Different Language, Different Story?

© Bruce Guenter via flickr.comDoes the language in which you write influence the content of your story?  That was the question I was left with after reading a magazine article about bilingualism.  They interviewed Mohsen Edrisi, a clinical psychologist from Iranian descend, living in the Netherlands.  He has done research into the relation between language and personality traits.

In his experience and research, there are differences in one’s sense of self, self-in-relation-to-other, and level of pathology.  He suggests that people tell their story differently when speaking in the mother tongue versus an acquired language.

In the magazine interview Edrisi says that it is easier for people to distance themselves when reflecting on themselves in an acquired language.  They feel emotions as shame and guilt less strongly, and that talking about taboo issues such as sex and violence is also easier.

It got me wondering what this would mean for fiction writing?  Of course writing in an acquired language is more difficult on a linguistic level — limited semantics and challenges with syntax — but could the essence of a story improve because one can be more honest?  Would it work out to write the outline of a story in an acquired language, and then to write it out in one’s mother tongue.

Just a thought.  Perhaps it is worth a try.  Perhaps it is why some authors do not write in their mother tongue.

Vanessa Deij

[Editor at Cecile’s Writers Magazine]

Writing Prompts: Characters and Momentum

photo-1473147654241-a26ffc2146bbI find it hard to care about most characters in the books I read.  I think it’s got something to do with me being a writer as well as a reader, with my background in poetry just making it worse.  I’m always mulling over word choice, weighing the significance of sound and rhythm, why the author made the decisions they did.  My attention skews to the micro rather than the macro, and the broader sweep of character arc and narrative structure holds less of my interest than the smaller choices an author made in arranging their words.  Over time it has become difficult for me to turn this analytical side of my brain off, and simply enjoy a text for what it is: a story.  My reading brain is always scavenging sentences for new techniques, tricks that may one day prove useful in my own writing; strip mining each row of words for images, influence, and inspiration.  So characters become hard for me to care about, because my default mode is to regard them as illusion, a ghost an author built from a long sequence of decisions.

I’d compare my reaction to how you can’t be hypnotized unless you want to be.

Or how veteran standup comics almost never laugh at jokes, even the good ones.  When they hear a joke they like, they just sort of nod and say, “That’s funny.”

Occasionally, however, I’ll encounter a piece of writing so powerful I can’t help but drop my guard.  The words get past my weird defenses, and suddenly I’m swept into the story and care about the characters.  The last time it happened was earlier this year, when I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer in 2014.

Tartt’s prose is strong and immediate.  It generates momentum.  That’s what hooked me.  The novel’s overall structure is fairly traditional.  Our narrator, Theo Decker, is telling us the story of his youth in what is essentially one long flashback.  We’re hand fed some vague initial hints about Theo’s present so we have an idea where we’ll end up on the other side of these 500+ pages.  This is a large book, but Tartt doesn’t meander us through it.  She doesn’t waste time.  There’s an immediate and dire situation into which Theo is thrust early on in the book, one in which he has no time to do anything but react and survive, and the consequences of this event reverberate outward through the rest of the book.

I was completely shaken by this hard left turn in the narrative, and Tartt’s masterful description of these unexpected events only drew me in deeper.  I was surprised.  I was wrapt.  I was engaged in what was happening in the text on a level that extended beyond stylistic analysis of the prose.  In short, my defenses were down and Tartt had me in the palm of her hand.  I just had to know what was going to happen next.  She’s a writer that understands that character, conflict, and plot should not be at odds with one another in a narrative.  They are elements that must harmonize if the overall work is to succeed.

She understands that momentum is crucial, and maintains it by weaving character development straight into the novel’s action.  Instead of slowing everything down by unspooling a bunch of backstory, she reveals her characters’ nuance through their behavior in the here and now.

It’s a variation on the old writerly wisdom “show don’t tell.”  Rather than have a character in the story stop that story just to tell me another story in the hope that I’ll care about them, Tartt keeps me immersed in events as they unfold.  Her characters and conflicts play off each other, and are the stronger for it.

So I invite you now to create your own characters.  Not by telling your readers everything about them, but by showing how they deal with unforeseen events.  I ask you to be a little unkind, just a tad sadistic.  Place your people in strange, dire, or in some way uncomfortable situations, and see how they react.

Prompts:

 

  1. Three people stand in an elevator. Tell me who they are, and tell me what they do when the elevator comes to a sudden stop between floors. How do they react to being stuck there? What do they feel when the overhead lights start to flicker? And when those elevator doors finally open sometime later, what has taken place inside?

 

  1. A car is moving through a lonely dirt road at night. There’s a driver and a passenger. Maybe there’s a third party in the backseat. Who are these people? What is their conversation like, and how does it change when they get a flat tire? How do they react to being on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere? What do they do when another car with its high beams on appears in the distance, pulls up beside them, and comes to a stop.

 

  1. Two people are meeting for coffee after many years apart. The first person has something to tell the second person. A secret they’ve kept for all these years. But the second person knows already the first person’s secret. Has always known. And they have a secret of their own they can’t wait to reveal.

***

Photo_Bob SchofieldBob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent.  He currently lives in the Netherlands.  He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts.  He likes what words and pictures do.  He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.

Opinion: On Slovak Literature

flag_of_slovakia-svgWhen I first moved to the Netherlands I would be cross-examined by my new acquaintances regarding this mysterious, unheard-of and potentially lethal country called Slovakia.  On one of the occasions, after having established the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia and explaining that yes, we do have internet over there, and no, we don’t usually torture and/or slaughter tourists as seen in the movie Hostel, I got pinned by another inquiry from my friend Edmond: “Are there any famous Slovak writers?  Is it possible I have read some of them?”  Oh, my.  I don’t even know why I took a second to think about it, since the answers were obviously: “No;” and “hell no;” respectively.

I always feel uneasy when discussing my national literature with foreigners.  We don’t have a Tolstoy, Faulkner or Austen.  We don’t even have an E. L. James.  There are no writers, no artists among the big names of Slovak literature.  Mostly, they were just people of various professions who merely happened to write something from time to time about a cause they cared about; like national liberation, women rights, or how socialism might not be the greatest idea ever.  But aside from that, they were… peasants, I guess.  And I mean it in the best possible salt-of-the-earth, more-than-meets-the-eye way.  Didn’t care for art, fame or money.  Just said what they had to say, when they had something to say.  However, in the past twenty-five years or so, there’s been a shift on the Slovak literary scene. Read More

Review: Empty Streets by Michal Ajvaz

Empty_Streets_AI_cover
Courtesy of Dalkeyarchive.com

Michal Ajvaz’s Empty Streets is less a novel than it is a 500 page torrent of ideas, a wild outpouring of pure imagination.  This is a love letter to the strange and unexpected; part-detective story, part-excavation of a city’s long buried dream life.  Like the mysterious symbol that lies in the center of its multiple branching narratives, it seems to spill in all different directions at once.  This is an aggressively bizarre work of fiction, one that seems unconcerned with traditional modes of storytelling.  It runs the gamut in terms of narrative form and style, sending the reader spinning from one story to the next.

It’s a wild, often unwieldy book, and all the better for it.  I can think of few dreamscapes in which I’d rather spend my time.

The novel begins with what is effectively a frame narrative.  Our narrator is a nameless author struggling his way through an ungovernable case of writer’s block.  One day, in an attempt to avoid the writing that torments him so, he goes for a long walk that takes him through a local rubbish dump.  He accidentally steps on a wooden object half-buried beneath the mess, some kind of carving in the shape of a double trident.  Immediately the object stirs something in our narrator. He is beset with questions he can’t answer.  What’s this strange artifact?  Could it be a tool?  Some kind of abstract artwork?  Where did this double trident come from, and what, if anything, does it mean? Read More

Art: Roni Horn, Discovering the Identity in Multiplicity and Dichotomy

Courtesy of wmagazine.com
Courtesy of wmagazine.com

I love the idea that no matter how obvious something could be, or transparent, there is still room for doubt. It is really interesting that transparency is not as transparent as you think.

These words of Roni Horn rang in my ears like a discovery of a hidden cabala.  Within the walls of this contemporary art museum in Tilburg, the Netherlands, I experienced a journey of identity, ambiguity, and singularity through recurrent colours, words and photographs.

