An Eventful Week

Bit of String: The Relevance of Little Earthquakes

As a late sixteenth birthday present, I took my son to Tori Amos’ concert in the Royal Albert Hall Wednesday night. He appeared to be the youngest in the huge audience, but he loves Tori’s music, often fully recreating it on the piano by ear, and he recognised every song she played by its opening chord, turning to me to whisper excitedly.

On our way to the concert, he said, ‘I don’t think I’ve asked you this before. I mean, I know you have her music and that’s how I got to know it, but is she one of your favourites, too?’

The answer, of course, is yes. I told him about the Columbia and BMG cassette tape deals of the mid-90s, how you could join their ‘clubs’ and get tapes at cut prices. I used these, as an adolescent, to buy all kinds of music to experiment with what I best related to. I bought Under the Pink as part of my explorations, with Little Earthquakes quick to follow.

She came out with lyrics we didn’t usually hear from singers. Before Alanis Morissette asked ‘Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?’ and Fiona Apple owned being a ‘Criminal’ and a ‘Sullen Girl,’ before Paula Cole got sarcastic about cowboys, there was Tori admitting she wanted to ‘smash the faces of those beautiful boys’ who took advantage of her as a child in ‘Precious Things.’ She reminded us, ‘You’re just an empty cage, Girl, if you kill the bird,’ and she knew we’d been ‘Silent All These Years.’ So I was thrilled to see her live, to enter the Royal Albert Hall, although it was an even bigger thrill to attend with my son and see his joy as he said, ‘I feel so light, I feel like I weigh nothing.’

The Royal Albert Hall stage set for Tori Amos.
The stage is set.

‘It’s the crowd’s reaction when she started playing “Silent All These Years,”’ he said as we wandered through London the next day, making a required stop at the American Embassy and then moving on to the sculpture exhibition in Regents Park and the London Zoo. ‘That’s what makes me so happy, that she’s still really relevant today, and she could see it for herself there.’

I’m intrigued that he takes that away from the event; as a musician he’s pondering relevance and as a teenager he’s already giving some consideration to generativity versus stagnation, Erikson’s late stage of psychological development.

But it also made me think about what makes music—or literature—relevant. In Tori’s case, I think there’s that revelatory quality, of communicating something true (at least for a lot of us) that hasn’t yet been voiced enough.

And as I’ve written before, it’s about creating beauty from pain.

Relevance at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Fast forward to Saturday. Cheltenham Literature Festival day! I love this festival, there’s so much on and the vibe is excellent. My husband came out for the evening with me and we saw comedian Robert Webb (of Mitchell and Webb, as in Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar) speak about his new book, How Not to Be a Boy. He spoke, wryly but warmly, about the difficulties of conforming to gender stereotypes.

Given that my son has such varied interests, you may see why the topic is relevant to me. Here, Mr. Webb has created a piece of work from his own sometimes painful childhood of feeling misfitted. He also put a particularly public voice to what may well be a private dilemma for a lot of people.

A Festival mural depicts travels against a backdrop of giant books.
Mural along one of the marquees at the Festival

Before that, I had been in the Sky Garden Tent with a few hundred others to see Sarah Waters receive the Times Award for Literary Excellence. Having read Fingersmith last year and considering it the most surprising twist I have ever read—and the most well-executed, she was the top of my must-see list for this year’s festival.

Sarah Waters managed to bring lesbian historical fiction into mainstream literature. I suspect that’s hugely relevant to a lot of people. For those of us not that way inclined, it’s still important to read that perspective. I also loved her answer when asked about planning one of her later novels. She said she’d just been through the hard break-up of a longterm relationship.

‘I thought, this has been really awful. So I might as well make some fucking money out of it!’

Fellow writers, I think we’ve all been there. Not making money out of it necessarily, but at least putting our tough times into artistic form, creating characters to carry those burdens for us.

Before the prize-giving, I’d watched a panel discussion on Being Other in Britain Today. Nikesh Shukla talked to June Sarpong and Reni Eddo-Lodge about their books. Check out Mr. Shukla’s campaign to start a quarterly journal of great writing from authors of colour, and the website for June Sarpong’s new book Diversify, which lists practical steps to tackle all our private prejudices.

It was a challenging decision which book to buy after this event. (I can’t buy every single one; I’d go broke.) I chose Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. It seemed the one I might need the most education on. When someone from another sphere of experience feels they’re not being heard, the logical step is undoubtedly for us to listen.

Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s book is based on a blog post she wrote a few years ago. She says she never imagined the piece would go viral; it was something she had to get out of her system. Once she had written her feelings of frustration at how her white friends seemed to ignore her concerns about race, she felt that was that, and didn’t assume dialogue would actually ensue.

Which goes to show, perhaps, that our writing can be relevant and impactful to us even when we don’t do it for a large audience. We can’t really predict how many others might need to read it, can we?

A New Literary Era

This Week’s Bit of String: ‘I think something might be happening…’

On a sunny New England morning, my mother drove me to my 39-week hospital visit. We were running late for the 9:00 appointment, because I’d been in labour for more than thirty hours, and that rather interfered with my sleep. So she dropped me off at the entrance and I ran (okay, stumbled) upstairs while she went to park.

The male gynaecologist smiled patiently but didn’t bother examining me, I guess because I wasn’t screaming in agony. I was in and out quite quickly, silently miserable despite my lack of screams.

As she accompanied me back to the car park under perfect blue skies, my mother said cautiously, ‘I think something might be happening.’

Damn straight, I thought. Surely my insides squeezing like a toothpaste tube every five to seven minutes for this long is producing some result.

