Monday, July 25

A first novel: Chapters

I have divided my novel into chapters. Its one-hundred and sixty-seven pages are now portioned between eighty-two chapters. They have no clever names, just numbers. The shortest are a few small paragraphs. The longest span three or four pages.

I do not know yet if I will keep them. It was not my intention at the beginning to divide it so. I wanted the novel to be a seamless whole and not in discrete, defined chunks.

I did it because I was struggling in my revisions. My thought before was to keep going through the whole again and again, adding scenes and developing the characters at first and later eliminating them down to only what is necessary. That did not work out so well. I would push through as many words as I could in a morning and write and revise until I burned myself out for the day. The trouble was that I was still a little burned out the next day, and it only accumulated. The chapters allow me to pace myself and focus my writing. Now I work every day only on a defined section of the novel, never more than a single scene, and focus just on making it the best it can be now. I’m feeling good about this.

With eighty-two chapters and assuming I hold to my goal of working on a single chapter every day, my goal of having a draft ready for the thoughts and reactions of friends by the beginning of November remains intact.

Wednesday, July 20

Considering Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”

We read T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in my second literature class at Gonzaga. More than a few of my classmates admitted that they had only the barest understanding of what was happening in the poem, but they liked it nonetheless. Maybe it was the rhythm of “Please, hurry up, please,” or the imagery of waves crashing against the shore that caught their attention. I don’t know. I thought it was a garbage position to take. How can you claim to enjoy something but fail to understand it, especially something as rigorous as that poem? Since reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, though, I think I can understand them.

First, the Snow I read was not entirely what Pamuk intended. I read a translation from the original Turkish. No matter the skill of Maureen Freely, no doubt a great deal of the wordplay and allusions were lost in the process.

Second, a review in Harper’s called it a “political novel.” I have to agree with that as there are constant references to Turkey’s history of coups and a clear concern with the nation’s current struggle between secularism and popular Islam, but these are topics I am not well prepared to encounter as my knowledge of Turkey and its history begins with the might of the Ottoman Empire’s army and ends with the emergence of Atatürk.

Third, in his review, John Updike draws connections between Snow and the works of Kafka, Joyce, Calvino and six other seminal figures of the Western literary canon. Of those referenced, I had read only Mann and Dostoevsky and not even the referenced works. I wasn’t even well placed to understand its literary significance, but I enjoyed Snow nonetheless.

No, I loved it. It’s the best novel I’ve read so far this year. It was just so great in everything. The evocation of the city of Kars and its teahouses that no longer sold coffee because the unemployed customers couldn’t afford it. The sense of surreality as the city is isolated for days by a freak snowstorm and Ka meets the city’s powerful. The rich cast of characters concerned with politics and faith and their shadows. The plays and poems within the novel and the power of art and theater. The structure of the gradual reveal of the narrator and his own passions and hopes. It’s amazing. I would be happy if I once wrote something that came within a stone’s throw of Snow’s success at every level.

I find this incredibly hopeful that I can enjoy something without understanding it in its entirety. It invites later returns and promises new responses then and opens up so many other works.

Tuesday, July 19

A first novel: Autobiography in fiction

There is a basic rule of writing that goes “Write what you know.” It makes sense. You write best about the things you understand best, the characters and settings you have personally experienced. In that way you best set yourself up to place the telling details and reveal the truth. It may not have the same glamour as the lives and romances of landed English men and women two centuries past, but if you know hunting and plumbing and write about them, your stories will have the honesty of Austen. If you don’t know a thing about the Russian aristocracy in the nineteenth century, you don’t write like Tolstoy. Of course, if this is taken too strictly, there is no opportunity for fantasy, but a story can always be grounded by the conflicts the writer personally understands, be it sibling rivalry or racial prejudice or whatever.

I took this rule too far in my early writing. More than a few of the stories I wrote while attending Gonzaga were mildly fictionalized events and scenes taken from my own life. Some times I barely bothered to change the names. I have gotten away from that somewhat though it is still not hard to find the inspirations for the small Minnesotan town or the western Kenyan bush where so many of my stories are set.

