The Art of Verbal Dueling

Writing about African dilemma tales in my last post reminded me of another form of African oral literature that I’m a fan of: verbal dueling. It’s an improvised performance, whereby two opponents try to best each other by their wit and quick thinking. It’s a practice that continues in African-American culture, known as the dozens, or freestyle, or a rapper’s boast.

I was also reminded that I used to teach the original African version back in the mid- to late 1970s, when I freelanced in Virginia’s Poets-in-the Schools (PITS) program (back in the day, I considered myself a prose poet, and my first book, The Vanishings, is a collection of those early efforts).

In the PITS program, I would visit a school for a week or two and offer writing workshops for selected classes of students. And when that residency was over, I’d head off to another school in another district. I was always the stranger (I liked to think of myself as the Lone Ranger of Poetry), and I had to prove myself anew with my first arrival in the first classroom of the latest school (which might be either an elementary, middle or high school).

Out of necessity I had to come up with a sure-fire opening assignment if I wasn’t going to founder for the rest of the residency, and a little experimentation finally led me to give African verbal dueling a try. I started by reading to the students a section from Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali.

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This is a grand epic of the founding of the Malian Empire in the 13th century by Sundiata Keita, an empire that at its height extended through most of West Africa (roughly equivalent to the continental United States).

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Since the 13th century this epic has been memorized and then told and transmitted by generations of griots, a traditional class of storytellers who are considered to be “walking libraries.” One such griot, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, recited the epic to D.T. Niane, who wrote it down and published Kouyaté’s version in 1965.

The section I read to the students came from a tense moment, filled with magic, before the great battle of Krina, where Sundiata defeated a king who was oppressing the Malian people:

Soumaoro advanced as far as Krina, near the village of Dayala on the Niger River and decided to assert his rights before joining battle. Soumaoro knew that Sundiata also was a sorcerer, so, instead of sending an embassy, he committed his words to one of his owls. The night bird came and perched on the roof of Sundiata’s tent and spoke. The son of Sologon in his turn sent his owl to Soumaoro. Here is the dialogue of the sorcerer kings.

“Stop, young man. Henceforth I am the king of Mali. If you want peace, return to where you came from,” said Soumaoro.

“I am coming back, Soumaoro, to recapture my kingdom. If you want peace you will make amends to my allies and return to Sosso where you are the king.”

“I am the king of Mali by force of arms. My rights have been established by conquest.”

“Then I will take Mali from you by force of arms and chase you from my kingdom.”

“Know, then, that I am the wild yam of the rock; nothing can make me leave Mali.’

Know, also that I have in my camp seven master smiths who will shatter the rocks. Then, yam, I will eat you.”

“I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit.”

“As for me, I am the ravenous cock, the poison does not matter to me.”

“Behave yourself, little boy, or you will burn your foot, for I am the red-hot cinder.”

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“But me, I am the rain that extinguishes the cinder; I am the boisterous torrent that will carry you off.”

“I am the mighty silk-cotton tree that looks from on high on the tops of other trees.”

“And I, I am the strangling creeper that climbs to the top of the forest giant.”

“Enough of this argument. You shall not have Mali.”

(from Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali)

As I observed to my students, Soumaoro, unable to best Sundiata verbally, breaks off the challenge, and this is a presage of his defeat by arms on the battlefield the following day. Words matter.

Plus, love those owls.

The second example came from a novel by the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

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If you haven’t read this novel but the title sounds a little familiar, it may be because it was borrowed for the title of an album by Brian Eno and David Byrne that marked an early crossover of electronic, ambient and sampled world music (Tutuola has always been very cool; one of his earliest literary admirers was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas).

Tutuola, who published his work from the 1950s through to the 1980s, was a kind of crossover artist himself, who fit fantastical African folktales into novels of exploration and journey. He also combined the poetry of his rough-and-ready English with hints of the phrasing of his first language, Yoruba.

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In Tutuola’s novel, a young man manages to escape a raiding party on his village by hiding in a clump of bushes. What he doesn’t know is that these bushes mark an entrance to the Bush of Ghosts, where the dead live. He is soon lost in this otherwise invisible realm, and along the way of his twenty-year journey to return home, he develops spiritual powers, which he absolutely needs when confronted by a greedy ghost magician:

Having left this village to a distance of a mile this ghost magician came to me on the way, he asked me to let both of us share the gifts, but when I refused he changed into a poisonous snake, he wanted to bite me to death, so I myself used my magical power and changed to a long stick at the same moment and started to beat him repeatedly. When he felt much pain and near to die, then he changed from a snake to a great fire and burnt this stick to ashes, after that he started to burn me, too. Without hesitation I myself changed to rain, so I quenched him at once. Again he controlled the place that I stood to become a deep well in which I found myself unexpectedly, and without any ado he controlled this rain to be raining into the well while I was inside. Within a second the well was full with water. But when he wanted to close the door of the well so that I might not be able to come out again or to die inside it, I myself changed to a big fish to swim out. But at the same moment he saw the fish he himself changed to a crocodile, he jumped into the well and came to swallow me, but before he could I changed to a bird and also changed the gifts to a single palm fruit, I held it with my beak and then flew out of the well straight to the 18th town of ghosts. Without any ado he changed himself to a hawk to kill me as his prey.

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But when I believed that no doubt he would catch me very soon, then I changed again, to the air, and blew within a second to a distance which a person could not travel on foot for thirty years. But when I changed to my former form at the end of this distance, to my surprise, there I met him already, he had reached there before me and was waiting for me for a long time.

(from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts)

Once I read these two selections to the students, I then asked them to pair up and write their own verbal dueling. As I came to expect, this request was never greeted with groans or protests. Instead, the kids grabbed pencils, paper and partners and had at it. Once they got started, I’d walk around the classroom and read aloud from brief examples of what some of the students were writing, and this seemed to further inspire the rest. After about twenty minutes, it was hard to get them to stop, and when I announced that they could now read theirs out loud to the rest of the class, hands waved wildly to be the first picked.

