Quote

On Truth in Writing:

In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘The Paris Review.’

Moving Forward

Recently, I read an interesting piece over at the always-wonderful Brain Pickings, titled ‘Show Your Work: Austen Kleon On the Art of Getting Noticed’. It was described as “a book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion.”

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I hate it, but it definitely makes me uncomfortable. And I’m certainly guilty, to some extent, of keeping my stories and planned projects close to my chest. It’s not because I think the ideas are so brilliant that some nefarious individual out there will feel compelled to steal them and write the book/comic/TV show before I can, so much as it is that I think of writing as a fire.

Each story is a spark, is its own flame, and I have found that when telling friends and fellow writers what new blaze has sprung up in my mind, that some of the heat is let out. I lose some of the compulsion to tell the story because I have, in fact, just told it to someone. The act of telling itself has its own importance, and even though I’m only summing up, or running them through the structure, each time it seems the story itself is just that little bit more pallid when I next consider it — that little bit dimmer.

Of course, that’s not always the case. I’m always reassured when a concept, a character, continues to burn bright long after I’ve let a little of it out into the world. In that way, they can even act as true fires and expand with more air and fuel, as opposed to being kept in the darkness of my chest, to exist as my own private constellation of stars. Sometimes, I’ve even used this unnecessarily-prolonged metaphor as a good thing, a tool for productivity. When some unruly new story comes along, dazzling in its freshness, its recently birthed light, and demands to be told, demands I stop telling that old, now boring story, I can casually describe it to a friend and feel the compulsion fade just enough to keep working.

And yet, contrast this with the feeling of elation I have when sharing some minute success with friends — as with having my short story selected for the upcoming anthology Strangely Funny II— it’s not just elation, it’s as though I’m expanding. Nor is it just for successes either. It’s far more important for the failures, for all the times I fall. That sense of community, of shared struggle, is incredible, a true gift we don’t recognise anywhere near enough. Or at least I don’t.

And so, this is me recognising I need to be more open in all areas. Although I’ll talk about all these things more in-depth in future, I figure I can at least introduce you to what I’m doing and where I’m planning on going from here:

1) While I currently live and work in Sydney, I’ve just applied for a working holiday visa to Canada. I’m anticipating–should it be approved–moving to Toronto sometime in the next few months or so. Why have I quit a stable, decent job to relocate halfway across the world? Why set a grenade beneath the carefully built life you’ve led over the past few years? In short: because I’m hoping the blast is powerful enough to propel me further toward my goal of becoming a published author.

People look at me as though I’m mad when I tell them I’m going so far just to live and focus on my writing. Just for the joy of it. I want–for as long as I’m able to financially– to write a lot and work a bit, instead of work a lot and write a bit, as I have been for the past few years. That necessitates leaving the rut of full-time work behind, and taking the leap into the unknown.As Ray Bradbury said (and he’s yet to lead me wrong), “jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.”

2) I’m working on a Young Adult novel that could be described as Gangs of New York with magic, set in a surreal alternate future. There are a million things I want to describe right now, but if it’s pared down to its most fundamental elements, it’s a story about a boy reeling from more wounds than he knows he has, trying to survive on brutal streets, and the choices he faces along the way. The rest is just window dressing (really interesting, evocative, magical window dressing with outstanding characters packed to the brim with hope and horror, myth and wonder).

3) Said novel has stalled, if I’m being honest. The current draft, while easily among the best writing I’ve done, was written because my novel-writing professors last year told me to push myself, not because I had a plan. The previous draft had a clear plan and I zipped along it with purely functional writing. Whereas now, despite the higher quality, I am adrift. I need to take some time now and really outline a coherent structure for this new direction, because this story, this world, continues to excite me –as it has done for years now.

I’ve gone on for longer than anticipated, so I’ll leave it at that. There’ll be more details and things to come, I hope — maybe even an excerpt or two — and in the meantime, I continue to potter about with new ideas, poems, and short stories. It’s never-ending, this storytelling disease, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

Until next time, happy writing!

The Crane Wife: A Review

So, I recently finished reading Patrick Ness’s ‘The Crane Wife’, a delightful novelisation of the old Japanese fable. For a relatively slight book, it took me a surprisingly long time to finish. I found it to be much like Karen Russell’s work in that sense, too beautiful to read for long.

When sentences are poetry, each one can catapult me into dizzying highs, into the clouds and I’ll be sitting on the train with the book open on my lap, just staring into space. As much as I adore that sensation of inspiration, of breathlessness, it can work against the story itself, certainly as far as actually finishing the tale.

