Blood Memory

“There is only one of you in all time; this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”—Martha Graham

Dance was my first foray into art, and I studied it for sixteen years with the kind of blind passion you can only cultivate before puberty, before cynicism and self-doubt set in, gnawing at your dreams.

Though humble, those years of dance training gave me my first taste of expressing myself through art, of channeling meaning. Though I wobbled and my turnout failed when I danced en pointe to Vivaldi’s “Spring,” I understood the rapturous feeling of new growth, the sun on one’s skin after winter. Vivaldi translated his feelings about spring into music, and we small town Carolinians tried our best to bring those ideas to life with the body. Though our results were what you might expect from a studio that shared space with a gas station, our effort was noble.Continue Reading

Language Could Kill You: Adichie, Code-Switching & the Biafran War

Southern_and_Northern_Nigeria_c._1914

Language plays a crucial role throughout Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, but nowhere is it more decisive than in the author’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Written against the backdrop of the Biafran War, two wealthy sisters return from England to a nation on the cusp of revolution and choose two different paths: Kainene moves to Port Harcourt to take over their father’s business, while Olanna moves to Nsukku, a university town, to teach and live with her “revolutionary lover,” Odenigbo. Southeastern Nigeria secedes in 1967, in response to ethnic, cultural, economic and religious tensions, and a largely Igbo nationality forms the new nation of Biafra—officially the Republic of Biafra. Characters are thrown into the crossfire of war, where speaking the wrong language can get you killed.

Throughout the novel, Adichie is careful to note when someone speaks in English, Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa. Why take the time to write what languages are spoken and when?

As a former British colony, English is the official language of Nigeria. However, over five hundred different languages have been spoken within the country. Adichie’s characters often participate in code-switching, a linguistic concept of alternating between two languages within the context of a single conversation. Code-switching in literature can reveal relationships and hierarchies, the background, social status, and motivations of individuals, and shed light on issues of race and oppression.

Odenigbo and Olanna are both professors who alternate between English and Igbo, which demonstrates their awareness of and emphasis on the importance of utilizing their native language, one that has ties to the land and culture. In contrast, Major Madu Madu—a member of the military—repeatedly ignores an Englishman’s initiations to strike up a conversation in Igbo. While Odenigbo and Olanna fluidly and intentionally navigate English and Igbo in one conversation, the Major sticks to English, the language of the colonizers, of oppression and socioeconomic mobility, and political power.

Language and code-switching throughout the beginning of the book slowly reveals characters, and escalates until the right language saves a character’s life. Olanna is spared twice, by two different people and two different languages: first by her cousin Arize, and then by her former boyfriend, Mohammed.

Olanna is at the market with Arize when the inklings of war become real: a crowd gathers, and someone yells, “’We are counting the Igbo people.’” “Arize muttered under her breath, ‘I kwuna okwu,’ as if Olanna was thinking of saying anything, and then shook her head and started to speak fluent, loud Yoruba, all the while casually turning so they could go back the way they had come.” Shortly thereafter, Mohammed speaks in “rapid, coaxing Hausa” to a mob of men wielding machetes and axes as he helps Olanna evacuate the city.

While Olanna is focused on intellectual pursuits and the revolution, her cousin is wholly concerned with getting married and having children—and yet it is Arize who saves them from harassment on the street, code-switching from Igbo to Yoruba to make onlookers believe they belong to a different group. Early on in the novel, Adichie demonstrates that Arize lives amongst Yoruba and Hausa nationalities, relying on those languages for day-to-day life. This exchange portrays the nuances of the Biafran War: that people were killing one another without being able to easily discern who belonged to what nationality; that relationships prior to the war crossed lines of religion, ethnicity, and language; and that communities forged deep and/or transactional relationships that encouraged them to learn multiple languages to fully express and communicate.

The Passionate Lives of Writers and Readers

When my husband and I moved in together, one of the biggest challenges we faced was how to merge our TV-watching styles. For my husband, if the TV is on, you’re actively watching something. For me, if the TV is on, it means you’re home. (I need some kind of ambient noise, and why not have noise that includes narrative?) He’s more likely to suggest watching intense dramas like The Wire or Breaking Bad. I could easily throw on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I’ve already seen nine times.

