Monthly Archives: March 2012

Living With Books 02: Dreamt into Our Travels, Too

paris, at home with books, home library, writer

My parents recently confessed a sort of “escape plan” they’ve been hatching as they edge near the idea of retirement.  If they’d spoken in Mandarin and confessed a double life, I could not have been more startled and impressed!

Their nearby Manhattan is involved, as is Charleston (don’t get me started on how I love Charleston), but most ambitious is their plan to live in Paris for six months.  Considering Paris real estate costs, I have teased that they could find themselves folded sideways into a 100 square foot atelier with a limited glimpse of daylight, if one were to climb a ladder and peek out beneath attic rafters. But, between you and me, I like to imagine them here, in this lovely flat I found for rent (at book-a-flat.com) during my continued hunt for rooms that epitomize this spirit we share, of Living With Books.

For the book lovers among us, don’t you love the authenticity of the books in the flat – as elegant as the room is, they look read, don’t they?

While my parents led us on tours of elegant plantations in the South, or castles and country houses in Ireland and Scotland, I must confess my  spot for the elegance of decay.  Look at the image on my novel project page and you will see how Havana has had its hooks in me for some years, tracking the neighborhoods a friend once had to leave. There were no books in the mildew and hurricane dampened pictures I have of current-day Cuba, but I can’t help be inspired by this iconic picture, below, of Hemingway’s home outside Havana.

hemingway at home in havana, living with books

Hemingway’s home in Havana – Living with Books

You might notice that, in picking great pictures of “living with books,” I love a room where books are clearly important to the inhabitants, but that doesn’t have to mean endless walls of books.  In these rooms, as in the bookshelves my mom includes in each bedroom she designs, the importance of a little library is clear without overwhelming the room.

In my last house, I found that trying to display all of my books in one place went beyond celebrating the pleasure I felt in them. Instead, they became a weighty presence in the room. In concepts of feng shui, it is important to not have things stacked high and towering in a room — as they symbolize and affect your spirit as “things hanging over you.”

Viceroy Hotel, Kelly Wearstler

Viceroy Hotel, Kelly Wearstler

If a collection seems burdensome, especially consider thinning books on higher shelves. No reader’s pride is lost to spread your collection between more than one room!

To read the first installment of this series, click here. Or, I’d love to hear your own experiences or suggestions for the next installment in the comments below!

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How Could This Be My Story?

Elissa Field fiction Jar of Teeth

c Elissa Field

I’ve been working on a short story that I really like, called “Jar of Teeth.” Much of the experience has been head-over-heels story-love.

I love the central trope of the teeth.  I have enjoyed, fascinated, the research the story has demanded: set in a natural history museum, texture coming from the main character’s job there. In no hurry to be done, researching and writing the story has taken several months beyond the week I laid down the initial storyline, about a conflict between a mother and daughter.

None of this surprises me.

But I was taken aback to discover, in this story and in one of the novel drafts I’ve been working with, undercurrents I had not set out to convey. A curve-ball in the process.

I am, in part, an occasional activist, a history teacher, an avid follower of international affairs. It should follow that, if I write a story about an issue about which I hold beliefs, those beliefs might be reflected (or even argued) in the story.

Yet I’ve been fascinated to realize that these two works have a message that is their own — not necessarily mine.

I’m not certain yet what I think of that, and this blog is my attempt to think it through.

When I wrote my very first novel draft (Breathing Water), I had to shut myself up: delete whole paragraphs of real world politics about balseros fleeing Cuba. If I believed it, if it was an important message for readers to know, should it be left in? No.  Historical context was interesting when it fit the thoughts and memories my characters would have, but I understood, even in my earliest drafts, that novels are about story, not diatribe, and extraneous “message” did not belong there and was edited out.

All the same, the unfolding events and character experiences were at least consistent with what I believed; they didn’t contradict my beliefs. That seems natural.

The raw novel draft I was working with this past week (so far called Rajeed’s Wife) was another matter. As written, in its raw state, it starts with a strong, independent, modern woman, who is thrown, through situation of the man she falls in love with, into a very traditional role.  She then falls prey to traditional dangers, in a near fairytale, Red-Riding-Hood-entering-the-forest manner that leaves her entirely vulnerable, near death, with her husband in the traditional role of trying to rescue her.

The retro-mythology was intentional, but I can’t help asking myself, Why?

