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Sisyphus was a writer

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Maya_Alexandri_in_a_cage_of_her_own_making.jpgP.G. Wodehouse repeated himself - jokes, similes, motivations, plots, quotes from poetry.  I love him so dearly that the repetitions don't bother me at all.  They're a quirk of a beloved - if soused - uncle, and if he didn't repeat himself, I'd ask him to, "Tell me the one about . . ."  

But I don't repeat myself, I thought.  I'm not writing in a genre, like Wodehouse (even if it is a genre of his own invention); each of my books is new and fresh and different and reflects the stupendous growth I've experienced since I finished my last book.

Well, ha.  Ha.  Ha.  And, for good measure, ha ha ha ha ha.  Rereading my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, this past week during the audio recording, I noted numerous instances of writing that I recognized - with a sigh and a resigned grimace - from later works, specifically my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  Certainly, the repetitions didn't rise to the P.G. Wodehouse level in either number or their verbatim quality, but I was plainly writing again, and around, and about, familiar themes.

In particular, a theme that manifested itself in similar terms in both books is the experience of feeling humbled before wonders, and how that humility is, in fact, empowering. 

I was interested to see this idea mentioned in Susan Neiman's recent NYT book review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  According to Neiman, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that
 
reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.  These qualities, [the authors] believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century.
. . . .
The reason so many of us feel so miserable is that we can neither find meaning in ourselves alone nor give up the longing to find it somewhere else.
. . . .
[The authors discuss] the Greeks, who were less reflective than we are, and less convinced that they were in control of the world. This left them open to experience a world in which things shine as works of art do, to feel gratitude not only for the bounties of nature but for human excellence in all its forms, itself regarded as a gift.
This quest after meaning, and finding its satisfaction in experiences of "reverence, gratitude and amazement" is a major theme in my life (and, unsurprisingly, my writing).  I hadn't thought I was trendy, or part of zeitgeist, but - worse - a cliché, but turns out I'm not only repetitive, but also unoriginal.  I better hope I at least write pretty.

So here's the writing: judge for yourself.  This first quote is from The Swing of Beijing, when one of the main characters, Tyler, is in a club listening to a jazz singer, called the Marquise:

     The Marquise was now doing her delightful version of "Take Five," in which she scat sang the signature saxophone solo.  Tyler closed his eyes again, enjoying the gravel-tinged honey that was the Marquise's voice, sweet and rough, simultaneously coating and caressing, and jutting against and ricocheting off of, the rhythm.  She sang the way she lived, accepting the rhythm - however strict, however unexpected - as a non-negotiable and nonetheless not letting it get in her way.  And, although neither she nor the song were Chinese, the Marquise's "Take Five" embodied Beijing for Tyler, better than any summation he'd encountered in any medium.  In her interpretation of the song - with its bizarre time signature; its odd drafting of the piano to do the work normally assigned the drums; her willful, beautiful occupation of melody; and the unbelievable way it melded these non-conforming elements to roll over Tyler with a soft power that submerged his individual existence into the flow of music - "Take Five" distilled Beijing, a city that in its near millennium of history had defied lack of water resources and a profusion of invaders, had witnessed profound progress in dark ages and starveling stagnation in eras of modernity, and throughout had inspired big imaginations to draw on its leviathan depths of potential and recreate it.  Like the song, Beijing humbled Tyler with the evidence of his meagerness and uplifted Tyler with its grace in enfolding him anyway; but most of all, it impressed Tyler with its capacity for strange and boundary-less change, a flexibility to which Tyler felt distinctly unequal.
Now compare that paragraph to these passages from The Celebration Husband (and this is a selection; there are other passages I could've excerpted), where the provocation for the experience of uplifting humility is not music, but the landscape:

