Sunday, December 5, 2021

Diegetic Form of Story Telling as explored through the writings of Sofia Samatar

 

I’m taking a writing class right now through Lighthouse Writers Workshop that is stretching my comfort zone with experimental forms. I laugh as I write this, because the form in particular is as old as storytelling itself, yet it feels experimental.

 

We read two short stories by Sofia Samatar, both written the diegetic form. (I hadn’t known of this before, but it means the story is being told instead of shown in the mimetic form that modern writers are encouraged to use). My first reaction was negative: the form seems gimmicky. By the time I had finished, though, I was impressed with how effectively the form can be used to reveal the story and the character.

 

Walkdog

Walkdog is an essay that a girl is writing for class. The essay is about a mythological creature called Walkdog, but the footnotes about a classmate who is interested in Walkdog start growing until the whole essay is taken over by the story of the classmate and his disappearance. What impressed me was how the information is dripped to the reader without feeling it was withheld, and how the voice of the narrator reveals her character.

 

Everything we learn about the narrator comes from the way she tells the story. And the way she tells it slowly reveals it. Because both the narrator and her audience (the teacher) already know what happened, we don’t get a sense of withholding from the narrator because she wouldn’t have to say it or think it if her audience knows it. The trick then is that the reader (obviously) doesn’t know the information, so the author has to trickle it in naturally without resorting to the “As You Know, Bob” trope

 

Several points in the story are key turning points that reveal how much else is going on outside of the essage. For example, the relationship between the narrator and the classmate:

-       “…your nephew, Andrew Bookman, the most hopeless dork in school (Text, p1).
We get the relationship between the teacher and Andy, along with the narrator’s opinion of Andy

-       “I did not go near him at school because I did not want to get contaminated by his nerd gas.”  (Footnote 5)
We learn about the narrator’s character: trying to be cool!

-       “That was in his room… Obviously I would not be caught dead going in the front door at Andy’s house. I went in the back.” (Footnote 7)
Reinforce her avoidance of Andy in the forefront, in the background we wonder why is she going into his room?

-        “The only person I have ever told this to (besides you) is Andy Bookman. It was after we listened to ‘Indiana Morning’… He was looking at my boots, which I’d left by the window.” (Footnote 8)
So she’s comfortable enough/stayed long enough to take off her boots?!

-       “His bed was so saggy… He had the best smile, a perfect dimple on each side. Long eyelashes that brushed my cheek.” “…there is no place more secure than Andy’s arms. He laughed and kissed me.”
Yes, our question about the boots has an even strong answer than we would have guessed.

-       She tells Andy’s mother she’s his girlfriend. (Text, finally)


So through these off-hand comments, often deflected from the reader’s attention (the snow melting off the boots, a conversation about going to Denmark when they kiss), we see there is an entirely different dimension unfolding: she was Andy’s girlfriend.

 

Meanwhile in the text, we learn that Andy was put in the hospital after being beat up and then he disappeared and there was a memorial-type service held for him. She ties the story to her thesis, “Walkdog is an important part of North American wildlife,” because she hopes that Andy really did conjure up Walkdog in order to escape.

 

So the hidden story is connected to the essay in more ways than the familial relationship, and the connection with Walkdog has a big emotional impact when we learn what the writer hopes happened. The reader feels is more profoundly because we suspect the narrator is wrong.

 

Ogres of East Africa

The second story, Ogres of East Africa, is a research notebook written by the assistant to a big game hunter in East Africa. It is sub-titled with the narrator’s name, Alibhai M. Moosajee of Mombasa (so we know he is native to Africa) and the date (1907), which tells us this is in the colonial period. The notebook contains a numbered list giving brief descriptions of mythological creatures told to the narrator by a local woman.  There is a lot going on with the creatures themselves (in fact, the narrator ends up becoming one!) but my focus is on how the accompanying notes reveal the character of the narrator and his employer, and eventually, the plot. The narrator tells us the notes are “in fine print, and in the margins.”

 

-       “… one of the Years of Our Lord by which my employer reckons the passage of time.”

Tells us that the employer is Christian, has money and that the narrator draws a distinction between his own way of telling time and the employer’s.

-       “‘Always read the fine print, Alibhai!” my employer reminds me when I draw up his contracts. He is unable to read it himself; his eyes are not good. ‘The African sun has spoilt them, Alibhai!’”

From this we learn that the employer is not able to read the notes the narrator is making, and the employer blames Africa for his poor eyesight.

-       “He will think this writing fly-tracks, or smudges from my dirty hands (he persists in his opinion that I am always dirty)

Now we know for sure that the employer is white and racist. Also reinforces that the employer will not read these notes. This is a story hidden in plain sight, a common method used by under-classes everywhere  

-       “Having shot every type of animal in the Protectorate, he is now determined to try his hand at ogre.”

Tells us about the employer: his purpose, his history and therefore his character

-       “My employer is of the opinion that I do not show a young man’s proper spirit. This, he tells me, is a racial defect, and therefore not my fault but I may improve myself by following his example… He says that… people will… quite naturally… want to kick me. He himself has kicked me on occasion.”

