does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Religion, My Writing, and Me

“I am wise in this small respect: I do not think I know what I do not.”

It has been a while since I addressed what is, after all, one of the major themes of my fiction and this blog — my relationship with religion. This probably reflects my reluctance, even fear, to address a topic known to raise the hackles of many.

I am also aware of a curious phenomenon, which is that my readers span a startling range of religious belief, from avowed atheists to passionate evangelizers. I sometimes wonder why that is and speculate that perhaps they share or at least respect my impulse to create a big tent under which a veritable bazaar of religious beliefs and disbeliefs can exist.

As stated in my earlier My Religious Primer post: “Except when they resort to violence and excessive proselytizing, I deeply respect the attempt of most religions to seek coherence and order in a world that intrinsically may be incoherent and chaotic.” To this I add that I find the same impulse in nonreligious people as well. You won’t find religions bashed in this blog. Nor will you find proselytizing for any religion or for atheism. I am as prone to cite a Buddhist text as I am to mention a Bible verse or a scientist’s aloof statement regarding matters of the spirit.

But, other than respecting people’s individual choices, what do I believe? In one sense, the totality of this blog describes it. I believe we all follow a deep yearning to be free, to be whole, to live in joy and in safety. I like to hope that we could all love each other even as we don’t know each other. In the end, I believe life is both blessing and mystery.

If that seems childlike, perhaps it is. In one of my novels, there is a tropical scene which inspired this blog’s waterfall images. In it, the infant protagonist escapes her mother’s attention and wanders off to a nearby waterfall. The child's impressions come close to describing my own awe when faced with the numinous dimension.

"She stumbled her way toward the boulder which had a flat ledge about 14 inches off the ground. She scrambled up on the ledge and inched forward on her chest until she discovered below her a stream leading away from a gentle waterfall on her left to another one about 20 feet to her right.

"The air was now so misty it seemed almost iridescent. Even with the nearby rush of falling water, she could still hear birds twittering and the call of a coquí. She slid forward to dip her hand in the stream’s water and slipped. Grabbing the edges of the narrow ledge, she managed to keep from falling into the stream .… Fully covered in mud, she looked around her at the dense green vegetation blurred by mist. She no longer felt afraid. The sounds around her were so soft …. The palm trees, the ferns, the moss-covered pebbles all seemed to glisten, and she felt as if a delicate presence expanded and contracted and wrapped itself around her. "

I embrace the essential Mystery at the core of existence which perhaps only a child can experience without fear. I try mightily not to reduce that Mystery to doctrine. When Socrates says, “I do not think I know what I do not,” that is the extent of the religious wisdom I claim.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Hero’s Journey – Kafka’s Gregor Samsa as the Voice of Disability

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams
he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Once again, I use a fictional character to help depict heroism. But a man turned insect, you say? Where is the heroism in that? Before I am accused of trivializing disability, let me share that three generations of disabling illness in my family have sensitized me to the very real challenges faced with severe disability. The Metamorphosis, once past the fantastical element, is one of the best depictions I have ever read about the challenges, consequences, and ultimately the heroism associated with disability, both for the individual sufferer and for his caregiving family.

As I read the story, I kept wondering how Kafka was able to capture so poignantly the dilemma of a disabled person and his family. Indeed, no analysis I have come across has honed in on Gregor Samsa as a symbol of disability. Then I found out that Kafka had suffered from tuberculosis, requiring frequent stays in sanitariums, extended support and caretaking by his family, until he died from complications of the illness. I realized then that Kafka had lived the limitations and ostracism associated with disability, an experience he transmuted into that of a man imprisoned in an insect body.

A brief recap of The Metamorphosis: The secure if unexciting life of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, is completely overturned when he awakes transformed into a gigantic insect. His parents and sister, who have depended on him economically, are also thrown into a turmoil over how to integrate this new reality. Though everyone sees him as a terrifying insect, Gregor inside still feels and thinks like a normal person and is heartbroken when others can’t see that. Eventually, after being shunned and attacked by his family, strangers, and a work colleague, Gregor succumbs to a fatal wound and dies, whereupon his family thrives financially and socially.

