Posts in Reading & Writing
"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.

UPDATE
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

Plot! Plot! — Wait, what?

I have been blogging about plot a lot lately. And while I haven’t been tossing around terms like legibility, accessibility, enjoyability in my posts about pop-television and James Patterson’s and Shonda Rhimes’s MasterClass lectures and even, gosh, going all the way back to last summer, craft essays by Ben Percy and Leslie Jamison on urgency and commonness, and more recently my defense of Jane Smiley’s defense of inclusive writing that does not exclude folks who just want a good story, basically these are the -ilities occupying a good portion of my public written craft concerns of late — whether experiencing myself the effects of their effects in dominant mainstream entertainment narratives or self-consciously performing blogging by “confessing” here my concerns about the extent to which the study of plot is an unacceptable pursuit. I hope, though, that my extended engagement with the straightforward has not implied disengagement from the rest, or some of the rest at least.

*

Today, over coffee with Jason I kept resisting all the ways he was reading me and my work. He’d say, “You’re undermining” or “disrupting” or “troubling” or “exploding” or “destroying” notions of genre or stability or forms or methods or whatever and I’d just keep shaking my head, “No no no no no.” So WTF am I doing then? Finally I said things along the lines of: I care about existing and established genres or forms that may or may not have been experiments in their day; I write to celebrate, to honor, to pay homage to, and to remind; I remix, I join, I bring together into conversation things thought to be disparate; I’m not by nature (nurture?) confrontational (I guess except for when I’m shaking my head and repeating, “no”) and so while I’m fine if someone else wants to say they read aggression or acts of violence in my formal decisions (disruptions, explosions, etc.), my chosen verbs all start with “re-”: revisit, recall, remind, rethink, reconnect, reimagine, reincorporate, reattach, reply, renew, revitalize, retell, rewrite, reiterate, rewind, revise, rephrase, redo, respond, report, reanimate, reform, redress, reconsider reconsider reconsider — which begins always with consideration. Kindness. Generosity. Belief. And disbelief (but not disregard). Surprise, I hope. And mindful hesitation. Awareness, always, of how much I don’t know but want to.

I threw a chair once, when I was a kid. It was my computer chair, and it had wheels. I was lucky enough to have a computer, first of all, and I’m pretty sure all I ever did on it was race my Mavis Beacon car and try to keep my windshield clear of bugsplat. Anyway, I got mad and threw this chair and one of the wheels broke off leaving ragged plastic behind. My parents made me sit in this chair — uneven, slanting sideways, gouging a disastrous hole in their hardwood floor — for as long as I lived in their house. Let me tell you, I have no idea what made me so mad that day but I never threw another chair again. Maybe in part this is why I resist the terms disrupt, explode, interrogate, obliterate, destroy, and prefer instead to investigate, to wonder, to wander, to be open to. Maybe this post is about the rhetoric of violence in experimental fiction writers’ day-to-day discourse about what experimental fiction does. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe call me Mollyanna, despite the fact that it’s always “a damp, drizzly November in my soul” and leave me to this “problem of the universe revolving in me.”

Some Thoughts on Dialogue, Hybrids, and Disidentification

Not sure if I’ve ever made it this explicitly clear here on my blog just how much bad (amazing) TV I watch and how much I love it (hate it). After I finished Dark Matter, which I mentioned briefly here, I started The Vampire Diaries and then switched over to its spinoff The Originals. Both of these shows reminded me of having watched Being Human (probably mostly because of the hospital blood bags, lol, vamps today don’t have to bite anyone, they can just sip from a blood bag like it’s a Capri Sun). Anyway, my favorite part of The Originals is how the main characters alternate opening monologues. So, for instance, in one episode, Klaus catches up the audience by saying:

My siblings and I are the first vampires in all of history, the Originals. Three hundred years ago, we helped build New Orleans. Now, we have returned to find the city has a new king, who rules with the aid of a powerful girl. They’ve taken possession of my brother, Elijah. A coven of witches want this girl for themselves; they seek to enlist my help, using my unborn child as leverage, though I suspect they have ulterior motives. So, I’ve made a plan of my own: I will free my brother, and reclaim the city for my family. Then, I will be king.

But in the next episode’s opening monologue, Elijah says:

My siblings and I are the first vampires in history, the Originals. Three hundred years ago, we helped to build the city of New Orleans. We were happy here, a family. Recently, a coven of witches lured my brother back, using his unborn child as leverage. I tried to help him, but he betrayed me to his enemy, the vampire Marcel. Since then, I’ve been held prisoner by a powerful witch. My brother seeks to manipulate others to procure my release. But, I have my own plan. If this witch proves to be an enemy, I will stop her. By whatever means necessary.

So many plans!

But yeah, that’s what I like about these opening monologues, how the show rotates their different perspectives to set up the dramatic tension of the episode ahead, to some extent inviting us to watch the episode through that character’s quest/plan/frame of mind.

My next favorite part is how the dialogue in the opening scenes (which is so bad, but performed well enough by the actors to be slightly less ridiculous) also functions to catch up the audience. For instance, now that Elijah’s been released from the witch and the opening shot reveals both brothers sitting around at home, reading books, their sister Rebekah walks in and says, “So, this is what you do the first time we’re back together as a family? Vampire book club?”

Or, in another episode, Klaus yells at a witch: “We had a deal! You protect my unborn child, I dismantle Marcel’s army. And whilst I’ve been busy fulfilling my part of the bargain, you allowed Hayley to be attacked and almost killed by a gaggle of lunatic witches.”

LOLOLOL yess.

I mean, is this a lesson on how to write dialogue? Noooo, but it is delightful to watch how the actors manage, generally, to pull it off. Usually with much feigned boredom/amusement (book club?) or enraged violence/show of superhuman fury (we had a deal, witch!).

Which begs the question, a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately: Why do I watch what I watch? And I think I kind of figured it out. First of all, you don’t have to pay much attention, since characters are always catching you up. And I’m usually reading or editing or grading while watching, so. And also because these characters — vampires, witches, werewolves — are marginals in society but central to the show that celebrates their power, their speed, their ability to take lives and save lives. And the extra layer that’s most interesting is how Klaus is a hybrid, a vampire/werewolf, who’s more powerful than either vampires or werewolves, whose werewolf bite can kill a vampire, whose vampire strength can kill werewolves, and whose hybrid blood can heal all. (And there’s a baby on the way, probably even more magical!?) So, here’s a marginal figure (in the world of humans) who’s been made central to this show. While he’s also an inferior species, a freak of nature, and the only one of his kind, who’s been made in this show to be far superior in speed and strength and invincibility.

And that’s it exactly, right? What we like and need in our nonhuman heroes? Outcasts who, despite the outright hate of humans, save humans anyway?

And that’s what I like about this show, that this outcast gives zero shits about anyone but his immediate family members, sort of, sometimes, but maybe not really since he’ll overpower them and lock them in coffins for centuries when they displease him.

He’s horrible. On the one hand, I hate everything about him. On another, he’s a powerful hero/villain/neither with whom an adoptee like me might positively disidentify — the werewolf part of him makes him unlike all his vampire family members; his biological werewolf father is a complete mystery and not (yet) part of his story; other werewolves are uncomfortable around him (if there exists an older Korean person in America who doesn’t express immediate sadness and deep shame for Korea, upon learning I am adopted, I’ve never met them). Also, he has zero interest in his baby, until he learns what his baby can do for him. So now I’m watching and waiting with somewhat morbid interest to find out what happens with this tribrid about to be born. . . .