A Collision of Universes in a Rug…or Lucretius On the Nature of Things

Last night my friend and long-time colleague Brigita Krassaukaite arrived at my home armed with beer and a packet of Quadratini dark chocolate wafer biscuits. I don’t drink beer. I do eat wafer biscuits. I had put a bottle of Beaume de Venise Muscat in the refrigerator for her. Brigita drinks sweet wine and eats wafer biscuits. She had come over late, she felt, though it was only eight-thirty, to work on her bio for her debut rug design at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair this weekend. I had asked when we met last week if I might read it.

After she was seated comfortably in the armchair I said, “Your bio is perfect. If what you’re looking for is a job in corporate, and your aim is to be as interesting as last week’s news.” She unleashed her infectious laugh. Almost nothing can quash Brigita’s love of life, its absurdities, its mysteries. Her love is expressed in her personal beauty, her tenderness toward all living things (except cockroaches), her love of individuality, her advocacy of aesthetic beauty and strength in Woman, her deep love of art…and her most disarming quality, an unquenchable openness to truth.

I have known Brigita for fourteen years, through perhaps some of the most difficult years of my life, in my capacity as an administrator of my father’s estate. Through thick and thin she was there for me. And, more importantly, for my father’s art. Perhaps out of everything she did for my father’s art and his estate, all of which I have not one second’s doubt my father would have admired, approved and been proud of, it is her trustworthiness and optimism that remain most dear to me. I mention these two particular qualities of her as employee, colleague and friend because she shares them in her rug Stand, in spite of its sobering inspiration. Stand will be on display in the Dandelion Rugs booth, as part of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Conference Center, May 14-17, 2016.

What always disarms me when I speak with Brigita about art, in spite of knowing her well enough that I should no longer be taken by surprise, is her originality of thought, her depth of felt perception, and her unerring ability—like an arrow released from Artemis’ bow—to strike at the heart of a work’s voice, its illumination of the culture that gave birth to it through the artist’s vision and sensibility. I think I am always caught off guard because Brigita always speaks so little about herself. She rarely displays the depth of her knowledge of art and life, either philosophical or practical, unless asked point blank. It is like tapping on the side of a mountain, not expecting much to happen because in general a mountain is still, silent, tranquil, and suddenly finding oneself inside Aladdin’s cave, surrounded by infinite treasures and gems hitherto unimaginable.

It took very little effort on my part to revise her bio with her and bring her vision and voice to the page. (As I write this about voice and vision I am reminded of Peter Brook’s famous statement on producing a play: If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound. If what you want is for the play to be heard, then you must conjure its sound from it.) If you wait for Brigita to speak about herself she may never utter a sound—that much was clear from her original bio. It would have served well as a wrapper for fish and chips from a chip-shop in the old days; when this quintessentially English (and best of all English take away) food was liberally sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar, and wrapped in old newsprint to go. But did not serve well to describe Brigita as artist and designer of textiles and rugs.

If you spend time in communion with Stand, you may find yourself drawn into the world of an extraordinary mind and soul. Brigita’s mind absorbs everything life has to offer, as much as any one mind can. Her soul breathes in and releases the eternal beauty of Woman and her stand in the culture into which she finds herself born.

I had only seen an early sketch, a tiny photograph on an iPhone screen. I was unprepared for the finished work: a collision of universes assailing my visual and emotional experience, transfiguring an object of everydayness into the ineffable.

Stand. Designed by Brigita Krasauskaite. Hand knotted in India.
Stand. Designed by Brigita Krasauskaite. Hand knotted in India.

She wrote later that night, “I would never found Myself in words without you.” I did not reply. If I had, I might have said: “I would never have found you in words without you.”

 

BRIGITA KRASAUSKAITE

Brigita Krasauskaite

In her debut design for Dandelion, Brigita Krasauskaite meditated for two years before and during production on the intersection between where women stand in the culture, and the universality of geometry that has inspired every culture to express the ineffable; finding that expression in the rhythms of Nature that shape the unique landscape of every country, inspiring their artists to pay homage to Nature’s boundarylessness in their art.

Born in Kaunas, Lithuania Brigita Krasauskaite received formal training at the Vilnius Academy of Arts where she completed Masters degrees in textile design and fine art.

The rug Stand: Its inspiration and the artist’s manifesto.

Upon stepping into a mosque in Turkey overflowing with its glorious craftsmanship, I was rudely awakened by the reality of not being able to admire the sumptuous mosaics of the central main dome from within the central prayer space [because it was roped off and…only men can go into that space…] of the architectural masterpiece.

