Here are some ideas I’ve developed about storytelling since I’ve been in grad school. Some have already changed since I wrote this up almost a year ago, but I find myself coming back to these quotes and writers in times of need. Everything is a work-in-progress…
Storytelling as taking inventory
The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.
–Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
Storytelling as paying homage
…I pay homage, bear witness, act as advocate and tell secrets…Paying homage is about the acceptance of an inheritance, the refusal to forsake ancestors, community, class.
–Martín Espada, Zapata’s Disciple
Storytelling as a comrade to social change (a conversation in progress)
MARTIN ESPADA: Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus, the need for the political imagination.
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Many things are true at once. –epigraph to Teeth by Aracelis Girmay
ME: Still I believe in choosing sides.
NADINE GORDIMER:The fact is, even on the side of the angels, a writer has to reserve the right to tell the truth as he sees it, in his own words, without being accused of letting the side down. For as Philip Toynbee has written, “the writer’s gift to the reader is not social zest or moral improvement or love of country, but an enlargement of the reader’s apprehension.”
–-A Writer’s Freedom
Other things I want fiction to do:
Make me feel emotional
Bring complexity to what I thought was simple
Simplify what I thought was complex
Make me hear voices
Connect things that have never been connected before
Allow marginalized people to feel seen, understood and therefore less alone
Make me fall in love with language
Mess with hegemony
Make me want to read more
See the world anew…
MY TOP TEN…
1) “Drown” by Junot Díaz – short stories
There are some books that have become more like a manual or a guide book that I reach for when I’m writing a story. “Drown” is one of those. It’s almost become like an older cousin that I feel comfortable asking questions about sex (though I have no such cousin). Just about every time I write a story I find myself flipping through its pages for inspiration or ideas. I have yet to exhaust it as a resource in this way. To me this collection is phenomenal, but I don’t put Díaz on a pedestal or see what he does here as unattainable. Rather, I think he is paving the way for writers like me.
I first loved this book for how voice oozes from every page. Voices with attitude. Because I wrote poetry before I ever wrote stories, voice is the bridge I crossed as I made my way to fiction.
2) “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros –novella in vignettes
I see no reason to beat the poet out of me in order to become a good fiction writer. I love it when a story’s sentences make a rhythm, when they sing or lay out a whole new dialect or version of English that makes me want to read a passage over and over again like a good poem does. I much prefer simple over ornate language, too. I avoid using what I call “GRE vocab” in my stories at all cost. Cisneros delivers all of these things with this book through the girl voice of Esperanza: “You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad” (33).
Even better is how Cisneros structures this novella in vignettes, which makes reading feel like opening a series of little presents that each come in a different wrapping. One day I hope to write my own version of “The House on Mango Street” for my own kids.
Talking about vignettes makes me think of the mixtape. For clarification, a mixtape is an audiocassette of songs with an intentional order that follows some kind of theme of content or instrumentation. There is a side A and a side B, like chapters, if you will. A good mixtape culminates in a larger meaning than the sum of each individual song next to each other. In some cases, a narrative. Mixtapes are made for a specific person or an occasion like cleaning the house or getting over a break up. The closest things to mixtapes today are the itunes playlist or a mix CD.
I grew up making and receiving mixtapes. They haunt me. They’ve left some kind of deep psychic impression that I’m still trying to understand. When I first started writing stories I was unconsciously modeling them after the mixtape, which didn’t make for the best plot structure. I want to figure out an effective way to write stories this way, which will require a lot of experimentation, but I’m up for it.
I don’t at all mean to give short shrift to the actual music here. If there’s anything I’ve learned since grad school is that I love music more than writing. But rather than feel like I chose the wrong path in life, I’d rather find ways to pay homage to this love through my writing.
(A nod of deep appreciation to DJ Sake whom I credit with taking my mixtape game and knowledge of music to new heights. I often pop in one of his mixes when I write.)
I first started calling myself a writer because that’s what people who do graffiti call themselves. “Are you a writer?” really means “Do you write on walls illegally?” and from ages 18-22 the answer was, “Yes, I write.” Graffiti remains the biggest risk I’ve ever taken for words, a repeated declaration of love written upon the city I was born and raised in. This risk continues to echo in me when I write stories. I learned to view the city as a collection of surfaces, paying attention to space and details with the intention to write on them. Graffiti has been one of my best teachers of observation.
