Thursday, September 30


I remember the first time I allowed my dad to critique a story of mine. It ended with me in tears, but it was better for his suggestions. It may have taken me a few months to get over that particular savaging, but then I regularly asked him to look at my homework and articles and whatnot to find sentences in need of improvement and underdeveloped themes. I was a perfectionist. I didn't just want to hand in 'A' papers. I wanted them to be the best my teachers had read. His suggestions made me a better writer. By the last years of high school he had pointed my mistakes weaknesses out often enough that I could find them myself. At Gonzaga, I never asked anyone to read my essays. I was confident in them, and that confidence was more or less rewarded. My grades at university were not significantly lower than those in high school.

I managed little writing outside of this blog while abroad, but I began work on a number of half-finished and half-started stories from my time at Gonzaga. Now, with a great deal more time, I put more effort into them. I send them off to a few friends for comment. Their comments are helpful. They point out weak characters and thematic problems. I do my best to meet these criticisms and submit the stories to contests. I don't win the contests. I begin to wonder whether my best is good enough, whether writing is even worth my time if no one else likes it very much.

This past week I spent near three hours on the phone with a Gonzaga professor discussing the thousand words of my personal statement for a scholarship. He called my first draft, and I quote, underwhelming. There was a lack of passion in the final paragraph. There were split infinitives. There were ambiguous antecedents and awkward phrases. It was, quite possibly, the best thing anyone has said about my writing in a year or two. When he pointed out that I was denigrating a former recipient of the scholarship, I laughed.

I had thought the essay was pretty decent. I was wrong. I didn't have any idea what 'pretty decent' was, much less 'good.' This wasn't my best work, and I doubt my writing before was much better. I haven't peaked. I don't even know where the summit is, but I know I can do a lot better. I can win some contests and be published. I just need a little savaging every once and a while.

Friday, September 24

Considering Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's "Half of a Yellow Sun"

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gave a fine TEDTalk last year. The essential message, to write what you know, is nothing special, but she illustrated it well with personal experiences of first writing stories about white-skinned, blue-eyed children eating apples when she was born in Nigeria and had only ever ate mangoes. Then she went that extra step and drew the theme out with the need to search for a diversity of voices and not let a single narrative come to dominate any single person, culture, nation, event.

You can see how this idea is present in her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. There are a diversity of voices. Three characters, a boy from the bush serving as houseboy to a mathematics professor, a daughter of privilege and the professor's lover, and a British expatriate live through the years preceding and during the separation of Biafra from Nigeria and the ensuing war to bring it and its oil fields back into the fold. Just in writing about this time from the Biafran perspective, Adiche is creating another voice to challenge and correct the existing narrative. It reveals little to say now that Nigeria wins the war as Biafra is unable to find any international support, and as tends to go for the winners, their story tends to be the better known.

Thematically this is all very nice and good, but in this novel it frustrates me to no end. Borges once said something along the lines that he knew a series of stories were authentically Arabian because they never once mentioned camels. They were a given and needed no exceptional recognition. If someone traveled from Medina to Mecca, it would have been redundant to write "by camel." Reading Yellow Sun you will never forget it takes place in West Africa. Igbo words are frequently dropped in conversation. They eat a lot of jollof rice and garri. It's not as egregious or as blatant as Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao where footnotes are generously employed to bring foreign readers up to speed on just how terrible Rafael Trujillo was, but it's still heavy enough to jar me from the narrative when there is another reminder that this is a different place where they eat different things and mourn differently. It really bothers me then when these novels become so celebrated in America. I get the feeling that Americans read Yellow Sun and Oscar Wao as much to educate themselves as for the story itself. Now they know Biafra once existed and can drop a few good facts on the lead up to the war and the leaders should the opportunity come up in conversation.

Compare this to Sherman Alexie and Jhumpa Lahiri, two foreign-born writers whom I respect. Both write about their unique cultural experiences. Alexie's stories are set on reservations and Lahiri writes about educated Bengali immigrants in America, but there is never a sense that one is receiving a lecture on their lives and cultures. Alexie's stories are really about fathers and sons and Lahiri's are about founding one's place in a new land. That they include reservations and Bengalis is incidental. They are just the best ways they know how to express these themes.

Perhaps it's inevitable when Adiche sets her story in a time of war, when characters are caught up in events so much larger than themselves, that the larger facts of the situation come to bear, so I would like to see Adichie write something small next time, something much less epic. Maybe just the relationship between two sisters, which is by far the best aspect of Yellow Sun. It would be another voice for Adichie to share.

