The new personal pronouns

by inutile

The new personal pronouns by Melissa Verrault


I is my name. Like in Isla, for those who like things a bit longer. I is another one. One among many others. I have two twin sisters. The three of us came to this world simultaneously, the first cry in stereo. It took our mother forty-six hours to expel us and a month to find us names that would make sense. At the beginning, we would only be referred to as Baby-One-Baby-Two-Baby-Three, said all in one breath, since nobody ever talked about us separately. After a while, it was decided that Isla, Ivy and Iris would do the trick; Mother would keep calling us only Babies-in-the-plural, because she mixed things up and needed to make her life easier. Who’s this arm? And this face? And this ear? They all look alike, the parts of our bodies. Identical, we were a monster with three heads, indivisible, inseparable. Not conjoined, but close enough; not extraterrestrial, but close enough; unidentified living objects that science wanted to study, that strangers wanted to touch for luck, that Mother would have wanted to throw out of the windows, sometimes. We all cried at the same time, were hungry, were thirsty, had pooped; Mother didn’t know where to start, she was all alone, she wasn’t an octopus, she didn’t have enough arms, hands, breasts, mouths, so we needed to be patient, to wait for our turn, one, two, three; I was always the last, there was no milk left in the udders, no love left in the caresses, I was left with the crumbles, even though milk and love don’t have crumbles, and so Mother would shout: you three have chosen to come all at the same time, too bad for you. She didn’t realise that it was always too bad for me.


You were born as one, you have no idea what it means to always have four feet stepping on yours. You must think: oh, how wonderful to always have your best friends next to you!, my answer is: no. I hate these sisters. Birds of a feather flock together, but I, she would pluck these feathers, these tentacle-sisters. She would cut them in little pieces and put them in boxes to return them to the sender. And finally be just her. Just I. You have no idea what it really means not to be able to be just you and no one else. When Ivy and Iris are not around, they are there anyway. All the time. They talk to me with voices that cannot be heard, voices from the inside that tell me what they are doing, thinking, suffering. Once, when I was little, I was drawing alone in my room and I felt something strong running through me, like an electric shock, as if a lightening had descended from the chandelier and had chosen my body as the shortest way to get to the floor, 75% of which is made of wet water. I run to kitchen to warn Mother: Ivy and Iris are playing in the river. They were not allowed, Mother had warned us: if you play in the water, spanks are assured. Mother told me: how do you know, little witch? At that moment, Ivy and Iris came in from the back door, soaking wet, their dresses in white lace turned brown, their sleeves ripped, declaring in perfect synchrony: it’s not our fault, we slipped. Mother looked at me as if it were my fault, as if I had planned it all. I was punished, for five days I wasn’t allowed to leave my room; Mother justified it by saying: this will teach you to prod your sisters to do forbidden things. I hadn’t prodded them to do anything, I just heard them plot in my head, prepare their nasty move thinking that no one would ever know. Really, you have no idea what it means to be unjustly accused only because you were born at the same time as two people who are not you but live in you.


The worst thing is that four of us were meant to be born. But the other I did not survive. Therefore, we have to call her She. After a couple of weeks in the uterus, She started fading quietly, turning back into a mass of stamina cells with no roots to catch on. Mother has never known, it’s a little secret between I, I and I. I should have let myself fade as well, let myself be swept out by the liquids and accept to be nothing but a trace, a code in the blood of I and I, a piece of DNA too many. When we learned to count at school, I raised my hand to answer the teacher who had asked: what does two plus two equal? I answered: four. And the teacher said: how did you get to this result? I explained: Ivy plus Iris equals two, Isla plus Elle equals two, so there’s four of us in total. She asked: who’s She? I continued: it’s the other one in Mother’s belly. The teacher laughed, adding: how do you know there was another one? I declared: I remember, that’s it. She concluded: it’ impossible. The teacher knew better than me, it was her who taught the things, so I shut up, because if I had protested, I would have been hit on the fingers with a ruler. The problem with humans is that, once they have decided what the truth is, there is no way to change their minds; if we try to persuade them of the contrary, they diminish us, they pull our ears, or worse, they make us explode. The teacher that shows us the decided-truth also taught us the personal pronouns, which we have to know in order to be able to conjugate verbs correctly: I, You, She, We, You, They. I’ve always loved to repeat them rapidly to myself, in a loop, I-you-she-we-you-they-I-you-she-we-you-they-I-you-she-we-you-they-I-you-she-we-you-they-I-you-she-we-you-they-I-you-she… I, you and she. I, you end she. My homicidal intention is clear. It’s not only her that I would like to kill: there’s also I, I and You.