But there was in fact something much bigger happening. As she came up to meet me, she passed workmen listening to the radio. At home we put the TV on instantly, and I watched Dan Rather’s shock as the World Trade Center started collapsing. I remember his words while I vainly attempted to smother the pain with heating pads: ‘May God have mercy on their souls.’

My son at the piano.
16 years old this week.

Exactly fourteen hours after the first plane hit the first Tower, my son was born. I didn’t know anyone who was killed that day. Although I lived in the same corner of the country, I’d barely visited New York City. But bringing a new life into the world that day, under my own very uncertain circumstances, threaded a deep connection within me to the events.

Just as motherhood changed how I write, the terrorist attacks changed how the country wrote. Have you noticed that?

Characteristics

Questioning became literature’s emergent theme, a certain shaken quality to the characters of post-9/11 stories. Main characters have power and talent, but there’s uncertainty that this will be enough, in a world where sunny mornings can end in flame and toxic smoke, where going to work at one of the world’s most famous addresses can result in death.

This prompts a re-exploration of life’s meaning, and an increased tendency for characters to admit their lack of fulfillment. Almost like a survivors’ guilt, not reconciling with victims of the attacks, but trying to reconcile with the circumstances outside our fortunate nation that were causes of, and exacerbated by, the tragedy.

Writers tend to be fairly liberal people, so many were aware of the situations further abroad that may have motivated young radicals to sign on to Al Qaeda’s cause. They would also have noticed the effects of our sometimes heavy-handed response. While this hasn’t resulted in many cases of outright literary rebuke, it often shows in the characters’ actions and thought processes.

And yet the storylines rarely take power from the powerful. Characters find ways to redeem themselves at least in their own eyes without sacrificing too much comfort. This is realistic, perhaps, but also revealing. How much do those of us who are somewhat privileged really want equality?

Examples

First, there are still books dealing with the immediate aftermath which I haven’t read. A fuller list of work dealing with the tragedy is here in The Guardian. My comments are inevitably coloured by other recent reads: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, even Kathryn Spencer’s The Help. Things get shaken up, but the balance of power remains.

Also, spoilers.

One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the world.
Power still stands.

Jennifer Egan’s worthy Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Goon Squad deals with grown-ups, several of them rich music industry figures, growing up again and again. I read this after rereading The Great Gatsby, and was struck by the similar portrayal of roiling anxiety beneath decadence. The characters mention the skyline gap left by the Twin Towers, but principally I see this work as thematically relevant; the feeling the world is ending and maybe we deserve it, maybe we even want to see how it unfolds, but the ones at the top will find a way to survive.

Saturday by Ian McEwan is set across the Atlantic, in the other half of the ‘Special Relationship,’ amidst massive protests against the start of the Iraq War. Both the UK and the story’s protagonist, a well-off surgeon, are forced to question whether they are truly righteous. The main character’s careless traffic violation wreaks havoc in his life, but without major consequences that last beyond the single day in the book. He will be more careful in future, no doubt, and we are glad he’s all right, because he loves his family and tries to do good. But I wish there could have been a happy ending for the poor, chronically ill man he collided with, too.

In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid adds vital perspective by imagining the adventures of a Pakistani Muslim man in America during 9/11. The questioning and the power take on different angles here, because although the main character has talent and some privilege at least in his native country, the real power here is the US, and it seems to have sided against him. The nation may have suffered, but it’s not going to do it quietly. This man has been forced to question whether all he wanted—success in New York City—ever wanted him back.

Finally, of course I must mention Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It links young Oskar’s grief after his father’s death in the World Trade Center to his grandparents’ continuing trauma after the fire-bombing of Dresden. Then it widens the net as Oskar searches New York City for answers, and meets all sorts of people who seem to be searching in their own way. I find this to be a gloriously human book, and as it’s set in the more immediate aftermath of the events, it’s more about survival and redemption than power.

What themes stand out to you post 9/11? What other books offer important perspectives on the event?

 

 

Stories Worth Translating

This Week’s Bit of String: Language barrier in a cafe

My favourite cafe gets crowded during lunch hour. I managed to grab one of the little tables upstairs, but diagonal to me a woman and her late-teen son and daughter sat on one end of a longer wooden table while an older couple sat with their little granddaughter on the other end.

The grandparents only spoke French. They were visiting their bilingual granddaughter. The woman opposite could speak very little but English.

This did not stop her talking to her unknown tablemates. First she noted that she and the elderly Frenchwoman had the same colour iPhone case. ‘Rose gold. Rosé?’ Ah, the transcendent powers of technology.

Table at window with street view of Stroud.
Occasionally treating myself to a lunch hour of writing and yumminess at Woodruffs Organic Cafe.

Then she did her best to tell the couple about the local village where she and her children lived. ‘It’s very old, very pretty—yes, jolie? It’s jolie, I think? And hills, lots of hills. Mond, montes? Hills?’

It occurred to her that if only her sister were around, the difficulty would be solved. ‘My sister—ma soeur—she speaks—how do you say speaks in French? How do you say fluently?’

And on like this for some time. She felt the need to convey to them, battering against the language barrier, that her mother had first become a grandmother at a younger age than the woman herself now was.

I started to wonder whether the woman was just desperate not to talk to her own children, who sat politely, murmuring hopeful foreign phrases to bolster her floundering. Why was it necessary to tell the French couple these things? Surely France has hilly villages. Surely it has young grandmothers. We already see it has rose gold iPhone cases.

Women in Translation

August is Women in Translation Month, raising awareness of women who write in other languages, and women who bridge the gap between us. Just this year I’ve read three books written and translated by women: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent (translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon), The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette), and Human Acts by Han King (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith).

