Reading for Writers: Englishes in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

A former Tamil Tiger in an Australian detention center. A transgender grandmother in New Orleans. An Australian woman trapped in an abusive relationship in Uganda. With this wide, global view, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of short stories, Foreign Soil: And Other Stories, examines issues of identity and displacement across an expansive swath of space and time. Clarke uses a poetic attention to vernacular to bring her readers past the narrative, offering an immersive experience with each story.

From the epigraph of the book (“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe), Clarke sets high expectations for her readers and she delivers. Throughout these stories, Clarke uses nonstandard English to tell nonstandard stories. The first story of the collection, “David,” follows a chance meeting of two Sudanese women in Australia, one who is Australian-born and one who was born in Sudan. Each woman’s voice mirrors the life she has known. These two voices side by side highlight the ways in which language shapes one’s view of the world but also the connections that can happen despite linguistic differences. From the outset, Clarke is playing with language. It’s no surprise that she is also a poet. Her attention to the smallest details of accent and sound are evident throughout the collection.

Clarke’s use of nonstandard English goes beyond dialog. For example, in “Gaps in the Hickory,” the narration is in third person but affects a dialect of the Southern United States that would be comfortable for the characters. “Ain’t no buckin up gon cover up how much Carter miss his gram,” (131) Clarke writes. Though the dialect is not always authentic (most Americans would use the term “bangs” for “fringe”), it nevertheless adds to the ambiance of the story and sets it more firmly in place. The use of dialect also requires the reader to set himself into the language and world of the characters, instead of trying to put the characters in a vernacular that is not their own.

Her most poignant use of language happens in the story “Big Islan.” In this narrative, which is written in a Jamaican dialect, we follow Nathaniel Robinson as he learns to read English. The language gives him a sense of place as he can find his home of Jamaica on the globe, but the language is inaccurate for his experience of the world. Nathaniel learns “E is for Inglan” (182) and “A is for Owstrayleah” (188). The letters don’t match his own speech. His newfound ability to read is a mixed blessing, giving him both H, which “always gwan stand fe home” (185) and “E fe envy” (189). In the end, his ability to read the newspaper makes “de city im grow te love so-so dear, Kingston, feel insignificant small” (191).

Clarke’s use of dialects makes her reader feel acutely the theme around which the stories in this collection rotate: displacement. Clarke does not stick to any one vernacular or voice. Instead, the stories cycle through some of the myriad Englishes that have evolved around the globe. Because of this, the reader can never settle in to one style of writing, but is constantly recalibrating her reading in order to adjust to the narrators.

The variety of characters, voices, and places in Foreign Soil underscores the variety of forms of displacement. One of the most compelling aspects of Foreign Soil is its “globality” (181), to use a term coined by the character Nathaniel in “Big Islan.” Clarke does not focus on one people or one part of the world. Nor does her exploration of displacement end with being in a new country. The collection explores racism, gender identity, immigration issues, and religious intolerance, to name just a few themes. Far from feeling scattered, the range of stories brings home Clarke’s point: that displacement in a global world can happen to anyone, anywhere.

The newest story in the collection, added for the 2017 edition, is “Aviation,” the tale of a Sikh child, Sunni, in need of emergency foster care. Sunni ends up on the doorstep of Mirabel, whose husband was killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. In her attempt to provide a home for a child in need, Mirabel comes face to face with her own prejudices. In the end, the reader does not find out whether or not she fosters Sunni. This story, like many in the collection, is a story of people who find themselves in impossible positions. The narratives resolve and feel complete, but they also often leave their main characters and their readers to sit in the discomfort. Nathaniel, of “Big Islan” is left restless in Jamaica. The eponymous main character of “Harlem Jones” is left holding a Molotov cocktail. Sunni is left waiting to be fostered. These stories are not about how displacement dissolves or is overcome, but about the displacement itself, about being in the thick of it.

