Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

SJackson

Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

american-gothic

My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 187: Journalists and Fictionists

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Penman for Monday, February 15, 2016

 

MY GRADUATE fiction writing workshop—CW 211—opened last month, and I was glad to see that all my 12 or so students were taking fiction with me for the first time. I don’t mind when students study with me over two or three semesters—especially the best ones you want to see through to their first book—but a fresh crop of faces is always a relief of sorts, because you can be assured that everything you say in class will be new to them.

As a first-day practice, I ask the class members to give a brief self-introduction, as a writing workshop is almost like a support group, and requires a certain degree of intimacy, so people should know each other right from the beginning. The self-intros also give me a sense of my students’ backgrounds, from which I might be able to get an idea—albeit a very tentative and imperfect one—of the kind of fiction I can expect from them.

This semester, I have several students coming from Journalism, and I told them, with a semi-serious laugh which they returned, that it was usually the journalists I had the most trouble with in Fiction class. Now why did I say that?

Let me explain, first of all, that I was a journalist myself, and still see myself as a part-time member of the press. Indeed when, in high school, I began firming up my ambition to become a writer, it wasn’t to become a novelist or a short story writer—it was to become a journalist, in the belief that there was nothing nobler and more exciting than to get the news and be the first to tell the world about it. I achieved that ambition—or at least the start of it—when I was hired as a general-assignments reporter by the Philippines Herald and later as a suburban correspondent by Taliba in 1972, as an 18-year-old dropout, but martial law put an abrupt end to that. It wouldn’t be until 20 years later, in 1993, when I was back in a newsroom, though no longer as a reporter but as an editorial writer for TODAY, and in 2001 as a copyeditor for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, about the same time that I began writing this Lifestyle column for the STAR.

That’s not much of a career as lifelong journalists go, but it’s been enough to leave me with a healthy respect for the work that journalists do, especially in comparison to that of the fictionist, which I became as well. Both are difficult, and require their own kind of discipline; neither is particularly remunerative, although journalism, if undertaken as a regular job, will at least provide a steady income, while fiction must remain a strictly part-time avocation for 99% of its practitioners in this country.

When I teach a class in Creative Writing, I always tell my CW majors that they should never feel superior to journalists, because they don’t know what it’s like to have to find, write, and turn in a story every afternoon of every working day. Creative writing students like to bitch that they don’t have enough material, enough inspiration, and enough time to finish their magnum opus (which at the end of all that whining might turn out to be profoundly underwhelming). Journalists can’t even complain about these things, because they simply don’t factor into the making and delivery of a news story. Material? That’s for you to find or create. Time? A few hours. Inspiration? Your paycheck. I’ve commiserated beerside with journalist-friends over the travails they had to suffer to get a particular story—but only after the story was sent in, and not before.

So with all this admiration and respect for journalists and their job, why do I say they give me problems as fictionists? I’m generalizing here, of course, but the answer isn’t too far from from what, ironically, is a journalist’s chief virtue: they can’t let go of the facts. They find it very difficult to switch to a make-believe mode, and even when they do, their stories are thinly-disguised newsfeatures wanting in compelling, internally driven drama. When you point out a problem in the narrative—say an unlikely turn in the plot—the journalist’s defense will invariably be, “Well, that’s what really happened!”

Unfortunately, in fiction, “It really happened” just doesn’t cut it. What’s real in fiction is what’s on the page. Real life might provide the material and the inspiration for the fictional story, but that story has to acquire a life of its own, regardless of its origins in fact. This is why I tell my students that everything they submit to the workshop is fair game for criticism, and that they can’t and shouldn’t take it personally when someone comments that “I think the mother in this story is very narrow-minded and selfish,” even if that mother was based on one’s beloved mom—it’s “the mother on the page,” as I call that character, that we’re following, believing, and either rooting for or disliking.

