does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For Whom Does the Writer Write?

“For whom does the writer write?
… for … anyone at all …
because the act of reading is just as singular
… as the act of writing.”

Margaret Atwood
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

After my previous post about Dante, I wondered if I had been self indulgent in writing about my personal experience with Dante. Then, thanks to Ann Victor, who had suggested Atwood’s book, I found peace. I am the singular writer that I am. You are the singular reader that you are. Sometimes our respective singularities will resonate. Sometimes they won’t. Thank you all the same for being potential readers willing to receive my letters from the cyber postal carrier.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where in Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell Do My Characters Reside?

This all started because I had to read Dante’s Inferno for a class. As I grumbled through page after page describing Hell in agonizing detail, I asked myself how I could possibly benefit from such torture. A priest might say, “Sin no more!” I—you guessed it—wrote this post instead. In asking you to read this, I may be committing a violent sin against your person, one of the worst sins in Dante’s ranking. If so, I apologize. Here’s the potential upside for the writers among you. Like me, you might glean from Dante insights about character development. I suppose I could have used other criteria such as Catholic Sins and Virtues, Enneagram analysis, etc. but this post is about using Dante to analyze my characters. I’d love to hear about any analytical paradigm you use.

My title question seems to assume that my characters are in Hell. Does this mean I only write about characters with hellish characteristics? Hybrid secularist/spiritual person that I am, I sidestep this issue and state that outside of Heaven and Hell, whether divinely or humanly inspired, we all probably embrace aspects of both. Dante’s Inferno does an interesting job, though, of ranking human foibles or, as he calls them, sins. In so doing, he provides a potentially useful template for evaluating fictional characters and for examining whether as a writer one tends toward one type of character versus another.

First, a brief overview of Dante’s nine circles of Hell. From bad to worse, they are:

Upper Hell. The Self Indulgent
o 1st – Virtuous Pagans
o 2nd – Lustful
o 3rd – Gluttons
o 4th – Hoarders and Spendthrifts
o 5th – Wrathful and Slothful

Lower Hell. Violent and Malicious Sinners
o 6th – Violence toward God – heretics et al.
o 7th – Violence toward self and others – suicides, war makers et al.
o 8th – Malice through “simple” fraud – hypocrites, thieves et al.
o 9th – Malice through “compound” fraud– traitors against kin, country et al.

Interesting patterns emerged from my analysis to determine which Inferno characteristic(s) my fictional characters represented.

· All but two characters embody characteristics representative of more than one circle of Hell.

· Characters in my first novel seem to gravitate toward opposite ends of the spectrum.

· My favorite novel is equally represented in all circles of Hell.

· Among all novels, I have the greatest preponderance in Circles 6-7, Violence against God, self, and others; with Circle 1, Virtuous Pagans, coming in a distant second place. That could mean that the struggle between virtue and violence engages me more than any other, and that violence wins. Or it could simply reflect that my novels deal with spiritual/religious struggles, which may result in violence against God, self and others. In my characters’ efforts to understand and integrate spirituality into their lives, they sometimes engage in self-destructive or aggressive behavior.

· In each of my novels, I have at least one character that tends toward violence and another toward virtue.

· The smallest representation is in Circles 3, gluttons; and 5, wrathful and slothful. Does that reflect a personal predisposition toward ascetism and/or moderation?

· Even though Upper Hell has five circles, it has less representation in my characters than the more hellish Lower Hell which only has four circles. Does that mean that when they’re in Hell, my characters are really in Hell?

It was a surprisingly fascinating exercise to use Dante to analyze my characters. I will not change my novels retrospectively, but I plan to use the Dante test on future writing projects. On this life journey I call a pilgrimage, perhaps that test might even help me personally.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Spirit Possession

Spirit possession figures prominently in two of my novels. In Choosing Sides, the young protagonist Angélica receives the Holy Spirit and, while speaking in tongues, calls a young man to missionary work in México. In Hidden Warriors, Andrea Norman is stunned to discover that her demure best friend, whom she believed to be a secular anthropologist, turns out also to be a priestess of the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion.

I don’t share the belief system of either Pentecostalism or candomblé. As a multicultural writer, though, I feel compelled to honor each in a phenomenological way.

Phenomenology: the philosophical investigation and description of conscious experience in all its varieties without reference to the question of whether what is experienced is objectively real.

