Storytelling and Distortion in Kanafani and Gaza

For this reading (in my Literature of the Middle East and North Africa course), we read Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian StoriesMen in the Sun, his novella in this collection is not addressed here.

The group of stories we had to read this weekend was all concerned with storytelling itself. One of the things I find interesting is narratology—it’s just something I really enjoy. One of the things that kept striking me in each of these stories was the focus on the way information gets told to us. Kanafani’s stories avoid direct narration in favor of round-about ways to tell us information.

In “The Falcon,” a lot of the information told to us by Jadaan (particularly at the end) is recognized as “weak and scarcely audible” (107). In the excerpt from Umm Saad, the information on young Saad is all given to us via his mother – and in turn, her advice to the narrator is for him to go and tell the general, not her. “A Hand in the Grave” has characters who are all concerned with the potentiality of the story – Nabil is concerned with being a part of the “in-crowd” if he has a skeleton to bring and Suhail wants the opportunity (and then cashes in on this opportunity) to talk about the experience of digging up a skeleton. Even in the peripheral storylines of “A Hand in the Grave,” the father is concerned with what is not being told to him (whether Nabil got enough rest). Finally, in “Letter from Gaza,” the story is epistolary and we are told that Nadia had previously also written letters to her uncle about what she wanted.

What does this all mean? I’m not exactly sure. What I’m curious to discuss in class is how information gets told to us and what relevance that holds. I gather that Jadaan’s voice is particularly distorted in “The Falcon,” but I’m left wondering why Kanifani mentions this if he goes on to tell us what Jadaan says anyway. Are we to question whether our narrator heard Jadaan’s advice? Are we to question whether to trust the advice if it sounds like it’s coming through a tunnel? When Mubarak is whispering to the narrator, are we to understand this as intimacy or distrust it because he’s seemingly tattling on Jadaan. I know these are a lot of questions without seemingly any sort of thesis to answer them, but I’m just curious with why the way information is told to us is relevant – what are we to think of the information itself if the presentation is altered? That’s my concern.

To zoom out, it makes me think about the media focus that Zionist western sources have taken – on Israel. And even when Palestinian stories are told or used, it seems hopeless – like there is no helping a people who are so hurt and down that they have no sense to lead (when that is in fact not true – there is leadership in the Palestinian fight for independence). But to me, as I was looking through Jadaliyya, I came across a photo set called “Gaza in the dark” from Aljazeera (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/08/gaza-dark-160801143748969.html (Links to an external site.)).

Depicted in the photos is the life of many Palestinians living their lives mostly in the dark, as the Egyptian-Israeli blockade renders electricity rationed. How does this relate? Well, the basis of the series is to illustrate how life looks quote-unquote ‘in the dark.’ This concerns the distortions of imagery and storytelling visually whereas “The Falcon” focuses on the auditory distortions of information delivery and “Letter from Gaza” focuses on the formal procedures of epistolary and “A Hand in the Grave” focuses on the ramifications of telling a ‘good’ story or a ‘bad’ story.

Get Back to Reading Good Work

Reading challenges scare me. But I realized in December 2015 that I hadn’t read nearly enough already-published literature in 2015.

I was a book club drop out who mostly read on planes.

So this year I decided two fiction and one non per month. That’s 3 books a month for a 2016 total of 36. Here’s where I stand Mid-March:

January:

Disrupt Yourself (nonfiction), Whitney Johnson

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin, Liesl Shurtliff

February:

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Guest Room, Chris Bohjalian

No Ordinary Disruption (nonfiction), Richard Dobbs and James Manyika (in progress)

March:

White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, Judy Batalion (in progress)

Dark Currents: Agent of Hel, Jacqueline Carey (in progress)

So trucking right along.

My sources for books are the new book club I joined, recommended reads on my Kindle, the dusty now-full shelf of unread books in my library, and the Business Books wish list I keep on amazon.com. I add to that whenever someone quotes a book in an article I’m reading.

I also thought to join Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf, a Goodreads book club reading feminist literature, but I haven’t been able to get the first three books read. I’ll try again in April.

What I’m learning is that reading takes time and that my time is pretty well spent building my business, writing, and spending time with Charlie and Hollie. The 36 books goal may have been too ambitious. Or maybe I’m just too annoyed by the book club books to be enjoying the 36 book goal.