 

preparatory sketch for the rug "Stand" artist, Brigita Krasauskaite
preparatory sketch for Stand

Although my eyes were able to freely travel throughout every angle of the beautifully tiled interior, it was not until they rested upon the enormous rug, with its repetitive pattern, which physically unites the entire space, that I finally was able to stop thinking about the religious restrictions.

 

preparatory sketch for the rug "Stand" artist: Brigita Krasauskaite
preparatory sketch for Stand

 

 

 

Stand was designed using a combination of two contrasting patterns: the opulence of Baroque style ornamentation juxtaposed with the intertwining structure of the mosque’s rug pattern; both superimposed over and seeming to restrain the depiction of three standing female figures uncovered from the waist down.

Preparatory sketch for the rug "Stand." artist Brigita Krasauskaite
preparatory sketch for Stand

It is my continued interest in and love of textiles which fueled to my decision to use the medium of floor covering to convey the fact that a rug is one-dimensional; and when standing upon it we are all on one even level. Essentially, we are all equal.

 

 

The rug "Stand" in Central Park, New York.
The rug, Stand, designed by Brigita Krasauskaie, displayed on a rock in Central Park, New York

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
On the Nature of Things – Lucretius

The theory of Democritus held that everything is composed of “atoms”, which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between atoms, there lies empty space; that atoms are indestructible, and have always been and always will be in motion – Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

The Privilege of Colour, the Prejudice of White

Like most controversial stories, this one began with a Once Upon a Time that lasted for approximately five seconds, before all Hell broke loose. As my response to this particular Once upon a time is quite long I will post it without further preamble.

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Inside the Underbelly of a Facebook Whale

I posted the original Facebook link that sparked the whole controversy to my wall a few days ago.

Yesterday a post in the Guardian–Meg Rosoff sparks diversity row over books for marginalised children–appeared.

A post the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog regarding author Meg Rosoff’s comments on the Facebook link above was (as I learned) a response of Call-out Culture. *

* Briarpatch Magazine defines Call-out Culture as follows. “Callout culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on.”

I confess, as I read the list on Briarpatch, I felt as though I was reading a list from the House Un-American Activities Committee…the particular line of that feeling being brought on by, “and the list goes on.” None of which is to say that bigotry or prejudice in any of its nefarious forms should not be called out. But, in all progress towards a greater humanity, should  we not remember our humanity above all else,  and not allow it to be overshadowed by political rectitude?

Here is my response to the post on the American Indians in Children’s Literature post linked above, which the moderator and owner of the blog permitted to publish.

Hello Everyone,

Let me begin by saying I am not white. My parents were from Goa, India, my father emigrated to London in 1949, my mother followed in 1950. I was born a year later, lived there until I was thirty. I have since lived in the United States. I was an extreme minority during my growing years in England. Central London had so few Indians, that from the age of three until eleven, I was the only brown-skinned child in first my day nursery and later the two primary schools I attended.

I happened to read the thread that has generated this blog response because Laura Atkins (whom I do not know) appeared on my Facebook home page. She had mentioned Meg Rosoff and because Meg is a Facebook friend (and a personal friend), I suppose Facebook decided I should also get to know “a Laura Atkins” (as Jane Austen might have written it).

Although Laura’s posting of Edith Edi Campbell’s post and the ensuing thread appeared on my home page, and I was able to read all of it, I was not able to comment. Therefore, I hope, since the comments are moderated, you will permit my observations; which will be at variance with many of those who have already commented here, and possibly be in disagreement with that of the blogpost writer.

First, I would like to quote what was actually said because that seems to have been like touchpaper to dynamite. And, second, I would like to share my own very definite experience of growing up a minority in London where racism is always simmering under the polite veneer of British pleases and thank yous. (As an American friend once said, “The British are born saying, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’”)

Here is what Edith Edi Campbell said:
I would say there are so few books for queer black boys, but there are just too few books for all our marginalized young people.

Here is what Meg Rosoff wrote in reply:
There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented. You don’t read Crime and Punishment to find out about Russian criminals. Or Alice in Wonderland to know about rabbits. Good literature expands your mind. It doesn’t have the “job” of being a mirror.

