The Power of Silence

silence-pic Photo Credit: Le Silence, Odilon Redon, pastel, 1900, The Museum of Modern Art, New York: BetacommandBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (Yorck Project)  

“‘I want to write a novel about Silence,’ he said; ‘the things people don’t say.’“ (Woolf, The Voyage Out, p. 245)

Cynthia Cruz’s “The Vanishing Act” talks about silences. One of my obsessions as a writer is language and the other side of the language is, of course, silence.

There are different kinds of silences. Cruz talks about the silence of assimilation, when the experiences of marginalized groups become silenced, or, as she puts it, vanish when absorbed into the dominant culture. Coming from a multiracial family, she says, “In order to be seen or heard, we were told we needed to let go of who we were in our essence. If we wanted to be acknowledged, we needed to become something we never were.” (Cruz, par. 3). My parents experienced this as well. Coming from Israel, their culture and values and even their language (Hebrew) was often silenced in favor of the culture and values of the American society in which they lived. When my mother went back to school for her nursing degree, an American study partner remarked that the way she interpreted everything through an emotional lens was not the way that the American culture, more based on logic, interpreted things. The friend made this seem like a drawback because it was simply not part of her culture.

Cruz also talks about the silence of artists who go against the grain, “writers who have been vanished by being excluded, as voices who do not fit nicely into the current trends” (par. 2). All of the writers she discusses in her article (Marguerite Duras, Alejandra Pizarnik, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Herta Muller) were either exiles or expatriates so their writing naturally did not fit into the neat little categories of the culture in which they lived. Outsiders of a sort, they used silence as a weapon in their writing, both in the structure (blanks spaces) and the content (characters that didn’t or couldn’t speak, characters that worshiped silence) of their work. When used in this way, “silence is a force and not a passive response…” (Cruz, par. 7)

One of my favorite writers, Anais Nin, was known for her passion, obsession, even, with language and poetic prose. Yet, Nin’s love of language came from silence in her early ife. When Nin emigrated to the United States as a child from France, she did not speak for an entire year. She states, “I was shy of speaking, I was full of feelings and ideas I could not express to anyone” (Nin, Chap. 5, location 2610). Part of the reason why Nin began her now infamous diary was to let out those feelings and ideas. The observations she made in the diaries fed into her fiction.

Silence plays a role in Nin’s fiction also. In her short story collection, Under A Glass Bell, Nin’s story based on her friendship with eccentric actor and writer Antonin Artaud, the lover of the madman admits that her love comes from their silences rather than their speech:

” ‘I love your silences, they are like mine. You are the only being before whom I am not distressed by my own silences. You have a vehement silence, one feels it is charged with essences, it is a strangely alive silence, like a trap open over a well, from which one can hear the secret murmur of the earth itself.’ ” – (Nin, “Je Suis Le Plus Malade Des Surrealistes”, location 595-602)

Here, the characters communicate through vanishing, or, as Cruz puts it, “a language constructed of silence; a mirroring of the hesitation inherent in not-knowing” (par. 7).

In the title story of my recent collection, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, a brother and sister are raised on silence. When their parents die suddenly, they take to a world of their own enveloped in silence, kept even from the gardener and his wife in whose temporary care they are left:

“The Mexican couple had been used to mild conversations between the children when their parents were alive. Now it was as if their parents had taken their children’s tongues with them to their grave. Emmanuel and Lupe heard barely a syllable coming out of their mouths when they were in the room with the children. Em and Denny’s eyes would converse as they sat with books spread on the floor between them. They read silently the words of Byron and Dickinson. They hummed the nursery rhymes that their mother used to sing to them to bring silence into the night. The couple could hear the humming but not the words.


Emmanuel and Lupe sometimes talked softy among themselves, speculating how the children’s voices came out at night when they had retired to the bowels of the house. Lupe would sometimes peep down the hall at the two rooms joined by a single wall. She could just make out the children sitting up in bed. They were awake, staring at one another through the wall with blank eyes.

Once Lupe, turning away from the glass, thought she saw Em’s blurry eyes lift and her brother, in return, kick out his chin. But Emmanuel convinced her that what she had seen was only the tree limbs outside playing with the light. Not a word was spoken, so how could there be acknowledgement?”

Although the silence is eventually replaced by speech as the children settle with their godmother, they maintain a silent understanding of one another that none of the other characters can penetrate. When her brother Denny becomes very ill and is hospitalized, Em writes in a journal entry:

“[T]his morning, Goldie let me come with her to the hospital. The nurse helped him raise his head. He looked so weak, poor darling Denny! Goldie said no, but I flew to him. He whispered that my kisses energized him like wild strawberries fizzing in the sun. Goldie says he couldn’t possibly have said a thing since his illness makes him too breathless to speak a complete sentence. She doesn’t know it, but I had a whole silent conversation with him in those few minutes I saw him about Priscilla and Tommy and his birds and the bouquets I put in his room every morning. I know he understood me because his hand curved around mine.”

Thus, the brother and sister communicate emotionally to one another through silence even as adults.

Writers and other artists capture what is valid or vital not just through what they say or show but what they don’t say and show. As writer Marguerite Duras puts it, “ ‘Writing also means not speaking. Keeping silent.’ ” (as quoted in Cruz, par. 7)

Works Cited

Cruz, Cynthia. “The Vanishing Act”. Harriet, A Poetry Blog. Poetry Foundation, 2015. 10 March 2016. Web. 7 December 2016.

Nin, Anais. “Je Suis Le Plus Malade Des Surrealistes”. Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2010 (original publication date 1944). Kindle digital file.

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. New York: Bantam Books, 1915.


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