Her final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club,” feels strikingly autobiographical. The struggle of a young single mother trying to make it as a writer, told in first person, is juxtaposed with a story she is writing about Avery, a girl who is stuck upside down in an impossible position on the monkey bars. Once again, Avery and the writer are characters displaced. These narratives side by side highlight the constant question throughout the book: can Clarke’s characters find a way down, a place to land?

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Finding the “I” in Creative Nonfiction: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story

Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story examines what makes a good piece of nonfiction. She writes, “Every work of literature has a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (p. 13). Gornick examines several essays and memoirs to explore how the situation and the story work in creative nonfiction. She stresses that we cannot just tell the situation, but must also know what the story is that we are trying to tell.

Finding out what the story is in the piece then allows the writer to organize their writing around this insight. We can then look at the narrative line of the work and tie this to the wisdom that compels it. Gornick pushes us to ask: “Who is speaking? What is being said? What is the relation between the two?” How does the insight gained come to bear on the structure of the narrative? Is the reader along for the same journey of discovery as the speaker? Or does the reader know the outcome at the beginning and watch the narrator struggle with it?

She looks especially at the narrator of these nonfiction pieces to see what they can tell us about how we can coax the story out of our own experiences. We don’t always have to know who we are, she says, but we have to know who we are at the moment of writing. This is an important insight. It is easy to think of the nonfiction self as a given. We could assume that we are cohesive selves with only one voice and when we write nonfiction, we use that voice. But this is far from true. Our voice and perspective change with different situations and with time. Which aspect of yourself is telling the story? Gornick suggests crafting a persona based on the insight that drives the piece. What is the story of this situation? Which aspect of yourself is best suited to tell that story? Answering these questions will allow us to know who we are at the moment of writing.

One aspect of The Situation and the Story that really stuck with me was Gornick’s discussion of how to treat subjects. She insists that writers of nonfiction must treat their subjects, including themselves, with empathy and dimension. Is it true that you are completely innocent and your foe is all monster? Gornick pushes us as writers to make things more complicated, more dynamic than that. She asks us to look at situations from multiple perspectives to get at the stories. This includes looking at ourselves from multiple perspectives. We can’t just rely on being the hero or heroine of our own story, fighting the forces of evil. That story’s been told and doesn’t resonate as honest. After all, we’re all more complicated than that, aren’t we?

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Eschewing Genre in Creative Nonfiction: Richard K. Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven

Make Prayers to the raven book cover

Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest by Richard K. Nelson is a documentation of the plants and animals that frequent the forests of interior Alaska. It’s true that this book is about a place I am currently enthralled with. It’s also true that there’s a soft spot in my heart for any book about plants and wildlife. However, what makes this book really interesting is the ways in which Nelson eschews nonfiction genres to come up with something all his own.

This book could have been a narrative of his experiences living in a Koyukon village in the 1970s. It wasn’t. It doesn’t occur in chronological order and doesn’t have much of a narrative arc. Instead, the book is structured in chapters such as “The Birds” and “Ecological Patterns and Conservation Practices” with subheadings for individual species and phenomena. This sets the tone for the work feeling like a guidebook to the forest.

Instead of listing facts about animals and plants, however, Nelson draws on a multitude of sources in order to give a greater picture of how the Koyukon people view and interact with the world around them. He uses the research of anthropologists who have come before him, anecdotes from his experiences of living in the village, and excerpts from his own journal. The effects of these sources are interesting. What is structured and presented as a catalog of facts about the forest becomes a little less black-and-white. This is apropos given the nature of Koyukon beliefs and knowledge about the forest, which is up for interpretation and change based on personal experience. It is also appropriate given Nelson’s awareness of his own status as an outsider, which makes him wary of speaking for the Koyukon people. By using this variety of resources including his own experiences and journal entries, he can give his readers the same impressions that he had without putting words in other people’s mouths.

Nelson as the writer is interestingly placed in this book. For a book that uses anecdotal evidence and journal entries for much of its information, the narrator is surprisingly absent. This is because all of the personal writing and experience that Nelson uses is always about something other than himself. His journal is only used to further give information and rarely gives his own ideas or thoughts. Nelson very consciously positions himself as an outsider in the village and the culture about which he is writing, and he does a good job of keeping himself an outsider in the book that he writes.