Tuesday, September 21

Considering Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio"

It is time to add another name to the pantheon of major and minor literary deities who have disappointed me. Be it an honor or otherwise, Sherwood Anderson now stands in my mind alongside Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro and Henry James as those writers who have been built up and then failed to earn my esteem. It's not that I couldn't respect their works and themes and ways with words, but they failed to strike that deeply resonant cord within me and remain a splinter in my mind. Perhaps it is too much to expect, but after hearing so much, anything less than a life-altering work from these writers would have to be considered a failure. Maybe, probably, my response would be different if I had read more than a single work of Anderson, but Winesburg, Ohio is held up as his greatest and sometimes used as evidence for how the Noble prize for literature has missed the actual great works of Jorges Luis Borges and Marcel Proust while passing ten million kronor to Sully Prudhomme, Frédéric Mistral and Verner von Heidenstam.

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of vignettes about the residents of this small town. In the prologue, Anderson sets the stage for the series by writing:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.


And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some were quite strong and snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
It's a pretty sentiment, though I am prone to disagree with and believe it to be nonsense, more or less. In that it's like Joel McHale in Community's season finale as he considers whether Slater, who is like him on New Year's Day with a list of resolutions, or Britta, whose is like him four weeks later when he's hitting the snooze button and screening his mother's calls, would be better for him, whether it would be better for him to strive to be a better person or to know himself. It's nicely put and thematically interesting but requires ignoring the episode just past where he gave Shirley his priority registration because of Britta's influence.

And so Anderson explores the truths and falsehoods held dearly by the residents of Winesburg, Ohio. There's the teacher who was run out of town on accusations of touching his students. There's the artist who prefer imaginary friends to the real. There's the landowner who desires a male heir to defend their property from Philistines. There's the reverend who peeks at a woman as she reads in bed. There's the man who hates women. The only two truths necessary to exist in this town are that life and marriage are miserable things and that sharing your defining story with the town's youngest reporter is a good thing.

There are a wide variety of characters present. For that and for making them each distinctive, I give Anderson credit. In that he does right in forming the backbone of the work, but then Anderson goes and does them a disservice by forcing their stories into just a few pages. Twenty-two characters are identified and explored in the 231 pages in this volume. That's just more than ten pages for each, and the typeset is not exactly compressed. It's enough room to describe each character's background and leaves little room for much else. Few characters face conflicts, but those that happened and were decided long ago. When Anderson prefers to give each character such short shrift, though, the entire book begins to fill more like a collection of character sketches and preparations for a much better, longer work. It should be no surprise that the most compelling stories in the book come from "Godliness, a Tale in Four Parts," where the three lead characters have four times the time and space to develop.

Wednesday, September 15

Seeking publication

The blog is fun and all, but I would like to make some money with my writing, fiction in particular. As referred to earlier. I am new at this and could be totally wrong, but there appears to me two ways to do this. The one, and more lucrative, option is to write a novel and get a deal for that. The second is to submit short works to contests and journals of varying stripes. Having some four short pieces complete and another seven or so in some stage of completion, I am opting for the latter.

Thus far, I have submitted these in different combinations to five contests. It goes without saying that I have yet to win one of these. I would so totally post a pile of links to my victorious submission should that happen and exhort you all to a buy a copy of the publication were it not available online. That doesn't bother me so much. Even if I don't particularly care for the winning pieces, I know there are a lot of submissions and victory comes down to the personal taste of the editor and judges as much as anything. That can't be very well accounted for. Beside, I'm used to losing. Years of bottom half finishes in cross country and track and playing second banana to East Grand Forks in Knowledge Bowl prepared me well for that. Winning is an unexpected but pleasant surprise.

What does bother me is that I had never before heard of these journals before I found their call for entries on NewPages. Glimmer Train? Grist? Gulf Coast? Zone 3? Even once I visit their sites, I hardly even visit the fiction sections, short of getting an idea of the style and tone they are looking for. These are not journals that I have dreamed of my work published in, and I am unlikely to read much of them after I submit. They just happen to be offering some money for what I like to do, which is the crux. I don't care about the journal itself. I care about the money they could offer me.

Is this a bad thing?

I would say no and would even suggest that it isn't mercenary. I write because I enjoy it, crafting narratives and creating characters and all the rest. That someone else enjoys my work enough to make space for it in their publication and gives me some money in return is a nice bonus. Whether further people read my stories and enjoy them is largely immaterial. With writing, I've already pleased myself, and that's about all I can count on. So long as publication alone does not lead to any personal declaration of myself as a great writer, I think I will be okay, though publication is an enormous ego stoke and would hopefully push me through on larger projects when the efforts don't seem worth it.

Monday, September 13

Considering Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen's "The Truth Lenders"

Know what I like about most about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? The passion. And Brandon Routh, Kieran Culkin and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. But mostly the passion. Mostly. Scott Pilgrim was the most exhilarating films I have seen since Kung Fu Hustle. There was such a sense of joy in the entire piece. At any given moment most anything could happen because they were works of utter passion, and the creator had so fully fused the work with their interest and essence. Edgar Wright and Bryan Lee O'Malley like indie music and 8-bit video games as much as them. They're going to make a film about them, and not in some minor way where the main character enjoys a little Minus the Bear or Double Dragon in their down time. Their entire world and lives are consumed with these things. It's like an enormous middle finger to the audience. I don't care if you like all these things as much as me. I'm going to make a movie about them.