I’m the mightiest wave in the ocean
But I’m the strongest pier on the beach and I’ll break you up
So? I’m the heaviest ship and I’ll run into you
I’m a coral reef and you’ll run into me and wreck
But I’m a great diver and I will survive
I’m a shark and I’ll get you anyway
I’m a dolphin and I can protect myself from you
Well, I’m the undertow and I’ll carry you to land
I’m a shell and I want to go to the shore
Well, I’m a dune buggy and I’ll crush you to pieces
So, I’m a nail and I’ll blow your tire out
But now I’m the mightiest wave in the ocean and I’ll carry you out to sea
I’m a seagull and I’ll fly away
So, I’m a huge butterfly net and I’ll trap you

(Linda Barbour and Kim Slayton, Manchester High School, Virginia, 1979)

I am the highest balloon in the air
I am an arrow and I will puncture you
So? I am a metal wall that you will run into and then you will be bent
I am a hot fire that will melt you
I am sand that will be dumped on top of you
I am the ocean and I will wash you away
I am the sun and I will evaporate you
So? I will be time and I will burn you out
So I will be a clock and turn you back
I will be your burned out battery
I will be a charger to recharge you
I will be the electricity that shorts your circuits
So I will be the circuit breaker that trips you back on
I will be the storm that cuts you off completely
So I will be the place after the storm

(Ann Wampler and Melissa Robertson, Manchester High School, Virginia, 1979)

It took me a while to fully figure out why this first writing assignment turned out to be so successful. The first reason, I think, is that the Sundiata and Tutuola examples are so exciting that they banish any lingering doubts the students might have that poetry or writing is a boring exercise. Then when I asked them to write their own versions, they all had the cover of a partner, and the welcoming ease of a readymade structure, and so didn’t balk about writing in class, or reading their work aloud. A verbal battle, after all, might have to be written down first, but it’s best when performed. Also, they had the opportunity to let out a little aggression, accompanied by the safety (and frustration!) of knowing that no matter what kind of a fix they might put their partner in, escape was always inevitable. And they learned a little about the power, and limits, of the imagination, as well as the insinuating pleasures of metaphor.

I had another agenda, too. There I was, a transplanted New Yorker teaching in a Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program in the late 1970s, and I was quite aware of racial politics. Most of the kids chosen in advance for my various classes were white, though there was always a handful of black students chosen as well. I had a pretty good feeling that none of the kids, black or white, had ever heard of or been taught that there was any such thing as African literature. Time to set the record straight, give the black kids something to brag about, and give the white kids something to think about. And, I realized, why stop there? In future classes I’d be reading to them not only contemporary American poetry, but also Asian proverbs, African praise poems, poetry from Cuba and Turkey, whatever I suspected they weren’t getting in their regular classes.

I’d nearly forgotten about those long ago years, and all that itinerant teaching I did. It was a training ground that gave me a love of teaching that has stayed with me ever since, a love that has also nurtured my writing—perhaps something I’ll write about in a future post.

June 3rd, 2015 by admin | 2 Comments »

If This Thing Came to You, What Would You Choose?

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many ways to reinvent the endgame of a story, and one of my favorite examples is a form of African oral literature called Dilemma Tales.

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These sorts of tales are truly “oral” literature, and don’t necessarily travel well to the page, outside the event of their telling. That’s because the greatest energy of dilemma tales comes from an audience’s response to the story, which poses some moral or narrative conundrum, one that can be answered by anyone listening. In small villages, African folk tales are often told in a group setting, at night, with people of all ages sitting and listening by fire or lamplight. With a dilemma tale, they get to participate. As the folklorist William Bascom writes, because such narratives “leave the listeners with a choice between alternatives,” they “evoke spirited discussions, and they train those who participate in the skills of debate and argumentation.”

Here’s an eerie dilemma tale from the Bura people of Nigeria, “The Leftover Eye”:

“Pay heed to this tale. It is a tale of things that have never happened. But we will suppose these things did happen for certainly such things are possible.

“This is a tale of a man who was blind. His mother, too, was blind. His wife and his wife’s mother were also blind. They dwelt together in a wretched condition; their farm was poor and their home was badly built. They consulted together and decided to go away. They would journey until they came to some place where their lot would be better.

“They set out and traveled along the road. As they walked, the man stumbled over something. He picked it up and felt it, and then knew that he had come upon seven eyes. He immediately gave two eyes to his wife, and then took two for himself. Of the three eyes remaining to him, he gave one to his mother and another to his wife’s mother. He was left with one eye in his hand. Kai, this was a startling thing. Here was his mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. There was his wife’s mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. To whom should he give the leftover eye?

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“If he gives the eye to his mother he will forever be ashamed before his wife and her mother. If he gives it to his wife’s mother, he will fear the angry and disappointed heart of his own mother. A mother, know you, is not something to be played with.

“This is difficult indeed. There is the sweetness of his wife. She is good and loving. How can he hurt her? Yet his mother, too, is a good mother and loving. Can he thus injure her? Which would be easier, and which would be the right way to do this thing?

“If this thing would come to you, which would you choose?”

Some tough choices here. I often teach this story to my undergraduate fiction students, when we’re discussing story structure and story endings. I throw that last line at them and ask them to respond. There are always inventive suggestions, but what quickly becomes clear is how hard it is to resolve the story in any neat way. The two mothers, for example could simply share the extra eye, each week one of them fully sighted, the other not. But is this really a solution, especially when the older women fall into vicious fights when the time for the switch arrives?

Or what if the husband takes out one of his eyes, so each mother could then have two eyes? How respectful and self-sacrificing of him! Problem solved, right? But then, with his one eye he notices the looks of pity his mother and mother-in-law begin to direct his way, and worse, he sees the lingering glances his wife bestows on passing two-eyed men . . .

This is what I love about dilemma tales, aside from the raucous fun of listeners challenging each other’s choices: they make it clear that narratives don’t like to be so easily tucked into bed and instead much prefer kicking off the sheets and throwing some pillows. Every ending has lurking within it a “but then,” or “what if” or “even though.”

