Is International Fiction Relatable?

international

Not too long ago, as a writer who was based in India, once a colony of the British, and who had once been a “citizen of the world” living in the United States, I wondered, with apprehension, whether my stories would resonate with American and global readers and editors. As a struggling writer, I presumed that great stories surmount barriers of geography and culture by bringing out universal themes. (Theme transcends plot and setting. Theme is a comment on the human condition. Cinderella is not just the story of a poor maid who overcomes the cruelty of her family and lives happily ever after with Prince Charming. The theme of the story reveals that people who are kind and patient are often rewarded for their good deeds.)

Then, fairly recently, I came across the word “relatable.” I did not have a language as convenient as that until then to ponder how my readers might relate to my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. “Relatable” did not exist in the vocabulary of literary criticism until the mid-twentieth century, according to an article in Slate. In fact, the word has gained currency only over the past decade, writer Rebecca Mead says in her essay on the topic in The New Yorker. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first and the oldest definition of relatable as “able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.” The second meaning is more recent: “Able to be brought into relation with something.”

The third and final meaning, and the most recent, is “that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize.” According to the OED, the first use of this sense of the adjective dates back to 1965. The term became the buzz of the literary world, including The New Yorker magazine, when Ira Glass, host of a popular public radio program, said, after a performance of King Lear, that Shakespeare is not “relatable” and that he is “unemotional.”

Shakespeare was British and Western, and here a popular literary commentator based in the Western world was calling the Bard “not relatable.” Wasn’t Shakespeare “relatable” universally? Didn’t his plays have universal themes? Aren’t universal themes not “relatable” globally?

The word relatable, as used by Glass and others since, has brought both discomfiture and relief to me as a writer who often writes of cultures and settings different from Western. If Shakespeare is not “relatable,” how could I hope to be relatable? Continue Reading

In Bookstores Near You

 

In her latest novel, Silence & Song, Melanie Rae Thon once again wanders into the world of devastation. The opening clip captures a fiery car accident, one that could have been avoided if only the father, the driver, had agreed to stop at a hotel for the night instead of pressing onward into the blue night. Easily, Thon could have written an entire book about this one family in the aftermath: after all, the first section’s epigraph tells us this is a story about grief and the various means we have of grappling with it: tears, silence, or song.

But Thon has never taken the easy route. She isn’t a writer who panders to traditional expectations, but rather goes about questioning what narrative can accomplish, how inclusive it can be, just what magic it can manage.Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Storytelling on the Rez

Navajo Water

I ask about water.

Water in the West, water in the desert, water that saves and water that kills. Water on a tribal reservation: water for ranches, water for livestock, water hauled hundreds of miles by truck, water for uranium mining, water for ceremonies and legends, water for drinking. Water in the Animas River, flooded with arsenic, lead, and other toxic metals in August by EPA efforts to clean up the Gold King Mine to the north in Colorado.

“Water is life. It’s sacred, it’s powerful,“ Charlissa says. We’re in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, in a writing classroom at Diné College, the oldest and largest tribally-controlled college in the country. I’m asking the students about the importance of water on the rez. Charlissa says she remembers when a corroded drum in town broke, filling the main street with water. A flood, for a moment, in the middle of the desert, a river on the asphalt.

Amber tells the story of her elderly family members who live along the Animas River and now have to drive two hours to buy water for themselves and their livestock. She wonders if they will be able to stay in their home. Rantrivia grew up on a ranch, and she talks about the difficulties of towing water—the cost of gas and car repair, the time away from work—for her family and their 360-gallon barrel. For some, it is a weekly decision to have water or a working car on a sprawling reservation larger than West Virginia.

“Other people take water for granted,” Candra says. “My senior year of high school, we got our water shut off…It was a struggle. They said there was something wrong with our filtration, so my brother was the one who had to dig out the whole thing and replace it.” When I ask her if the water was contaminated, she isn’t sure. There are many ways water can turn dangerous here. “But my brother was really cautious with it. He used gloves.”Continue Reading

Out of the Blue and Onto the Page: How Translation Rekindled My Passion for Writing

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When my mother, born in America to Israeli parents, first met my father in Tel Aviv, she said she knew he was right for her because he was an American living in Israel. As a young woman who grew up in transit—constantly being moved around between the two countries—she recognized in him a kindred spirit: someone who spoke, lived, and loved both ways.

They married and had me, and whether they’d planned it or not, I came to embody this combination of the two of them: an American-Israeli and an Israeli-American. I grew up in Israel, spoke a semi-intelligible mixture of both languages, read books in Hebrew and English, watched movies without subtitles, and sported a funny accent.