But I soldiered through the beauty and happily arrived at the ending. This was my first introduction to Patrick Ness–as far as reading one of his books, I have followed him on Twitter for some time–and needless to say, it will not be my last. I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect (no book it is) but I loved it anyway. It tells the story of mild-mannered print store owner George Duncan, and it begins thusly:

What actually awoke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to the earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.

I dare you not to read on, seriously. It’s an insanely magical opening and immediately sets a dreamlike tone. George finds a wounded Crane in his backyard, pierced with an arrow, and manages to free it of the fletched-bullet, whereupon it flies away. Leaving him – and us – to wonder if it was ever real to begin with. That questioning of narrative, of whether what occurs does so as we perceive it or as others do, is a central part of this story.

Later, George recounts an anecdote from his childhood in which he and a friend were hit by a car, and miraculously survived mostly unharmed. What he finds himself curious about now, so many years later, is not the story itself with its improbabilities, but the other people in it, the passersby that rushed to help, his childhood friend, and the driver — did they tell this story too? And if so, in what way?

“What was true, though, and what he thought about often, was that although he was the hero of his own version of the story, naturally, he was also a supporting player in this same story when told by someone else.” 

Does that matter? The reality of perception spinning a hundred different versions of a story? George isn’t really sure, but it is a theme that runs through this novel.

“There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A forgotten story died. A story remembered not only lived, it grew.”

Soon after his Crane incident, George meets Kumiko, a mysterious Japanese woman whom he falls in love with. To everyone’s surprise, it appears she falls for him too, their shared connection being artwork — George’s sculptures cut out of secondhand books, while crude, are transformed when paired with her feathered-landscapes. The nature of that surprise centres around the perception of George as being too nice, too bland, only “70%” of a man. While I’ve seen this disparaged by other readers as just another “Nice Guy Syndrome”, I think that’s a bit of a misread.

The problem isn’t George’s supposed-niceness as it is that he gives too much too quickly. He falls too hard, too fast, and doesn’t seem to care if you know. He’s an open book, easily read, when most people like to read at leisure, to spend their life reading you, being challenged by you. It’s a genuine character flaw, and not one that is ever really resolved, mostly because it’s treated as a good thing. Meanwhile, George and Kumiko’s artwork inspires a frenzy of interest from the art-world, propelling a baffled-George to previously unbelievable levels of financial success.

But that, along with a few other minor storylines, act as little more than the window-dressing for the real story, the narrative-within-the-narrative, as we regularly cross over into pure fable and learn of the Crane’s origins and her love/war with a volcano. Eventually, fable and reality begin to coalesce and intersect, before merging completely for the climax. I don’t want to speak too much about that, or other details — that’s for you to discover.

What I will say is that this novel is beautifully told, as much about a fable as it is about the nature of storytelling itself, as much about art as it is about love and relationships. It doesn’t always hit its marks. Sometimes, Ness pushes the whimsy button a little too hard, and it can feel forced and out of place – these, however, are momentary blips in an outlandishly graceful story that delights in its own poetic flamboyance. It’s also terrifically funny, with a hilarious young Turkish character–which, as a young Arab-Turk myself, I really appreciated.

It made me realise just how lacking people of colour, of my own ethnicity, really are in books, especially of the kind I read — the depth with which I associated with Mehmet actually shocked me. It’s as though I was starved for representation, for a character who might just have a face like my own. It wouldn’t have mattered what kind of character he was, honestly, such was my happiness that he even existed and yet, happily, he also stood on his own two ink-and-flesh feet. That he was also gay made me doubly happy, especially as it was not his defining characteristic.

Given all that, perhaps it’s no surprise I felt that Ness was addressing me personally when, at the end, George fires young Mehmet –an aspiring actor– saying:

“I’m not angry. I’m not even dissatisfied with your work. Well, not much. But if you stay here, you’re going to end up taking over this shop, and that would be the saddest thing that ever happened. You deserve better.”

I probably shouldn’t take my cues from fiction, but it certainly made me feel better about my recent decision to quit my job and focus on my writing and artistic endeavours. This review has gone on a little longer than intended and so I’ll end my rambling here by saying if magic realism is your jam, you should pick up this book. It’s a sumptuous dream with far more going for it than I’ve had the time to outline here.