Good to remember, that any fictional ending really is a stage set for further, though unwritten, possibilities. Just like our messy, unpredictable lives.

*

“The Leftover Eye,” can be found in African Myths & Tales, edited by Susan Feldmann.

The quotes from William Bascom are from his article “African Dilemma Tales: an Introduction,” in African Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson.

May 24th, 2015 by admin | No Comments »

Choose Your Own Ending

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction books about China these days, and Chinese fiction, because I was invited recently to Sun Yat-sen University’s inaugural International Writer’s Residency, which will convene this fall with a 28-day program that will include readings and workshops, but mostly three weeks of extended time for “reflection and writing.” This last part will take place in Yangshuo, as idyllic a spot on the planet as I’ve ever seen.

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Whenever the anticipation of travel kicks in, I turn to books—history and journalism, of course, but especially fiction, all to allow my ignorant eyes the opportunity of opening just a little wider. So many more books to go! I’m especially looking forward to Decoded: A Novel, by Mai Jia; another novel, A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong; and a science-fiction novel by Cixin Lui, The Three-Body Problem.

One of the best books I’ve read so far is Yu Hua’s memoir, China in Ten Words. Yu is the author of the celebrated novel To Live, made into an equally celebrated film. Yu’s memoir is filled with insights into the recent history of China, but the best parts for me are those where he recounts his budding love of reading and writing when he was a child living in an isolated town during China’s Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Even at a young age, Yu had a love of stories, and he’d scour the footnotes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong because they contained “explanatory summaries of historical events and biographical details about historical figures . . . Although there was no emotion to be found in the footnotes, they did have stories, and they did have characters.”

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During the strict fervor of the Cultural Revolution, books of fiction (“poisonous weeds”) were more often burned than read, and yet some did survive. These forbidden books were passed secretly from reader to reader, thousands of readers, and by the time one of them reached Yu, “they were in a terrible state of disrepair, with easily a dozen or more pages missing from the beginning and the same number missing at the end. So I knew neither the books’ titles nor their authors, neither how the stories began nor how they ended.”

An incomplete book was no deterrent to a reader desperate for the internal paths nurtured by narrative, but there was also a cost. “To not know how a story began was not such a hardship,” Yu continues, “but to not know how it ended was a painful deprivation. Every time I read one of these headless, tailless novels I was like an ant on a hot wok, running around everywhere in search of someone who could tell me the ending. But everyone was in the same boat. Such was our experience of reading: our books were constantly losing pages as they passed through the hands of several—or several dozen—readers. It left me disconsolate, mentally cursing those earlier readers who had been able to finish the book but never bothered to stick the pages that had fallen out back in.”

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And then came a moment for Yu when those difficulties no longer mattered, and their frustrations disappeared: “Nobody could help me, so I began to think up endings for myself . . . Every night when I went to bed and turned off the light, my eyes would blink as I entered the world of imagination, creating endings to those stories that stirred me so deeply tears would run down my face. It was, I realize now, good training for things to come, and I owe a debt to those truncated novels for sparking creative tendencies in me.”

This is a wonderful story of deprivation overcome, chronicling as it does the birth of a major writer’s imagination, a young boy lying in the dark and granting himself—as he might never have otherwise—the permission to invent.

Those missing endings that Yu learned to supply for himself could easily be adapted into a writing exercise. This summer I’ll be teaching a short creative writing course, “The Art of Revision,” and I think I’ll pick a short story from the reading assignments and cut out its last page. Then I’ll ask each student to write his or her own version of the missing ending. Comparing notes should be instructive on the multiple ways a story might be ended, how one possibility might be more satisfying than another, or if a definitive resolution suffers in comparison with a more ambiguous ending. I’m thinking here of Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story “A Family Supper,” in which the reader is left uncertain whether or not the patriarch of a family has served his son and daughter a dish of fugu, a fatally poisonous pufferfish.

There are other ways of reinventing the endgame of a story, such as the African oral literature form called a dilemma tale, but I’ll save that for another post.

March 28th, 2015 by admin | 2 Comments »

That Hidden Second Story

I’m back on the beat as the fiction editor of Ninth Letter, after a hiatus as the nonfiction editor and as an “editor-at-large” for the magazine’s website. I have to say, it’s good to be back.

Recently we had an editorial meeting about a story that the assistant editors liked enough to “bring to table” –a final meeting in which we make a decision about acceptance or rejection.

The story in question had many strengths, and it was obvious why we were now giving it serious consideration. But something was missing, we all felt this, and instead we decided to write a letter encouraging the author to send us more work, perhaps even try us again with a revision of what we’d just passed on.

So what was missing?

My long-ago writing mentor, the extraordinary fiction writer and poet Grace Paley, might have said that the second story was missing. In workshops, all those years ago when I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, she would often observe that any single short story was really two stories: the one on the page, and the one behind or beneath it that the words on the page pointed to. Discovering this is not easy. To quote Grace Paley again (now from one of her stories), “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”

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So what is this mysterious second story?

I’ll give an example from a short story I recently taught, Ann Beattie’s “The Burning House.” A dinner party is described in a seemingly roundabout, even random manner, gossip is shared, mud is tracked in the house by a dog, dishes are washed, a child’s sleepover is negotiated by phone, a guest arrives late. No house actually burns down. But as the evening and the story proceed, it becomes clear that the family hosting this party is indeed “burning down,” heading toward an inevitable end game, and that the various dinner guests are in the midst of their own invisible flames. The author doesn’t need to overtly point this out for a reader to see the conflagration of the second story that has slowly revealed itself.

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As I tell my students, often a first draft offers little or no sign of that second story. The author might not yet fully suspect what’s hiding behind the plot, what secret motivations are fueling the characters’ complications and the story’s nascent energy. In that first draft (and, sometimes sadly, many more drafts after that!) you’ve made it inside the story you’ll eventually finish, but you’re only in the foyer. It may actually be a nicely decorated foyer, but you don’t want to mistake it for the entire building. If, during revision, you merely concentrate on shifting word choices, honing physical description, even sculpting a scene a bit better, you will keep that story stuck in the entryway. Don’t necessarily try to fix what is already there on the page, try instead to suss out what is waiting to be discovered. For instance, why has a young man become a kind of second son to his boss, and just how strong or fragile is that unspoken fictive kinship?