I used to think it was vanity to think my own life was so interesting and rich and full of insight into the human condition that other people would want to read about it. I don’t think that anymore. I write for myself first. That way I can at least be assured of pleasing one reader. And when I write for myself I am trying to understand my life. I remember and create again those moments I thought were revealing and important and try to understand what they might have meant or why I did or did not do something. It’s an act of understanding, too, as I consider especially those whom did not appreciate or like and try to understand their own place and motives.

I don’t know. It’s the beginning of an artistic statement, I guess.

Friday, July 15

Rejected story

I received yesterday another rejection for “Perfection.” It was the eleventh I’ve received for that story, and I can pretty safely assume that another five journals rejected it but didn’t bother to send any notification whatsoever as it’s been so long.

What was different was that this was the first rejection I have received that was not a form letter. It was the first to be accompanied by the editor’s personal comments. His complaint was that there was too much exposition. He wanted to scratch “SUMMARY” in red pen across entire pages and leave only half of the whole behind, only the real meat of the story.

I can understand that. I might revise it, especially since a friend made the same point about one of the stories I submitted to Machine of Death and that story was definitely helped by the cuts. I probably won’t. I like it the way it is. “Perfection” is something like a confession or memoir. There is supposed to be meandering.

What interests me is that the editor said the writing was engaging. Isn’t that a good thing?

Let me make the point now that this isn’t an argument that the editor should have accepted “Perfection” and hailed it as the greatest thing he has ever read. He didn’t like it. That’s fine. My feelings aren’t hurt. I’ll try again with another journal. I appreciate that he took the effort to write personal comments in response to it. That’s really decent.

What interests me is the premise of liking the writing but wanting to cut it. He called it “exposition.” “Exposition” is clear and direct explanation. It’s the information that puts what follows into context and allows it to make sense. I learned early in my creative writing classes that exposition was bad and should be avoided, and the editor appears to agree with that. It may be necessary, but it requires finesse and should not call attention to itself. For the most part, I tend to agree. After reading friends’ stories, I’ve told them to cut paragraphs and pages worth of exposition. I’ve quit reading some novels because there were such slabs of exposition at the beginning that I just got too annoyed to continue.

But he said the writing was engaging. I’m not serving the rules of creative writing. I’m serving the reader. What does it matter if there are passages of exposition if the writing is strong and a pleasure to read? What I think is the problem is that he recognized the passages as exposition. Once he saw that, he couldn’t help but see them as an amateur technique and be impatient for the rest of the story to begin. What I wonder is that if the writing were stronger, maybe he would have been too caught up in it to realize it was exposition. Maybe exposition is not a problem until you recognize that what you’re reading is exposition. Maybe writing is just a magic act that is always trying to keep the reader’s attention on the words and characters and story and not on the processes and techniques that make them work lest they lose their sparkle and allure. It’s just a thought.

Thursday, July 14

Considering Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “A Grain of Wheat” and “Writers in Politics”

I do believe that it is congenitally impossible for Ngugi wa Thiong’o to not write Literature. The man cannot write something small and light. Wizard of the Crow was about the resistance to a president’s corruption. Petals of Blood handles a town’s transformation from pastoral to industrial. A Grain of Wheat, one of Ngugi’s earliest novels, is, if possible, even more ambitious than those.

It is the dawn of Kenya’s independence in A Grain of Wheat. It has already gained self-rule, and Jomo Kenyatta has returned from his imprisonment. In a few days the people will celebrate uhuru when the British formally withdraw from the nation. A Grain makes every attempt to capture the breadth of the zeitgeist. Everyone with a stake in uhuru is represented. There are veterans of the Mau Mau resistance and the detention camps, and there are collaborators and homeguards. There are white colonial bureaucrats and new black ministers of parliament.

