On Crossing Borders

I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan.

I’m in the U.S. — Massachusetts, to be exact — watching images and reading stories about adults detained, children taken from parents at the southern U.S. border. Their only crime, if they can be said to have committed one, is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A place so unpredictable and violent that undertaking a many-hundred-mile journey north with a two- or five- or ten-year-old in tow seemed the better bet.

I lucked out. I was born into a safe place and a safe time. The only real dangers I’ve faced in my life have been dangers I courted, by speaking out when I could have been silent or walking into possible difficulty with my eyes wide open. Yet I can imagine the desperate conditions that prompted these people to make this terrible journey, hoping — knowing — that whatever place they arrived at would have to be better than the home they had left.

I’m not even a mother, but still — I can imagine.

Not easily, mind you. The mind flinches from imagining, the way a finger recoils from a hot burner. But I can imagine.

This is why I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. You were born in a fine place at a fine time, but when you were ten years old things went horribly wrong. The place was Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. You turned ten in 1975, the year civil war broke out in Lebanon. Your life was changed forever. By the time you reached twenty, you wrote — much, much later — you “had seen more body bags than most people in the civilized world have seen garbage bags.”

I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I thought I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I started college as an Arabic major. If I hadn’t changed course, I probably would have spent my junior year in Beirut, around 1971–72, several years before everything blew up.

What was it, three and a half years ago? You contacted me out of the blue. As an editor I’ve been contacted out of the blue quite a few times by hopeful writers, and in most cases I’ve had to say: Not so fast. This isn’t ready for prime time.

But your sample chapters were ready. They took me somewhere I’d never been, into the world and mind of a young man not yet twenty whose life had been turned upside down and who had risen to the challenge.

Travvy and I read the very first copy of Allen Sawan’s Terrorist University.

We took each other on, editor and writer, writer and editor, and on an accelerated deadline you produced Terrorist University. It’s one of the books I’m proudest of having worked on. But you kept going. You found a mainstream publisher, and out came Al Shabah, The Ghost, closely based on Terrorist University but tighter. I was thrilled to find that the work we’d done together was pretty much intact.

In the years since, we’ve become friends — friends who’ve never met in person but still friends. You live in Ontario now. You and your wife have raised your three children in peace. Each of them was born in the right place at the right time, and their world didn’t turn upside down when they were ten.

I joke that Canada should build a wall on its southern border, to keep out the USians who despair of their country and want to emigrate to someplace better. You joke that you will build a tunnel that my dog and I could escape through. I know for absolute certain that if we needed that tunnel, you of all people would be willing and able to build it.

Your kids, like me, have been lucky. They were born at the right place and time, in a Canada that let you in and let you stay. They’ll learn about your life the same way I did: from the stories you tell so well.

So I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. Of you and your children — I’ve never met them either, but one of these days I think I will. Of all you went through to make it possible for them to grow up more like I did and less like you did.

And I’m thinking of the children taken from their parents at the U.S. border. What stories will they have to tell, ten and twenty years from now? What lessons will they pass on to their children?

What stories will the parents tell? Of struggling against such odds to get this far, and then being treated like criminals by the richest country on earth?

I think of your story, Allen Sawan. It never goes away.

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N Is for Narrative

Like many other word people, the cataclysmic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and its ongoing aftermath got me wondering whether my particular skills as a writer and editor could be useful and, if so, how. Clarity and accuracy seemed way down low on the country’s priority list.

Then in late January, I found Theodora Goss’s blog post “The Politics of Narrative Patterns.” It began like this:

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

After discussing some narrative patterns popular in our culture, Goss notes that male characters have more archetypal options than female characters. Right, thought I, thinking of the path-breaking work writers of f/sf (fantasy and science fiction, hands-down my #1 go-to choice for fiction) have been doing since the 1970s and earlier to expand the possibilities for female characters.

Then Goss ties this to presidential elections, past and present. “People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies,” she writes. “No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed.”

And Donald Trump? “He fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. . . . It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes.”

