Tag Archives: story

The Power of Imagination Against Oppression

10 Oct

Why do we read literature?

No, really, why?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Good literature goes beyond entertainment—it reaches down into the core of us and jerks us back into the heart of the world, into the heart of humanity, into the whirling depths of the human soul.

That is what we need to remember.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, came to speak at Vanderbilt today, and I had the chance to attend a student-led conversation with her this afternoon.

Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, is the memoir that describes her experiences as a professor of literature under the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the revolution of 1978, Iran became a place where religion was a forced act of state rather than a personal, spiritual belief. Reacting to these changes—the enforcement of the veil and the brutality of the Taliban—Nafisi used literature, from Nabakov’s Lolita to The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn, to help herself and her female students understand their situations and deal with their own personal traumas.

At the beginning of the conversation, she took out a manila folder of old family pictures and passed them around the conference room. There was her grandmother as a young woman, and there was her mother, and there she was, too. All of them with full lips and black arched eyebrows, none of them wearing the veil except for the grandmother—who thought of it as a personal choice, and was appalled when the government enforced it on all women.

“Imagine,” Nafisi told us, “if suddenly the United States enforced Babtism— a single denomination of a religion—on an entire country, and told you that you—no matter who you were—had to wear a cross around your neck.”

Imagination—it’s a powerful thing. As Nafisi told us today, imagination is what allows us to have empathy. Imagination is what banishes blindness and unwavering ideology. Imagination is the thing that threatens dictatorship and frightens oppression.

And great literature—Lolita, Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice, Huck Finn, and the rest—is the door that allows us to tap into that imagination and those greater human truths.

“That, of course, is what great works of imagination do for us: They make us a little restless, destabilize us, question our preconceived notions and formulas.” – Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi autographs her book

I loved Nafisi’s analysis of the way stories work—the chambers that they open inside us, the thoughts they stir to the surface, the questions they cause us to ask of authority—and specifically of ideological authority.

The past few weeks I’ve been following a blog, Reading the Short Story, by a retired literature professor named Charles E. May. His blog is rather technical, and not altogether engaging unless you are interested in the components of the short story.  I read May’s blog because I am interested in the techniques of story, and how these techniques can be applied to my own fiction.

In one of his more interesting posts, though, May writes about C.S. Lewis’ distinction between “good” art and “bad” art, and this distinction is at the heart of what Nafisi differentiates as the narrative of the state vs. the goal of literature.

May writes, “Bad art may be “liked,” but it never “startles, prostrates, and takes captive,” says Lewis. “The patrons of sentimental poetry, bad novels, bad pictures, and merely catchy tunes are usually enjoying precisely what is there.  And their enjoyment, as I have argued, is not in any way comparable to the enjoyment that other people derive from good art.”

an imagining - photo of the day for May 13th, 2010Good literature—the literature Nafisi read in Iran—allows for complexity.

Too often these days, we’re polarized, shuttled into different “types” of people and frozen into these limited, suffocating identities. White vs. Black, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim.

In an essay on the illuminating powers of imagination, Nafisi wrote that, “… a culture that has lost its poetry and its soul is a culture that faces death. And death does not always come in the image of totalitarian rulers who belong to distant countries; it lives among us, in different guises, not as enemy but as friend.” –

Good fiction, then, is our escape—an escape route that leads us back into the wonderfully twisted, amorphous human heart.

Where else do we find the ambiguity we so desperately need? The complexity we shy away from, but deep down—so desperately desire?

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Read “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

21 Sep

Vestal, New YorkMy aunt learned to read tarot cards in college as a party trick. Now, every New Years when she comes to visit, she’ll pull out her stack of cards from their purple velvet pouch, shuffle them between her long-nailed fingers, and lay them out in a Celtic Cross spread across the floor in front of us. The penultimate card, the last to be revealed before the outcome, is the card that dictates the inquirer’s Hopes and Fears. Even though the Final Outcome card may allow you to “know” what will occur in the next year, or semester, or month of your life, when it comes down to the actual living, the outcome isn’t the focus. What matters instead are the hopes and fears. Those emotions are the way you will live your day to day life, and those are the emotions that give the outcome meaning.

Sorry to go off on a tarot tangent. And sorry if you think they’re bizarre. They are, it’s true, but I write of tarot cards because they seem to work well with this week’s story, which has reverberations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood,” published in The New Yorker in August (available online here) is the story of a young couple struggling to live in upstate New York in the 70s. The summer has ended, winter is setting on, and meanwhile Keith and Nora are struggling to pay the bills for a cold, leaking shack. Resentment brews (bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and miraculously, they are offered an out: a chance to house-sit in a beautiful mansion in Birnam Wood, which includes its own pool table and a private lake. To convince the elderly couple that they are responsible young adults, Keith and Nora pretend they are married. So begins the domestic experiment, both of them hoping the resentment they felt over the fall will fade, both imagining what it might be like to really own this home, to really belong to each other.

