YOUR BRAIN ON BOOKS

I recently read an article by Blake Ross on his experience with aphantasia, a condition where someone does not have a “mind’s eye” and is unable to visualize things that are not there.  Many people when asked to visualize, say, a calming beach would see an image projecting in the back of their brain, usually a moving picture, sometimes complete with sound, smell, and touch (though some of these senses are more difficult for people to recreate). When someone with aphantasia is asked to visualize a calming beach, they will logically list things that would appear there: waves, sand, cliffs, seagulls.  They will not, however, reconstruct those items visually because their brain doesn’t function that way.

Aphantasia can lead to a different experience of the words “daydreaming” and “memory”, but one thing that struck me in this particular article was Ross’ brief explanation of his reading habits.  He used to worry that he was “doing reading wrong” since he always skipped descriptive language in novels.  If you think about it, what good would descriptive narration do for someone who cannot add it to an ongoing picture in their mind?  As a writer himself, Ross talked about how this has affected his writing style.  Where one author might write an excessively descriptive line about the physical attributes of a character, Ross might write something like “there was an assassin”.

This got me thinking about taste in literature and why we write the way we write.  At it’s core, the goal of writing is communication.  How effectively you can transfer a thought from one mind to another.  But what if your mind is wired differently than your reader’s, what happens then?

If I take a look at my own reading style or “my brain on books”, I am an extremely logical reader.  I focus on motivations, chronology, and movement.  While I don’t think that I have aphantasia by any means (I can recreate audio, visual, and usually smell on command), I think the way that I read books is non-visual.  When I read a book, I actually hear the characters talking much more often than I see them.  I’m a big fan of skipping ahead to scenes with dialogue in books because they have the most “noise”.  The only visual aspect I do often play out in my mind while reading is the blocking (movement) of a scene with dialogue.  This may be because I was raised on theater and in stage productions we always learned the blocking of a scene before memorizing our lines.  They would have us walk around the stage, mentally charting where we stand and sit, and then two weeks later, we would add in the memorized dialogue, the sounds.  Maybe that was ingrained into me, who knows.  But now when I read I match the character’s words to their movements, even if an author doesn’t tell me them.  If a character starts to get sad, I think to myself, “she would logically sit down here”.  But if you ask me to tell you the color of the sofa the main character just sat down on, well, I probably skipped that paragraph ages ago.

As a result of this reading style when I write fiction there is a lot of noise.  I like to tell people what sounds are happening in the scene, as if I were creating one of those old time radio shows that families would gather around in their living room.  I love dialogue–Hills Like White Elephants?  Magic.  Also 80% dialogue.

But it’s not just that I enjoy dialogue.  I actually get angry at description.  I remember trying to read Tolkien and getting so frustrated.  I remember thinking, “Why is he describing this table for two paragraphs?  This is useless!”  But it wasn’t.  Not to someone who is a heavily visual reader.

shade2

Dorian Corey will “visually read” you any day, honey.

 

So when we say the word “reading”, we’re not all talking about the same thing.  Some of us are describing letting our minds carry us to new worlds populated with intricate architecture, beautiful food, and I guess really elaborate tables.  Some of us “read” by following a story logically, mapping out emotions and motivations that follow around the main characters.  Some of us hear a radio show in our head, distinct tones and pitches that weave us in and out of dialogue.

My question to you is: how do you describe your reading experience?  Do think it relates to your preferences in any way or even how you define “good” literature?

 

 

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LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION

Compared to the rest of the world Americans have a track record for not reading foreign books.  Our global reputation for being self-centered only adds to this I’m sure, but there is something that we can do as readers and writers to change the stigma against international books.  In 2015, only 570 translated books were published in the U.S.  This number comes from University of Rochester’s translation press, Three Percent, which is named after the margin typically associated with the number of translated books published in the US (although LitHub estimates the number is around 0.7% for literary fiction and poetry).  Why are Americans uninterested in translated fiction?  Why do people often claim they want to read a ‘real’ book instead?  What does our lack of interest in foreign authors convey to the global literary community?

Let me be clear that readers are not the only ones at fault here.  In my hunt for translated books, I have rarely seen them advertised and even less often seen them in stores.  There is definitely a systematic problem at hand here.  However, despite the additional difficulties that translated books may present to a publishing house or a marketing team, I believe that we as readers have the power to influence how frequently translated books make it into our country and onto the bookshelves.  If more Americans were to actively read translated fiction, we could change the stigma against it for the betterment of our community at large.

I started to take an interest in translated books in my first creative writing class when our professor asked us how many of us read non-American authors.  She said, “If you think the publishing world is intimating now”–and as seniors and grad students preparing to face ‘the real world’ we certainly found the idea terrifying–“imagine how difficult it would be to publish a book to the English-speaking world if your writing wasn’t in English.”  This idea sat with me for a long time.  I realized that I couldn’t recall a single author from outside of the US or Western Europe.  I realized that I couldn’t recall a single story I’d written that took place outside of the US or Western Europe.  Both of the universities I had attended emphasized how they were turning us into global citizens, but in that moment I didn’t feel like a global citizen at all.

