PLACE-READING

I have always loved places deeply.  The way that architecture can effect our actions is extraordinary.  I guess that’s why I studied archaeology & classics, to get closer to ancient places or maybe just to geek out about Socrates.  But even outside of history, the way our cities are built control much more than the way we walk, always turning at right angles and stopping at red lights.  In Pennsylvania, the hills always felt protective and at the same time sheltering.  In Indiana, the open prairies make me feel vulnerable and at the same time aware.

A story will be told differently depending on where it takes place and what actions the terrain makes possible.  When the character needs to move, can they easily take the sidewalk to get where they are going?  Do they need to rely on a bus schedule?  Have they ever taken an airplane?  How far do they have to drive to see a neighbor or can they not escape seeing strangers whenever they leave the house?  When a character looks out their bedroom window, what do they see?  What does that tell them about themselves?  What does it make them capable of or incapable of?

Ancient texts taught me to consider these aspects of characterization.  When a room full of archaeologists read Sophocles, we want to know what the characters had access to and how these resources compared to the rest of Ancient Greece.  We look at texts about one city to tell us something about the entirety of the ancient world.  Though I have not yet taken a literature class, I imagine these concerns aren’t considered as often.

When I travel somewhere, I love to bring a book about the place I am going, no matter how little of a distance I am travelling.  This winter, I brought home 2 AM at the Cat’s Pajamas and sat in a coffee shop on Rittenhouse, looking out the same window as one of the character’s might have.  It was chilling.  This spring, I found a book called Hoosier Folk Legends that should be an exciting read in Muncie.  But a book for pleasure can never compare to reading one of my favorite plays of all time.

After graduating college I joined an archaeological excavation in Thiva, Greece.  We were excavating the temple of Apollo on the Ismenion Hill and I’m pretty sure I cried every day out of happiness for where I was (this is not even an exaggeration, my roommate thought it was super annoying).  One afternoon I was sitting outside reading the Bacchae, one of my favorite plays because Pentheus flirts with Dionysus because he thinks he’s a woman.

Also because Dionysus is described as the beautiful, androgynous God that he is, instead of some old drunk dude.  Look at them tresses and weep.

Anyway, in the play Dionysus descends from a hill with all his sorority girls–I mean Maenads–and kegs in tow.  His descent from that hill marks the descent of Thebes.  The hill is called the Kithairon and is mentioned several times throughout the play.  As I was reading this scene, I called over one of the professors on the excavation and underlined the name of the hill with my index finger.  “Where is this?” I asked.

He paused for a moment in thought, looked up at the skyline and raised a finger to the tallest hill, not too far from the center of town.  “That would have to be it,” he said.

“The one Dionysus came from?”

He looked at the title of my book and smiled a nerdy classicist smile.  He knew the weight of his words: “It is.”

I can’t think of a better reading experience.  In fact, I think about that reading experience a lot.  It taught me the power of place in literature.

Has a space ever effected your reading experience (for better or worse)?  Have you ever written a story in a setting you have never been to?  Or one that you are very familiar with?  What kinds of places do you find most conducive to reading and writing?

Advertisements

COUNTERNARRATIVES by john keene

A Review of Counternarratives by John Keene

 

It is often said that history is written by the winners, and thinking back to my early education, my first conceptualization of what it meant to be American, I couldn’t agree more.  But we often underestimate how powerful of a tool history can be, especially when we identify more with the ‘winners’ of history than the ‘losers’.  Our concepts of modern morality were founded upon the nations and stories that we believe came before us.  People often argue that something is right because it is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or worse ‘how it has always been’, but these concepts only come from our sense of history.  Something that often times we owe more to history textbooks than to our own research.  Even if we do investigate historical events on our own, our version of the ‘truth’ can only be based on what texts have been translated into our native language and which documents have survived the test of time.  In his book, Counternarratives, John Keene provides an essential perspective on the history of the Americas with stories that span the Western side of the globe.

Keene’s book is a collection of short stories and novellas written in various formats: letters, footnotes, newspaper columns, and traditional short story form.  The stories and novellas are not linked by characters, but rather by concept.  All of them aim to disturb our traditional notions of both fiction and history.  To challenge the concept of fiction, Keene utilizes various appropriated forms to shake our idea of what makes something a ‘story’.  While reading through this collection, I felt like a historian sorting through newly discovered documents, trying to join these new narratives with the narratives I had known before opening this book.  It made the book feel like it was an artifact, a great advocate for why we still favor physical books over online publications–this is a book you want to hold, a book that makes you take on a certain role as you leaf through it.