To quote Grace Paley once more, “You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” In this way, you take your first true steps out of the original conception of your story and you begin to exit the foyer. And just in time, too. There’s a staircase that awaits you, and a hallway that leads you to a closed door.

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What’s on the other side of that door on the first floor? Your main character’s fear, perhaps, of a possible future abandonment in her final years.

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And at the top of the stairs? Another room, where a character dreams a dream so intense he doesn’t know you’ve opened the door and entered.

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But you linger only briefly. There’s so much more, you now realize, to explore elsewhere.

*

Related posts you might enjoy:
Welcome to a Hidden World
The Hidden Face

February 12th, 2015 by admin | 4 Comments »

Oh You Doll

Recently I came upon a startling video of a Japanese woman’s quest to fill her nearly deserted town with life-size dolls that represent the hundreds of people who used to live there. “When I make dolls of dead people,” she says, “I think of them when they were alive and healthy.”

For example, the town’s school closed down two years ago for lack of students, and she has re-inhabited it with pupils and teachers.

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It’s what you might call an outsider art project, but on a vast scale, creepy and poignant, a town haunted by silent figures of memory. This video of the artist, commenting on her life and work, blends sweet with unsettling.

Valley of Dolls from Fritz Schumann on Vimeo.

But why should this touching short film be so haunting, why do those dolls attract us in such a discomforting way? I’m reminded of one of my favorite essays, “Some Reflections on Dolls,” by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which he writes about an exhibition of wax dolls of the artist Lotte Pritzel.

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Lotte Pritzel in her workshop

Rilke remarks on the sadness of dolls that have no children in their lives. Or, rather, that dolls have no lives without children: “It was their habit, during the day, to be lived unwearyingly with energies not their own.”

And because dolls have no energies of their own, they can give us nothing back but what we invent of them. A doll is “the horribly foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardor; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the floor-tides of our affection.” Dolls are like us, and yet they are nothing like us. Perhaps this accounts for our disquiet. As Rilke observes, “One is confronted and almost overwhelmed by their waxen nature.”

In some ways, they are like fictional characters still in the process of being fully imagined. We struggle to invent them, to give them the breath of believability. The hard work of imagining and revising our characters can give us the intimacy of a relationship, and, with luck, this intimacy extends to a reader.

As with all intimacies, though, something may go wrong. In my short story “I Dreamt about You Last Night,” (published in The Art of the Knock), Turley, the main character, returns home one day to discover that his wife has left him and their daughter, and she has also left behind her scrawls, painted on the walls, of all the lies he ever told her. In the wake of her abandonment, the daughter searches for attention elsewhere: “Julie turned to her largest and favorite doll, sitting on a chair opposite them. Its grave, porcelain face seemed to listen as Julie quietly asked it for help in the same coaxing tones she used whenever she wanted something from her mother.”

Distracted by his own grief and trying to reassure her, Turley lies idly to his daughter that the doll will indeed talk to her someday. A mistake, because before too long he finds the doll in pieces, the victim of his daughter’s rage at her doll’s stubborn silence. In shame, he takes the doll to a repair shop tricked out as a “Doll Hospital” (these places actually exist).

“The woman took the doll from the box. Its dress was badly torn and the ends of the limbs were jagged remains of ceramic hands and feet. She examined the porcelain head, with its punched-in, loose left eye. “This may be a difficult job,” the woman said. She pulled off the mohair wig, revealing the hollow skull of the doll, and she poked her fingers inside to manipulate the glass eye from behind. Turley found this almost impossible to watch.”

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Despite the repair, things will not go well for this doll.

To my surprise, I realized that dolls of all sorts make appearances in my fiction. How odd, to uncover a thread in my work that was always part of the weave. My novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, starts when a mother begins a game of pretending to be someone else, anyone else, to her young children. But the mother’s private performances become a dangerous descent into multiple otherhood and, too soon, she is lost to them.

The narrator of the novel, Michael, one day finds himself in class watching a slide show his fussy and over-prepared teacher has stuffed with any kind of information about whales, including photos of a Yuquot Northwest Coast Indian shrine devoted to attracting whales. What at first appears to be a crowd of people in one slide proves to be something else in the next slide:

“We were inside the shrine, and now came another surprise: those people were life-size wooden statues, their torsos stiff, their hands and feet stumps. Their openmouthed, flat faces seemed to be shouting out a warning at the approach of trespassers.”

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Yuquot whalers’ shrine

These statues are wooden images of dead whale hunters, and their open mouths are believed to sing songs that can attract whales and cause them to drift too close to shore. Michael can’t get enough of this slide, although he is still unsure what excites him until the next slide:

“Now another slide filled the screen: a close-up of maybe half a dozen statues, their identical, plaintive expressions so much like . . . my mother’s own unhappy features that last terrible day. I blinked back tears at the thought, yet still I couldn’t look away from that wall of faces. And then I knew why: they could easily be Mother’s hidden characters. I longed to hear them sing out keening songs like whales, songs filled with secrets that I would finally understand.”

Finally, my story, “The Pose” (published in Interior Design), is devoted to a husband and wife who, nearing an emotionally estranged endgame in their relationship, begin to relearn how to communicate with each other through a strange figure in the closet that is constructed out of clothes hangers. The husband, Richard, a tinkerer and inventor, is trying to design an “all-purpose clothes hanger.” But when his wife Isabel first discovers this figure, it is still in process:

“Before her sways a peculiar construction of clothes hangers, elaborately fit together into the full-sized outline of a person. But this flat thing doesn’t have a face, only a wire circle for a head, and from its top the hanger hook rises like a question mark.”

Its incompleteness disturbs her, and she can’t help adding her own touches to the figure.