This realization was particularly puzzling because it felt so against the reason most people give for reading books: to escape.  If readers crack open the cover of a book looking to be transported somewhere else, why do we tend to only read authors who look, think, and speak like us?  If so many Instagramers are filled with wanderlust for new places, why don’t they let books take them there?  Why have writers exhausted the ‘Americans travelling abroad’ trope, yet writers who live in other countries rarely have a voice in our fiction?

There are some readers who have responded to the lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in our literature in fantastic ways, like the organizations Words Without Borders and World Literature Today.  One reader and writer, Ann Morgan, recently completed a challenge she set for herself to read one book translated from every country in the world.  Last year she completed her goal and during her journey, her idea was received so positively that some countries even sent her books for free.  Though I doubt I can carry on at the same rate as Ann Morgan, I have begun my own challenge of a sort by trying to read at least 2 translated books a year.  Next month I’m excited to start Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan translated from Indonesian to English by Annie Tucker.  If you’re interested in changing the current stigma against translated books, I highly encourage you to invent a similar challenge for yourself.  And if you do, please let me know in the comments what translated book you plan on checking out next!

 

LITERATURE AS EMPOWERMENT

For a long time, I didn’t read.  When I was younger, I didn’t know “who” I was, but I certainly knew that I wasn’t on the cover of any of the YA novels my friends would read on the bus.  While the lack of diversity in books affects all of us, it especially affects young people trying to understand their own identities.  Young people learn by example, but when there is no one to serve as an example, what does that do to a growing mind?  It stops it from exploring possibilities.  Literature is a form of empowerment, for better or for worse.  Seeing a character who looks like you, thinks like you, or loves like you, can mean the world.  On the other hand, not seeing any characters like you can send the message that people like you don’t exist or can only exist in one role (the best friend, the villain). There is so much everyone can learn from reading about new perspectives, but those of us who rarely see ourselves reflected in our culture’s heroes are the ones who need diverse books the most.

I started taking books seriously when I was in high school, and believed myself to be a straight ally to the LGBTQ community (ah, the dark days).  However, I wasn’t just a straight ally, I was an incredibly passionate (read: annoying) straight ally.  By the 11th grade, I had read every book by or about the lives of Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood.  Name a historical figure and I could have told you a theory about how that person was actually gay.  I would carry books around like accessories, advertising my identification with these authors to the world. I daydreamed of some mythical queer-history-expert high schooler who would stop me in the hallway to ask about the book in my hand or who would recognize the green carnation I made my prom date buy me for prom.  This mythical high schooler and I would strike up a coded conversation about these queer authors, all the while knowing the true subtext behind our words.

Unfortunately for my high school self, that hero never came along and instead of waiting for them, I began experimenting with dating.  At that time, I dated a few people of various genders, but there was a common thread among them all: we exchanged books.  We exchanged queer books.  In courting each other, our hands would exchange David Levithan and Stephen Chbosky, and much like the subtlety of Oscar Wilde’s green carnation or Forster’s references to the Symposium, our sexualities went unsaid.  We let the books, the symbols of our identity, do the speaking for us.  With those books and handwritten post-its that said, ‘Tell me what you think of this one!’, we were saying, ‘See the way these two characters care about each other?  Is that how you feel about me?’

Why did we do this?  Why books and why not music, movies, or TV? Like most teenagers, we were deathly afraid of our parents having any window into our personal lives, especially our sex lives (or lack thereof).  Much like the history of queer identities, we needed to be subtle, and books were exactly that.  I remember getting in trouble for watching the Ellen DeGeneres show after school, but what parent could say no to their child reading Plato?

As I read through those books, I still never found a character who lined up with my own gender or sexual identity, but for a high schooler, I got close enough.  I got close enough to lift my eyes outside the scope of my hometown and see that people like me existed.  Somewhere.  After describing my sexual identity to my closest friends and being laughed at or after describing my gender identity to my teacher and having him tell me, “all teenagers hate their body; one day you’ll get better at accepting the one you’re born in”, these books were telling me something that no one else in my life could at that time: hang in there.  And since they were subtle, they could be ubiquitous.  They could reassure me on family vacations at the beach, in a lonely study hall period, or on a train ride to visit my grandparents.  I could take them anywhere.  And I did.

Books have an inherent ability to empower others, but for those of us whose identities fall within the margins, we have to work for access to that empowerment.  It took a lot of research to find queer books as a kid, and I can imagine I wouldn’t have read most of them if I didn’t live near a city library.  As I got older, I would purchase books just to highlight one paragraph that proved a famous Greek hero, Hercules, had a male lover.  Even the smallest reference, the briefest sub-plot, still makes me feel glad to be included in a book’s narrative, but some days I am not satisfied with being confined to the backdrop.  We need diverse books because they provide us with examples and possibilities, allowing us to create our identities in the face of stereotypes.  We need diverse authors to represent these characters accurately, to speak to those who are most hungry to see themselves in literature, to those who might cling to good books and good representations a little more closely than we’d like to admit.