Brings the racism front and center, as it would have been at the time. By the end of this paragraph, the reader hates the employer—he literally kicks Alibhai! Note that this is achieved without the narrator expressing any emotion: all emotional reaction comes from the reader, and is in fact amplified by the narrator’s apparent acceptance of his mistreatment.

-       “He thinks me… too frightened to go near the Somalis, who, to his mind, being devout Sunnis, must be plotting the removal of my Shi’a head. In fact, we all pray together. We are tired and far from home.”

The people working there have their own world which the employer is ignorant of. Again, a story told in the margins.

-       “There is a strange pleasure in this writing and not-writing, these letters that hang between revelation and oblivion.” The narrator is aware of the tension. Also this reflects on the entire story: there is more going on here than the author is revealing.

-       “If my employer discovered these notes, he would call them impudence, cunning, a trick. What would I say in my defense? ‘Sir, I was unable to tell you…’ He would laugh: he believes that all words are found in his language.” Note the perception of the colonial employer that his language is superior.

-       “I ask myself if there are words contained in Mary’s margins: stories of ogres she cannot tell me.” Ah: so our narrator is different from his employer. Also, this is the first hint from the author the stories of ogres are not just about ogres. Later we basically find out that Mary, her brother and eventually Alibhai himself will appear in them.

 

The main character, Alibhai, is revealed through his writing. The other characters, and the setting, and eventually the plot, are all revealed through the footnotes. And those kind of under-ground communication is entirely consistent with how a colonized and immigrant class would have to communicate. 

 

I took these exercises to try to re-write one of my stories as a prayer from a mother. It definitely was an interesting exercise, but from the critique feedback it seems there are challenges to this. Perhaps a writer has to be even better than normal in order to pull off an experimental form, and that is why my initial reaction was resistance. If not done well, the form is gimmicky. If done well, however, it can be a unique and powerful way to tell a story through the sub-text.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Book Review: Detransition, Baby





Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters is an insiders view of the world of trans women and moms. It deepened my perspective by providing multi-dimensional characters showing internal divisions in what may look like a unified group from the outside as well as the kind of insight into the details of the lived experience that are otherwise difficult to know. As fiction, it did this while getting me to care about the characters and reluctantly accept a rather unusual arrangement.

A great quote: "Reese is a veteran of the horrific social gore that results when individuals fight persoanl battles with unnecessarily political weaponry on a queer battlefield mine with hypersensitive explosives." Leaving out the queerness of the battlefield, this is something I've struggled with: how to reconcile societal-wide gender issues within a loving relationship.

Commentary on Queerness, Race and Motherhood

I liked how the author examined queerness and race as applied to motherhood. At one point the characters admit they were having a sort of competition of who is most victimized. And it also deals with the "gentrification of queerness." As one character says, "I think everyone wants something queer now. It's like a fad."  I know from the interview that motivated me to read it that the author faced criticism for dealing with the issue of detransitioning (anyone unfamiliar with the controversy could start their education here). In a time when many people fear being criticized for expressing unpopular opinions, this is a brave step forward that more people should emulate (along with accepting responsibility for causing hurt if they do). I believe it is a strong evidence for the #ownvoices movement: because the inside perspective from a persecuted group is the voice that should be allowed to explore controversial questions.

A small love was that a character echoes one of my favorite personal observations: how there is a season of weddings in our twenties, then the babies come for about a decade, and then come the divorces. (Not sure if she mentions the obvious next step, but I can't find it--I listened to it as an audiobook and even with a hard copy, I don't have the visual memory necessary to skim for a few sentences).

Story Structure

As for structure: it is similar to the novel I'm writing right now, with a current and a past timeline. The current is told in present tense and the past in past tense, and although there are two POV characters, they both tell current and past stories (as opposed to mine which is the story of one character in the past merged with another in the present, both told in past tense). One of the fascinating things to me was how some of the story beats were hit in the old timeline instead of the new.  Specifically the dark moment revealing how the relationship ended in the past timeline. 

The multiple POVs were used very effectively to show two different people's perspective on the same thing (most clear: the ending of that relationship). I was kind of mad when the 2nd POV started because the 1st had denigrated that character enough that I didn't find him sympathetic already. But I ended up sympathising more with him after hearing his side of the story!

Looking back at the beginning once I knew the story gave me great admiration for the author. The opening scene is intensely tied to the climax, and to the topic of becoming pregnant. A small hate was that the plot turned on the blame placed on the 'other woman' instead of on the cheating husband. Haven't we learned yet that the person who breaks the vow is responsible for their behavior, not the person who tempts them?

The Ending

I want to talk about the ending so here's your chance: exit now if you haven't read the book.  I think it will ruin the story for you if you know how it ends. A crucial writing technique I learned from Rachel Weaver is to raise small questions that drive the reader forward to find the answer.  There is a big question that the reader has to get to the end to find out.