It is, unfortunately, the weakest of Ngugi’s efforts that I have read thus far, too. There are some wonderful scenes that reveal the community’s spirit when the people gathered at the train station on Sundays or of the spontaneous celebrations on midnight of 12 December, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Much of it the writing is over explained and clunky. The symbolism of the “Narrow Escape” and “Lucky One” matatus at the end is a bit much.

What interests me, however, is the contrast between this work and the philosophy and impetus of literature Ngugi lays down in his second collection of essays, Writers in Politics. In the collection’s preface he makes the point that all writing is inherently political and reflective of a society’s power structures. It cannot be denied. The writer’s only choice is whether to support the ruling powers or to challenge them. He repeats this position that every writer must be actively and consciously political in every one of the ensuing thirteen essays. Two essays are dedicated to celebrating Mau Mau. He argues in “Return to the Roots” that writers in the post-colonial world should write in their national and tribal languages rather than English to find their true audience.

Ngugi’s latest, Wizard of the Crow, is a perfect example of this theory. It was first published in Gikuyu and actively celebrates those who resist government corruption and oppression. Not so with A Grain. Leading veterans of Mau Mau are murderers and rapists. One who confessed the oaths and collaborated with the colonists during the Emergency did enjoy the ensuing power but did it first out of love for a woman. The man who led a successful hunger strike in detention camp also betrayed a Mau Mau leader. Even the departing colonial officials are treated with some sympathy. It’s hardly what you would expect from a writer who is fighting the power and celebrating the resistance.

It’s very possible that Ngugi’s views simply changed over time. A Grain was published in 1966. Ngugi only wrote the first essay of Writers in Politics in 1973. A lot can happen over seven years, but I like to believe that superior literature is too subtle for this. It can only be so strident and definite with ideas and abstractions. When it comes to characters and their motives, the edges are blurred and things become less certain, like life, and people do their best to muddle through and do what’s right.

Wednesday, July 13

Two months in Malawi: Bicycle taxis

Bicycle taxis are called boda boda in Kenya. We never took them in Nakuru. They weren’t allowed within two blocks of the city center, where we spent most of our time, and when we could have used them to ride to a rugby or football match, we didn’t out of pride. They would push their bicycles in front of us and cut us off to convince us to ride with them, and that was just annoying.

We missed out. We took bicycle taxis on our first night in Mangochi. It was already night, we were carrying luggage and we had no idea where to find the hospital where we would be staying. Someone called two bicycle taxis for us, and it was, to take a cliché, magical. The bicycles were nearly silent. It was a new moon and there were no street lamps, so the darkness was complete. It felt like we were floating.

Bicycle taxis are everywhere in Mangochi, filling people’s transportation needs in the absence of intra-city mini-buses and tuk-tuks. Some replaced their carrying racks with padded leather seats and added foot pegs and handlebars for passengers. Others reinforced the racks to carry everything from bundles of sugar cane to cages full of chicken to fifty kilo sacks of maize flour to bound goats to cases of soda and beer bottles. These riders are tough. Carrying passengers, more than a few of them can still easily pass me when I ride alone for fun. As a passenger, my driver has fought up hills that would have given me pause riding alone. The riders take pride in their bikes and adorn them with decorations. They add hand-painted license plates and mud flaps and rows of extra reflectors.

If I were a rich man and if I settled in Mangochi and Malawi, I would build a bicycle racing complex. I already picked out a site, a few kilometers from the city center on the outskirts. I would build three tracks. There would be a two-kilometer track for sprints. There would be a second two-kilometer track, but it would have terrain. It would cross the dry irrigation canals and hit jumps. The last would be a ten-kilometer loop for endurance rides. There would be a variety of race formats. There would be singles races, of course, and doubles, too, where the passenger and driver would have to switch positions halfway through. There would also be singles races where they rode loaded down with freight. The winners could receive pennants that declared their speed and victories to potential customers.

There is a necessity for bicycles in Mangochi where there is not enough money to afford motor vehicles and fuel. It would be beautiful if it turned into a passion and entertainment.

