To That Silence, I Told Everything | Xiao Yue Shan | Granta

To That Silence, I Told Everything

Xiao Yue Shan

There are supposedly four hundred people living in the northern village of Skagaströnd, Iceland, but if all I had to go on was my own knowing, the number would dwindle to a finger-count. Along the coastline, the dice-toss of homes ranged silent and secretive. There were lamps in windows and linens ghosting on washing lines, hinting at bodies that read by yellow light or slept in navy cotton – but I hardly ever came across them. Though the lines and pathways that had brought me here required a great number of convergences and intersections, it was parallels that greeted me upon my arrival. The distance between the Iceland Sea and the mountain Spákonufell, the way the road mirrored perfectly the winding turns and curves of the earth, how the silence of the people never even touched the immense voices of the landscape. Day after day I walked the fifteen minutes between a kingfisher-blue house and a library that seemed to rest at the end of the world, along whistling water and dark rocks, past the diminutive structures, the upwards sweep of land behind them, the solid weather.

The library was coated seashell white, rimmed red. From one window there could be nothing but blue, then from the opposite nothing but black. When I unlocked the doors in the afternoon, the only evidence of other comings and goings were footprints on the tiles, and when I locked them once again at night, I turned to face a tremendous silence. It wasn’t the end of the world, of course. Local fishing boats docked at irregular hours, skimming back and forth with their catch of Atlantic cod. Fresh lilies and carnations appeared daily, somehow miraculously, in the only supermarket. Armoured tyres carved tracks along the single two-lane road. The darkness, the seclusion, the nothingness – it was only frightening because I was in someone else’s home, furnished with symbols and inheritances I could not read. I had to move within it slowly, making my way through a labyrinth of invisible facts, invisible company, invisible testimonies of living.

All throughout the ungiving frost of March I repeated the same routine, entering the library in the late afternoon and leaving long after all the other lights in the town muted low. I had taken a month-long writing residency, continuing an ongoing project of writing poems that follow the logic and narratives of coastlines. Having lived most of my life on islands, their precarious, stranded geography has always moved me: the fluid nature of human life in constant negotiation with water. Iceland was a further elaboration of this project, after Hong Kong, Vancouver Island and Japan – and because it was the last, it became a place where all those previously disparate points coalesced. In drafts and carbons, I traced a path backwards through the red bridges and porous torii gates of Iwaki; skeletons of tsunami-swallowed structures in Fukushima; the patterned flanks of Aomori horses, spruce and cedar along Strathcona inlets; the greening islets of Kyuquot Sound. And when I raised my head from the paper, I looked out the window at a familiar tableau – the blue broadside, the finer line of blue in the distance, the black. Eternal division of land and sea. But that remembered image in the window soon recedes, as if a camera is pulling back, and I am left in the library, surrounded by books I cannot read. The sea-lines of my life demur, paling to the enormous gulf that surges underfoot.

Gradually, as the landmarks of journey diluted into the familiar physical patterns of commute, the days began to feel softer with wear. The black stones became footholds, the windows became facades, and the silence – well, one never gets used to it. But after a week or so, the flow of that silence, which swept up every footstep, every whistle in its appetite, laid down against the landscape. By then, it was not simply that I was walking down silent streets, opening silent doors, walking down silent hallways to enter silent rooms, but that I was being carried through silence itself.

Inside the silence were cases and cases of books, from Marxist texts to poetry pamphlets and immense, cloth-bound volumes of the Icelandic sagas. Historical records lay behind glass shelves that held the worn residues of inheritance. There would be twenty-six horses one summer, and thirty the next. Kilos of soap and crates of potatoes were detailed in stilted pencil-marks so faint a single breath could’ve snuffed them out. This was a past that foresaw a future where memory would be needed. Life was patient, and because it did not move it became somehow longer, brimming with halfway moments – books open, unwrapped packs of chocolate cookies, notes scrawled on scraps. In this untouchable time of objects and souvenirs, I walked from window to window, shifting the hours between my hands, excerpting them from their lineage and into my own knowing.

Because of the drastically different hours we kept, the people that populated the library in my absence remained a mystery. They were parents perhaps, as deduced from the sudden appearances of child-drawings. They were purveyors of the morning, they drank tea and liaised with marine biologists, their handwriting had a barely legible elegance. All the while the season was changing, and stones muffled under soft cotton rounds of snow overnight would resurface glistening granite in the morning. It was as though winter and spring were completely unaware of one another as they passed each other by, at dawn and dusk. The soil faintly greening then silvering, the light pearled with frost, then honey.