“It’s really just a cartoonish outline. Why would anyone want to fit clothes over something that looks so awkward? Isabel reaches out for one of the wire hands, examines the clumsiness of the circular palm and broad fingers. With some strain she manages to bend a metal curve into a recognizable thumb. Then she squeezes the rest into tapered fingers and goads the palm into an oval. She places her own hand against the cool wire outline: it’s a comfortable fit. Isabel stands up and moves back. Those thighs are too thin, the shoulders too squarish. Gripping the cold metal, she begins to press and pull.”

Before long, Isabel and Richard collaborate separately on the figure, dressing it in the clothes she once wore during their early courtship, the clothes she wore when he first undressed her.

What a fertile landscape dolls offer us, they are mirrors that reflect ourselves, but only if we want them to. And their coming alive ignites something in us, allows us to nurse a present hurt or nurture a budding future self, or reclaim a missing piece of the past. But because these dolls or doll-like figures come alive from without and not from within themselves, they can too easily be abandoned, and then their similarity to us is no longer a comfort, but instead an unsettling mask that fools no one.

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The poet and Nobel laureate Wistawa Szymborska captures this alienation well when, in her slyly exhilarating collection of book reviews, Nonrequired Reading, she writes of visiting a wax museum: “That macabre facsimile of life, the rosy cheeks, the half-smiles, the eyelashes, the mustaches, the glassy eyes behind your back, all that dolled-up deadness, maudlin and pretentious—now that was frightening. I felt sick and had to go out for some fresh air.”

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Perhaps what is most wrong about the wax face of Prince Charles above is that his expression is following no previous expression, and isn’t leading to another. Our faces are never fixed and are always reacting, revealing, hiding. In fiction, we have to bring the fresh air in and ascribe an inner life to our nascent characters that sets their thoughts in motion throughout the course of a story, we try to do our best to write them out of their masks and make the unblinking eyes blink, encourage the frozen mouth to speak, and put enough of us inside them so that, unlike dolls, they will come alive–for us, and for others.

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Related posts you might enjoy:
The Secret History of Objects.
You Got to Take Care of Your People

November 6th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

Welcome to a Hidden World

The more I read, the more I read for an author’s offering of interior access to his or her characters, and for years I have felt that fiction is the narrative art that best enables this access. With a simple “He thought” or “She imagined” in a text, we as readers are welcomed into a hidden world—the thoughts of others, to which we have no entry in our daily lives. We simply cannot hear the unadulterated thoughts of other human beings, and we never will. But in fiction we can.

For years I have always emphasized to my fiction writing students that movies and television are primarily visual narrative forms, and so aren’t as well equipped to express the depths of interior revelation. No matter how expressive an actor’s face, for example, the emotions conveyed there can’t reveal as much as the detailed memories or fantasies of a character in a novel or short story.

Over the years, I’ve found more than enough exceptions to my criticism. Of course. Art always finds a way to try to express the inexpressible, whatever that art might be. My favorite examples are Being John Malkovich (written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (written by Charlie Kaufman—him again!—and Michel Gondry, and directed by Michel Gondry). In these movies, all the attention seems to be directed at cracking open the brains of the characters and looking inside.

In Being John Malkovich, a strange little portal is found behind a filing cabinet in an office, a portal that leads to the brain of the actor John Malkovich. For fifteen minutes, a person can enter into his thoughts, until being dumped in a ditch in New Jersey (ho ho). The movie is also a hilarious dig at the narcissism of actors—in Malkovich’s thoughts, everyone has his face, even babies! This film is breathtaking in the risks it takes, its humor, and the new territory it carves out for film (should anyone care to follow).

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just as audacious, but far more emotionally affecting. Turns out there’s a medical practice in town that employs a technique of erasing memories from willing patients. Want to get rid of a traumatic event, an annoying relative? Well, now there’s a place you can go. So when a couple in the movie has yet another cruel argument, first the woman and then the man go through the procedure and erase each other from their lives. Problem is, at bottom they are truly in love, and so the story proceeds with their halting efforts, in a dangerously altering dreamscape, to try to remember each other.

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Which brings me to the immediate reason for this post, a video of the song “These Days” by Ane Brun, a Norwegian singer/songwriter of impeccable pop artistry. The complexity and clarity of her storytelling/songwriting chops, and her singing, place her in a hang-out pantheon with Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell.

In “These Days” we are confronted with Brun only, her ashen face bordered by a black hoodie, singing directly to us. At first, it seems that she is singing to an ex-lover, and this remains one of the possibilities embedded in the lyric. It hasn’t been an easy ride:

There were nights and mornings
When you came to me
Found your way into my bones, my joints
Into my veins
Like an animal you coiled your darkness around me
You spelled your name in charcoal
All over my body

Brun’s face is starkly expressive, anguished. And yet slowly, after about a minute into the video, thin lines begin to appear across and up and down her face, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing. They seem to reflect the scars left behind after this relationship, or at least the marks of change that can’t, normally, be seen from the outside, and yet are certainly there. Everyone has been marked in life by troubled relationships, and those marks remain largely invisible to the world. The brilliance of the video is the exposure of this reality, one that everyone has experienced—it enables us to see our lives anew.

The song, however, isn’t necessarily about a physical ex-lover. The lyrics also hint at a different kind of relationship, with one’s inner voice of self-doubt and criticism:

The things you’ve shown me over the years
The roads you blocked and how you’ll define me

Here, the antagonist of the song cannot ever be truly escaped. Our negative inner voice will always be there, at best, perhaps, managed at a distance:

These days
I let you stay
A little further away
But I walk with you
These days
I let you stay

In this interpretation, those sinuous lines tracing the singer’s face are generated from within, patterns of self-reproach and doubt that remain part of the invisible fabric of her inner life. And we all have such lines that others cannot see.

Either way (or perhaps both, depending on one’s interpretative mood?), this song and video display how a visual narrative form can find an inventive way to crack open the façade of appearance, and approach the insinuating interior depth of fiction’s power.

