Friday, July 02, 2010

Notes on writing, writing

Sarah Manguso: Exactly. Abstract arguments about genre are boring—and what’s more, those arguments reek of eugenics and fear. No pure forms exist. And I wish everyone would stop telling me about the “new” “hybrid” writing. Everything is already a hybrid. In any case, I think books belong to their authors, not to genres. Many writers get marketed in more than one genre, but readers just think, Look, here is another book by so-and-so, don’t they? (David Shields in conversation with Sarah Manguso,” The Believer, June 2010)

Lately, I've been awash with questions. What is literature? Is it simply telling a story? Is it the language? Is it in the writer trying to showcase something different, shine a spotlight on something hidden, in a different way? Through reading and writing, I engage with literature in part to learn the world, to push myself further into what I do not yet understand. Picking up years worth of Granta issues, I prefer the non-fiction pieces I otherwise might never know, whether tales of the English fox-hunt, spinster sisters who love the opera and secretly smuggle Jews out of a WWII-era Europe to England, and America, or a journalist who disappears into darkest Africa, marrying a dictator and losing everything, only to lose yet again.

Is it the merging of lyric and fact? There is truth in fiction too; sometimes more, but I’d favour the lyric of essential pieces of information than long drawn-out narratives of incidentals. Who said that line I keep getting caught in my head, we fight laziness and lies in our search for the truth? Far too often I find myself skipping passages, wanting the novelist to get back, so to speak, to the point.

Still, I've been finding the engagement with the “McLennan, Alberta” and “Sleeping in Toronto” manuscripts extremely educational, helping to highlight just what the whole craft might really be about – point of view. Not just how we see the world, but how the world is, and its infinite nuance, its infinite variations. It extends to how we relate to each other as well, not just through these books, but socially, politically, interpersonally. We don't need to agree but it becomes essential to try to at least understand. What the hell am I talking about.

Fighting doesn't mean anything at all if we don't comprehend the arguments on both sides; what if, but for semantics, we actually agree? Is this all simply a matter of perspective? Digging around the internet for information on the A-Team, both original series and recent remake (don’t ask), I found this quote by Mr. T, slipped into the stubble of his IMDB page:

I think about my father being called 'boy', my uncle being called 'boy,' my brother, coming back from Vietnam and being called 'boy.' So I questioned myself: 'What does a black man have to do before he's given the respect as a man?' So when I was 18 years old, when I was old enough to fight and die for my country, old enough to drink, old enough to vote, I said I was old enough to be called a man. I self-ordained myself Mr. T so the first word out of everybody's mouth is 'Mr.' That's a sign of respect that my father didn't get, that my brother didn't get, that my mother didn't get.

It reminds of old Cassius Clay, home from winning his Olympic gold, but still unable to eat at certain lunch counters, stay at certain hotels, finally tossing his gold in the river in frustration. Changing his name to Muhammad Ali. How can anyone else understand? In the new issue of Brick: A Literary Journal (#85), an interview Eleanor Wachtel did with British writer Zadie Smith, who said essentially the same. How does one understand?

I don't think it had really dawned on me what it was like to be a black woman—black as my mother is, not mixed as I am—in a white culture. She told me stories about her honeymoon. My parents went to two places, Morocco and Paris, and in Paris they couldn't get a hotel room—they had to come home. Everywhere they went, they were turned away. And even in the early days when they were trying to rent apartments, she said she would phone and ask for a room and be told it was free, and then up and be told it wasn't free. She kept experimenting and making the distance between those two events as short as possible, so she would phone from the end of the road and turn up two minutes later and it would never change: she was always told the room wasn't free.

I didn't grow up in an England that overtly racist so it was a surprise for me to hear those stories. And it made me better understand the connection she felt with black American writers. It seemed to me that we're English and they're American—the history of our communities is so diverse. But there was a connection for my mother in terms of history and, I suppose, humiliation.

And here are the details that flesh out a story, where character is built. How often, history like a stone that gets caught in the shoe, rubbing up against the present, and altering, informing. Refusing to leave. It relates, indirectly, to a short short story I wrote after a story Lainna told about her Beirut-born parents:

She tells a story of her parents, forced to emigrate in the late 1960s for the sake of their marriage, born to separate social classes in a Muslim country. How romantic, I think, how tragic, but I can’t entirely relate, not forced to relocate continents for love. On television, a documentary tells of the troubles there, generations of refugee camps to keep a whole people down. I begin to realize how little I know of the situation, and just how sheltered I’ve been.

More recently, Toronto social geographer and writer Amy Lavender Harris and I talked about identity, as she asked, how far away from point of origin does identity no longer have any claim to real meaning? Her Jewish husband generations-removed, or her own Mohawk grandfather, raised outside aboriginal culture. How faraway does culture and identity still hold, still compel? The comfort I have, knowing I’m Glengarry Scot, not pretending I’m full Scot (there is quite a difference).

Become essential, Brian Fawcett told, from his corner in the former Dooney’s Café. Write something no one else can. The further I explore and discover, the more I feel as though I have accomplished nothing, yet. Yet.

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