Humans invented words, languages, phones, fax machines, satellites in space, they communicate, they don’t speak to each other. They don’t understand each other. Then they say it’s us who have a problem. We suffer from language delay; it was the doctors who know everything who said so. Mother did not believe them, she refused to take us to the specialists-of-the-words-in-the-right-order; they called the social services, they forced her to have us checked. We were checked, from all sides and in every place, we told stories, they corrected us, because that wasn’t the way we were meant to align our thoughts according to what those-who-decide-the-sense-of-things had decreed. Instead of saying: who’s your name? We should say: what’s your name? Instead of saying: which are you doing? We should say: what are you doing? Instead of saying: who’s for dinner? We should say: what’s for dinner? The specialists-of-the-things-said-how-it-should didn’t understand that it wasn’t a question of grammar, but rather of food to put in our stomachs; our family was poor, because three stomachs to fill is a lot of work, so we weren’t too choosy when it came to the origin of the meat. Who’s for dinner? We ate what died. If it were the horse to drop dead, we would eat the horse. If it were Mr P., our neighbour, we would eat Mr P. the neighbour. In any case, when we die we are needed only to fill up some stomachs. Not that we are much more needed when we are alive, it’s just that people, when they’re alive, are harder to cook in the pan.


Our father left a long time ago; the moment he knew we were to come, he run off as quick as a wink. He must have moved to a very cold country, because Mother said that he was always icy cold, so much so that one day he cracked like ice and no one ever heard from him again. Mother says: you have no father, I made you by myself. Mother wants us to be extremely deferential with her. We are obliged to always call her Madame otherwise we get spanked. We were born thirteen years ago, and we still get spanked, that will teach you to be polite, she repeats, Madame You. Our posteriors were always as shiny as the stones washed by the waves for two or three millenniums, which end up turning into flecks of sand, with which we’ll make mirrors, in which we’ll look at ourselves until we won’t see ourselves anymore. Humans are particles in the universe, they disappear, are useless, but each one of us thinks they are important, and they act as if there was nothing but them.


They, the children, the three twins; people always refer to us as one thing, in one piece. Single words can also indicate multiple persons. Words that count for three are needed, such as monozygotic, bichorial, triamniotic. Passers-by often mistake us for males. As if we could look like boys, with our long hair reaching our behind. Mother doesn’t want us to cut them. She combs them every night; we have to lie on the kitchen table like sardines, then we let our hair hang down, she pulls hard, removes the knots and covers our heads with castor oil to make it softer. She gives us a spoonful of castor oil also when we can’t defecate. I am often constipated, because it troubles me to defecate in front of others, and our bathroom has no door, just a light curtain that can be easily moved by a drought and an indiscreet gaze. One time I was constipated for one month. On the thirtieth day it hurt badly, but it didn’t want to come out. Mother told me: come, we’ll go have a walk in town to make you change your mind. She dressed us up, I, I and I, made us wear our shiny varnish shoes, we walked for a long time, arrived in the square where the grocery and the café are, where people sit to talk without listening. It was very hot and Mother said: take your panties down, now. I answered: but Madame, You must be crazy. Even though I had addressed her very respectfully, she slapped me and repeated: take your panties down. She added: we won’t leave until you empty your guts, you’re nothing but a pile of shit, you’re disgusting. Ivy and Iris laughed, the ladies who blabber incessantly without saying anything dropped silent. I apologised and they looked at me pushing hard, without understanding what was going on. It didn’t come out. I closed my eyes and I imagined shitting on my mother’s face. That did the trick. It was so much, it looked like a chocolate pudding. People were disgusted. They would have probably preferred to watch as my throat got slit right in that square. Blood is less shocking than shit. They threw stones at me and shouted: you shouldn’t relieve yourself in the street, you’re not a dog. Mother answered: you’re right, dogs are better behaved than humans. We went back home, where nothing had changed.

