This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

The Literary Pyramid Scheme: A Few Thoughts on Book #1

A while ago, I posted a call for volunteers to step forward to help me with a literary experiment. I described a letter I received that invited me to become a member of an informal book club. It went on to outline a kind of literary pyramid scheme, whereby I would send out one book and six letters. In return, I could expect to receive a maximum of 36 previously read books selected by strangers from their very own shelves.

Well, my first book arrived! The package came with a Maryland postmark and inside I found a second-hand copy of Jeffrey Shaara’s Gods and Generals.

Lately, my husband and I have been talking about the benefits of e-books as compared to paper ones. One of the things that the arrival of Gods and Generals has reminded me of is that paper books come with traces of their former lives and readers. And Book #1 contains some interesting clues as to its history.

Trace number one: the former owner’s name (female, interestingly) on the first page.

Trace number two: the book sent contains a business card from the South Mountain State Battlefield in Middletown, Maryland that was likely used as a bookmark. A vestige of some kind of civil war pilgrimage? Did the reader/owner of this book take it on a trip to places it describes?

Trace number three: amazingly, this book has been signed by its author — the autograph is dated Sept. 1, 2002. Why, I wonder, would a reader send away an author-inscribed book to a complete stranger?

All of this reminds me of a 1990s Algerian raï song sung from the perspective of a beauty parlor chair that tells about all the beautiful women and behinds that have graced it. Or of François Girard‘s film The Red Violin that traces the life of an instrument as it is passed from hand to hand. Tracking the life of an object, it turns out, is another way of writing life.

Finally, though American Civil War history is far from a major interest of mine, I’m so thankful for this gift, whose conception is a beautiful gesture of love. Jeffrey Shaara wrote this book as a prequel to his father’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels, that told the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. He wrote it after his father’s death, so the very text is a kind of conversation with the dead, an elegy, or maybe even a love letter.

Already new avenues for thinking about reading, writing and exchange have opened up for me with this first arrival. I hope more books will come, and with them fodder for a solid essay. If not — if months go by without another book — that will be something to write about too.

Keep reading. Keep writing. Happy Holidays!

[Photo: Troy Holden]

A Shout-out to “Chroniques de Montréal”

My thanks to Mouloud Belabdi, who writes beautifully on his blog, “Chroniques de Montréal,” about the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, assassinated in 1993. Djaout was the subject of my first book, Silence is Death.

How pleased I was to read Belabdi’s description of my book:

Son livre est une méditation constante sur la mort, la paternité de l’œuvre et le rôle des intellectuels. Ce serait faire violence à sa mémoire en réduisant l’homme à un symbole. Il s’agit préférablement, de lui donner une voix sans faire violence à sa mémoire (3).

Belabdi goes on to conclude that we must read and re-read Tahar Djaout.

I couldn’t agree more.

You can learn more about Djaout and Algerian literature on Mouloud Belabdi’s blog, where there is a link to his Algiers radio show on Chaîne 3.

[Photo: Le Kabyle]

A Shout-out to El Watan

I recently came across an article referring to my book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, in El Watan, a major Algerian newspaper. The piece’s author, Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha, writes about the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader (or Abd El Kader), the Iowa town of Elkader that was named for him, and two international writers (including yours truly), who have written about the connection between the town and its namesake.

Also cited is John Kiser, who, in a addition to his recent work on Abdelkader, has written a very good book called the The Monks of Tibhirine. Both Kiser and I travelled to Elkader around the same time to see what an American town named for an Algerian looked like. Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha compares our travel narratives.

Here’s an excerpt:

L’éveil culturel pour l’Emir Abd El Kader et pour l’Algérie se perpétue à El Kader, qui a dernièrement été visitée par 2 célèbres écrivains : John Kiser et Julija Sukys. Tous deux ont écrit deux récents ouvrages sur l’Algérie. Le fait, marquant une coïncidence heureuse, est que tous deux ont réservé le premier chapitre de leurs ouvrages respectifs à la magie qu’a exercée sur eux El Kader (USA) et l’histoire de son appellation. Julija Sukys, en se documentant pour son livre La vie et l’œuvre de Tahar Djaout, a été charmée par le fait qu’une petite ville dans l’Etat de l’Iowa puisse se nommer El Kader. Son livre s’ouvre, donc, sur comment El Kader avait été ainsi baptisée et utilise cet exemple pour mettre en scène et raconter la vie et l’œuvre de l’écrivain poète Tahar Djaout. Elle nous révèle également que des ouvrages d’auteurs algériens sont choisis dans le cadre de lectures publiques. Elle nous apprend que pas moins de 9 forums — qui sont étalés sur 6 semaines — ont été organisés dans le comté de Johnson, voisin d’El Kader. Un questionnaire, précise-t-elle, avait été distribué pour servir de guide au public pour discussions ainsi qu’aux professeurs pour son utilisation en classe. Cet événement culturel particulier avait culminé avec une interview avec l’auteur algérien, Assia Djebar. La réaction du public à ce programme avait été enthousiaste. La liste de commandes chez les librairies locales, souligne-t-elle, pour Le dernier été de raison de Tahar Djaout, par exemple, avait augmenté d’une manière significative et que très vite le roman est devenu le best-seller local. Finalement, Julija Sukys conclut son premier chapitre avec un message personnel : « En appelant sa ville El Kader, Timothy Davis ouvrit une porte grande ouverte sur le monde dans un pays qui cherchait à s’enfermer sur lui-même. Une chose curieuse se produisit à El Kader au moment de son baptême, une petite ouverture dans l’univers avait été creusée… cela a formé un cordon (ombilical) qui s’étend à travers l’Atlantique, unissant les Etats-Unis à l’Algérie… C’est aussi une porte grande ouverte sur d’autres mondes : l’Orient mais aussi l’au-delà. Le temps, la langue et l’espace n’auront aucune emprise. Le présent et le passé coexistent (déjà). Bienvenue à El Kader. »