When we moved to Canada, I was struck by how children in the West traded a sing-song anecdote between them – that if you made a hole and kept on digging, you would eventually find your way to China. Growing up in the Dongying farmlands, I never thought about digging a hole to seek the exotic; that mystery had been long solved by my grandfather’s hands, the crescents of fingernailed soil, and the seeds, once so small and hard and dark, that would turn leaf and sprig. Had I wondered about the other side – what it hid from us, what it asked of us – I would have asked my grandfather to take me along the waters of Xiaoqing River, past the parcels of greening rice dividing Qinghe and the neat geometry of Yangkouzhen’s skyscrapers, until we reached the shores of the Yellow Sea. There, where a barely distinguishable line portioned water from sky, is where I would begin my questions.

Growing up, my mother always warned me against falling asleep in the car. Your soul will wander off in your dreams, she said, and it won’t know the way home. It was this glare of consciousness, sparking off the surfaces of the surrounding world, that guarded us after the loss of our first country. One always had to be brightly aware of seeing as a weapon, and being seen as either a source of strength or weakness. To survive, difference was something that had to be mastered.



My seclusion in the library lured me into thinking that no one lived in Skagaströnd. The town seemed populated by ghosts. I talked to them in the way the living have always attempted to communicate with the silent: intuitions, desperations, tapping every brick in the wall to find the one that shifts. Yet, by the definition of anyone else, I was the ghost. I was the ephemeral thing that moved in the night, standing just to the left or to the right of the periphery, stealing into the written archive to mold it into source material. From my side of the divide, I wanted to mend the now with the beyond, to knit together the two worlds that progressed without any mutual acknowledgement, to describe myself in absentia. Yet no one who entered that library would ever know what I looked like, where I had been, what I did. They would look at the empty chair, crooked from the table in the angle of my body, and they would think – who?

That constant lesson of my upbringing, don’t fall asleep in the car, has always meant to me: make sure that wherever you go, you’re all there. The consequence of migration is that you are often elevated to being representative of a nation, a people, a way of living – and you must present your existence knowing that you are telling a great myth of place. To explain a life, to justify a life, you first speak the name of your homeland, then you feed the flicker with the kindling and flotsam of what you have lived through, with legends and anecdotes and tastes and sounds, describing photographs and landscapes and the memories of memories, until everyone sitting around the blaze is cast in its glow. But in the library at the end of the world, there was no surface to strike the match against. No one ever asked: What brought you here?

When I go to my mother’s hometown of Harbin, I visit my uncle, who has watched the city be built up and torn down around him across the decades, who has witnessed that evolution, that trajectory of time. It’s changed, is usually all he’ll say. Then he’ll sit back, light a cigarette, and we would sit in silence. This was the steady assuredness of staying. There was no need for him to explain his life to me; the fact of him having lived it was enough.

After staring into the black for a long time, shapes emerge. Black figures start to flow within the black texture, black shimmers of movement shake free from the black static. In the library, between the redacted scenes of life just outside of my reach, I searched the black and found domestic shapes of cooking and bed-making, exchanges of ardor and carnality, celebrations and mourning, curiosity and boredom. All for colouring in the black lines of absence, to create a portraiture that did not resemble a factual reality, but that interpreted reality’s image in prisms. This is the wonderful thing about being a ghost: you walk through walls.

In breaching the borders of Iceland, I dragged into its perimeter the Pacific coast, the Yellow River silt, cabbage greens and egret calls. In the imperceptible vastness that is human history, I held in my hands a chronicle of firsts: the first in my far-ranging ancestry to romance the English language; the first to do, as a daughter, what had always been done by sons; the first to step onto this raw, vacillating country they call 冰岛 – the island of ice. All of this I carried with me into that library, the library which had its own continuity of time and shadow, its own rhythms and evolutions, and there, I lived alone, I lived in silence. Before my arrival, there was no doorway between this world and mine, no interchange between my memories and the memories recorded in this archive. It was only when I was there, having long ago learned the value of language, that I could speak – not only the out-loud language of people, but the expansive, illusory language of place.

In the library at the end of the world, I listened repeatedly to a recording of my mother, taken a month prior in the living room of my home in Victoria, a city perched similarly on suboceanic fire. I heard her voice obliterate distance, searching a room she had never entered, her words braiding with a foreign silence. And the more she spoke, the more vividly I felt that she would never be here, in these quiet offices of oblivion. What I had carried here were only images, imitations, surviving remnants. Nothing was with me, but everything lived, in the free ranges of absence.

You think you’re in an empty room. You think you’re the only one between the sea and the mountains. You think all that white snow erases everything to oblivion. But then, again, no.


Photography courtesy of the author

Xiao Yue Shan

Xiao Yue Shan is a poet living on Vancouver Island. How Often I have Chosen Love was published in 2019. Then Telling Be the Antidote will be published in 2023.

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