Anyone who knows Meg Rosoff, who has met her, has spent time with her, who has read her books, will understand that she speaks first and foremost for the freedom of a writer to write what speaks most personally to them, and strongly advocates against writers being forced to meet marketplace demands and agendas. With her “The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented” she was not saying anything against anyone; she was merely stating the obvious that every writer battles against—the marketplace demands that stifle real creativity.

If her first comment is read without imputing to it any malice towards Edith Edi Campbell, or anything against the author whose book Ms. Campbell seemed happy to be promoting; if one had given Meg Rosoff as much the benefit of the doubt of good intentions as many on the thread seem to have given themselves, and accorded to Ms. Campbell, perhaps a great deal of the emotionality—and, frankly, unnecessary ad hominem attacks and vitriol against Meg Rosoff—might have been avoided. And, instead, a truly thoughtful discussion on diversity in children’s books could have ensued.

Meg Rosoff is in a position, as an esteemed children’s writer—her debut novel, “How I Live Now” having won the Guardian Children’s Fiction and the Michael L. Printz Awards—to speak knowledgeably about children’s publishers, the marketplace, diversity in children’s books, and more. Her own several books are diverse in subject matter and characters and have won numerous awards. But such a fruitful discussion would be predicated on giving her first comment to Ms. Campbell’s post the benefit of the doubt.

As for myself, growing up in London I was both subjected to racism and privileged because of my parents’ ethnicity. Countless times, as I walked down the streets of central London where I lived, people would spit on the pavement just where I was about to step and tell me to go back to where I came from. Racism came my way often in the form of an interrogation at a party, where the polite “interrogation” would proceed thus. “Where are you from?” London. “No, where were you born?” London. “No, I mean, where are your parents from?” India. “Ah, so you’re not from here.”

On the side of privilege, my father, F.N. Souza, pioneered post-independence modern art in India. He is considered one of India’s leading modern painters and he was considered an important British artist during his tenure in England. His work is on display and in permanent collections of major museums around the world. My mother was an haute couturiere who dressed among other women of privilege the editor-in-chief of British Vogue. In this respect I grew up privileged in spite of the colour of my skin and the prevalent racism in England.

I read everything when I was child, every book I could get my hands on, including many books written for boys. I loved every single one. I really cannot think of a single book that didn’t leave me awestruck. And, yet, I never read a single book about an Indian girl growing up in London who faced racism. Granted, it probably didn’t exist, but I didn’t need to read such a book in order to discover who I was, and I don’t think it would have taught me about who *I* was. Because unless the little brown-skinned girl in that book also had my very unusual parents, I am not certain how I could have identified with her.

This is not an argument against writing such a book, but it does exemplify that while a black male child who believes he is queer might be lit up by coming across a book that has a protagonist who “mirrors” his inner life, it is equally possible that such a child will find himself without ever reading such a book. Or will not identify with that protagonist at all. But if that same child reads as many great books as he can—“The Silver Sword,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Compleet Molesworth,” “Treasure Island,” any number of contemporary books for boys (or for girls if he prefers, or both)—he will find himself.

Isn’t that the purpose of all the “mirroring” that was so passionately defended on Ms. Campbell’s thread—for a child to “find” him- or herself?

Reading transported me to worlds I would never otherwise have known. They were filled with characters who were silly, or snooty, or bad-tempered, or kind, but ultimately they were brave. And they prevailed against evil. I didn’t care what colour their skin was. What I understood was this: Regardless of my skin colour I too could prevail against evil, just as my favourite characters did, if I discovered how to be brave.

And, finally, it is not as if we still live in an age where little black boys who believe they may be queer have no role models of male black queers in society at large these days.

No writer has a single narrative within them, as their life. We are all deeply influenced by our ethnicity, our culture, our socio-economic status, our religion, or dismissal of it, and so on. As writers we have entire universes at our disposal; and so many more dimensions that make up who we are. This depth and complexity of being an individual, and of being simultaneously part of a familial as well as a social culture is what allows great writers to mine material for their greatest works—the whole of that living diversity within themselves.

If they are then Black and Queer and decide to write a children’s book for queer black boys, they’ll do it because they want to (which was the author’s point of the book in question and not because “diversity is a trend”). This, by the way, was also Meg’s point, but she was shouted down. She listed the subject matters and types of young people she’s interested and passionate in writing about, all of whom are vastly different from her own sexual preference and ethnicity. But that comment was entirely glossed over.

What she tried to say, and eventually gave up, was that the marketplace cannot create an agenda for writers and then expect a great book to be the result.