In my next post, I plan to talk about the lack of cultural diversity in literature especially in regards to translation and representation of writers outside of the English-speaking world.  For now, here’s my list of queer stories I grew up reading, and note that I do recognize they are nearly all white men, which is something I will address in my next update.

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

Maurice – E.M. Forster

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

The Symposium – Plato

The Argonautica – Apollonius of Rhodes

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Orlando – Virginia Woolf

Death in Venice – Thomas Mann

Queer – William Burroughs

Our Lady of the Flowers – Jean Genet

The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

M or F? – Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts

The Realm of Possibility – David Levithan

Maledicte – Lane Robbins

CATACOMBS by jason zencka

When I first started learning German my teacher told us, “When you have your first dream in another language, that’s when you’ll know you’re fluent.”  I’ve yet to experience my first dream in German, a language I quickly abandoned after my first glimpse at Ancient Greek letters in the Argonautica.  But, I still do think about the way my teacher said this, and I remember wondering what it would be like to even think in two different languages.  To this day I am not fluent enough to dream in any language other than English, but Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs” is what I imagine bilingual dreams would feel like. By blurring conversations of Spanish and English, “Catacombs” challenges genre conventions in order to address subjects of grief, place, and sexuality.

In 23 pages, Zencka tells the story of a Midwestern family that has taken a vacation in Acapulco, Mexico.  Through the narration of George (who can go wrong with a name like that), we bear witness to his eight-year-old perception of the city and his grappling with the Spanish language.  We follow his thirteen-year-old brother, Winnie, as he struggles to figure out independence and sexuality in a new city.  Zencka splices narrative time to give us the story of these two brothers in a way that I have never seen before.  The way George works through his experiences in Acapulco feels like meta-narration, saying things like, “Have I said I loved this boy?  Of course, I didn’t realize he was a boy then, and it’d be years and years before I did.”  He uses the narration to surprise us, chronologically and intellectually, telling us exactly what to expect over the course of the story, but still making us eager to see it unfold on the page.

Zencka’s debut publication gives us a glimpse into our own psychology: how we work through grief and how we work through being far away from “home” for the first time.  He challenges conventions in a way that brings about raw characterization, yet still allows Zencka’s craftsmanship to shine through.  If you are interested in his thought processes behind the story, check out his Q&A with Hanna Tinti at One Story, where you can also purchase a copy of the story.

 

 

 

 

MY LITERATURE PHILOSOPHY

Admittedly, the question of what makes literature “good” comes to mind more often when I write than when I read.  Until very recently, I had not allowed myself to question what publishers deemed “good” literature–if it was on a shelf, in a magazine, or had its own url–I believed that someone, somewhere had already put that piece of literature through the “is this good” test.  However, I am starting to realize that a large percentage of my feelings toward what makes a book “good” come from marketing–I really do judge books by their covers or by how they were presented to me by high school English teachers.  In reality, I haven’t read that many books in my life.  Maybe 100.  I only read what I like, and as it turns out, I don’t like very many books.

In a Platonic sense, I do believe there is a “form” for literature, that is to say there is an essence of “literature” and when new books are created they fall somewhere on a spectrum between “good” or “bad” representations of this form.  However, it goes without saying that this form is entirely subjective.  The things I admire in literature by no means have the power to make something “cannon” or “classic”.  Simply put, we like what we like, and there’s no point in asserting that my criteria for good literature are better than anyone else’s.

Some of the criteria I have for good literature are: clarity, specificity, and innovation.  To me, literature is about communicating new ideas.  There are two important aspects to this definition: audience and relevance.  Whether literature is addressing a culture, a specific person, or the author themselves, what makes literature “good” is how effectively it communicates to its intended audience.  Secondly, and just as important, is relevance.  Good literature should not be reiterating the ideas that have come before it, but instead building upon those ideas, adding in new questions and new perspectives.  Good literature should be queering our reality, challenging the things we think we know.

Much of my writing is based around characters and cultures that have been erased or misrepresented throughout history.  In my writing, my primary goal is to challenge representations of gender identity, sexuality, racial and ethnic identities, ability status, age, and so on. To make an elevator pitch out of my writing, I usually call it “queer historical fiction”.  This results in my writing often being called political, but I don’t see my writing as political, just as I don’t see my own identities as political.  There is no question as to whether or not queer people existed throughout history–we did and do exist–but we need to write ourselves back into the history books that have erased us.

The reason that I focus so much on writing with a historical lens is because I believe history shapes the validity of our identities.  I hear so many people call queer identities a “phase” or a “trend”, but looking back into the histories of the Greeks, the Chinese, the Egyptians, we have documentation of same sex couples, transgender and intersex people, polyamorous relationships, and various other forms of queerness that have existed and in some places flourished.  I want to use my literature to rebuild our identities from the ground up and show that queer themes and relationships have always held a place in society.