 

They Call Me The Jew

Last year, my good friend – my brother – invited me to Passover dinner at his parents’ home. I wrote about it, with the intention of publishing it, but for some reason, I didn’t follow through. Here it is then, one year on – sadly, every bit of it is still true (except I have now been to one Passover dinner and know what to expect, which is nice.)

Yesterday, I found a piece of crumpled up blue cloth nestled in my comfortable office chair. Unfolding it, I realised it was a kippah – traditional Jewish headwear – with the words ‘Jewish Museum of Prague’ printed on it. Instantly, I was transported back to the Old New Synagogue in Prague.

I remember being handed the kippah on entering the temple nearly a year and a half ago, remember the breeze that blew it off my head not once, twice, but three times. I thought, ‘if only my family could see me now.’ Why? Because oddly enough, though I was raised in a low-income Muslim household, my family long ago branded me with a nickname that stands apart from the others. They call me the Jew.

To them, it’s an insult. It’s a way of saying, ‘You’re not like us’, a way of saying, ‘You don’t believe’ and ‘You’re one of them’. Granted, it’s become a running joke, a thing not taken very seriously but the sentiment from which it was born is very real.

It makes absolutely no sense to me, so I poke fun at it, and when my cousin says, ‘Shalom’, I nod and say ‘Shalom’ back, and when they ask sarcastically, ‘Did you just come back from the Temple?’ I nod enthusiastically and say, ‘I had a good long chat with the rabbi.’ For a moment then, there’s an awkward pause, an ugly beat with the unspoken question, ‘Are you serious?’

So, why am I writing about this? I read a piece by Mehdi Hasan over at The New Statesman about the “virus of Anti-Semitism in the British Muslim community”. Now, the only issue I have with that piece is the use of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ being applied to Arabs, one of the many groups who fall under the umbrella of Semites. You cannot be anti-yourself. Otherwise, he’s pretty much spot on, and it’s true here in Australia as well. Mehdi isn’t able to provide a clear and present reason as to why this is the case and though he mentions the Arab-Israeli Conflict, he dismisses it as being irrelevant.

I think he’s underestimating the impact of that conflict, underestimating the shared sense of persecution Muslims feel when they talk about it, and the fundamental lack of understanding they have about the subject. To them, there are no nuances to the issue, no greys, only black and white. ‘They took our land,’ and ‘They’re killing our people’ is about all that registers.  Ask them about the McMahon-Hussein letters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the King Crane Commission, or the Six Day War, or the Yom Kippur War, or any of the countless momentous events in the history of the conflict, and they will stare at you blankly.

It’s important to remind you now that I’m speaking about my family, about my personal experience, not on behalf of the Muslim community here or abroad. I do, however, think it’s symbolic of a broader problem and that the Arab-Israeli conflict lies if not at the heart of the issue, then very close to it. I grew up in the same household as my cousins and brother, aunties and mother – I still vividly recall images of Palestinian boys and girls throwing rocks at tanks on the evening news. Still recall the feeling of injustice and helplessness, laced with a heavy dose of resentment.

‘They took our land.’

‘They’re killing our people.’

No word on how those sentiments are echoed by the Jewish people. No word on how they must feel to be constantly attacked or afraid of being attacked, on the aftermath of bombs. Sentiments shared by both peoples. There is a fundamental disconnect here, a schism between reality and perceived histories. So why aren’t I the same, why don’t I share the same casual racism? I’m not entirely sure. I put it down to education – most of my family members are high school dropouts – and empathy.

Too often when speaking about this issue, proponents from both aisles cry long and foul about the very same events I referenced earlier. Abstracts, one and all. History is meaningless here. Only one truth is worth mentioning: it needs to end. All of it. From the prejudice on both sides to the bloodshed; from the sustained, institutionalised oppression of the Palestinian people, to the attacks on Jewish people and the ugly rhetoric from despots like Assad.

This is a particularly pertinent issue given the recent visit by President Obama to the Middle East. He said, “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognised. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes.

“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.”

Fine words, Mr. President, clearly addressing the need for each side to employ empathy. That is, to put yourself in another’s shoes. As a writer, I find it particularly easy to do and perhaps this is another reason I stand apart from my family on this issue. But I know better, we all know better, than to think that this matter will be resolved by politics. While I hesitate to suggest a solution to a hundred-year conflict unable to be resolved by thousands of much smarter people than I, it would be remiss of me not to, given the broad strokes I’ve offered so far.