Isn’t that the subject we should be discussing, and doing something about, instead of wasting our limited and precious time in vilifying a fellow writer?

The Age of Transformation: Where Nothing Is Safe, Especially Not Your Identity

Since there’s a conversation on the merits or demerits of Richard Prince’s recent “transformation” of photographs lifted from Instagram happening on the Facebook wall of my friend John E. Simpson, after he posted this article, I came across a different one, which said, among other things, “Everything inspires everything. But this isn’t an excuse to blatantly steal. If I plagiarize a column from Saltz and replace his byline with mine, would he consider it genius?” – Allen Murabayashi

I think the answer is that it would still be plagiarism if the only thing Allen Murabayashi replaced was Jerry Saltz’s byline.

However: What if Murabayashi were to take Jerry Saltz’s text and reformat it with different calligraphy and computer fonts; in much the way Richard Prince took Instagram photographs and “transformed” them using silkscreen? Would Jerry Saltz’s text be considered sufficiently transformed that it would become Murabayashi’s to sell, for as much money as his “transformation” could attract? Or could Jerry Saltz claim that merely altering the font and “look” of the text didn’t transform the originality of his thought realized through his choice of specific words?

At what point, or in which way, can one use another person’s writing, verbatim, and claim that by manipulating it visually– that is, calligraphically–the text itself has been transformed? Because that seems to be at the heart of the Prince argument and his “transformations” of other people’s images.

And if I alter this remediated image of Prince’s exhibition of photographs he appropriated from Instagram, does my remediated image qualify as an original work of art? Perhaps. At the moment, however, it simply qualifies as fair use, having been published in news articles and reposted widely on the Internet.

prince-photographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Chaucerian Age?

 

Cognac.jpg

I met Yvonne Durant at Brasserie Cognac, my favourite neighbourhood restaurant, the night before last Thanksgiving. I had finally made the move, the day before, to an apartment I purchased on the east side last summer.

We had (and have) yet to file the paperwork to the building for the proposed renovations.

By October it became clear the renovations were unlikely to begin before this summer, if then. So I gave the landlords of the west side apartment I’d occupied for ten years my required 60 days’ notice and relocated the other side of Central Park. Knowing I will have to move again once the renovations commence, it was quite a procedure to decide which items to unpack, and which ones to put into storage until the renovations are complete.

Yvonne was seated at an adjacent table. She struck up a conversation and I was charmed by her quiet elegance, easy demeanour and conviviality towards someone she had never seen before.

I have come to the conclusion that I am not a social animal, at all. I can be sociable–especially with friends and family members I  love–but I really prefer solitude to crowds. I would never start up a conversation with someone I don’t know, even if the person looked intriguing. Never is an exaggeration of course, but it’s rare for me to initiate a conversation with someone I haven’t met before.

Since that night at Cognac, I’ve had the pleasure of running into Yvonne at another local restaurant about a week before Christmas and  then, a couple of weeks ago, she came to my apartment for dinner.

This morning, she sent me a link to her latest blog post Yesterday Were National Grammar Day. (Somewhere among my numerous books in storage I have a copy of Woe is I, mentioned in the post.)

Grammar, syntax and spelling are strange beasts, and often disagreeable bedfellows. They evolve as culture does; and, as we all know from first-hand experience, very few of us like change, least of all the evolving kind.

However, I have a feeling that in ten years—maybe even five—we will start to see “u” as an acceptable alternative to “you” in formal writing, along with other texting abbreviations. Many new words and expressions that technology continues to inspire–and to direct–the current generation to invent have already begun making inroads into every day usage. The Oxford English Dictionary and other notable lexicons have begun to include them as acceptable forms of the written or spoken word.

New spelling, as an outgrowth of texting, is something I’ve been reflecting on for a while. I have a feeling we are on the cusp of a Neo-Chaucerian Age–where language is about to make a paradigm shift, the likes of which we have not seen since the 16th Century. I think about how technology is driving us to change the way we spell–and perhaps even change the meaning of–words Shakespeare invented. Words that since their invention have been the cornerstone of the modern English language.

 

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My friend Seth Michael Donsky’s work in progress is called Irregardless, because one of his characters–not quite Mrs. Malaprop but, like her forerunner, a graduate of the almost-but-not-actually-real school of words–uses “irregardless” practically as her trademark. Each time she’s corrected by another character she retorts, “You know what I mean!” And, in fact, we do. (Yesterday, Seth told me that in some online dictionaries, irregardless is rapidly becoming an acceptable alternative to regardless; so that, very soon he fears, it will no longer be a valid joke in his play.)