All three of these books were excellent, telling memorable tales in haunting voices. The stories they told were distinctive to their countries. They were slices of history or current events. I felt better educated by each, and not a little fortunate to live in a nation with small problems in comparison.

In other words, I was reading about our differences. Some of the issues described in each book: relationships, job insecurity, health problems—are human problems we all deal with, but they were sharply twisted by the different type of political chaos in each case.

So I wondered, what about our similarities? Are those worth talking about sometimes?

Translation Pre-Requisites

Translated works are subject to the whims of the market, as much as other books are. Jade Boyd, who earned her Masters in translation at the University of Bristol, reminded me when I asked about the process that usually a book would first be successful in its native language before its publishers invest in translation.

This means that a translated book must first meet the standards all our books are (theoretically) held to. I summed them up a few weeks ago, but to echo that again: a striking setting, unique voice, and original hook are important.

Glass monument with names of murdered Jews in a park in Paris.
Holocaust memorial in Paris at the Place René Viviani. My own attempt at translation: “Read their name; your memory is their monument.”

With the translated books I’ve read recently, the author’s nationality and culture were pivotal in achieving those three essentials. So it’s not surprising, really, that different stories are the ones being told.

And as I said before, that’s a good thing. We want to hear new stories, to learn other histories, and we certainly want them told in their Own Voices. But while we seek out differences, we must not be blind to similarities, or to perceptions. Jade enlightened me about the concept of habitus: ideas and dispositions conditioned by our surroundings and upbringing, which influence how we interpret things.

Translators are trained to be aware of their own habitus as they work. I doubt the mass markets are, though. Was a South Korean tale of rebellion and the breakdown of societal structure big news because it contradicts our stereotypes of the region? Was The Queue a successful import because it portrays secular Middle Eastern protagonists more than Muslim ones?

We should watch for the influence of habitus as we venture into foreign literature. When we read about struggles in distant lands, let’s consider whether we prefer characters to be quite different from us, perhaps so we can tell ourselves it would never happen here. Is that healthy, or realistic? Is it interfering with our ability to empathise?

For more reading during Women in Translation month and beyond, there are great recommendations in this Women Writers Network chat, and on Rita Gould’s blog. You can follow the WITmonth hashtag on Twitter, and there’s also this fascinating insight into translation from Lucy North on Bookwitty.

Many of those offerings look intriguing and wonderful. My next stop, however, might be Asleep or The Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. Their blurbs don’t play up foreign settings, but rather present stories of relationships and inner turmoil that might end up being surprisingly recognisable. Something a little similar for a change.

Happy explorations, everyone!

Sign Language Poetry

This Week’s Bit of String: Children’s hands tied to their chairs

Imagine going to a special school, for children who share with you a unique difference from much of the world. But if you use this difference, you’ll be punished. This school tries to make you as un-different as possible, in accordance with the wishes of Those Who Know Best.

It would be a bit like taking Defence Against the Dark Arts without being allowed to do magic, wouldn’t it?

Shockingly, this was the experience for many hearing impaired children from 1880, when hearing people took over the deaf schools and prohibited sign language, through the 1960s and possibly even the 70s. One woman who went to deaf school in the 70s remembers that if she were caught signing there—despite coming from a deaf family with whom she signed all the time at home, not to mention her classmates were deaf—her hands would be tied behind her to her chair.

Curbing minority languages has a long history. African slaves brought to Haiti were banned from drumming, as they’d used drums to communicate over long distances. The drum again became an important art form to Haitians once they’d battled their freedom back. Gaelic and Welsh were previously marginalised by the British education system before making a comeback.

Likewise, sign language is once again a vital means of communication for the hearing impaired. It is becoming more of a fixture in public life, too, including at Ledbury Poetry Festival on the 8th of July, when I attended an event showcasing British Sign Language (BSL) Poetry.

Sign Art
Tudor street in Ledbury
Ledbury street

I’m ashamed to say it never occurred to me that sign language poetry existed (also known as sign art). I was thankful for the opportunity to be enlightened.

Ledbury’s event featured the signed poetry of Paul Scott. How can you have poetry without words? Well, poetry is more than just words, I would argue. It is emotion, rhyme and rhythm. You can have all those things without words.

Mr. Scott makes his poems rhyme by using repeated hand gestures, coming back to the same signed refrain, in a way. There is certainly rhythm in his movement. These elements were further illustrated at this performance with Victoria Punch’s ‘vocal gestures.’ She did not use words to echo Mr. Scott’s poetry, but sang notes and sounds to correspond with his phrases. This way, she did not detract attention from his language but lent emphasis to its patterns.

The performance was further complemented by film-poetry by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron. Most of the images used were abstract, and timed to correspond with Mr. Scott’s phrasing, as Ms. Punch’s vocals were. In all, this became a rich sensory experience while also allowing us a glimpse into the world of those whom some might see as sensorily deprived. Very fitting, as the message of Mr. Scott’s poems is that he feels the world deeply and wants us to know he is not deprived.

Matters of Translation

Because BSL uses a different syntax to English, hostess Kyra Pollitt did not offer a straightforward interpretation, but gave a summary of the poems between performances. This method made me realise the power of sign language. A single hand motion and/ or facial expression can indicate a great deal, without equivalent sentences being necessary. These generously provide the emotion necessary to poetry.

Tudor-sided corner building with gothic-style tower.
Ledbury’s former library building

Signed poetry can easily utilise the second person point of view. Mr. Scott’s poem ‘Who Stole My Heart’ implicated us as an audience, not in an excessively accusing way, but by making us aware of issues that concern him. Some of the audience felt this new language was more open to interpretation, but it seemed very direct to me (particularly when teamed with the preceding summary, the vocals and the film).