The end result is that Make Prayers to the Raven is not an anthropological study of the Koyukon people, or a wildlife guide to the forest of Interior Alaska, or a narrative about Nelson’s experiences there. Instead, there’s a melding of these possibilities. For me as a writer, it made me think a little more broadly about the ways that I can structure and inform my nonfiction. Nelson shows that the structure, the sources used, and the position of the I do not need to all line up to one traditional standard genre. Instead, using these things in unconventional ways can allow us as writers to come to greater truths than following convention alone.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Using Fiction in Memoir: Maxine Hong Kinston’s The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston uses fiction to heighten the poignancy and power of her memoir, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts.  Throughout the book, Kingston uses not only her own memories, but also the stories she’s been told to form for the reader a picture of her formative years and the tension she feels as she creates an identity for herself.  She uses fictional elements to speculate, draw meaning, and show her reader the effects that stories (whether they be true or not) come to bear on one’s identity.

Kingston opens her book with “No Name Woman,” a story about her aunt.  But this isn’t just any family story.  It’s one that is shrouded in mystery and silence.  Because of this secrecy, Kingston must resort to speculating to fill in the details of this story.  It’s important that she understand the details because this story is one that her mother uses as a cautionary tale.  In ruminating about the details of this story, Kingston comes up with several possible variations even ones that she admits are improbable and don’t fit.  She wrestles with understanding the details of the story so that she can find “ancestral help” (8).  However, this speculation has come to bear on Kingston’s understanding of herself as a Chinese-American woman.  Kingston shows us through these variations of the story how this family narrative has shaped her understanding of many things.  It shaped the way she understood her relationship with her parents, and with her extended family.  It shaped the way Kingston understands what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be a woman.  It shaped her relationships with men and her ideas about differing standards of beauty.  Ultimately, it shaped how Kingston came to understand her own identity.  In sharing these different versions of the story, Kingston shares with her readers her process for dealing with the story and shows the reader the impact that both the story and the silence surrounding the story have had on her.

In “Shaman” Kingston takes her storytelling even further from anything that could be seen as the “objective reality” that we normally associate with the genre of nonfiction.  The chapter starts with a ghost story from the point of view of Kingston’s mother as a schoolgirl.  In it, her mother actually wrestles with a ghost before exorcising it from the school.  In a genre bent on “honesty” and “truth,” stories like this one can be difficult for a reader to swallow.  But Kingston uses the story to show how she came to see herself living in a world full of ghosts. She says that “America has been so full of machines and ghosts — Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (96-97). This discussion of ghosts shows the importance of Kingston’s childhood understanding of being “other” in America and allows the reader to feel the otherworldliness of that experience.  Describing that feeling and the day-to-day happenings in her life alone would not have given the same emotional impact to the reader.  By using these fictional elements, Kingston lets her reader feel along with her the supernatural, the fear, the separateness that comes with understanding herself in relation to her surroundings that way.

Kingston’s fictional storytelling reaches its apex in “White Tigers,” in which she spends nearly twenty pages telling the story of Fa Mu Lan.  However, she does not tell the story in a detached, here’s-a-story-from-my-childhood sort of way.  Nor does she tell it in a let-me-tell-you-a-historical-story-of-my heritage way.  Instead, she tells the story in first person, as she experienced it herself when she “couldn’t tell where the stories left off and dreams began” (19).  In telling this story in first person, the reader can begin to understand the impact of this story on a young Kingston and can feel the expectations and potential that Kingston would have felt as a child.  It also brings home her point when she says, “My American life has been such a disappointment” (45).  Because the reader has seen the story of Fa Mu Lan from the eyes of Kingston herself, the reader can understand on a deeper level the sense of disappointment that the author must have felt.  Finally, Kingston shows how important this story and stories in general have been in her life when she compares herself to Fa Mu Lan, “What we have in common are the words at our backs” (53).  Here she suggests that while they do not have the shared experience of going to war in ancient China, the stories that they have in common unite them.  Because of this, Kingston can use Fa Mu Lan’s story to come to a deeper understanding of herself, her experiences, and her expectations.

