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Craft Talk: bow and make yourself vulnerable

Nothing is more affecting than a love story set against harsh conditions, such as the landscape in The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat. The intimacy, tenderness, and purity that comes through in the first four pages of the book, for instance, is so gripping despite Amabelle and Sebastien’s romance not culminating into a Hollywood ending. There is something magical about the way Amabelle describes Sebastien on the opening page: “He is lavishly handsome by the dim light . . . even though cane stalks have ripped apart most of the skin on his shiny black face.”

Having grown up on romance novels in which men’s appeal largely hinges on wealth and power, it is refreshing to come across a strong male figure who manages to charm without the aid of rank or riches.

Someone once told me that when you approach the reader, you have to bow and make yourself vulnerable. I believe this is what Danticat has done with this book. Her main characters are underdogs, yet their frailty— their humility, is their strength, and their triumph.

The Farming of Bones is the go-to book for writers looking to create characters whose simplicity works to reveal the complexity of their existence.


Unpublishable then, masterpiece today

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

When you are trying to get your work published, especially if you receive rejections in the process, it’s difficult to take comfort in the fact that even books we now consider classics, including Animal Farm, Lolita, Moby Dick and Catch 22, were once rejected. What makes it difficult is the fact that creative writing, and by extension, publishing, is not an exact science. What one publisher may consider unpublishable, another may embrace right off. In listening to a number of editors and publishers, various factors have been cited as the reason manuscripts get rejected. Work that is certifiably below par aside, books can be rejected for being too long or too short, too controversial or too safe, too predictable or too dubious—

Publishers can also reject work because it doesn’t suit their sensitivity, the theme overdone, the writer unknown, it’s too mainstream, or in the case of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, too different.

I zero in on The Bone People because I find the story behind its getting published interesting. In the preface to the first edition, Hulme says, “… I was going to embalm the whole thing in a block of Perspex when the first three publishers turned it down … it was too large, too unwieldy, too different…”  This was after Hulme had spent 12 years working on it. In 1984, a Spiral Collective, a New Zealand feminist group, published it. The book went on to win the Pegasus Prize for Literature as well as the Booker Prize.

Today, a good 30 years later, The Bone People, this long, different and difficult to categorize book is among the most discoursed literary works in MFA and other literature programs.

It says something to writers whose work continues to receive rejection after rejection, doesn’t it?

Fiction and history

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

How many people can say the 1993 slaying of Fulbright scholar, Amy Biel, in South Africa, is an event that has remained fresh in their memory? And for those too young to have been exposed to such brutal news, how many can say they have, in recent years, heard it talked about or written about in the press? Not many, is my guess. You might argue, and understandably so, that it’s been so long – 1993 – that’s a lifetime ago! Maybe so, especially because equally horrendous crimes have continued to make headlines.

This blog, though, is not about the Biel tragedy, for the Biel tragedy is merely a fraction of the countless moments in our course of existence that recede to the rearmost space of our collective consciousness. This blog is about art— fiction, in particular. It’s about how, long after news headlines have turned their attention to the next moment’s happenings, fiction grabs hold of that moment, immortalizes it, so that not only do the ‘facts’ endure, but that the moment never runs out of breath— it remains in the present tense, ever living and breathing.

Amy Biel’s murder, for instance, has struck me anew. It feels raw again because I’m reading Sindiwe Magona’s book, Mother to Mother, in which a fictitious mother of one of Amy’s killers ventures to write a letter to Amy’s mother explaining the root of her son’s violent act in the hope that this, according to the author, “might ease [hers] and the other mother’s pain … if a little.”

This event, now interlaced with fictitious characters whose humanity you and I can relate to, and scenes so photographic you’d swear the author had to have witnessed the event firsthand or at least known Amy or the young murderer’s mother intimately, no longer remains only about the murder. Now, it becomes an occasion for self-examination. We ask, “How do we see ourselves in this story?” “How are we to react to it?” And because we discuss fiction in the present tense, Amy Biel’s story lives to the end of time.