does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Hero’s Journey - Chinua Achebe – Who Gets to Tell the Story?

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has frequently referred to the proverb that “…until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Correcting the European historical viewpoint about Africa motivated him 50 years ago to write his seminal novel Things Fall Apart. Set in the Igbo region of Nigeria before and after the arrival of English colonialists, that novel was one of the first to tell the story of European colonization from an African perspective.

I am also giving Chinua Achebe my Hero’s Journey nod for his courage in taking on a literary classic and presenting a course-altering alternative point of view. Specifically, I refer to Achebe’s now famous essay in which he decried damaging stereotypes about Africans in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Many have since weighed in, pro and con, about Achebe's assertions. British scholar Cedric Watts has provided an often cited rebuttal whose full text I have not been able to find on the internet, except for this excerpt.

This post, though, is not about whether Achebe was right in describing Conrad's Heart of Darkness as racist. For that, I suggest reading the novel to arrive at a conclusion. My own take is that Conrad's novel exhibits both genius and deplorable flaws. Each of these writers, Nigerian Chinua Achebe and Polish/Anglo Joseph Conrad, is a brilliant writer who wrote novels today acknowledged as classics. Implicit in their work, though, is a polemic, which can inform any reader or writer, about who is authorized to write authentically about an experience and a people.

Whatever one feels about his take on Conrad, it took a great deal of courage 36 years ago for Achebe to take on the literary establishment over one of its icons. In the process, he changed forever largely unchallenged or unnoticed assumptions about how stories of Africa could be told. "The question," he said, "is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot." In making this point, Achebe spoke for all people dehumanized in literature.

There is a broader lesson here for any fiction writer. I believe writing about characters unlike oneself has to be part of a good writer’s DNA. Otherwise, all that would be written would be soliloquies. The overarching obligation is simply to write well by avoiding the easy superficial treatment in favor of a more thoughtful one. In taking on Joseph Conrad, that is exactly what Chinua Achebe encourages us to do. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Graceful, Wise, and Humble Man

A young woman new to the country shows up crying at the front door of the minister’s house. Her husband has abandoned her penniless and with a newborn child. She is invited to stay until a solution can be found.

A meeting among ministers goes on endlessly. Words are heated. A man who has been seated quietly says, “Here is another way to look at this.” The room grows silent. The matter is soon resolved.

These are just two of the many stories people love to tell about my late father, Rev. Miguel Angel Mercado.

This weekend, his church is dedicating its new library, which it is naming the Mercado Library. In today’s mega-church environment, that a church of modest means establishes a library and names it after someone already deceased is hardly media-worthy news. That it is my father who is honored is also of minimal interest, even for followers of this blog. Why then do I write about it here?

When I received the email informing me of the dedication ceremony, I was thrilled, of course. It’s my dad after all. Then I reflected on how amazing it is that almost 23 years after his death, my father still has such a sentimental hold on members of his church. He was their minister for 33 years, yes, but enough time has passed by that a sizeable portion of the current membership never knew him. Those new members, though, may have heard so much about him that they feel as if they knew him.

That the stories are retold at every opportunity is perhaps not surprising. For a man who was unassuming to a fault, his influence is still felt far and wide. From his modestly sized church emerged thirty-three ministers who went on to lead congregations across national borders. Indeed, I sometimes regret that I was born with a deaf ear when it came to his particular religious beliefs. I wish my eyes could also light up and my smile become dewy whenever I hear what an amazing man of God my father was. When thinking of my father, my eyes and smile will do the same, but only because I remember what an incredibly gentle, wise, and humble man he was.

Perhaps it all comes down to the same thing. Maybe, like all politics being local, all religion is ultimately personal. Others’ memories of my father may be couched in religious terms, but his impact was essentially personal. And I am in awe of anyone who can have such a lasting influence on people that, long after he is gone, others are eager to share their recollections about him. More importantly, their current lives are elevated through the recollection. That is a service of the highest order.

And that is why I write about him in the installment usually dedicated to discussing religion. His religious beliefs were not mine, but in the end he helped me keep an open mind about why religion matters to people and how it can have a positive impact on their lives. Nurtured by my father’s example, I am also led to ask on an ongoing basis how I can live a life of meaning and of service.

To read my remarks at the dedication ceremony, I invite you to visit my other blog. Though my remarks were delivered in Spanish, I have provided an English translation. In any event, thank you for allowing me to share this with you.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back Story – When Is It Appropriate?

How Much? How little? Where and how to insert? When to use the flashback form versus ordinary summary? How to avoid making the current action stop cold?

These are the questions troubling me as I write my work-in-progress novel. While I am writing the text, I am not aware of how much back story has crept in. It just feels like a natural telling of the story. Then I’ll do my first read and realize that the sections marked Back Story (BS!) are piling up dangerously.

That’s terrible, I tell myself. I know enough not to start the novel itself with back story or to go for pages on end with it. But at some point, don’t I have to demonstrate that the characters and present action are not sui generis? That means introducing back story, doesn’t it?

So, to see how they used back story, I checked out two masters of the writing craft: Pulitzer-Prize-winning Marilynne Robinson and Nobel-Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez. And I was shocked.

Marilynne Robinson not only won a Pulitzer, but she is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Surely she would be a model for how to handle back story. Imagine my surprise then when I picked up her latest novel, Home, and discovered that in the first ten pages, all but the first paragraph and opening lines of the second paragraph were back story.

