Pickled letters_Istanbul

Pickled letters at a graphic design studio in Istanbul.

I’ve been quiet since the presidential election. Like many people, the election threw me—not because I didn’t think he could win, but because I couldn’t imagine it. Me, a fiction writer who speculates about nearly everything, playing out what ifs, the outcomes and meanings of various scenarios in my head, couldn’t imagine what the United States would look like with Trump as president. And after, I took it as a national and personal tragedy, thought I’d never feel happiness or hope again. As well as taking a close look at my country, I looked at myself, my life, my work. My fiction writing. And I wondered what it was worth.

Several people told me: You’re a writer. You have the power to influence people and promote change. Use your skills. So I felt this pressure, this obligation to write essays that would move people to take some kind of action. I felt the importance of my fiction writing diminish in the face of such dire times. Unless I was writing something like 1984, writing fiction felt indulgent, frivolous.

In an interview with Turkish novelist Elif Shafak on the New Yorker Radio Hour, David Remnick commented that it seemed like she was writing about politics in spite of herself—almost against her will. She replied that she doesn’t have the luxury to not be political, given the oppressive situation in Turkey and the fact that she’s Turkish.

Writing at Ataturk Airport

Writing at Istanbul Atatürk Airport

I also felt like I was writing about politics against my will, and I also felt that same obligation as an American who believes in protecting—and fighting for—equality and civil liberties. To protect the ability to criticize, state opinions without repercussions, and yes—write whatever we want.

And that’s key. When I spent some time in Istanbul last November, I learned from Turkish artists that one of the most rebellious things you can do to protest a political system bent on killing free expression is to keep doing your art. Thinking, writing, creating—are dangerous to the regime. When author and badass Naomi Klein was last in Seattle, she remarked that it was important to not just say no to the Trump agenda. We also need to “fiercely protect some space to dream and plan for a better world. This isn’t an indulgence. It’s an essential part of how we defeat Trumpism.”

After writing essays, letters to representatives, and valentines to Washington State mosques, I began to incorporate fiction into my writing life again, cultivate it, let it take up more space. And it feels goods. Fiction’s my home. It’s the best way I can be a part of the world. Stories make us human, help us understand one another, provoke us to ask questions. Exercising this civil liberty is active protest. And it’s worth everything.

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At a recent reading at the Seattle Public Library, Colson Whitehead said of his new novel, The Underground Railroad: “I wrote this book when I was ready to write it. I wouldn’t have been able to fifteen years ago.” The idea came to him back then, but said he knew he wasn’t good enough to write the story.

In a moment when I’m looking at the scraps and beginnings of a second novel, when I’m feeling the pressure of age and mortality, feeling in a hurry to get all these ideas out before I die, it’s good to keep in mind that there is time—and regardless, the work will come out when it’s damn well ready to. And you want it that way. Really.

The two must converge: Your skill as a writer and it as an idea. I think of how it would be had I attempted to write The Good Sister in my twenties, when I’d just returned from Mexico and was living in a friend’s basement, trying to adapt to my new/old world while trying to make sense of the experience I’d had. It would’ve been a terrible book along the lines of my angsty journals, if it had been able to cohere at all.

Sometimes I scold myself for not having worked harder on my writing in my twenties, that I should have worked through the post-college bewilderment via pounding out a book, putting my writing career in motion much earlier than at say, forty. But I know I couldn’t have completed my first novel sooner than I did. It needed all that time. It needed seventeen years.

Had Whitehead gotten ahead of himself and tried to write The Underground Railroad when he got the idea, he said he would’ve screwed it up. So he shelved it, trusting there would be time. In between then and now (and now the novel is on the National Book Award longlist), he wrote other novels—got a little better, failed, had a relapse, got a little better…

A moth flitted about in the light, eventually circling down to Whitehead as if to look him directly in the face. He laughed and gently brushed it away. “My spirit animal,” he said.

Having spent a lot of time going to readings and talks, it was strange to be on the other side, looking out at the audience rather than being in the audience. As I stood there at Book Warehouse Main Street in Vancouver preparing to read, I remembered a couple of things heard and overheard in Seattle before I left for this event.

