Reflections: The Importance of Reading Fiction

Courtesy of Lacie SlezakI remember my college lit teacher ranting about how both the writer and the reader are selfish little animals that are “in it” purely for personal gain – about how a writer always writes about himself and a reader always reads about himself, and all-in-all they are both just self-centred little scumbags.  A bit of a gross generalisation there, if you ask me, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  In the end, I guess that is roughly why I always enjoyed reading – because of the kick I got out of it, not because I was keen on picking someone else’s brain.  And speaking of picking brains, some neuroscientists and psychologists seem to be quite partial to finding out what reading fiction does to us – neurologically.  And from their findings it seems that we might not be such selfish little dirt bags after all.

It hardly comes as a surprise that there is no special part of the brain dedicated solely to understanding stories (or at least we didn’t evolve that far yet, ha!).  Instead, we use basic cognitive functions to make sense of what we are reading.  In other words, our brain uses the same tools for understanding the stories as it does for understanding the real world.  Therefore, when we read stories, we invoke our personal experiences.  Have you ever read a story and had a “been there, done that” moment when the protagonist was going through a situation very similar to one of your own experiences?  Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, says that we can not only relate to fictional characters (duh!), but through reading, we are also able to gain new insight into things that have happened to us in the past.  And like that, real life shapes fiction, which shapes real life, which shapes fiction, which… you get the idea.  I think this also sums up the reason why two different individuals can interpret the same art of fiction completely differently. Read More

Reflection: Madam Bovary’s Disillusioned Romanticism

madam-bovaryIn the summer of 1848, a young woman from Rouen, France — Delphine Delamare — who is unsatisfied with the routine of married life, commits suicide.  She is in debt, under financial and emotional pressure.  When Madame Delamare ends her life by taking prussic acid (known today as hydrogen cyanide), she leaves a young daughter and a mourning husband behind; and her story appears in many newspapers in Normandy.

Inspired by this incident, Gustave Flaubert creates his groundbreaking novel “Madame Bovary”, which became a cornerstone in modern literature.  The hype about the book was not indeed overrated.  Its literary brilliance can be understood when we look at the socio-economical criticism and the realistic feature of a romantic novel.  In Vladimir Nabokov’s words, it being a book that “lives much longer than a girl” makes the book a strong sociological reference still in today’s society.  Emma Bovary, without doubt, is a solid character that in every era people can identify themselves with. Read More

Reflection: Guillaume Apollinaire and Cubism in Literature

Courtesy of poets.org
Courtesy of poets.org

Italian by birth, Polish by name (Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki), and Parisian by choice, Apollinaire was an important figure in art and literature in the early 20th century.  A leading name in poetry, he was in the artistic community at the time with famous names like Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Gertrude SteinMax Jacob, André Salmon, André Breton, André Derain, Faik Konica, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Reverdy, Alexandra Exter, Jean CocteauErik Satie, Ossip Zadkine, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Metzinger.  He first coined the terms orphism in 1912, and then surrealism in 1917.

Apollinaire’s art reflected his colorful life.  He had worked in libraries in the beginning of his writing career; he had worked as a teacher (in which period he met Annie Pleyden and fell in love with her, writing his work ‘Alcools’ inspired by this love); he compiled the works of Marquis de Sade; and he even got arrested and jailed on suspicion of stealing Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum in Paris, but he was released after five days.  At the last years of his life, he fought in World War I and got seriously injured on his head.  In 1918, he died from the Spanish Flu. Read More

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]

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

Photography Reflection: Ciao, Ciao Rio!

lens-1280307_960_720Each photo session was filled with anxiety.  Though I’d brainstorm ideas before each shoot, collaborating with models was preferred.  Suggestions were always considered. But they didn’t always go as expected—some were complete flops.

I once rented a boat.  Two fishermen sailed a 2-spirit person (a transwoman in mainstream-lingo) named Cíntia and myself near Forte de São Marcelo just off the coast of Salvador (Brazil).  Our photo shoot was scheduled to take place just off shore.  However, turbulent waves swayed our vessel, leaving me one wave short of regurgitating on deck.  And just when my stomach was ready to topple over the fishermen received my direct order to hastily return our party to dry land.

Another incident occurred during a photo session on my veranda.  Perched over Rua do Carmo, this very public viewpoint attracted the inquisitive eyes of several neighborhood men, some of whom were the same ruffians who’d opened a can of whup-ass on a third rate thief a few weeks ago.  Amongst the crowd was Gregorio, a beloved street-wanderer based in the local community of Santo Antonio.  Excessive intake of cachaça and other alcoholic drinks was his preferred method of escape from so much tolerant oppression and daily depravities in Brazil.  However, the mean streets of the historic center couldn’t have found a more upbeat soul than good ol’ Gregorio, regularly intoxicated but rarely, if at all, pissed-drunk.  Somehow he always seemed to be in my apartment, offering random advice about life or what not.  My roommate had furnished him with a spare key to look after the place while we were out and about.  Well, after my photo shoot, Gregorio pestered me time and time again about his superior sexual prowess and how his participation would drastically improve each and every one of my photo sessions. Read More

Reflection: The Image of the Writer

Annie M.G. Schmidt (1984)The Dutch poet, writer and songwriter Annie M.G. Schmidt wrote a lovely song called “Alleen uit Leed wordt Kunst Geboren” meaning Only from Suffering Art is Born.  The protagonist laments that only artists who experienced personal hardship can become true artists.  And that is something she is still missing, according to her teacher.  Her teacher compares the protagonist’s life with that of composers such as Beethoven, Bach, Haydn and Mozart, and concludes that her student’s life lacks tragedy.  Since her voice lacks sorrow, she will not be assigned solos.

The idea that artists need hardship seems to apply to writers too.  Writers are often depicted as unhealthy beings; hermits, who drink and smoke; who are on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown; who seemed to have lost their marbles; but who after going through their personal hell, deliver their long awaited Master Piece.  (And not just any masterpiece, but The Master Piece of the century.)

433ea4fbba5a2767a59f8f839cda4b63Luckily, this image is being adjusted.  But there is also the impression of writers who sit in avant-garde coffee shops or bistros, drinking fancy coffees or some Boba tea, observing potential characters, while typing away on their laptops.

Is it false?  No, probably not.  There are always examples to be found that fit the image.  Only it seems unfair to claim that all writers live in their own little world, estranged from every-day-life.  (Perhaps it is something some of us would like to achieve.)  But the examples above have nothing to do with writing; they depict certain lifestyles that could be associated with writers. Read More