That said, it’s hard to be anything other than cynical about the peace process given its history of ineptitude and failure. Instead, I look with hope to the Arab Spring. It took the world by storm little more than a year or two ago but what has changed since then? The figures at the top may be different but the fundamentals remain the same. I do not think we have seen true spring yet, only the first few tufts of grass springing out of hard, broken earth.

We will see true Spring bloom only when Palestinian mothers and daughters, sisters and wives stand side by side with Israeli mothers and daughters, sisters and wives, to say: “Enough. Too many of our children are dead. Too many of our children are dying. Enough.” In the so-called Arab Spring, people spoke, and the world listened. Not hard enough in some cases, as the tragic Syrian civil war shows, but the ripple effects of change were set in motion nonetheless.

We will see true Spring bloom only when ingrained prejudices are acknowledged and confronted, not with heated words and insults, but with understanding and empathy: I understand. You’re hurting, and so am I. It is with the same empathy that I look at my family, who, despite all their faults, I love with all my heart. Their understanding and education is lacking, but I cannot take them to task for the depth of their emotion. Too often in my past, I’ve lashed out, thoughtless with emotion, and it is very much the same here.

We will see true Spring bloom only when education in the form of nuanced, considered approaches to sensitive topics is commonplace and consistent across the board, across all boundaries and state lines. We must stand as one and face these problems together.

Now I speak directly to my family, to my community, Muslim, Jewish, Australian, one and all. I understand that my words are idealistic, hopelessly so, but in this bleak, cynical climate, I have nothing else to cling to except hope.

Tonight, I will go to my friend’s parents’ home for Passover dinner. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, having never been before. Maybe I’ll wear the kippah, maybe not. One thing I am sure of, however: it will be peaceful. And that is a thing to be treasured.

Shalom.

 

 

How I Got Started: Reading, Writing, & Stephen King

This morning, I read a piece by Patton Oswalt over at Vulture, about his lifetime of reading Stephen King novels. It got me thinking about the books I first read growing up, and the King novel that was one of my most formative reading experiences. It shaped me as a writer, though I didn’t recognise it until just a few years ago.

I remember the first book I read on my own was Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I’ve written about this at length but I’ll recap here for those who don’t know: it was my drug-dealer of a step-father who got me to read it in the first place. He bet me $10 I couldn’t finish a book (I was a skinned-knee tarmac kid, at home on the street) and I took him up on it. He picked the perfect book. Magic, knights, kings and queens and witches — I was hooked.

The next book I picked up was Excalibur by Bernard Cornwall, a book I barely understood at that young age (I was 10 or so), but which I loved anyway. It had Arthur, and Merlin, so I was sold. After the success of Harry Potter in my household, my mum got on board the give-the-kids-books-to-shut-them-up train, and began using it as a tactic to keep us occupied. My brother didn’t really take to it much, though he did like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, saying of it, “It was all right. The bit at the end with fire letters in the air? That was sick.”

Though he seemed to think this book or that book was okay, it was clear he only ever really did it under duress or when there was nothing else to do –this was pre-internet, by and large. For me, however, I felt as though a door had been opened inside my chest, one I wasn’t aware existed before and it said, look, there are whole worlds out here. There’s magic. A concept that stunned my tiny, disheveled little self. To this day, I feel as though until that moment, the geographic map in my head included about three streets, three places: home, school, my aunty’s.

Thereafter, it was limitless, and the idea of there being a vast universe out there unfurled  in my mind. I don’t think I was altogether conscious that these were fictional worlds either, they were experiences I lived, that jolted through my body, kept me up at night, and invaded my dreams. It was so much better than the mean world I knew, the pain and loneliness. That said, there were never very many books in the house, and I recall one night, my mum telling us to go and read.

We didn’t have any books, we told her. Well, she did. So she went into her room and came out with three books, two Stephen King books, one John Grisham. She said, with casual thoughtlessness. ‘I’m going to give you each a book. First one to finish gets a prize.’

Thoughtless because, while high, she made many promises. Very few were ever kept. In any case, I was given Rose Madder, my brother had Four Past Midnight and my sister, The Runaway Jury. I might’ve been 11 or 12 at this point, I’m not totally certain. The book, if you don’t know already, is about an abused woman who flees from her violent husband. I still remember the opening vividly, the one drop of blood on her pillow that sparks her flight.