Translation by Irene Brighenti

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by inutile

«To those who overcome I will give some of the hidden manna and a new name». Zechariah only regained his power of speech once he wrote on a writing table the name his son was destined to have, John. God is the baptiser: is it possible to know whether Joseph’s name means justice or it’s its meaning? What if Lazarus – Eleazar, the one whom God helped – received his name to secretly be the carrier of the Highest’s glory since his birth?
C. Campo, Il Flauto e il Tappeto

«Francesco, can I ask you a question?»
I turned to Mino, he was laying in bed, wearing a vest and grey Capri pants, the back of his hands resting on his eyes. «Tell me».
«Where are we now?»
«You mean the name of the hotel?»
«No, I mean, we’re in Bethlehem, right?»
Mino is seventy-seven, he’s the eldest of the group, he walks with a stick and wears sunglasses from dawn to sunset. He doesn’t smell like an old person. That’s what I was afraid of when I found out I was going to share a bedroom with him for a week. He has the pleasant and standard smell of the deodorant he applies on almost the entire upper part of his body, polishing the mustard-coloured linoleum his skin has become.
«We were in Bethlehem yesterday, this is Jerusalem».
«Are you sure?»
«First we went to Nazareth, yesterday we visited Bethlehem and now we’re in Jerusalem». I tried not to seem condescending nor about to call a doctor.
«I’d say we’re in Bethlehem. I’m sure of that».
I gazed outside the window again. It faced the hotel courtyard, where a woman was on the phone telling someone that it was not as hot as she expected.
«This is Jerusalem, I’m sure» I said, and in order to change the subject – it wasn’t to be precise – I added: «By the way, my name is not Francesco».
«Oh, I’m sorry, I keep thinking your name is Francesco. I don’t know why.»
We had been sharing a bathroom for four days.

If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I?

You say God hasn’t signed the Bible. He didn’t need to, for he wrote it just to talk about himself.
J. Rodolfo Wilcock, The Two Happy Indians

Everyone has an uncle who has become a priest. My high school desk mate had my same name and his priest-uncle’s name was the same as my priest-uncle (after all, 79% of Italian priests are called Antonio[footnote]Source: CEI, Italian Episcopal Conference.[/footnote]). If you don’t think you have one, your priest-uncle has probably been on a twenty-year mission in rural China; perhaps he was the first of your grandma’s brothers to die, he’s always been delicate, an asthma attack and God took him.
My priest-uncle called me around mid-July to tell me that there was a vacancy in the church trip to the Holy Land. They were leaving in ten days. Since they had successfully gathered more than thirty participants, the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi granted a free additional ticket. I’m the only person he knows with a valid passport and nothing else to do: here’s the reason for my invitation. «It’s a shame not to take advantage of it».
When the girl with the ponytail at Ben Gurion airport was going to ask me the reason for my visit I’d answer «Pilgrimage» with a grim that means it’s basically a last minute thing, it’s not like I wrote a will before I left.

In his essay on the art of gardens, an English gentleman gave Italian gardens a prize for their beauty and balance of proportions, which were nobly concealed in the modesty of their fences. He remarked that if one’s expectations are smaller than reality, then one will experience a greater feeling of marvel. It’s a perfect rule for any field, but what if we were to invert it? If one’s reality is smaller than one’s expectations…
C. Campo, Les Sources de la Vivonne

Every ORP proposal is some sort of pilgrimage. The participants’ expectations and behaviour have to match the voluntary adhesion to a cult activity.
(Behaviour in the newsletter published by Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi)

I was reading Moby Dick that summer. Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah was stuck in my head as I looked at the port of Haifa from the top of Mount Carmel, just outside the sanctuary where we had stopped to go to Mass. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
Being Jonah a clear double for Ahab, I thought that was precisely his sin: not disobeying himself. But then I started thinking he might have not disobeyed himself in order to obey the whale. Thus, the problem is: what is the whale?
«But then again, what has the whale to say?» Ishmael asks himself a good four hundred pages after the beginning of his tale «Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forces to stammer out something by way of getting a living».