Along with challenging form, Counternarratives also challenges our perceptions of history.  All of the accounts in the book are centered around people of color whose voices have been ignored or silenced by the white narrative.  The very first story, “Manhatta”, tells the story of Juan Rodriguez, the first non-native to set foot on the island of Manhattan.  Rodriguez was born in Santo Domingo (what is now the Dominican Republic) to Portuguese and African parents. He was hired by a Dutch ship as a translator and became part of a crew sailing to America.  Typically we think of the first settlers in America as Europeans, but Keene gives emotion and voice to this factual account and troubles our long-held notions about the first settlers.

My favorite story from this collection is called “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” which takes place in a monastery in Brazil.  The narrator is sending a report in the form of a letter about the ongoings of a monastery in Alagoas, hinting that the monastery is guilty of deceiving the addressees of this letter.  Through the letter, Keene is able to build both plot and characterization while still maintaining the formality of a report:

“That is, I shall now tell of that series of events, unforeseeable at least to some of those who lived them, that inverted worlds, bringing those whom you knew, or thought you knew, intimately, northward in retreat to Olinda from the south, just as you bore only the clothes on your back and your Bible in your departure south for the capital city of the Savior.  How do I know these facts, their recounting never having passed any man’s lips?  This, as with so many other things, I shall reveal in due time.”

Complex discoveries of history and identity are intertwined with every aspect of this collection.  But mostly, I feel this collection gives voice to identities that have often been silenced in our current versions of history.  The voices that tie the collection together by the end of the book are two characters in the short story “The Lions”. This story starts with an epigraph from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him”.  This comes from Wittgenstein’s second book, Philosophical Investigations, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this quote.  In a stuffy classroom my professor explained it to us, a group of senior philosophy majors who had just learned that every other author we’d studied now stood in the shadows of Wittgenstein’s new solutions.  My professor explained, “Even if a lion could speak, he would be looking at life from an entirely different frame of reference than a human.  If language is created based on commonalities and a lion has nothing in common with a human, then we would not be able to understand each other.”

“The Lions” is a story where, much like the others in this collection, having the background knowledge of the history or the form, adds exponential layers to the reading experience.  The form of this story is written in the style of Wittgenstein’s work, almost a call and response type of dialogue.  Two thinkers express ideas on leadership, betrayal, and power, with an ellipses between each thought.  In contrast to the other stories in the collection, “The Lions”, documents two leaders unafraid of using violence and greed to maintain positions of power, unaffected, it seems, by the oppression that sits side by side with the other stories in this collection.  Here, we listen to the thoughts of two dictators, two voices that history often chooses to ignore because we do not want to understand their language, how they are capable of such acts. This story is a perfect example of the theme that runs throughout Keene’s book–narratives that push against what we have been taught to accept as ‘history’.  The collection not only challenges old schools of thought, but also asserts that concepts of queerness, blackness, and gender identity, have always played a role in our foundations and will continue to do so as long as history continues to be written.

LARP AS FICTION

Before I called myself a ‘fiction writer’, I called myself a ‘LARPer’.  This isn’t to say I never wrote fiction before this year, I just never felt confident enough to own up to the title or worse, make it my profession.  When I think about what changed between the time I was stapling together handwritten stories and crayon illustrations and when I started submitting to literary magazines, I think LARP played a major role.

But first, what is LARP?  The acronym stands for Live Action Role-Playing and I often describe it as a cross between theatre, reading, and video-gaming.  Just like there are many genres of books, there are many genres of LARP.  There are horror LARPs where the main point is to kill zombies and survive.  There are tournament LARPs where the focus is on fighting and/or recreating historical battle scenes.  There are psychological LARPs where you are locked in a room with your colleagues and interrogated until one of you cracks and betrays the others.  There are social LARPs that look like a noble’s dinner party from the 1700s filled with gossip, romance, and intrigue.  Though the themes vary, the essence of LARP can be broken down into three roles:

Players: If you are entering a game as a player, you will typically play as one consistent character that you have written a backstory for and that you will eventually level up (add new skills/abilities).

Staffers: If you are a staffer, you have attended weekly meetings to put together open-ended plots for the players to experience.  During the game, you will typically play as anywhere from 4 to 10 characters per weekend event, and you may have had some hand in writing the rulebook for your game.

Cast members: If you are attending a game as a cast member, you are an on-hand actor who will take on various roles in the open-ended plots that staff has written for you.  You may also fight players while dressed in a various monster costumes, or help set up decorations, or plant hidden items for players to find.

queen.gif

And when you write the rules you can write “gender roles don’t exist” into your world.

My experience with LARP lies mostly in social/psychological/combat games, as both a player and a staffer.  The games that I hold closest to my heart are both in Central Pennsylvania, both professional non-profit businesses created by two groups of students from my undergrad.  As a player, I am the town’s priest/vice mayor (aka their power-hungry church and state) and as an Assistant Director, I like to write psychological and social plots that test a character’s morality (I guess that philosophy degree is good for something).

