Jen Calleja is a writer and translator. Her debut collection of short fiction, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, is published by Prototype. Her most recent translation from the German, The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. In this essay she reflects on the hope and support behind creativity

Illustration Amber Vittoria

‘If we were to rethink ourselves as social creatures who are fundamentally dependent upon one another – and there’s no shame, no humiliation, no “feminisation” in that – I think that we would treat each other differently, because our very conception of self would not be defined by individual self-interest.’ – Judith Butler, interview in the New Yorker, 9 February 2020


I recently had a dream in which I received a copy of my new book, my first collection of short fiction. In the dream it was three times the size of the actual book, the proportions of a broadsheet newspaper, and when I opened it I felt a jolt of shame; all my editor’s comments and notes, all my own changes to the initial manuscript, had been printed in the margins of the final book. When I actually held my book about a week later, the clean, finished state of it felt somehow more unnerving. It was a contained object with a finalised title and my name on the front, which was, without question, exhilarating and emotional; I had been working on these thirteen stories, and many more, over the last fourteen years. And yet, singularity didn’t really speak to my experience of writing it. There’s an Acknowledgments page, absolutely, but I can see the trace of others in every line of the book.

It’s often considered a kind of failure or self-deprecating reflex to say it’s not all me, or I had some help along the way. It’s seen to be a weakness, a modest confession. Writers aren’t very forthcoming when it comes to unveiling the apparatus of their creativity. We don’t often talk about how we afford (or can’t afford) to write, the friends who guided our trains of thought or did a (free) thorough proofread before submission, or those who simply said ‘I can’t wait to read it when it’s done’. Throughout history, great men of letters have underplayed the hand of their spouses in the creation of a choreless, frictionless working environment or even in the editing of their works. This comes down to the allure of the writer being a remarkable, unique genius, a special maestro – the blessed producer of immaculate literature. It’s incidentally also why it’s still so rare that translators of literature are viewed as ‘collaborators’ with the author of a work in translation; we find multiplicity and co-crediting of any kind confusing when it comes to art.

In one of the stories in my book, a writer shortlisted for a prize wonders at the ceremony whether her book is not simply an amalgamation of all the things she had read while writing it. We could understand this as a knee-jerk disservice to her toiling, but it’s undeniable that literature isn’t written, and writers don’t write, in a vacuum. Yes, I rode buses and sat in cafes writing the stories at weekends, and yes, I supported myself financially by working in a call centre for a now defunct fashion brand and doing comms for a cultural institute, then by translating novels, editing magazines, teaching workshops and being awarded residencies. But it feels complete, and honest even, to mention the others who supported me along the way, those who facilitated my provisional texts into finished stories, all the writers I’ve ever read in the same breath.

Sometimes two editors and three reader-friends have gone over the stories in my book. Sometimes someone else sparked the idea for a beginning or an ending or a character. The requirement to be edited used to make me feel as if I was a terrible writer, but the more I went through the process as a translator, the more I realised the privilege of having someone else’s eye on your writing. If someone said they had an idea for one of the stories I was working on, I would have a compulsion to say don’t tell me! because I felt like I wouldn’t have done it ‘all on my own’. I now know that neither act takes something away from my work, they make it work, they straighten it out, complete the final turn of the screw.

R. is my most long-term and significant collaborator. We played in a band together for nine years, have talked about our creative endeavours for hundreds of hours, have given each other solutions and inspiration and suggestions, and we happen to live together and also be married. When I met R. ten years ago, I was working in a clothes shop and had published a couple of stories in the university magazine during my undergraduate degree, and he was working for a charity and would spend a few hours a week painting. That I now have my second full-length book out, and he has his first solo exhibition taking place next year, is proof to me that we have supported each other to wholly pursue the art we’ve worked so hard to produce; at first in our free time, now for almost the majority of our time. For many years, no matter how many weekends or evenings the other needed to work on each of our creative projects, we both understood what the other was undertaking. And rain or shine, deadline or pressing project, we have taken it in turns to cook dinner every other evening; this is not an insignificant detail, it’s absolutely integral both practically and symbolically. Importantly, what each of us has produced feels like it has come from both of us, from our collaborative existence.

R. recently wrote a pamphlet manifesto called DIY as Privilege, where he discusses how the concept and moniker of do-it-yourself culture masks the support structures that are taken for granted in the production of DIY music, based on his many years supporting learning-disabled musicians and being in punk bands. He shares in the essay how much he had taken for granted as a musician – from the permission he implicitly received seeing his identity reflected as the norm in magazines and line-ups (and explicitly by a musician who encouraged him to go start a band), to not having barriers such as venues or transport being inaccessible to him, a lack of access to a phone or his own money, and, most importantly, to other people and to a music scene. It made him reconsider the things that had aided him to do-it-himself – like the availability of cheap practice spaces, access to printing resources and being within social spaces – thereby removing the ego from an ethos born out of a positive sense of community.

In the interview quoted in the epigraph, the philosopher Judith Butler goes on to illustrate the absurdity of (liberal) individualism: That model of the individual is comic, in a way, but also lethal. The goal is to overcome the formative and dependent stages of life to emerge, separate, and individuate – and then you become this self-standing individual. That’s a translation from German. They say selbstständig, implying that you stand on your own. But who actually stands on their own? We are all, if we stand, supported by any number of things. Even coming to see you today – the pavement allowed me to move, and so did my shoes, my orthotics, and the long hours spent by my physical therapist. His labor is in my walk, as it were. I wouldn’t have been able to get here without any of those wonderful technologies and supporting relations.

Thinking deeply about what got you to your ‘separate, individuate’ state can make you feel vulnerable. Would I be writing if I hadn’t had access to a television and schoolbooks; to enthusiastic English teachers; to the attempts of all the writers – especially women – who came before me; to supportive friends, peers and collaborators? By revealing the scaffolds that help us function, we can demystify and reconceptualise all creativity in all fields as networked. I am not declaring that I did not write my book and that anyone could have done it, or that the artists and writers and inventors we admire are not distinctive in their approaches and efforts. But I really believe collaborative input and support from others was what motivated me and what gave me the ability to refine and complete my book beyond its conception, both directly and indirectly. The more we recognise this, I feel, the less the cult of the individual will reign; it could be argued that idolising authors has created many problems within publishing and literary scenes, most notably financial and with regards to power dynamics.

Collectives and collaborations are swelling up from grassroots and independent creative endeavours. In recent years we’ve seen writers and artists share their prize money among their peers, and new prizes acknowledging translators, editors and other invisible hands in the making of books. I think this indicates a desire to acknowledge our connectivity, and the share of labour within working partnerships. I am grateful for all the support I’ve received, and I not only coyly acknowledge it, I gladly celebrate it. Creative achievement isn’t simply a matter of introversion, it’s midwifed via infrastructure.

This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here