This Week’s Bit of String: The meaning of far away
When our son was very young my husband and I had to live on different sides of the ocean. I missed him badly but couldn’t dwell on it, so when our little Bear asked about his dad, I would say, “Daddy’s far away.”
During a quick visit when Bear was two and a half, he climbed all over his dad and asked him, “Are you Far Away?”
It sounds obvious, but in my own loneliness and the frantic rush of being a single working mum, I hadn’t considered that my toddler would not understand intangible concepts such as distance. My explanation was totally inaccessible to him.
As writers, we are engaged in shrinking things. A written word is a miniature representation of its real-life counterpart; a book is a flattened, condensed episode from a collision of lives. The paradox we deal with is how to reduce things without losing a sense of their magnitude, and as readers, we know it’s possible to do just that.
With Great Power…
It’s daunting too, isn’t it? Our job is to serve up bite-sized fragments of potentially suffocating reality, to pinpoint the fleeting, and to bring distant concepts near. We greet an idea after its long flight and take it home and nestle it into bed, letting it in from the cold.
We may feel, when the world is so vast and problem-ridden, when many of us share similar lockdown woes, that our words don’t matter. Isn’t everyone thinking the same things already? Doesn’t it reduce an issue to confine it to the page?
But we are vain as humans. We like to see our reflection. We also like to shrink things a bit so we can come to grips with it. If we find the words to resize something small enough that lots of people can access it, we’ve ended up multiplying it. A bit like if we take a trillion dollar relief package and divide it between millions of people.
Creating the Magic
To effectively do this, we have to acknowledge, within ourselves, the enormity of what we want to convey. There have to be moments when our message, when our feeling for our characters and what they’ve been through, bring us to our knees. This may take the form of us crying over our laptops, or wandering in a shell-shocked haze through our day jobs and household routines. It may be sleepless nights or nightmares. Even our for-fun stories will consume us—another paradox of writing is that by trying to portray one aspect of reality, we distance ourselves from our current one.
Part of this carving out will include an examination from every angle: have we smoothed a surface that should remain rough and challenging? Are there facets we have left too splintery? This is the part of the process where we bring in new sets of eyes to look at our work, and we check that the representation of humanity we’re offering doesn’t inadvertently exclude or minimise any marginalised groups.
It’s a tricky process but each step is essential, and when it comes together, it’s so worth it.
Ready for the Close-Up
During one long period when my husband was Far Away, we did a webcam call. Our son’s face lit up when he saw his father’s appear on the screen of my chunky monitor. “THERE’S Daddy,” he cried, as if finally things made sense. Daddy may not be where he was expected to be, but he was at last visible.
That’s the sort of recognition we want our stories to bring. Not an exact replica of a particular human being, but a sudden proximity if not familiarity. We want to stop people in their tracks, momentarily, with a Eureka moment where everything fits together and the distant becomes immediate.
In this time of prolonged isolation and separation, have you used your writing to draw closer to the far away?
I read thirty books this last year. You’d think, given lockdown and whatnot, that I’d have managed to read more than before, but I’m probably not alone in experiencing a continued dearth of leisure time. I suspect the hours previously spent commuting got absorbed by actually working more hours while at home, plus just, you know, trying to make life go on through the upheaval. Here are my very top ten out of a lot of good, transporting reads.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
In this partly historical, partly speculative story about pursuing freedom, Mr. Whitehead laid nearly all the eras of American racist atrocities out concurrently. It’s a rough look in the mirror but essential. He also tried to illuminate the inner life of a person born and raised in enslavement, and how it might limit one’s focus. I found the protagonist Cora compelling for her determination and understandable cynicism, and it was deeply irritating to see some Goodreads reviews complaining that she wasn’t sunny enough.
“A small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom in painful relief.”
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
A fun and thrilling novel about exploring natural history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and women’s roles in such discoveries. Set in an old mansion by often violent seas, it turns into a murder mystery with small-town treachery, solved by a really clever 14-year-old girl protagonist. This was my Christmas holiday feast following my own fossil-digging expedition the week before.