I don’t spend a lot of time parsing grammar when I write even though, among a variety of jobs I’ve held, I have been a copy editor and own a much tagged edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. For me the most important thing about the function of grammar is that it frames my internal and external perceptions and precepts in a way that makes them accessible to other people.

 

chicago manual of style

This image of the latest–and last–printed edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is here because I adore azure blue. All the editions of the Chicago that I’ve owned and own have covers of fire engine orange–not my favourite colour by a long shot.

If Lesley Gore can cry at her party I can post a pretty cover of a pretty useful book. It’s my website and I’ll post if I want to, post if I want, post if I want to…. (It’s the ultimate postmodern reprise.)

 

I love Yvonne’s blog post title Yesterday Were National even though it’s apparently incorrect grammar. It has for me a musical ring to it.

I’m terrible at haikus but anyone who loves to write them, feel free to share your best riff on Yesterday Were National Grammar Day.

The fiction of grammar

For some reason entirely unfathomable to me, John E. Simpson‘s post on Facebook: Should you vaccinate your child? made me think of grammar fanatics, and the fact that I wouldn’t know how to parse a sentence to their satisfaction–beyond noun, verb, pronoun, adjective, adverb. I don’t remember being taught grammar the way Americans talk about it. Actually, I don’t remember being taught grammar, at all, but I’m pretty certain I was. Perhaps I was made to break down sentences into their components and I’ve simply forgotten because it was so boring. But I can say that, today, I couldn’t name the different parts of a sentence, or the name of a clause and why it’s called that, or what one type of clause does over another type of clause. And I don’t care. Why should I? I have all the grammar I will ever need in order to write comprehensibly.

The Book of the Dragon
The Book of the Dragon

Knowing more grammar than I already do will not help me to achieve my goal to write well. Though just the right amount of grammar–like Baby Bear’s porridge with its right proportion and temperature–will allow me to share ideas with a larger group of sentient beings beyond my felicitous feline, Zuli Souza, and my dangerous delightful (as yet unnamed) dragons, and hopefully be understood. (All name suggestions for the dragons will be welcomed, by the way. There are three of the wee beasties, so far. Perhaps I should run a contest on Facebook, the prize being a copy of The Book of the Dragon by Cruelo.)

A writer who thinks it’s paramount, or even important, to know the difference between a deponent verb and some other type of verb (and I’ve seen quite a few on Facebook over the years argue about this stuff); unless they actually have to teach grammar for a living, or because they’re home schooling their child and need to teach it for their child to pass national exams; really, take it from me, knowing how to decimate deconstruct a sentence for the Grammar Police will not improve their writing. They will probably impress the GPs and save themselves a jail sentence. However, I don’t think they will impress their readers if their knowledge of grammar is stellar but their writing is the twin sibling of sawdust.

 

 

In the middle of the night, after I had written this post, I remembered something a spiritual teacher I was with for about ten years once said about her ex-husband (and men in general). In her often hilarious way, she shared an anecdote of how one of the reasons she had divorced her husband was because of his obsession with things that in her mind he obsessed over for the wrong reasons. She said, “He was constantly worried about the size of his penis. But I told you him: It’s not the size of it that matters, it’s, ‘Do you know how to use it to its greatest effect?’ That’s what’s important to me.” That about sums up a good and natural relationship to grammar. It’s not about how big your knowledge of it is, but how well it serves your desire to use an amazingly abstract medium–words–to make visible that which would otherwise remain hidden from the light of day.

The measurement of Light

I realized I was overwhelmed by the number of ideas I have for writing about different things and consequently wasn’t writing at all. So I got out my trusty notebook and began writing the list. Lo and behold an epiphany (I was going to say great revelation but I realized you can’t measure infinity, and likewise can’t measure the light in an epiphany) about my fantasy story. I love it so much I think I’m going to use it! Then I came to a kind of full stop. I didn’t know what happened next–the juice, so to speak, stopped, as if the power had suddenly been turned off. So I went away and ate my baked pear and when I came back I thought, “It’s all right that I don’t know what happens next. This is that moment Meg Rosoff talked about in Salem, where you can put your character into the car and have them drive the road home. But when they get there, whoever’s waiting at the door should surprise you as well as your character. So I am going to leave my moment at the point at which it has arrived for now and see what happens when I come to write it up as an actual scene.