Unlike my motivation in writing about my character who lost family members in his trip over from Cuba, this other draft does not evoke any “message” about the community it is set in.  The novel connects to recent international events but without attempting to take on an issue.  In some ways, if not in opposition to my beliefs, the focus on saving the main character is at least more petty than the conversations I get fired up about in current affairs.

It is unapologetic in being an in-and-out-of-the-wilderness tale about love, not social justice.

“Jar of Teeth,” on the other hand, does take on an ethical issue, albeit coming at it sideways, so the “issue” is never named, only described in parallel (or in chalk line) by what happens in the story. I wasn’t startled by the story, or the main character’s beliefs and actions. They rang true. But it surprised me to not realize until the story reached its third draft that the main character’s self-accusations implied a backhanded judgment of an entire worldview represented by her daughter.  Um, wow, I once marched on Washington over one view, and here my character is expressing relative condemnation of (at least her experience) of the same issue.

First reaction: insecurity.  Damn.  All this work and what I wrote is wrong.

Second: fascination.  How can a story I wrote, about a character I created, whose entire experience unfolded out of my own empathy and knowledge of what she would feel and do — go counter to my own beliefs?

Then: does a writer have a responsibility to only use the platform of publication for work that is consistent with their beliefs?  Is a story that goes against their own doctrine “broken”?

Somewhere, at this point, I found distance enough to realize: I wrote what was the truth of the characters and their story.  In conversation among writers and editors and agents and readers, over and over it’s said that what matters in fiction is having meaningful characters and revealing a compelling story.  A message may be inherent; readers may learn something. But this is not what gives a story life.  I knew, even when editing that first novel draft, that doctrine or moralizing can be death of the work.

The extreme then clicked: One only has to imagine Nabokov writing Lolita to get that one can write about things that run contrary to behavior they would recommend.

Clearly, the question isn’t whether I’m allowed to write ideas other than my world view, but what about discovering it in these drafts left me feeling insecure, as if I’d done something wrong?

For the raw novel draft, insecurity is sign that I need to understand why I would have written a contradiction. In the little time I’ve spent reflecting on this, by asking “why?” I begin to notice what may be missing in the story, or where energy is falling on the wrong foot. Other characters begin to speak and I think the story belongs to more view points than that central character. I get a stronger sense of where it is going, panic averted, especially knowing it’s a backburnered project, in line behind other work. No rush.

Not backburnered, “Jar of Teeth” begs to be done; a rift in concept would not be welcome. The contradiction plays out in my midnight thoughts. Does the story directly contradict my beliefs?  For example, since learning a friend’s son shot himself with her gun years ago, I’ve been against guns in a home with children, so it would go against my beliefs to publish a story that glamourized a gun in a child’s home (not this story’s theme).

I realize that the perspective in “Jar of Teeth,” is not a contradiction, but an idea at the periphery of my beliefs.  Like saying, “I hate war,” but writing compassionately of a soldier who found humanity or brotherhood in the trenches.

My father used to speak of night vision, when sailing in the dark: he taught me that things become invisible when you stare at them directly; you see them only by looking slightly to one side or the other.

I think this is what I was doing, with this story. Not writing directly what I might believe, but coming at it from an angle, with the added energy of challenging my usual thoughts. I hope this week’s insecurity has made me question my work in ways that ultimately make it stronger.

4/28: As follow up, here is an interesting perspective from guest blogger Mike Duran, on agent Rachelle Gardner’s site: “Are You Responsible for What Your Characters Say?” While Stephen King says criticism is usually provoked by dialogue, I can’t find my most dangerous revelations occur in interior character reflection.

 

And, what do you think?

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Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Chellberg barn, Indiana

A couple years ago, reading to kindergarteners, I had to pause and explain a barn to them. Red building, animals, in the picture in their storybook — they got that. They didn’t know the essence of driving down roads where barns stood on duty behind hundred year old family farmhouses. Didn’t know the gaps of daylight between rough-hewn siding, the smell of hay and manure and sweat, the forbidden dangerous glee of daring to jump from hayloft to floor. Didn’t know what it was to be absent all day, unaccounted for, only coming in for dinner smelling faintly of puppy and horse, hands and face smeared, hay jutting from loosened braids.

There comes a point where things that once had meaning no longer make sense.

We can’t cling to this or mourn it; it just is.

Yet it is a daily part of conversation.  “Ebook or print book?” hashtags debate all over twitter. Do we despise the ability to zap books instantly to our palm, if their existence eradicates the crisp smell of printed pages? Do we eye-roll at students who bypass libraries, assuming anything worth knowing has its own site?