And yet I love this epoch, for it’s the time when everything fails and perhaps that’s why it’s the true time of fairy tale. […] The era of fleeing beauty, of grace and disappearing mystery, apparitions and arcane signs of fairy tale. Everything men can’t give up, everything they feel passionate about as long as it seems lost and forgotten. Everything you have to find again, despite its being life-threatening, such as Belinda’s rose in the winter. Everything that keeps hiding under more and more impenetrable shapes, in more and more horrendous labyrinths.
C. Campo, Parco dei Cervi

It was the summer of a Vampire Weekend song called Ya Hey (like a pun on Yahweh or an Outkast’s song): it’s purposely made for you to listen to it repeatedly every single day Christ has created. It combines the Bible and The Rolling Stones. And when I say the Bible, I mean the refrain explicitly quotes the Burning Bush. «Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only “I am that I am”» Exodus 3, 14: «God said to Moses: «I am that I am» – and then added: «But who could ever live that way?»
Before arriving in Jerusalem after Jericho, we stopped on the verge of a canyon on the river Qelt. On the other side, hanging on a cliff, is St. George’s monastery. All around us was the desert, a couple of ravens, and a man with a donkey, trying to convince us to buy some necklaces. The metal pipes of the terrace under which we sat down to celebrate the fourth or fifth Mass of the week were shaken by a strong wind and they produced flute-like sounds. Their notes were worryingly long, despite the lack of inhalation. The vertiginous height of the peak and the Greek-orthodox monks of the monastery were already frightening enough.
I couldn’t hear a single word of the celebration from the rock where I was sitting. I could only look around.
Look at the sun setting on kilometres of red nothing, spreading fifty metres away from the bus that was waiting for us in the parking area at the beginning of the path. I started thinking of a way to remember to post a photo of Jerusalem on Instagram and caption it «Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you»), the first two lines of the song.
Look at the priest celebrating Mass – it was the turn of the Neapolitan Franciscan with a passion for white t-shirts – and explaining the Word to devotees deafened by the singing terrace.
Look at the monks crossing the river, metres and metres of rocky wall, going back to their cells.
Who could ever live that way? Who’s that who?

Something of the ancient transcendental sensuality was much better preserved in certain people’s passions, which were immediately defined as “superstitious”: the need to touch relics, to press their lips on pictures and statues, to get down on their hands and knees and drag themselves on the floors of sanctuaries (that’s exactly what the woman with blood issues did as she crawled like a worm among people to reach that tunic), to offer the divinity something of their own body, their cut off braids, for instance.
C. Campo, Sensi Soprannaturali

Man is a social animal and if you give him an inch he’ll take a mile. The church group I’ve joined was mostly composed of women in their 50s or 60s, reaching the peak of sexual revolution thanks to a trip with no husbands (they were accompanied by six priests and three nuns). They tag their children in photos taken in front of relics (the devastating impact of Facebook on this generation of mothers and daughters makes me think of Proust being electrified and shocked as he finds out he can go by car to the Guermantes and to Swann and be home by tea time). They are fascinated by our tourist-spiritual guide, Don Giovanni [his name was changed, ed.], they start planning a sunny pilgrimage with him for next year, this tall bald priest with a perfectly-shaped jaw, expert of the world and of the scriptures, who offers God the sacrifice of a nomadic life and insulin injections, four a day.
They talk about bowel movements, as it always happens once you cross the border of your state. They speak ill of people as usual. They speak ill of priests if they keep repeating the same old things. They talk about how great Totò Cuffaro is, but that’s a rare case.
Almost no one knows I haven’t attended Mass in more than ten years, since I stopped asking myself whether God existed or not. I didn’t care for the answer. No one seemed to realise – even on the eighth and last Mass of the eighth and last day – that I was always sitting in the back, waiting. I can’t really say all that discretion was due to their good manners, for those people were the same who talked about the backwardness of Islamic religion in front of our Muslim driver or pointed at the wig of every single orthodox Jew woman.