Though entirely straightforward for the majority of the book, and despite my age, I was riveted. Dread lines her every thought, every sentence, the certainty that her husband Norman – a cop – was going to catch her. As a kid living in an often abusive, neglectful household, against a backdrop of violence and drugs, seeing elements of my life reproduced on the page was huge. I was not alone. There were others suffering out there. Here was a different kind of book, not taking me on flights of wonder, or to some new world, but very much in our own.

Then something strange started to happen. Long after she’s escaped, Rose picks up an odd painting in a shop. A painting that seemed to change every now and then, a painting which she could not stop thinking about. Eventually, she steps through it, into the painted landscape. She’s never sure if what’s happening is real, if it is in fact changing, if she can travel inside it or if she’s suffered a nervous breakdown. From there on, reality warps. Becomes like a dreamscape, with the ever-encroaching Norman increasingly nightmarish, increasingly a literal evil.

That book marked me, twisted me every bit as surely as that painting twisted reality for Rose. Especially for a kid that already had trouble distinguishing between dreams and waking, between fiction and life. I don’t think I’ve ever been as afraid or as entranced with a story since. Reading it passed like a fever, a sickness that wracked me with chills, and left in a haze of sordid after-images. And yet, when I began writing my own stories half a decade later, I’d largely forgotten it entirely.

I’d been reading YA and adult fantasy solidly since then. So you’d think the stories I first started to write would be about kings and queens, knights and wizards, but they weren’t. Still aren’t, broadly speaking. They were all resolutely set in the here and now, all concerned with obsession and murder, but always with some weirdness involved. I recall one of my friends saying, ‘Man, have you noticed how all your characters seem to die horribly? Or no, get transformed into something?’

I had, in fact. I just didn’t know why. I seemed to live and breathe horror, though my diet was one of action, adventure, and fantasy. Horror films definitely had their part to play but it was that signature blend of magic realism, of psychological horror at play in King’s novel that really took hold inside. It wasn’t until I had to write an exegesis for my latest short story at the University of East Anglia in 2009 –one that listed my influences–a that I was able to trace it back from Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury to Roald Dahl and finally, that forgotten but most impactful Stephen King.

Turns out, he only needed to scare me once.

I’ve been living with it ever since.

National Poetry Writing Month

If you don’t already know, April is National Poetry Writing Month, a month in which poets and poetry-enthusiasts write a poem every day. Now, I’m not sure I can actually commit to participating fully but I will definitely try for a mico-poem each day – both as an act of celebrating the art form and as a productivity tool.

So, I figured I’d post a few of those here and also mention a couple of interesting news items/opportunities that have come up. The first is that the $5000 Blake Poetry Prize for poetry exploring religious/spiritual themes, is now open.

Second, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord project currently has a call-out for voice-over submissions of poems. You can record a video of yourself reading a poem aloud – either a poem in the public domain, or one on their website – or upload the audio file, or even record other people performing the piece themselves. I love spoken word and performance poetry so I may well submit to this just for the joy of it. Of course, there’s always the bonus of potentially having your bit included in the HitRecord TV show.

Third, last night I came across this piece “Afghanistan’s Secret Feminism, Through Verse”, at The Millions. I found it deeply affecting. Poet Eliza Griswold has collated a book of landays, a form of two-line folk poetry mostly recited by women in Afghanistan. Contrasted with photography and her own commentary, ‘I Am the Beggar of the World’, sounds like an absolute must-have.

In particular, this struck me the hardest. “…consider Zarmina Muska: a teenage girl from Afghanistan, Muska set herself on fire in 2010 after her family discovered that she had been writing poems. As testaments to her emotions and free will, her poems were considered dishonorable.”

And I asked myself, would I set myself ablaze for poetry? Would you?
How much does it mean to you, really? It is a freedom we all too often take for granted. If stifled, I can imagine the unspoken words collecting in my gut. I can almost feel them clacking against each other like dry sticks, an ocean of tinder
just waiting for a spark. It is far harder to imagine, however, dousing myself in oil
and giving voice to flame with my body the blackened throat.

I’d like to think I have that sort of courage, but I cannot say for certain. Here then, with a renewed gratefulness for the ability to speak, to share these little fragments of dream, are my first three:

She said, poetry is surgery.
I said I’m no doctor
But my skin is scarred
with scalpel-edged words
& a poem a day keeps death at bay.

#

We are what we repeatedly do,
Aristotle said. A poet, then, is not
born but revealed – a shade more
with every poem, every word.

#

I love when sleep leaves
a light film over your eyes,
an intangible veil
granting life the quality
of weightless dream.