I then read Gabriel García Márquez’ short story collection Strange Pilgrims to examine what he did with back story. My thought was that, if there is a medium in which back story has to be used economically, surely it is the short story. Imagine my surprise again when I discovered that he was a heavy user of back story, frequently in its flashback mode. In one 33-page story, for example, most of the first 16 pages were back story. In another 18-page story, all but the opening and closing paragraphs were back story.

I realize that one has to learn first the rules of writing craft before attempting to break them. I also know that Marilynne Robinson and Gabriel García Márquez no longer have to prove to anyone that they are capable writers. Still, it gave me pause to observe just how heavily they used back story. I mean, pages and pages of it! And a lot of it in the beginning of a tale.

So now I am confused. Do I use a heavy hand excising the back story I have identified in my current work-in-progress? Or do I grant myself, at least a temporary, freedom to revisit later the appropriateness of those sections? Ordinarily I would say yes to this last question, except that what I decide now will affect subsequent unwritten material because the information in those back story sections is critical information. So do I leave them in or take them out and hope I can find an appropriate entry for them later?

I would love to hear from both readers and also writers of fiction about how they feel about back story.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Week with Two Queens

Okay, neither wore a real crown and one would probably be insulted at being included in the other’s company. But I had such a good time with each in the last week that I wanted to share them with you.

First Queen: the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. Celia has been gone now for seven years. It’s only that every time I hear her unique voice she sounds as alive as ever. She was exiled from Cuba after Castro came to power. She subsequently came to the attention of the world beyond Latin America during her 1970s Fania All-Stars tours with other artists of the salsa genre. The thing about Celia was that her outrageous wigs and flamboyant costumes were absolutely unnecessary given her resplendent voice. They just made us appreciate her uniqueness even more.

Here she is, probably already in her 70s, surrounded by young people in Miami Beach who can’t help but dance to her music. The song is “La Vida Es un Carnaval” (tr. Life Is a Carnival). In it, she says, “There is no need to cry. Life is a carnival, and it’s better to live singing … your pain will leave while singing ….” It’s a song I will listen to if I am feeling sad, and it usually brings a smile to my face.

Second Queen: Teresa Mendoza, heroine of The Queen of the South, written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. This respected Spanish writer whose fiction and nonfiction have been translated widely is also a former investigative journalist. La Reina del Sur was given to me by a family member who did not inform me that it was a novel. For the first 80 pages, I thought I was reading Pérez-Reverte’s exposé of the drug trafficking trade in México and Spain as seen through the eyes of Teresa Mendoza, a moll who later became head of the biggest drug smuggling operation in the western Mediterranean. I thought she was such a fascinating woman that I wanted to see what else had been written about her so I went on the internet. That was when I discovered that the gripping tale I was reading was actually a novel; a thriller, a type of novel I rarely read.

According to the customer reviews on Amazon, the novel is excellent even in translation, which I had wondered about because of the pervasive use of Mexican and Spanish slang. Perhaps what makes this such an interesting read is that Pérez-Reverte, availing himself of the tools of journalism, did extensive background research which is reflected in the novel’s feel of authenticity. If you want a novel you can escape into and also learn a great deal, The Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur) is it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Hero’s Journey — Ingrid Betancourt, A Complex Truth

During her recent publicity tour for Even Silence Has an End, a riveting memoir of her experience as a political hostage, Ingrid Betancourt has sometimes been hailed as a hero. Dissenting voices, which include her estranged husband and several fellow hostages, have challenged that designation. The truth, I suspect, is a complex one. Sometimes heroism is thrust upon one, bestowing heroism despite oneself. Sometimes the heroism consists in simply surviving the challenge and continuing to live. Both of these may be the case with Ingrid Betancourt.

This one-time candidate for President of Colombia was kidnapped by guerrillas in 2002 and kept imprisoned in the Amazon jungle for six-and-a-half years. In a dramatic rescue which electrified the world in 2008, she and fourteen fellow hostages were liberated by the Colombian military. Betancourt has since mostly lived in France. In an incomprehensible move, this year Betancourt sued the Colombian government for economic and moral damages resulting from her captivity, a suit she then quickly dropped. In Colombia, widespread enmity against her has ensued as a result.

It is not surprising then that the reviews of her book are divided into two opposing camps. And yet, Betancourt’s experience as a captive offers insights into the nature of heroism. Who can imagine what it is like to live chained by the neck to a tree for months on end? Who has the courage to defy her captors by attempting to escape four times while imprisoned in the deepest Amazon jungle? Who can say what it is like to live for years in hot and primitive conditions, cheek to jowl with incompatible fellow prisoners and bullying jailers? To survive that with any shred of dignity is heroic all on its own. And, despite what her detractors say, Betancourt did use her experience in the jungle as an opportunity to hold a mirror to her own darkness.

“I did not want to emerge from the jungle as a shriveled old woman, ravaged by acrimony and hate …. I looked at myself in the mirror of other people and saw there all the defects of humanity—hatred, jealousy, greed, selfishness. But it was in myself that I observed them. … I did not like who I had become. … I decided to monitor myself … [but] ended up doing just the opposite of what my good resolutions dictated. My only solace was that I’d become aware of it."

Whether in freedom she has managed to follow her good resolutions is still an open question. Her actions since her release, both in having sued the government which rescued her and in shunning the husband who spent six-and-a-half years working for her freedom, might suggest otherwise. Her well-written memoir at the very least shows a self awareness of her defects of character. What she does about them in the remainder of her life may well decide whether she deserves to be called a hero.

Of potential interest: other posts in the A Hero’s Journey series.