I’m friends with a terrific writer named Rolf Yngve who blogs at Chasing the Wolf Tone. A few years ago I happened on Rolf’s prize-winning story “Efendim” and was so blown away that I set out to find him, and did, and now we’re electronic friends. I hope to meet him one of these days. Rolf invited me and my partner Ruth Thompson to join the “My Writing Process” blog tour.
The blog tour is an interesting exercise. Writers all respond to the same set of questions, and then pass them along to a new group of writer-bloggers. The answers are always fascinating and vary widely. Very widely.
My first set of answers was very long (for those who know me and my writing, that’s no surprise). I’ve cut them down, but I think that part of what I cut away might interest people, so over the next few weeks I’m going to post what I edited away. Picked up from the cutting room floor and all that.
If you don’t want to poke around on my blog to see who I am, I’ll give you a short summary. I’m a retired anthropologist who got back into writing about 20 years ago. I’ve written academic works. I’ve published poetry, fiction, and photographs. I have a story collection out. I work in the area that’s generally called “anthropological” or “ethnographic” fiction. I was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i, in Hilo, and I’ve returned there after many years living in Buffalo NY, where I was a professor at a four-year state college.
What am I working on?
I’m getting back to work on an “ethnographic” or “anthropological” novel called News of Elsewhere. It’s set in 1969-70 among a people called the Nagovisi, on a Southwestern Pacific island called Bougainville. Bougainville and the Nagovisi are real; I lived there among the Nagovisi for several years, doing anthropological fieldwork.
I finished the first draft in late 2011, more than two years ago. It ran to over 300,000 words — way too long. Why am I only now getting back to it?
I spun my wheels for a few months because I was exhausted and I couldn’t see how to cut it. My friend, the poet Irving Feldman, suggested that I try shortening it to novella length – by rewriting from scratch, not by cutting what I already had. He thought this would expose the aspects of plot and character that were essential to the story. Then I’d see how to revise.
I didn’t like the novella idea, but I was sure Irving was right — turning it into something else would help. So I extracted some of the characters and scenes from the novel, added new material, and produced a set of linked stories. This took about four months. The novel had multiple narrators, so linked stories were faithful to my concept. It was harder than I expected, but with the help of the wonderful writer Ann Pancake I produced A Red Woman Was Crying (henceforth Red Woman).
The process, as Irving predicted, gave me a much better understanding of what I had to do with the novel – and I’m about to get started doing it.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
There are well-received novels, advertised and reviewed as “anthropological,” that are about as anthropological as a Tarzan comic book.
I’m not talking about non-Western writers writing about their own people (for example, there are Bougainvilleans writing fiction about Bougainville people too) and I’m not talking about novels where indigenous people make cameo appearances.
I’m talking about literary fiction where the “tribal” people are center-stage, or the anthropologist is, or both.
A novelist has to be free to imagine anything. I wouldn’t think of quarreling with a writer who wanted to wholly invent a culture or a place and the people in it, but usually the novelist stakes a claim to a particular place or group of people, in name at least. And then butchers them. It’s not just obvious to me – anybody with anthropological training, even Anthro One, will see the problems, which (I think) all emerge from the novelist’s not having bothered to learn anything about people and place.
So I’m going to state the “difference” bluntly: I understand the people and place I’m writing about very well, I treat them with respect, I give my characters all the complexity they have in real life; I’ve lived among the people I write about, and I’ve been in communication with them for more than 40 years.
A recent novel, which I won’t name, was billed as “anthropological.” The tribal people were offensive caricatures and so were the anthropologists. The geography and ecology were bizarre, the political setting ridiculous, and the description of the anthropologists at work was ludicrous. The parts that were set in the US, apart from a couple of serious stumbles, were well-done. The prose was fine.
This is typical. The novelist probably figured that no one would question the exotic sections, and just winged it – evidently an effective strategy, because it was published by a major publisher, widely talked-about, and got decent reviews.
Writers who want to write anthropological novels should do research. A few days in a library, or online; a visit to an anthropologist who worked in the area. Even a few emails – I’m not talking graduate level work. But they don’t seem to do it.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m only trying to answer the difference question. Some of the writers I’m complaining about are better writers than I am, and their novels read well. But what I write comes from a deep understanding of a place and the people who live there, and intimate friendships with some of them, and theirs doesn’t. I take writing about indigenous people very seriously, and, overwhelmingly, other fiction writers don’t.
Why do I write what I do ?
For many years I’ve had a dream of representing the Nagovisi people in academic works, visually, and in literature. (I’m using “representing” in the sense of “depicting,” here. Nagovisi are quite capable of representing themselves.) I never believed, even as a graduate student, that a standard ethnography was the only way to present a people, their culture, and their place to the rest of the world. Ethnographies have great value (I wrote one), but they can’t do what literature can (I should say “must not do,” because classically they are not meant to go beyond the data).
Increasingly within anthropology there are movements towards freeing ethnography, towards allowing the anthropologist into the picture, towards reflexivity, even something called “evocative anthropology,” whatever that might be. These kinds of anthropology don’t interest me anymore, although when I was getting started, they did. I think their practioners wish they could produce literature – but can’t, or won’t. So they approach the line, but won’t cross it. I want no part of that. I write fiction.
(It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I don’t have to get tenure or get promoted, and people in anthropology departments do. In another posting I’ll write about my battles with my colleagues and college administration over what I was writing.)
One anthropologist, after having looked at Red Woman, asked something like “you lifted this material from your field notes, right?” Nope. Fooled you! Fiction’s all about fooling the reader, isn’t it? So I was very pleased to hear that.