There is a harmony between Horn and her minimalist art.  Born in 1955, New York, where she still lives and works, she combines photography, sculpture and language.  She creates a vivid glance to her life whereby I also get a glimpse of mine.  Her questioning about the concept of identity leads me to explore along with her my own identity.  Her androgynous look, with sharp blue eyes is in perfect accordance with this exploration.  “When you see your reflection in water, do you recognize the water in you?” (2010) she asks in ‘one of the destinations of your journey’ through shapes, colours and words.

Courtesy of depont.nl
Courtesy of depont.nl

The journey begins in a long, time-warping corridor, with a 70 meters long wall on one side, on which her famous work of photographic series A.K.A (2008-2009) takes place; while small rooms resembling minimalistic caves accompany on the other side.  This highly successful installation creates a sense of a wormhole, where step by step, Roni Horn’s “selfless” self-portraits of various ages are paired on the wall, and they guide me while I go in and out the small rooms.  All the artworks are in a concordance, part of a whole, like chapters of a certain story.  In these rooms, the installation consciously helps to create the unity with all of her artworks.

Read More

The Poetry of Langston Hughes

UnknownTired

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two –

And see what worms are eating

At the rind.

In the 1986 foreword to Hughes’ first autobiography — The Big Sea — Amiri Baraka writes, “Langston is the Jazz Poet! He is the singer, the philosopher, the folk and urban lyricist. His poetry is still one of the touchstones of American civilization, in its originality, feeling, and open commitment to social transformation.”  Langston Hughes is one of the most popular poets in North America, and is famous as one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Jessie Redmond Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine where Hughes published his poetry, once said to Hughes, “You assuredly have the true poetic touch, the divine afflatus, which will someday carry you far.”  Hughes’ poems are well-known and beloved, and lines have been used in popular book titles such as “Black like Me” by John Howard Griffin, and “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, but his influence is more than that, as I’ve come to realize over the years.

Hughes was a poet, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and a social activist who I’ve been familiar with for the last decade or so.  He started publishing his poetry in 1921 and his first autobiography was published in 1940.  Decades later Hughes is still as important as ever.  Funnily enough, he began to write poetry mainly because of a stereotype his teacher held: Read More

The Things That Words and Pictures Do

cecile-illustration1 The question isn’t whether or not literary magazines need images—it’s about how many.  How much is too much?  There may have been a time when literary magazines could do without them.  That time has passed. We all live on the Internet now, where the playing field between text and image has been leveled.  These days we swim through them in equal measure, only breaching the surface to leap from one tab to the next.  So the real question is: What’s the best ratio?  How does the editor of a literary magazine balance word against image?  Is the ratio 4:1?  3:1?  At what point does a collection go from being a literary text to a glorified art book?

And is it even a bad thing if that were to happen? Read More

Art Review: Outside[,] the Frames

In the Chaillot neighborhood of Paris on Saturday mornings, there’s usually an outdoor “marché” along Avenue President Wilson between the avenues d’Iéna and Marceau.  It’s a quintessentially French affair filled with wines, cheeses, meats, poultries, fish, fruits and vegetables, as well as a sumptuous variety of prepared foods.  The smells are intoxicating and the event is always lively and full of good cheer.  My husband and I knew it was not likely to be open the morning after the terrorist attacks in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, but we went anyway just hoping to be around others and not be so isolated within the confines of our apartment, in [fear] [sadness] [resignation] [(all of the above)].

2015-11-16 14.37.06As we suspected, the marché didn’t take place, but still feeling the need to be out, we headed down President Wilson.  We came to the Palais de Tokio, alongside which there’s a staircase that leads down to some streets adjacent to the Seine.  Having just recently moved to this neighborhood, we hadn’t noticed this area before and went to explore.  Directly at the bottom of the staircase is Rue de la Manutention which after a short block ends in Port Debily on the Seine.  There is a small bridge there called the Pasarelle Debily that crosses the river and leaves you in front of the Museé de Quai Branly.  The Quai Branly is a promenade along the south bank of the Seine, very close to the Eiffel Tower, where we discovered an outdoor installation of photography called We Are Family. Read More