Friday, July 8

Two months in Malawi: Business names

Mangochi offers little for those who shop for amusement and distraction. Every shop and every stall carries the same products from the same suppliers. If you find one printed Tanzanian shawl you like at one stall, you are going to find it again at the next five shawl stalls. Everyone who sells plates and bowls carries the same Chinese ceramics. No matter how many bicycle shops you visit, your choice is still only between the Hunter and the Humber. There isn’t even much fun to be had in bargaining and haggling as the shopkeepers generally give you their best price first. Rather, the real fun to be had in shopping in Mangochi is in the shop and stall names.

Of the first order are the literal and straightforward. You can buy new clothing every Friday from the Fair Price Clothing Shop and be shaved at The Nice Cut Barbershop. There is the Snack Attack Restaurant and Resthouse and Sonny’s Stitch 4 Life Studio.

Then there are the Christian and Muslim faithful who operate Miracle Printers and Blessings Electronics. If these are too subtle declarations of faith, there are also Jesus Is My Boss Mini-Shop and God is Good Cosmetics and Salon.

I would have expected Black Boy Fashion Wear and Niggaz Music Centre to deny me entrance, but they accepted my patronage as well as any other shop.

Boyz 2 Barber Shop and Quiet Boyz Sound Company are just great names, but the greatest class of names overall are for those stores which admit in their names that their customers shouldn’t expect very much. Maybe Imagination Another wants you to imagine that they’re a different wholesaler. If you want to upgrade from the OK Restaurant and Resthouse, you can go to the OK Executive Lodge. That’s not including Time Tells Variety Shop, My Mistake Hyper, Slow But Sure Food Shop, Mixed Bag Shopping, Mzasi For Show Variety Shop and the Cheap-Cheap Shop.

All of this humility is only countered by the very overqualified Dr. Ishu Cellphone Repair.

Thursday, July 7

Considering Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

I finished it. I have now read the unabridged War and Peace from beginning to end.

I never had any particular interest in reading it. Though I enjoyed “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and some others of Tolstoy’s short stories, I was not that impressed with Anna Karenina. Really, it was a matter of efficiency more than taste that drove me to read the Russian novel. This return to Africa includes a week in Kenya and another eight in Malawi and over fifty hours of sitting in airports and flying. I needed something that would last me, and hauling one elephantine tome made more sense than five books of a reasonable size.

The Signet Classic edition’s 1455 pages of small type and no line spacing took me roughly four weeks to complete. Assuming I read every day, which I totally didn’t, it’s an average of just over fifty pages a day. For the expressed purpose of taking a while to read, it succeeded. As a demonstration of my reading speed and actual interest in reading it, that’s not so great, but who can blame me? Something like a third of the novel is Tolstoy taking a break to explain his theory of history and its ultimate inscrutability. Napoleon was a twit because he thought he made the decisions and was important. Kutuzov was a genius because he realized he was merely an expression of the people’s will. We get it. We got it the first time you brought it up. Get on with it. That said, I would still rather read Tolstoy’s theory of history than another scene of Levin on his estates marveling at the peasant spirit and hunting. Shut up, Levin.

But, really, get on with it because the parts that aren’t that, the stories of the Rostov and Bolkonsky families and Pierre, are pretty great, a lot better than most everything else I’ve read this year. They’re good characters. They’re conflicted. They’re driven by their impulses and responsibilities. They’re making the effort to be good people. I liked reading about their lives. One hundred fifty years later they were still interesting and compelling. No doubt I missed a great deal of the nuance and subtleties in the interactions of the early 19th century Russian aristocracy, especially when the most shameful villain only sought to marry a girl without her father’s permission, but there were still some great moments. I felt more than a little sympathy and understanding with Pierre as he tried to liberate and improve the lives of his serfs but his every move is undermined by rampant corruption without his awareness.

For such a monument in the Western canon it seems like backhanded praise to just say of War and Peace, “I liked it,” but it’s true. It didn’t prompt any revelations, but I enjoyed most of the four weeks I spent in Tolstoy’s world with Prince Andrei and Princess Marya and Pierre. That’s something.