May Updates

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9 May 2009

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, the following updates will make a little sense:

I.
In the 5 April post, I mentioned a fiction-writing course concept I was pitching to a school I’d hope would hire me.  The idea was to take a step back (or to the left or right) from the memoir/autobiography rage and make a case for good old fashioned imagination-driven fiction.  I’m happy to report that we’ll be giving it a go.  Here’s an excerpt from the course blurb:

Enough About Me: Write-What-You-Don’t-Know Fiction
Some writing classes preach the dictum “write what you know,” and memoirs and autobiographical fiction are all the rage.  But many of us both read and write creatively as a way of putting ourselves in others’ shoes, inhabiting other worlds and psyches, developing stories about places and people who are very different from us.  Are you a woman interested in writing a male character?  A middle-class male wanting to write a story about a homeless youth?  An atheist writing about a nun? An American writing a piece set in South America?  A teacher whose main character is a drummer in a rock band?  In this course, we will look at elements of fiction craft crucial to developing your not-me fiction...

The course will only run if we get a critical mass of student sign-ups.  Cross your fingers.

II.
Wyatt Mason of Harper’s Magazine is, as he puts it, “turning my attention to other tasks” and leaving the blog world for now.  Harper’s seems to be keeping the archives up on the “Sentences” site, so I’ll keep Mr. Mason on my blogroll for now.

*Update: I’ve replaced “Sentences” with maudnewton.com.

III.
Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History has been on my Reading List page for the last six weeks or so.  During certain seasons of life, I can be a terribly slow reader (and at other times, I devour books one after the other and barely lift my eyes to the real world), so one shouldn’t take the duration of the novel’s presence on my Reading List as any reflection on its quality.  In fact, having just finished it, I want to both highly recommend it and say a few words about it.

As for story summary, here’s an excerpt from the back cover:

The events of the novel unfold against the backdrop of a campaign for parliamentary elections in the bustling roadside town of Khareini Tar [Nepal]… Written with rare insight into the politics of a nation and of human relationships…

What I admire most about this novel is its uncompromising fidelity to both mind and heart — meaning, strictly speaking, one might categorize it as a “political novel,” but the reader is mostly engaged by the characters who live and breathe in this particular political landscape. There is so much heart in this novel, even while your brain delights in its intelligence. Thapa reminds me that, while we all have our political and philosophical and moral passions, in the end it is our humanity we are left with — our ability to give and receive love.  At the same time, the novel shows us how external forces, political and cultural, are what limit this ability for many (women in particular) who are cornered into loveless existences.  

As a writer who is also much interested in place-as-character, culture-as- character, I am also deeply impressed by how Thapa has managed to people her novel with quite a large ensemble cast (omniscient point-of-view), without sacrificing what agents and editors often refer to as an “emotional hook” — which said agents and editors often equate with a single protagonist, and a single point-of-view.  The success of this novel seems to me a powerful nose-thumbing at such simplistic (lazy) approaches to the acquisition and marketing of books.

It is perhaps no surprise that The Tutor of History was never acquired for the North American market, given its complex pleasures.  This, to me, speaks to everything that’s wrong with American-style reading and publishing.

[full disclosure: Manjushree Thapa was a classmate of mine at the University of Washington.  It took me way too long to reconnect with her and read her book.  One sometimes fears that the respect and fondness one has for a person might not translate to her creative work; this was clearly not the case here.]

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