Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2017

‘Big Red’ from Can You Tolerate This? (2017) by Ashleigh Young

Like most collections of essays, Can You Tolerate This? is a book to dip into from time to time, but I’ve chosen to write about ‘Big Red’, the longest essay in the collection because it’s so much about something I never had: brothers. Perhaps the essay is as much about being the youngest, observing the progress of older siblings in the world, but brothers seem to do things differently. In particular, there’s the problem of negotiating and interpreting the silence of the adolescent male.

The ‘Big Red’ of the essay’s title refers to a jacket worn by her brother JP.  His name is really John-Paul, but in small-town New Zealand he gets razzed about that:

…his name, John Paul, was too much for most people to grasp.  ‘John?’ they would say when introduced. ‘Ah, no – John Paul,’ JP would reply, but they would go on calling him John, as if righting a long-held mistake.  Finally he might say, ‘Most people just call me JP,’ and everyone still calls him that. (p.47)

Despite his father’s exhortations that ‘You gotta have money coming in’, JP is a songwriter, getting by with a series of meaningless jobs.  While her father is immobilised in their town by inertia, refusing to move even when his wife takes a job elsewhere, the boys eventually take off to see the world, leaving Ashleigh behind.  Older brother Neil eventually goes to London where he spent his days typing and nights furtively drinking champagne and red wine at hospitality functions he worked as a waiter.  For Ashleigh, yearning to be somewhere more significant, Neil’s emails are a revelation.

In a way these emails reassured me that the world outside of New Zealand was still just the world.  It wasn’t automatically special by virtue of being far away.  People had jobs and ate meals and got drunk and fell in love out there.  Life continued just as it did here, only with different rhythms and weathers.  (p.75)

But when JP takes off to work as a shuttle driver in Colorado, when JP described where he was it was no longer just the world. 

It really was somewhere else.  Describing Colorado, he wrote about luminous snowy mountains, and days so cold that his keys froze inside his pocket, and going ‘nocturnal show-shoeing’, when he and some others would walk along the top of a frozen river. (p.76)

Ashleigh gradually becomes aware of her brother’s unhappiness. She wonders why the fame she thinks JP deserves has not come to him, She notes that he seemed too tired to take much in.  It was as if the world was slipping over him like water. She thinks that he just needs to position himself correctly for fame – like a gleaming wave, would pick him up and carry him forward.  She believes in a significance of a short film called ‘Change’ made by Neil, which showed that change (from the banal to the frightening) can happen.

For their family, it is important to ‘continue’:

…they made me think about ways to continue, and what continuing meant.  Getting up in the morning was one way.  Getting dressed, facing the people around you – these were ways of continuing that kept your life open to possibility. But there was another way of continuing, and this was the continuing of silence. Our family had always continued to continue through events that we did not know how to speak of to one another.  (p.77)

Big Red, and its fate becomes an important symbol of change to Ashleigh.

The jacket was soft and puffy, with a gathered waist and a high collar with odd tan stripes on it.  It was essentially a bomber jacket.  It had snap-buttons down the front.  Its flight-silk sleeves were full and shiny, but the cuffs were snugly elasticised. A stunt pilot from Reno might have stepped from his plane wearing such a jacket.  It was a true red – a Postman-Pat red, an American sunset red, almost the red of the saveloys our grandmother ladled onto our plates in Ōamaru. And it was warm, which was important, because that winter JP was living in a room underneath a house on Memorial Drive in Hamilton, and it was always cold there.  His room had louvre windows and a puddle under the door.  It was a bit like living inside a log.  (p.40)

I was fascinated to learn about the elusive irony of dressing in a certain way.

No matter its history, or how warm it was, or who might once have worn it, Big Red was ugly.  That’s all it was, and, I thought, all it ever could be.  Neither fashion nor irony had circled back far enough to reach that jacket.  I could not imagine a time when wearing something so terrible would mean that you were pointing and laughing at fashion’s fickleness and that this awareness meant that you looked cool. (p.42)

I don’t think ironic dressing existed when I was a teenager.  You either got it right, or you didn’t.  (I didn’t).

Just as JP was abandoning fashion, Neil and I were finding it, and fashion equipped you with new ways of being embarrassed.  There were so many more ways to be unfashionable than fashionable – and the distinction was always so slight: a glimpse of white socks, an overly tight waistband, sweatshirt cuffs riding high on bony arms.  JP knew them all, the unfashionable ways.  (p.45)

There are undercurrents right through this essay, investing the quotidian with a perception that it’s always more than it seems.  It is later in an essay called ‘Sea of Trees’ that the reader learns the reasons why Ashleigh is preoccupied with her brothers rather than telling anything much about herself.  I loved the essay called ‘Lark’ where she tells the story of her mother – literally – getting her wings to fly.