And the first day of fiction class is also when I trot out one of my favorite quotes, paraphrased from Mark Twain: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Just think about it: we accept incredible reports in the news that we wouldn’t buy for a minute in a short story, even in a fantasy, because we expect fiction to adhere to an internal dramatic logic, whether it’s set in a garage or in a galaxy far, far away. The factual world has no such givens; things just happen, often for no apparent reason. That’s why fiction had to be invented: to make sense of life in the raw and all of its inconsistencies, paradoxes, and mysteries. (The opinion writer aims to do that as well, but on the plane of the abstract, using words like “justice” and “freedom”, which you normally won’t find in a well-crafted story; they’d be implied.)

If it’s any comfort to the fact-loving journalist, there’s another kind of writer whom I’ve discovered to have equal difficulty transitioning to fiction: the poet, for whom every word and turn of phrase is painfully precious, and a ten-page story might as well be an epic. But that’s fodder for another time.

 

[Image from thenextweb.com]

Penman No. 64: The Outsider in the Story

Penman for Monday, Sept. 16, 2013

AS MY literature students know, there’s only one kind of exam they can expect me to give them—a 90-minute, essay-type, open-book exam. This means that, over a class period, they’ll be answering two or three questions with short essays that they can compose with the help of their notes, their readings, and their brains.

The first time they hear this, some students will cheer, thinking that an open-book exam will be a walk in the park, and that they can catch up on two month’s worth of reading and comprehension with 15 minutes of furtive cramming. (As they like to say on Pawn Stars, “That’s not going to happen.”) The smarter ones know that the best way to get my attention from this point on will be to say something fresh, beyond spitting back what we’d already said in class or quoting some ponderous French critic.

Just like answering them, writing exam questions is something of an art. Ideally, you want to frame questions that are hard to answer but easy to check—in other words, you should be able to sense, within a couple of paragraphs, if the student has a handle on the material or not. You also want questions for which there are no set or obvious answers. In this way, literature and the humanities are different from math and the sciences, in that there is no one correct answer that, with diligence and practice, everyone can theoretically arrive at. I grade responses based on the student’s appreciation of the problem and his or her reasoning; sometimes I might even give a high mark to an answer that doesn’t directly answer the question, but which sets up and pursues such an interesting tangent or dissent that I find myself provoked and educated by it.

Over the years, I’ve built up a battery of questions that I periodically revisit, tweak, and let loose on a new batch of students. Today, I’m taking one of those questions out of commission by putting it out here in the open, and answering it myself. It’s a question I used a few weeks ago for my midterm exam in my course on The Short Story, and while I may change the phrasing from time to time, it basically runs this way: “The Irish writer Frank O’Connor once described the short story as ‘the story of the outsider.’ Using at least three of the stories that we’ve taken up in our reader, discuss how and why O’Connor could have made this statement about the short story.”

What am I looking for when I ask that question? The bottom line, of course, is evidence that the student has read and understood the stories in the syllabus—this is where my passing grade begins—but beyond that, going from competence to brilliance, I look for insight and (this being, after all, a course in literature) articulation. In the case of the O’Connor statement about the short story and the outsider, two immediate possibilities present themselves: one, the outsider as the typical or ideal protagonist in the short story; and two, the short story as the ideal form for the depiction and development of the outsider-character. So we’re looking both at substance or subject and form, both of which the Lit major and budding creative writer should have a keen feel for. (And before anyone lectures me about ending my sentences with prepositions, that’s one of those mythical no-no’s, like the split infinitive, that have been elevated by sheer repetition into dictum.)

