Tag Archives: Writing

Game of Thrones, Interview, Stories

Ygritte

1. Finally, my roommates’ years-long insistence that I watch Game of Thrones pays off. xoJane runs my version of participating in the cultural conversation: “Ygritte Is the Most Criminaly Underrated Character on Game of Thrones. I swear I will convince you.

2. Interview up at the wonderful Writers & Words website, a monthly reading series at Charmingtons. (In the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore.  First Tuesdays.)  I discuss Chekhov’s gun, among other writer-life things.

3. Three stories!

a) “Marguerite” in The Mississippi Review, about a fictional second uprising in Baltimore, one year after the first. (The real anniversary was about a month ago. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Nonviolence as Compliance” remains my favorite must-read on the subject.) 

b) “Osmium Schwartz on Her Back” in The Georgia Reviewabout a girl with a hundred-pound heart.

c) “Sampson Grows His Hair” in Slice Magazine.  Unfortunately no story link, as I gave my only copy to my sister.  Pick up a copy if you see one.  First lines: “My parents weren’t religious people, merely uncreative.  When it came time to name their children, they flipped to a page and pointed.”

4. Look out this October for The Best Small Fictions 2016an anthology of flash stories that includes my “The Solidarity of Fat Girls,” originally published in American Short Fiction. (Also includes Etgar Keret, for the higher-brow!)

Image courtesy of HBO
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Currently Reading: Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007)

Thoughts:

What brave, daring, complex storytelling!  I would make a very serious case that Adichie is among the best early(ish)-career authors writing today.  Her stories keep reeling out, layer after layer, but never lose the unity of the whole.

Adichie is not afraid to take her characters to incredibly dark, unlikable, complicated, socially-influenced yet personally-determined places.  The front cover of my book describes the narrative as “pitiless,” and the word is apt; she pitilessly depicts the toll that war takes on even her kindest-hearted characters.  It strikes me as incredibly brave to handle Ugwu as she does, risking the reader’s love for perhaps the novel’s most sympathetic character.  She does it, I think, to show that the passivity that’s largely characterized Ugwu throughout the book can demonize him under war’s violent pressures.  (According to reviews, this plot element was excised from the film; I wonder if the film can make the same point about the internal spoilage of war without it.)

Adichie also executes a striking 180 in terms of theme, starting the book as a meditation on romantic love and ending it as a sort of moving elegy to sisterly love.

If memory is the ultimate goal of history (one of my favorite quotes on this subject is H.G. Wells’, who  describes “human history…[as] a race between education and catastrophe”), then Adichie has done an incredibly human thing, as well: preserved the Nigerian Civil War, rarely or never taught in schools, in vivid detail.  I’m not sure whether the present-day rhetoric surrounding a war like Biafra’s is Never forgetthis article and this interview suggest it’s not, but it’s difficult for me to remove that frame of reference, as I come at the question of historical memory as a student and grandchild of the Holocaust.  Regardless, Adichie has enabled future generations, myself included, to feel the horrors of starvation and the disappointment of postcolonial regional hopes in 1960s Biafra.

A master class in:

Scene-setting.  As in Americanah, Adichie opens a huge number of new scenes that require new settings: interior/exterior, weather, time of year, time of day, place details, mood details—and she never skimps on any of them.  The sheer number of new and specific details required to set a scene has been the biggest struggle for me as I edit my novel, and Half of a Yellow Sun is a model here.

Perspectival risks.  But Adichie’s choice of diverse close-third perspectives is what really makes her a writerly model for me.  She takes on the voices of characters male and female, rich and poor, white and black, young and old, ethnically Nigerian and British.

Yet I must say that the ending makes me just a bit uncomfortable when it comes to Adichie’s view of inhabiting diverse perspectives.  Perhaps it’s inaccurate to read morality into a novel that seeks simply to tell a story. (I like what Karen Russell has to say about this, in Glimmer Train 84: that “the best fiction can communicate a truth that’s independent of its writer’s politics.”)  But in the final twist of HoaYS, one moral seems to be that other people’s stories are not ours to write.  Perhaps Adichie is nodding to an anxiety of her own—although in interviews, she tends to say that, though born seven years after the war, its memory was alive in her through her family’s stories.  Perhaps the end is her avowal that the war is her story to write, that she is its inheritance (as she says in this interview, too.) But it’s challenging to square a book whose author takes on personas outside the frame of her own experience, with one that ends on the British character not only unable to write about the Nigerian war but, upon saying, “The war isn’t my story to tell, really,” is met with Ugwu’s avowal that “he had never thought that it was.”