Asking often means embarking on a tale of small and big suffering, which is the very theological basis of this pilgrimage. There’s a mother who has seen her ten-year-old son die of cancer, a daughter who has lost both her mother and father in a few months time, a woman who has quit her job to take care of her old mother until she finds a carer she can actually trust, a woman who had seven children and now needs some time on her own.
Those who don’t have a story tell – whispering on the bus trying not to cry – collect other people’s stories and pass them down at dinner, in hotel rooms, queuing at the souvenir shop. These stories become the common burden of the Holy Land group, August 2013: they come in tiny golden necklaces. Symbols. Maria Grazia kept complaining about her lazy husband who wouldn’t come with her, she showed people pictures of her nieces. In Bethlehem’s cave, instead of bending in front of the star that marks the place where the Lord was born, she kneeled down in front of an empty marble tank, the manger, and burst into tears.

Picture 1. Every time we took the bus to move to a different city, an sms welcomed me either in Palestine or Israel. It happened various times during the same journey. As we travelled to the river Jordan to renew our baptismal promises, we crossed two minefields, just outside the highway. The bus parked near an ONU jeep. Two soldiers saw sixty middle-aged people leave the bus and walk towards the steps on the river bank, under the 2pm sun. My phone welcomed me in Jordan.

Picture 2. There was a ferry mooring at a dock hidden by the palms freighted with dates. We had to take it to cross the sea of Galilee, toward a kibbutz where we were going to eat Peter’s fish. Halfway through the cruise, we stopped because Don Giovanni was going to read some passages from the gospel. The water was calm, the Mount of Beatitudes behind us, in front of us the Golan Heights had the same colour of certain Italian beaches. «Before we start» said Don Giovanni on the microphone «the crew of the ferry would like to pay homage to us». The Italian national anthem started.

Thus, in poetry, shape exists before the idea in which it will be formed. It can follow the poet for years, domestic and fabulous, familiar and unsettling, often an image of early childhood, the weird name of a tree, the persistence of a gesture. It patiently waits for the revelation to fill it.
C. Campo, Parco dei Cervi

The word simple has come to describe almost anything, even those things that could be described as humble. Both words have become useless. Yet, the idea of humbleness as a virtue has made an empire collapse, it has obliged us to switch from the Latin language to the vulgar language, it has made the architects of the Church of the Nativity build tiny doors. In order to enter a vast space you have to lower your head. In order to enter a narrow space, the cave, which is included in the vast space, you have to lower your head once more.
The square opposite the Holy Sepulcher is accessible through two small side doors as you make your way through groups of tourists wearing hats with their cruise company’s name on them. The niche inside the church is guarded by unsmiling Greek-Orthodox monks. On the inside, it’s divided into two sections (the Chapel of the Angel and the actual Sepulcher). In order for you to see the sarcophagus, you have to cross two dark and narrow thresholds as a tall bearded man with a black tunic might scold you for being too slow.
Inside the old city’s walls, in a crowded borough, inside a decaying church, inside a niche that contains a chapel is a sepulcher, and inside the sepulcher is nothing.
As I was queuing to get in, a girl with a pink hijab asked me: «Is this where Jesus was supposed to be born?»

It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
(F. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

I saw my uncle-priest cry several times. He’s one of those priests who get teary at the funerals they’re celebrating. It was the last day of our pilgrimage, the final Mass, he was reading Luke’s gospel, crying. He was reading the episode in which the disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It is in fact marvellous, a perfect tale, Tolstoy at his best.
We were there, gathered around the ruins of a crusade church, built on the place that tradition identifies as that taken from the passage my uncle was reading. There actually are two possible spots, but we’ve chosen the one strategically placed on the road to the airport, not only to Emmaus.
The two disciples can’t recognise their newly-resuscitated Master walking beside them. They tell him they had completely different expectations on his “death” and “resurrection”. He rebukes them with a glacially clear verse, extreme contempt («Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?). He also explains them all the scriptures that involve him, «beginning with Moses». Nothing, they don’t understand. (Or perhaps they do understand. They ask him to stay with them «for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over»: it’s the archetypal scene of 90% of short stories, the pivotal moment of Carver’s Cathedral).

It’s in front on the broken bread that the revelation fills his person, the disciples open their eyes and he vanishes in front of them them.
«It’s like waking up in the morning» Cristina Campo would say «knowing a new language. The signs you’ve seen over and over again become words». But who could ever live that way?

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