By Angelina Eimannsberger
David Foster Wallace, the millennial hero who published Infinite Jest and a few other existential, arcane, highly celebrated books, and then killed himself, has been portrayed by Jason Segel in a feature film, and graced many social media bios and captions with his turn of phrase that “every love story is a ghost story” also gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College, subsequently published as the essay length book “This Is Water.” In this address, he urged graduates to get out of their own heads.
“Think about it,” he says, “There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of […] Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.” (This Is Water 39-41).
Marie Deaconu-Baylon’s debut novel North for Sun enacts this insight by giving us an immediate experience of the mind of Martha, her main character, a second generation (born in the Philippines but emigrated to the US as a small child) Filipina American whose mother and aunt fought in the revolution. Thanks to Deaconu-Baylon’s compelling writing, Martha’s feelings are communicated to us very strongly–they become immediate, urgent, real. We go with Martha through good and bad days, meet her new friends at college and her family, and see her battle everyday to take back her life through writing. Martha is taking her third stab at Stanford University after mental health crises have derailed her previous two first years at other universities:
“My second return to college was solid with promises, but they were the kind that tethered and weighed. The palm trees on campus were more beautiful than anything I’d seen in the last year. Their expense reminded me how much I was betting on myself. And I still hadn’t figured out how to write. Writing was like trying to summon a ghost. I didn’t know where my voice went” (North For Sun 9)
We meet her family, especially her aunt Tita May and that aunt’s daughter and Martha’s best friend Heidi, a science wunderkind, and Martha’s roommate Tina and her brother Victor, among a wide cast of characters. What all of them have in common is that everyone is carrying their emotional, familial, and intellectual baggage best as they can. Tina, for example, seems very put together and driven but when Martha asks about the clearly strained relationship with her parents, she replies, “I don’t hate my parents. Why would you say that? I’d do anything for them if I could stand them. We can’t count on them for anything” (North For Sun 156). We learn that Tina missed the first day of college orientation because she had to drive her drunk parents home from ‘helping’ her move in.
Foster Wallace and Deaconu-Baylon have in common an extraordinary appreciation for the fragility of our mind and how this impacts social relations. In This Is Water, Foster Wallace urges us not to submit to the petty annoyances of the everyday, to choose a mindset that is bigger, more ambitious than our default setting:
“The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations [traffic jams, long check out lines in a grocery store, etc.] In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’ not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive” (This Is Water 84-87)
North for Sun encourages us to do the same: open our eyes to the people around us. The novel advocates for people to work through their emotional and psychological confusion. Martha shows us that all we sometimes need to do is accept other people’s feelings and ways of life, and love them for trying rather than succeeding. At the end, she still is mired in confusion, her own and that of the people she loves, of the people around her. However, writing has helped her create stability: “I wrote my way back into life, like I wanted. It’s paper now.” (North For Sun 177)
Deacony-Baylon shares a soundtrack to the novel on her website, as the last of her faqs, another way she invites us into Martha’s head, and into the lives of her characters. Don’t reject this invitation, you will be better for it.
Buy your copy of North For Sun on the author’s website: https://www.mariedeaconubaylon.com/