One of the other pieces of writing that’s been on my mind since talking with my friend Seth’s friend, Jeremy, at the surprise birthday party is my roman a clef. And whether I want it still to be a roman a clef or a memoir. I was so surprised at how fascinated Jeremy was to hear about my parents, and that I want to set it in London, during the swinging sixties because that’s my strongest memory of everything to do with my parents, I came away from the conversation with a very different sense of how I might want to write it. What I was most struck by after that conversation was the “voice” in which I recounted various stories about my parents, and his partner’s reactions to  some of my mother’s dresses and designs that I have in my Facebook photograph albums. (Jeremy’s partner, Tim, has just finished learning how to make patterns because he wants to be a couture designer.) I realized that in many ways the voice in which I recounted these stories to a relative stranger was the same voice that appeared naturally in the tribute to my parents…a more objective voice when I’m talking about my parents as artists, than when I’m talking about them as my parents.

The third thing I’ve been thinking about are my blog posts. I began writing them again at the beginning of the year because I needed to become agile again after almost a year away from writing, in how I think about and produce it. What I have observed is that I begin with one point and then somehow other things intersect as I’m writing, and I see them merge with the original idea in ways that are interesting to me. They become non-conventional mini-essays on things that intersect in my mind. Meaning, I don’t have a thesis that I then proceed to expand or defend. So I want to keep developing this place of where things intersect, as I was never particularly good at writing conventional essays; and perhaps as I go along with this project I may become better at both. Also Where Things Intersect will become the new subtitle for my personal writing space because I’m going to take my real writer made up worlds and use it for my work site.

The fourth thing is my work website that’s being designed and that I am now very excited about. I am finally certain about how I want it to look and why. I was deeply inspired by Patrick Corbin’s website which I came across when I was searching for information about him to add to a post I began last week, and which I will get back to, hopefully, this week. What I absolutely loved about Patrick’s website was the space and power of the image within this space, which drew me in and voluntarily forced my thoughts to recede into the background, and allow the stark simplicity of his page and portrait to flood my mind. It creates in me a kind of wonder of how something so simple can simultaneously be so powerful.

My web designer Lori Whiston has already built a prototype of the home page, which riffs off of Patrick’s website aesthetic. The first layer looks promising. I’ve been running everything by my coterie of secret writing friends–not that they’re actually secret: they are known to many on Facebook and in real life.

Now that I’ve written it all out in my notebook I feel the way Dumbledore must have felt whenever he poured his thoughts into the pensieve–more room in the brain to think about the present moment and what to wear to BAM tonight (that’s me, not Dumbledore. I’m certain his only dilemma would have been, which pair of socks).

 

 

True Fiction

A few weeks ago a friend posted this picture true fictionon Facebook and asked whether it bothered anyone else? My friend is humorous, she writes humour, but it’s not always obvious to me when she’s being ironic. I asked, “Does it bother you?” I didn’t get a reply. Then other Facebook friends piled on with comments that, although funny at times, were written to ridicule whoever had come up with such an ignorant sign. Guffaw, guffaw. (In their defense, not that they need any from me, I  am certain their conscious intentions were not meant to ridicule the person who had written the sign, but the sign itself. But, I ask: in this instance, can we actually separate the two? If it were any group of FB people other than writers commenting, perhaps I would have had an entirely different emotional response to the whole thing.)

I have to admit it bothered me. I felt like an outsider on this thread, and although I am certain my friend, and even the Facebook friends who posted their comments, plus other friends in real life would say, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”; and Mark Manson would say, “Your giving away one of your fucks when, really, who gives a fuck what all those other people were doing?”; the truth is, I did give a fuck. And I was right to–but it was for the wrong reason.

I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but today it came to me: There is such a thing as True Fiction–it’s called a Roman à clef.

A roman à clef is “a novel about real life overlaid with a façade of fiction.” [Wikipedia entry on roman à clef.] Now, maybe, the sign in this bookshop or thrift shop or wherever this bookcase of books for sale resides was wrong in its naming of these particular books. But no one, and certainly not I, on that thread of writers mentioned the possibility of true fiction being a legitimate category.

By definition a novel is a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes. I’m pretty certain this assumed definition of a novel is what raised everyone’s guffaws to a raucous decibel of ridicule for this poor sign.