Graffiti also cultivated my interest in creating what I call a “third meaning” in my stories. When two things are put together spatially sometimes they result in a kind of accidental “third meaning,” a kind of unexpected metaphor or commentary. This happened to me on occasion when I would be out writing on walls and public spaces. Sometimes I wouldn’t see it until I passed by a particular spot more than once, sometimes I caught it right away. I think film is the best form to exploit the “third meaning” effect simply because it’s visual. (The French black and white movie “La Haine” by Mathieu Kassovitz achieves this repeatedly using a graffiti aesthetic and is the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker). Poetry is another good vehicle for “third meaning” because of its use of line breaks. With stories I try to achieve it mostly with setting and character dialogue. As I write, I’m constantly thinking of setting and where might be a good place to hit up a “third meaning.”
5) “Dogeaters” by Jessica Hagedorn –novel
I love it when stories put marginalized people on the map and this post-colonial, post-modern novel set in Manila does that for the Philippines. Hagedorn came up with the likes of Ntozake Shange, (“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enough”) Thulani Davis and Ishmael Reed doing experimental theatre and poetry in the seventies and this is her first novel. It’s not an easy or simple task to capture the essence of one of the largest third world cities on the planet and Hagedorn pulls it off brilliantly. She employs multiple points of view, both first person and third, from a wild cast of characters ranging from the wealthy and corrupt, poor and addicted, revolutionary and resilient and of course their lives and fates are tied. She also uses historical newspaper articles, some real and some made up, telenovela scripts, love letters, advertisements and a mix of Tagalog and English. Nothing is sacred. It is a big tent circus of imperialism.
Contradictions are the order of this universe. I sometimes have trouble getting obsessed about my own stories. What usually gets me hooked is when I create a contradiction and the only way I know if and how it might be resolved is by writing the damn story.
In terms of writing about a city, Hagedorn has endless lessons for me here. I too, aspire to put my own version of San Francisco on the literary map. In terms of fiction as a place to learn about the country of my ancestors, there are also many lessons for me in “Dogeaters”. When you’re the daughter of immigrants in the U.S. it isn’t always so easy to access information from your own family members who are often caught up in a culture of secrecy. Hagedorn is walang hiya (without shame) here. I read this novel once when I was in Manila and I can’t tell you how much it helped me understand my family and therefore, myself.
6) “Caucasia” by Danzy Senna –novel
I used to have an unquenchable thirst for seeing myself reflected in fiction, movies and history. An understandable response to growing up as a mixed race, working-class young woman. I felt utterly invisible, which eventually pissed me off. After I graduated from high school I swore to never again read the works of dead white men (excluding Marx, of course) and I got deep into radical politics and community organizing. I developed a pretty hard-line about the role of art as propaganda for making social change. So hard in fact, that I hardly ever wrote because I was too intimidated by the bar I had set about what art should be. The community work blossomed, my writing withered. (Reading Nadine Gordimer’s essays gave me some much sought after answers in regard to balancing these things).
“Caucasia” is a story from the first person voice of Birdie Lee, a biracial girl born to activist parents, a black father and white mother, in the early seventies. When her parents have to go underground, they split up. Because Birdie can pass as white, she goes with her mother and her sister goes with her father. We follow Birdie throughout the United States living fake identities with her mother as they try to evade the FBI. I have read this story several times and it remains one of the best stories about invisibility I have ever read. (Another really excellent one is “Fortress of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem, about a white boy who does graffiti, go figure.) I heard my own voice in Birdie’s and the book had major healing properties for my heart and mind. I find it a necessity not only to read stories that give voice to invisibility, but to tell them too.
Senna also intelligently centers her story around a moment in the very undertold radical history of the United States. (Similar to the way the movie “La Haine” centers around the race riots that took place around the projects outside Paris). My life as an activist comes from this legacy. In the spirit of paying homage and collective memory, it is one of my projects as a writer to generate stories around moments of undertold radical history. Reading historical and political fiction was the ingredient that crystallized my understanding of so much political theory. It is one of my secret wishes that my stories might serve as supplemental reading for a Marxist study group one day to understand a concept like alienation or dialectical materialism.
*This is the only book I would recommend by Senna, unfortunately.