You can read the whole article here.

[Photo of vintage Algiers postcard, ca. 1910, by postaletrice]

Life-blood: Assia Djebar

Assia Djebar, Algerian White. Translated from the French by David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager. Seven Stories Press, 2000.

Several years ago, a few colleagues and I invited the Algerian author Assia Djebar, who was in Toronto for the International Writers’ Festival, to dinner. We were in the process of putting together a literary anthology about archives and hoped that she would contribute something. I picked her up in a cab, and we met the others at an Argentinean restaurant known for its slightly bohemian atmosphere and good food. By then, the targeting and killing of authors, artists and intellectuals in her country had ended, but as we sat down for dinner, it was still on our minds. She chose a seat against the wall, explaining almost apologetically, that she felt safer this way.

From 1993 to 1997, some sixty journalists were killed in Algeria, many assassinated in the most horrifying ways imaginable. Also targeted were the country’s poets, playwrights, educators, police officers and Catholic clergy and monks, not to mention 100,000 ordinary Algerians.

In Algerian White, Djebar chronicles what she calls the death of Algerian writing. The book is dedicated to, and in part addresses, her three dear friends – a psychiatrist, a playwright, and a sociologist – all brutally murdered in 1993.

In many ways, Algerian White is an imperfect text. And even though (or perhaps because) you can feel that it was written quickly and through confusion and anguish, it’s one of the best examples of writing about mourning that I know. Djebar writes of her attempt to refuse healing, dreading the forgetting that comes with it: “No; I say no to all ceremonies: those of farewell, those of pity, those of chagrin which seek their own comforts, those of consolation” (53). But healing comes regardless. The writer, out of self-preservation, or simply carried forward by the wave of time, finds herself moving on:

“I simply live again elsewhere; I surround myself with elsewhere and my pulse continues to beat. And I regain the desire to dance. I laugh already. I cry as well, straight afterwards, troubled to note that laughter is returning. What, I’m getting over it! In my own way, I forget.” (138)

Djebar has a large body of work of novels, essays, films and poetry. She writes about women and Islam, about war, colonization, migration, North African history, and about our relationships to language, song, stories, land and the idea of home.

If you don’t know her work, take a look. She’s worth your time.

[Photo: cultphoto]

The Writing Life

A writer friend of mine asked me recently how I keep going when things aren’t going well, and what I do when I become blocked.

The most useful thing I do when I feel empty is read. I turn to authors whose work I want to emulate: Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, Assia Djebar, Joan Didion, for example. I try to feel their rhythms and learn from what they do. I also read for content, and try to learn more by following a trail of bibliographies and footnotes. Lately (and weirdly, for me), I’ve been reading anthropologists. Even though these books look nothing like what I write or want to write, a fresh perspective and a hit of learning is always good for a frustrated writer.

Next, when a text isn’t working, I’ll try something formal to shake it up: I change voice from first- to second-person (two of the articles I’m most proud of are written in the form of letters), I change tense, or cut a text up into very small pieces and start rearranging. Often, I do this literally, sitting on the floor with tape and scissors and paper fragments. Proust’s archived manuscripts are apparently full of pasted-in bits that fold out in all directions. It’s a time-tested technique, and there’s something about physically cutting something up that works differently for me than cutting and pasting on screen. It’s easier to see the crap for what it is, and to tease out the good stuff.

Finally, if I have nothing to write about, I do something. I travel, I go in search of something (I’ve written about visiting the Paris apartment building Šimaitė lived in and travelling to an Iowa town named after an Algerian national hero). The journey is a classic frame, and it works for me.

My next trip will be to Siberia to find the village where my grandmother was exiled for seventeen years. What do I hope to find? If nothing else, the sky she saw and the earth she walked on. That alone will give me something to write about.

[Photo by austinevan]