Random guy in Cal Anderson Park, talking to his friends: “When you go in there, you’re nervous, right? So what I do is slowly scan the crowd…then they get nervous.”

Poet Cedar Sigo, at the Sorrento Hotel for the APRIL festival: “A nervous breakdown and a good reading are closely related.”

I didn’t put either of those things into practice that night (not intentionally, anyway), but any form of nervousness I might’ve felt was drowned out by a lot of love—from my parents and aunts who made it up to Vancouver from eastern Washington; from my friend Yukmila who flew out from Washington, D.C.; from UBC Creative Writing co-chairs Annabel Lyon and Linda Svendsen, as well as so many friends and allies who helped with the book; my agent, Dean Cooke, who flew all the way out from Toronto; from the lovely, gracious folks at Book Warehouse.

There was also the incredible Minelle Mahtani, host of the 98.3 Roundhouse Radio show Sense of Place, which I was on the following morning. She surprised me during the interview with a clip she’d recorded of my dad talking about my writing. You can listen to the interview here.

All came together to make a wonderful book launch, despite the rain clouds that gathered outside the door after a bright, sunny day. And the rain did eventually come. But it didn’t bother us. We made our own light.

 

spines

Here. It. Comes.

When I first held the completed, printed, real-book version of The Good Sister in my hands, I burst into tears, overwhelmed. In between the (may I say lovely) front and back covers are years of not only writing and editing, but years of life—beginning in 1993, when I first travelled to Mexico City, and on through 1999, when I lived in Baja. Those were the beginnings, but I did not know then I would write a novel. Add to that grad school and jobs and relationships and a whole lot of life changes, this book that isn’t about me oddly contains so much of my life. Then I thought of all the people, more than I can name, who contributed in one way or another to this book, to the stories within the book. Stories that go far beyond these pages.

And what pages they are! Soft and deckle-edged, smelling of new ink. I turned them, marveling that the book had pages. Then I freaked out over page numbers: My book has page numbers? Each sentence is affiliated with its own specific page number? This is amazing! I imagine this might be what it’s like for a mother to hold her newborn child, marveling at the fact of the baby’s toes and ears and nose.

So here it is—world, this is The Good Sister.

Good Sister, this is the world.

At the Hugo House Literary Series in April, novelist Andrew Sean Greer introduced the story he wrote for the prompt (“All is Fair in Love and War”): “I haven’t read this piece,” he said. “Not just aloud—but at all.”

Earlier, my friend Erin Fried and I were talking about how some people can offer up what they write as soon as they write it. For National Poetry Month, friends of hers wrote a poem a day and posted every single one online. Erin was exasperated. “How can they do that?” she asked, meaning: Why can’t she? For so many of us, it takes a while to feel a piece is good enough to show others. That’s normal. But it made me wonder how much of that is perfection of craft, and how much is fear about how it will reflect us: If the piece isn’t good enough, then neither are we. I agonize over every bit of writing before I put it out there—even this blog post. But what if, just for a while, I didn’t?

For one, it might be really fun. As Andrew Sean Greer read, he was as surprised and amused at elements of his story as the audience was. It was also revealing—Greer could only be himself, the act of writing exposed. Weird turns he took in his story and didn’t remember taking made for a kind of crash performance where anything could happen.

It struck me as rather brave. When I mentioned this to him after the show, he said he could to do it because he’d just turned in a novel he’d been working on for years. It felt so good to work on something that wasn’t the novel, he said—it was like going out and having wild sex again. “Not that I know what that’s like,” he added. “I’ve been married for 20 years now.”

I just completed my first novel, The Good Sister—it is at the printers’ as I write this—so I can understand a bit of what Greer is talking about. I do feel release as I begin embarking on a whole new project open to limitless possibility. However, I still find myself bound to shoulds—“marching orders,” as writers Ryan Boudinot and Aimee Bender call them. Some kind of boss in you says you should write about one thing, while your heart is aching to write about another. The boss’s voice is really loud; I end up succumbing too often.