Because of my childhood in the Pentecostal church, I had an easier time describing what happens when the Holy Spirit anoints Angélica.

“… she started vibrating as if charged with electricity and then abruptly checked her spin. Standing in place, still trembling, she heard herself utter, “. . . ika bababanda ... samakatabanda ....” Barely aware of the unintelligible syllables spilling out of her, she was more conscious of the unspeakable joy filling her with a lightness she’d never even thought possible before.”

Angélica emerges from that trancelike state only to see a young guitarist pointing to her and saying,

“‘That young girl … has been God’s instrument for calling me to missionary work, aleluya, and … I vow that, within the year, my wife and I will leave for México to carry out His Word.’”

She has no recollection of having issued such a call to missionary work.

In Hidden Warriors, describing being taken over by a deity of the candomblé pantheon posed a greater challenge. In the Pentecostal church, though, I had spoken in tongues, another trance-like spiritual experience. Using that background and extensive research, I created a scene in which atheist Andrea unexpectedly comes upon a ceremony featuring her friend Flora in full possession by an orisha.

“… The drumbeat intensified. Like sweet virgin turned harlot, Flora strutted around the room. Undulating sensuously … her now lurid body strained outrageously against her elegant form‑fitting yellow silk gown. Wherever she went now, they thrust gifts at her—gold bracelets, jewelry, perfume, silks. She acknowledged them haughtily. … Over the thumping drumbeat, I … saw the shadowy responses of those she deigned to honor with her words. Sometimes they twitched in fits. Sometimes they cried. Still others collapsed in place after contact with her. She held a mysterious, terrifying power over those in the room, a power defying all reason…. Who was this woman?”

Flora, too, does not recall later what happened while in trance.

I used to reject categorically the validity of otherworldly phenomena. Now, nudged by the “fantastical” realm of quantum physics and also by personal experiences, I simply accept that I just don’t know. Interestingly, the world’s appetite for the religions described above is, if anything, growing. Harvard religious scholar Harvey Cox considers Pentecostalism to be the world’s fastest growing religion. In some Third World countries, it is already the majority religion. Candomblé is one of several thriving syncretic religions, including Cuban santería and Haitian voodoo, which emerged from the African Diaspora. I might not get much support in certain evangelical circles for saying this, but African religious influences may even have played a role in the early development of Pentecostalism. In a talk about Yoruba religion given to a comparative religion class, I speculated about potential African influences in the early development of the Pentecostal religion.

This is why I love to write fiction. One day, I might be in a U.S. Latino working class church describing a young girl speaking in tongues. The next day, I could be in an Ipanema penthouse describing a wealthy matron overtaken by an African-derived goddess. It’s easier and more fun than getting on an airplane.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Madam And The Courtesan

Recently, Liz Vega introduced me to Mayra Santos-Febres novel, Our Lady of the Night. Set in early-to-mid-twentieth-century Puerto Rico, Nuestra Señora de la Noche tells the story of Isabel La Negra, a legendary madam. Though black, she penetrates the heart of Puerto Rican aristocracy through the men who frequent her brothel. Overcoming the obstacles of color, early poverty, and her profession, she revels in becoming a powerful, independent woman. That power comes at tremendous cost, including giving up sight unseen her son at birth. Honoring a type of woman usually stepped on or ignored in historical accounts, Mayra Santos-Febres’ novel recounts Puerto Rican modern history from the standpoint of:

“… that dark corner of the hidden Whore who pushes out the bastard nation.” [“… ese rincón oculto de la Puta escondida que puja a la nación bastarda.”]

In my own novel The Old Prophet’s House, set in late twentieth-century Chicago, courtesan Charlyn Blake also revels in her independence. A schoolteacher in her regular life, she conceals from her grandfather, a conservative Episcopalian minister, that she is also the kept woman of a wealthy lawyer.

"Her hand fell on the old Bible on the seat next to her. She stroked its worn leather cover, soft like chamois, the repository of Blake family history; its official history, because it sure didn’t include its secrets."

Charlyn has two big secrets. The open secret is Charlyn’s life style which, except for Grampa, everyone knows about, but which no one publicly acknowledges. The greater secret is the son Charlyn gave up at birth. The unrepentant Charlyn tells herself:

"I couldn’t care less about redemption, Grampa. And I still don’t apologize for having been a mistress, only that you might have found out about it. For that matter, I don’t want power, except to control my own life."

