Reading Enrichment

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I am a fiction writer, and sometimes poet. I enjoy a good story, I love creative characters, and I get a lot out of reading them and writing them. However, when I’m deep in the writing process, I lose the desire to read fiction. I’ll read literary criticism, nonfiction, poetry, news articles, but I won’t pick up a novel or any other fiction work for a while. I think it’s because I’m too close to my characters. I have all these personalities with all their intertwining stories living in my head. I fear that introducing more, even someone else’s creation, would overwhelm me. Maybe I even fear losing my voice to the influence of another writer. Would I try to imitate, instead of emulate? What I mean by that is, would I find it easier to just copy the bulk of a character I love, instead of doing the hard work of figuring out why I love the character, what works about her, what resonates with me about him, why she is unique in the world that’s been built around her, and then crafting my own characters based on those observations?

Let me put it another way. Say you’re an architect. You studied for years, learned the basics–engineering, mathematics, construction, materials, everything that goes into designing a building that will stand and stay standing–you know how it all works and goes together. Then you added design and art into the mix. You know the different schools of architectural design, from classical to modern to postmodern, and every one in between. You know individual architects, their works and influences. You’ve seen the buildings. Maybe you’re particularly impressed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Now it’s time for you to design a building. You’ve been contracted by a family to build a unique home. What do you do?

I bet you don’t build a cantilevered house over a creek in the Pennsylvania woods, and call it Falling Water II. But if you’re a student of Wright, I bet you do design a house that marries form and function, compliments the environment, and maybe, if you’re really clever, avoids the structural pitfalls that are apparent in that holy grail of architectural design. You learn from your influences, you make it better, you make it beautiful, and you make it yours. Another architect, or anyone familiar with the masters of the last century, could spot your nod to Wright in the design of the house, but they would never accuse you of being derivative, if you do it right and do it well.

That’s what I aim for in my writing, and sometimes, I need to step away from the familiar writers. Sometimes I need to read in different genres, like those I mentioned above. But sometimes, I need to go right to my peers (even the ones who are long gone) and read some fiction, maybe even fiction in my subgenre, or in my subject matter, and see what works. This can be especially helpful when I feel my story is falling flat. I can go into another work of fiction with the aim of seeing what works. Then I take that information and apply it to my world. I can also see what’s been done, and where there’s room to branch out into new territory. Looking at the writing of others can show me what hasn’t been done yet, just as much as it shows me what has. I can figure out what so-called “rules” can be manipulated, ignored, or outright broken, turned on their head, or otherwise rewritten. I can find new territory in among all those familiar paths. It just takes some looking.

Right now, I’m opting to live in my own world, at least for another five days. Once NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is over–yeah, I drank the Kool-Aid–I’ll get back into my fiction reading. I hope I find some advice from my favorite writers, buried right in their stories. I hope I find some new voices to add to my favorites, too. And ultimately, I hope, hope, hope to write a story that ends up on someone else’s favorites list, or at least on my own. I want to write something that satisfies my ideas of what good writing is to me. To those out there who are also writing 50,000 words this month, Congratulations! You’re a novelist! You can do this thing, and I look forward to reading your story sometime.


 

For the curious, here are some things I’ve been reading lately:

Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Tons of news articles, because I’m trying to be more in touch with the world around me.

Science magazines like Scientific American and Discover Magazine. Albeit, this last item is in the interest of research for my next project, but I have to do considerable research. I probably won’t start writing it until next year. I’m in “research lite” mode right now.

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There Is an Island Shaped Like an Avocado…

…And I Think We Should Learn More About It

A Map of Sri Lanka (slightly outdated, from 2001). Not sure of any critical changes since then.

A Map of Sri Lanka (slightly outdated, from 2001). Not sure of any critical changes since then.

I’m talking about Sri Lanka, of course. It’s a little island nation off the south eastern tip of India, and I knew little of it, aside from its existence, until a book I read recently made me engage with the topic and do some research to better understand what was going on in the story. I am always grateful for authors who put difficult issues out there in their fiction and open my eyes to things I have not considered before. I also enjoy learning about other places and cultures through the writing of people from those places and cultures. Reading about both in one book is like looking through another’s eyes, rather than simply seeing the statistics or hearing the news reports. The book I am talking about is like this, and it is called Island of a Thousand Mirrors, written by Nayomi Munaweera.

There are several different cover versions. This is the one from the library.

There are several different cover versions. This is the one from the library.

The novel begins with Yasodhara, a Sinhala girl, telling about her paternal grandparents, and her father’s upbringing, and how he came to Colombo (the capital) to receive his education. I can understand all of that. She also discusses her father’s sister, who has dark skin, “black-black,” as the women all say when she is born, and how her mother immediately despairs of every marrying her off due to this cultural disadvantage. This set me on my first round of investigations, where I discovered that the caste system was still lingering on in everyday prejudices, and that the Sinhala ethnic group prided itself on being lighter skinned than their Tamil neighbors, and how these kinds of little daily prejudices worked to build animosity between these groups. Directly after that episode, arranged marriages were highlighted in the story. I knew more about that topic, thanks to some pretty amazing English professors, and a World Literature class I took with one of them. I have read some modern (mid-20th c. to present) Indian writers, and the process appears much the same in Sri Lanka. It is close enough for comparison purposes. Parents of eligible brides and grooms scour ads looking for the perfect match for their sons and daughters. They consult astrological signs and consider education and job prospects, family lineage, the whole nine yards, before making a decision. The process is more like a college application or a job interview. Love marriages are frowned upon and viewed as a second rate option. It is said only the low-class and poor should have love marriages.

Then things began to get scary. The riots happen in Colombo. There are rumors of rebels in the northern villages and jungles. This story explores some heavy topics and should be approached with the awareness that war lies at the center of the novel. There is blatant ethnic discrimination, class and gender inequality, and devastating violence. There are depictions of death, terrorism and rape. This is not an easy novel. And why should it be? This story centers on the lives of women from two different parts of Sri Lanka who are deeply affected and changed by the civil war that breaks out in their shared homeland.

I had to do some research about this civil war. It lasted for nearly thirty years. This conflict was the culmination of decades of cultural tension between the Sinhala majority ethnic group and the Tamil ethnic group which makes up a majority of the rest of the population. The Tamils felt the weight of prejudice keenly and the first stirrings of rebellion were felt in the north. An anti-Tamil riot, allowed by the Sinhalese-led government, kicked the fires of war into an inferno. After that, Tamil insurgents and the Sri Lankan military squared off, with hundreds of thousands of citizens falling prey to the violence of this struggle. Both sides commit unspeakable atrocities. The second half of the novel begins with Saraswathi, a Tamil girl in a northern village, bringing a different perspective to the narrative.

This book is difficult, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. Rarely does an author achieve a balance of these aspects and remain relevant, but I think Munaweera succeeded. She kept my attention, I devoured page after page, and I felt for the main characters, no matter which side of the struggle they were on. There was a lot I was unfamiliar with, culturally and historically, that I had to research, but the effort was worth it for understanding the deeper implications of the novel.