Thursday, January 26, 2017

cultural appropriation

Pomo Eagle Dancer,     oil pastel
Let’s discuss the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ as applied to fiction writing.  There are some who frown on, or even censor the rights of any author to create characters and speak in the voices of people ethnically or culturally different from themselves.  I had been surprised years ago to encounter such a view from an author who lectured at my writing classes in graduate school, but it seems such a view might may have become more strident in our current era of political correctness.

Such a climate of pc didn’t give any pause to Lionel Shriver, best known for her 2003 bestseller (and movie), We Need to Talk about Kevin.  She gave a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia in 2016, that treated fiction and identity politics, and criticized contemporary forms of political correctness.  A cogent article discussing the lecture and its aftermath was written by Jonathan Foreman in the Journal, COMMENTARY, Nov. 16, 2016.  It appears Shriver’s lecture drew widespread criticism from identity politics activists, but Foreman was generally supportive of Shriver: 

“She (Shriver) excoriated contemporary forms of politically correct censorship with typically astringent fearlessness and rubbished the whole notion of identity politics: “Membership of a larger group is not an identity.  Being Asian is not an identity.  Being gay is not an identity.  Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” 

Points Foreman made that I think are germane to the discussion include the following arguments opposing the ideas of identity politics:

At the beginning of October, at Britain’s Bristol University, a production of the musical Aida (an adaptation of Verdi by Elton John and Tim Rice) was cancelled because student protesters claimed that having white actors play Ethiopian and Egyptian characters would be “cultural appropriation.”

By their logic, black actors should not be allowed to play Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, or other “white” roles in Shakespeare, and nonwhite performers should be completely excluded from taking part in any opera or classical ballet given that both are “white” European art forms, in the same way that jazz or blues music could be said to belong exclusively to black people.

As Shriver pointed out, literature would be impossible if writers were forbidden from imagining and creating characters of different gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation to their own

I’m with Shriver in this; writers should be free to imagine whatever fictional character they wish for their story, and there ought to be no realm of ethnicity, race, religion, or whatever, reserved only to writers bearing the same genesis.  I think fiction writing has always been and will continue to be the richer for it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

difficult themes in writing cloaked in metaphor

Metaphor/Sketch for difficulty in aging

Occasionally one pauses early on when reading a new novel to reflect on whether there seems to be a compelling story arc, or whether some difficult thematic material will somehow enrich one's imagination or life experience.  Such questions arose for me when reading The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (as well as in A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, discussed in my post of Dec. 28, 2014).  Those considerations can be very subjective for different readers, and following is my take on The Vegetarian.

The Vegetarian was translated from the Korean (by Deborah Smith), and won the prestigious English Man Booker International Prize.  It's a short, compact novel at 188 pages, and one of the qualities that captured this somewhat hesitant reader was the good writing.  In broad brush outline, the story concerns a Korean housewife, Yeong-hye, her sudden plunge into a haunted, vegetarian eating obsession, and the tumult it causes in her own life and the lives of her husband, sister, brother-in-law, and parents.  

Perhaps the vegetarian obsession was brought on by an onset of mental instability--Yeong-hye has begun to suffer dark, violent, carnivorous related thoughts--and her new eating practice is, in various degrees, distasteful or repugnant to her extended family.  Some book critics say it may reflect a broader, Korean attitude toward vegetarianism.  At a family dinner the father tries to force a piece of meat into his protesting daughter's mouth, and ends up slapping her, whereupon she slashes her own wrists.  

Yeong-hye's husband divorces her, and the husband of her sister, In-hye, becomes attracted to Yeong-hye.  He's an artist and filmmaker (oddly unnamed as a character throughout), and clandestinely arranges for Yeong-hye to help him make a film.  He paints her body overall with botanical art, and films her making love with a similarly painted young man.  In a subsequent filming, he paints his own body as well as hers with the botanical theme, and films them making love together.  Sometime later, they repeat the same performance in Yeong-hye's apartment, and are discovered there by the sister, In-hye.  In-hye is so shocked she telephones a municipal Emergency Services number, and the authorities bundle the assumed deranged couple off for an examination.  Yeong-hye is committed to a mental hospital, where she is visited by her morose sister.