I also wrote from a young age. Darkly dramatic poetry in Hebrew as a child, then short stories in English as a young adult. But as I grew older, writing became harder to do. Anxiety and self-doubt took the place of simple pleasure, and I had to psyche myself into creating new things. I still read a lot and dreamed of a career as a writer, but some of the magic was missing. The reading was slow going, doing any kind of artistic work was a struggle, and I looked around for different paths.

Then, out of the blue, I found translation. I say “out of the blue” because even though the notion was always inside of me, a seed of meaning that formed and informed my life, it hadn’t occurred to me to make it my livelihood until a coincidental encounter landed me my first small gig. I then sought out part time work at a translation company while completing my bachelor’s degree in literature and art at Tel Aviv University, working from Hebrew into English and from English into Hebrew. When that company closed, it was simple and natural enough to keep going, self-employed. I translated legal and business materials for newspapers and companies, and experimented with translating short fiction for a workshop I participated in at the University of Haifa and just for kicks. The sensation of bringing a bit of beauty from one language to another was exhilarating: English into Hebrew was fun because it let me share writing I loved (such as short stories by J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer) with my Hebrew-speaking friends. Hebrew into English was a new, more foreign world: I could deliver some of my favorite things about Israel outside of the country. One day, I decided, I wanted to translate an Israeli novel into English.Continue Reading

Majestic Endings

 

majestic endings

As I closed in on the first draft of a novel, I wrote toward an ending I’d held in my mind for months. It was a quiet climax in keeping with the, ahem, literary nature of my novel. I knew that when I finished the draft, I’d have to smooth out the road between, say, pages 75 and 300, maybe even rewrite them completely. But that final scene was divine. Tears would probably fall to my keyboard as I wrote it, and readers, in turn, would weep.

Instead, when I reached my perfect ending it was dead. After a period of mourning, I pulled out my trusted writing books and flipped to the sections on endings.

I began with Robert McKee’s Story, a book about the principles of screenwriting, which is to say it’s about plot. It’s peppered with references to Aristotle’s Poetics, including Aristotle’s requirement that an ending be both “inevitable and unexpected.” McKee’s prescriptions can be reductive but his confidence is overwhelming. If nothing else, I figured his advice on the matter of endings would be clear.

“If…as the protagonist takes the climactic action, we once more pry apart the gap between expectation and result, if we can split probability from necessity just one more time, we may create a majestic ending the audience will treasure for a lifetime. For a climax built around a Turning Point is the most satisfying of all.”

I want to give my novel a majestic ending, and so I read this passage over and over. It was kind of vague, wasn’t it? It wasn’t what I’d expected from McKee at all. (Do you see what I did there?)Continue Reading

Words Chosen For Ourselves: A Review of THE OXFORD INDIA ANTHOLOGY OF TAMIL DALIT WRITING

the-oxford-india-anthology-of-tamil-dalit-writing-original-imadzsghnvpzhxujThe Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing
Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan
Oxford University Press, 2012
480 pp, $39.95

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Of the social, political, and economic issues facing India since independence in 1947, the situation of Dalits has been one of the most pressing. Dalits face discrimination and oppression in nearly every part of Indian society, and often are portrayed as a voiceless and victimized minority group. Although Dalits make up almost 16-17% of the population, widely available creative expressions from individuals identifying as members of this group are few and far between, especially outside of India. However, these creative expressions do exist: so far, it’s simply been a matter of availability and translation.

The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan, is one of several volumes pushing for a reorientation of Dalit representation. By presenting more than one hundred years of work, ranging from poetry to speeches, novel excerpts to autobiography, the anthology underscores that the outpouring of work from Tamil Dalits has never been fixed to a single genre, mode, or emotional current. The editors further emphasize difference by focusing on the state of Tamil Nadu, one of the most populous areas in India, located on its southern tip. Therefore, the book doesn’t present an overwhelming and impossible attempt to represent all Dalit writing throughout the subcontinent; but, instead, the volume makes a worthwhile and focused gathering of work.

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The Work of Fiction and the Fiction of Work

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A life is divided into three parts: the time before you’re able to work, the time after you’re able to work, and the monstrous bulk of time between. After obedience to the law and some basic moral code, work is one of the great demands placed upon the able. It’s inherently traumatic, a sacrifice of one’s own desires to a larger set of aggregate social desires. Fiction gives us a way to cope with this arrangement, or at the very least a way to understand it.