The trajectory of Gregor and his family is reprised daily all over the world in families living with disability. Many a disabled former head of household exhibits a similar selfless concern for his family. Gregor internalizes his emotional and physical pain while attempting outwardly to guide his family in their new reality. Many a family starts out with the best intentions only to be overwhelmed by the demands imposed on them. Gregor's family, undergoing its own grief and also burdened with caregiving, initially attempts to act honorably, only to be overcome with impatience and disdain.

Ultimately, though, the tragedy is uniquely Gregor’s. He is the one suffering the limited mobility and inability to speak, the rejection, his diminished status, and his having become a burden to those who loved him. Like so many struck with disability, he carries on with the quiet courage that is his most heroic quality. His trajectory begins with a plaintive “What has happened to me?” and progresses through the classic stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It ends sadly with the realization that “The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister.” He dies not long after.

Gregor Samsa’s story, of course, has wider applicability than the compelling one of disability. Vladimir Nabokov has said about this story, “Kafka’s private nightmare was that the central human character belongs to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around him but pathetically and tragically he attempts to struggle out of that world into the world of humans and dies in despair.”

I focus on Gregor Samsa’s life here, though, to highlight the quiet courage and heroism of people whose ordinary lives are made extraordinary by the tragedy of disability. Often, as in Gregor’s case, that tragedy is transmuted into heroism. Sometimes, as in the case of the Samsa family, it manifests as craven rejection and selfishness. Kafka’s genius is that he was able to communicate all this through a story about a man-turned-insect.

Of possible interest:

Vladimir Nabokov, acted by Christopher Plummer, lectures about The Metamorphosis and reads excerpts. Part I Part II Part III

The complete A Hero's Journey series here

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Prince Royce, Shakira, and Blended Cultural Identity

My car radio had just finished playing Prince Royce’s version of “Stand by Me” when Shakira came on with “NO,” and I thought, what a great way to portray the multicultural reality of most Latin Americans. These two artists demonstrate how racially and culturally we are a powerful amalgam of centuries-old forces which have created a daily reality of intrinsic crossover.

Prince Royce is a young Dominican who grew up in New York. Shakira is Colombian-Lebanese. Prince Royce, by featuring Dominican bachata and interweaving Spanish and English, transformed a classic song. Shakira, while singing entirely in Spanish, created a unique sound by incorporating hints of Middle Eastern intonations.

Because this blog focuses frequently on the blended culture of most Latin Americans, I wanted to share these songs with you. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Turning Fact Into Fiction

Well before normal retirement age, we sold the house, stored our belongings, and took off on a trawler for three years. We traveled up and down the US East Coast, down the Caribbean chain, reaching Venezuela, and returning via Bermuda.

Recently, I reread the trip log of that adventure, which sometimes reminded me of “Be careful what you wish.” What started out with starry eyes ended with gutted finances. However, this trip of a lifetime also produced an amazing treasure trove of unique experiences. Some were used as inspiration for a collection of short stories.

Though some of those stories about life aboard a boat have been published, most now reside on a computer disk, largely ignored. The trip log mentioned earlier had also been ignored. When I picked it up last week, though, I remembered why our cruising experience had been worth recording both in fact and in fiction. Here is an entry from the trip log:

“Cold, rainy, windy. … Heavily wooded [banks]. Little sign of human habitation. Nice to have this all to ourselves. … sleepy, peaceful ride.”

Sounds idyllic, right? But, below the above entry I entered a curt:

“Terrible storm. 50-knot winds. Turned on our ear 3-4 times.”

That’s it, but that terse last line was the inspiration for ”Faint Outline of a Bridge,” a short story. Here is an excerpt:

Inchon slammed to starboard. Meg’s legs collapsed, sending her sprawling to the deck. Below, doors banged open and shut. As she shot past the galley companionway, Meg looked down, only to see dishes and pasta, soup cans and dried beans shooting out of the cabinets onto the deck.