At this point, Yeong-hye's mental condition has deteriorated to where she imagines she is becoming a tree, and no longer needs to eat any food. I'll stop short of giving a complete, 'spoiler' description, in hopes blog readers will try Kang's worthy book.

One  critic, Diane Johnson, in the NY Review of Books (Crazy in Korea, 8/18/2016), presenting a review of this novel, writes: 

a short, absorbing novel that readers and reviewers have declared to be about--besides meat-eating--marriage, obedience, care-giving, adultery, art, human violence, post-human fantasy, taboos, the resolution of the desperate, "the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette," and much more.  One of the glories of novels is that their complexity allows for different interpretations, and perhaps this partly explains the Vegetarian's appeal for judges specialized in literature and translation from various language traditions and with, no doubt, different preoccupations.

There are metaphorical constructs so flexible and capacious as to allow for all of these meanings: generally, the more terse and minimalist a narrative, the more adaptable its metaphorical repertory to a wide range.
I agree with Johnson's suggestions that there are many metaphors folded into this novel, and I'll probably muse over interpretive possibilities for some time to come.  So, in spite of my pauses for consideration I described earlier on, I continued reading The Vegetarian, and concluded it was indeed a worthwhile book.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

themes of mortality

Evergreen pioneer cemetery in Manchester, CA
There seems to have been a steady flow of profound books touching on a theme of mortality in recent years; from my own reading I'm thinking of: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and just lately, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.  The first is fiction, about an old preacher nearing death and writing a long letter to his young son.  He wants to explain to the boy before he dies his views on life, and God, and how he came to marry the boy's much younger mother.  The second book is really creative non-fiction, being the selected experiences of a practicing physician, which serve to illustrate the attitudes of patients, and their families facing serious health issues: perhaps hopeful, or unrealistic, sometimes angry, often frightened, and how little time is frequently left, regardless of attitude.  The third book is by a doctor over the course of his internship as a neurosurgeon, covering similar ground to that in Being Mortal, but which takes a dramatic twist when the 38 years old neurosurgeon is discovered to have major lung cancer.  Now it is he chronicling his own stunned responses to the increasingly dim prospects, as he tries to carry on with his marriage and his work.  He didn't quite finish the book in his last year; his wife had to write the last chapter for him.  A good read.

When one reflects on past reading, much of literature deals in some degree with mortality, either as a major theme or as a hidden or secondary theme.  The failing marriage, for example, may be the major theme, but it may be an expression of the midlife crisis, or lack of success in a career "growing long in the tooth," both tensions being heightened by fears of impending mortality.

As the demographics of the country trend toward an aging population, the interest in reading about how others face issues of mortality, whether in fiction or creative non-fiction, seems likely to grow.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

starting the story in medias res--into the midst of things

A stream of consciousness flows on into
an ocean of imagination
(a site near my home)
A Happy New Year to all, and I may wish to take a sabbatical from blogging next year to devote more time to my fiction writing.  But for now:

Sometimes an author has written substantial sections of vivid, suspenseful, engaging material, but such sections lie buried somewhere in the middle, or perhaps closer to the end of the story.  The author has chosen to first introduce his cast of characters, perhaps fixes them somewhere in the social hierarchy of a place, and dramatizes a few of their strengths and weaknesses, before revealing the main tension(s) they must attempt to resolve.

It may be that if the introductory material has characters of unique personalities, and the special quality of 'voice' so often stressed in Creative Writing 101, or in countless writers' conferences, the reader may stick around long enough to reach the really compelling sections of the book.

Alternately, perhaps the better strategy for structuring the book is to consider the technique of in medias res (into the midst of things), and find a way to bring the best material forward to the beginning.  Capture the reader early on, and fill in details as needed for the progression of the story toward a final resolution.

