Tag Archives: truth in fiction

Beyond Craft: Reaching for Texts That Do Not Segregate

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Consider becoming a CBC Diversity Partner

Most often, when we talk about writing, it’s about craft. Tools. Techniques. Elements of fiction. For me, those things are inseparable from historical or psychosocial aspects of our field, e.g., the legacy of colonialism and how it lingers in children’s books, or the persistent representation (or non-representation) of characters of color. Just two examples but do they not, even now in the 21st century, still hold the power to stir conversations  to boiling point? And then there are the statistics.

Since last year, the Diversity 101 Posts on the CBC Diversity blog have offered us a refreshing forum for a thoughtful conversation on a variety of related subjects .  Quick peek:

None of us will ever have all the answers here. We all always need to remember that each character, author, and book is individual, and that each deserves our careful reading and consideration. But we hope this “Diversity 101” series will further the conversation with a little more information, and help all of us to write and publish the truest and best books.

And this from our own VCFA graduate Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Excerpt:

Even when the stereotypes are more benign, they serve to set people apart. Because emotional and developmental disabilities are usually invisible, it is tempting to exaggerate behavioral differences so that readers know a character has a disability.

The Sidekick Syndrome from Andrea Davis Pinkney.

It’s a common cliché, and it’s very subtle. In our ever-increasing commitment to include diverse characters in novels, we’ve also, at the same time, increased a stereotype ― that black kids (when they’re among an “ensemble cast”) don’t have much going on and aren’t worthy of the spotlight.
My own forthcoming CBC Diversity 101 post will be about interweaving “foreign” languages into English texts. Why does that matter? What are the alternatives to authorial translation? Oddly, that two-part post led me back to craft, to the details of words on the page in texts I loved as a child. But more, it led me to the truths about worldview that lie beneath a powerful, consistent, accurate voice. Accurate for a place and time and people, but more, accurate for a particular story. Good writing may equal craft but there’s something larger at work here. I think that something is an awareness of the moving, shifting forces that lie beneath craft choices.
In the end understanding our own sensitivities and biases can help us to create texts that do not segregate, texts that can instead reach the whole, rich, rainbow array of young readers for whom we write.

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Cat’s Table and Gold Fish

I’ve just finished Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table. I didn’t get the ecstatic high from this novel that I did from The English Patient. His new one is too easy to put down and walk away from, not even a novel, really, so much as a collection of vignettes clustered around a character/narrator in whom I never really invested.

But look on the bright side—I’ve stumbled on something that feels like a perfect blog topic, something that stopped me in my tracks. Here’s what I found on page 208:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or lookdown on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

I had to read this passage twice when I stumbled across it, slipped in almost off-handedly, near the end of the book, where the narrator speaks to us as an adult, years after his experience at the eponymous dining table of ne’er do wells aboard a ship from Ceylon to England. Even now, when I read it, I feel my writerly hackles rise. (I’m not sure where my hackles are, exactly, but I know they’re stiff with indignation.) I am not so naïve as to assume what I’ve quoted is necessarily Ondaatje’s position, rather than the narrator’s, but there’s nothing in his rambling, uncertain novel to suggest it isn’t, either. In any case, the philosophy here is surely the one that governs the work of the real-life film director/ writer/teacher mentioned in this paragraph. But to take the democratic impulse that sparked the Dardenne brothers’ early documentary films about working class life in Belgium, and elevate it to a “first principle of art,” feels like a mistake, whether Ondaatje’s or his character’s.

By proposing as a moral and aesthetic mandate that readers should not have the upper hand, but should remain as mystified as our characters, as uncertain and ill at ease in the world –no wiser, no more confident than when they opened the book, Ondaatje’s narrator dismisses most of what I’ve always felt, written and taught about “empowering the reader.” His injunction also flies in the face of how powerful and moving I find many stories in which the author has deliberately contrived that the reader know more than the characters. This is especially the case with “unreliable narrators” like the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s brilliant novel, Remains of the Day; or with omniscient narrators and multiple view points in the great novels of the 19th century—it’s because we watch Jane Austen’s characters part and come together in kaleidoscopic patterns only we are aware of, that we can see them as tender, flawed. It’s because we know more than Thomas Hardy’s Tess that we love her. An empowered reader, it seems to me, is the basis of much fine literature, just as a privileged observer (who sees, for instance, an echo of the playful dance and eyes of Matisse’s “Goldfish” in the nodding heads of the flowers above them) is the basis of much great art.

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Does this broader perspective, this “advantage,” make us feel scornful of characters, as Ondaatje suggests? Do we feel smug because we know what their future holds? Or how their past is shaping them? No more, I think, than the author who wrote them into being looks down on or dismisses them. No more than the artist scorns goldfish or lilies when he paints them to say something about the world.

The English Patient ranks as one of the most emotionally excruciating novels I’ve read. A large part of its profound effect, I think, can be attributed to the way in which Ondaatje makes us privy to the feelings of all five major characters. (In The Cat’s Table, he essentially limits us to the perspective of his narrator.) Unlike these characters, then, we can weave a tapestry from all their individual sensitivities and passions, making something deeper, more profound than any of them could forge on their own. Playing God this way doesn’t make writers or readers smaller of heart, but larger. By knowing more than our cherished characters, we can be both a tender mother bird with her wing around the world, and her nestling snuggled into the warm feathers of creation.

When he pairs empowerment with condescension in the passage above, Ondaatje sets up a straw man, and begs the important issue of a reader’s relationship to the fictional world, a relationship I don’t think has to mirror her relationship to the real one. I’m a reader, you see, who’s frustrated by a lack of resolution, by an aimless story that, like a painting which resolutely and faithfully portrays every pore and hair follicle with photographic fidelity, gives us a “slice of life,” not its juice. I don’t confuse reality with fiction. And I don’t want to: while our chaotic existence may inspire paintings or books, their art is born from the courage to give it meaning and grace.

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THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

      I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets while the older kids finish eating.
      I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me at recess?
      “My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze and my aunt danced with a bear.”
      That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.
      “Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.
      “We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”
      Now the boys behind us are listening, too.
      “Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.
      But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. How can I get out of this jam?
      “And then I woke up,” I say.
      “You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.
      “Yes.”
      She doesn’t play with me at recess.

       I was a big liar in my early years. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I was so young that I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.

      I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I read a post on DelanceyPlace.com from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/7730522/Lying-children-will-grow-up-to-be-… about children and lying:
     “Researchers have found that the ability to tell fibs at the age of two is a sign of a fast developing brain and means the liars are more likely to have successful lives. Scientists found that the more plausible the lie, the more quick witted the liars will be in later years and the better their ability to think on their feet. It also means that they have developed ‘executive function’ – the ability to invent a convincing lie by keeping the truth at the back of their minds.”
     The article goes on to suggest such child liars would make good bankers as adults – but it seems to me lying is good practice for a later life in fiction writing, as well.

      To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.

     But back to my black-tongued childhood. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars?

Contributed by Laura Kvasnosky, no lie.

 

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