Oral tradition versus historical ‘fact’

Working on the WWII book today, making choices: the Indian National Army, as described online, is not the same as the Indian National Army in the oral history I grew up with, stories and unspoken attitudes of my elders who lived through the war. I may of course not be remembering perfectly. I can talk to people who were alive at the time, and have, but I find they don’t remember perfectly either. Some memories are crystal clear and consistent, even down to using the exact same words each time they tell the tale,, others vague and shifting. So it’s up to me. At the end of the day, it’s my book; and I’m fiction for a reason. I will do the research, but I will write from my memory of the oral tradition.

I just heard my father chuckle and say, “What to do?” about these sorts of quandaries. So I’ll stop quandary-ing now, and get to writing.

What do writers, sword dancers, and zombies have in common?

I write. I dance, sometimes with a sword balanced on my head. Google ‘bellydance sword’ if you’re curious what that looks like.

Writers aren’t as interesting to watch as dancers. ‘America’s Top Writer’ is not the hot new reality show for a reason. Paint drying has far more glamor. When I’m trying to get my writer’s head on, I look and sound like a zombie. Most of me is elsewhere.

At this moment, I am trying to send most of my self back to 1941-1945 Malaya, where there was a war and an Occupation on, and once I’m there I am planning on watching and eavesdropping and sniffing out secrets and the scents of wartime food. I will have imaginary people in my head.

Some dancers wear a very serious face as they dance. Dance swords are hollow, but. Drop one on and you’ll see, it has impact. Serious business, like most dropped things in life; something breaks, possibly your foot.

Nevertheless, I personally can’t help grinning like a loon when I do sword. The sheer improbability of the thing makes me feel like a child blowing a first soap bubble, or lighting a sparkler for the first time. A thing turns into something other than itself: I, a perfectly (more or less) normal human being am standing here, dancing, even, with the edge of a blade sitting on my head, and it’s easy.

Yup. Easy. But only after you know how, after you’ve practiced, and only when you’re in the zone. In the zone, magic keeps it up, body and sword and music are one. Unfortunately this is related to the zone where soufflés never fall, stocks yield steady profits, kids never get sick, it never snows more than is pretty but not a nuisance, your nearest and dearest never irritate you…. Impossible and good things happen – for a while.

It’s easy in the zone. It’s hard to get there, and unfortunately it’s all to easy to leave it. (One tiny wrong move of the head, and boom: sword’s on your foot, have a nice day.)

Writing larger pieces is like keeping the sword up for longer periods of time. 20 secs even a beginner can do by a fluke. Couple of minutes, still not so hard. 10 – 20 mins, that’s a real challenge. It takes prep time and focus or a crazy high level of expertise (Google ‘Parri double sword’ to see what crazy high level of expertise looks like. She dances with two swords balanced at right angles to each other, on her head. Extreme expert.)

No writer finds balancing a book in their head easy. But once you’re in the zone, it’s fun. That’s you sledding down that hill, skating on that pond, skydiving, balancing that sword…

Unfortunately, sledding downhill and trying not to fall out is not the best time to, say, balance your checkbook, help a friend decide who to date or figure out why their printer won’t work. Braincells are busy elsewhere and everyday life gets interesting. Trees jump out to ambush your car when you’re parking (really, at least they do me).

In this silly place, company is a blessing. It’s lonely, not to mention slightly loony, to be stuck alone with a headful of imaginary people. But conversations in words of one syllable or less are best, and what someone’s cat did or, ‘Isn’t that a gorgeous tree’ is probably the right speed. Calm voices and emotions are best (sudden loud noise, sword or book on head, isn’t going anywhere pretty). Ladies and gentlemen, assume your writer friends are slightly deranged if they’re inside a book, and be gentle. We can be quite entertaining in that state.

 

Novel Analysis, IT-style

I had lunch with an out-of-town friend recently, and while we were doing the ‘So, what have you been up to?’ part of the conversation, I said I’d recently done a manuscript analysis on a novel, and described it as something like ‘critical design review’ in software design (the friend has a Silicon Valley engineering background).

He said — part interest, part skepticism — “How do you do a critical design review on a novel?”