Other unique sign language qualities which enhance poetry: it allows for simultaneous symbols, which can add layers of meaning. It’s also a constantly, rapidly evolving means of communication, enabling the creation of new words to suit the work. There’s a cinematic aspect to it: sign language poets can zoom in or out, pan or freeze. As Ms. Pollitt described the art form, it creates ‘a collage of experience, making a medley.’

This uplifting event forced me to realise how intimate, and perhaps healthy it is to have an occasional holiday from words. I don’t know about you, but for me as a writer I’m often describing or narrating things in my mind. Of course it’s good to keep exercising those author muscles, but sometimes the phrases we’re turning turn our attention from the people in front of us.

This, on the other hand, was poetry with its heart on its sleeve, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s scary that this form of communication was repressed for so long and generations missed out on learning from it–but as so often happens, trying to stifle a group of people results in feeding their resourcefulness and creativity. For other examples of sign language poetry, here is DeafFirefly’s website, linking to her YouTube channel and to the pages of other sign language poets.

Are the Best Characters Bad?

This Week’s Bit of String: Kindergarten boyfriends

I fell in love with a kindergarten classmate, pretty much because he helped me out of my smock in Art class. He played rough at recess and made fun of the other kids sometimes. Still, for the next couple of years I proudly let him haul me to a back corner of the library or under the slide for a kiss.

Once I tried to explain something to him in class, and he rolled his eyes and cut me off: ‘Shut up, dear.’ I thrilled inside, that he’d called me dear.

See, I didn’t like him because he could be uncouth and unpleasant. I liked him despite those things.

I believe it’s that way with characters too. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being published. As the series developed, Snape —‘Professor Snape, Harry’—and even Draco emerged as fan favourites among many beloved characters. However, I doubt many readers liked them in the first or second books.

My theory is, we enjoy reading about unpleasant characters because they’re different from ourselves, and they thicken the plot. But most of us only love those characters when they’ve got something else going for them. What do you think?

After all, ‘badness’ comes in different shades. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce…

The Scale of Badness
  1. The rehabilitated
    These characters are recovering from terrible pasts, but often end up being quite good, out of guilt. Think of Magwitch from Great Expectations; Sonia from Crime and Punishment; Cassie and maybe St. Clare too, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Adam and (later) Cal in East of Eden.
Rose
‘Roses have thorns, they say…’

2. The cheeky buggers and grumpy gits
They’re not particularly pleasant, but they’re funny about it. They may be a little tortured inside, trying to hold the world at bay, or they may just be too cool for school. I’d put Yossarian here, and Rhett Butler.

3. The rebels
They have a bad reputation, but they aren’t really hurting anyone. A lot of the girls from Girl, Interrupted would be here. Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Elphaba, Kevalier and Klay.

4. The bullies
They’re mean, but usually ignorant of, or indifferent to, their effect on people. When forced to confront the consequences, they may make excuses and shy away from remorse—but they’ll probably also stop. I’ve got one of these bullies in my book, and I believe through most of JK Rowling’s books, this is the category for Snape.

5. The desperate
These characters are in the opposite trajectory to Category 1 characters. Instead of powerful guilt moving them to be good, aching need moves them to be bad, possibly very bad. Raskolnikov starts out here, before moving throughout Crime and Punishment towards being a 1. Most villains probably fit here, too: Francis Davey in Jamaica Inn, Bob Ewell in to Kill a Mockingbird, Lady Macbeth.

6. The sadists
It’s rare to find characters who actively enjoy inflicting pain. They’re more commonly found in genre fiction. We’re talking Voldemort, or various serial killers from psychological thrillers.

Tipping the Scales

These categories aren’t distinct; their borders are fuzzy and crossable. And we writers have tools to tinker almost any type of ‘bad’ character and endear them to readers.

First, we give them backstory. Let’s face it, who isn’t a sucker for a character who’s had a tough life?

Second, we can give them a sense of humour. A little banter can help someone get away with a lot. (Joss Whedon is the boss of writing dastardly yet hilarious villains.)

Sunset-lit chapel
Even churches love sinners. They’d be pointless without them.

Third, give the character a degree of self-awareness. If they’re doing something hurtful, let them be conflicted about it or feel badly afterwards.

Finally, let them love. Love is the ultimate redeemer; all is forgiven once we know a person is capable of it. Sure, Snape was brave, but it’s his ‘Always’ that weakens readers’ knees.

‘Give Me Your Misfits, Your Rejects…’

These tricks manipulate readers to accept characters’ unsavoury actions, even if they don’t ameliorate the consequences. We need all the tricks we can get because chances are, we’ll keep writing about people who fall somewhere on The Scale.

There’s nothing wrong with good characters. They can be nuanced too. But we deal in accessibility and believability, and those require imperfection.

My novel Artefacts tackles religious differences. During a brief conversation, the Christian character (by no means perfect), argues for his beliefs:

              ‘Jesus actually was human, and divine, so that’s as accessible as it gets, right?’
              But He never sinned, Helen thought. Being human would be a cinch without guilt.

The guilty—whether that guilt is perceived, exaggerated, heavy or nagging—they are the ones whose stories beg to be told.

As I think this through I picture something like the Statue of Liberty. A writer stands at the foot of a giant, formidable yet beckoning Muse that guards vast frontiers of story. There at the entry point, we hold signs like Emma Lazarus’s poem: ‘Give me your misfits, your rejects, your hunched and shamed yearning for redemption.’

Do you see it too?

How to Write a Classic

This Week’s Bit of String: Risky book rescue

Induction week at my new job. We’re told to introduce ourselves with quirky facts.

A woman who immigrated from Russia once ran into a burning building to rescue a book. It was a rare, century-old encyclopaedia of horses.