Throughout the book, Kingston tells her reader about listening to the talk-story of her family and the ways in which these talk-stories came to bear on her understanding of herself. She writes, “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (19). More than just telling her reader the importance of these stories on her life and memories, she shows us by telling us the stories, too. They have more weight than we usually give fictional stories because we can see how Kingston was influenced by these stories. Because we are told the stories as well, we as readers can also be influenced by them and therefore relate to Kingston and her experiences.

Though it may seem that including these non-factual stories in Woman Warrior undermines the validity of the truth of Kingston’s memories, it actually has the effect of giving a fuller picture of her dreams, expectations, disappointments, and fears.  Without these stories, it would be more difficult for readers to understand the complexities of Kingston’s experience growing up between cultures.  These stories allow the reader to feel the dissonance between Kingston’s Chinese upbringing and her American existence.  In the same way, when writing nonfiction, we can use fictional elements and stories to give the reader a fuller picture of our experiences.  Fictional stories often hold weight in the factual world, coming to bear on the ways that people understand themselves, the places around them, and their relationships with society at large.  Using these fictional stories to give a fuller picture is especially useful in memoirs.  If we are trying to understand and to help our readers understand our experiences, the stories we tell ourselves can give more insight into how we’ve developed and come to understand ourselves.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

How to Make Memoir Meaningful: Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories

I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: A Sojourn into Memory is a thoughtful, compelling book. Twice as I was reading it, I felt an overwhelming urge to put down the book and write. Both times the writing and feelings were so moving that I was brought to tears. It is a gathering of thoughts and questions on memory and memoir.

I will admit, I am skeptical of memory and wary of memoir. To me, memories are so malleable, so constructed (See Radio Lab’s episode on Memory and Forgetting.) that I’ve never felt that I could trust them as a source of truth in writing. And as much as I’ve been wanting to write more nonfiction, I cringe at the idea of writing memoir. Isn’t it just navel-gazing? Aren’t there some truths that are better portrayed through fiction?

Hampl’s Stories addresses both these points directly. In fact, these are the themes that the essays in the book pivot around. The book opens with an iteration of one of her childhood memories, which Hampl then examines for accuracy. In doing so, she points out the several lies in her story and allows herself to explore why her memory would make such deceptions. This sets the tone for her essays, which do not claim a factual, historical truth but instead dig for something deeper.

She follows this up with ruminations about why people write memoirs and the importance of memory. She presents the possibility for memoir as a political act, a witness to the world in which it takes place. Instead of memoir as a focus on the self within a larger picture, Hampl offers the option to think of memoir as a focus on the larger picture through the lens of the self. She uses the Vietnam War, communist Czechoslovakia, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Anne Frank’s diary to illuminate the different ways that constructing memories can be political acts. This connection of the personal to the political is one way that memoirs can rise above navel-gazing and become relevant throughout history.

She also addresses one of the biggest problems that memoir writers have: how to fold people you know and love into your stories. In her poignant last essay of the book, she leaves her readers with a question mark. She examines the ways that she has dealt with this issue especially in regards to her mother.  In the end, the reader leaves feeling that Hampl is still wrestling with how to understand the tension that exists between her relationships and her writing.

One of the most compelling things about I Could Tell You Stories is Hampl’s stunning honesty. One might think that a memoir about memoir (a meta-memoir, even) might be the consummate act of navel-gazing. But Hampl’s honesty keeps the book from veering off into that realm. She points out the lies in her own memories, examines herself under glaring light, and writes openly about her struggles with various topics. It is this honesty that allows her to connect her own stories with the larger world.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Call for Submissions: The Litragger

Are you looking for a place to re-publish works that have already appeared in print?  The Litragger is the place!  Check out their submission guidelines below:

 

Dear Writers,

We are republishing work that has previously appeared in print, exists in back issues, but does not have an online presence. We believe firmly in the benefit of publishing in print. But we also believe that writers deserve the opportunity to place their work online in a well-designed reading environment, following the print publication cycle, so that they may find new readers and build an audience on the web.