Taking the outsider as subject, it’s not too difficult to find and cite instances where the protagonist in the short story is an outsider in society—a nonconformist, a rebel, an outcast. Perhaps the best known example of such a character I can cite is that of Sammy in John Updike’s 1962 story “A&P,” a 19-year-old clerk in a convenience store who quits his job when the conservative store manager admonishes three girls who come into the store in bathing suits, the beach being not too far away. Sammy seems to come to the girls’ defense—ironically, the girls don’t even notice his chivalry—but the girls are really just an excuse, a catalyst for an explosion that had been long brewing within Sammy, who sees most of his customers as “sheep” and who feels oppressed by his environment. So he dramatically, heroically, quits his job, but realizes almost immediately that a nonconformist’s life is not going to be an easy one, as the story’s ending unequivocally states: “… my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” (Having taught it for nearly 30 years now, I’ve been using “A&P” as a kind of litmus test to sense the drift of the current generation. My own First Quarter Storm cohort would have roundly applauded Sammy’s idealism; not surprisingly, most of my present students thought he was irresponsible if not stupid to have quit his job to make a point.)

Another example of such a character is Paul from Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” Although published in 1905, the story could easily be transported to the “selfie” present, given 16-year-old Paul’s egotism and high ambition; he thinks himself well above his peers in intelligence and taste, and imbibes the world of the theater, even if his only role in it is that of an usher. When Paul suddenly finds himself with several thousand dollars entrusted to him by his father for depositing in the bank, Paul runs away with the money to New York, lives the life of a prince for a week, then—with the long arm of the law just about to reach him—he hurls himself in front of an oncoming train. Here, the outsider willfully chooses to be one, the exclusion achieved by arrogance and self-delusion (or, to be more generous, by indulging the high-romantic impulse that most of us will suppress).

The outsider might also become one not by choice but by social fiat; Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” is one such outcast, one who feels herself to be in the very center of things, observing people in a park with directorial authority, only to be spurned by that society. Society can also exert its pressures subtly but no less firmly, as in the case of Miss Mijares in Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin,” where a thirtyish spinster’s longing for a man’s touch overrides her primly preserved composure.

The more difficult part of the answer involves form and technique: what in the short story qualifies it as ideal for the exploration of the outsider-character?

The short story’s relative brevity, for one, compels the action to be focused on a crucial moment, often a decision to be made by the protagonist, that will reveal the truth of his or her character. In this sense, short story characters live in a pressure cooker; at some point, we expect them to crack and break, and it’s these moments of rupture that yield the most valuable insights into the human condition, whether it’s the extent of human greed or of our capability for love and self-sacrifice. Arguably, these moments create departures from the norm and transform the protagonist into something other than he or she was, rendering the protagonist an outsider unto himself or herself.

But the best answer I got in the midterm exam was something I hadn’t even thought of: the short story brings out the outsider in us, the readers, by creating sympathy for characters in situations that our ordinary, rational selves would probably avoid. And that’s the magic and the power of literature—its ability to transform and transport us into other realms and possibilities, so that, for one brief moment, we stand on the outside looking in, and see things about ourselves that we never saw before.

Penman No. 55: A Foray into Fantasy

TresePenman for Monday, July 15, 2013

WE HAD an interesting discussion in my graduate Fiction Workshop class the other week about fantasy.  I’d asked my students to do an exercise—a short piece of fiction with which they could introduce themselves and their work to the rest of the class at the start of the semester—and one of them had chosen to do fantasy. It was a very well written piece, to be sure, about a child who meets an elfin spirit in a tree in their backyard, but I wanted to push the limits of our appreciation of fantasy, if we were going there at all, so I didn’t let it go at that, and raised a few questions and possibilities.

As my students and readers know, I’m a hardcore realist myself in my own fiction, operating on the notion that there are enough mysteries and wonders to be found and explored in everyday life to have to invent more. That doesn’t mean I can’t or don’t appreciate fantasy, or science fiction, which I’ve enjoyed since grade school. Like most readers, I like to be transported to other worlds and other possibilities, as a relief—or, let’s face it, an escape—from the tedium of the here and now.

That said, there are fantasies and there are fantasies, and just because a story’s a fantasy doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that the rules of credibility and plausibility can be thrown out the window. I suspect that readers of fantasy can be just as discerning and demanding as readers of realist fare; they may even be so familiar with the genre and its conventions that they will be ultrasensitive to any radical departure, good or bad, and will feel grievously shortchanged if their expectations aren’t met. Freshness of treatment and insight is key. Fantasy stories that just repeat what’s been said and done before will fail to excite the reader, who’s always demanding something new and different.