Immediately it dawned on me that the wise old man in the race, the Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and maybe Walter Cronkite character, was clearly Bernie Sanders. Wise old(er) men have loomed large in my fantasy life since I was a kid, but I never “felt the Bern.” The more I researched his record, the less impressed I was. But I had such a hard time conveying my reservations to my many, many Sanders-supporting friends that I finally stopped trying.

When a narrative pattern takes hold, facts take a back seat. This applies to writing as well as politics: novels that capture the public imagination and become runaway best-sellers seldom do it on their literary merits alone. Don’t tell me the gatekeepers of the publishing world, the agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, et al., are impervious to the power of narrative patterns!

What about women? asks Theodora Goss. Plucky girls are OK, but what happens when they grow up? “We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t  fit this pattern. “What was left?” Goss asks. “The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.”

Walk around that for a while. It resonates.

It also brings me round to the question of what can we word people do in this world where it seems our skills are only valued if we put them in the service of spin, obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lying.

It brought Theodora Goss around to a similar place. At first she thought (feared?) that writing had no use and maybe she should have gone into another line of work. “But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.”

That’s the key: the old patterns won’t lose their power with the wave of a pen, but they can be undermined and transformed, and new patterns can be created. I saw it happening in f/sf, where women went from being add-ons and sidekicks to having their own adventures.

Well into the 1960s, lesbian characters in pulp fiction had basically two options: go straight or die. Cracks began to appear in the pattern before the end of the ’50s, and over the following decades, thanks in large part to lesbian and feminist writers, presses, and readers, new patterns were created. In many quarters these days “go straight or die” is an anachronism.

Note my inclusion of “readers” here. The culture’s narrative patterns are very strong, and the gatekeepers, often citing “market forces,” have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Books that break or undermine the dominant patterns are unsettling, and plenty of people don’t like being unsettled. It wasn’t a commercial press that broke the back of the “go straight or die” lesbian stereotype: it was Daughters., Inc., the small lesbian press that in 1973 published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The novel’s “underground” popularity caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Rubyfruit Jungle went on to become a mass-market best-seller — and a cultural icon for a lot of us.

Narrative patterns are deeply rooted in all our heads. They’re our default settings when we read, when we write, when we choose among political candidates. They’re powerful for sure, but they aren’t invincible. Words, our words, can change them, one story at a time.

 

Storytelling: Get good at it if you want to fight back

In the wake of the US election results and the campaign that led up to it, I’ve been wondering a lot about whether writing is worth it. Especially my writing and the writing I edit, but really writing in general. Toxic stories have been told and retold over and over. Even people who should know better often don’t recognize them as toxic, or won’t say so out loud. The toxic stories have big money and power behind them. The other ones don’t. So I’m looking for reasons to keep putting one word after another, to make my writing the best it can be and help others to do likewise. Here’s a start.

Mike Finn's Fiction

apocalypse-now-sign

If, like me, as you watched Brexit and the US election, disbelief became disappointment bordering on despair, then you may be feeling disempowered right now.

The wrong side won. Bad things are going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it except protect yourself and those you love and wait for sanity to return.

I believe that that response has been engineered. It is the story that those who won, want those of us who oppose them to believe.

The first step to stopping them is to recognise that this is a story and not the truth.

The second step is to change the story.

Salman Rushdie said:

“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives—the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change—truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

I want…

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The Lovely Bones: Structure In Memoir

This blog post is about writing a memoir, but as a writer whose fiction doesn’t follow a “tried-and-true” plot structure, I find its advice very helpful. Maybe you will too.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A Halloween-themed blog post from Janice Gary:

GHOSTSYou could say I’m a ghostwriter. All memoirists are. We commune with the spirits of the past, inhabit old haunts, sift through the bones of the people we once were (and once knew) in an attempt to reanimate what was and illuminate what is.

Our ghosts are real. Or at least as real as we remember them. One thing we cannot do is make stuff up. And we don’t need to. We have more than enough material to conjure life on the page. But that’s part of the problem. What do you do with it all – all that experience, all that emotion?  What spooks those of us who write from life the most is this dilemma: how to wrangle this vast, unwieldy life of ours into a well-shaped story.

Fiction writers have the old tried and true (and yes, trite) basic plot triangle…

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