This week I was reminded of another side to this: what of things we wanted gone? Do we bemoan these, as well, once they’ve left us?

Yes, in their own way. Drive out evil, but record it, turn a light on it, that it should not be repeated.

Arundhati Roy turns attention on child molestation, Toni Morrison on abuses against African-Americans, Lisa See on Chinese foot binding, Michael Cunningham on the AIDS epidemic, Jane Austen on gender bias in landholding rights, Jay Asher on suicide. German occupation, 9/11, drug and alcohol abuse, slavery, child neglect, fear of the wild, poverty. Those examples, just from the shelf in front of me, fall short of all literature seeks to record of what we wanted purged.

What is interesting is the feared void that follows such a purge: First the purge, then the teaching — the books, the movies, the retelling — to keep what was purged alive in our minds.

Much like needing to explain a barn, as mother to two young boys, I’ve had this thought close at mind over the past weeks, on heels of the controversy over the headline about Jeremy Lin, so stupidly published as “A Chink in the Armor.”

Author Matthew Salesses has come to my attention over the past year for his insight and intelligence, in writings I’ve followed through Twitter. He is someone I can identify with, as a sensitive parent, thinking ahead to the world his daughter will grow up in, but reflecting back, also, on the opportunities and exposure of his childhood. What I learned about him today is his perspective as an Asian American, which he reflects with exceptional candor and sensitivity in his essay, “Different Racisms…the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,” on the Rumpus.

After reading it, I tweeted my appreciation to him.

Seconds later, I couldn’t help adding: “FWIW, if I heard the word chink, an Asian slur would be the hundredth+ meaning I would think of. Dumb? Or just not my thinking?”

Tweets are limited in dimension. Even as I clicked to send this to him, I worried, considering the heart he bravely peeled open in his essay, would he think I was arguing, that I was trying to minimize or dispute the cruel things said?  So I later clarified with him: really, for better or worse, I hadn’t heard someone use “chink” to describe a person since I was in high school.  (Which was, um, not last year.)

In fact, in describing the barn, above, I began to say “chinks of light” come through the planks, an accurate representation of what I meant — but was suddenly disproportionately conscious of the word’s double-meaning, from reading his essay.

It’s not that Matthew’s essay was the first time this has occurred to me.

I spent my early childhood in Detroit, in a mixed race, mixed religion neighborhood. I’ve lived in homogenous, protestant white communities, but at the moment live in a neighborhood where we are the white minority, in race and culture. In Charlotte, North Carolina, I was bussed into the inner city and taught by a teacher who’d marched with Martin Luther King. I crave diversity in my friends and cultural interests, and tend to be a little hyper-sensitive about racism and other forms of bigotry.

But what happens, 20 years into “political correctness,” when we have lived so long shunning slurs?

In the first years, like me avoiding “chink” in describing the barn, we are hypersensitive of the Words We Must Not Say. We know these words. We catch them before they escape lips. We flinch when we hear them said. If we’re good, we roll eyes or even yell when friends try to slip them in as humor. (Equally, we know there are those who savor saying them in badness.)

Now comes the weakness. When do we become like kindergarteners, not knowing a barn?

Even for point of illustrating, I refuse to type a list of slur examples to make the point. I. will. not. type. those. words.

So how do we continue to know them and the impact they have?  How do my sons know I’d skin them alive for saying the n-word if I’ve purged it so fully that such conversation never comes up?

In this, do we reach a point where we don’t remember the words we were to avoid?

Quite fairly, Matthew challenged me. Would I really not think chink was a slur “even if [I] heard it addressed to an Asian person?”

Have I really never heard “chink” said of an Asian? Have I never witnessed an Asian friend feel marginalized? Shine a light on something and you see — or remember — what did not otherwise come readily to mind.  In North Carolina, in the all-white neighborhood where we lived one year, my girlfriend from the Philippines shared her immense pain and rejection over how different her family was from the families around us — no matter that I loved her family and remember her grandmother’s fish and rice (bane of her existence), affectionately, to this day. I went to high school outside of DC, where Asians made up 20-30% of our school (some born in the US, some whose parents were working temporarily in government agencies, a few who spoke little English). I read Matthew’s essay now and remember — in nauseous horror — that a beautiful friend of mine, who all my friends thought very highly of, was nicknamed Chinky. Did she like it? Did she accept it and say nothing? Did we ignore it blindly? Does she avoid being facebook friends now out of long ingrained pain caused by it?