Also, nonfiction takes more time. It requires thought and notes and discussion and I find I’m interested in the subject but no one else is reading it (except me) and so I’m not able to get discussion going on it.

I’m going to start reading nonfiction in the strain of my own nonfiction efforts: redefining work. So the next non-fiction will be Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It by Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson. And since the book club selection is a memoir (cue gag reflex) I’ll count that as nonfiction and pick up another fiction selection this month.

Reviews/insights to come.

The Mirage of Innocence, Development 1

[FYI this is very rambly, as will most of these posts. {side note to the FYI: I am aware rambly is not actually a word.}]

So, as I noted on the About page, all of this exploration into story-telling is an attempt to understand what it means to tell a story. I am a writer and I am working currently on my first big fiction piece, working title The Mirage of Innocence. I’ll give a little background on what Mirage is about next. What I’m hoping to accomplish with this blog is (methodically) how reading can inform writing. How are these storytellers telling their story? What devices do they use? How are these characters going through different things and making decisions at each turning point that raises the stakes, truly? These are all things I need in my novel and I’m hoping this exploration gets me close to an answer—this is the “Book of One’s Own” from the title. Plus, you know what they say: the best writers are the greatest readers.

So, about Mirage:

The Mirage of Innocence is a coming-of-age novel/novella (I haven’t decided yet) about how a little girl named Lilly goes from a beautiful bloom to “a flower with no petals.” Through journal entries from her first 18 years of life and then, at nineteen, her lamentations on the melancholia she feels, we hear her story.

[I know this is vague, but the specifics don’t matter as much for this post.]

This post is about the first development coming out of this process: a frame narrative. For a long time, I have worried about telling Lilly’s story because I worried a lot of my story was getting lost. (This novel is an attempt to tell the story of my childhood through the eyes of a girl who lives in Italy—first problem, I did not grow up in Italy). My worries have been about how I can take something that happened to me and then sort of translate that into Lilly’s life. So, really, the metaphorical storytelling in Lilly’s story is my attempt at distancing myself from writing a memoir. But my problem up to this point with doing this is that Lilly is not me. Some of the things she goes through are not things I have gone through. So my worry, of course, is How do I accurately portray this without sounding cheesy, or inauthentic? This is, of course, a very writerly insecurity. Nonetheless, I think I’ve found a way to fix both of these problems (I see it as two: the inauthenticity of Lilly’s story and the not telling my story).

With a frame narrative, I’ve decided to create a character who is writing Lilly’s story. This author-character is more so me and is dealing with the insecurities that I am dealing with now. He is not me, of course, because I don’t want this to become a memoir about me writing a book. But in creating him, I can be more me than a little girl growing up in Europe (something VERY not me).

This frame narrative also gives me a chance to solve some other problems I was worried about writing this novel, like structure. The structure of the novel before was Part A: journal entries age 6-19, Part B: lamentations at age 19. The problem with this is that there really is no conflict until we get to Part B with the lamentations. And without conflict right from the beginning, no one is going to read a thing. I thought about inter-weaving Part A and B to see if the conflict could appear sooner, but I fear this may make the storytelling more clunky. So, with the frame narrative, I can follow the author‘s conflict, not just Lilly’s.

I’m still interested to see how this is going to manifest itself in the novel once I get back to writing, but I wanted to share this development because it is, indeed crucial. I’ll share my findings as the develop.

– Preston

Why Lindsey Lee Wells is the Best Katherine of All

[There are spoilers so don’t read ahead if you haven’t finished!]

When he reminisces about Katherine XIX early in the novel, Colin says “She said I love you as if it were a secret, and an immense one.” This very thing he loves about Katherine XIX becomes the thing which connects him to Lindsey Lee Wells in the first place—she bites her thumb in front of him, a “private habit.” They become the people they most want to be around, the people you can think out loud in front of, the people that show you their secret hiding places.