Both Isabel la Negra and Charlyn put up a resolute front. In the end, though, each tracks down the son given up at birth, acknowledging the deep tear in their psyche occasioned by that early choice. I wonder if both Santos-Febres and I succumbed to cultural pressure to portray these two characters as failed women, salvageable only through reneging on their original choice to give up a child. Or were we simply acknowledging the reality of what sometimes happens when a mother abandons a child? Did we honor our characters or did we fail them in the end? Would they be grander, more memorable characters if they continue living with impunity? Do they actually live with impunity?

I remind myself that I did not intend to write about every courtesan who gives up a child, only about my fictional character Charlyn Blake. I suspect Mayra Santos-Febres also did not intend to write about every whore or madam in Puerto Rico. The relevant question should be, Did we honor the characters we set out to write? In my case, I won’t know the full verdict until my readers weigh in. As for Santos-Febres, she made me care deeply about her character and also taught me something about Puerto Rican history. Dare I ask more from a novelist?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Whiskey Priest

“He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a name for his kind—whiskey priest … one day [his failings] would choke up … the source of grace … [but] until then he carried on.”

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

John Updike called this novel Graham Greene’s masterpiece. It is the story of an anonymous fugitive priest at a time when Mexico outlawed Catholicism. While he flees the authorities who want him to recant his vocation or be killed, the priest struggles with defining what is nonnegotiable in the clash between personal survival and faith. By his own admission, he is not a worthy individual. He has fought with a dog for meat left on a discarded bone, fathered a bastard child, and used sacramental wine to drink himself into a stupor.

My fiction frequently focuses on people struggling with religious faith, including ministers and priests. Graham Greene has set the bar high for me, exhorting me to shun easy stereotypes and instead depict characters who beyond their title and occupation are human beings first. By portraying authentically the humanity of a whiskey priest, Greene transmuted the priest’s struggle into that of the universal person who asks, How do I achieve redemption given how terribly flawed I am?

It is a dilemma faced by at least two of my characters:

- Bishop Aldo, whose powerful family smoothes his rise in the Peruvian Catholic hierarchy, asks, “What was left of that priest who asked for forgiveness and absolution? Had he been a fluke, never seen before, never to be experienced again? In truth, I was not sure I had ever really been a priest. I may simply have been the vacuous construct of my family’s wish to ensure unbroken access to power.”

- Rev. Brian Dolatowski struggles to understand why, “Try as he might, he just could never ease into Regina’s seemingly effortless spirituality. … All Brian ever felt with any real conviction was abysmal self-doubt. Then how could someone like him purport to be a minister, unless it was to bond with other similarly cynical, flawed people? If so, what was the point? ”

Neither of my characters leaves the priesthood or ministry. Greene’s whiskey priest, acutely self aware of his shortcomings, repeatedly tries to flee his priestly duties. Throughout The Power and the Glory, he finds himself pulled back from the brink of dissolution and despair by the entreaty of the poorest and most unworthy among him — vomit-and-feces-covered fellow prisoners in a crowded prison cell, a gap-toothed treacherous mestizo, a debased policeman. Though he no longer wears priestly garments and is himself guilty of lust, envy, cowardice, ingratitude, and above all pride, desperately poor Indians save him from descent into his baser self when they appeal to him to celebrate mass and the sacrament of confession. While doing so, he sheds his facile descriptions of morality, faith, and God; rediscovering the numinous in the Communion Host.

Perhaps that is why I like to write and read about flawed characters such as these. Despite their human failings and misgivings, they search for The Mystery that underlies existence. In so doing, I suspect they represent many among us.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Cry of Lares – A Short Story

“My father never stopped talking about la plaza de Lares. It had the only two details of Puerto Rican history he thought important. First, there was the church, a colonial Catholic relic anchoring the plaza at one end. Then, in front of it, a monument commemorated El Grito de Lares, an ill‑fated nineteenth‑century insurrection against Spanish rule. I’d never actually seen the plaza. In their faraway Chicago projects, papi and mami never rubbed enough chavos together to take us back to their homeland before they died. Yet here I was, after an overnight sail from the Dominican Republic with three prep school buddies, serving as their guide to Puerto Rico, about which my older sister, Aida, used to say, If that stupid Lares was so frickin nice, why papi and mami leave it then?”

That is the beginning of my short story “The Cry of Lares.” You may read the rest of it at the following link: