"We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book."
I’m coming down from a pretty intensely packed few weeks, and weirdly this upcoming week is no less congested but it somehow feels like it might be more navigable. I’ve got two readings (one local, one less local) of my own and at least one other to attend, some Skype & Zoom stuff (I tested the latter today for the first time with Tim, who uses it regularly, and who of course encouraged me to dress up for the local reading [lol, remember that time I had so much wardrobe anxiety about being the boring one when sharing a room with Kate and TinTim one AWP?]. I haven’t dressed up since 2010, and now I’m thinking about how femme I really wasn’t when WTMA came out but also about how not too long ago Rachel told me I have “bimbo hair.” Identity is hard and hair is so, so, so much more than people think, and if I could wear anything to promote Desire it would be this because my narrator wears such a veil in order to not be seen by others). This week I’m also starting a new 20-hour/week job—say hello to the University of Utah’s Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence’s newest Graduate Fellow Consultant! You can read about the interview question that may have helped me land the job here, and whaddya know it’s relevant to what I hope this post will be about: David Mura’s A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing, which has been on my to-read stack for months and which I finally cracked open this morning.
The title of today’s post comes from the end of Mura’s introduction:
Whether in terms of identity of one’s development as a writer or in the task of finishing a book (particularly one’s first book), I see writers as constantly embarking on their own mythical journeys. Thus I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.
Certainly, I myself have gone through this experience of change in writing this book. Indeed, through this writing, I have become someone I did not expect to be. That is one of the greatest joys of practicing my craft and finishing a book. It’s my hope that readers will find this book a seminal guide to their own transformative journey.
Earlier in the introduction, Mura says that in a section titled “The Four Questions Concerning the Narrator,” he addresses “a question that, given our society’s increasing diversity, has become both necessary and sometimes confusing: Whom is the narrator telling the story to? This question is of a different order than the one posed by [Toni] Morrison—who is the expected reader of the text?—but the two questions are certainly related.” In this section, which is all I’ve read so far besides the intro, Mura shares how he once “asked someone in [his] audience from Maine to explain where she lived to someone from San Francisco. [… And] then asked the person from Maine to do this with someone from Maine.” He says, “The explanation to the person from San Francisco was more generalized; it took longer for the speaker to orient her listener, and she never did get very precise. With a fellow Mainer, the speaker used the names of towns and highway numbers.” Mura says, “In our conversations, we are constantly gauging how much our particular listener needs to know in order for us to be understood.” His four questions—Who is the narrator? Whom is the narrator telling her story to? When is the narrator telling the story? Why is the narrator telling the story?—are especially “crucial and complicated” now, he says, as “it’s become clear […] that the increasing diversity of young writers has only made these questions more essential and relevant.”
Immediately, I thought of my former student, Ankitha, who workshopped a story about a multi-generational family and different members’ relationships to a shared cultural tradition—significant and meaningful to the grandparents, not much more than a performed formality to the adult grandchildren. Ankitha had workshopped the story in India, but she wanted to try it out on American readers. All of us, including yours truly, misread the story. We thought the tradition was significant and meaningful for all the characters and, consequently, we weren’t fully appreciating the conflict—that the young adults (of Ankitha’s own generation, not that that should need clarification, and yet) were ambivalent about making the trip back to India to do this thing for the grandparent. Ankitha told us no one who understood this particular tradition would fault them for this, but she wanted to know: how much explaining did she need to do in this story for us to understand? Explaining, to some extent, would be like writing a story about a runaway bride who held up a bank on her way out of town—and taking a beat to write about the history of white wedding dresses and how this particular bride’s white dress is not at all significant to the story because like everyone else who chooses a white wedding dress she’s just wearing a dress that happens to be white because of a cultural tradition that has zero personal significance to the character as she leads the cops on a high-speed chase across state lines. At some point during Ankitha’s workshop, we had even looked to Tanya, the other Indian student in the room, who sweetly schooled us with a shrug and said, basically: Um, I’m from a different region of India and I’ve never heard of this tradition. That was four years ago now, but I learned some necessary obviousnesses that have stayed with me: (1) Don’t look at Tanya for answers, ever; (2) Be a better reader of Ankitha’s story, always. I remember I said she shouldn’t have to explain, but that maybe she needed to, and/or maybe a brief introduction to the story could be useful. I’m thinking now, though, of Mura’s four questions, and how they could have come in really handy: Who is the narrator? Whom is the narrator telling her story to? When? Why? These seemingly simple questions, easy to overlook when diving right in to a student’s question of what and how much needs to be explained, are indeed “crucial and complicated,” “essential and relevant.”
I’ve been oozing anxiety lately about so many of my recent blog posts being so focused on plot. What I’m about to write here is rough but I’ve been thinking a lot about how so many of the bigger-name short story writers that I read in 2018 are working in what I might go so far as to call the traditional form of the oppressor. Short stories that begin with a paragraph, followed by several more indented paragraphs until the end. Some dialogue in there. Clear character desires. Immediate and pressing conflicts. Endings that are for the most part not happy but function as resolutions. I’m thinking of some of my favorites—Rajesh Parameswaran’s “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” Nam Le’s “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You at Home,” Alexia Arthurs’s “On Shelf,” Helen Oyeyemi’s “My Daughter the Racist,” Krys Lee’s “Goose Father,” Lesley Tenorio’s “Brothers,” Manuel Gonzales’s “The Miniature Wife,” Mariana Enriquez’s “End of Term,” Yiyun Li’s “House Fire,” Kristin Valdez Quade’s “Jubilee.” Granted, part of the explanation has already been stated: “bigger-name short story writers” or those whose books I found because they’ve been well publicized, or because I clicked “Customers who viewed this item also viewed.” But I have been thinking about these traditionally formed stories, wondering if or where I might locate the experimental.
Certainly, unhappy endings aren’t new, but one way these authors defy short-story tradition is by writing stories that don’t begin with someone falling into a hole but with someone already born or existing in a hole from which there is no crawling out. In Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” for instance, girls are born with their ribbons. Another way these authors defy tradition is by carefully triggering readers. Let me tell you, I was so excited to introduce these authors to my students, but because triggers and trauma are real, I had to rethink and revise my syllabus after a very serious conversation with my boss about Machado’s story and students who did and did not read it. So last week, instead of “The Miniature Wife” for external conflict, I used Kevin Wilson’s “Grand Stand-In” instead. I was going to end the term with a week on sensitive approaches to contemporary issues in society and assign Wilson’s “Wildfire Johnny,” but that’s a definite no now too. I’ll go with Kristin Valdez Quade’s “Jubilee,” instead, which wasn’t originally included because it’s not speculative. (I should remind: currently, I’m teaching creative writing in a local high school, not at the U, and that obviously changes some things wrt content in the classroom; and also, they love magic and monsters and moons.) Anyway, like I said, this paragraph is rough, but all of this and more has been on my mind, and all of it’s being incorporated into the nonfiction components of my dissertation, where hopefully I’ll better articulate my thoughts on Western traditions and experiments in literature and contemporary craft concerns for minoritarian writers, including the potentially disidentificatory practice of adopting the dominant form for short fiction (these stories looking like they’re supposed to, the bodies of their texts behaving) but otherwise misbehaving—complicated representations for characters who don’t resemble our most famous short story characters in bestselling teaching anthologies, dramatic tensions that can never be experienced by majoritarian readers (vs. the suburban dramas of Cheever and Carver in a different era), and nuanced creative responses negotiating Morrison’s questions about whom we envision to be the readers of our texts.
Feb 11, 2019
Saw these two articles in my news feed late last night: Marlon James and Victor LaValle in conversation, and Torsa Ghosal on woc-authored experimental fictions. Linking them here now, to come back and read asap. More soon. x