Lindsey’s biggest insecurity is that she is never truthful. She says the only statement that’s true that begins with “I am” is “I am full of shit.” She has been faking everything for a long time, which is why when it’s finally over with TOC, she’s mostly relieved because she doesn’t have to pretend anymore. This is the relief she transfers into her relationship with Colin, someone with whom she had always felt like she could be private in front of. The sharing of private things throughout the novel (whether it was biting her thumb in front of him, or sharing the theorem with her, or sharing her hiding place, or thinking out loud in front of her—something introverted people like Colin simply don’t do—, or telling him how full of shit she is) is, again, what binds them together.

Now the reason Lindsey Lee Wells is better than all the other Katherines is how she makes him forget about all of them, especially Katherine XIX. What Colin discovers about his breakup with Katherine XIX is that “Dumping isn’t something that gets done to you; it’s something that happens with you.” It’s more like an inevitable coming of separation. The reason it didn’t work was because he was too needy and she was too inconsistent. She was a good person and kind, he says, but she lit up his heart a little too much. With his insecurity and her inconsistency, they were an obvious bad match but he didn’t notice because he had wrapped himself up in her. Lindsey helps him unravel.

In his final story, he also says, “You don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.” It’s not about what happens it’s about what we remember happening that makes it matter.  Later, in the epilogue he says that in a moment nothing may happen but it can still be thick with mattering. The affect is what matters. So, even being around Lindsey makes him forget things—that’s something worth noting. And further, forgetting is just the beginning because it allowed him to step back and look at his relationship with Katherine XIX, which just wasn’t right.

Most importantly, though, is that Lindsey Lee Wells is the one who teaches him storytelling. He even says that this is so much a part of how and why he loves her. She teaches him that mattering (his biggest insecurity) comes from telling stories. Again, it’s about affect. How we are changed by what happens to us is what really matters. And how we are changed is how we remember. Those are the stories of infinite meaning, the ones that make us matter. And further, she shows him we cannot be in the stories we have finished. The future is wide and expanding before us and in that, there is always the possibility of mattering—the ability to reinvent oneself, to transform oneself into something different, something even better.

– Preston

John Green: Transformation and Story-Telling

Transformation is so important in a novel. There must be, from the very beginning, the conflict and through the course of the novel a protagonist deals out a way he or she can change in an attempt to assuage this conflict. Frankly, that’s fiction writing. No conflict, no novel. No transformation, no protagonist. So, in An Abundance of Katherines our protagonist Colin has to go through a transformation. Luckily for us, the journey he makes specifically involves the power of storytelling. [FYI There are spoilers if you have not finished the novel. Too, there is no summary so if you aren’t familiar with the story, you may want to become familiar].

Before: So, we begin with conflict. The conflict from the very beginning of the novel is finding one’s place in it all—how perfectly young adult (YA) fiction of Green. Colin wants to matter. He wants to have that Eureka moment that takes him from prodigy to genius. He feels misunderstood (YA) and often just plain distant from a lot of the world (YA!!)—there’s a reason he dates the girls from smart camp—because of his prodigy lifestyle. No one really “gets it” (YA!!!!). So, we can guess his transformation is going to be feeling misunderstood to being understood. Who’s going to help him do that? Well, a love interest that creates a love-triangle of course (YA)!

Before Lindsey Lee Wells, Colin mentions the problem has always been transition. (This is something she hints at as well when she says he goes from thing to thing too quickly). He also, according to her, lacks the necessities for a good story: adventure, romance, and a moral. In this journey with her, Colin learns the importance of what Green later says in the afterword is the third most important advice he gives young writers: always tell stories and always listen when others are telling you theirs.

As we established, Colin wants to matter. That’s been the conflict since page one. In the end, he learns that telling stories is how we matter. The stories will make the infinite mattering possible even when the future erases everything. Each of us causes a little ripple with every story we tell because, even just slightly, people are always different after hearing our story than they were before. So there’s his transformation. We all matter, he says, maybe less than a lot but always more than none.

[I would also like to point out that even using something like anagramming — an act where you take a word and change it into something it wasn’t before — is a method of transformation. This is more a testament to John Green’s brilliance, but this talent is Colin’s greatest pastime because it speaks to the beauty of language and how language is so malleable. Green speaks to this in the afterword, saying “Words are not static. Language shapes our memories and it is also shaped by our memories.” This motif accomplishes just that in such a subtle way.]

– Preston