Now, it is very likely that ridiculing the notion anyone could think “true fiction” is a real category pricked my personal sensibility. Because I am attempting to write, among many other writing projects, exactly that: True Fiction, a roman à clef, using my parents’ extraordinary talents and lives, together and apart, as a jumping off point to write about my time as a teenager in London during the “Swinging Sixties.” (Which, along with fashion and music, also generated the term “Swingers”.)

So what did I see again for myself today when I remembered roman à clef ? I saw the importance of trusting one’s instincts and not becoming intimidated by the crowd.

“What?! You?! Intimidated by the crowd”? I can hear the incredulity of people who know me on Facebook, and in real life.

“Yes, I.” I am intimidated by a great many things. Feeling like an outsider, even though I hate to run with the crowd merely for the sake of company, triggers this most strongly. Because I grew up an outsider in my home country–being a brown-skinned girl in a then predominantly white, largely xenophobic, country, whose monarchs had colonized the greater part of the world before the sun finally began to set on the Empire.

 

When I watch something like this glorious performance by Sarah Connolly it awakens mixed feelings inside my body and heart. On the one hand, I remember standing in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall for the last night of many a Prom, singing, with all my heart, Rule Britannia. On the other, I was always an outsider in England, because of the colour of my skin. Always. I can’t count the number of times people asked, “Where are you from?” And when I said, “London,” the questions would escalate from, “No, where were you born?” [“London.”] to “No, where were your parents born?”

I have this sense that if we were able to see our internal culture through a specimen of our bone marrow under a microscope, mine would be British through and through, in spite of my parents’ ancestry. I don’t know if this is because all outsiders attempt, on an unconscious level, to assimilate themselves so fully that they will “pass”; or if it’s because, by and large, in my family home the most important thing was talent and the future it could create; rather than the past and what tradition naturally carries within it: something unchanged and passed down from generation to generation, with the goal of preserving it forever.

My parents were all about breaking with the moulds of the past and creating their own. They were often outsiders–foreigners–to the majority of English people who didn’t know them. But, in the wisdom of Mark Manson, they didn’t give a fuck. And, so, the only real culture I know is that of my birth country and not the one of my ancestors.

Things have changed in England, a bit, it’s true: there are now too many people “of colour” for things not to have shifted a little. But the underlying belief that the Empire still exists, and that people of colour (a strange turn of phrase) are somehow intellectually inferior, still pervades my home country. But, I digress.

Trust in oneself. That’s what I felt strongly to write about today.

Perhaps the realization “True Fiction,” under the banner of roman à clef, was triggered by an email I received this morning from my playwright friend, Seth Michael Donsky. [Take note, Marta Pelrine-Bacon, this post could well be about hidden motives, although I have an actual post to write about that particular topic. It’s certainly a post about Meg Rosoff’s colander.]

To help my friend understand that he knows exactly what he needs to know in order to write the play he wants to write, I suggested an old writing exercise to him before Christmas: In his case, take any play he admires, and type or write out the whole thing, including the stage directions. For a while he argued he didn’t want to waste his writing time to do this. I understood, because he has a crazily busy schedule. But I really believe in this particular exercise. And so, eventually, after a certain amount of persuasion on my part that the benefits would outweigh the loss of personal writing time and, in the long run, return rewards to him in spades, he chose Noel Coward‘s Hay Fever.

 

Sometime last week, as he was transcribing Hay Fever, he had a major breakthrough with his own play. Then, this morning, he wrote that although he wasn’t yet convinced he could write this or any other kind of script, he no longer believed that he couldn’t.

That was the whole point of doing the exercise: To understand and experience for oneself, how powerful the subconscious is–that it will give us everything we need, in order to express the creativity that we, uniquely, have appeared in the stream of Life to realize and share with Life itself. That everything we need is already inside us. Not the thing itself; that has yet to be born and fully realized. But the wherewithal to make it happen is inherent in every human being. I am so proud of my friend for having the trust in himself to do this exercise, even if it began as blind faith and trust in another.

Trust is the bridge that leads us across the uncharted waters of our own creativity, to the possibility of producing something that is uniquely us.

 

The thank you note

When I was in Salem last November I met a writer with whom I connected immediately. Amanda Orr. We had apparently exchanged a couple of words on a pre-conference group in which she called me a nerd. Not directly, because she’s too polite for that until she knows you in real life, but her response to something I had said put me into the “nerd category.” It was a compliment, and so I obliged her by feigning the obligatory indignance. Not to the full measure of Spencer in his Faerie Queene–Full of fiers fury, and indignant hate–but to a level that created in words one of those gawkish emoticons that would, if it could speak through its punctuated mouth, say: Moi? Are you calling me a nerd? Inane indignance at its finest, and in a foreign language, no less.