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Postscript:

Soon after writing this post, I became aware of a marvelous short film by Julie Gautier, “Narcose,” that explores the hallucinations experienced by a diver, Guillaume Néry, who can hold his breath for several minutes at a time (those hallucinations are caused by carbon dioxide narcosis as his dive extends in time). Here is another film that digs a little deeper into mental landscapes, a brilliant display of the physical drama of Néry’s dive, juxtaposed with the unfolding drama of his dream-like inner life that occurs at the same time.

August 6th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

What’s So Mysterious About Suspense?

Way, way back in the day, when I was coming up as a young writer, there was a good deal of serious chatter about why plot and characterization were the horseless carriage and icebox of literature (they were done, finished, just like tonality and melody in classical music). Characters in novels weren’t really anything like actual people, just a handful of quirks and ticks and more-or-less convincing dialogue on the page. And plot? Plot resembled the trivial, methodical work of chewing gum. Serious writers had better things to do.

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I nodded my head to those arguments, especially the ones against plot. Growing up I’d read a lot of plot-driven adventure novels, and as my ambitions as a writer grew those early pleasures seemed like child’s play. And yet. Many of the sensitively written, highly praised, plot-starved books I read then felt, well, wanting. Something in me needed, if not more plot per se, than at least more suspense, even if I knew it wasn’t supposed to be good for me—like cheese.

What a pleasure, then, to discover in the early 1990s the craft essay “The Magic Show,” by Tim O’Brien (from the anthology Writers on Writing). “Unlike animals, we conceive of tomorrow,” O’Brien writes. “And tomorrow fascinates us. Tomorrow matters—perhaps too much—and we spend a great portion of our lives adjusting the present in hope of shaping the future. In any case, we are driven to care, and to be curious about questions of fate and destiny: we can’t help it, we’re human.”

Every morning when we wake up we’re already plotting out the day ahead. And very often the schedule we hope to follow doesn’t quite work out that way, we have to be ready to make adjustments to the world’s unpredictability. And these are baby-step adjustments we must learn in order to adapt to the larger unfolding course of our lives. So we know how to plot a narrative, and we understand its potential fragility as well.

O’Brien continues; “On one level, then, I am arguing in defense of old-fashioned plot—or in defense of plot in general—which is so often discredited as a sop to some unsophisticated and base human instinct. But I see nothing base in the question ‘What will happen next?’ I’m suggesting that plot is grounded in a high—even noble—human craving to know, a craving to push into the mystery of tomorrow.”

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But plot isn’t simply a “and then and then and then.” Mere event in fiction can be as enervating as nothing happening at all. That craving to know must be messed with. And that brings me to the subject of suspense.

The author Lee Child, in his essay “A Simple Way to Create Suspense,” argues that it comes down to one question, and one answer. The question is, “How do you make your family hungry?” The correct answer, he says, is this: “You make them wait four hours for dinner.”

Dinner, of course, is a plot payoff. “As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer . . . readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers they witness being asked.”

Near the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend, we get this sentence:

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark steps that led, step by step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.”

Needless to say, it takes quite some time for those two young girls to make it up those stairs. In the meantime, we get the details of the budding but not yet settled friendship of Lenù and Lila, all the neighborhood rumors about Don Achille and his family, the power relations between the local families, and so on and so on, sub-plot upon sub-plot, and only fourteen chapters later do the two girls finally reach that landing and knock on the door. Of course, the encounter is not quite what they, or the reader, expected, and so the scene combines both resolution and surprise (and moves the larger plot forward, too): a masterly touch in a magnificent novel.

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Aside from literature, we all know how this tactic of delay works in daily life. When your friend leans in and says in a kind of teasing whisper, “You won’t believe what Jackie did last night,” you’re already hooked. You don’t know what Jackie did yet, and you’ll be damned if you let your friend walk away without delivering the gossipy punch line.

These small moments of sparking interest are easily embedded in fiction, too. Lee Child continues, “The principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.”

A good example here would be the story “The Man Who Sold Braces,” by Yoko Ogawa (from her collection Revenge). The first sentence teases with “Everything my uncle touched seemed to fall apart in the end.” The beginning of the second paragraph complicates our knowledge with “He was the sort of man who changed professions like other men change their socks.” And two paragraphs later, we read, “I got a call from the police telling me my uncle had died and I should come to claim the body.” By now, we’re in deep.

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This partial knowing seems to me to be an essential aspect of characterization as well. As readers, we glean what we can from a character’s behavior, knowing that, as in life, such details can’t possibly be the whole picture. And in fiction, giving access to a character’s inner life is a way of doling out the long tease of interior revelation. And if an author is doing his or her job well, those revelations will always remain partial, allowing a character her necessary mystery (as is true with all the people in our lives).

We are used to this suspension of knowing, each of our days being a halfway house toward a conclusion that never quite arrives. That’s why the wrapped-up endings of some novels and movies feel so unsatisfying—they’re a form of wish fulfillment whose comfort is false. With suspense, we’ll always be in the middle of who-knows-what.

Anthony Doerr, in his craft essay with a hefty mouthful of a title, “On Suspense, Shower Murders, the Sword of Damocles, and Shooting People on the Beach” (from A Kite in the Wind), notes that “Suspense is literally the temporary cessation of something. As in, you’re suspended from school; your sentence is suspended; you’re suspended in a solution; you’re suspended in midair. Its origin comes from the Latin suspendere, and inside of suspendere is pendere, which means to hang.”

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Yet withholding information for the sake of suspense doesn’t mean withholding everything. A reader can’t worry if there’s no information to set off that worry. Providing information can be crucial. Alfred Hitchcock, known by the unofficial title Master of Suspense, offers an inside look at the delicate balance of providing and withholding.

Notice that Hitchcock provides the important, give-away detail that there’s a bomb about to go off under the card table. But that information fuels the tension of the scene, because what isn’t known is whether anyone will notice the bomb before it explodes, and if not, who will get hurt. And again, like that long-delayed dinner Lee Child speaks of, the waiting can become unbearable.