Matthew’s essay raises the point that racism toward Asians is often dismissed as being flattering, as if that made it okay.

There’s another truth. Within the first chapter of the textbook for my education course on Diversity, I read one sentence that struck me as very powerful. Statistics proving bias were not disputed. But surveys reveal that the race(s) and gender favored by the biases do not associate themselves with originating the bias.  In the survey, it was white males saying they don’t think of themselves as wanting to perpetuate stereotypes that held others down, and saw themselves as products of the bias as much as those hurt by it. (I can’t help add that the grass isn’t greener: As a teacher, I’ve witnessed significant prejudice and judgment of white boys from teachers and peers, who blatantly judge them lazy, disruptive, trouble makers, etc. But that’s very different trend.)

The point of the survey grabbed me because I think the disassociation from responsibility goes further than just those at the top of the hierarchy. Take someone like me. I am a writer, well educated, particularly focused on understanding diverse cultures worldwide. I personally feel no prejudices against races or genders or religions. Know myself, rather, to crave differing perspectives.

Do I then become part of the problem? Because a person like me — a person who wants us all to get along and not re-engage prior offenses — isn’t going to take the preemptive step of saying, “Remind me of all the things I want to avoid doing.” I’m going to assume, just because my heart is in the right place, my words and actions will be without barbs. This isn’t just random theorizing. For years, I’ve called my boys my “monkeys.” I’m a friendly teacher and sometimes nicknames slip out when talking to a student. I came up cold one day, having just called a boy in my class monkey and wondering, “Wait. Is he going to think, ‘Aw, she likes me as much as her son’? Or is that a slur for something?”

Before teaching, I worked years in the courts, where political correctness was all consuming. No Christmas tree without a menorah beside it. No menorah or Christmas tree the year no one could figure out what to do about Kwanza or Ramadan. Race, disability, religion, gender, nationality, native language — we danced to be fair and equal with all, to the point even friends weren’t sure how to talk to one another any more.

But here I am, now dumb in my blindness to what might hurt others, bleached beyond sensitivity, back into dangerous territory.

Working to avoid pitfalls doesn’t mean they are no longer there. The fact we haven’t said a word or heard it lately doesn’t means bigotry isn’t alive and well — in memory or continuing experience.

It is a curious thing to wonder, are we at the point where remedial vocab training is needed? Do I teach my sons the words, the prior hurts, the things done wrong in the past, just to say, “Don’t do that”?

In literature, at least, we have the treatment, if not the cure. I told Matthew I thought his essay important. As happens throughout literature, he shines a light on one experience so that we can’t ignore the hurting that goes on, despite any best intentions.

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Photos from India + Bangladesh

photo varanasi ghats india akashOne of the novel projects I’ve had on hold while finishing revisions on the current work-in-progress has the fairytale mix of tragedy blended with magical euphoria that southeast Asia stirs in me.

In writing, we are told to suspend disbelief — to write images, characters, events with such insistence that a reader could not help but follow faithfully, no matter how reality might beg otherwise.

For me, India encapsulates this mantra, as it presents the impossible with the frank challenge of existence: You see me as I am, so I must be possible.

This magical duality — of fairytale beauty contrasting physical world impossibility — is often breathtaking in the photography of GMB Akash of Bangladesh.  Above, fires rise with the paradox of flames growing out of what they devour, as a saddhu skirts the foregrounds of funeral pyres along the ghats at Varanasi.

Below, our real-world brain acknowledges the third-world strife of precariously hung electrical wires, of the stairwell’s switchback between the crowded box of shared living space — yet the glow of color in the dark of night, captured by Akash’s lens become the loveliest of colored lanterns.

India photo Delhi AkashAs with fairytales, Akash’s photography serves as more than entertainment. Many of his most beautifully artistic, even idyllic shots, as the one below, were intended as cautionary tale. Beginning in 2006, Akash began photographing riders on the railways of Bangladesh to bring attention to the risks endured by stowaways, collected in his portfolio, “Nothing to Hold On To.”

Railway Bangladesh photo Akash

Below, one has the sense of a child adventuring in a fantastical world — perhaps Frodo in Lord of the Rings — yet it is the industry of a child foraging amid the rising gulls and mists of the dump.

picture india dump child

Other striking portfolios bring attention to “Vigilantes in Pink” — women of central India who have taken to wearing shocking pink saris in stubborn refusal to live in fear of corruption, violence and other abuses against women.

