Friday, September 5, 2008

Is Sarah Palin being faithful in the small things?

Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, has five children, all but the eldest under the age of eighteen. Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, is pregnant, and a teenager. Bristol is having her baby – a good thing, for, moral issues apart, in my experience one mourns a child even if it drops out of one's belly of its own accord. Bristol's baby father, Levi Johnston, is also a teenager, a self-described "redneck" who doesn't "want kids". So here's the situation: Bristol Palin, a child, albeit a sexually active one, is having a baby for another child, Levi Johnston, who doesn't want children. That's a complex, complicated, challenging situation in any family, and one that's certainly not solved by the teenage parents getting married. There are two other daughters in the Palin family: Willow is thirteen and Piper is seven. Mrs Palin's baby, Trig, has Downs syndrome. Barack Obama may have decided that the whole matter is off limits for discussion as an issue in his campaign, which is more evidence of the decency of the man, but I'm not running for anything, and so I'm free to say my say. The Palin family is in trouble, no question. What would I do if I were the mum? Do some self-searching about why my eldest daughter is making a baby at seventeen, and for a young man who doesn't want babies. (That's a big thing. Children need to be wanted, and if Levi Johnston doesn't want babies, he probably shouldn't be marrying Bristol or anyone else likely to give him one.) I'd be wondering whether, with the challenge of a little son with Downs syndrome, and the responsibilities of an onerous job, I'll be able to devote enough time to my other two daughters, give Bristol the support she certainly needs, and continue to nurture my relationship with my husband – not to forget my eldest child, about to be deployed to Iraq, and no doubt in need of lots of reassurance and advice, never mind his age. My uncle used to say that to love a person is to act always in such a way as to ensure the well being of that person. I can't for the life of me see how accepting the Vice-Presidential nomination is the best thing for the Palin family at this time. Maybe next time around, or the time after that, but not now. And if Sarah Palin can't act in the best interests of her family, well… I am reminded of Luke 16;10 “He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much.” And, truth to tell, I don’t think by any means that Mrs Palin’s family situation is a small thing…

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"...the world in a grain of sand..."

“To see the world in a grain of sand…” William Blake

A little more in this post on that book of short stories edited by Jane Urquhart… Fsjl makes the point that some excerpts from longer works make excellent short stories. That's true, but I think that a collection of short stories ought to be just that. I’ll get back to this later. I think of anthologies as democratic books (demos = people; kratos = power), for want of a better word. Several people have their work presented, and, hopefully, many people are attracted by this literary buffet. I'm avoiding saying that one hopes to attract the ordinary reader because I don't know if that's every compiler's hope. Certainly, that is my hope. That’s because – and I’m going to digress a bit here – this literature business has become just that – a business, and a very elitist one at that. The whole factory of publishing, reviews, criticism, theory, the 'academy' in which students are taught how to pull the literary work to pieces, etc., etc., has turned more people off poems and stories than on to them. (So literary agents have been saying that factual works now have greater appeal and are more publishable: biographies, histories, travel books, and so on.) Not that the theorizing thing can't be great fun and discussion can’t be stimulating – if one recognizes that enterprise for what it is. My quarrel is that, at the end of it all, fewer and fewer people buy and read fiction. In the rush to secure their share of what action there is, people do bad things: writers, creative and otherwise, plagiarize – I needn't refer to several recent spectacular cases; they lie; the various parties involved form power-grabbing cliques and cadres (Russell Smith was gently suggesting this in that article in the Globe and Mail); they abuse influence. And, deliberately or no, those whose expert business it is to guide us through these tricky waters sometimes mislead us. Critics fan fires of ‘controversy’ and unpleasantness for their own ends. I've no problem with a real quarrel, but a fake fight for the sake of the flying feathers is another matter entirely. All in all, it's a set of bad behaviours that has slowly, over the past three or four decades, been throttling literature to death. But I've got far from anthologies and from the short story, haven't I? Maybe. Maybe not so far. Read The Dubliners and read the short stories in The New Yorker. Read Frank O'Connor and Olive Senior. Read Alice Munro and Thomas King. Read Timothy Findley and Mavis Gallant, Sam Selvon and Rohinton Mistry. Don't we – writers, critics, students, lecturers, common or garden readers – have something to talk about? What makes a short story a short story? (This is why I think it's better for all the choices to be stories written as stories.) What makes a short story a good story? A great one? Characters that a reader remembers? Dialogue that is riveting? Scenes and events that are striking and burn the imagination? Plots that have you on tenterhooks? A procession of unlikely versions of all the above that erodes you into loneliness, or emptiness or despair? And what makes a short story Canadian – or Caribbean? How have those artifacts changed in the last half century? What do the critics say? Should we give them half-an-ear? Are prizes useful? Are prizewinners all deserving, or is it, as has been said of awards here, there and elsewhere, a bunch of mutual admiration societies composed of people who receive awards this year and hand them out the next? It's not that Urquhart's introduction doesn't touch on some of these things – but the touch is so light as hardly to be felt at all. In particular, she avoids the obvious first question of why she hasn't been reading short stories! And she sidesteps the challenging issue "Concerning the Canadianness of the authors included in this volume" by using a quote from Margaret Atwood's introduction to a 1997 collection: "Some are born Canadian, some achieve Canadianness and some have Canadianness thrust upon them." Such a pity, for that would have made a mighty good discussion! She implies a criterion when she explains that she included a story of Gabrielle Roy's "even though it was originally written in French": there's a Pandora's box waiting to be opened. Should the book have been called The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories Written in English? So there's a lot for an editor to say, apart from pointing to themes and explaining why stories in an anthology have been collected in a particular way. There's lots of room for a good discussion with the gentle reader. Our ideal editor, having carefully said what the task has been, and how she’s approached it, digs in to her expert self for some insights. Beyond likes and dislikes. Bestowing something for the reader to hang on to, keep thinking about. For my money, where the short story is concerned, a thoughtful glimpse of a particular "world in a grain of sand…”