Of course, my quirky fact is that I’ve written a novel (or two or three…). I practise my elevator pitch on them. The youngest newbie among us, who’s apparently won baton-twirling competitions, says, ‘I’d definitely read that.’ I assure them it’s worth saving from an inferno.

There’s a man in the group who’s never seen a single Star Wars film. I wonder if he feels left out because of the constant references to it. I’ve been wondering the same about people who have never read the classics. Is foundational knowledge of literary classics worthwhile? Does it help one better appreciate other arts and literature? What does it mean to be a classic, anyway, and might we write one ourselves?

Defining Classics

With help from Merriam-Websters, we can construe classics broadly if we choose. A classic sets a high standard in a particular form—any form. Therefore, Star Wars might not be a classic like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it can be a classic Sci-Fi film, and books from any genre can be classics, too.

Brighton hotel on the site of Dickens' favourite inn.
I’m the sort of classics nerd who photographed this monstrous Brighton hotel just because its Blue Plaque told me Charles Dickens enjoyed staying on this site.

The strictest definition applies to literature of ancient Greece. These works influenced Shakespeare, who arguably enabled the evolution of most fiction. They are more pervasive than some might realise, frequently revived in cinema and even young adult books, plus forming the basis of our vocabulary with phrases such as siren, Oedipal complex, and Achilles heel.

In the Twittersphere, Leslie Scott gave me this wonderful definition: ‘If I instantly think “I want my kid to read this” … it’s a classic. There has to be a life lesson I need to share with my child.’ This allows classics a personal nature: we choose our own individual canon.

It also brings up another necessary quality: Classic literature conveys, often with impressive (if intimidating) scope, its originating time period. The Iliad tells us about political and religious alliances of ancient Greece. Bleak House portrays socioeconomic Victorian issues, even lampooning religious charities, and depicting the plight of women to an extent.

When contemplating which books we want out children to read, we also consider what we want them to learn from the times in which we’ve lived.

Updating Classics

So what books do we read today that might become classics of the future? Claire King, while admitting classic literature can be interesting from an ‘art history perspective,’ feels contemporary literature is more resonant. I agree there is a more accessible, sincere vein in today’s literature (including Claire’s gorgeous book The Night Rainbow). But do they resonate only with our contemporaries, or humanity throughout the ages?

With an increasing push for literature to be inclusive of social class, sexual preference, and ethnicity, today’s great works could have more staying power. The lack of diversity in some classics makes them seem ‘dull and patriarchal,’ Rita Gould tweets. Classics should be broad enough to at least acknowledge all aspects of a society.

Classic Features:

Characters: The protagonist should be particularly memorable, strong, and the perfect messenger. Elizabeth Bennett, Harry Potter, even flawed Miss Havisham or Macbeth are unforgettable because their roots are clearly mapped, forcing us to wonder if we, too, could be swayed.

'Nevermore' Jack o'Lantern inspired by Poe's The Raven
I’ve also been known to nerdily base jack o’lanterns on classics.

Setting: A classic boldly recreates its location. It will devote pages, almost give the setting its own voice. The Congolese jungles of The Poisonwood Bible; Arundhati Roy’s portrayal of Kerala in The God of Small Things, shown through children’s eyes without glossing over political unrest.

Message: It’s tricky to balance with character, and is perhaps what puts people off the original classics. A classic must convey an idea. In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s characterisation suffers for being idea-driven, but the message about love’s (or infatuation’s) power lives on. More contemporary writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, etc, better strike the balance.

Scope: We may groan at their size, but classics use their heft to diligently represent their culture. It enables Tolstoy to follow up on characters of various social status in Anna Karenina (although I’m still miffed he barely bothered mentioning the eponymous heroine in the last section). It enables Michael Chabon to interweave characters of diverse races and proclivities in Telegraph Avenue.

Detail: While covering broad topics and sweeping settings, a classic also offers telescopic detail rendering its populace and landscape vivid—including cultural landscape. Contemporary writers aren’t shy about teasing references to society’s peculiarities, and nor were traditional ones.

A bit of string: Most classics take their great shape from the slightest twist. Modern examples—the discovery of an unsent letter in Byatt’s Possession, the demise of a cheeky parrot in Love in the Time of Cholera—are slimmed proportions of ancient Greek ones: Paris falling for Helen, Jocasta heeding a prophecy about her infant son.

There are more options for defining classics, as listed in this excellent New York Review of Books article. Put together, by writers of any time period, they make books we hope our children will cherish, books worth saving from the ravages of time—and fire. What are the classics of your life?

 

Graffiti: Art in the Wild

This Week’s Bit of String: A beloved chicken farmer

In a small New Hampshire town during the 80s, graffiti appeared on a slab of roadside rock: ‘CHICKEN FARMER, I LOVE YOU.’ Legend has it, the message was directed at a girl living on the small chicken farm across the street, from a shy boy perhaps in her class.

About twenty years later, a revised message, similarly handpainted, appeared: ‘CHICKEN FARMER, I STILL LOVE YOU.’chicken-farmer

Awww, you know? Awww. The story appears here in Atlas Obscura, and the entry describes the message as ‘a less personal but more public way of reaching out…’

The paradox of personal and public is an intriguing aspect of graffiti and street art. And that paradox affects us as writers too, essentially in reverse. Street artists preserve their anonymity but bring their work right in front of everyone; as authors we (assuming we don’t use a pen name) give up our anonymity but depend on readers’ choice as to whether our work gets seen or not.

So what can writers learn from street art and graffiti?