    Looking beyond the station, Tanya absorbed the Eastern Rift Valley: game-rich forest and fertile farmland punctuated by the voluptuous protrusion of the extinct volcano, Mount Longonot, to the west.  Verdant green after the rains and dusty yellow during the dry season, Mount Longonot hid from Tanya's view Lake Naivasha, a vast stretch of fresh water so well integrated into the landscape that it often deceived observers into thinking it was part of the sky.  Augmenting the Valley's grandeur were the clouds, transformed by moody and variable weather into actors in an epic drama, involving much darkening and glowing, rearing up, rolling about, thunder-and-lightning sound effects, and honey-cognac lighting.
    Pitched midway on the escarpment that descends into the Valley, Kijabe afforded Tanya a prime vantage point for this spectacle.  As her eye roamed the scene, grey and gold clouds floated at eye level, so that the capacious sky seemed to arch overhead and then drop below her into the Valley.  Tanya had never before known the sensation of sky beneath her.  Kijabe elevated her; Tanya felt that the scenery demanded that she present a better, more noble self.
. . . .
    Arduously, achingly, she angled herself on her knees so that she faced Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the corridor of plain stretching before her, round white butterflies fluttered, their wings beating like nuns' wimples in a breeze.  Looking on the mountainous sanctum in the distance, Tanya saw that a cloud mass had swept over the snowy peak.  Her view of the colossus now occluded, Tanya remembered von Lettow-Vorbeck's remarks about Kilimanjaro's ability to dwarf an event as monumental as battle.  The mountain was so miraculous that it could remove any vastness from her perspective, even itself. 
    As it is with the mountain, let it be with me, she thought.  Let Kilimanjaro be my cathedral, let my perspective be guided by the light it filters onto me.  If war itself vanishes into the maw of the mountain, let me cast my pain upon it, and let my sorrows dwindle in its immensity.
    Then, still kneeling, Tanya bent her torso forward until her forehead touched the prickly ground.  She had seen Hassan bow this way during prayer, and the action had puzzled her.  She didn't understand how Hassan could willingly adopt a posture of such abject submission.  Now she imitated him intuitively.  She'd had no expectations of the movement; she had prostrated herself unthinkingly.  And yet, with this motion, she gained a sense of power.  Bowing to the mountain, Tanya was blessed with the insight that triumph, too, can emerge from surrender.
Seeing this theme emerge in different stories, in various words, written over four years of my life, I can feel how deeply I want my characters to undergo the liberation of humility, and how persuaded I am of edifying effects of such experiences.  I just hope audiences can bear with me (that I can bear with myself) as I write the same damned thing over and over again, trying (vainly) to pin the ineffable on paper.

Uncle Wodehouse, can you tell me the one about the peak in Darien?

(Photo of Maya Alexandri in the art cage of her own making by Andrew McConnell)

Facing the music in the audiobooth

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Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      


(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

The East African Novel

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Quick: what play involves an incestuous uncle, a sword fight to avenge the honor of a family member, a poisoned goblet of wine drunk by an unintended victim, and a pile of corpses at the play's close?  (If you said, Hamlet, that's a correct answer, but not the play about which I was thinking.)  I'm referring to Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, a kind of Jacobean Desperate Housewives, absent the suburbs, and plus verse. 

Women Beware Women and Hamlet, side-by-side, illustrate how playwrights of the late-Elizabethan, early-Jacobean era manipulated certain standardized or formulaic set pieces in order to craft their stories.  The fluency, eloquence and sophistication with which they maneuvered these story components, as contrasted with their originality in devising new components for the story, constituted their skill.  (Hence, Shakespeare borrowed plots from other sources, rather than making up his own.)  This mode of story telling is, in fact, quite ancient: Walter Ong describes how oral poets of Homer's time composed epic poems using "standardized formulas . . . grouped around equally standardized themes, such as the council, the gathering of the army, the challenge, the despoiling of the vanquished, the hero's shield, and so on and on."  (Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, p. 23.)

So I felt an odd delight when I realized that, quite unconsciously, I'd been working in the same tradition on my latest novel, The Celebration Husband, which takes place in East Africa during the first three months of World War I.  Upon hearing that I'd written this novel, a friend gave me his seriously tattered-jacketed copy of Bartle Bull's Africa adventure, The White Rhino Hotel.

Reading The White Rhino Hotel, I felt an intriguing sense of recognition.  The novel contained many familiar scenarios, as if Bartle Bull and I had attended the same writing seminar and had both completed the assignment to "write a scene in the following circumstance: East Africa, nineteen-teens, go."

My novel contains: (a) a lion attack, (b) people captivated by the sight of wildlife, (c) crossing Kenya on a train, (d) riding around Kenya on a motorcycle, (e) farmers bemoaning the punishing conditions from which they are attempting to coax agricultural produce, (f) Masai and Kikuyu warriors in oppositional confrontation, (g) descriptions of bush cooking, (h) references to hunting safaris, (i) invocation of the classics, (j) a woman facing down a potential rapist, (k) a close friendship between a smart black African and a naive white colonist, and (l) arcane explanations and depictions of equipment and weaponry.