I said, “Well, remember I used to be a geek,” (more formally, a NASA tech). And like the elephant, I haven’t forgotten. So when I sat down to read the draft of a novel and comment on it, my report wasn’t quite a PowerPoint presentation, but it did use more headings and subheadings than someone without tech reflexes might have used.

A more flattering way to describe what I did is to say I automatically tried to be comprehensive, and objective.

Comprehensive led to headings, and to trying to cover all the ground: character, voice, setting, story; the story arc, intention, beginning, middle, end; etc.. I drafted 60 pages of notes and cut it down to 18.

Objective led to remembering, it’s not my book. I’m trying to find all the critical issues as well as all the deepest strengths in another writer’s story, and help it become the best they can make it, not think about it as I would if it was mine. (Remembering the useful and not useful manuscript analyses I’d received on my own work did a lot to support this idea!)

In IT land, I also learned to bless people who are clearheaded, and straightforward. And so the final ‘voice’ I tried for in my report can be described as ‘blunt but also encouraging’.

So that’s what I told my friend. I don’t know whether he was convinced; but I’ve since heard back from the client, and the report is apparently of some use. So geek-style literary analysis is not such a bad way to go.

politics, rice pudding, & the ocean: also, science 101

I’m going on holiday soon and was thinking what to take to read. This morning, I decided: mathematics. A long time ago, I was a math/physics student, and then a NASA science drone. Mathematics, unfolding, is as beautiful as the ocean, alive, intricate, complete in itself. Physics unfolds mysteries, and I don’t mean the God-particle nonsense that people have been getting excited about but the even more wondrous daily mysteries: wind, weather, why there is that odd-shaped shadow on my ceiling, how to park on a hill so your car doesn’t roll away…

Physics enchanted me, as a girl, because it the fundamental rules were essential simple, and clear. Water rolls downhill, ALWAYS. Stuff like that. Studying physics was a way to allow my mind to be simple, and clear. It does not contradict itself. Subtlety exist, but there is always the real to measure against.

For some years now I’ve been a writer. Fiction, mostly cross-cultural, dealing with social, political, and emotional issues. My community is now mostly writers, artists, activists, and nothing is simple, or clear; or rather, much of it probably could be, but people cultivate complexity. To include ALL the data — by which I mean all the facts, not all the opinions — on something, or as much data as one can get, and look at it all in balance, is not a popular sport. Balance, as best I understand it, requires calm. But the troubles of our times, from tars sands to Islamophobia to economic class warfare, call for concern. And most people don’t find concern and calm coexistent within themselves, especially in American culture, which says, subliminally, that we should be able to fix anything. So there is tumult, and shouting: a noise of long-winded thoughts and exhortations that seem to be saying, ‘Care more, care more! Don’t relax, don’t spin down, not for a minute, the world will cease to be if you do, the battle will be lost…’

I’ve tried to get people to care about some of these issues, particularly the race-related ones, without stirring anxiety. I think I have failed. Caring deeply while being staying as calm as we can is an emotional reality in daily life for most people, else we’d never let our loved ones go out the door, never mind become skydivers or firefighters. I think it’s okay, even essential, to deal with political issues the same way — do what you can, everything you can, and then let go and fix dinner. I talk a lot about politics, but I’ve never said this before, and I apologize for not doing so.

I am going to read, on my vacation, not a novel, full of sculpted emotion, or a nonfiction book full of argument, however just, but mathematics: to find a state of clarity in my mind again. It will be like eating fresh fruit, or rice pudding, after too rich a diet. Cleaning, and strengthening. In-between, I will go to California farmers markets, which are a paradise of grounded goodness, and I will cook dinner. I will look at the ocean.

I will be simple.

SubDrift

SubDrift: free-for-all open mic and Desi love fest made wonderful by warmth, camaraderie, and a really awesome quality of performance. This particular evening was NYC SubDrift March 2013. I test-drove a bit of my book with a South Asian audience for the first time and was pleased to find it grip despite the fact that it’s the stuff of our daily lives — the one early S. Asian reader commented that I was writing for clueless white people.