Resourcefulness

Some of my favourite examples of street art select a feature of the urban landscape and create a whole work around it. A couple pieces from Bristol:

Smiley Windows, Bristol
Simple, but fun…

 

Girl with the Pearl Earring painted around an alarm box on a building in Bristol
This street artist saw an alarm box on a wall and apparently thought it would make a great pearl earring in a big, monochromatic version of the famous Vermeer.

It’s sort of an artist’s form of gathering bits of string, you might say, and I’m a big fan.

What a Difference a Letter Makes

In high school in the late 90s, I was tickled by a revised carving on a classroom desk. Someone had cut ‘MANSON FOREVER’ onto the surface, but someone else had mocked it by transforming it with a simple scratch into ‘HANSON FOREVER.’ Doesn’t sound quite so badass does it?

As a TA, I found some similarly misguided graffiti scratched on a table in a Science classroom: ‘Praise Satin.’

Typical of the devil’s insidiousness that his name would be easily conflated with a luxurious fabric.

Now, these entries aren’t art, according to any definitions discussed in earlier blog posts. But I do find them entertaining, and as writers we appreciate the importance of words—these silly ones remind us how essential each letter actually is.

Community Engagement
Street art on Bristol high rise
More street art from Bristol. If these figures could talk…

In Detroit, as in more and more cities around the world, there’s an annual Street Art Festival during which many different artists are given their own wall, each, to work on. Some use it to commemorate important figures of the area, to express the pain of the Black Lives Matter movement, or to remind citizens of vanished neighbourhoods. In this Huffington Post piece, Festival director Roula David describes their aims: to be ‘significant for the community as opposed to just putting pretty things on pretty buildings.’

In Belfast, murals honour many of the victims killed there during the Troubles. I learned about this thanks to a great post on Sandy Bennett-Haber’s blog. She refers to street art as a conversation between artist and environment, and also ‘a broad conglomeration of stories about and on the streets.’ Of course, I like this reminder that there are stories behind each work and its artist.

Even the kid carving ‘Praise Satin’ into a table has a story, possibly a rather interesting or disturbing one.

Breaking the Rules

Street art and graffiti give people who might otherwise feel ignored—young people, sometimes minorities, possibly lower socioeconomic status—a voice in their community. Using that voice is often an act of rebellion, of courage, and as writers we can emulate that.

Even while there are more and more street art festivals, many artists feel the best, most striking work is done unsupervised and perhaps illegally. Perhaps that’s because the most important things are worth fighting for. Especially these days, when the spectre of censorship looms, we writers should take heart at that.

For more stories about the role graffiti and street art play around the world, check out this feature on The Nature of Cities. Are there any special works of unconventional art near you? What’s the story behind them?

Welcome to Dystopia?

This Week’s Bit of String: The students are revolting

I used to support a class of Year 8s who rebelled Hunger Games-style during lessons. A teacher might be talking them through French prepositions or long division, when one after the other, the students would slowly, dramatically raise their hands and whistle the three notes of the mockingjay’s song, until the group was giggling and thoroughly disrupted.

As revolutionary causes go, I wasn’t impressed with theirs. The education they objected to was nowhere near as oppressive as the government from Susan Collins’ fictional Capital, nor as ruthless as many real-life governments around the world and throughout history.

You’ve probably noticed the ever surging interest in dystopian literature,  evidenced this week by increased sales of George Orwell’s classic, 1984. I find books like this fascinating, but I also wonder whether this attraction to dystopian fiction is constructive at a time like this. Are we just sensationalising our peril?

The Appeal of Dystopian Fiction

Leaving aside the amazing narrative talents of George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Lois Lowry, Patrick Ness, Cormac McCarthy, and other authors of great dystopian tales, what do we get from these stories?

Abandoned cabin in New Hampshire
Then there’s the mysterious beauty of contemplating ruined things…

The Huffington Post published an  essay on the sub-genre’s merits. These stories warn us about the insidious ways governments and/ or technology could usurp our rights. Certainly that must have been Orwell’s intent. With Winston’s experiences at the hands of the unfeeling, super-controlling Big Brother and the Thought Police, Orwell warned not only against fascists like Hitler’s and Franco (Orwell fought in the Spanish insurgency), but also against hyper-ideological dictators like Stalin. After all, according to this BBC New Magazine article, Orwell saw his comrades in Spain killed by rival pro-Communist groups as well as by Franco’s soldiers.

Dystopian fiction arms us. It shows us scenarios in which protagonists’ survival skills are tested to the maximum, forcing us to ask, albeit with stakes much lower than those the characters face, whether we ourselves would be up to the same job.

Current Relevance

To me, it seems a bit late to be brushing up on totalitarian governments with the help of 1984. Shouldn’t people have done that before voting? And—SPOILER ALERT—it doesn’t carry a message of hope, so it’s possibly not an ideal choice to galvanise a resistance movement.

I also worry that dystopian fiction skews our perspective. Our world hasn’t gone completely mad…yet. Places like Syria and the refugee camps, and the many areas worldwide that have been corrupt and impoverished for centuries—those are dystopias.

Those aren’t reasons to stop reading the genre, though (especially since there are so many gripping stories on offer; I love the sound of John Joseph Adams’ dystopian anthology Brave New Worlds, as described at the end of this Kirkus Reviews essay). It just means we need to read it for the right reasons. We should read with vigilance and appreciation, and with enough spirit to go implement the messages given.

Statue of 1555 Gloucester Martyr John Hooper
Gloucester statue commemorating Protestant John Hooper,  killed in 1555 under Catholic Queen Mary. Let’s not go back to religion-ruled dystopias, please.