Every one of those elements appears in The White Rhino Hotel

I can think of a number of reasons for this overlap.  Bull and I might have read the same authors and texts in our research (e.g., Lord Cranworth, Elspeth Huxley, Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham are all fairly ubiquitous as sources on East Africa in the early twentieth century).  Also, these elements all correlate to regularly-occurring events in the reality of East African life between 1914 and 1921 (when The White Rhino Hotel ends), which is why they might crop up repeatedly in the relevant historical texts or stories handed down over the generations.

In short, these elements have become standard set pieces, the lion attack analogous to the Elizabethan / Jacobean sword fight.  They are (what in copyright law is referred to as) mise-en-scene: essential or stock elements of a particular genre.  See, e.g., Universal City Studios v. T-shirt Gallery, Ltd., 634 F. Supp. 1468, 1474 n.5 (S.D.N.Y. 1986).

I hadn't seen my writing from this perspective before, and - although to our novelty-centric culture, the prospect might be threatening or induce a sense of competitiveness - I found unexpectedly comforting aspects in it.  In contradistinction to the isolated novelist in a cottage in Naivasha, which I was for the duration in which I wrote The Celebration Husband, I felt myself in a tradition of storytellers captivated by East Africa in the early twentieth century, all of us sorting and reordering standardized story components of The East African Novel in our individual attempts to ignite the magic of suspension of disbelief.

In a surprising way, it felt good.

(Image of Bartle Bull and the cover of his novel, The White Rhino Hotel, from The New York Times and Fantasticfiction.co.uk respectively)

The apple in visual art's Garden of Eden

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Viewing the permanent collection at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection today, I was struck by the explanatory note accompanying Paul Klee's painting, "Zaubergarten (Magic Garden)" (pictured left).  In this painting, the note claimed (I'm paraphrasing), Klee wanted to shed all his preconceived methodologies and techniques and paint like an unlearned child.

Klee's desire sounded familiar.  Having just seen the Gaugin show at the Tate Modern, I read two novels based on Gaugin's life: Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, and Mario Vargas Llosa's This Way to Paradise.  Both novels emphasize Gaugin's desire to paint like a "primitive."

Although to our ears - disinfected, as they've been, by political correctness - painting "like a primitive" sounds dangerously like racist twaddle (premised, as the desire seems to be, on the romantic and inaccurate assumption that primitives are pure, uncivilized, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, etc.), I believe the impulse exhibited by Gaugin, Klee and other modernists is legitimate, non-racist and non-romantic, even if the semantics are now dated.  Here's why:

Humans have been making non-realistic visual art - figurative, but with elements of abstraction, two-dimensionality, fantasy, etc. - for vastly longer than they've been making realistic art.  Despite the horrified reactions of art connoisseurs to the onset of abstraction in the late 19th century (and the continuing bafflement of the public to 20th and 21st century art), the realism of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic ages (and not the subsequent reintroduction of elements of abstraction) was the aberration.

The post-Renaissance artist desiring to make abstract art, however, faced a problem that didn't arise for his pre-Renaissance counterpart: literacy.  As Walter J. Ong describes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, the consciousness of people in primary oral societies is considerably different than that of people in literate societies (see especially pp. 31-77). 

In particular, "the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space."  (p. 117).  While people in primary oral societies experience language as sound, alphabets and print have the tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues."  (p. 76.)  Sound, of course, is invisible and dissipates rapidly; words, in Ong's analysis, are "events."  Writing, on the other hand, is visible and "immobile"; words become "things . . . for assimilation by vision."  (p. 91.)

What writing, print and literacy mean for the post-Renaissance artist is that the visual arena is now invaded by the word.  The instinct to seek a primitive state in order to paint is the impulse to return to primary orality, to a consciousness in which language is relegated to sound, and in which the visual sphere is uncoupled from linguistic communication. 

The impulse goads the artist into a near impossible task.  As is explained in Maryanne Wolf's, Proust and the Squid (discussed in this New Yorker article) and Stanislas Dehaene's, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (reviewed in the New York Times piece) both primary orality and literacy are encoded at the neurological level in the brain.  I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing that to move from one system to another requires rearranging neural circuitry.  (Ong laments that "we can never forget enough of our familiar present [literacy] to reconstitute in our minds any past [of primary orality] in its full integrity" (p. 15).)

