Artistry is a Kind of Citizenship – Ploughshares Interviews Allan Gurganus

gurganusI’ve been aware of Allan Gurganus since I was a few years old; we hail from the same small town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and his books lined the shelves of homes I visited, and the local library. Turns out his name was also in the New Yorker, and when I was nine, his book The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All spent eight months on the New York Times Bestseller List. I’ve always admired Allan’s willingness and ability to dig in to the mess of life, rarely saying what “ought” to be said, but what is genuinely felt, and plumbing uncomfortable subjects like race and sexuality before doing so was common, especially in the south.  His first New Yorker story “Minor Heroism,” published in 1974, was the magazine’s first story to feature a gay character, and his work has continued to be elegantly radical, erotic, and full of eerily good sentences. Moreover, I continually find bewilderingly great and generous advice in Allan’s interviews, and knew I must ask my own questions.

Megan Mayhew Bergman: When you look back on your career as a writer, are you able to see a single moment where the clouds parted, momentum changed, and your career began? (Perhaps with the publication of your first New Yorker story, “Minor Heroism”?) Do these moments happen or are they made? What do you make out of the alchemy of talent, luck, and hard work when it comes to a writer forging a long-term career?

Allan Gurganus: Readers sometimes praise a writer’s self-discipline. They say, “I know I couldn’t wake up at six and make myself type about the same characters all day.”

A writer’s discipline should simply be called “obsession”. That word literally means “To sit before.” The way some pilgrim must bow daily to Mecca. Maybe our obsessions choose us. Obsessives tend to think that anyway! And writing is surely a better addiction than most.

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Why Bother with Craft?

Browne,_Henriette_-_A_Girl_Writing;_The_Pet_Goldfinch_-_Google_Art_Project

“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.

Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story.

The first week in an MFA in creative writing, students were told they’d be studying craft and one student objected—said he couldn’t write a craft essay when the choices he made in a narrative were inherent.

They’re not, the professor argued; they’re studied and learned qualities, practiced until they become inherent, or second-nature. Craft in literature is the metaphorical and invisible toolbox you take with you. Like a filmmaker studies the nuances of cameras, microphones, and lighting to create a scene, a writer reads books for syntax, structure, theme, and studies the methods of employing devices like irony and metaphor as a way to point toward meaning, to elucidate a deeper truth. Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, said, “an awareness of all the different forms in which you can tell true stories using narrative techniques is important to succeeding with a broad variety of materials.” (Nieman Storyboard)Continue Reading

The Candles and the Soap: On Vonnegut, Death, and Repetition

Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading

When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh

Sunday_Book_Market,_Daryaganj,_Delhi

How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

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

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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