This time, though, I’m putting up a really good fight. The writing is really fun, and I aim to keep it so. The agonizing can—and will—come later.

 

IMG_2646

Pieces of a torn up story. Later, I reconstructed it.

When he was thirty, artist Richard Kehl said he burned everything he’d ever done. All his artwork—up in flames. Not only was it liberating to burn things, it was the only way to see with “beginner’s eyes”—and we must always see with beginners eyes, he said.

As someone who saves just about every draft of everything she writes, this struck me with both horror and seductive intrigue. I wondered what would happen if I burned all my many boxes of papers—drafts of poems, stories and novels, and in some cases, the original works themselves. But I couldn’t imagine ever doing it. What if I lost something vital in there that would never return to me? But, too, what if these kept boxes were keeping me from moving into deeper, richer territory as a writer?

In a KUOW interview, novelist Jonathan Evison talked about how he buried his first novel attempts. He wouldn’t disclose burial location or anything about these novels, only indicated that they were really bad and that they needed to be buried, rather than another method of destruction. He found the effect cathartic, clearing the way for his first published novel.

Sandra Cisneros, when asked at a reading in Seattle what advice she’d give a beginning writer, said that one should write the truth, write all the things one doesn’t want to write or even think about, then tear the papers up into tiny little pieces—eat them, burn them, or let them float down the river.

Tempting as that is, I find myself grateful for those writers who at least kept some of their raw drafts. To see their processes, mistakes, bad lines and titles is comforting. Even those considered our very best have often begun on shaky footing. I remember seeing an exhibition at the National Library in Dublin of W. B. Yeats’s early drafts of poems and feeling heartened by his struggles to find the right word or line. He began by failing.

Early drafts are also works of art in their own right, with marginalia and strikethroughs and rewrites between the lines. I love seeing the draft destroyed with ink and reconstructed anew, constantly shape-shifting to find its true self. It’s enough to keep me creating, writing—and seeing with “beginner’s eyes.”

Dan Smith and Claudio Sotolongo find a poster by Darwin Fornés in a shop in La Habana.

Dan Smith and Claudio Sotolongo find a poster by Darwin Fornés in a shop in La Habana.

I’d never really written an article before, and as I was writing what became “The Miracle of Saint Lazarus” in the Seattle Weekly, I found it a challenge to stick to the truth. What is the truth, anyway? We are constantly reinventing what we saw, what we heard, what really happened. Thankfully, I kept crazy notes and we recorded interviews and conversations, and my friend Dan took over 4,000 photographs—so usually there was something I could check my writing against. I was amazed how many things I did get wrong. I mixed up who said what, the colors of shirts and locations in Havana; a coconut shell became a baseball cap. It made me question all my memories, all the things I absorbed as truth, and made me wonder—did any of it really happen that way? Likely not.

In an article, as in memory or in the many stories that make up our lives, events and details are arranged in a way that makes a better story, not necessarily how they happened in life. Some details are brought out while others are tossed into the ditch altogether, and moments and meetings with people that stretched out over days are strung into one narrative.

But what I found most fascinating about writing a piece of non-fiction is that while the story seems to live in a frame, its tendrils are already extending out of that frame almost as soon as it’s written, seeking new soil, new stories. It’s a living, breathing being that has its own life.

In the time between the publication of the article in mid-February and now, designer Idania del Río’s shop Clandestina finally opened; designer and tattoo artist Roberto Ramos opened a tattoo poster exhibition, and designer Darwin Fornés is moving forward with a new exhibition of posters for the Havana Biennale, a collaboration with designers from Seattle and from Havana, partially inspired by the Seattle Weekly article. This exhibition, he wrote in an email from Havana, will consist of cartoon characters from the US (which in the past were seen by the Cuban government as a dangerous ideological influence) and cartoon characters of Cuba. He said that “all of them together will look like a only one looong poster, like el malecon habanero.” They are working hard, he added, to get official permission to post the posters in some public spaces—which is a really big deal.

So Cuban artists, too, keep pushing themselves and their art out of their frames. The story never ends—it only keeps expanding.