Over the last few years, we’ve found a TV-watching schedule that works for us, including binge-watching a variety of shows with varied emotional content and stakes. One show we’ve been watching is Parks and Recreation with its cast of wacky characters trying to make a difference in Pawnee, Indiana.

Recently, I came across a quote by former Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell, who referred to Parks and Recreation as “criminally underrated and one of the best ensembles on TV. They figured out how to make comedy out of people who like things…Turns out passion can heighten things in the same way that conflict does.”Continue Reading

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

Plate_depicting_emotions_of_grief_from_Charles_Darwin's_book_The_Expression_of_the_Emotions

Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

The Abstract Mathematics Behind Freelance Writing

Marey_-_birdsAbout two and a half months into new motherhood, looking to get back into the swing of things, I applied to several blogging gigs. The editor at one publication, with whom I had been in contact in the past, emailed back almost immediately, saying she thought the rates might be a bit low for me. She did want me to know, however, that they were hiring for another position that paid a bit more.

What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth—10+ emails—in which I asked about rates, frequency, word count, the proportion of pitched pieces to assigned pieces, etc. I agonized for days over what I should do. In the end, I decided against the gig I’d initially applied for and took on the alternative the editor had suggested to me.

But I swear, it wasn’t about the money.Continue Reading

Guest Editor Conversations: Percival Everett, Fall 2014

I Am Not Sidney PoitierWe’re happy to present the first of a new series–interviews with our guest editors, following the publication of their issues. Below is an introduction by Jessica Treadway, Emerson College professor and author of the forthcoming Lacy Eye (Grand Central, 2015), and a conversation between Editor-in-Chief Ladette Randolph and Percival Everett, guest editor of the Fall 2014 issue.

If you read Percival Everett’s books blind, without any names attached, it would probably take you some time to absorb the fact that a single author was responsible for them all. I knew it was the same author, and it still took me time–his work is that versatile, that eclectic, that impossible (thank goodness) to pin down. It is always exceptionally smart. By turns it can also be laugh-out-loud funny, tender, quiet, rowdy, clever, provocative, and sad. Even in the case of an outlandish premise, it is completely true.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why You Should Plan Experiences

experience definition2
It’s mid-October, and some of us are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, or NaNonWriMo. Some of us are just inspired by the changing seasons, and want to finally try some new thing we keep putting off. Or maybe we just want to actually read one of the books stacked on our nightstands.

Unfortunately, we writers humans have an endearing habit of envisioning grand creative plans, only to throw them out for the sake of some suddenly-urgent busywork. (Or Halloween candy binge). We also tend to distract our imaginations with things we want or need, hoping accumulation will make us happier, healthier, and/or more productive. So I was happy to come across James Hamblin’s “Buy Experiences, Not Things” piece in The Atlantic, which describes psychological studies showing not only “that experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions,” but also that “spending money on experiences ‘provide[s] more enduring happiness’” than spending money on material possessions.  Continue Reading

The Evolution of the Style Guide: An Interview with Psycholinguist Steven Pinker

By Steven Pinker (Rebecca Goldstein) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and psychologist whose work focuses on language–how it works and how it breaks down. Drawing upon his nearly forty years of research, as well as his experiences on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, Pinker has developed a new guide to writing good prose called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. The Ploughshares Blog recently met up with Steven Pinker in Chicago to talk about art of writing a style guide, his work in the psychology of language, and how the two combined to create The Sense of Style.Continue Reading

Escalating Conflict

Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In fiction, only trouble is interesting. For the conflict averse, instilling a story with juicy conflict may take some practice. Someone who has read many drafts of many of my short stories once dubbed me “Anca Did She Forget the Conflict Szilagyi”–a moniker that has become helpful as I work on second and third drafts of stories. As is often the case in learning something, I was aware, theoretically, that I had this problem. But how to proceed?Continue Reading