Speaking across cultures seems a reasonable mission statement to me. I grew up in a town where half the population and many of my close friends were Chinese, and yet learned things from The Joy Luck Club I hadn’t known. So I chose, in many places in my book, to state the obvious. There was the possibility of this audience reacting with terminal boredom, but that is not what happen. I am pleasantly surprised

This evening was also my coming out as an auntie-at-large in the diaspora, and considering what Desi aunties can do, it was greeted surprisingly cordially. Possibly because I let on about the secret of our culture: at 30 you get to start thinking what you want, at 40 you occasionally get to do what you want, and at 50 you’ve turned into the enemy (an auntie, or, presumably, an uncle) and can tell other people what to do.

Also my favorite adopted niece gave me chocolate, so all in all it was a fun evening.

E-Paxson-isms

What is an E. Paxson, you are asking. An E. Paxson is a human being and a friend, so far only on Facebook but qualifying as ‘friend’ in the best sense of the word regardless, which is, for me, someone who gives a damn, who notices, and is thoughtful. If that someone is also good with words, it’s extra. And so, here is a bit of that extra, several Paxson-isms, shared with the writer’s permission.

On Facebook:

“FB friendship: a new form of human relation. New vistas for philosophy and psychology; there’s a treasure trove of PhD theses here. Here are the people I work with every day, those I met last week and those I knew when I was a kid. Those I love, and those I’ve never met. People I knew and lost and rediscovered. People I met here and have come to meet in ‘real’ life. All of you neatly alphabetized, posting about the ridiculously sublime and the sublimely ridiculous. Here I learn, laugh and cry, and get to know you and share your life a bit. And of course out there are some of my close friends who, by their FB absence, help define FB-ness as well. FB: like.”

On the big question:

“Perhaps there is afterlife, reincarnation or nothingness. Perhaps tomorrow someone or some event will call you to account. But right this moment, you, the sum of the wiles and weaknesses that equate you, can act as you please. This then is the freedom of the human condition. You are absolutely free, even if you do not have absolute freedom.”

Finally, something simpler, but equally universal:

“Les nuits blanches, quand on rêve
On est son propre démon
Qui se tourmente sans trêve
Sans trouver satisfaction.

When one dreams, a sleepless night
His own demon he becomes
To torment without respite
Yet no problem overcomes.”

And yet is uplifting to read. Thank you, Edwin.

Ahimsa

‎’In his attempt to frighten me my father had made me realize that to prevent suffering a man must be capable of suffering, that a man who cannot suffer is not alive.
My father could not understand why I need… for the lesson of ahimsa must be learned by the heart and not the mind.’
– Gita Mehta, ‘A River Sutra’

Not to misrepresent by the quote: it is an intensely joyful book.

The flu and the Gita

Oh goody. I can hazz flu now?

Heading back to bed. Would take a copy of the Gita but one is on storage and the other in CT. In other news, there is a line in Farrell Brickhouse‘s artist statement that is almost exactly like a quote from the Bhagavadita (Prabahananda-Isherwood translation). Wanted to look it up. G’night.

Love Marriage: a Novel

My family is part Tamil; the sweet stubbornness of the family in this book really touched my heart, and their insistence on sometimes disastrously denying/transcending reality reassures me I’m simply being true to my culture when I do it myself 🙂 And the oldest generation in Sugi Ganeshananthan‘s remind me of my grandfather, from the bones of his face to the way he cared for his garden, and my grandmother with her careful, proper kitchen.

Email confusion and reading

Opening email from Care2 Action (petition site) while thinking I clicked on email from Sephora (cosmetics store) –> some moments of confusion. On a more sentient note, just finished Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’. a jewel. the perfect novel. I am gobsmacked.

Open Fire: Rights, Radicalism and Revolution: SAWCC Literary Festival

I can’t be back in NYC for this, but ♥ desi sisters. Are you in New York and interested in cross-cultural perspectives on social change (Facebook event link)? Go. From Madison, Sanaa, and Tahrir Square: story.

Perfectly Untraditional

♥ the voice in Sweta Srivastava Vikram‘s book — is she not a Pushcart-nominated poet? and somebody please introduce me to the male lead (eyes like Shah Rukh Khan!).

Seriously, an understanding of human nature, not to mention the tensions of East-West divided Indian values.