Womens rights India vigilantes in pink akash

Better than any workshop lecture could, certain photographs, certain places in our world teach me what it means to suspend one’s disbelief. There is magic in the realism of these images, and I applaud GMB Akash’s talents.

Click through for more stunning photography on his site, or read his most recent blog, “God Strangled me with his own hands” for example of another photo-dialogue he has raised for challenged communities.

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Living with Books

Monkeys reading. copyright Elissa Field no repro w-out permission

Monkeys reading. c. Elissa Field

When asked about designing bedrooms, my mother (Connecticut ASID designer, Julianne Stirling) once said that she makes sure to put a little bookcase in every room.

In my parents’ 230 year-old house off the village green in Fairfield, Connecticut, my boys’ favorite room has African-carved giraffes and a porcelain elephant hiding among the books on a carved case that also features a portrait of my grandparents when they still lived in North Africa at the end of World War II. Monkey prints parody my boys’ personalities as they read in bed. It is a room Kipling or Hemingway might have brought keepsakes home to.

At the back of the house, the girls’ room, where my nieces stay and where I stayed the night before my wedding, is more delicate, its curtains gathered high as if the empire waistlines of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibilities. A copy of Austen is likely tucked among the books held on an antique latticework shelf above the bed.

Long before my mom was an accomplished interior designer, back in the first house I remember, with the 70s lemon yellow shag carpet and turquoise leather chair, there were books in every room. Coffee table books of famous artists, designers and photographers. Picasso, the impressionists. Biographies of dignitaries, inventors, trendsetters. Henry Ford, Marilyn Monroe. And fiction. A leatherbound set of Fitzgerald. Updike. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Moveable Feast, Finca Vigia collected stories. Henry Miller. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And the fodder of avid readers: the bent-spined, inch-thick paperbacks whose pages aged brown by the time it was my turn to read them.

Coveted, to this day, are the found books. The hand-me-downs. There is a threadbare, heavy volume of fairy tales my Grandma Aho read to us from her childhood in Michigan’s upper peninsula, whose line drawings had been painted in watercolors by herself and her sisters as girls. I have pictures of the same girls straddling the shoulders of a draft horse, patting his neck to warn his heavy hooves from stomping cabbages as he navigated the garden. Equally loved: question arose over the holidays as to who last had the dozen original clothbound Nancy Drews, printed in the 30s and 40s, that had been passed from one cousin to another, then down to my cousins and myself.  Less lovely, but equally treasured, were the horse books left by my college-age aunt for me to discover at the cottage we all shared in the summer. Or the James Bonds my brother and I traded, or the military training guides he found in family footlockers. There was the elicit, always denied, hairy-armpit copy of The Joy of Sex that finally disappeared altogether. And there are the Bibles, passed down from the last-living members of various branches of the family, with patchy recording of births and deaths and marriages written inside the covers.

We were a family who lived with books.

I carried this with me as I set up my first houses. In college, novels advanced in a line along the baseboards around the wood floor in my Richmond rowhouse, arranged by country, by year of publication. In Florida, waiting for a hurricane, books were one of three things I protected with plastic bags and packed into a sheltered closet. Along with photographs, the few things I could not bear losing to a storm.

It hadn’t occurred to me this is idiosyncratic. I’d never lived in a house without books and never took time to think of it as unusual — a joy some of us share, in surrounding ourselves with the magical worlds we’ve discovered in those pages, loving the undulating ribbon of color and texture formed by a line of spines.

Coming across interior design photographs of great rooms with books has made me aware of this kindred reality some of us share: living with books. This new column will share some of my favorite Living With Books images, in monthly editions.

Here is the first:

I have always loved a dining room with books.

A dining room with books, featured at www.atticmag.com.

Fabulous photographer chotda (santos) has photographed a number of versions of a hue-spectrumed bookcase, most notably this one below.

I love this picture, by author, photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji, of a bookseller’s stall at Kolkata’s Annual Book Fair.

In this Chicago living room, featured by Architectural Digest, books hold their own against dramatic artwork. As much as I love books, the room’s balance is crucial, as a library should reflect the owner’s pleasure in books, and not feel a weighty burden.

And what about you? I’d love to hear your favorite experiences or memories, living with books.

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