Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Like a good wine

Sometimes I like to contemplate the process by which someone's interesting life turns into a very interesting novel. It is definitely not a straight line from Point A to Point B. In order to turn into a novel, the material has to sit for a while, like a good wine that will be aged in casks of mellow oak. Two strange things have to occur. As more flavors enter into good wines when they are stored, more lives have to enter the mix. Then something semi-mythic has to frame them. It is as if they have to ascend to a higher register, the essence of what they are, but now fictitious. Again, like wine when it acquires its defining note.  The truths they tell have to become larger, stranger, sometimes menacing and threatening, with a dangerous beauty. And I am not talking about the characters, who may or may not be menacing or strange. The character has to transform somehow before it reaches fictional maturity, which is not at all the same as being mature as a human being. Fictional maturity occurs when a character achieves an inward consistency, which means that her stamp is present in the way she acts and does and is in all of the novel. "Fully realized" is another, older way of saying this.

Conversely, as hard as you try to write someone's life and think you are being "faithful" to its events and occurrences, it becomes fiction the minute the words hit the page. Somehow, in just trying to write what someone is about, you enter the realm of fiction because you are writing at a remove of years, and there are many many reasons why someone may or may not have done something, worn something, said something, thought something. You are in essence making choices at each step of the way in portraying someone. And if you write someone and make certain choices, you might make completely different choices in writing him the next day.

This is also why most "real" accounts of something or someone are a kind of fiction, as well.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Prayer for Ishmael

A Prayer for Ishmael

An American woman named Melisande of 46 meets a young man of 22 online, in a chat room. At first he tells her he is from Australia. They argue about whether God exists (she says no, he says yes). He tells her she is arrogant; she tells him he is naive. Yet they are amused and interested enough in each other to talk again. She tells him a little about her life as an archivist who works for a Cultural Institute in New York. He tells her that he works for a furniture salesperson in Perth. However, the next time they meet -the third- he tells her that he is not from Australia, but from Karachi, Pakistan, and sends her a picture. Somehow she knows that this is indeed his picture, not the one he sent previously.  She tells him that he looks very serious. He agrees and laughs.

Soon they are talking every chance they get. She learns about his family; his father abuses his mom, who is a nurse. His father is addicted to drugs and alcohol, but is extremely intelligent, and lost a very high paying job in Saudi Arabia. He has a sister who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and another sister who is very kind and responsible, but who has been discouraged from getting a job because she is supposed to take care of the house and work that needs to be done in it. The family is half Muslim, half Christian, which means that they are welcome nowhere in Pakistan. Ishmael escapes when he can to play games online and sometimes in internet cafes. Their house is very large, but is falling apart because they cannot afford to keep it up. Ishmael also takes karate classes and has worked his way up to brown belt status, soon to become black belt status, he tells Melisande.

Ishmael meets a young woman from Ireland online and falls in love with her. He tells Melisande that he will be emigrating to Ireland when he can get a visa. Over the next year, he keeps Melisande updated with his plans and the stages of his visa request.

Just before he is to emigrate to Ireland, he and his friends go by motorbike to an isolated area of Karachi to get a computer that is being sold very cheaply. When they arrive, they are told that if they don't pay 300 dollars US (about 21,000 Pakistan rupees), they will be killed. Ishmael tells his friends to leave and tells them that he will deal with the situation. One of the thugs shoots Ishmael. He dies.

Upon hearing this from a friend of Ishmael's with whom she is sometimes in contact, Melisande feels as if she wants to run to Karachi and not leave Ishmael's grave. But the friend convinces Melisande that the best thing for her to do is to try to help Fatimah, Ishmael's kind and responsible sister, With the friend translating, Melisande decides that the best thing to do is to help Fatimah get a visa for the USA.

She vows, however, that one day she will visit Ishmael's grave in Karachi and lay a wreath on his grave.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Gentlemen's Agreement

Laura Z. (Zametkin) Hobson wrote Gentlemen's Agreement in 1946. It hit the movie screens in 1947.

The plot centers on a magazine assignment to a Christian reporter to write about anti-Semitism. After much consideration, he decides to live as a Jew for six months. The novel  reminds us now of the fact that not only was there embarrassingly, shockingly overt anti-Semitism around then, even after World War 2, but that people often wouldn't admit it. There existed many hotels and country clubs in the USA at the time that would not allow Jewish clients.

The sad thing, however, is that Jewish jokes still exist. And there are different kinds of anti-Semitism around today in the USA. There is the kind that hails from the right wing, often from small towns in which they have never seen Jews. There is the variety that emanates from certain left wing organizations who purport to be angry at Israel for allowing settlements on Palestinian land and for not allowing Palestinians equal rights in the camps and in the cities of Israel. Somehow when we hear a non-Jew declaiming with vehemence about Jews in Israel and in the settlements, it makes us feel uncomfortable, even though we may easily hold similar views.

Are the newer varieties of anti-Semitism easier to deal with? I myself don't think so.