So what, to my mind, is a superior fantasy? I’m going to give an answer that will sound a little strange: it’s fantasy that’s premised on the familiar, but takes off into parts unknown, if only again to reflect back on the familiar, or what we thought we knew. In other words, fantasy is ultimately not about complete detachment from reality, but rather the defamiliarization of reality. I’m sure that more sophisticated theorists out there have made pretty much the same point (theory isn’t my strong suit, and I’d much rather reason my way through a problem), but it’s really quite simple: by taking a step back from reality and looking at it from a distance, we notice fresh things about that we would have missed up close. Fantasy provides that distance, even a certain distortion that emphasizes some previously obscure aspects of a picture or a situation over others.

Like I said, I haven’t written much fantasy—the most fanciful story I wrote, back in 1978 (when our daughter Demi was four, thinking that she would read and appreciate it when she turned 12) was a pseudo-historical tale titled “The Mirror,” set in pre-Hispanic Philippines, about the arrival of the first mirror to our shores. I had fun doing that, so I can see how liberating this kind of exercise can be for writers who feel stifled by having to deal with what’s right before them. Reality can be claustrophobic, especially when it’s dark and narrow, as it often seems to be.

But if I were to write fantasy again—and this was what I advised my young student to do—I would play with the possibility of taking off from somewhere unexpected, some place or some point that doesn’t have the word “fantasy” twinkling above it in stardusted letters.

I’m fascinated, for example, by what would happen if our authors tried to fuse freewheeling fantasy with grungy realism, employing our most familiar and even our most sordid realities as a launching pad for a journey to the surreal and the irreal. Of course, like most things in art and literature, this has been done before by many fantasists and fabulists. As I suggested earlier, the best way to lie is to begin with the seeming truth, instead of a flagrant falsehood. (One great example of this approach is the graphic story contributed by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo to our Manila Noir book—which had a very successful launch at NBS Glorietta last July 6, by the way—which begins with a series of gruesome murders on the MRT and turns into a supernatural detective story.)

The imperative of this fusion is at its most urgent in our society, ridden as it is with poverty, violence, and corruption, and yet also uplifted and ennobled by the Filipino’s deep spirituality and by our unyielding imagination. I proposed to my students that in a society such as ours, even fantasy has a social function: not necessarily as an escape, but as a means with which—even briefly—to distance ourselves from our pains and to look at them without hurting too much, so we could deal with them better upon our inevitable return. For us, the most ambitious and the most meaningful fantasy will take our stark social realities into account: you can’t set great fantasy in Tagaytay Highlands, because living there is already a fantasy for most Filipinos; you’d be jumping off a very low platform if you did that.

I threw this impromptu suggestion into the discussion: instead of locating the encounter with the duende or the benign spirit in a backyard that already seems magical (nature—trees, waterfalls, caves, and such—is very often used as an entry point to the other world), why not set it somewhere you least expect a duende to appear (a place “most hostile to romance,” as Joyce put it in “Araby”)?

Think, for example, of a suburban bank branch full of people, toward closing time. A father, a mother, and their young daughter are there, because the dad needs to withdraw some cash to make a down payment on a second-hand car they’d been saving up for. The mom chats with the girl and fixes her ribbons while the dad does his business at the counter. It’s a pleasant day, and soft music plays in the background. Suddenly masked men barge into the bank and announce a holdup. A robber scoops up the dad’s money, but he begins to say something, and gunshots fill the air. (At this point, we don’t know yet if the father has been shot, or if the guards have opened fire.) The little girl is in utter terror, shaking in the iron grip of her screaming mother. At this point, the duende appears, suspending time, and maybe even the trajectories of bullets.