With 1984 in particular, I think a striking lesson is this: the regime in that book wants to be loved. It wants to control every thought. And as anyone who’s ever been a teenager will attest, the need to be loved can drive one to dangerous lengths. The current leader of the free world, with his obsession over crowd (and hand) size and his compulsive tweets, shows some of those traits. How do we combat that uncontrollable insatiability?

Writing Dystopia

Even while realising that hell hasn’t fully broken loose yet, some of us find ourselves writing in the dystopian sub-genre more. I’ve written three dystopian short stories in my life, including The Apocalypse Alphabet, and they were all products of the last six months.

I checked with other writers on Twitter to see how they feel about dystopian literature. Rita Gould shares my concern that immersion in it may ‘feed the fear.’ Megan Manzano extols its ability to kindle emotion. ‘They make us sad, hopeful. They anger us. These books show us what we can do. If 17yr olds can create change, why can’t we?’  M.K. Anders notes,  ‘Seeing it portrayed is validating, even if the good guy loses.’

All very good points. When the world seems dark, we can’t deny our artistic urge to create something, hyperbolic or not, out of it. This may involve feeling more scared for a time, while we confront worst-case-scenarios burning in our imaginations. But then we locate what makes the characters keep going, like Hannah’s love for her son Jack in The Apocalypse Alphabet, and that helps in real life.

“‘Close your eyes and imagine fireworks,’ Hannah whispers, and Jack obeys, his fingers woven together in front of his shins, his eyelids almost translucent, spidered with delicate veins.”

I emerge from writing and reading these with fresh determination. We’re not alone. People have survived worse. We have a lot worth fighting for. Right, people?

Size Matters: Short Stories vs. Novels

This Week’s Bit of String:   A cat in a bin

A few years ago, a man couldn’t find his cat. Luckily, he’d rigged CCTV outside his house, and he found that a woman passing by had stroked the cat, then picked it up and put it in his wheelie bin.

The outraged owner shared the video in a quest to identify this dastardly villainess. Once named, the woman received death threats from every corner of this United Kingdom.

Remember that?

Turned out the woman had been walking home from visiting her dying father. She always said, ‘I just didn’t know what I was thinking.’

It doesn’t bear thinking about what could have happened if the cat’s owner wasn’t hooked on surveillance. But we all do bad things. We just don’t get CCTVed doing them. Would we want our entire lives judged by a misdeed that took a few seconds?

Following the Thread
Warren Falls, VT
Warren Falls, Vermont: The big picture

Operating on that principal question, I began a short story back in 2011 about an upstanding man who, under stress, does something misconstrued as animal cruelty. But I never finished it.

It wasn’t suited to be a short story because there were too many questions. How did the disgraced culprit cope with the aftermath, and how did it affect his family? What about the person who publicised the transgression; did they regret provoking such bad will?

Last year I snowflaked it into a novel using this story planning technique, and wrote a draft in six months. So this particular Bit of String, when I pulled at it, revealed not a 2000-word competition entry, but an intricately plaited novel that I will edit and query this summer: The Wrong Ten Seconds.

Differences of Dimension: Length and Depth

I conducted a little Twitter poll this week to see what some of my fellow writers prefer: writing flash fiction, short stories or novels. The answer was resoundingly in favour of novels, with writers commenting that they enjoy fostering the ‘depth of character’ a novel requires (thanks to Libbie Toler), and the ‘total immersion in both the world and the plot.’ (Thanks to Donna Migliaccio.) I prefer novels myself, because I can let my characters go a little more. And they’re just easier.

A Writer’s Digest article on the difference between the two fictional forms proposes a test of theme: ‘If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.’ I suppose that when I started my short story version of The Wrong Ten Seconds, I was trying to make a statement. But that then inspired me to accompany the characters on their journey, so it became a novel.

Differences of Possibility
Warren Falls, Vermont
Warren Falls, Vermont: Close-Up

In current literary culture, it’s not fashionable to use writing to make statements. We’re supposed to show, not tell, aren’t we? That’s what makes short stories so difficult. Convey an idea, but don’t preach. Create sympathetic characters in very few pages. The advantage of writing a short story, perhaps, is some freedom in the ending. As Chris Power wrote for The Guardian, ‘Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity.’

To me, that is the defining reason that makes an idea a short story rather than a novel. How much do I want to know about the end? It comes back to the What Ifs. When there’s a single central question, and I can’t bear to probe too far, I write a short story. Cowardly, isn’t it? While I find short stories artistically more challenging, emotionally I can stop them from taxing me as much as novels do. I didn’t need to decide, for example, what ultimately happened to Hannah and her son Jack in ‘The Apocalypse Alphabet.’ The statement was already made.

Differences of Literary Elements?

Short stories are more difficult for some of us because they still require all the ingredients of a novel. Plot, character, message, setting; they must be there, but condensed. It’s like these two photos: each picture has the same things in them—water, rocks, a person/ people—but one is close-up. That’s the short story, see. And because it’s zoomed in, those elements have to be damn near flawless.

Thanks to condensing those literary elements, the short story packs a powerful jolt. I love the way Joanna Carter, who’s written successfully in both literary forms, described the difference between short stories and novels at one of Bristol’s Novel Nights last summer: ‘A short story is a skeleton bursting from the closet. It’s raw, a moment of truth. A novel has to put flesh on those bones.’

Both relevant, both exciting. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you find either one more challenging to write?

2016 Reading Round-Up

What were your favourite literary journeys of 2016? Please let me know what you think of mine; we bookworms must support each other as we gasp through tedious ‘real life’ like fish out of water.