"A Manual for Cleaning Women," by Lucia Berlin, is a collection of short stories that mostly begin in medias res.  The stories are first person narration, but since the action starts almost immediately we don't get to learn much about who our narrator is, or her relationship to other named characters, until Berlin drops the appropriate links which tie the characters and events together without interrupting the trajectory of her story.  Berlin often writes in an abbreviated, urgent syntax, sometimes inserting independent observational clauses that surprise us but increase our interest, and she uses stream of consciousness thoughts on the unfolding action.

Taking a few excerpts from the first two pages of her story, "Emergency Room Notebook, 1977:
You never hear sirens in the emergency room--the drivers turn them off on Webster Street...If it is Code Three, where life is in critical danger, the doctor and nurses wait outside, chatting in anticipation.  Inside, in room 6, the trauma room, is the Code Blue team.  EKG, X-ray technicians respiratory therapists, cardiac nurses.  In most Code Blues, though, the EMT drivers or firemen are too busy to call in.  Piedmont Fire Department never does, and they have the worst.  Rich massive coronaries, matronly phenobarbital suicides, children in swimming pools...

Madame Y is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  She looks dead, actually, her skin translucent blue-white, her exquisitely boned Oriental face serene and ageless.  She wears black slacks and boots, mandarin-collared jackets cut and trimmed in Asia?  France?  The Vatican, maybe--they have the weight of a bishop's cassock--or an X-ray robe.  The piping has been done by hand in rich fuchcias, magentas, oranges.  Her Bentley drives up at nine, driven by a flippant Filipino who chain-smokes Shermans in the parking lot.  Her two sons, tall, in suits made in Hong Kong, escort her from the car to the entrance of radiation therapy...

She is dead now.  Not sure when it happened, on one of my days off.  She always seemed dead anyway, but nicely so, like an illustration or advertisement.

So we're two pages in and we know almost nothing about our narrator but we see lots of activity through her eyes,  and the style of writing and quirky observational detail promise interesting reading ahead.  A writer might learn some useful structuring and elements of style from Berlin.

Monday, November 30, 2015

taking the hatchet to a draft

Writers' conferences can provide good venues for learning from featured speakers and fellow writers which techniques had worked best for them in producing good, publishable fiction.  However, what works well for one writer might not yield good results for another.  Perhaps rules for a sort of terse, active, and staccato delivery suits the range of fictional dreams at work in the mind of one writer, but may be entirely out of synch for the fictional dream flows of another writer.  The point arose when scanning notes I'd taken at several Mendocino Coast Writers Conferences in past years.  We've probably all heard of the need to go over our first drafts, to take out all the flab, exposition, discursive wanderings, and such, to better focus our stories.  A lot of this is absolutely necessary, but the subtractive process might also become destructive of an otherwise beautifully written, fictional dream.   Let's look at an excerpt from a piece by James Joyce, from his short story, The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay thickly drafted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I've always loved the imagery, the sense of hushed sound, and sense of timelessness in the arc of our lives.  I wondered if the same feeling could be maintained if the more severe draft editing rules were to be followed.  Here are a few typical, random notes taken from lectures given at the conferences by two accomplished writers.

John Lescroart (crime fiction)
Get rid of your 'to be' verbs, like 'when' and 'as.'  Don't use 'thought' to convey a character's thinking.   When reviewing draft, do a search for 'had,' which usually signals some sort of exposition.  Get rid of it, or replace.  Don't use any '-ly' adverbs.

