Art is a line through life

What will your legacy be? We don’t know the names of ancient cave painters, but their art survived.

OPINION: One thing I get asked a lot is how I juggle my various commitments, being a full-time lawyer, a writer, and having a young family. My answer is actually quite boring: I have a lot of family support, I have great friends and colleagues, and it must be said, I’ve been very lucky (touching all wood within a 10 metre radius). I think people, when they ask me that question, expect something more. And I suppose there is.

My dad was the only one of his brothers to make it to 60. His father, my granddad, also died in his 50s – well before I was born. Heart attacks, mostly, and the Civil War took them away. I vividly remember the suddenness of my uncles’ deaths, how their lives were completely extinguished, just like that. There was no grand send-off or final moments spent with loved ones. It was a phone call to next of kin on an otherwise ordinary day.

South Asians have a particularly high rate of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. The suddenness of a heart attack belies the drip, drip, drip of the symptoms. Knowing that all of this is in your history, in your blood literally, does something to your thinking. I take care of myself – I’m nearly there on being vegan, I exercise every day, and I tend to have a fairly philosophical approach to stress. But I’ve also reacted to this existential threat by trying to eke something out of every minute of the day. I feel like I relax by standing up.

Last week, a colleague of mine, Blair, died from cancer. He wasn’t old and he was fit and he was an awesome guy. He was interested and interesting. And like any great conversationalist, he was a superb listener. When he told a story, you were entirely with him. My abiding memory of him will be the stories he told me, the conversations we had, the actual experiences.

I’ve never been good with death. Not being spiritual doesn’t help in that regard. I very rarely have the vocabulary for something if I’m confronted with it in real life – I’ve always been petrified about saying the wrong thing. But that’s only if I’m trying to speak or if I’m confronted with it immediately. I’ve always found art a much better way to express my emotions, because at least there, I can edit or I can hide behind metaphors or words. I’ve also always been fascinated by the idea that language can’t actually capture experience, no matter how hard we try as writers. Life is always going to be elusive when you try to pin it down. That we should treasure the experiences because of their ephemerality.

Every time someone dies, I do end up thinking about legacy. It’s hard not to when you’re confronted by the idea that, at some point, your loved ones will try to sum you up. I wonder how people who are cruel or unkind – or those who hoard – want to be remembered? That it was worth it being an awful human when no-one shows up at your funeral? That you won at life by … having a swanky coffin? That your eulogy is the best place to talk up your investment portfolio – it’ll be at its peak in your lifetime! Or, would it be that people found you a good person, interested and interesting? It seems an obvious choice.

There is something inherently selfish about being a writer. This narcissistic idea that your words matter and that other people ought to read them. We have this romantic idea of writers locking themselves up in garrets, hiding from the world. But for me, I write for two reasons, and I’d keep doing it even if I worked three full-time jobs. I write to feel part of a community, part of the world, to have conversations with the past and the present. That art, while not actually being able to capture experience, paradoxically gives you experiences as well. But also, with that drip, drip, drip happening inside me, I feel like I’m Scheherazade, spinning a tale to keep everything else at bay. I don’t intend to sound fatalistic as I have no intention of going anywhere. I have far too many stories still to tell. Plus, I’ve probably also removed any chance of obtaining an affordable life insurance policy with this column anyway.

I guess ultimately I write because I don’t think there’s any sense of an afterlife, except through art. I think of the cave painters from tens of thousands of years ago – we don’t know who they are, or what their names were or what their lives were like. But we know their art survived. I think I do all I do for that simple reason: to make etchings that show that I too, once existed.


Brannavan Gnanalingam (born 20 October 1983, Sri Lanka)[1] is a New Zealand author and practicing lawyer with the New Zealand firm Buddle Findlay at its Wellington office.[2]