does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Writing and Religion

Recently, I found myself vexed by a discussion which turned on religious belief. It is easy to get vexed when the subject of religion comes up, you say? Sure, except the irony for me was that instead of my being the secular voice holding off convinced religious believers, I was the “religious” voice trying to hold my own with decidedly secular nonbelievers.

As I explained in my earlier post Religion, My Writing, and Me, I probably reside in the interstices between conventional belief and nonbelief. So to have to stand up for religion was unexpected. But there I was with the members of my long-time book discussion group explaining why I felt they were shortchanging the validity of religious belief. Myths and religion, I tried to tell them, are not simply infantile representations of truths eventually reducible to scientific axioms.

At one point in the discussion, I felt so frustrated that I found myself doodling in Spanish, convenient because no one around me could understand it. I found that scrap of paper while cleaning my desk the other day, and here is part of what I had written: “Mythology helps one navigate the space between the known and the unknown. It can exist outside the confines of intellectual truths that cannot and may not ever capture reality in its entirety.”

Then I discovered that Joseph Campbell in “The Historical Development of Mythology” had said it much more elegantly than I:

“… whenever a myth has been taken literally its sense has been perverted; but also, reciprocally, that whenever it has been dismissed as a mere priestly fraud or a sign of inferior intelligence, truth has slipped out the other door.”

Mythology and Religion are not necessarily synonymous, but I believe that the above Campbell quote applies to both. Many of us are probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of religious belief. If I am any indication, we in the middle may usually choose to remain silent about personal religious beliefs in the face of opposing views. My experience with my book discussion group was definitely anomalous for me.

That experience made me realize how real-life silence about personal religious and spiritual beliefs can also be reflected in one's writing. To be clear, I do not embrace a style of writing which engages in proselytizing or hagiography. I am simply suggesting that fine literary work can incorporate spirituality in the seamless way it does so in ordinary life. Marilynne Robinson has done it. Graham Greene has done it. So has Chinua Achebe. Why do I have the feeling, though, that today they represent the exception rather than the rule?

I end with the following questions:

o If you write fiction, do you find it easy to incorporate religion and spirituality?

o How is religion best incorporated in a fictional work? Should it be treated any differently than any other subject?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

About Stuff

So Husband comes across a neighbor who inquires about our well-being and then asks, “How’s Judy’s writing coming along?”

Husband says, ‘It’s coming along fine.”

"Is there anywhere online where one can read her work?"

“She’s got a blog,” Husband says.

“Really, what’s it about?”

“Oh, she writes about . . . stuff.”

“Stuff, hunh?”

In defense of Husband, Neighbor is known to hold a point of view about most things contrary to ours. So any meaningful discussion about what my blog consists of might have landed Husband in contentious territory.

When Husband shared the anecdote over dinner, we laughed but I, mindful that I had a post deadline looming, instantly followed with blog existential despair. I still had not nailed what my next post would be about. I had two potential ones sort of written, but each did not seem right for one reason or another. I only post once a week so you might think that blog posting angst would be minimal. Not so. More than once, I end up questioning why I started a blog in the first place and especially why I keep doing it

Husband's response to our neighbor may just have made my life easier. If I just write about Stuff, how hard can that be? At the top of this blog is a section called "About This Blog" in which I say that Pilgrim Soul offers reflections about my fiction, culture, religion, Puerto Rican identity, and writing craft. But it appears that what I really write about is . . . Stuff.

Thanks for reading my Stuff.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Have You Ever Read a Novel Out Loud?

It took me two months, but I just finished reading out loud Rayuela [Hopscotch] by Julio Cortázar, one of the most innovative and fun novels I have read in a long time. I have never before read out loud an entire novel, not even my own, and I felt as if I had returned to the days when stories were only communicated orally. I was drawn into the story in a multi-sensorial way which engaged me far more deeply than reading silently would have.

I discuss later why I chose to read out loud this stunning novel, a seminal work in Latin-American literature. First, let me fill in some background. Rayuela was published in 1963 by the Argentine Cortázar. Hopscotch, its translation into English by Gregory Rabassa, won the 1967 U.S. National Book Award.

The novel is an, at times, unruly journey through the life of Horacio Oliveira; first, as a expatriate living in Paris; second, upon his return home to Buenos Aires. It often employs stream of consciousness and is presented in two parts. The first, nearly two-thirds of the book, reads like a normal novel. At the end of each Part 1 chapter, one is directed to a specific section in Part 2, which Cortázar characterizes as expendable. Those selections contribute to the philosophical underpinnings of this unusual novel.

If Rayuela [Hopscotch] had to be read out loud to enjoy it, it would not have achieved its current renown. It has enough experimental technique, brilliant narrative, and spot-on dialogue to stretch one’s literary chops. And I have no doubt that the humor which pervades this novel would still be appreciated. That humor is especially remarkable because Cortázar is actually writing about serious themes like the purpose of life and the nature of consciousness.

That said, I have never laughed so hard while reading a novel as I did while reading Rayuela out loud in Spanish. Indeed, I frequently guffawed. I can’t think of the last literary work which has made me do that. I cannot unread the novel so I can’t say that the humor would have been less had I read it silently or in English. Reviews of this novel often cite its humor so it must be evident even with a silent reading.

Why, though, did I read Rayuela out loud? I tend to scan read. It became clear to me early on that I couldn’t do that with this decidedly nonlinear novel. To force myself to read more carefully, I started reading out loud. Doing so heightened my appreciation of Cortázar’s skill in making one feel uncannily present in a scene. The absurdities often present in normal casual conversation and in life suddenly seemed natural and appropriate. Such was Cortázar's skill with language that I often forgot I was reading and not actually present.

On a personal note, reading Rayuela out loud in Spanish recalled for me the Argentine accent and idiom I remembered from when I lived in Buenos Aires. Indeed, I became amused by how easy it was for my pronunciation and inflection to fall into the distinctive Argentine pattern. I even started drinking mate tea again. On another personal note, I want to acknowledge the masterful review of Rayuela [Hopscotch] by blogger Cuban in London, which prompted me to read the book in the first place.

My delightful experience with reading Rayuela out loud brought home for me that reading fiction works best when the reader is fully engaged in a multi-sensorial way. I hope that I will again make time in the future to read another novel out loud. It was an amazing experience.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Le Lo Lai - Puerto Rico's Plena Music

Plena is a musical folkloric genre of Puerto Rico, whose creation was influenced by African and Spanish music. I could tell you that I am posting this to introduce plena to those not familiar with this type of music. The truth is, I’m posting this because I love the sound. Plena is the music I grew up with, even if it was often in its church incarnation.

Here’s Ricky Martin with a contemporary version of the genre, Pégate [come closer, unite] And you don't have to really understand the words. Just dance along or sing, "Le lo lei le lo le lo lai." That's a quintessentially Puerto Rican expression of pure happiness.

Link for the entire Puerto Rican identity and culture series