“It must be very relaxing being Mr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people’s feelings beneath his well-intentioned boots.”
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
I read the whole Neapolitan series at the start of this year, starting while we were actually in Sorrento, about an hour’s train ride south of Naples. They’re all intriguing, with intimate portrayals yet surprising turns. Elena’s educational journey, though, and the defiance of Lila’s first marriage including the perspective of her confused and brutal husband, made this possibly my favourite in the series.
“She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to have him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.”
Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis
An award-winning, self-published novel about families coping with the aftermath of a disaster and the inquiry into its causes. Jane Davis created such beautifully nuanced characters in this, it’s hard to believe it was fiction, and I loved the added angle of using art to cope with grief. She also showed impeccable timing in revealing the different pieces and perspectives of the original event. You can read more about the writer’s process and her other (also acclaimed) work in this interview with author Sarah Tinsley.
“‘Artists have to make choices. We can make a small noise about a lot of things or a lot of noise about one thing.’”
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Another superbly crafted book with an enormous cast. It delved into so many different lives, spanning race and sexuality, making each person believable and sympathetic. I loved the ending, when every character was quite perfectly brought together. For me, the narrative style of line-by line rather than in standard paragraph form really worked, as if reading thought fragments, pulse by pulse. I found myself conducting my own observations in the same rhythm for a couple of weeks, it was so transfixing.
“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
I hadn’t read any Anne Tyler yet, and I loved this first taste, the idea of the Homesick Restaurant, where diverse chefs cook a favourite home meal different each night, plus of course the distinct characterisations of the whole family in the story. It reminds me of John Irving’s work, which I usually love—but a little more concise and sort of snarky, too. I mean, check out this sample which says so much about the family:
“His mother told Jenny not to slouch, told Cody not to swear, asked Ezra why he wouldn’t stand up to the neighbourhood bully. ‘I’m trying to get through life as a liquid,’ Ezra had said, and Cody (trying to get through life as a rock) had laughed.”
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A family story and a plague story, this was stunningly immersive. It spins the normal, patriarch-oriented history on its head by never referring to England’s most famous writer by name. He is merely The Tutor, or Agnes’s husband, or Susanna’s or Hamnet’s father. This twist comes off as perfectly natural amidst the insightful re-imaginings of Agnes Shakespeare (Anne Hathaway), and her three children. The smart, strong, grieving mother will stay in my thoughts at least as long as any of her husband’s characters.
“Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susanna’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the winglike sweep of her tiny eyebrows, the dark hair, which clings to her crown as if painted there by a brush? There is nothing more exquisite than her child.”
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In a year with minimal travel, more than ever I love a book that can transport me. This one balances two storylines, doubling the mileage. There’s the story of 16-year-old Nao in Tokyo, her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother Old Jiko, and Jiko’s son who was killed fighting (or appearing to fight) in WWII. There’s also Ruth’s story, as she finds Nao’s diary washed up on a remote Canadian Pacific island. This was a great epic about life and death and purpose, while being warm and cheekily authentic.
“Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit?”
Circe by Madeline Miller
Having written my own book from the perspective of Eve, I was eager to read another female-perspective story about an oft-maligned mythological character. Circe the witch, as portrayed here, tells her story in a way I really connected to; she’s empathetic to all others and unassuming about her own power. I preferred hearing about her with the gods and heroes as mere cameos rather than reading their often similarly told stories, and I appreciated the world-building more from this less entitled narrator.
“The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of the Trygon’s gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. “‘Then, child, make another.’”
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Another epic—a bit more serious, a bit more dense, yet truly rewarding and beautiful. We have Marie in Vancouver, seeking her beloved sort-of-cousin Ai-Ming in China. Much of the book is recounting Ai-Ming’s stories about her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, in WWII China, then her father Sparrow adjusting to the fluctuating restrictions and demands of Communism, up to Ai-Ming’s own survival of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. We’re treated to examples of how love and creativity manifest themselves through oppression and separation. There’s so much in this book, maybe it best speaks for itself with this quote:
“‘Don’t ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being. If so many people love you, can you honestly be just one thing?’”
Looking at this list, 9 of my top 10 reads last year were written by women. Not surprising as I only read 7 books by men in 2020. This wasn’t planned or anything, these were just the books I really wanted to read, and through a pandemic, and painful separations, they made me feel I was in the best possible hands.
What were your favourite reads in 2020? Did you have different or similar reactions to the books I’ve read? Do you think current events coloured your choices and your interpretations?
This Week’s Piece of String: Adolescents in a Hospital Ward, 1993
What’s the most diverse group of people you’ve ever been part of? Not just racially or politically, but in terms of experience and beliefs. For me it was hospitalisation when I was 12, in a unit later shut down after a surprise inspection. It wasn’t a nice place, but I quickly learned to like the people I was with.
We were aged 12 to 17, representing all colours, with heritage from Puerto Rico, Greece, and Jamaica. There were teens left there by the state for over a year. Runaways brought in from the street, kids stopping off on their way to longer detention, and private school students whose rich parents didn’t know how to handle them.
One boy, a few months younger than I was, had stolen a gun from Walmart. One girl’s entire family were in detox. There was a virulently anti-racist boy who suffered from muscular dystrophy, a junior KKK member, and a powerful African-American girl who didn’t hesitate to enlighten him. My roommate loved vinegar, Aerosmith, and her little foster brother who had spina bifida.
We kept count of the times we heard The Bodyguard soundtrack on the radio (“Run to You:” 9 times in 2 weeks), and lived for the pizza bagels we were given on Friday nights. We were united against tyrannical psychiatrists and shared affection for the handful of kindlier workers. We jostled for shaving slots, during the one daily hour when we could access “sharps.” Through major personal crises, we cared for each other, and accepted our quirks.
In the midst of a new global crisis, as the government allows us to form “bubbles” of safety, I fear this will result in further entrenching us in homogenous opinions. Every book or TV series I love (and that seem to particularly resonate with readers and audiences) has a motley, diverse cast who beat the odds to save the day. And that’s how my next writing project will be, even if real life isn’t turning out that way.
From The Baby-Sitters Club to last year’s joint Booker Prize winner Girl, Woman, Other, from Star Trek to The Good Place, our hallmarks of fiction showcase diversity. There’s always room to include more ethnicities and sexualities, but it’s also important to celebrate different personalities.
I love how Brooklyn 99 features not just multiple people of colour, but also two characters who are particularly emotionally guarded. Guardians of the Galaxy could be a descendant of Catch-22, in which a group of people with various bizarre passions and tendencies are thrown together to fight a common enemy. Isn’t every iconic friendship a pairing of opposites, an appreciation of certain foibles the rest of the world has rejected?
Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Huckleberry Finn and his travel buddy Jim, the alliances Oskar builds in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Owen Meany and… you know, his best mate who tells his story.
You’ve probably got some favourite examples, too. As the pandemic shrinks our spheres of existence, makes every day similar to the next, and seems to embitter divisions, contemplating variance is refreshing. Have you found that?
Even now that activities are opening up, I still feel trapped in a waiting game. Wondering when I can see all my family in America. Waiting for results from competitions I’ve entered stories in, and still over a month from A-Levels Results Day, when our son finds out his grades and can then know which university he’s able to go to. In the COVID era, this also means that until his results come, we won’t know whether he’ll be able to visit home during university termtime or whether he’ll have to stay there in an allotted “bubble” of people on his course. So after emigrating from my whole family, I might now have to say goodbye to my child, my best buddy, for months on end… Yes, it’s high time to retreat into fiction and plan the next writing project.
Starting a new novel is like designing your own plague-bubble. You’re not considering who to allow in the club, but who’s needed for the mission. I’m preparing to bring characters on board, I’m designing a set for them, and I’m coming up with plot points that ideally I’d like them to hit, but whatever, I trust their judgement.
It’s going to be somewhat apocalyptic; it’s more cathartic to imagine a better way through them than to imagine they don’t exist. Here’s my wishlist, because as writers we get to Write the Book We Want to See in the World:
A gothic-style setting, probably an abandoned manor house
A hint of the supernatural, because my last novel was about Eve and once you get to incorporate dragons and talking animals, there’s no going back.
Six main characters thrown together surprisingly, from very different walks of life
The enigmatic older caretakers of the estate
A spoiled but charming heir
His girlfriend, an immigrant who’s sacrificed parts of herself to assimilate
A recovering alcoholic who’d been homeless for months
A runaway nurse who just can’t take the front lines anymore
Certain personality traits to share around:
Someone obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, because that is one of my favourite Lockdown activities and why not use it?
Someone tuned in to religious iconography and symbols, you know, to heighten the drama
An element of uncertainty as to who’s REALLY in charge here. Which ones are the manipulators, which are the manipulated? Could they possibly, in some way, all be equally obligated to and fearful of each other? Does that mean they all need each other equally?
Art or music or poetry or exotic plants… the estate is bound to have some unique collections which could become significant. I’ll research obscure artefacts and see what I like.
What kind of reading and writing makes you feel better about the world? May your bubbles be safe but exciting, your books and your life studded with colourful characters.
Returning to Britain after a week abroad in 2012, I forgot to fill out a customs card. This invoked the wrath of immigration officers. ‘Remember, we can terminate your Indefinite Leave to Remain any time we want,’ snapped the lady who grudgingly allowed me back on the Small Island I’d inhabited for years.
Previously I’d thought of indefinite as permanent. Now it was more literal: the opposite of guaranteed. I was a teaching assistant then, working a demanding schedule with needy students, and volunteering extra time to run school fundraisers. I paid taxes, I recycled, stayed fit, kept a clean house and cared for my family, who are British citizens. This apparently meant nothing if I neglected a rote slip of paper.
As the Windrush scandal continues, we see that duration of stay doesn’t protect immigrants from deportation, and as Brexit is enacted, residents from neighbouring nations face losing their homes, dismissed as low-skilled for being low-earners. It’s important to fight these changes for the sake of immigrants themselves, but also for natives.
Why doesn’t the government invest more in education, so that British people and immigrants alike can qualify for so-called higher-skilled jobs? The Conservatives have set £25,000 per year as the salary threshold for immigrants, presumably believing that constitutes a minimally comfortable salary. Shall we eagerly anticipate, then, that they’ll lean on the many businesses offering zero hours contracts and much lower salaries, to incentivise them paying their British employees better?
There’s a new points system to determine who can stay, and if I were trying to join my husband in this country now, rather than 15 years ago, I’d score only 10 of the 70 required.
So I’m proposing my own points system. If I ran a country, here’s what could get you in:
10 points if you deliberately step around worms or snails on the puddly pavement. 5 points for each book or magazine, online or otherwise, you read or listen to in a month. 5 points for each handcrafted or locally-made product you buy in a month. 7 points for every extra (not native to you) language you speak. 25 points if you recognise it’s none of your business what noise your neighbours make, or what time they open their curtains, or whether they occasionally have a visiting vehicle parked outside. 10 points if you make sure to get your full daily servings of fruits and vegetables. 10 points if you give the local chippies and sweet shops thriving custom. 30 points if you can fold a fitted sheet and do your hospital corners. 30 points for knowing how to unblock a toilet or stop a leaking tap. 30 points for knowing how to turn, dress, and comfort a bedbound person. 30 points if you can carry on polite, informative conversation with an irate customer. 30 points if you can both listen and think on your feet enough to calm a panicking student. 25 points for an ability and enthusiasm to discuss important, pressing issues of the day. 25 points for an ability to generate lighthearted escapism, or an enthusiasm to consume it. 70 points if you’re the reason someone already living here gets up every morning.
Yes, 70 is still the required number of points. I’d probably want my country’s visa applicants to pass criminal checks and perhaps come with job references as well, although I wouldn’t be picky about which job, or about income level.
To whom would I forbid entry, were I in charge? Could I bear to? I allow pretty much anybody in my fictional worlds. In reality, we need all kinds of people. Those with varying talents and specialisms to fill different job roles, those from diverse cultures to add flavour to our own, those with different mental and physical abilities to ensure we have a caring society.
The criteria a nation imposes on its outsiders reflect what it values from its insiders. Devalue contributions from immigrants and there are vast swathes of natives who will also feel belittled. In my imaginary country, it’s different. Who wants to join?
Above anything else we are curators of people’s responses to us. I have a fine collection of reactions British people make when they learn I’m American. Students I worked with focused on food: ‘Do you like peanut butter then, Miss? Did you eat MacDonalds every day? Do you always have pancakes for breakfast?’
Adults generally look for the story: ‘What brings you here, then?’ It’s similar to the question I sometimes get asked at work when people find I’m a writer, as if there are certain boxes Americans and writers must fit in, and somehow I’m not in them.
But for writers, people most want to know if we’re successful. Have you found that? As with the kids asking about food, adults ask about the money. ‘So have you been published? Going to be as rich as JK Rowling?’
They’re not interested in what a story’s about, so long as they have a tangible way to compare our successes.
Nothing wrong with that; we totally do that to ourselves, especially at the end of another year. What have we got to show for it? How are we measuring up?
Before such introspection runs amok, I’m trying to tether my self-assessment to specific criteria (you can tell I’ve survived a few OFSTED inspections). Here they are, as reminders that it’s not all about money and publication:
Did we start new projects?
I ran with a few different ideas this year, from a Dissatisfied Relatively Privileged Middle Aged Person story (one could argue that pretty much defines contemporary literature), to a dystopian short story about detention camps for anyone foreign-born. I have two novel concepts to plot and write, and other unfinished bits and bobs, mostly in the literary genre but some historical and even science fiction. I’ll move further with these in the new year, but I’m glad I haven’t finished everything; it’s nice to start afresh with a few already-begun stories kicking around.
Did we maintain (or, let’s be honest, start) good habits?
After getting some fantastic Twitter motivation a few weeks ago in a discussion about keeping the imagination fresh, I started getting up even earlier in the morning so I could scribble for fifteen minutes before my daily hike. By the end of the second week, branches of a new novel shot through my brain. Fifteen or even ten minutes without stopping can yield two or three notebook pages. If, like me, your will to write has dwindled while life is busy, try writing a little every day. Before you know it, you’ll be hooked again and you will find more time, because you’ll be hungry for it.
Did we explore new sources of motivation?
I discovered Writers HQ this year, and went to one of their workshops. This fabulous organisation, while never glossing over how hard writing can be, encourages participants relentlessly and ensures you keep going. I definitely will be using their services more in 2018, and I recommend checking out their website, if just for a giggle at their cheekiness.
Every year I seem to discover a new anthem to get me psyched to create. In 2017 it was pretty much the whole soundtrack of Hamilton. ‘I wrote my way out of Hell…I was louder than the crack in the bell.’ The crannies where we write are The Room Where It Happens, people.
Did we cultivate wonder?
We writers often find ourselves serving as essential conduits for the
suffering of the world. Sometimes it’s up to us to draw attention to it, and we risk getting cynical (even the Relatively Privileged Middle Aged among us). We can’t let negativity taint our writing. Whether it’s climbing a mountain, absorbing the camaraderie that develops among strangers on a bus commute, or revelling in a fellow writer’s impromptu recitation of Tennyson, we must remind ourselves of the beauty in the world.
Did we take in lots of voices?
This year I loved broadening my reading list following Women’s Writer School discussions on Women in Translation month and LGBTQ writers. Listening to panels on diversity at various literature festivals introduced me to the work of Reni Eddo-Lodge and Jess Hiles, as well as sign language poetry. I look forward to learning more, and supporting more diverse writers by purchasing their work in 2018. For anyone else interested, this reading challenge checklist from the Reading Women discussion group on Goodreads looks amazing.
Did we gulp our pride down and send our work into the world?
This might be the hardest part. I had a few successes this year—winning the Gloucestershire Writers Network prose prize and reading my story at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was a highlight—but with it have come a number of rejections as well.
And I’m proud of those rejections. I’m proud of the courage they represent. Rejections test us, tempt us to give up—but I’m certainly not going to, and I hope none of you will either.
How many people can do what we do? How many can haul an entire novel out of a brain already taxed by work, family, chores, life—and then ceaselessly chisel and gouge that vast, beloved creative work into something even better? How many can bravely place their art before the world, pace through weeks or months awaiting the results, only to meet with utter disappointment? And how many, after all that, will do the whole thing again—and again?
We are amazing.
You may recognise the quote in this post’s subtitle, from the end of The Great Gatsby. ‘It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current…’
I’m using it because of a passage in another book which quotes it, The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. The young writer character in this book says, ‘There’s no point in writing a book if you don’t think it can be as good as The Great Gatsby. I mean, it’s all right if you fail—if the finished book just isn’t, somehow, very good—but you have to believe it can be very good before you start.’
Writing, and any artistic pursuit, demand we surround ourselves with a supportive network that fortifies our hearts to believe, while feeding our minds to expand so our self-belief will not be unfounded. This checklist is designed to maintain that balance. Have you got anything to add?
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.’
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?
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?
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.
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?
This Week’s Bit of String: A thriving literature festival in a tiny Cotswolds town.
Hawkesbury Upton hosted its third annual literature festival last week, featuring among many other events a panel on ‘Writing About Difference.’ I went along to hear seven people who had written about firsthand experiences with disability or chronic illness. They were carers or had disabilities themselves, writing in fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, for children or adults.
The Inevitable Appropriation Question
Someone asked the panel how they feel about other writers with less personal experiences, writing about characters who have disabilities or illnesses. Concerns over appropriation and mainstream publishers’ sidelining of ‘Own Voices’ are prominent, particularly following Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at Brisbane Writers Festival last year.
The panel generally responded that it’s necessary to have some knowledge. If you don’t have it, get it. If you’re not sure, ask someone to check. Moderator Dan Holloway emphasised the importance of sensitivity. ‘If you see no risk that you will offend, then you’re not the right person to write this.’
We need to be aware of our characters and the resonances they carry. We may think we’re being grand and inclusive, but assuming that we’re portraying something correctly could be arrogant. If we’re taking the time to fully consider what our characters have gone through, if we’re getting to know and love them as we should, we’ll be aware of the risks and take precautions to avoid them.
A couple panelists seemed dazed by the question, and it occurred to me that in a way, making this an issue is selfish of us. Some of the speakers care for children with disabilities and parents with dementia, and spouses with mental illness, all at once. They don’t have time to assuage our artsy worries. We must ensure we don’t see them as potential plot devices, existing only to provide feedback on what we write about their difficulties.
The Hawkesbury Upton session got awkward when a prim older woman in the front row posed directed a question Jo Allmond and her grown up daughter Jess Hiles. Jess writes children’s stories based on her experiences living with learning disabilities, and gives educational talks. Despite these achievements, Jo had just told us that sometimes when she accompanies Jess to appointments, the professional will take one look at Jess, assume she can’t communicate, and speak solely to her mother.
‘But why shouldn’t they assume she can’t communicate?’ the front row woman asked. ‘She looks different, you’ve said as much yourself. If I were to approach any of you others on the panel,’ she addressed Dan and Thomas Shepherd, who’s written a novel called Mr. Tumnall and also happens to have Aspergers, ‘and speak to you as if you were normal, you’d take offence, even though you look normal. It seems to me that people in your situations almost want to be offended. Obviously we can’t expect you to wear a label informing us of your capacities, but how can you expect us to know them? Help us, we need you to help us.’
Rustlings from the audience, fixed smiles from the panel. I immediately detected the acute, uniquely English fear behind the woman’s question: For the love of God, don’t let me embarrass myself by offending somebody. I felt for her a little bit. I know people enslaved to that fear.
However, she neglected to think, even in the presence of these exceptional people facing terrible struggles, that worse fates can befall someone than embarrassment. In obsessing over her desire not to be perceived as offensive, she was genuinely offensive.
While the speakers reassured her that basic, respectful communication (Good morning, isn’t the sunshine lovely today?) probably won’t bother anyone, the woman decided her point hadn’t been fully made. She wasn’t getting the help she wanted.
‘But you’re communicating for your daughter right now!’ she informed Jo. ‘She’s clearly not able to respond without you.’
Now, that’s crossing a line. I could see where the first question came from, misguided though it may have been. But how can someone insist that a person right in front of them is unresponsive, after being told that’s disrespectful and untrue? Jo and Jess had been answering in tandem, and let’s not forget that there are nonverbal means of communication.
So there was more backlash to that one. The panel kept impressively cool. Another lady in the audience, pink-cheeked and breathlessly earnest, stated, ‘I would like to suggest that we’re all disabled, we’re all restricted in some way.’
The audience liked this, and murmured assent. I wish I’d caught the panel’s faces at that moment, because the well-intentioned sentiment bothered me, and I imagined it might have bothered them.
Certainly, we all have problems. That’s why we need empathy! But a disability or chronic illness is a specific type of challenge. We wouldn’t say to a widow or widower, ‘Well, we’ve all lost somebody.’ We wouldn’t tell a refugee, ‘Well, we all have to relocate at some point.’ Okay, a few people might. But I don’t think that lovely woman would say those things.
So let’s not appropriate other people’s problems in perhaps an effort to diffuse our embarrassment or sense of survivor’s guilt.
How Can We Actually Help?
Buy and read books from all sorts of writers and listen to their Own Voices. Jo Allmond worked with another of the speakers, Joy Thomas, to publish Silent Voices, a wonderful volume of poetry from often overlooked people coping with disability. Thomas Shepherd’s book Mr. Tumnall sounds clever and intriguing. Check out Dan Jeffries’ memoir of coping with a rare medical condition, and don’t miss the children’s series Jess Hiles created, Jess the Goth Fairy. Follow Dan Holloway’s incredible Dandelion Project. Read Debbie Young‘s blog and books to see how a talented writer with first-hand experience depicts the journey of her family members with Type 1 Diabetes.
And as always, when we write let’s use well-rounded characters, and let them drive the story rather than be single-issue flagposts. LISTEN, observe, research. We should be doing that anyway, with any issue.
In my stories a few people happen to have mental illness or disability. Those are just parts of them; they have completely unrelated experiences that delight and move them. Because I’ve spent so much of my working life close to amazing people who cope with these challenges, it’s inevitable they’ll appear in my writing.
In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, the main character’s wife, Harriet, is paralysed and speechless after a stroke. He and his daughter struggle to care for Harriet’s physical needs while treating her mentally if nothing has changed. It’s a difficult balance, and one that writers about difference try to carry out. As the daughter says: ‘If we keep pretending Mum’s not in the state she’s in, don’t we risk minimising what she’s going through?’
Finally, let’s not seek a simple answer or a quick reassurance on this issue. Disabilities are tough–thankfully, the people who cope with them are often tougher. The balance between including diverse characters and appropriating those experiences from diverse writers never should get easy, so we need to maintain high sensitivity, and keep listening.
This Week’s Bit of String: Crosses made of sliced cheese
For Easter when I was in kindergarten, my mother cut slices of processed cheese and bologna into crosses, chicks, and egg shapes to share with my class. The school found this contribution offensive. I remember her crying over it, as she hung up laundry. We lived in a very small, seemingly homogenous New England town, but it couldn’t accommodate her humble gesture of religious expression.
As writers, we hate feeling voiceless, we hate for minorities to feel voiceless, and we should hate for religious communities to feel voiceless. I’m not endorsing the narrative of the American ‘War on Christianity.’ There’s no comparison to what a lot of BAME or LGBT people have suffered. But have you noticed a dearth of well-rounded religious characters in literature? Could this absence be feeding the fear we ‘liberals’ have of conservatives? Could it be curtailing our empathy?
Perpetuating Literary Stereotypes
I’d like to see characters like my mother in literature. Someone with unparalleled patience, raising the four children she gave birth to in five years, and working for over two decades with special needs students, often at least sixty hours a week—while dutifully living out beliefs some might view as intolerant. Someone who believes abortion is murder but who was devastated by Christian leaders’ support of a racist President who condoned sexual assault.
Instead, it feels as if religious characters in fiction are generally incarnations of Archdeacon Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo’s villain, tormented by hidden lusts, was probably a shocking revelation at the time. I’m not sure the prototype still is. In films and books, do we not at this point expect the Republicans and evangelicals to be baddies?
Admittedly, there have been appalling religious figures throughout history. One can understand the rage against clergy in, for example, Irish fiction such as The Glorious Heresies, or The Secret Scriptures. And in America especially, Christian culture, perhaps partly out of a sense it’s not welcome in the mainstream, has isolated itself to produce its own books on its own presses.
This isolation becomes cyclic. The church is the kid on the playground who has to keep his clothes clean, so he doesn’t join in football. The other kids assume he doesn’t want to play anyway—especially if he tells them they’re getting too dirty—and he resents them carrying on without him, and the gulf widens. So mainstream literature and heavily conservative, Christian literature may seem to prefer the separation. But if we consider ourselves liberal, should we ignore a whole subset of our culture?
Studies on Liberalism Versus Conservatism
Before justifying the alienation by saying Republicans are ignorant, are overly attached to their beliefs, and probably hate us too much to engage, consider these intriguing studies.
Research shows that conservative minds are more attuned to fear. Is this a cause or a symptom of conservatism? Scientific American describes how mounting scientific evidence of conservative risk awareness could explain their stereotypical attachment to rules and even nationalism.
It also explains their tendency toward idea-driven storytelling. While some conservative commentators like this one on The American Conservative website remind their fellows that using literature to mould public morals ‘leads to art becoming a mere tool, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself,’ a group will find that irrelevant when they perceive themselves under threat. Republicans (who got eighty percent of evangelical support in the presidential election) are completely in control of the American government, but fundamentalist Christians believe in Heaven and Hell. The majority of people they meet are eternally damned. If they have any compassion, they’ll try and save them with everything they do, every word they write. How could they care about trivial things like character development and artistic expression?
Here’s another surprise from a wonderful study described in The Guardian, in which literature professors researched thousands of Goodreads profiles and found over four hundred books which conservative and liberal readers frequently liked in common. Encouraging, but when they looked at the reviews, they found conservative readers were ‘more generous’ and used ‘less negative or hateful language’ than many of the liberal reviewers. We liberals can be snobby and cynical—who would have thought?
In Twitter discussion, science fiction writer Grace Crandall observes that we tend to detect biases against us: liberals see conservative bias, while conservatives see liberal bias. We’d all rather be wronged than in the wrong. But we have to rise above that as artists, and try to understand each other, as she suggests.
What is Conservatism, Really?
Everyone’s conservative about some things, and liberal about others. We all have things we don’t want to change, and things we seek to explore and improve. Micah Mattix, in the American Conservative article, reminds us genuine conservatism is ‘deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved.’ Skepticism of contemporary culture is not exclusive to Republican-leaning authors.
Indeed, when we write we should examine any stereotype, even the idea that Republicans are always grouchy old white men. We write to conquer fear, perhaps our own fear of being voiceless, and it’s always worth finding characters to give voice to. There are Republicans and/ or evangelicals who strive valiantly to live up to their own standards, even if these standards manifest themselves in ways that look strange to us. In my book Artefacts, two of the protagonists are Christians, trying to establish friendships outside the church despite being convinced their acquaintances are hellbound. Religious characters don’t always have to be so dramatic; I liked the pastor and the churchgoing protagonist in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. They were portrayed as normal people, with normal family and livelihood struggles, who happened to have a bit of faith. That’s incredibly rare in a current book, and why should it be? We’re writers. We can take on anything.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?