John Dufresne (general fiction)
Eliminate progressive form of syntax; i.e., 'I was brewing coffee.'  Say I brewed coffee.  Don't use adverbs--you just haven't got the right verb yet.
 In the following, I've applied such rules to Joyce's piece as closely as I was able, while trying to maintain his complete thoughts and sentences:

A few taps on the pane made him turn to the window.  It snowed again.  He watched the flakes, silver and dark, fall against the lamplight.  It was time for his journey.  The newspapers had it right: snow all over Ireland.  Snow fell on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, upon the Bog of Allen, and fell on the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It fell, too, on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay in drafted heaps on crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned at the sound of the snow that fell through the universe and fell, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I think it lost some of its beauty and whispered softness. There are undoubtedly other ways to edit the piece with the same rules that might yield better versions, but it is hard to imagine anything that could approach Joyce's offering.  So, while I think the lecturers have given useful advice, it need not be considered rigidly in every case.

Friday, October 30, 2015

metaphysics in literary fiction

Celtic celebration of Samhain,
or Halloween, where a door opens
briefly to the other world.
Perhaps one of the most profound mysteries we are confronted with might be simply stated as "why is there something instead of nothing?"  Countless philosophers, theologians, and scientists have addressed this question, some from the seemingly unprovable first cause principle--a prime mover, or God.  Others, most often the scientists, are apt to point out we just are not there yet, but look how far we've already come in understanding our universe.  We can even demonstrate all that exists today, starting from a distant Big Bang event, which happened some 14 billion years ago, and the complete, scientific answer is just around the corner.

Well, since this is a fiction writer's blog we are hesitant to delve too deeply into the philosophical or rhetorical arguments that support either camp.  However,  might we sometimes ponder about what view of God's existence was held by certain characters in our reading?  If the author had had an opportunity to seamlessly integrate a spiritual viewpoint in the fiction, might it have given even greater depth, some flesh and bones, to the character, and the choices he makes in the story?

Some of this thought process springs from the reading of The March, by E. L. Doctorow.  The historical fiction covers the devastating Civil War march through the southern heartland, by General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Sherman's army of about 60,000 Union soldiers carried out a scorched earth campaign through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, as the war neared a close and a collapse of the Confederacy.  Like many, if not most, soldiers in either army, it seems safe to assume from writings of that era that the existential view of the combatants was Christian, fundamental Protestantism.  However, most of the officers of that conflict were trained at West Point Academy, which would have had a tradition from the Founding Fathers of the U.S. for a belief in God, but not necessarily in a dogma of any established religion.  And so the concepts of sin, resurrection, and eternal life in heaven, may not have been the uniform view of officers from the Academy.  It was rewarding to read the following, given as internal dialogue of Gen. Sherman before the battle of Savannah:
But these troops, too, who have battled and eaten and drunk and fallen asleep with some justifiable self-satisfaction: what is their imagination of death who can lie down with it?  They are no more appreciative of its meaning than I...

In this war among the states, why should the reason for the fighting count for anything?  For if death doesn't matter, why should life matter?
But of course I can't believe this or I will lose my mind.  Willie, my son Willie, oh my son, my son, shall I say his life didn't matter to me?  And the thought of his body lying in its grave terrifies me no less to think he is not imprisoned in his dreams as he is in his coffin.  It is insupportable, in any event.
It is in fear of my own death, whatever it is, that I would wrest immortality from the killing war I wage.  I would live forever down the generations.
And so the world in its beliefs snaps back into place.  Yes.  There is now Savannah to see to.  I will invest it and call for its surrender.  I have a cause.  I have a command.  And what I do I do well.  And, God help me, but I am thrilled to be praised by my peers and revered by my countrymen.  There are men and nations, there is right and wrong.  There is this Union.  And it must not fall.
Sherman drank off his wine and flung the cup over the entrenchment.  He lurched to his feet and peered every which way in the moonlight.  But where is my drummer boy? he said.
 And where else might a writer also go to study a moving portrayal of the metaphysical views of a major literary character in American literature: perhaps Moby Dick, by Herman Melville:

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year's scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!"
But blanched to a corpse's hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
Ahab, too, is of an earlier era when fundamental Protestantism was the rule of the land, though his First Mate, Starbuck, finds Ahab to be of a frighteningly blasphemous nature.  Note the ornate dialect, almost as if reading from the King James bible, and which makes the passage doubly dramatic.