In the past, Boyle has been deemed a maximalist, a writer with melodramatic tendencies and a flare for the bizarre that he sometimes includes to the detriment of his stories. Personally, I love the Boyle that busts with raw humor and dark absurdity. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the archive: the man has written a story called “Thirteen-Hundred Rats,” (it’s ridiculously morbid and strange) and his use of the fantastic in the story “Los Gigantes” still works within a complicated, thought-provoking piece.

But “Birnam Wood” operates on a subtler plain, and the paring back of the bizarre allows us to really focus on what matters in this story: the splintering cracks in Keith and Nora’s relationship.

After they move in to the mansion, things are good for awhile. The tension dissipates, and they try to experience the last days of summer:

“Whenever we could, we went out in the rowboat, and though we never acknowledged it, I suppose we were both thinking the same thing—that we’d better take advantage of it while we could, because each day of the sun might be the last.”

(A metaphor, of course, for the way Keith and Nora cling to the last days of their own relationship.)

The story blows up emotionally (in a good way) after Steve from the bar arrives at the house, and Nora understands what Steve and Keith have talked about in the bar. It’s a terrific, forceful moment in the story, and what follows after is really just Keith coming to terms with all he has lost.

He wanders out across the frozen lake, where he sees into the bedroom of a house, where a man and woman lie side by side, reading before they go to bed, and the narrator sits there, in the icy dark, and watches them until the light goes out.

The scene mirrors an earlier moment in the story, when Keith falls asleep to Nora reading in her separate bed across the room from him:

“…when I switched off my lamp and turned to the wall the last image fading in my brain was of the steady bright nimbus of Nora’s light and her face shining their above the book.”

In both scenes, Keith is closeted in his personal darkness: there is Nora, and there are the people in their beds, two images of celestial domesticity—the kind of happy, secure life that Keith craves. In the first scene, he turns away from the light—just as he will turn away from Nora, and at the end, he cannot help but stare into the house, into the light that he’s lost now, forever.

Our Hopes and Fears are strange forces. They lead us in all sorts of zigzagging directions, and as we follow behind, tugged and pulled from one place to another—a giant mansion, a frozen lake—it’s hard to say what that 10th card will mean to us, when it arrives.

English: T.C. Boyle at the powerHouse Arena, D...

Author T.Coraghessan Boyle

The New Yorker interviewed the author about “Birnam Wood.” You can find the Q & A is here.

On Writing Bad Fiction

11 Jul

I just wrote a  bad story. A 26-page disaster of a story, to be specific.

Now that I’ve come to the end of it, now that it’s all been punched out—I’ve come to realize that the whole thing is one enormous, colossal piece of crap.

Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans: Krewe of Kosmic D...

Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans

In the story, “Parade,” two couples—four vapid and awful people—wander around Mardi Gras for one debauched weekend, each of them struggling to gain some semblance of power over their respective partner. In the end the whole thing is not even about their trite and tedious power dynamics, but instead about their perception of “reality” vs. the reality of a violent, poverty-stricken post-Katrina New Orleans. The problem is, to reach the didactic and melodramatic conclusion about poverty in New Orleans, the reader has to first follow four idiotic, indulged, ego-maniacal college students for 25 pages—only to realize on the final page that not even the author gives a damn about their petty tiffs. Sounds fun, right? “Parade” was, essentially, the definition of a failed story.

Then again, I needed to write it, and now that it’s out of my system, I’m free to move on to better things. Whenever I look back on a god-awful story, and consider all of the time I wasted on said swampland of prose, I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and regain a sense of my former optimism.

Outliers (book)Gladwell argues in Outliers that all of the “greats” of history—Mozart, The Beatles, Bill Gates—have achieved the extraordinary not as much through some innate “genius,” but rather through the old theory of “practice makes perfect.” If a person practices his or her skill intensely and with focus for 10,000 hours, that individual should, by the end of it, be an expert in his or her field. To be fair, Gladwell points out that not all people who make tremendous efforts (10,000 hours of tremendous efforts) meet with success in the end. Environment and circumstance are important, too, but let’s not worry about that for now—let’s worry about what we can change.

Let’s say I worked 30 hours (roughly an hour a page) on “Parade.” With all of those long hours typing in little dark coffee shops, sipping on caramel lattes, I’d still only be 0.3% of the way to reaching the extraordinary, unbelievable genius of literary greats like Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.

Ten thousand hours is a lot of time—and maybe that’s a good thing. As a beginning writer, there’s only so much I can possibly achieve at this point—which isn’t a very satisfactory consolation, but a true one. If I want to be a better writer, I can’t waste time getting hung up on one lengthy piece of drivel.

There are so many more stories to write! Thirty hours on one bad story—who cares?