Friday, May 9, 2014

On Grammar: Snobbism/Elitism as a discrepancy in expectations

On Grammar: Snobbism/Elitism as a discrepancy in expectations

From elementary school through high school, many of us were taught the rudiments of the way the English Language worked. We also learned to write it. We did not learn a lot about speaking it because it was assumed by our teachers -whether correctly or not- that as American-born students, we knew how to speak what was then considered grammatical American English.

What we also didn't learn at the time was that there were and are many variants of English, some used in the USA, some used outside. There are spoken variants and written variants and signed variants. Often, "correct" English is the result of having been exposed to a certain educational system. There is nothing natural or egalitarian about it.

And there is no "correct" form of spoken English. Those who have spoken English as their first language and/or attend certain schools and/or have parents whose income is greater than a certain amount have learned what some people still consider standard "spoken" English, in addition to whatever dialectal variants they speak at home or in different places they visit or at places in which they work. Others mostly speak the dialectal variant(s) they have learned.

The situation changes, however, when we discuss written English.

There are formal situations in which it is necessary to describe people, things, processes or activities with great precision. These are the situations in which people one doesn't know want one to understand what they are talking about. This is best accomplished by using the diction/register and spelling most familiar to those to whom they are directing their work consider standard. Why? Because using the spelling and grammar agreed on by grammarians and teachers as standard communicates one's objectives and points as quickly as possible. It has little to do with elegance. It does have to do with making sure that the people who read one's work understand and agree about what has been written.

Let me provide an example. Say, for instance, that I am making a point about pencil erasers. I might write: "Pencil erasers originated in China in 1100 AD when a calligrapher discovered that the resin which later became rubber removed two erroneous pen strokes."  However, if I were to write, "Pensil erazers," readers of standard English -or those who were prepared to read what they considered standard English- might wonder a) if the spelling of these two words had been changed; b) if the writer was making some kind of joke c) if these were variant spellings used by someone who spoke a different dialect of English. Of course they would understand the words themselves. However, the variant or incorrect spellings would become a distraction. It might slow them down. It might annoy. The objective of using correct spelling in writing is not to make it difficult for the writer. It is to make reading  and written communication as quick and easy for most readers as possible.

If you read the Constitution of the United States in its original, you may see that the lack of standard spelling and grammar causes words to be spelled different ways from one paragraph to the next, and for voices, verb tenses and moods to be used differently from one paragraph to the next. It is to be hoped that most of those who read the Constitution understood it as the writers meant it to be understood (and please be aware that literacy in those days was limited to about a third of the population), even with the bewildering number of variants. However, as you may discover, it takes much, much longer to understand it, and it is more difficult to be sure that you have grasped the exact intent of the writer. Standardization of written language makes it easier to be more certain that the most people possible have grasped the meaning writers of written language who use these standards have attempted to communicate.

Thus when people are reading material that has been presented in a format, such as a position paper or a scientific study,which necessitates precision and clarity-especially when others need to understand quickly but thoroughly what has been written- it is important that the spelling and grammar used correspond to what those reading it consider standard. Otherwise, room for error and  misinterpretation creeps in. However, this "standard" varies from event to event and from country to country. Charges of "elitism" are often made when the standard assumed by the writer is more rigorous or unfamiliarly formal than that of the reader, or vice versa.

The best rule of thumb is for the writer to know her audience as well as possible and develop a clear grasp of the diction they find appropriate. There is no one right "standard." There is only that which is negotiated, tacitly or directly, between the writer and her audience.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Blurbing Merry Go Round

Believe it or not, there are many kinds of blurbs.

Blurbs can fall into the categories of:  summary, historical, informative, literary and biographical. And more. This is of course mainly for works of fiction.

For instance...

If you wished to write a summary blurb for Villette, you might begin as follows.

Having lost her relatives and a job as companion to a rich lady in her neighborhood, Lucy Snowe sets out for the city of Villette (fictional name for Brussels) in the country of LaBasseCoeur (Belgium).


The "Women Question" was being discussed at tables of intellectuals and literati all around England during the years that Charlotte and Emily Bronte made their way to the Pensionnat and Ecole Heger in Brussels, Belgium(1830's-1840's). What, oh what should be done with "surplus" unmarried women?  Charlotte Bronte's idea was to acquire certain branches of education that befit the bringing up of a lady, and then to open her own school."


Charlotte Bronte was 37 when Villette was published. It was her last and probably her most realized and mature work. In it she wrestled with and wrought to completion issues which had haunted her since she had left the Ecole Heger in Brussels ten years before.


Jane Eyre is by far the best known of Charlotte Bronte's novels, but Villette is probably the most thoroughly successful and original as a novel.


Both Emily and Charlotte wrote their childhood dreams of dangerously attractive men in their tales of Gondal and Gaaldine. Emily wrote a much more adult version of Gondal in Wuthering Heights, with Healthcliff as the male hero/antihero transformed into an orphan who becomes a landlord and in his way a force of nature. But Monsieur Paul, Charlotte's most realized and complete male character, is both worldly and irresistible, not because of his looks or evil intent, but because of his passion for warmth, truth and, in his own way, love.

As you can see, the five kinds of blurbs I mentioned often blur/blurb into each other. That is the way of blurbs, unless they are strictly summary.