Okay-- last chance. I'm not kidding. Check out the book, or buy it from bookshop.org giving a local book store your love, and set yourself a calendar reminder to come back after you've read it.

<<<<<>>>>>

When I got to the end, my first reaction was "No, the author can't do that!" Then I realized I'd been so curious to see how it ended because I didn't see how it could possibly end either way. So yeah, it pretty much had be undecided. She definitely did the short story thing and gave a clear direction to assume, and then a strong hint that it might not go that way. I guess I know which way I wanted it to go, and I should just imagine that. But still!! It's not a short story. I can only imagine the angst caused in critique groups, by the agent and the editor and I can guess it was the author who had to stand up and say "This is the way it will end." So kudos to her for that!

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Tagline, Logline and Pitches

My favorite writing conference is next weekend. Other than living in fear that I will get covid and have to miss it, I'm working on my pitch for an agent, and tagline to tell other writers what its about.  

This has me looking back for resources to write what feels like impossibly short descriptions of the novel I'm working on right now, titled To Feel the Earth as Rough  (from a favorite poem)

Tagline 

The tagline’s job is to evoke emotion


Latest attempt:

Diving into the deep end on the far side of the moon ((Edit, added after reading some comments)


Previous attempts:

Jumping into the deep end on the dark side of the moon

Leaping off the dark side of the moon


What do you think: more concise (#2) or more accurate (#1, because the young protagonist definitely jumps off the deep end to get there!)

Word, Phrase, Sentence, Paragraph

It's harder the shorter it gets, so I'll move backward. 


Paragraph (basically a logline)

This is a story about what happens when …

a middle-aged mother who goes to the moon to get justice for her daughter’s death discovers the martial arts cult that she had blamed might have been the best thing that ever happened in her daughter’s life.

This is accurate but seems a little dry.


The word, phrase and sentences are much harder. I haven't settled on anything yet but here are my thoughts:


Sentence:

...is about forgiving despite anger, recognition of the value of something we don’t understand, explored through a martial arts style on the surface of the moon.


Phrase:

Acceptance of the value of things we don’t understand.
Acceptance that other people’s choices are probably right for them.
Recognition of the value of things we don’t understand. 


Word:

Forgiveness. Acceptance. Recognition.


I think Forgiveness is the most catchy; Acceptance is more accurate but too vague.

Love to hear your opinions (or suggestions!) in the comments.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Book Review: Transference

 

Transference by Kate Jonuska



This has been on my shelf for a while; once I started reading I realized why I had avoided it. The title and the cover made me think it was a body-switching book, and apparently I have something against those! In fact, it was delightful and amusing and even touching at times. Quick and fun and the writing is excellent! Next book from Kate Jonuska, I won't hesitate.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Book Review: When the Sparrow Falls


 When the Sparrow Falls

My first audiobook (other than road trip books with the kids). So first: I really missed being able to see the words especially because the futuristic country has an eastern European basis and the protagonist has a Russian background, so I felt lost sometimes not knowing how the words appeared. It is weird to examine why this was so aggravating to me, other than I am just very visual. 

As for plot: the end of Act II felt like the end of the book. Then the point of view switched and head hopped for a little while before returning to the original (first person!) protagonist and continuing some head-hopping which was necessary given the state of the characters.  This is all quite unconventional for the strict rules of modern writing, but it ends up being justified by the material: there are uploaded consciousness copies of people and people who might be dead.  

The general structure is also against current recommendations: a prologue (gasp!) with a clear narrator using a strong authorial voice and an epilogue where the narrator explains why he told the story in the POV he chose.

Within the text, the backstory interjections were longer than currently advised, also, but definitely only came in when necessary. This is actually a recommended style that I don't like; I much prefer the Lisa Cron recommendation of folding in the back story so that when it becomes relative the reader knows immediately.

He did a good job with raising little mysteries. In fact, my audiobook loan expired when I was twenty-two minutes from the end and I put it on hold and had to wait a week to listen to just that bit, and the reason I wanted to was because of a major answer that I thought would still be revealed. And then it wasn't. So that was quite disappointing!

Even with that, though, it was an interesting insider's view of an autocratic society within a world in which AI actually has solved all of humanity's problems--one piece of dystopia within a utopia. And I came to care enough about the protagonist so that it was nice when a twist appeared at the very end.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Book Review: A Memory Called Empire


 See on Bookshop.org

My first dip into new sci-fi to educate myself on the market. It took me a few tries to get into this but then I was hooked. Loved the exploration of cultural adoration, and it was a unique way to present the concept of empire expansion among humans.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Finalist!


My current work-in-progress novel, To Feel The Earth As Rough, is a finalist in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Literary Contest!

I'm so excited! My first novel (Winter Yield) made the finals twice, but this time the feedback from the judges was much more glowing, and the agent who will choose a winner from the finalists seems like a darn good fit for the story. 

Winner announced at my favorite writing conference in October.