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Writing late, and "This long time gyal me neva see you..."

Writing, not late in life but late at night, and therefore error-prone. I just reread my last post, and apologize for the plethora of mistakes, stylistic and otherwise. I'll try not to let it happen again. Funny, the times that appear on the net as times when I post on the blog are very different from the real-time times! No matter. As someone in my just-finished novel says, "It's always six o'clock somewhere in the world." I am celebrating, hugely but very quietly, a phone call from a very good friend with whom I went to college and who vanished thereafter, lost in Africa and then Europe. I've dreamed of her, written about her, searched for her – and then suddenly, out of the blue, an e-mail, a phone call, another phone call, and there she was, talking to me from New York whither she'd come to bury her mother. Amazing! As it turns out, she's been living in Germany, and has probably been there the couple times I've visited for the Frankfurt Bookfair. She said she'd tried to find me too and had not been able to, and I said, "But I'm easy to find!" Of course, she'd not have known my married name, so I'm thinking that I may have to start going by both maiden and married names, though that's always seemed a bit pretentious to me. Better to do what many women do these days, which is to keep your 'born name'. I'm looking forward to talking to Rosario, as she was busy with bereavement business just now and we could only exchange phone numbers. It's funny. I had just about reconciled myself to dying without ever talking to her or seeing her again. She helped to keep me sane when I first came to the USA, to an almost all-white women's college, in Civil Rights time. She was a strange, remarkable little squirrel of a woman, very much her own self, and well acquainted with herself, even then. I shall be enormously happy to catch up with her.

On choosing works for an anthology

I've helped put together, or myself put together, a number of anthologies of prose and poetry from the Caribbean. None of these books was anywhere near seven hundred pages long, but size isn't really so much to the point, since one of the things one often has to do when one doesn't have lots and lots of pages is prune one's choices, and that is never an easy task. Like Jane Urquhart, I've found the task of compiling collections pleasurable because one inevitably reads wonderful work. My qualifications to select poetry and prose from the Caribbean are that I write both, I've read this body of work all my life long, and I've done some research and written critically on it as well. In addition, in three of the four anthologies I've described, I have worked as a co-compiler. This is a wonderful safeguard. As we say in Jamaica, "Two head better than one, even if one is a goat head!" It was necessary, in the case of most of these collections, to read a sizable body of work before making the final selections. In every case, there was an introduction that described the compiling task and explained why one had chosen what one had chosen. Sometimes the choice of works is limited by a parameter of time, say, for instance, poems written by Jamaican women born in the first half of the twentieth century, or poems written by Jamaicans since the country gained independence. Sometimes one chooses to present fewer writers so that one is able to showcase more of the individual writers' works. One explains that as well, and the basis according to which one selected the writers who were chosen. Sometimes one attempts to cover a specific geographic area, or the contributions of people of a particular ethnicity or religious or political persuasion. It's only polite to explain oneself, so that the reader faced with a choice of anthologies can know what she's yours contains. Certainly it wouldn't occur to me to compile the short stories of Sri Lankan writers or the poetry of Nigerians. I simply don't know enough about ieither body of work. Were I to become very, very famous, I might accept a commission to choose a body of Canadian short stories simply on the simple basis that I like them. And that would probably be fine – and I would know that I have to settle down and read for about five years before I could even begin to choose!