It’s always tricky to narrow down my top ten, in order of how much I loved them. 10 indicates a terrific read and 1 means I nearly perished of bereavement when the book ended. I’ve cheated a little by adding two spaces for special categories:

Favourite Non-Fiction read: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

I read this intriguing book as research for writing The Wrong Ten Seconds. Ronson interviews quite a few people who played different roles in recent ‘Internet shaming’ scandals. Other hot issues are implicated as well, such as political correctness and safe spaces, while Ronson tries to remind us of our humanity in the process.
‘We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?’

Favourite Young Adult read: Ptolemy’s Gate, the conclusion of the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Cork on pebble beach in Brighton
Brighton: Rusted champagne corks on the beach

This trilogy is unique and challenging, splitting the POV between an arrogant, unlikeable (yet somewhat sympathetic) teenage boy who is also a magical prodigy, and the ancient but never old daemon that he conjures. Bonus: the daemon cheekily educates us on his experiences and the history of this parallel wizards’ universe through the use of footnotes.
‘A dozen more questions occurred to me. *Not to mention 22 possible solutions to each one, 16 resulting hypotheses and counter-theorems, 8 abstract speculations, a quadrilateral equation, 2 axioms, and a limerick. That’s raw intelligence for you.

Novels

10. Twenty-Six Degrees by Rebeccah Giltrow
I’ve been privileged this year to buy and read a handful of books by writers known to me, and this one is quite a feat. It’s not an easy read, because the 26 characters Giltrow unflinchingly examines are often unsavoury. She also challenged herself by making the book lipogrammatic: each of the 26 stories is told with the omission of a different letter. Giltrow explains this in the Afterword, making us consider how influential a single letter is:
‘Maxwell has to speak in the present tense because he doesn’t have use of the letter D, and talking about herself is impossible for Beth without the letter I. Zoe can’t question anyone, Larry can’t thank anyone, Charlie can’t love anyone.’

9. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
We all know unhappy families are different, thanks to Tolstoy, but this one is especially different. The parents are flawed but fascinating in their intelligence, their artistic creativity, and their principles. Plus the wild landscapes they all traverse… In fact, were they truly unhappy?
‘I told Mom I would protect the Joshua tree from the wind, and water it every day so it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special. It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.’

Gnome reading on Langland Bay coastal path
A gnome reads contentedly by the seaside in Langland Bay, Swansea

8. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Another one that’s not for the faint of heart (or stomach), this novel transports us into a 17th century plague town. A friend gave it to me to help with my self-sufficiency research for Society of the Spurned. The struggle of these townspeople is narrated by a young woman who somehow maintains her strength and clarity of purpose, and made it impossible for me to give up on the dark tale.
‘“At first, I borrowed his brightness and used it to see my way, and then gradually, from the habit of looking at the world as he illuminated it, the light in my own mind rekindled itself.”’

7. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I’ve meant to read this for years, and it didn’t disappoint. I love the vast ranges of characters he invents, and the good humour with which he portrays most of them. Bleak House’s themes of charity and gratitude don’t lose their resonance.
‘There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.’

6. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
I read this because I loved her novel May We Be Forgiven. Similarly, in this book Homes takes a somewhat aimless protagonist, throws disaster his way, assembles a diverse conglomeration of new friends for him, and sends him bumbling along to rediscover himself. I love meeting the different characters through her down-to-earth observational style. She lets them reveal the neuroses of modern America:
‘“Do you ever feel like you need to see someone, just to make sure they still exist?”
‘“That’s what people talk about when they’re having a nervous breakdown. Does having the nervous breakdown make you wonder about that, or does wondering about it give you the nervous breakdown?”’

5. Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
Another favourite writer of mine, who really knows how to pull a story together. Atkinson goes more deeply into more characters’ thoughts than Homes does, and so many of their bemused, confused reactions to current times echo my own, from disappointment in English people, to deriding The Da Vinci Code, to the idea that today’s problems aren’t really that new. I’ve thought about starting a KateAtkinsonSaidItNotMe hashtag, but that’s perhaps a bit long.
‘It felt like the same world as ever to Tracy. The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer… The Victorians would have recognised it. People just watched a lot more TV now.’

4. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The twists in this story gave me the biggest shocks I’ve had in a while. Waters writes her own version of a Dickensian epic-type story about orphans and thieves, both poor and relatively wealthy, and modernises it with strong female protagonists struggling for autonomy. She also manages to narrate the same events twice, through the perspectives of two characters, without seeming repetitive or implausible.
‘But I thought desire smaller, neater; I supposed it bound to its own organs as taste is bound to the mouth, vision to the eye. This feeling haunts and inhabits me, like a sickness. It covers me, like skin.’

 

Dislodged roots
Books should be like trees, with a wild, beautiful system of roots

3. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
What’s not to love in a book about a hard-working writer who sometimes gets to holiday in the Vermont mountains and lakes? I found the protagonist’s work ethic inspiring, and the outdoor adventures and routines took me back to my home country. There are many great quotes from this book, but I absolutely love this toast between the protagonist (probably a version of Stegner himself) and his friend:
‘Let us be unignorable.’

2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I fell for this fully on the second or third page, when Steinbeck described digging in his corner of California’s Salinas Valley and encountering evidence of oceans and glaciers as well as rock and soil. I’m not a geologist, but that image drew me in with its promise of deep layers. I felt for every one of the characters, especially the Hamilton clan, and was devastated by their tragic end. Sam Hamilton became my new hero.
‘But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’

1. Possession by A.S. Byatt
This book is the culmination of all my favourite themes from this year and beyond. Feminine autonomy, love’s limitations, art and artifice, the drive to write and create. If ever a book deserved the Booker prize, this one did—and actually won it, too. Who would have thought?
‘“I have always supposed poetry to be a cry of unsatisfied love—my dear—and so it may be indeed—for satisfaction may surfeit it and it may die.”’