So far, the discussion relates only to how a central character struggles to express some understanding of a God-based meaning of life, usually falling somewhere within the tenets of written Scriptures of three major monotheistic religions, and on reflections of the character's own life experiences.  A big hurdle is that, however inspired the Scriptures may have been, they were written about two thousand years ago and by men of uncertain erudition.  Since then, vast amounts of human learning and experience has occurred, but religious dogma, once established, changes only at glacial speed.  It might be refreshing to have a few characters express new visions of what a God-based vision of life is for them, where some rational account is taken of the exponential growth of experience and knowledge gained in that two millenniums.

The strange perplexities of quantum mechanics comes to mind as a potential backdrop for new, innovative fiction.  A recent NY Times article discusses ongoing confirmations for a proof of entanglement theory in subatomic physics.  In essence, subatomic particles, like electrons and photons, have an infinite but measurable range of properties, such as velocity, location, and spin.  However, as soon as a measurement is made of a property in one particle of any entangled pair,  the entire range of potential properties collapses into finite, correlated values in each of the particles.  Experiments demonstrate that this happens no matter the distance  introduced between the particles, presumably happening for a distance even  to the far side of our universe.  Einstein did not like the idea, and he and other major scientists fought it.  There was 'the finger of God' aspect in it for them.  Nevertheless, the theoretical underpinnings and the experimental data have continued to hold up through today.

What new kind of characterization of God might this prompt in literary fiction writing?  Perhaps it might lead to concepts far more sophisticated than the anthropomorphic characterization we presently are constrained with in our stories.  

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

point-of-view narration can make all the difference

A new book on Vladimir Nabokov was published recently, Nabokov in America--on the road to Lolita, by Robert Roper.  Reading it gave occasion to reflect on Nabokov's writing of Lolita, one of the most widely known novels in contemporary American literature.  Lolita is the story of a middle-aged man who pursues an obsessive love relationship with a twelve-year old girl, a stunningly controversial theme for mainstream literature at the time.  Early editions came out in Europe in the mid-fifties, and by 1958, a first edition in America.  Many of Nabokov's academic circle and some editors warned him it would not be well received; nonetheless, it proved a literary and financial success.

Although this first-person narrative seemed moderately engaging, it did not exert as powerful an influence as some critics have ascribed to it.  Humbert is a unique, sophisticated though demented, character, who is also a blundering assassin.  The reader may find some sympathy for his character, but it gets harder and harder to sustain as Humbert reveals his near murder of Lolita's mother, and toward the end his actual murder of a rival for Lolita's favors.  As for Lolita, she remains almost a cipher to the end, regarding her inner emotions or hopes, or the level of comprehension she may have regarding the two men who dominate her life.

In contrast, the third-person limited, simple but powerful novella length Member Of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, 1946, tells the story of another twelve-year old girl coming into a growing awareness of an inner, vaguely sensual nature, a coming-of-age anxiety, which eventually leads her into a harrowing, near-rape experience with a drunken serviceman in her hometown.

The first-person narrative of Humbert doesn't really allow us to reach into the consciousness of Lolita, and how could we believe much of what this demented person tells us about Lolita, anyhow?  We can observe how Lolita physically acts in various scenes--sometimes she initiates the intimacies--but that doesn't help us to know her very deeply or on what level we can sympathize with her.

In Member, the writer easily moves us into and out of the consciousness of the girl, Frankie, without the many constraints and prejudices potentially imposed on a first-person narrator.  In consequence, we get to know Frankie more deeply
than her counterpart Lolita, and become more moved by her story.

No doubt there were many considerations Nabokov weighed in choosing to write his story as a first-person narrative, including the writing strategies of a rambling journey across the American landscape of sterile motels, a chance for him to use stream-of-consciousness Joycean dialog, chances for literary allusions, and other perks that appealed to his imaginative and writing powers.  His story was well received by many other readers.
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