one story written when I was eight, called ‘Murder or Murderer?’, which begins with the protagonist, a young boy, going out to play in the garden. His mum calls after him, telling him to be nice to his brother. Outside, he sees a knife shining in the grass and a change comes over him:

I thought, I thought for a long time then I remembered brother, I’ll kill him, really, the knife erged [sic] me to kill him kill him now I walked slowly back to the house in determination.

Walking past his mum, he goes up to his brother’s room and charges in. But before he can do anything he sees his brother lying there, already dead. The story ends by revealing it was all just a trick played by the brother who’d seen him in the garden and – presumably guessing what he was going to do – decided to fake his own murder.

The mania of the story’s violence is unsettling, though not unusual. Carl Jung apparently asked his two-year-old daughter Agathli what she would do if a baby brother were to be born that night and she responded, ‘I would kill him.’ But there are strange things about ‘Murder or Murderer?’ beyond the fact – forgotten or suppressed – I’d created a fictional brother long ago.

Underneath its banal dreaminess, several details diverge from reality. My family never had a garden, and the interplay with the worried-but-absentminded mum (who manages to leave a sharp knife lying on the grass) feels false. My mum was tidy around the house and she worked near Holborn, so my dad – who worked from home – took me to school and picked me up. Both adjustments, like the addition of the brother, sketch out the sort of conventional family I must have subconsciously craved. But if I had any desire for that family I also, clearly, wanted to destroy it.

Perhaps, since I was eight when I wrote the story, I was embarrassed to still feel any yearning for a brother. It’s notable that the knife is what ‘erge[s]’ the protagonist to kill; he’s unable to admit the murderous rage as his own. Reading it now, the thing I find moving is the story’s atmosphere of failure, captured in that moment of surprise – which is deeply unsurprising – when the brother’s dead body is revealed. The speaker realises what he was about to do and the violence of his conviction drops away, replaced by a familiar sadness. It’s impossible to kill what was never alive.


Will Harris

Will Harris is the author of RENDANG, published by Granta Books in 2020. He was co-editor of the spring 2020 issue of the Poetry Review.

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