All of us at Sweet were very proud to hear that “False Alarm,” Saffron Marchant’s essay she published with us in issue 7.3, was selected by Sundress Publications for their Best of the Net 2015 anthology.
Saffron Marchant has two MFA’s in creative non-fiction, one from Hong Kong University, the other from City University of Hong Kong. Her short pieces have been anthologized in several essay books, and she has won second and third prize in the Fish Short Memoir Contest 2013 and 2015. Saffron is presently finalizing a book-length memoir. “False Alarm” serves as the prologue to this memoir.
We reached out to Saffron for an interview to discuss her life as a writer and the process behind writing “False Alarm.”
VN: “When is the right time to write about it?” is a question many essayists ask themselves when they consider writing about their own experiences. How much distance did you need from the events of “False Alarm” before you felt it was time to address it?
SGM: The essay came into my mind whole in 2010. I was living (and still do) in Hong Kong, another skyscraper city. My home was on the fortieth floor. One day, when I was eight months pregnant, I forgot all about some planned elevator maintenance. Fortunately, I lived in a thicket of residential towers that were linked by a ‘refuge floor,’ a common feature of newer Hong Kong towers, an floor empty of apartments and windows, that wraps round the buildings like a belt. I could get to the refuge floor half-way up via a different tower, but beyond that I had to climb the emergency stairwell with two shopping bags full of freezer food.
The notion of me climbing twenty flights, with my bags and great big bump, did not sit well with the doorman tasked with reminding me that I could not take the elevator from the ground floor. He elected to come with me. Every landing we passed big numbers in glossy black paint on the wall and we chanted the number of the floor as we ascended. Twenty-six, Twenty-seven. By floor thirty-one, I was dripping with sweat and the doorman was carrying the bag of frozen food in one hand and pushing me up the stairs with the other. All the while I was remembering the fear and confusion I experienced on 10/11, and that very human sensation of, should I freak out now or will this turn out to be okay?
The question for me as to timing did not apply. The piece just fell in to my head. I did, however, question my right to tell this story. I wasn’t American. I wasn’t in the Twin Towers. But as I worked on the essay, I sensed my story, as a person committed to New York, but not from there, affected by the attacks but not caught up in them, might have some relevance.
Sadly, there have been so many attacks since then, that the question of coming from an affected city no longer applies. Je suis Charlie.
VN: You have, at various times in your life, been able to describe yourself as an Oxford student, ex-pat, mother, lawyer, and MFA student. How do you feel these experiences intersect and influence the perspective of your work?
SGM: As a memoirist, all of the roles and titles feed into my work. ‘False Alarm’ serves as the prologue to a book-length memoir that juxtaposes my present-day life with my children (and the anxiety about keeping them safe in these increasingly uncertain times) with the drive to have children that took over my early thirties. For this book, the role of mother is key.
I’d say I also write from a transnational perspective. I have lived most of my adult life outside of the UK. Paris, New York, Massachusetts, the Alps and, for the last eight years, Hong Kong. Writers have their obsessions and one of mine is the city. I’m fascinated by how history lives on in the buildings and the streets and traditions, as well as traveling through families along genetic lines. That said, as I cannot speak Cantonese, I can’t eavesdrop amongst the local population. Instead I will overhear expatriate conversations on the bus or in the supermarket, but this language barrier does mark me as an outsider.
VN: One of the most moving aspects of form in “False Alarm” is the choice to divide the essay by the building floors you descended. For me as a reader, it creates a strong sense of propulsion and an inescapability from the text. Did you decide to format the essay this way from the start, or was this something you decided to do after beginning to write about these experiences?
SGM: The essay started with the form. I originally explored using the breaks marked by each floor to signal a transition in time. Early drafts had the present, then I moved backwards into memory and then flashed forwards into the first anniversary of 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2005 London bombings.
It was too much. Any immediacy was lost. The essay had to be honed down. I jettisoned more than fifty per cent of it and stuck to the present and the past.
VN: I was only a young child in 2001, and so I remember very little about the American perception of national security before the attacks. Although I always knew a momentous shift occurred in the country, reading your essay helped me understand how 9/11 instantly created an atmosphere of hyper-vigilance across the country, but particularly in New York, in the immediate weeks and months. As an expat, what do you make of the changes, both short-term and long, that have occurred in the last fifteen years from the heightened awareness of terrorism?
SGM: Interested that you ask from the expatriate perspective, as I’d say that wherever we are these days, we are more vulnerable. I grew up in the 1980s, during the IRA bombing campaign against major English cities. Mine was a childhood where you knew to stand during a bomb scare in an open space away from flying shrapnel. You knew to be wary of ‘suspicious packages,’ to move towards the closest emergency exit, to leave behind all personal belongings. I was also conscious that my mother, as an Irish Catholic, was in the same demographic as the perpetrators.
I guess 9/11 marked the shift from events ‘over there’ to ‘right here.’ It was an attack of such huge proportions that it had global ramifications. I vividly recall that a ‘where next?’ mindset took hold, and not just within America. This is what was being reported to me in phone messages and emails in the immediate aftermath. This is where my perspective as an expatriate comes in. Friends were evacuated from their office buildings in London and Hong Kong. A friend living in the Cayman Islands recalls a panic that they might be attacked next as a centre of finance. Another friend of mine was traveling on a bus in Cambodia and heard what was happening in NYC via text message. He stood up to tell the rest of the bus and everybody fell silent. Yet another friend was told mid-Atlantic. He was flying back to Boston from Ireland and got re-routed into Canada.
The developments in social media and smart-phones have since brought the ‘over there’ so much closer. Events now unfurl in real time right in the palm of our hands. Victims tweet their whereabouts. Witnesses post photographs to Flickr. Facebook serves as a medium of remembrance.
To answer the question as an expatriate. When I moved to New York in early 2001, ‘home’ was a plane ride away. No matter where you were in the world—Sydney, Cape Town, Bangkok—there was always a flight that could get you home in an emergency. This invulnerability of air travel no longer applies. Now there are security measures. We chug down the last of our bottled water, we show the soles of our shoes, we take off our belts. For me, I can’t quite be methodical about this. There’s just something so sad about having to put the infant paracetomol into a clear plastic bag, or surrender the opened packet of teether biscuits, or tip drops from the baby’s bottle onto your tongue to show it’s breast milk and not a liquid bomb.