On a more personal level, in writing my last novel, The Celebration Husband, I attempted to portray characters from primary oral societies.  To do so, I needed to achieve an understanding of their thinking patterns, logic, motivations, emotional processes, etc.  Despite extensive research and imaginative effort, I am not confident that I got it right.  Although I believe that the attempt to gain understanding of primary oral consciousness is critical (even in failure), I doubt that a medium of literacy can ever bring to life fully a person from a primary oral society (with the possible exception of poetry).  Visual artists might have a better chance.  In any event, I feel in a small way that through my work on The Celebration Husband I can relate to the quests of Klee, Gaugin and other modernists to reconstruct a primary oral consciousness (even if they didn't understand their mission in those terms).

Significantly, conceptual artists represent an abandonment of this effort of the modernists.  Conceptual artists accept a visual field occupied by the word, and they put the word (and its corollary, ideas) to work in the service of art. 

The effect is necessarily less visually arresting.  After all, we literates already experience a visual sphere cluttered with words; conceptual art may invite us to think differently about those words, but it does not present us with a visual arena in which words are absent, as they are in the art work of a person from a primary oral society (or a child).

Ong describes writing as "a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself."  (p. 12.)  In Klee, Gaugin and other modernists, we may have witnessed the last resistance of visual artists to this imperialism.  And though subsequent generations may not have picked up their fight, these rebel artists produced a legacy on par with that of the Renaissance.  We have yet to see post-modernist artists do the same.

(Image of Paul Klee's Zaubergarten from the Guggenheim website)

Maya Alexandri talk at the Karen Blixen Museum

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On 24 September 2010, I gave a talk at the Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark, about my process of researching Karen Blixen's life for purposes of writing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  In my talk, I emphasized the differences between historical research to establish verifiable facts and literary research to spark the imagination.  I described the reading, travel and blogging that formed the better part of my process, as well as the issues that arose in the course of my research and how I resolved them.  You can listen to my talk here (the full talk is an hour and thirteen minutes).
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Even though novel-writing is the kind of post-Gutenberg, pre-Internet activity that is ever-more-frequently marked for extinction in newspaper book reviews (themselves marked for extinction), I think the Internet and novels have positive synergies to exploit.  Putting my opinion into action, I recently assembled a crew to make a video promo for my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband (as I did for my second novel, The Swing of Beijing). 

Through a combination of begging and bribing with meals, I persuaded my friend and former workmate at UNEP, Arjun Kohli (pictured above), to shoot and edit the video, and my friend, Tim Banda, of The Nation, to interview me on camera.  Along with musician Stephen Rain Okoth Ngala (pictured above), a couple of early readers of the book, and some other hungry friends, we all decamped to Olepolos to shoot the video and, well, have a party.

Nyama.jpgOlepolos is a nyama choma (roast meat) restaurant in the Ngong Hills, outside Nairobi.  "Olepolos" is a Masai word; I've been told (by a mzungu) that it means "place of the wind," but (if I were you, dear blog reader) I'd independently confirm that before requoting.  The important point is that Olepolos is one of Kenya's top locations for roast goat meat; it's also set in a hillside and affords gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape from its terraces.

For our party of nine, the restaurant had slaughtered and cooked a whole goat (leg pictured at right), which they served to us with katchumbari (a salsa-like salad), ugali (like thick grits), mukimo (a combination of maize, potatoes and nettle), and fries.  Goat meat, for those of you who haven't tried it, is delicious; it's lighter than beef or lamb, but more flavorful than pork or chicken.  It's also very fatty: mmmm.  Nine though we were, we couldn't finish the feast, which spanned three sittings over five hours.

Tim_Banda.jpgAfter sating ourselves on the first helping, we sat down to the interview.  Tim Banda (pictured left) was a naughty interviewer: his idea of a question about the book's romance plot line was to ask me whether I, like my character, found love in Kenya.  We'll see whether that question makes it into the final edit.

In addition to the interview, Arjun shot footage of the landscape and of Ngala, playing music on a traditional Lou instrument, called the nyatiti, which has strings made from fishing lines.  We also got some clips of readers talking about their response to the book.  (And I discovered that a great way to solicit positive reader feedback is to sit in front of them while they discuss their opinions of the book.  I wonder if that insight has any application with book critics.)

Stay tuned for the results - the video should be coming online in the next two or three weeks.   
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