You can actually read this essay online at LitHub, but if you don’t have the book then you miss out on gems like this:

The beach belonged to us in a way that no place has belonged to us since. A city or a town cannot belong to us. We have decided never to go back to this beach because it will have changed beyond memory, and this will be distressing: or it will be empty and this will be worse. The lagoon gone, signposts now only posts, cabins lifted away to reveal crab grass threadbare in the sand. The sea replaced with a thinning tarpaulin held down by rocks. (‘Witches’, p. 7)

The title essay ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ is a gem too.

From the Giramondo website:

Ashleigh Young works as an editor in Wellington. Her poetry and essays have been widely published in print and online journals, including Tell You What: Great New Zealand NonfictionFive Dials and The Griffith Review. She gained an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009, winning the Adam Prize. Her first book was the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (2012). Can You Tolerate This? is the winner of the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for nonfiction, and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Nonfiction at the 2017 Ockham Book Awards.

Author: Ashleigh Young
Title: Can You Tolerate This?
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, Southern Latitudes Series, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336443
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Can You Tolerate This? or direct from Giramondo.



  1. I love essays, I have a brother, and the Windham Campbell Literary Prize is impressive. Sounds good, in other words!

    Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about ironic dressing (and, for the record, I never really got it right as a teenager either. Wish I’d thought of being ironic!)


    • I’m not sure but I think you have to be young to do ironic dressing. I suspect that once you are past a certain age, there are two options: timeless elegance (Sheila Scotter, Maggie Tabberer) or *sigh* dagginess.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I’ve always called myself a dag, so you know where I fit. Every now and then I lift myself up but there’s always something to let me down (usually the shoes, the handbag, the hair and the lack of make-up!)


        • I tell you, I am really struggling with helping my MIL now that she needs help with makeup for special outings. I’ve never really used it myself, never learned to do it right (mainly because I couldn’t be bothered because I was lucky to have good skin) and I feel bad because it matters to her. She feels more confident with it, I guess.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I know exactly what you mean. I feel a complete klutz when it comes to make-up. I never learned to do it right – couldn’t be bothered, feminist principles, and sensitive skin. I could pay for special cosmetics I know for my skin but the other two reasons always over-rode the skin one! But, I would feel badly too – I felt badly enough with my teenage daughter. Couldn’t advise on make-up, couldn’t do anything with long hair. Hopeless!


            • Ah well, think of all the time and money we’ve saved…


              • Exactly, Lisa, that’s part of my feminist argument – ie not only the issue re women be expected to beautify themselves, but the fact that it’s seen as more important to spend our precious time and money on this stuff. (I’d much rather spend that time reading and that money buying books, for example!)


                • And put the money into superannuation. There are far too many women with little or no super, and while there are structural reasons for that, there is also an appalling disparity between what men spend on appearance and what women do.


                • Oh yes re Super. But re appearance, I had a couple of conversations with my hairdresser about not colouring my hair. On one occasion he said “but don’t you want to look nice?”! Well, yes, nice enough. I loved his great hair cutting, and thought that did the trick. Second time, he said men were starting to do it too. And men ARE starting to spend more on appearance but the differential is great. Eventually I left that hairdresser, after 20 years with him. Have never, really, had a great cut since, but given I don’t want to look nice I cope!

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve just read all your comments – I didn’t have sisters, and despite innumerable sisters in law and daughters, I don’t get girls, and what you two are talking about is entirely understanding. That said, that essay sounds more like a youngest child thing. I’m an oldest, so my brothers could only wonder from afar what I was up to once I left home.


    • For us, the absence of brothers was exacerbated by going to all-girl schools and for most of my life not having any boys living in the street. There were two exceptions, who proved the value of brothers to me. When I was about 8 or 9 Nicky Greville who lived next door let me play cricket with him. That is, he let me bowl, and graciously batted left-handed so that I had a chance of getting him out. This meant that when I moved (again) to a house with 5 boys next door, who scornfully told me that no, I couldn’t play because girls can’t play cricket, when they finally succumbed to my pleas just to let me bowl, I got all five of them out, one after the other, for a duck.


      • You’re obviously better at boy stuff than I am at girl stuff, but I did like dress-ups.


  3. […] Can You Tolerate This? (2017) by Ashleigh Young […]


  4. […] Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press) See my review. […]


  5. […] Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young […]


  6. […] Can You Tolerate This by Ashleigh Young, see my review […]


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