In Sloane Crosley’s debut novel, The Clasp, three formerly close friends in their late twenties try to negotiate their first disillusionment with the world of work. Their jobs in tech, fashion, and television are a representative holy trinity of cool jobs. But even in these dream jobs young people deal with the same nonsense as anywhere else: long hours, pointless meetings, aggravating coworkers, and bosses with more money than sense. Most work is not fulfilling, and by the time we finally realize it all the friends we’d like to turn to for support have been scattered across the globe in pursuit of fulfilling work. This is something we can only discover after college when we’re saddled with enough debt to last us a decade or two. Crosley sends her main characters on a vacation together to give them a little perspective on their dwindling friendship and their respective vocational ruts. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether they make any significant progress on either front, but the question lingers even after the novel ends: once lost, is there any amount of perspective that can restore our love for work?Continue Reading

Review: SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

sweet caress_william boyd

Sweet Caress
William Boyd
Bloomsbury, September 15, 2015
449 pp, $28
Buy here

Sweet Caress is the newest novel from the acclaimed William Boyd, author of notable works such as Any Human Heart and A Good Man in Africa.

The novel centers on Amory Clay, one of the first women to be a war photographer in the 1900s. We follow her from childhood to the beginnings of her career as a society photographer, through to her first assignment on the ground in World War II, and finally to her late-in-life journey to Vietnam.

The scope of the book is enormous, spanning nearly the entire twentieth century. Interestingly, it reads in many places like a memoir or an autobiography. The writing is tight, the use of language perfectly suited to the time period, and the structure carries the reader through seamlessly. While the majority takes place in chronological order from the beginning of Amory’s life to the end, there are sections within each chapter titled “The Barrandale Journal 1977,” which are in Amory’s present day.Continue Reading

“It’s A Bit Mysterious, and I Like That”: An Interview with Frank X. Gaspar

2381600190_347912351c_zFrank X. Gaspar writes poems that are lyrical, powered by swift associations, and full of surprising images and leaps in thought that in retrospect make perfect sense. He is the author of five collections of poems, including Late Rapturous and The Holyoke, as well as two novels, most recently Stealing Fatima. Frank was born and raised in the old Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Pacific University, Oregon. We recently caught up via email to talk about Late Rapturous, the strange ways in which a poem can start, and the differences between writing poetry and fiction. 

Matthew Thorburn: Late Rapturous is composed of prose poems as well as poems in long lines that sometimes seem on the verge of becoming prose poems. Would you talk about how it feels to you writing prose poems versus lineated poems? Do the two offer different possibilities or challenges?

Frank X. Gaspar: Interesting that you ask that. I don’t feel any difference in the process; it seems more a matter of how my mind is working at the time. I pay as much attention to sound in the long-lined poems as I do with poems having more traditional line breaks—a lot of attention, actually—but without the line breaks to perhaps reinforce the sound with the eye, the prose poems might not announce their accentual nature.Continue Reading

On Context & Omission: Alain de Botton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John McPhee, and Claudia Rankine

imageCraft talks regarding omission lean heavily on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, what John McPhee recently called, “or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés.” Aside from the obvious trimming of superfluous language or gratuitous scenes, it could be argued that omission, in one extreme, is the antithesis of context. Nonfiction writers debate the ethics, merits, and necessity of omission—in order to construct a concise narrative, omission is needed, but does the removal of certain elements make a story less true? Is context even necessary? What happens when whole passages or chunks of backstory are removed, in fiction and nonfiction?

Claudia Rankine recounts attending Serena Williams’s 2012 semifinal match at the U.S. Open in a recent article for The New York Times Magazine. A similar version was told to Paula Cocozza for The Guardian, where Rankine mentions watching the match with her daughter, nine years of age at the time. Rankine asked the white American man beside her why he was cheering for the opposing player from Belarus, a blonde woman, and when the man vacates his seat after further questioning, Rankine’s daughter “cringe[s] with embarrassment.”

The instance is not included in Citizen: An American Lyric, though there are lengthy sections regarding the racism and aggression Serena Williams has encountered and responded to over the years. Written largely in second-person, Citizen is not about Rankine’s experience but about a collective of voices. In the magazine article, “Her Excellence,” Rankine elaborates on this experience using first-person:

Two years ago, recovering from cancer and to celebrate my 50th birthday, I flew from LAX to J.F.K. during Serena’s semifinal match at the U.S. Open with the hope of seeing her play in the final. I had just passed through a year when so much was out of my control, and Serena epitomized not so much winning as the pure drive to win. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling (I still can’t quite shake it) that my body’s frailty, not the cancer but the depth of my exhaustion, had been brought on in part by the constant onslaught of racism, whether something as terrible as the killing of Trayvon Martin or something as mundane as the guy who let the door slam in my face. The daily grind of being rendered invisible, or being attacked, whether physically or verbally, for being visible, wears a body down. Serena’s strength and focus in the face of the realities we shared oddly consoled me.

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