 

Favorite lines:

My brilliant reader-friend Samo and I both noticed the same strange feature of HoaYS: though the prose is precise, vivid, daring, there are unexpectedly few lines that we underlined to reread.  Many of my favorite writers are extremely lyrical (Jeanette Winterson, Marilynne Robinson, Tim O’Brien, Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago.)  I’d have thought this a prerequisite to being a wonderful writer—yet Adichie seems to prove a different lesson: effective prose can be vivid and sharp and get out of the way.

 

” ‘You’re burning memory,’ he told her.  ‘I am not.’ She would not place her memory on things that strangers could barge in and take away. ‘My memory is inside me.’ “

” ‘There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable,’ Kainene said.  There was a pause. Inside Olanna, something calcified leaped to life.”

“[Kainene] pulled a cigarette from the case, but she didn’t light it. She put it down on the bedside table and came over and hugged him, a tremulous tightening of her arms around him. He was so surprised he did not hug her back. …She did not seem to know what to make of the hug either, because she backed away from him quickly and lit the cigarette. He thought about that hug often, and each time he did he had the sensation of a wall crumbling.”

 

BONUS interview quote: “Maybe Half of a Yellow Sun is a war book, but I wanted the war to be secondary. I wanted to write about the characters and the way they are changed by the war—changed in the little ways, the ways that you eat and the way that you look and the way you love.” 

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Currently Reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)

Thoughts:

What can I possibly add to the wealth of literature surrounding this book?  I read Mrs. Dalloway primarily because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it yet.

I’ll say this: I am currently reading Ulysses (1922) with a small book group of friends from the MFA.  Thus far, I share Woolf’s eloquent reaction: “[Reading Proust,] The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished– My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.” (More here.)  My difficulty with Ulysses thus far owes to the representation of women as breasts and bodies.  I read literature to identify with or learn about some element of the human condition; too often in Ulysses, I am pushed away at the moment of identification by the coarse representation of the body I possess.  But I digress.

Some have read Mrs. Dalloway as Woolf’s response to Ulysses.  (One example here.)  I certainly view Mrs. Dalloway as a more economical, more gender-equitable version of the same impulse that motivated Joyce: to capture the banal, existential, lyrical, beautiful, sad, joyous, manic, strange, explicable and inexplicable thoughts and emotions of the everyday.

I found the book most successful when dealing directly with Peter and Clarissa; the forays into Septimus and his mental illness did not feel, to me, wholly part of the same book.  Or, more accurately: to square Clarissa and Septimus, I felt I had to shift modes from lay reader to English major.  Then I could think about mental versus physical illness, the two ways illnesses can go (recovery, or…out the window), death in one part of London and parties in another, the biographical Woolf as both Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus.

A master class in:

Precisely tracked psychological realism.  True narrative omniscience.  That amazing thing fiction can do, taking us into the inner lives of every person on the street and proving that everyone has a story–and that everyone’s story and experiences are worthy of attention.  For that reason, I think there’s something immensely humane in Woolf’s project here.

Favorite lines:

“Then, just as it happens on a terrace in the moonlight, when one person begins to feel ashamed that he is already bored, and yet as the other sits silent, very quiet, sadly looking at the moon, does not like to speak, moves his foot, clears his throat, notices some iron scroll on a table leg, stirs a leaf, but says nothing–so Peter Walsh did now.”

“And this has been going on all the time! he thought; week after week; Clarissa’s life; while I–he thought; and at once everything seemed to radiate from him; journeys; rides; quarrels; adventures; bridge parties; love affairs; work; work, work!…”

“Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums.  And it was smashed to atoms–his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought–making oneself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more.  But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share–it smashed to atoms.”

On “Looking back over that long friendship of almost thirty years”: “Brief, broken, often painful as their actual meetings had been what with his absences and interruptions…the effect of them on his life was immeasurable.  There was a mystery about it.  You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain–the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding, after years of lying lost.  Thus she had come to him; on board ship; in the Himalayas; suggested by the oddest things…She had influenced him more than any person he had ever known.”

