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 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:
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
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!
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?!
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.