The people who I typically LARP with come from all sorts of backgrounds.  We do have a couple of self-identified fiction writers, but we also have engineers, lawyers, EMTs, veterans, teachers, cashiers, actors, models, zookeepers, and librarians.  When we write stories, we have a lot of different backgrounds coming together, each advocating for different perspectives and considerations.  It is this diversity that has really aided my fiction-writing.  Rather than sitting around a table of twelve people who have always studied fiction, LARPing has allowed me to gain feedback from people who have actually experienced the worlds I am writing about.  A veteran can tell me if my character with PTSD feels real enough, an EMT can tell me how the wounds my character received would most realistically be healed (and no, not all LARPs heal with “magic spells”).

With that group of diverse voices as my workshop audience, here are a few things I learned from LARP that I feel apply to fiction:

  1. Audience feedback: When writing a plot, I first run my ideas by staff, and eventually they will be launched for the people playing the game.  Once I send my plot out (let’s say, a sassy Baron asking players to help him spread rumors about his rival), players will participate in it, and then after the event they write feedback to staff letting them know what could have been done differently.  This has really helped me figure out how much information a player/reader needs in order to understand things like motivation and background.
  2. Collaboration: Having a workshop group of diverse professions has certainly helped me with realism, as mentioned above, but even more so it has helped me writing plot.  Have you ever read an author whose books have become predictable (“oh, it’s a George novel, of course that character isn’t the gender I expected them to be”)?  The fact that I never write 100% of anything that goes out allows for stories to become unpredictable and therefore more interesting.
  3. Comprehension: I will admit, I think I wrote about 1 paragraph of my game’s 100 page rulebook.  I hate numbers.  But I did still sit through the process, and what it taught me was clarity.  If a player is depending on your text to understand how to use their props correctly in game, then you need to go through several drafts, fixing even the smallest words to make sure your language is clear enough on the first read.

If I ever do get to a point in my life where I teach Creative Writing, I would love to teach a LARP writing class.  I think there is so much that creative writers (and others!) can learn from creating a world collaboratively and also for a group of reactive audience members.  Have you ever had a non-traditional genre influence your writing?  If so, how?

ISAAC CAMERON HILL by ammi keller

Inspired by the recent #translit chat on Twitter, I decided to review my favorite piece of trans literature from 2015.  The short story “Isaac Cameron Hill” by Ammi Keller was originally published in American Short Fiction, but I discovered it in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015.  As a trans-identified writer myself, I have often searched for stories with main characters who share my identity, only to find the same tragic, transition-centric novels (usually written by cisgender authors).  Keller’s short story is not that.  Keller’s short story allows the transgender characters to be more than their identities and yet not completely unchanged by them.

Over the course 13 pages, Keller paints small brushstrokes of the main character, Isaac, ultimately building to a larger portrait of who Isaac is today.  We see Isaac reading erotic novels as a kid, moving through the US and Europe in his twenties, and coming to terms with his gender identity in San Francisco.  Over time we are able to piece together the glimpses we receive of Isaac to fully understand his character and the narrator’s character in relationship to him:

“Being a man is a rougher life, but it’s far easier to be left alone and this suited him.  Having been raised a girl caused Isaac to act in ways that seemed, for a man, gracious.  On visits to the city, in his truck stinking of motor oil and whiskey and mud through so many layers of army canvas, he was more beloved than ever.”

What Keller does here (as well as in other parts of the story), shows a true expertise on the subject of trans identity.  Too often when writing about marginalized characters, authors will listen to the stories on the news rather than the voices of people within the marginalized group they are writing about.  This leads to the bulk of trans literature looking like this: characters who are rejected by their families, characters who are unable to maintain a relationship throughout their transition, and characters who are almost always portrayed as being physically or sexually assaulted.  While these stories are unfortunately very common and by all means important to discuss, the trans literary community needs a diversity in subject matter that reflects the diversity in our community.  Keller’s descriptions bring out the mundane yet unique aspects of being transgender, creating a balance that allows Isaac to feel distinctly trans and yet does not force his identity to permeate every single one of his actions.

In addition to journeying through Isaac’s gender identity, the story also takes us to various places in the US and Europe.  We watch the characters’ attitudes change towards themselves as they simultaneously change their attitudes towards the places they live in:

“I told him America did not want us, that we should go to Barcelona or to Mexico City, which I still had faint, fond memories of, notwithstanding my current estrangement from my parents.”

Keller gives us a lot to think about by the end of this piece.  There are themes of sexuality and attraction, gender identity and isolation, and threaded through everything is the question: what does it mean to find home?  Do we find home in our bodies, our lovers, or the places we live in?  “Isaac Cameron Hill” looks at these universal concepts through a lens that is not often celebrated in the literary community which is why this story quickly became one of my favorites from 2015.