Unlikely? Of course. Corny? Could be. But it’s certainly less predictable than a leafy bower, or a cloud on a hilltop.

Again, I’m a hardcore realist, but I’d be the last to say that our people don’t need fantasy. We most certainly do, especially our poorest children, who’ve been battered and savaged by the realities of life, working in the streets or in some sweatshop when they should be in school, reading books and singing songs. They need fantasy to reclaim their sense of wonder, to see beyond the rust and grime and filth of their surroundings; they can be sustained and delivered not so much by fairy godmothers as by their imagination, which always offers hope.

 

FROM MY friend Jane Camens, the busybody behind the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWriters), comes this message about a call for submissions to an international anthology of flash fiction—the term in vogue for very short stories (also called “short shorts” or “sudden fiction”). Flash Fiction International, to be published by W.W. Norton of New York, is seeking stories from anywhere in the world—especially the Asia Pacific. Jane says that “the stories should be under 750 words, in English translation or original English. Previously published work (within the last 10 years or so) is preferred. But new manuscripts are also considered. Submissions may be sent by email with attachment to Robert Shapard at his email rshapard@hawaii.edu . The submissions deadline is August 15. Submission limit is three stories.” Be so advised!

(Trese image from tumblr.com)

 

Penman No. 51: A Kick in the Pants

Editing

Penman for Monday, June 17, 2013

MORE THAN a couple of times this past summer, in nearly all the writers’ workshops I attended as a lecturer or panelist—in Baguio, Hong Kong, Dumaguete, and Iligan—I found myself saying the same thing to some hapless fellow. I said it as nicely but as firmly as I could: “This needs a kick in the pants.”

By that I didn’t mean that the story in question deserved to be tossed into the trash bin. Workshop panelists of yore were wont to say such hurtful things, if only to watch the fellow on the hot seat squirm and burst into bitter tears, but I’d like to think that we’re long past that kind of cruelty. We do our best to be more helpful these days, and my comment was made in that benign spirit, as unfriendly as it may have sounded.

So what exactly was my beef?

It had to do with an observation I’ve often raised in this corner in respect of much of the new writing by young people that I come across in my classes and in workshops. And that’s the frustrating fact that many young writers don’t know what a real story is—a complete, fully rendered, emotionally engaging and satisfying story, the kind of story you’d like to read over and over again, and that leaves a welt on your memory for years afterward.

Here’s what I keep seeing young writers do: they’ll detail a character and a situation to bits, explaining all manner of complication besetting their hero. They can do this very well, being in possession of an English honed by TV, Hollywood, and Starbucks, an English they don’t just write but speak in everywhere they go.

But when things just begin to get really interesting—somewhere on Page 9, when something you didn’t expect looks like it’s just about to happen—the author pulls the plug and declares the story over, as if to dismiss the reader with a coy “That’s enough.” The idea seems to be that this intensely focused, microscopic investigation of a character and a problem—say, a young woman’s ironic inability to make meaningful connections to others, despite the fact that she works in a call center—is enough.

But it’s not—there’s been loads of exposition, but the story hasn’t really moved far beyond us knowing who this person and what her problem is. We’re still in the problem, which the author has worried like a bad tooth, but it hasn’t really been brought to a point of real drama—the kind of drama that gives us headaches and heart palpitations because we’re that engrossed in the conflict and its possible outcome. But how many stories written today leave you breathless like that, aching to turn the page?

Too many drafts I’ve seen resort to abrupt conclusions—premature ejaculations, if you will—because of the writer’s unwillingness or inability to take real risks with the story, indicating either a fear of the unknown (which no real writer can afford to have) or, in some cases, a lack of the kind of emotional maturity and sophistication you need to be able to navigate the dimly lit paths the human mind and heart can take. Instead of producing real dramatic substance, many young writers depend on tricks of language—on witticisms, for example, instead of wisdom—to carry the story.

