How to be Both - Being in Dialogue with Ali Smith

Nick Barnes, 2019. How to be Both - Being in Dialogue with Ali Smith. Reformulation, Winter, pp.34-35.


They say, “Never meet your heroes”. But what if you never knew you were meeting your hero until you met her? Could this be the type of question that Ali Smithi is asking of us when she asks to consider the layers of ourselves and our connections with those around us, as this was certainly what I ended asking myself after meeting with such a remarkable writer.

When inviting Ali Smith to join us for the opening of ICATA 2019ii in Ferrara we believed we were offering a literary introduction to the conference that might raise questions and possible challenges on a number of levels, whilst give permission for the narrative to be firmly placed within the context of “Exploring and Integrating Dialogues in CAT”. The connections were multiple, if rather literal – a novel set in Ferrara, a book that allows multiple versions of itself, a literary style that is playful and creative in the delivery of its dialogue – whilst embracing some of the themes and thinking behind the development of the programme.

But, from a CAT perspective, what Ali Smith offered was something so much more than we had ever anticipated ... shortlisted for the Man Booker prize (2014), How to Be Both pairs parallel narratives of a teenage 15year old girl, George, in the UK and a 15th century renaissance artist, Francesco Del Costa, in Ferrara in a playful and tender dialogue that is quite unforgettable.

In one (flashback) scene from the book, George's mother sits in a café in Ferrara with her two children, boring them with talk of frescos and how art restorers sometimes find underdrawings that differ significantly from the final painted image. "Which came first?" she asks her 16-year-old daughter George, since George's little brother has popped in his earphones and pulled out his iPad. George says it's the drawing below the paint. "But the first thing we see," her mother counters, "and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So, does that mean it comes first after all?" And can the image underneath even be said to exist if it is never seen by anyone? In another scene, the covering/covered and uncovered/uncovered message and its implications in terms of the vision of the world is clearly stated by Francesco, when looking at his frescos in Salone dei Mesi in Palazzo Schifanoia: “Cause then it [the painting] does 2 opposing things at once. The one is, it lets the world be seen and understood. The other is, it unchains the eyes and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom from its world and their world both.”

What can be seen on the surface and what may be lying underneath - is this not what we might ask in therapy? Isn’t the seeing and the understanding of the world inside and the world outside the aim of psychotherapy?
Ali gave readings from the book, both in English and Italian (with help from her publisher) offering a flavour of the worlds inhabited by the two central characters, George and Francesco. But Ali also gave us an understanding of what had taken her to want to write this book, becoming fascinated by not only the frescos, but also accounts of the restoration work in Florence in a 1969, and how the two layers of a fresco emerged — an earlier, underneath version with a boy and a woman; and then a final version with just the woman, the boy having been painted over. This represented the perfect metaphor for how narrative works, as every great narrative is at least two narratives, if not more — what is on the surface and then what is underneath which is not invisible.”

But then she heard about a letter written by Francesco del Cossa to his commissioning patron, Duke Borso d'Este, in 1470. In it he asks to be paid more money than all the other artists working on the same commission, clearly making demands of his own worth, and seeing his worth as being beyond that of his contemporaries. Gold dust for a writer seeking the develop the narrative of her central character, but confirmation for the CAT community on the importance and value of the letter.

The “both” in the title can also have many meanings. And the book plays with these possibilities - being alive and not alive, being both male and female (allowing Francesco to be a girl dressing as a boy), living in one place whilst also in another, being in the past, present and future, all at the same time.

As humans we are not one thing, we are more than one thing, we are multiple selves and massively contradictory – as our maps can easily show. But being human is about being in dialogue, and “How to Be Both” allows us to “connect our different selves”. What Ali so generously gave at the start of our conference was an acknowledgement and recognition for the narrative and dialogue to be at the centre of what keeps us connected.

Nick.Barnes4@nhs.net

i Ali Smith – How to be both. Penguin (2014)
ii For more information about ICATA 2019 please go to - http://www.unife.it/convegno/icata2019

Full Reference

Nick Barnes, 2019. How to be Both - Being in Dialogue with Ali Smith. Reformulation, Winter, pp.34-35.

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