“For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying–what one felt.  Cleverness was silly.  One must say simply what one felt.”

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Currently Reading: Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

Thoughts:

I tore through these books in about a week and a half.  Mohsin Hamid‘s prose has got it.  Not only was I totally invested in his characters’ lives–I could have spent hundreds more pages in every book, particularly the most recent–but I also learned about civilian life in Pakistan, too rarely covered in American media.

I am so thoroughly fascinated by Hamid’s use of the second-person point of view in all three novels, and in the progression of that perspective from book to book.  In Moth Smoke, “you” are invited to be the judge, literal and figurative, of protagonist Daru’s crimes; in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, “you” are both the listener and perhaps the assassin of protagonist Changez; in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, “you” are the protagonist, the recipient of self-help advice over the course of a lifetime.

Hamid is doing something wonderful here, forcing the reader into the story, bringing him/her closer to its heart every time.  I will be thrilled to see what he does with perspective in his next book.  I think I’ll have to reflect on this further in a separate essay.

A master class in:

Variations on a theme.  To my mind, all three books are love stories masquerading as rags-to-riches narratives, featuring foreign (usually American) higher education, upper-class tawdriness, religious fundamentalism, nuclear rumblings–and a girl.  Always a girl around whom the desire for wealth becomes a secondary concern, even if the bulk of each book’s page space is devoted to that more mercenary desire, examining what money means both for the character and for Pakistan.  But the element we’re really rooting for in all three novels is the love story.  That’s a very human message Hamid is championing, beneath the trappings of cars and drugs and investment portfolios.

Favorite lines:

“And how strange that when I imagine, I feel.  The capacity for empathy is a funny thing.” – How to Get Filthy Rich

“The day you texted the pretty girl on her mobile to inform her of your impending wedding, the pretty girl was surprised, given how little you and she had come to speak in recent years, by the strength of her sadness. …Still, she texted you back to wish you happiness.” – How to Get Filthy Rich

“Your sister turns to look at you. …She smiles and you smile in return, your faces small ovals of the familiar in an otherwise unrecognizable world.  You think your sister is trying to reassure you.  It does not occur to you, young as you are, that it is she who needs reassurance.” – How to Get Filthy Rich

“I wanted my share of that respect [accorded Americans] as well.  So I learned to tell executives my father’s age, ‘I need it now‘; …I learned to answer, when asked where I was from, that I was from New York.” – The Reluctant Fundamentalist

“There’s a reason prophets perform miracles: language lacks the power to describe faith.” – Moth Smoke

“…learning that I was a good writer…[was like] feeling new muscles growing in my back, wing muscles, the kind that mean you’re learning to fly.” – Moth Smoke

“There are two social classes in Pakistan. …The first group, large and sweaty, contains those referred to as the masses.  The second group…exercise vastly greater control over their immediate environment and are collectively termed the elite.  The distinction…is made on the basis of control of an important resource: air-conditioning.” – Moth Smoke

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Currently Reading: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of TitanKurt Vonnegut (1959)

Thoughts:

In his foreword to While Mortals Sleep, the latest posthumous Vonnegut story collection, Dave Eggers calls Vonnegut “a moral voice.”  That’s what most struck me in Titan, and it’s what struck me about Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle: Vonnegut is so unafraid to be moral–though that’s often a lethal authorial position in the world of writing workshops.  The back of my edition says that Titan is  “about The Meaningless[ness?] Of It All,” but it’s really about the utmost in what’s meaningful; Vonnegut seems to be saying, Be nice to each other, you tiny idiots, because life may have no greater purpose than that!

Vonnegut is one of my dad’s favorite authors, and I read this on his recommendation.  His take on the book, which I find more convincing than mine, is:  “In the beginning, and in the end, ‘somebody up there likes me.’  That is the main takeaway of the book…it may be a little robot creature made by other robot creatures, and his goals may not be understandable or include liking Unk (me,)  but who’s to say this is not the way God works?”

A master class in:

Quirky irreverence, of course!  As well as the lyricism possible therein.

…And the space that does exist for morality, even in good, nonpolemical fiction.

Favorite lines:

“Sometimes I think it is a great mistake to have matter that can think and feel. It complains so. By that same token, though, I suppose that boulders and mountains and moons could be accused of being a little too phlegmatic.”

