Monday, July 31, 2017

Gesture of the Day: Alias Grace

I want to talk about Dr. Jordan's apple.

In Chapter 5 of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, the imprisoned murderess Grace Marks receives a visitor. It is Simon Jordan, a young psychologist--keep in mind that this is 1859--bearing a gift: an apple. Grace has consumed nothing but bread and water for several days now:

I am so thirsty the apple looks to me like a big round drop of water, cool and red. I could drink it down in one gulp. I hesitate; but then I think, There's nothing bad in an apple, and so I take it. [...] I lift it up and smell it. It has such an odour of outdoors on it I want to cry.

Aren't you going to eat it, he says.

No, not yet, I say.

Why not, he says.

[...] The truth is I don't want him watching me while I eat. I don't want him to see my hunger. If you have a need and they find it out, they will use it against you.

Now there's a lot going on in this chapter, and there's a lot going on with this apple. Much could be said of both. But I want to say just one thing. Dr. Jordan wants Grace to talk to him, to become his patient, the subject of his research. Grace distrusts him. She's been down this road before, and she resists his suggestion.

Will they take me back to the Asylum?I say. Or will they put me in solitary confinement, with nothing to eat but bread?

He says, I give you my word that as long as you continue to talk with me, and do not lose control of yourself and become violent, you shall remain as you were. I have the Governor's promise.

I look at him. I look away. I look at him again. I hold the apple in my two hands. He waits.

And then, in the very last line, this happens:

Finally I lift the apple up and press it to my forehead.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a gesture. Wouldn't it have been easy enough to have Grace bite the apple, thereby signaling her acceptance of Jordan's terms? And isn't this, the raising of the apple to her forehead, so much better? Less expected, more ambiguous, more emotionally resonant. Better.

These are the moments that make good fiction.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What I'm Reading: Wide Sargasso Sea

I first read Wide Sargasso Sea as part of a postcolonial lit class I took in college. In fact, I signed up for the postcolonial lit class solely and expressly because I wanted to read Wide Sargasso Sea. I was not disappointed.

Recently I gave a craft talk on setting at the Jefferson Parish Public Library. I pulled Sargasso down from the shelf because I thought I'd find some good use of setting in there. And I was right:

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible—the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered—then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and very strong. I never went near it.

How terrific is that? How vivid, how rich, how perfectly demonstrative of one of the book's primary themes, the simultaneous beauty and indifference of nature?

For the uninitiated, Sargasso is Jean Rhys' retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Antoinette-cum-Bertha, the madwoman in the attic. It's a slim little volume, scarcely 100 pages, but in that limited space Rhys manages to change and challenge our reading of Bronte's classic forever.

Like Jane Eyre, Sargasso begins with its heroine's lonely childhood:

I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think "It's better than people." Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin--once I saw a snake. All better than people.
Better. Better, better than people.


Wow! Doesn't that break your heart? Doesn't that pack a wallop?

The latter part of the book chronicles Antoinette's reluctant, dead-on-arrival marriage to an unnamed husband, i.e., Edward Rochester. Rochester enters this loveless marriage because, as a second son, he has no other way of acquiring money, but English primogeniture is only one of many forces that combine to doom them both. There's also the English legal system that deprives Antoinette of her property, the social isolation of European Creoles in Dominica, racial/gender/geographic stereotypes, and the plain old malice of petty, embittered people. A study in cruelty and misunderstanding, told in simple but powerful prose, Sargasso not only invites questions about colonization and gender politics; it also expands our understanding of and feelings for a character that Bronte (and don't get me wrong, I love her) threw under the bus.

When people say that literature helps create empathy, they're talking about books like Wide Sargasso Sea. Oh, my gosh, y'all. Just read it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Post-It Monsters and the Creative Life



"I was born in Denmark in 1978. I write and direct television shows for kids, I have a set of twins and not much time for anything. But when I do have time, I draw monsters on Post-It notes. It is a little window into a different world, made on office supplies."

Thus John Kenn Mortensen introduces his first book of Post-It note drawings of monsters. Sticky Monsters has pride of place beside my writing desk, for two reasons. First, the pictures seem so pregnant with stories to me. How can you lack for inspiration when you look at a picture like this?


Or this?


Or this?



Second, I think the whole concept of Post-It Note artwork is an apt encapsulation of what creative work is like for most people--that is, people with jobs and families. We write and paint and act and dance on the margins of our day. From eight to five we make copies and phone calls, we grade papers, wait tables, change diapers, and sweep parking lots, and somewhere, in some blessed fifteen minutes, we do what we were born to do. We make art. We may not have time to do all the creative work we would like, but damn it, we can fill a Post-It note-- and a Post-It note is all you need to make a new world.

How wonderful that these monsters, with all their charm and terror, were created the way so much art is created: on the fringes of a hectic life.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What I'm Reading: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

"Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents' house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver's cloak, and green jodhpurs, and green snowshoes. It is very cold above the clouds in the shantytowns where the Six Winds live.

'You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,' said the Green Wind. 'How would you like to come away with me and ride up on the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea, which borders Fairyland? I am afraid I cannot go in, as Harsh Airs are not allowed, but I should be happy to deposit you upon the Perverse and Perilous Sea.'

'Oh, yes!' said September, who disapproved deeply of pink-and-yellow teacups and also of small and amiable dogs."

As you might glean from these opening paragraphs, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is simultaneously an homage to classic fantasy literature for children and a (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) response to it. It has the whimsy, humor, and picaresque format of Alice in Wonderland; it has the enchanting other-worldliness and good-versus-evil conflict of The Wizard of Oz; and its narrative voice, together with its recurring theme of the heartlessness of children, could have come straight out of Peter Pan.

At the same time, Fairyland possesses a magic all its own. September's awareness of stories and of the fact that she is in one gives Fairyland a decidedly post-modern feel, even as the book hearkens back, both in spirit and through direct allusion, to the likes of Oz, Neverland, and Narnia. More notable still is Valente's excellent use of language. Take the following:

"September smoothed the lap of  her now-wrinkled and rumpled orange dress. She liked anything orange: leaves; some moons; marigolds; chrysanthemums; cheese; pumpkin, both in pie and out; orange juice; marmalade. Orange is bright and demanding. You can't ignore orange things. She once saw an orange parrot in the pet store and had never wanted anything so much in her life. She would have named it Halloween and fed it butterscotch. Her mother said butterscotch would make a bird sick and, besides, the dog would certainly eat it up. September never spoke to the dog again--on principle."

When I read that paragraph, I knew I had encountered something extraordinary--not only a tough and passionate female protagonist, but a spellbinding, lyrical narrative voice.

Inventiveness abounds in Fairyland. With every fantastic detail I encountered, from soap golems to woven cities to feral bicycles to wyverns with libraries for grandfathers, I found myself thinking over and over: I wish I'd come up with that! For all its charm, Fairyland does not shy from darkness or from putting its heroine in peril, and while it flatly rejects sentimentality, it exudes genuine emotion and deep thought.

Towards the end of the story, September asks a friend if she is "the chosen one" meant to redeem Fairyland. He responds: "Of course not. No one is chosen. Not ever. Not in the real world. [...] You chose. You chose it all." In a literary environment rife with stories about teenage messiahs fulfilling prophecies, this was, in my opinion, a much-needed counter-message.

Rarely have I encountered a children's book with such an astute combination of sensuous details, memorable characters, elegant prose, and reflection balanced with action. Go and read it immediately.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dialogue Presentation

On May 4 at 7 PM, I'll be giving a creative workshop on how to write dialogue. All the cool kids will be there.