Stunned, Meg waited for Inchon to right herself up. At least, she hoped Inchon would come back up. If the boat stayed on her side and water came rushing in, Meg was now too shaky to swim to safety.

At the wheel, Burt shouted, 'Come on, you sorry excuse for a trawler, get up.'

It didn’t happen. Inchon remained caught on her side. Meg couldn’t help it. Vomit dribbled out of her mouth.

‘Time to ditch, Meg! The boat's not coming back.’

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and looked up. Burt had abandoned the wheel and now lurched toward the aft cabin door. There, he grabbed two life jackets from a locker and threw one at Meg. The other one dangled from his arm. As soon as he opened the door, the banshee wind came wailing in. Pummeled by waves, Inchon groaned and creaked.

Meg thought she heard water pouring in and couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel wet already.”

It has been said all writing is autobiographical. How much of the above story excerpt was fact and how much was fiction? All I can say is that, while living through our real-life near disaster on North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound, I was not recording the events for posterity. I was terrified, and the terror part of the short story is real. The blow-by-blow account of the incident is likely not. And that’s why I write fiction and not memoir, so I don’t feel constrained by reality. Actually, that’s what makes writing fiction fun.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why Writers Should Read, Too

How can a writer find time for both writing a novel and also reading other novels? Already that novel-in-progress is likely to be competing for available time with job, family, blogging, et al. Indeed, I marvel at bloggers who sustain prolific blog and fiction output while also tending to young children or work. Something’s got to give, I think, unless they are simply time management mavens.

To that I say, of course there are aspects of fiction writing that can be organized effectively, like whether to write in the morning or evening, at the kitchen table or office, and so on. My best fiction, though, seems to emerge when I remember that I am not on a widgets assembly line; the widgets, in this case, being words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Given the time constraints then, if I am in the midst of a fiction project, how can I afford to take time to read other novels? The only way I can answer that is by citing recent experience. I just finished reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. I am also now reading Rayuela(Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar, which came highly recommended in a book review by Cuban in London. (As an aside, it is interesting, given my recent "Speaking 'Bilingual'” post, that I read back-to-back a book in English and then one in Spanish.)

Both books have upped my game in my current work-in-progress novel. Compared to the lush style of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, my preferred writing style is more spare. Yet, after overcoming my initial impatience with Bellow, I found myself admiring his preternatural talent for description. He does not just say that a downtown crowded dime store is a jumble of inexpensive odds and ends. Instead, it is:

“… a tin-tough, creaking, jazzy bazaar of hardware, glassware, chocolate, chickenfeed, jewelry, dry goods, oilcloth, and song hits … the floor bore up under the ambling weight of hundreds, with the fanning, breathing movie organ next door and the rumble descending from the trolleys ….”

For his part, the seminal Argentine writer Julio Cortázar does an amazing job of recreating the fluid nature of an experience. Life in his fiction (as in life itself) does not occur in orderly logically linked sentences. In a memorable scene, some bohemian friends gather in Paris for an all-nighter of drinking and listening to jazz. As Cortázar describes it, those jazz selections then weave in and out of their thoughts and interactions. An excerpt is difficult to select because the prose sometimes is written in stream of consciousness. The mood of the scene, though, is caught fairly in the following:

“…Bessie’s [Smith] singing, Coleman Hawkin’s cooing, weren’t they illusions, or something even worse, the illusion of other illusions, a dizzy chain going backwards, back to a monkey looking at himself in the water on that first day? But Babs was crying, Babs had said, ‘Oh yes, oh yes it is true,’ and Oliveira, a little drunk too, felt that the truth now lay in that Bessie and Hawkins were illusions, because only illusions were capable of moving their adherents, illusion and not truths….” [translation by Gregory Rabassa ]

Whereas Bellow prompts me to hone my descriptions, Cortázar encourages me to remember that human experience is chaotic. In each instance, these authors have wrested me away from the widgets assembly line and dropped me on a metaphorical cliff edge, where I suffer vertigo as I watch waves pounding the jagged rocks below me. Bellow and Cortázar remind me that good writing is a complex art, not something to be done lazily or mechanically. They have, lastly, dared me to be original.