“…and there would be only one moon, Unk thought, and the moon would be fat, stately, and slow.”

From the dedication page: “No names have been changed to protect the innocent, since God Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine.”

Bonus lines:

From a writing assignment to his students at Iowa:  “As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. ”

And his letter to a friend about to teach at Iowa:  “Every so often you will go nuts.  All of a sudden the cornfields get you.”

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Currently Reading: The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes (2011)

Thoughts:

Grad school and my own reading have taught me never to propel a reader’s interest through secret-keeping, not if you want to write a literary novel.  The literary novel is meant to reveal its secrets early on; the readerly (and writerly) interest lies in the complexities of dealing with that secret.  Barnes breaks that rule here, and it does make for more plot-based heart-thumping than I expected from a novel literary enough to win a Booker.

A master class in:

Dramatic irony.  The element of the book that most interested me was Tony’s relationship with his ex-wife, Margaret: the reader’s sense that she still loves him far more deeply than he knows or is willing to tell or acknowledge.

In fact, this book is all about the power of the first-person to reveal or conceal important information.  Early on, in the middle of a paragraph, Tony tells us that his letter to Adrian and Veronica “told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples”–a mild, if mildly incensed, description.  Much later, we find out that the none-so-mild letter actually began: “Dear Adrian–or rather, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter),” and followed tonally from there.

I sometimes feel limited by the first-person perspective in my stories, because I can’t reveal information the narrator doesn’t know without making the narrator appear stupid for not knowing it. (This is my main problem with The Hunger Games series, and why the internal-monologue-less movies are better than the books.)  But Barnes here is showing there’s a power in letting the narrator know a great deal, and strategically doling out that information to the reader.  Much like Ishiguro’s narrative restraint (he called it “emotional frostiness”) in a personal favorite, The Remains of the Day

Favorite lines:

The Margaret scenes.  Here’s one:

She leant across and patted my hand.  “It’s nice that we’re still fond of one another.  And it’s nice that I know you’ll never get around to booking that holiday.”

“Only because I know you don’t mean it.”

She smiled.  And for a moment, she almost looked enigmatic.  But Margaret can’t do enigma[…] If she’d wanted me to spend the money on a holiday for two, she’d have said so.  Yes, I realise that’s exactly what she did say, but…

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Currently Reading: Louise Erdrich

The Antelope Wife (1998); “The Years of My Birth” (2011)

Thoughts:

Louise Erdrich got her MFA in Poetry from Hopkins, and her every line of fiction is infused with rich language and rhythm.  I love that she toggles between matter-of-factness (“Nurse,” the doctor said.  “Too late,” she answered) and mysticism and otherworldliness (“Into this disinfected despair, there came a presence, someone or something, who grieved with me and held my hand.”)

Sherman Alexie–also a poet and fiction writer–and Louise Erdrich are often spoken of together, the two best-known authors on Native American themes.  I’ve read almost everything of Alexie’s; he’ll do that tonal shifting as well, but he very rarely goes quite as far into that beautiful spirit-language as Erdrich does.  Though (especially compared to Alexie) she does seem better suited for shorter forms than long narrative.

A master class in:

Openings.  Here’s “The Years of My Birth,” first lines: “The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, ‘Oh, God, there’s another one,’ and out I slid, half dead.  I then proceeded to die in earnest, going from slightly pink to a dull gray-blue, at which point the nurse tried to scoop me into a bed warmed by lights.”

Immediate setting, character, conflict, and voice.  (Come to think of it, Alexie also likes to start with the birth of a dying baby.)  It’s important, I think, to conceive of openings as generous things: they have to give.  In the MFA, we talked about the entire atomic makeup of the story being present in its first paragraph.  This first-person reflection on the half-dead baby is an opening that gives.

The Love Rack.  I often have a hard time making my characters care-about-able.  Screenwriters now are all talking about the “save the cat” moment, and here’s James M. Cain on the “love rack”:

“He [Vincent Lawrence] had a device which he thought was so important—the “love rack” he called it. I have never yet, as I sit here, figured out how this goddamn rack was spelled . . . whether it was wrack, or rack, or what dictionary connection could be found between the word and his concept. What he meant by the “love rack” was the poetic situation whereby the audience felt the love between the characters. He called this the “one, the two and the three.” Someone, I think it was Phil Goodman, the producer and another great influence, once reminded him that this one, two, and three was nothing more than Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end.”

But I’ve always had trouble with the idea of the watershed in fiction–does it really represent the way life is?  (This will be another post sometime.)  In any case, there’s a subtler option.  Here’s Erdrich on a father-daughter in The Antelope Wife: “Once, he holds her foot in the cradle of his palm and with the adept point of his hunting knife painlessly delivers a splinter, long and pale and bloody.  Teaches her to round her c‘s and put tiny teakettle handles on her a‘s. Crooks stray hairs behind her ears.”  Not a single save-the-cat or a love-rack moment, but a long collection of little actions that make us feel the love.

Favorite lines:

“She howled and scratched herself half-blind and at last so viciously took leave of her mind that the old ones got together and decided to change her name. …The namer went away, starved and sang and dreamed, until it was clear that the only name that made any sense at all was the name of the place where the old Blue Prairie Woman had gone to fetch back her child. Other Side of the Earth.”

“After that, our nights are something I can’t address in the day, as though we’re wearing other bodies, other people’s flaming skins.”

“You wouldn’t think a man as ordinary as myself could win a woman who turns the heads of others on the streets. Yet…”

“The women in my family are the kind to argue with the spirits.”

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Currently Reading: Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013); St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006)

Thoughts:

Apparently, Vampires went over poorly with the reading group I didn’t attend this month.  Glad I didn’t go, because I’d have had a hard time sitting through an unenthused meeting, given how thoroughly I enjoyed existing within the worlds and language of this collection.  The title story and “Reeling for Empire” were such deeply evocative otherworlds, but the final story–“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”–was it for me.  The best story in the collection.  Russell’s handling of the gay themes, completely subtextual and yet painfully present, was incredible.  The last line, “Somewhere I think I must still be standing, just like that,” rang with me for days.  Such a haunting, restrained, accomplished story.

All of which led me to St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a collection that featured the same sharp, arresting language, but in service of stories that felt to me looser.  (I am excepting here the middle stories in Vampires, which I admit I found weak, though forgivably so thanks to their bookends.)

A master class in:

WORDS.  A friend of mine in the Hopkins MFA kvells about his experience in Karen Russell’s class at Williams, and I understand why: her relationship with rich, full, textured, unexpected, pause-worthy nouns and verbs is unreal.  Nouns are verbs (piano; candle; constellate.)  Verbs have verve (spool; limn; loam.)  Nouns are sumptuous (defenestration; caul; sacrum; meridian.)

As a reader, I am willing to forgive all manner of plot holes and stalled pacing in light of such deft use of language.  This is why I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing.  And I am in awe of the facility with which Russell makes her passionate love of language evident in every line.

Favorite lines:

“This is it, this is the geographical limit of how far I’ll go for Ossie.  We are learning latitude and longitude in school, and it makes my face burn that I can graph the coordinates of my own love and courage with such damning precision.”

“On land, Ossie’s body looks like an unmade bed, all lumpy and disheveled.  But in the moonlight, my naked sister is lustrous, almost holy….All this time, my odd-waddling sister has been living in a mother’s body.”

“Olivia was a cartographer of imaginary places…nostalgic for places that [she]’d never been.”

“Our stupid, rain-diluted longing.”

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Currently reading: Americanah

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Thoughts:

Beautiful, deft prose.  Tragic romance (my favorite kind; not in the classical sense), but a more thoughtful than emotional read, because Adichie so assiduously avoids melodrama, so readily moves us to the next scene.  The blog posts occasionally felt heavy-handed, though the meditations on race therein were necessary and provocative.  Set partly in Baltimore and at Yale–Adichie is a fellow JHU MFA alum!–so I was reading about the two homes of my adult life.  Fully, richly rendered, immensely accomplished.  Highly recommended.

A master class in:

Chapter 22!  Chapter 22!  Precise charting of close indirect emotional reactions; use of setting for pacing; surprising yet believable dialogue.

Favorite lines:

“In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat.”

“He thought again of the Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi woman and the shadow of grief from which she was only just emerging, and he thought of…the life he now had, lacquered as it was by work and reading, by panic and hope. He had never felt so lonely.”

“I don’t want to be a sweetheart.  I want to be the fucking love of your life.”  (See: Chapter 22! Surprising yet believable dialogue.)

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