While awaiting the publication of Ellena Savage’s debut essay collection, Blueberries, we have this blessing of a chapbook, Yellow City. A former editor of Farrago and The Lifted Brow, Savage has published widely already, her voice reassuringly droll, critical and warmly intimate. “Does trauma need a witness? If it does, you’ll need to have this published.” Savage takes her own advice with this traumatic story, injecting it first with verve and crisp humour.
In 2017 she travels back to Lisbon, where 11 years ago she was the victim of an assault she has spoken about plenty but struggles to define. At the time, she went to the police, and the case went to court, but she left Portugal before discovering the outcome. Returning in 2017, she finds the paperwork has been archived, and this essay follows her attempts to track down a document that will tell her what happened to the two assailants. She is asked to go to a different police station, fill out more forms, call back another day and, while this goes on, she waits and broods.
In this reckoning, where the 29-year-old Savage is trying to understand more about what happened to the 18-year-old Savage, the first-person narrative is interjected with comments that provide additional information or query the validity of her account, adding intriguing layers to what is never a straightforward narrative.
The manifold long-lasting effects of acute trauma permeate the pages, so it is understandable that Savage sounds tired when she asks, “Is aging the slow expenditure of a finite source of energy?” She chronicles the very specific way she has travelled the universal journey from “a general, all-purpose, adaptable person” to someone whose choices have narrowed, and she has a poetic way of reminding us that crucial learning comes only with age – that time is finite.
In her Lifted Brow essay “Notes from Turning Thirty”, Savage wrote, “Thirty’s not so old. But you wouldn’t call it young.” Yellow City, more than simply documenting abuse, is an example of a writer who is no longer young and not yet old, flexing, demonstrating her philosophical approach to the world, pushing ideas, luminously finding a way forward. “Sometimes I think it’s possible to live with anything. / Other times I think it’s not possible to live at all. Not at all.”
The Atlas Review, 41pp, $15
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "Ellena Savage, Yellow City". Subscribe here.