That's what Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen's first novel The Truth Lenders is like except, this being Thuy, more like a tongue sticking out than middle finger. Thuy likes journalism. The Truth Lenders has journalism and lots of it. Measurements are made with picas. Reporters and editors are a hunted species, atomically rearranged into eggplant and pitchers of water for Eastern European and African families when caught but still don disguises and creep through air vents to report on city council meetings. The News Now! Corporation is developing a pill that immerses consumers in the events of the day in their dreams.

Thuy likes home-cooked meals, and the Chef Machine, which makes any dish perfectly, is disparaged in favor of the inconsistency in quality brought on by human hands. Thuy likes dinosaurs, and they have been cloned. Thuy likes architecture and fashion, and both receive special attention. Thuy likes Eastern philosophy and creates Zen English. You get the idea. There is a sense of anything goes throughout as it all really comes down to what interests Thuy. She doesn't pander to what her audience might want to read about. First and foremost, she's writing for herself and creates in the process something unique and unlike most anything else you are likely to find.

It's appropriate that the plot centers around the development of the immersive journalism pill. Thuy calls this a multimedia novel, one designed to create a more fully realized world. On the one hand, this is done through a CD including songs performed and produced by musician friends of Thuy to represent those played by the bands SpynSpeck and Binman and the Flaw in The Truth Lenders. Myriad footnotes and short chapters include scraps of official documents and recipes for popular drinks that flesh out the world still more.

I would like to point out that The Truth Lenders was self published by Thuy and last I heard she was somewhere between one-third and one-half the way toward breaking even. Should being on the forefront of what best ought to be the next step in literature in creating an immersive environment well suited to taking advantage of the technologies offered by e-readers not be your thing, do consider supporting the efforts of a young writer. You can buy the book and read more here. Please do.

Friday, September 10

Considering "El Secreto De Sus Ojos"

Bozeman has a single movie theater that dependably plays all wide releases. This is a vast improvement over Nairobi. This is not an improvement over Spokane where one could choose between four major, one second-run and one independent single-screen theater. But Bozeman opened yesterday its annual film festival, and that's cool cool, even if all of the slated films have already played at the Magic Lantern or are playing there now.

The Bozeman Film Festival began with the Argentine El Secreto De Sus Ojos, winner of this year's foreign language Oscar. This victory was apparently something of a surprise against France and Germany's entries, Un Prophète and Das Weiße Band. Having not seen it but very eager to do so, I can't speak for Prophète, but Band, despite gorgeous black and white imagery, left me cold and sad with its view askance at a small village and the violence of parents and children it obscures. I don't quite know what others found so deserving about it.

I do feel confident, though, in saying that, controversy aside, Ojos was a film deserving of this award. It does so much excellently. The acting is excellent. Every character through the lead Benjamin Esposito through to the hopeless alcoholic Pablo Sandoval to Ricardo Morales, the husband grieving for his young murdered wife is distinct and resonates. The cinematography is excellent. The shot composition in conversations gives them gravity, and there is the magnificent sequence that begins with a pan across a soccer field, moving into a chase scene that begins amidst jumping Racing fans and passes through a bathroom and the stadium's concrete hallways, ending on the field when the suspect is clipped to the ground by a charging player. It is the greatest long shot I have seen since Children of Men.

I have only a single complaint with Ojos, and it is, unfortunately, a significant one. The plot progresses on parallel tracks. Since retiring from civil service, Esposito has struggled to write a novel about a rape, murder case over twenty years old. This is the better of the tracks. The procedural is comparable in the best way to David Fincher's Zodiac. Evidence is accrued, efforts are stymied, suspects are discovered, justice and the lack thereof is made.

On the other track, Esposito pursues, both in the past and present, Soledad Villamil, a former supervisor at the courts. She is his passion, the one thing about himself that he can never change. Near every character who has met the two of them comments on this as well as the impossibility of a relationship between the two of them, though both desire it. I have never held much truck with the romantic conception of the One, the only person another could ever truly love. Attraction, admiration, lust, these things I can understand at first meeting, but they diminish. To remain strong over decades, even after other marriages, affairs and children, hints at something like obsession and does not seem quite healthy. To end with something like a declaration of love and request for either an affair or divorce on Villamil's part, just sort of sours the rest for me.

It must be said that some familiarity with Argentina is necessary to wholly understand and appreciate the film. For at least half of the film I thought that Villamil was Esposito's secretary, but it turns out the man telling her to sort files was just a sexist dick. I guess, too, that Argentina in the seventies thought that Chicago had the right concept of law and justice in the twenties.