And please don’t tell me they’re just trying to be “postmodern.” I know and can enjoy a good postmodern story when I see one—such as Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” or Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl”, both of which I teach in my short story class. Postmodern stories have a very sharp edge—they need to, to gut the conventions that came before them. A poorly executed traditional story doesn’t bring it one step closer to being postmodern.

Just for the exercise, let me take up an example of the fully rendered, fully dramatized short story that I’ve been adverting to: “Paul’s Case,” written by Willa Cather in 1905. The story is set in Pittsburgh—even then already wallowing in industrial grime—where the artistically-inclined 16-year-old Paul is dreaming of bigger things, and spends his time as an usher in the theater, pretending to be bigger than who he really is. Now, many young writers would stop there in the theater scene, content to mark the irony between the glittering stage and the sooty reality of Pittsburgh outside. Not Cather: she forces Paul into a real dilemma by putting a large sum of money in his hands—money his father expects him to deposit in the bank; at this point, Paul snaps and buys a train ticket to New York City, the paradise of his fantasies. This would be Ending B for many writers, thinking that it’s enough for Paul to decide to leave Pittsburgh, come what may.

But again, not Cather: she brings Paul to New York, where he lives it up like a prince for a week, buying up clothes and treating himself to fancy meals, until the inevitable news comes that he is wanted as a fugitive and that his storybook life will soon come to an end. This should be good enough for Ending C: a long, last wistful look at New York’s dizzying opulence, then a step into an indeterminate future. But Cather goes further, not content with ambiguity: she brings Paul out to some desolate backyard out of town, where he makes a final if foolish gesture of defiance, hurling himself in front of an oncoming train, at which instant “the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”

That’s what I mean by pushing the narrative to its farthest limits, subjecting the character to intense pressure, indeed to the breaking point (although Paul arguably never breaks in his composure, meeting the end with inimitable style). While I generally don’t like and discourage ending stories with the death of the protagonist (many writers use death as a convenient way out rather than thinking the problem through), here the death comes as a logical conclusion, the enactment of the final scene in Paul’s theatrical conception of himself.

Or take the case of Kerima Polotan’s 1952 classic, “The Virgin,” where the schoolmarmish Miss Mijares meets a man who—despite being beneath what she imagines to be her social station—awakens her dormant desires. Most student writers today would actually end with that encounter, with Miss Mijares getting all worked up about this handyman who can fix wooden birds. But Polotan, of course, can’t be content with just setting things up; she brings man and woman together, in a jeepney on a rainy night, and drops them off where they both don’t expect to be, until “her flesh leaped, and she recalled how his hands had looked that first day, lain tenderly on the edge of her desk and about the wooden bird (that had looked like a moving, shining dove) and she turned to him with her ruffles wet and wilted, in the dark she turned to him.”

So how do you bring a story to that memorable point?

When I tell my students that I want to give them and their stories a kick in the pants, I could be meaning one of two things:

1. As I explain above, I’d like them to push their narratives to a point beyond the visible horizon, to that “somewhere we’ve never been” that even the capable writer himself or herself will not have predicted until he or she began writing the story. (I never plot my stories beforehand; I may have a vague notion of how it will end, but I’d rather let the story itself lead me at some point, so everything remains fresh and wonderful, rather than plotted and predictable. If I can plot it, someone else can, in the same way—in which case, why even bother?)

2. I’d like them to step out of their comfort zones and immerse themselves in the cultural, social, and economic life of the nation. I suspect that this is, indeed, the deeper problem, one of cultural illiteracy and alienation: our young writers, especially those who grew up in privileged surroundings, know and may even care little about the rest of society, and therefore can’t have much to say about the world beyond their own gated villages and schools. Again I can appreciate fantasy and its attractions, but I think it’s tragic if a Filipino teenager knows more about Hogwarts than Cubao. The challenge I pose to my young spec-fic writers is to bring Hogwarts to Cubao, to find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

So, all together now: raise the stakes, and push the narrative! Bring us somewhere we’ve never been!