There are two reasons why right now is perfect time to be telling you about Nisha Coleman's Busker: Stories from the Streets of Paris. One is that we're focusing on oddballs and misfits this month here at 49th Shelf, in this misfit month with its 29 days, and Coleman encounters so many of these characters during her time busking in Paris living on the city's cultural fringes. And the second is that Valentines Day is on the horizon, and Coleman's memoir shows the City of Love like you've never seen it before. Busker is also very much a love story in its own right—just not the kind you're probably used to.
Kerry Clare: There are so many compelling bits of your memoir, and one of them for me is the way you write about loneliness of your life in Paris in the beginning, about your longing for just an ordinary friend. You meet so many characters in your daily life—the man with the moustache, the guy with the sex songs, Michel the kisser. Was there really such a dearth of ordinary folks? Are they just not approachable? Is normal too boring to write about? Is there such a thing as normal at all?
Nisha Coleman: I don't believe in normal! I longed for an ordinary friend, but not a normal one. What I lacked in Paris was the kind of closeness that lets you relax in that special way where you laugh unhindered and speak without filters and forget yourself. Always meeting new people and being in survival mode was just a little too engaged for that. I was always very aware of myself and the person I was talking to, figuring out who they were, and what they wanted. The characters who stopped to talk to me often had an agenda, and I was very aware of that too. This led to some interesting situations, but there is something to be said about the kind of relationship when you can text, "Damn, I want a brownie!" to someone, just because. That's the beauty of banality. I lacked that casualness in Paris in the beginning. And there were moments when this fact was a painful one and even though I was surrounded by people, I was terribly lonely.
KC: As a busker, you become part of the scene, the streetscape, which is strange because you were so much an outsider in every other way. How do you reconcile this paradox? Do you ever think about the innumerable tourist photos in which you appear?
NC: Busking was my way of taking possession of the city, of feeling like I belonged there in some way. When I played, I was part of the city, and most of the tourists would think I was Parisian. Naturally. And I liked that. They would ask me for directions to the Metro in broken French and I would reply in French. When I was in busking mode, I belonged in the place I was playing and it was a great feeling. Of course, all that could end in a second—if the police stopped me, or someone yelled at me to get lost. And that's one the reasons getting kicked out of places was so hard. It really jolted me. All of sudden I lost my belonging badge and I would be devastated for a little while, until the feeling passed and I would get the courage to try another spot.
I do think of all the tourist photos. I find them online sometimes. And I imagine people looking back on their Paris trip, decades in the future, and seeing that photo of a young girl with the violin under the archways at Place des Vosges and they may never know my story. But it doesn't matter. Because part of what I was doing was playing a small role in their story.
KC: Were there books you read to prepare for writing this one? Books that were influences? I’m thinking Paris books and ex-pat stories. Mavis Gallant? (I love the bookshelf in your Paris apartment that just happens to feature the manifesto of metaphysical violin method, Le violon interior, by Dominique Hoppenot. Book happenstance is magic….)
NC: I stayed away from French themed memoirs because I didn't want to be influenced by other people's experiences in Paris. I did read Mavis Gallant's work, but that's because she was such a great writer, a must-read for anyone. I knew where she lived in Paris and once I toyed with the idea of just ringing her bell. I was on her street, hesitating and hesitating, and someone stopped to ask if I was lost. In the end, I didn't ring her bell. I just walked around her neighbourhood. I should have rung her bell.
I did read many memoirs, though. Mary Karr's three memoirs, for example. Isabel Huggan's Belonging. Emily Carr's journals. Evelyn Lau's Runaway. Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors. Almost everything by David Sedaris. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. All of these books were teachers. Each author had lived very different things, and it was helpful to experience the range of voices and see how each writer dealt with things like flashbacks and timelines. You can't build a memoir the way you can a novel, with a clean arc. Life just doesn't allow for that, and yet you have to find a way to link all the chaos together somehow.