There are, of course, exceptions to everything when it comes to writing, and no path should go unexplored just because someone with a voice of authority says you shouldn’t go there. One of my favorite novels, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by the British writer G.B. Edwards, violates seemingly essential principles of when and what to reveal.

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The novel is narrated by an 80-year-old man who has lived all his life on Gurnsey, one of the Channel Islands located between England and France. Ebenezer is looking back on his long life, recalling friends and family, settling scores, confronting his mistakes. Very near the beginning of the book, though, he gives away much of what will later happen in his life: this friend will die, this relationship will never come to pass, etc. No no no! I remember thinking when I read this passage in the novel, don’t give so much away, so soon!

And yet, because Ebenezer’s narrative voice is so involving, and the people he describes so complex and engaging, I found myself reading on, still in a state of tension, because I cared for these characters enough that I hoped against all hope that Ebenezer’s early revelations wouldn’t come true. In this case, too much information, combined with masterful characterization, kept me turning those pages.

Suspense is shaped in infinite patterns, and a close look at one’s daily life will reveal just how intimate we are with its sometimes ambiguous and confounding nature. When we read, hungrily, a novel or a short story that captures the sweet teasing tension of not quite knowing, what unfolds for the characters may very well be unfolding for our own hidden dramas as well.

May 24th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

The Kinship of Secrets

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, while I’ve been on leave this year to complete the revisions on a novel, I’ve also been serving as an “editor-at-large” for the website of Ninth Letter. Which means finding work that breaks out of the confines of our print magazine: video essays, multi-media collaborations, or serialization of work that pushes the borders of our length requirements.

Right now we’re running a five-part series of a long excerpt from Inside the Secret, a memoir of travel to North Korea by the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto (a winner of the Saramago Prize for his novel The Implacable Order of Things). The essay also includes beautifully unsettling photos he took while in the country that have never appeared anywhere else. Peixoto is a fine writer, and he is quite observant about the bleak playacting of the citizens of North Korea, especially when describing his visit to a bookstore, a grocery, and the rarity of a hamburger restaurant. His description of watching the paranoid dramatics of the country’s only TV channel is absolutely chilling.

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Elsewhere, though, Peixoto does what only the best writers can do—connect the foreign with one’s intimate self. Any decent writer can work up a good scene about a North Korean hamburger joint—the experience practically writes itself. But that’s seeing from the outside, keeping the North Koreans firmly in place as an Other. And certainly, all the lying and false claims of the country wear him down over the course of his trip. But in the 4th installment, Peixoto describes calling his family from the hotel, and now we see a first-rate writer in action, revealing what the best literature always does: making transparent what had been obscure.

He doesn’t want to upset his family during the phone conversation, and so he says everything is all right, though that hides a great deal of what he’s feeling. And he realizes that they are probably doing the same thing, that if something were really wrong, they wouldn’t tell him, because he’s so far away. They’re each keeping secrets. And then he says to the reader:

“We keep our secrets together with all the other things we don’t say. Up in that great big, shadowy attic there are things we don’t say because we’re afraid, because we’re ashamed, because we simply can’t; there are things we don’t say because we don’t know about them, really don’t know, even though they’re right there inside us. Secrets aren’t like that. They are there, we can visit them, observe them, know exactly the words to express them and, often, we want so much to tell them. But we choose not to.

“Our secrets are within us. Along with everything else that we know, we are made of our secrets. When we hold them in, when we are strong enough to contain them, they spread inside us. From within, they seep up through our skin. They keep on going until sometimes we catch sight of them when we turn around, or hear them in the silence. Then, at that moment, it’s not just our secrets that are inside us, it’s also we who are inside our secrets.”

Note the use of the first person plural, “we.” North Korea may seem like the most alien of places, but really, North Korean society is (among many other things) an institutionalization of a basic human impulse—we all keep secrets (secrets that are all too often capable of altering us). It’s secrecy and masking gone mad, yes, but in Peixoto’s view, the North Koreans are kin to us, and we are kin to them.

May 14th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

Write Like a Toltec

This past holiday season, the sight of an occasional Santa seated in a mall or ringing a bell at a street corner has brought me back to the memory of one of my oddest jobs—as the house Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue in White Plains, New York, way back in 1974. I was only 23 at the time, not exactly the go-to age for a Santa, but that white beard hid all the wrinkles I didn’t have.

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The first day on the job I was flown, in full holiday regalia, in a helicopter to the department store, where hundreds of children and their parents waited on the rooftop parking lot for my arrival.

Staring down at the crowd massed below, I waved my hand at them through the curved window, almost idly, and in response hundreds of hands rose and waved back. This was my first hint of the power I’d been given.

It was an impersonation of power, to be sure, but still a form of power, and I was a little nervous about how to handle it. Luckily I had time to consider the issue while I sat on my throne (yep, I had one, flanked by a giant stuffed toy elephant and a giraffe), since I gazed out at mainly empty spaces of that elegant store. It was a time of economic recession, and Saks had no real toy department.

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Except for those busy times when throngs of children were shipped in from local schools, I often sat alone, and I took to reading from a book I thought might help me better inhabit my role as a magical holiday figure: Technicians of the Sacred. It was an anthology of spiritual poetry from indigenous peoples from around the world, and one poem in particular has stayed with me these many years, a work on the craft of making art, written by an unnamed Aztec poet:

The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist: capable, practicing, skillful;
Maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind.
The true artist: draws out all from his heart,
Works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity,
Works like a true Toltec, composes his objects, works dexterously, invents;
Arranges materials, adorns them, makes them adjust.

The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,
Makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things,
Works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.

I’ve taught this poem in various fiction writing workshops, and my students tend to find that last stanza a little judgy, but I have to say it sounds a lot like my secret critical interior voice when the writing isn’t going well.

That first stanza, though, that’s the real keeper. It describes so well the buzz of inspiration, combined with the sweat of revision and reconsideration—the sturm and drang of creation.