7) All books by Octavia Butler (RIP)
I don’t know if I’ll ever write science-fiction or speculative fiction. But I do know that I’ve read more books by Butler than by any other author. I devour her work more than study it for craft. Maybe I’m just not ready to study her magic yet. This woman’s imagination is freaky (yes, in a sexual way) and prophetic. She writes about a dystopian future usually set in the U.S. involving strong black main characters, manipulative aliens who want to mate with humans, sometimes time travel that goes back to slavery and the middle passage and her stories are deeply psychological. The last book she wrote before she died in 2006, “Fledgling”, is about an evolved species of horny vampires who can withstand daylight because they have melanin! Unlike most of my favorites, Butler uses conventional narrative rather than poetic language and her plots are stunning. I never have any idea how her stories will end and lucky for us, they are often part of a series. Her stories ultimately lead the reader to reflect back on the function of race, human greed, power and domination in our current world. Unlike Junot Díaz, I do put Octavia Butler on a pedestal. My literary universe needs a queen, after all.
Some suggested titles: “Parable of the Talents”, “Kindred”, “Wild Seed”, “The Patternmaster”
8) “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie –short stories
I often hear a harsh voice in my head as I’m getting ready to start a story that I tried to capture in this poem:
Tough love (the voice of god)
So what you’re broken?
So what your tongues have been cut off?
Don’t deny how in love you are with the master’s language
How you labor to make it beautiful
How it is yours now
I love that you will arrive in pieces
Wholeness is overrated
I tend to write about broken characters or stories where the characters become broken in some way, which makes Alexie an integral part of my literary universe. This is the collection that made me want to write short stories. Alexie teaches me about the humor in the tragic and the magical realism that naturally shows up in hopelessness situations. There’s a bitter wonder in Alexie’s stories that I chase in my own. Most, if not all, these stories take place on the Spokane Indian reservation with a cast of recurring characters. He flips stereotypes of drunken Indians on their heads and laughs in the face of poverty. His titles reveal his poet background: “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” and “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” are cases in point.
9) “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides
If there’s one book on this list that has it all: voice, plot, contradiction, invisibility, third meaning, taking inventory, poetic language, etc. I’d have to say it’s “Middlesex”. It’s a modern-day epic from the first person point of view of an intersex person born partly female, but then in puberty, grows male genitalia. It follows his/her family back three generations to Greece through the Turkish Wars and family incest all the way through to the narrator’s upbringing in the mid-west suburbs to the present. This novel is the best example of what contemporary fiction can do given all that we know about how the world works and how it doesn’t. It makes you question your own assumptions and then makes more room in the world for everybody. Again, here is a story that has never been told before with a complexity that is never complicated. I would love to know what stories Eugenides looked to for models and inspiration here.
10) “Teeth” by Aracelis Girmay
Shame on me for calling myself a poet and not having more poets on this list, but I think Aracelis Girmay can carry the weight just fine all by herself. If there was one writer on this list that I have a major crush on, she is it. I believe crushes are an important part of a literary universe, they keep the chemistry from getting too stale in the library. A mentee of Martín Espada, the very poet who set me out to write from the “political imagination” and a fellow fan of Audre Lorde, Girmay is not afraid to break her own heart through her writing. She is unapologetic about her love of humanity and her poems manage avoid any notion of corniness, so refreshing in this jaded, nihilistic world. Her epigraph is a quote by Elizabeth Alexander, “Many things are true at once” yet she is not afraid to take sides either. A contradiction after my own heart. I read her poems to remind me why I write. This poem in particular:
CONSIDER THE HANDS THAT WRITE THIS LETTER
After Marina Wilson
Consider the hands
that write this letter.
Left palm pressed flat against paper,
as we have done before, over my heart,
in peace or reverence to the sea,
some beautiful thing
I saw once, felt once: snow falling
like rice flung from the giants’ wedding,
or strangest of strange birds. & consider, then,
the right hand, & how it is a fist,
within which a sharpened utensil,
similar to the way I’ve held a spade,
the horse’s reins, loping, the very fists
I’ve seen from roads through Limay and Estelí.
For years, I have come to sit this way:
one hand open, one hand closed,
like a farmer who puts down seeds & gathers up;
food will come from that farming.
Or yes, it is like the way I’ve danced
with my left hand opened around a shoulder,
my right hand closed inside
of another hand. & how I pray,
I pray for this to be my way: sweet
work alluded to in the body’s position to its paper:
left hand, right hand
like an open eye, an eye closed:
one hand flat against the trapdoor,
the other hand knocking, knocking.
-Aracelis Girmay, from “Teeth”