(In another posting, I’ll disassemble a couple of stories and show how little I used specific notes and how little was “true.”)
I think it’s important to get people thinking about how behavior they might find abhorrent in their own culture makes sense in another culture. It’s OK to find behavior abhorrent, but it’s not OK to dismiss it without understanding what it’s all about — to see it in cultural context. Fiction is an effective medium here, because the exotic people doing abhorrent things get to explain themselves, particularly if they’re the narrators.
I see my role – especially in an America that increasingly equates cultural diversity with hateful, stupid, frightening people not like me – as leading the reader to a place where what the other is doing makes sense. What happens after that is up to the reader, but if I’ve been effective, that reader’s going to be far less likely to thoughtlessly dismiss other cultures and the people in them. And maybe to be less likely to support the notion that America should direct economic, political and military might towards forcing other countries to be just like us.
But I’m not interested in writing a textbook or giving lectures or speeches or posting rants online. I don’t think these are effective tactics. I write fiction to seduce readers — to get them so interested in the characters and the setting, so enmeshed in another culture, that they begin to take those people and their culture on their own terms. And after I’ve seduced them with one culture, then maybe they’ll look differently at another, and another. It can happen.
I think this is best done with fiction, but only if it’s good fiction and good anthropology.
Is that the only reason I write? No, but it’s all I’m going to talk about in this posting. I’ve got a lot more to say about this – but it’s going in another posting.
How does my writing process work?
I’ve been in very few workshops, and never in an MFA program. I’m self-taught, although I’ve had advice from a few great writers who are trusted friends. So I really don’t know whether there’s anything unusual about my writing process, and I can’t judge whether another writer would care about it one way or another. I don’t have advice to give (not that anyone asked for any). I only know what works for me.
When people ask me about running shoes or computers (two areas in which my friends consider me an expert) I say, “Let’s figure out what works for you. It’s probably not what works for me.” Then I start asking them questions.
These days, my writing is episodic. Because of the way I’ve lived over the last 5 or 6 years (roughly the period when I really hit my writing stride) I’ve had periods of times – unfortunately as long as six or seven months – during which I don’t write. I have to do other things, such as completely stripping and repainting a large 19th century farmhouse to ready it for sale. I read.
I’m not a writer who can look at a free afternoon or weekend and say “I’ll get back to work.” I have to settle into the piece and let it live in me for days or even weeks and months. For some little thing, sure. But for anything large, it’s not possible.
I’m expecting to start revising News of Elsewhere next month, and when that happens I won’t do much else but walk in the mornings (a couple of hours, 5 or 6 on Sunday) and go into maintenance mode for my house (1937 and in need of some renovation) and yard (an acre in the tropics, not exactly self-maintaining).
Here’s what happens when I’m immersed in something like News of Elsewhere.
Whatever I’m working on runs constantly as a “background job” in my head. Often when I’m walking I’m aware that the part of my mind that I don’t care to explore too deeply (for fear of messing it up) is at work on a piece’s larger issues, all by itself. For example, one day when I was on a 22 mile walk, whatever had been going on in the background delivered it’s about trust and secrets. Just that phrase, but it made me see a thread linking all the narrators that I hadn’t identified.
I try to set myself up to receive these messages. I don’t drink, and I don’t do drugs. I like to get up while it’s still dark. What works for me is physical exertion to near exhaustion. Things come loose at that point and fly around and land in new places. Kids, don’t try this at home.
The only other thing I can think to talk about is how I handle the entirety of something as big as a novel. When I need to think about News of Elsewhere – I sit at my desk and load it up. I look my color-coded Scrivener chapter display and, although I can’t say how, I draw the entire piece into my head, into my body. I can feel when I’ve gotten it loaded. After that I can think about it as a whole.
Much as a video editor can, I flip to wherever I want and I can visualize how a change I make in one part is going to affect another. I can go frame by frame or I can speed through. I can insert scenes I haven’t used. I can cut. I can get the feel of the thing.
I can only keep it loaded for a few minutes, because it’s difficult.
When I’m done I imagine writing it out again in a new form, as if I were exporting a timeline. Of course nothing has changed except how I’ve conceptualized it. Then I’ll go to Scrivener and make some notes about what I saw when I had it loaded up in my head.
(“Forward!” in Hawaiian.)
Onward to the next three bloggers on my list, who are (in alphabetical order):
Carol’s latest book will be officially published on May 15th. Carol has published a mystery novel, Washed in the Blood, (Putnam 1983) and – in her other life as an English professor – several academic works, including The Body in Swift and Defoe (Cambridge 2005), and Samuel Richardson, a Man of Letters (Princeton 1982).She was for many years Professor of English at Tufts University, in Massachusetts. Raised in Chicago, she now divides her time between in Boston and Kirkcudbright, Scotland.
David is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ and the editor of Beatdom.
He currently lives in Cambodia, where he runs an Irish pub. Yes, that’s right. Cambodia. Irish Pub.
Michelle has just published Body on the Wall, ( May 15th). She has a BA in English from Montana State University, and an MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Washington. After graduate school, she received a fellowship from the Ministry of Education in Japan to study abroad, living in Osaka and Kyoto for three years.
Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Sinister Wisdom, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and several anthologies. In October 2012, two of her poems were shown in Sacramento at the California Museum’s exhibit, Creating Freedom: Art & Poetry of Domestic Violence Survivors, with the poem “Dreamwork” taking first place honors.