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And that first word is perhaps the most important one: disciple. But a disciple of what? The world, I’d say, or better yet the worlds—both inner and outer. To be a writer, an artist, one should avoid the pretense of authority and instead be an apprentice, always willing to learn, to reevaluate, to be surprised, and delighted, and humbled. Perhaps humbled most of all, by the task of applying one’s limited skills to the vast and patient Everything Else.

But what’s this about working “like a true Toltec”?

I’d always wondered about that reference, until one day I realized that, duh, the internet existed, and with a few swift clicks discovered that the Aztecs had a kind of mythology about the Toltecs, an earlier (going back to around 800-1200 AD) Meso-American culture. A little like the Romans’ regard for the artistic achievements of the Greeks. So much so that the word “Toltec” came to be synonymous with “artisan.” An example or two of Toltec art will easily explain why.

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Here’s some poor soul being devoured by a coyote, catching his last glimpse of the sweet world before the final gulp. The animal’s “fur” is made of mother-of-pearl, and those teeth are real bone. Beautiful and terrifying art.

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Even more telling, to my eyes, is the face of this clay vessel. Someone with a lot of power, I’m guessing, and not a lot of respect for who or what he’s regarding. Or maybe those eyes express a life-weariness, an expression of I’ve-Seen-It-All-So-What-Have-You-Got? Or maybe he’s about to pronounce a verdict that will not be especially welcomed. Or he’s just received one. This is a face that contains a life history I’d like to imagine. Thank goodness that ancient Toltec artist worked like a Toltec.

Right now, I’m in the throes of a novel, a season of inspiration (but how long will it last?), skating on possibilities and unforeseen connections that fly up before me, and facing the multiple paths that open new territories while closing off others. Choices, choices, each filled with opportunities and pitfalls. It’s an exhilarating time, and humbling, too, because all I have to do is draw out all from my heart, and then adorn it, make it adjust.

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For a complete account of my adventures as a Santa, you can take a peek at “The Man Behind the Beard,” an essay which originally appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, here.

December 27th, 2013 by admin | 2 Comments »

My Mambo King

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Of all the photos taken of him, the image above captures best, I think, the man who was my friend for thirty-eight years. Oscar Hijuelos and I met in graduate school at City College in 1975, two young writers in Frederick Tuten’s fiction workshop. Oscar was shy, even deferential to the other writers in the workshop, but when he first read his work to us in class, his head bowed over the pages on the desk, his voice low, everyone recognized his enormous talent.

We became friends, visiting each other often in his apartment on the Upper West Side or the house I was renting with old college friends north of the city. We read each other’s manuscripts (and continued to do so over the years), discovered that we were born within two days (and only a few miles) of each other, and we talked about our life-or-death love of literature, drank and joked and ate at any Cuban-Chinese restaurant we came upon in New York. To say Oscar had a good sense of humor is not quite right—he had a great sense of amusement, about everything in the world (and he also had a great curious appetite for everything in the world), and when I hear Oscar’s voice in my mind (and I listen to him a lot these days), I can hear his restrained chuckle, or the casual bemusement in the very tone of his speaking. That slight, gentle smile in the photo says it all.

When my wife Alma and I spent the summer of 1987 in New York City with our then months-old son Nathaniel, we rented an apartment a few blocks from Oscar’s place. He was just back from living abroad (he’d won a Rome Prize for his first novel, Our House in the Last World). Our first night in town, we walked over to Oscar’s, to introduce him to our first child. We were shocked at his hollowed-out apartment—he’d inadvertently gotten into a little trouble with the IRS over taxes while he was in Rome, and now he was selling his furniture piece by piece to raise money. As we spoke, my son began wailing in my arms, and Oscar reached over to a nearly empty shelf, picked up a kalimba, and began improvising a serenade.

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Almost immediately Nathaniel calmed down, and without hesitation Oscar made us a present of the instrument—one of his last possessions. That generosity was typical of Oscar. You can see that kindness in the photo, as well as some of the sadness that was never far away, through all the decades that I knew him, through success as well as failure.

The evening of Oscar’s wake, Alma and I took the train in from Princeton, where we’ve been living this fall, and then the subway to the Upper West Side, landing just a few blocks from the visitation. We’d arrived early, and because I wasn’t quite ready to put the stamp of finality on my friend’s sudden death, Alma and I walked about the neighborhood, which was filled with memories of when Oscar and I had first forged our friendship. At the wake we paid our respects to Oscar’s beloved wife Lori, who in her grief was overwhelmed by the large crowd of friends and family there to offer support. Oscar’s casket rested in a corner, and for a few minutes I foolishly spoke to it as if my friend could hear me from inside.

Later, Alma and I walked to the nearby Cuban-Chinese restaurant La Caridad 78 (“Comidas China y Criolla”), where Oscar and I had often taken a meal.

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The same spare décor, the heaping plates of food, and speakers in the walls played salsa music, the same joyful music Oscar had written about in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It wasn’t the best meal I’ve had, but it tasted of history, and loss, and love, too: fried rice and beans, hunks of tender chicken, Chinese vegetables. By the end of our meal, I noticed a young couple at a nearby table, enjoying a side order of plantains.

I nodded toward the table and said to Alma, “I forgot to order plantains. The meal doesn’t seem right without some.”

“It’s not too late to order,” she replied, but our meal was almost done, the moment for that really had passed.

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Yet after I paid the bill and we gathered our coats, I found myself approaching the couple, and I explained that I’d just left the wake of a dear friend, and he and I had often eaten at this restaurant, and I’d forgotten to order a plate of what we’d always ordered, plantains, and would it be all right if I could have just one piece?

They happily agreed, offered me the entire plate, but no, a single slice would do. Then Alma and I thanked them and left, walking down the street to the subway station, while I nibbled slowly at my slice of plantain, each bite another little goodbye.

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For another remembrance of Oscar Hijuelos, which includes Oscar’s take on what constitutes a writer’s afterlife, you can visit this entry of the Ninth Letter blog.

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The beautiful photo of Oscar Hijuelos was taken by Dario Acosta.

November 24th, 2013 by admin | 8 Comments »