Over Christmas we exchanged gifts. Or rather I sent her children some books because that is what I do at Christmas, I send children books. Amanda sent Zuli Souza and me each a Christmas gift. (Actually, I received two gifts because I am at least twice Zuli’s height and width). Eventually, last night, I had to write a thank you note to her online because as I said in my digital thanks: In my mind, every day, I write you a thank you note from Madam Zuli and me on real paper with a real pen, and it’s put into a real envelope with a real stamp and put into a real post box. Every night I go to sleep and it remains a thank you note in my head.

A short story I began last year, when I joined a closed group on Facebook called Bradbury’s 52 (set up for writers to write a short story every week, because Ray Bradbury defied any writer to write 52 bad stories in a row), went nowhere. I had an initial impulse and idea for it but the prompt words did not resonate with me. They were brothel, teacher, and broom.

First of all, I don’t like writing to prompts. They immediately constrain my free flow of ideas and images. This is obviously not true for every writer. Many love prompts: to them, I say, “Go at ’em.” But these particular prompts were baldly unappealing to me.

However, there was something on the day I saw the prompts that I wanted to write about. (I have a feeling it had nothing to do with the prompts and everything to do with a close friend and his partner, with whom I had spent the previous evening, and whose relationship was on my mind.) I kept thinking about Auden’s Stop All the Clocks and began to write, attempting to use the prompt words, then stopped. I kept thinking I would get back to the story, that I would get over my loathing of the prompts, but I did not.

And then, today, I read an article on the front page of The New York Times, and I know how I want to write the story. My guides will be W.H. Auden the poet and Petroclus the Homerian warrior. This makes me happy. The goal of writing so many blog posts has been to attune myself to writing again after the long absence of it last year. I am not an every day kind of writer because I subscribe to the philosophy that sometimes you have to wait for the writing to come to you. But when your writing is out of shape, as mine is, you have to join the gym–which in my case, is my blog. It’s not my favourite kind of exercise–dancing is. But to get my words to dance, they need to become agile again.

I welcome my words to the Blog Gymnasium, and thank them for at least turning up, even though they are far from eloquent in their form.

 

 

I Fail, to exist

wonder-woman
Wonder Woman – DC Comics

I was reading Marta Pelrine-Bacon’s post Speaking of Failure and it got me thinking. Partly, because my cleaning lady whom I call Wonder Woman is here today, and I feel energised by her company to tackle the last of the unpacked boxes that have remained unapologetically stalwart against the wall opposite my bed. As I was unpacking a box of materials I’ve bought over time to make various projects, most of which have been used, a few that have not, I thought of Marta’s post and her collection of unused supplies, and put mine aside to send to her. Better that they clutter up her house, right? (After all, she has a whole house in Texas; whereas I only have a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.)

I went back and forth, of course, in my mind: should I keep them for myself…just in case? But, just in case, what? I ever get around to making something with them? Unlikely. There are only so many hours in the day and thinking up more projects is not part of my plan for January, or February, or the rest of the months leading to Summer and beyond.

But I also began to think about whether there is such a thing as failure in the creation of, well, anything?

As I put the kettle on to make tea for Wonder Woman and me, the Monkee’s playing in the background, I thought back to my days as a director and the rehearsal room. Was everything that got “rejected,” “set aside,” “discarded,” “abandoned,” a failure? If we had kept every idea the actor or I, or the designers had, what a bloody mess the whole thing would have been. And nothing successful to show for it; other than a kind of hoarder mentality. Instead, what I learned from Jerzy Grotowski was that you look at the seed of what the actor brings into the room and peel away everything extraneous to the truth.

Isn’t that also the case of all seemingly abandoned “art” projects? Didn’t they begin with an idea, an impulse, an inspiration, to create something that glimmered or flashed for an instant in our mind’s eye? Or perhaps had been contemplated for a long time and finally the moment to begin appeared to knock on our personal doorway to Time. “Here I am,” it said, “do with me what you will. Except I will tell you when you’re doing it wrong by not making it right.”

From there my thoughts carried me to here: What if whatever you believe or think brought about the Big Bang or evolution had never begun? What if [it] had said, “I won’t begin, because I will fail.”? How could we get to know the truth, in even the smallest measure, of how infinite the powers of creation, beauty and love are, if only for an instant?