So if you have a piece, send it to us!

Email a word document or PDF to submissions@litragger.com.

Just let us know where it appeared originally and when it was published, and we’ll read it and let you know if we think it’s a good fit.

– Adam and Landon

 

Reading for Writers: Dino Campana’s “The Night”

200px-Dino_Campana1909

 

There were a lot of interesting things happening in Dino Campana’s essay “The Night.” There were some incredible metaphors and exquisite language which made me wonder about the expectations that we usually have for nonfiction in terms of style and language. Another stylistic component of note is that Campana does not use any names to refer to the characters in this essay. Instead, the only names that he uses are those of famous artists and writers. Campana also has a really arresting way of changing the pronouns that he uses for the characters, including himself, in his work. The effect of this is jarring but also captivating.

The first thing I noticed about this essay was the language being used. It is incredibly poetic and lyrical. There are a number of really striking metaphors, for example, “broken hovels like old bruises, dead windows.” Or, even more gripping: “the white Mediterranean night joked with the huge shapes of the women while the flame’s bizarre death-attempts went on and on in the streetlamp’s cave.” Language like this, though interesting and beautiful may be jarring for a reader who is looking for a straightforward account of Campana’s escapades. It made me think about the expectations that readers bring to nonfiction and whether essays have an obligation to live up to these expectation. Is it factually true that the night was joking (Or, put another way, can that be fact checked?)? How does metaphor come into play in essays? Or, more directly, what is the place of metaphor and lyrical, poetic language in nonfiction? If the reader is coming to the piece looking for truth and accuracy, how far can the writer go with metaphors and poetic language? In general, I think that if it is clear that the writer is using metaphor and clear what the writer is intending to express, this kind of language can greatly enhance creative nonfiction pieces. However, in this piece the metaphors were so dense and thick that it may have obscured some of the reader’s understanding of the truths behind the language. It made me question whether that was intentional. Perhaps Campana’s experience was so dreamlike that he wanted to convey that to the reader. Or maybe he did not want his reader to have a clear sense of what was going on. Perhaps he wanted his reader to experience the feel of the situation more than the events surrounding it. Is this authorial prerogative?

The esoteric, dreamlike quality of this narrative is pushed further by Campana’s refusal to use the names of characters populating his essay. It’s interesting that he doesn’t ever refer to anyone in the narrative by their name, only by their physical description. This can make it difficult for the reader to follow at times, but it also is especially interesting given the subject matter. Perhaps Campana did not know the name of anyone with whom he interacted that night. This is made even more peculiar by the constant name-dropping that he does with famous writers and artists. The lack of character names in the essay is even more stark next to the names of Faust, Dante, Leonardo, and Michelangelo and the names of saints. It’s as if he is drawing the distinction between these exalted, nameable people and the people in his narrative.

In addition to not giving his characters names, he also switches the pronoun that he uses to refer to them. In one section of the essay, he refers to the amber-bodied girl as “she” and later he seems to be addressing her as”you.” The most striking instance in which he does this is when he goes from using a first-person perspective of his experience to speaking about himself in the third person briefly. He refers to “the person I had once been” as “he” for two sections. This gives an interesting effect of distancing himself from the events of the night, making it his former self and not him who had these experiences. However, he only can keep this distance for a short time before going back to “I” and owning the experiences again.

All of these things made this essay difficult to decipher, as if the reader were decoding the text instead of reading it. The use of metaphors and lyrical language obscured some of the concreteness of the experiences that he was ruminating on.   The failure to use names of characters often made who he was actually talking about ambiguous. Even his pronouns when talking about these people (including himself!) were not consistent. The combination of these things gave the essay a dreamlike, nearly impenetrable quality. However, for me personally, these things added an interesting depth and dimension to the essay as well as giving a peak into the possible obfuscation that Campana was attempting. It made me ask a lot of questions, mostly unresolved, but also very interesting.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices.