Showing posts tagged stories

Junot Díaz

My plan [for This Is How You Lose Her] was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human—the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability. In my mind what novels do best is that they immerse us deeply into our character’s world—they truly transport us deep into these spaces—but the same way you know a Hollywood movie won’t end after thirty minutes, you carry in yourself the implicit contract that the novel won’t throw you out of itself ’til the very end. That bulk of pages is a form of consolation, of security.

Of course we all know that’s not how life works. The novel that is our life can end at any time. Sometimes even on page one. We know story collections end when they end, as well—the pages serving as a countdown—but nevertheless the standard story anthology hews closer to what makes being human so hard: it reminds you with each story how quickly everything we are, everything we call our lives can change, can be upended, can disappear. Never to return. Usually at the end of each story we’re thrown clear out of the story’s world and then we’re given a new world to enter. What’s unique about a linked collection is that it can deliver both sets of narrative pleasures—the novel’s long immersion into character-world and the story anthology’s energetic (and mortal) brevity—the linked collection is unique in its ability to be both abrupt and longitudinal simultaneously. How fucking cool is that?

from “The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Junot Díaz by Gina Frangello

 (Photograph by Nina Subin. Thank you, Ms. Subin and The Rumpus.)

Junot Díaz on the “profound terror that we call love”

Fifteen Minutes: Are most of the stories in your new collection “This is How You Lose Her” about love in some way?

JD: Love and its consequences. It’s really a book about the rise and fall of a Dominican male slut. How did the boy learn to be a male slut, or at least this particular boy? How he is formed, and how that formation undoes him in the end. Because one must reflect that many of the messages we labored under were piercingly contradictory.

FM: How so?

JD: On the one hand, we’re told that the sort of proof and excellence of a man is measured by how many girls he can get, by his lack of vulnerability, by his indifference and often his hostility towards what would be considered traditional women’s arenas: domesticity, love, familial bonds, nurturing, family. And then there’s the other side which is: Who the fuck can be whole, who the fuck can be human without intimacy, without encountering that profound terror that we call love? On the one hand, you’re being told that that shit doesn’t mean shit. That that shit is shit. And on the other hand, your heart is dying for it. And it’s not as if boys are victims. Boys, believe me, profit quite well from the patriarchal, heteronormative arrangement. But, on the other hand, there clearly is a price to be paid for being a loyal boy. I think it’s really, really interesting how we doubled down on our bullshit because we didn’t have anywhere else to go. If I get more girls, maybe I’ll feel better. If I’m more of a masculine prick, maybe I’ll feel better. Maybe you just dig yourself deeper into a hole.

[ … ]

FM: So you don’t consider yourself an asshole anymore?

JD: Oh, of course I do. That never goes away. Come on, one doesn’t let oneself off the hook that easily. I think that it’s not the situation where one is transformed, where one is instantly converted and the conversion sticks. The truth is that you manage that shit. But that shit doesn’t fucking go away—that’s why I think it’s sort of dishonest when dudes are like, “I’m a feminist.” I’m not certain if, given all the training we’re given, men can be feminists. I believe myself a feminist ally, but a feminist? I think it would be possible only when we have the matriarchal revolution we’re all dreaming for.

— from “Fifteen Questions with Junot Díaz” by Rebecca F. Elliott (The Harvard Crimson)

To be a man

No one has ever hidden it from him. They tell him the story over and over again, as though afraid that he might forget.

On some nights he opens his eyes and the pig has come back. Always huge and pale. Its hooves peg his chest down and he can smell the curdled bananas on its breath. Blunt teeth rip a strip from under his eye and the muscle revealed is delicious, like lechosa. He turns his head to save one side of his face; in some dreams he saves his right side and in some his left but in the worst ones he cannot turn his head, its mouth is like a pothole and nothing can escape it. When he awakens he’s screaming and blood braids down his neck; he’s bitten his tongue and it swells and he cannot sleep again until he tells himself to be a man.

Junot Díaz, from “No Face,” in Drown (Riverhead Books, 1996)

(Image by dabacahin.)

His Destiny

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.

Pa’ ’fuera! his mother roared. And out he would go, like a boy condemned, to spend a few hours being tormented by the other boys—Please, I want to stay, he would beg his mother, but she shoved him out—You ain’t a woman to be staying in the house—one hour, two, until finally he could slip back inside unnoticed, hiding himself in the upstairs closet, where he’d read by the slat of light that razored in from the cracked door. Eventually, his mother rooting him out again: What in carajo is the matter with you?

(And already on scraps of paper, in his composition books, on the backs of his hands, he was beginning to scribble, nothing serious for now, just rough facsimiles of his favorite stories, no sign yet that these half-assed pastiches were to be his Destiny.)

— from Footnote 6 in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

(Photograph by Gordon Parks. Thank you, Urban Art Gallery and The Gordon Parks Foundation.)

“But hey, it’s only a story, with no solid evidence, the kind of shit only a nerd could love.”

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert: LIVE from the NYPL

(Sometimes the gods smile on me. They say, “OK, take a break from all your brooding and whining. We bring you two of today’s smartest, funniest, spunkiest, and loveliest writers. Listen and laugh and learn.” Ann and Liz. I think they should do a road movie à la “Thelma and Louise” or co-host a talk show to outwit Letterman and Colbert. These two fantastic writers are not just making jewelry for the inside of my head; they’re pumping back life into my days. Thank you, Ms. Patchett and Ms. Gilbert.)

Gilbert:  I’ve been telling people that the motto of The Signature of All Things, that the lesson is that disappointment does not kill women. Because one of the great themes of all novels is that women cannot endure disappointment or betrayal—

Patchett:  —and they must be punished for their mistakes

Gilbert:  —and they must be mercilessly punished

Patchett:  mercilessly punished

Gilbert:  —particularly for sensual errors or bad judgment

Patchett: —especially by Wallace Stegner [laughter]

Gilbert:  —and they must be either rescued or ruined…. And I don’t know a single woman I admire who’s ever been either one of those things. We may have at some time dreamt or feared that either of those things would occur but most likely didn’t. The women that I know who are wise and remarkable and powerful whom I admired didn’t get that way by stuff working out. They got that way by stuff not working out. And then using the amazing superpower of women which is to take disappointment with alchemy and turn it into wisdom. And then look back on their lives and say, “I didn’t necessarily get everything that I wanted, but I got amazing things that I didn’t expect. And I’ve lived with dignity. And I’m really glad I did that journey. And it’s been interesting.” And that’s the story that I want to tell.   

Watch the full video here.

(Thank you, New York Public Library and YouTube.)

Dream of flying upside down

This morning I had a dream of flying upside down. It starts with my brother and me on a motorbike. He’s driving, I’m hanging on. I’m quietly freaking out, not knowing where exactly we’re going or how we’ll ever get there. The motorbike is treading on nothing but air. It swerves around cliffsides, hugging jagged slopes of reddish brown rocks. The tires never touching the ground, we maneuver our way around the precipice. Suddenly I’m off the bike, my brother gone. I dive and cling with both arms around a long, wide railing that curves upward while some kind of reverse gravity keeps pulling my feet up, higher and higher, faster and faster. I’m afraid I’ll lose my grip and fall. I hear someone say, “Let go!” And though I’m terrified, I slowly, involuntarily, loosen my hold. I see other people suspended in air, gliding separately upside down, most of them with arms outstretched in glee. I get the idea: let go like in bungee jumping, your feet safely bound or anchored while you fall and swing. It’s all terrifying and exhilarating; you’re tethered yet liberated. Learn to fall, enjoy the lift, hang in there. And so I start to unhook my arms from the railing. My eyes begin to adjust to this upside-down world. But then the alarm went off. It was 4:30 a.m. Back to where I was, in my room, in bed, in my body and all its symptoms and needs for care and repair. I woke up, went to the bathroom. I peed. This time no visible blood, no palpable pain. Perhaps it was too early in the day. I went back to bed, back to sleep.

I didn’t go to the nephrologist today. I’ll go on Monday instead—see him, then the urologist, and take it from there. It’s been three weeks of consultations, tests, interpretations, second and third opinions. Still nothing definite, nothing cured. Yesterday, I found out that, for the second time, I didn’t pass the creatinine test. Then, for the first time, I had to talk to a surgeon. We discussed two options; for both I’d need clearance from a cardiologist. Oh sure, the more the merrier. Then I was back with the (family medicine) doctor at my HMO, hoping to get a clearer view of the forest, not just the trees. I told her, “I’m getting depressed and confused.” What to do next. Which symptoms or diagnoses or procedures to put aside for a while. She patiently listened, gave forthright advice, smiled. I was comforted briefly. Then the pain or pains returned. I know not all of them should take top priority. There are other urgent things to do, to examine, to fix. I also know I shouldn’t give up “the process,” as my sister referred to it last night. She came to my room to chat, to ask how I’ve been. She, too, was a source of comfort. But I wasn’t so responsive. I was tired, scared, sad, pissed off. I told her I don’t feel like going back to the hospital. I want to take a very long break from the process. She felt it was important to find out at least what the doctors would say after all the tests and procedures (assuming they’d finally agree on something), then I could decide whether I wish to continue from there.

I wish I could just wake up from this nightmare. Why am I here? What is this? Can’t they all just continue the process without me? So melodramatic. Get some perspective, man. You’re not an invalid, you’re not in a coma. It’s not AIDS or ALS or brain cancer. It could be some other kind of cancer, but until you know that, there’s no way you can stop in the middle of the story. Or, as my sister asked, “Wouldn’t you want to know where all this ends?” I said no. Not right now. But I do appreciate her kindness and her reminder: “It might help to take it one day at a time.” I remember something from one of those books I’ve been reading lately—illness narratives, tales about doctors and patients, the search for medical answers playing out like detective novels or the Theater of the Absurd. In his comprehensive scientific study, The Placebo Response and the Power of Unconscious Healing, Richard Kradin, M.D., says: “Often all that is required for healing is a good night’s sleep.” Removed from the book’s multidisciplinary context, that sounds oversimplified, of course. But Dr. Kradin’s comment echoes a piece of advice from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Early in her megaselling (and undeservingly often maligned) memoir, she tells of kneeling on the bathroom floor at three in the morning, praying and sobbing, confused and inconsolable, then hearing a voice that says: “Go back to bed, Liz.”

Go back to bed, because the only thing you need to do for now is get some rest and take good care of yourself until you do know the answer. Go back to bed so that, when the tempest comes, you’ll be strong enough to deal with it. And the tempest is coming, dear one. Very soon. But not tonight. Therefore:

Go back to bed, Liz.

Gilbert believes it is her own voice (“it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice …. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate”). She hears this voice after asking God, Please tell me what to do. And it’s the same thing patients ask their doctors. Gilbert’s conception of God—or the beauty of her book—is not as simple or simplistic as you might think. Medicine—or the pursuit of diagnoses and cures—is not as sure or straightforward as you might expect. I’m not about to prescribe eat, pray, love, sleep as a placebo for anyone’s ordeals, medical or otherwise. But sometimes, despite—or because of—the creatinine test failures and chronic pains, you somehow learn to listen to your own voice. In dreams or nightmares, you learn to fall and fly and work your way around the precipice.

A story can always break into pieces

“Wanting to know absolutely what a story is about, and to be able to say it in a few sentences, is dangerous: it can lead us to wanting to possess a story as we possess a cup. We know the function of a cup, and we drink from it, wash it, put it on a shelf, and it remains a thing we own and control, unless it slips from our hands into the control of gravity; or unless someone else breaks it, or uses it to give us poisoned tea. A story can always break into pieces while it sits inside a book on a shelf; and, decades after we have read it even twenty times, it can open us up, by cut or caress, to a new truth.”

Andre Dubus, from “A Hemingway Story,” in Meditations from a Movable Chair

(Photograph by Gregorio C. Thank you, Mr. C and slowgree.)

(Reblogged from slowgree)

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion, The White Album


We hail our relations, seek connections
“When we human beings want to understand or describe singular people in particular situations that unfold over time, we reach naturally for narrative, or storytelling, to do so. When we try to understand why things happen, we put events in temporal order, making decisions about beginnings, middles, and ends or causes and effects by virtue of imposing plots on otherwise chaotic events. We hail our relations with other human beings over time by receiving and alluding to stories told by others—in myths, legends, histories, novels, and sacred texts. We seek connections among things through metaphor and other forms of figural language. By telling stories to ourselves and others—in dreams, in diaries, in friendships, in marriages, in therapy sessions—we grow slowly not only to know who we are but also to become who we are. Such fundamental aspects of living as recognizing self and other, connecting with traditions, finding meaning in events, celebrating relationships, and maintaining contact with others are accomplished with the benefit of narrative. A medicine practiced with narrative competence will more ably recognize patients and diseases, convey knowledge and regard, join humbly with colleagues, and accompany patients and their families through the ordeals of illness. These capacities will lead to more humane, more ethical, and perhaps more effective care.”
— from Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by Rita Charon, M.D. 
(Image: Thank you, Barnes & Noble.)

We hail our relations, seek connections

“When we human beings want to understand or describe singular people in particular situations that unfold over time, we reach naturally for narrative, or storytelling, to do so. When we try to understand why things happen, we put events in temporal order, making decisions about beginnings, middles, and ends or causes and effects by virtue of imposing plots on otherwise chaotic events. We hail our relations with other human beings over time by receiving and alluding to stories told by others—in myths, legends, histories, novels, and sacred texts. We seek connections among things through metaphor and other forms of figural language. By telling stories to ourselves and others—in dreams, in diaries, in friendships, in marriages, in therapy sessions—we grow slowly not only to know who we are but also to become who we are. Such fundamental aspects of living as recognizing self and other, connecting with traditions, finding meaning in events, celebrating relationships, and maintaining contact with others are accomplished with the benefit of narrative. A medicine practiced with narrative competence will more ably recognize patients and diseases, convey knowledge and regard, join humbly with colleagues, and accompany patients and their families through the ordeals of illness. These capacities will lead to more humane, more ethical, and perhaps more effective care.”

— from Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by Rita Charon, M.D.

(Image: Thank you, Barnes & Noble.)

Diane Ackerman: “Telling and listening to stories are life-saving acts”

In our own private mind theaters, we are constantly talking to ourselves, yelling at a boss, beseeching a lover, scolding a workman, exchanging witticisms with celebrities, rehearsing different versions of encounters, talking through problems, confiding in ourselves. Children as young as three years old conduct conversations with themselves and invent curious stories. The moment a child is born it is told stories by adults, and it learns what role it plays in the saga of the family. Sometimes the stories are simple: “Your daddy is mowing the grass,” or “Here’s a little bear that’s coming to see you.” Sometimes they’re angry epics of trouble. Children are steeped in narratives. Then they tell their own and add them to the storytelling sounds of the entire human race.

Our stories help us understand a terrifyingly confusing and dangerous world, most of which is riddle. For the world to feel safe, we need to make sense of it, especially when we encounter setbacks and misfortunes that shatter our confidence. Telling anecdotes to friends, we reveal our true natures, we’re not just offering the what and when of our lives. How was your trip? someone asks. The answer gives more than the whereabouts and the weather. It includes encounters, small triumphs, accidents, embarrassments, revised attitudes. Anecdotes alert our friends and loved ones to our basic values, biases, qualities, and concerns—and also how those vital pieces of identity are changing over time. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we revise the facts to fit our evolving sense of self. As the vocabulary of life changes, we need our memory to say something fitting, something that makes sense in a newly ordered world. How we tell the story influences how we feel about ourselves. Change your story and you change your identity.

That’s why, Jungian psychologist James Hillman observes, psychotherapy really amounts to “a collaboration between fictions.” People go into therapy to find a “plot to live by,” psychotherapist Susan Bauer agrees. “They come as if to a professional biographer” to remodel their past and discover a plausible history. [ … ]

According to studies done by James Pennebaker at Southern Methodist University, confiding strengthens one’s immune system. So by simply listening to the confidences of a caller, we perform a life-saving act. Callers [at our Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center] sometimes refer to us as their friends, who offer them genuine support and make them feel less alone. But there is also the benefit of venting one’s troubles instead of stewing in them. When people clarify their troubles, turning them into a narrative, and giving them just enough order to communicate to someone else, the fog lifts briefly and the world becomes a place that can be better understood, even if it isn’t fully enjoyed. Writing books is a form of confiding, too, a way of continuing the conversation with oneself in public. In Pennebaker’s studies, people who didn’t confide were more prone to disease and stress and early death. Much of their physical energy went into containing and hiding emotions, and that led to high blood pressure and a weaker immune system.

Why should describing an event change our feelings about it? By telling stories we assimilate frightening or unexplained events, and fit them into a world where action is possible. One becomes less helpless. Suddenly there are many options for escape or relief, many explanations for how an event that may have turned the world upside down can fit comfortably into one’s life. [ … ]

— from A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis by Diane Ackerman

“Being good was not enough. The mistakes he reviewed were not evil deeds but errors of aimlessness, passivity, an echoing internal silence. And when he rose in the morning (having waited out the night, watching each layer of darkness lift slowly and painfully), he was desperate with the need to repair all he had done, but the only repairs he could think of were also aimless, passive, silent. In books a pilgrimage would pass through a fairytale landscape of round green hills and nameless rivers and pathless forests. He knew of no such landscape in America. Fellow pilgrims in leather and burlap would travel alongside him only long enough to tell their stories—clear narratives with beginnings, middles, ends and moral messages, uncluttered by detail—but where would he find anyone of that description?”

Anne Tyler, Celestial Navigation

Rebecca Solnit: “A sentence is a road and reading is traveling”

This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path in the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features in a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide—a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling…. Perhaps those Chinese scrolls one unrolls as one reads preserve something of this sense. The songlines of Australia’s aboriginal peoples are the most famous examples conflating landscape and narrative. The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert, while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.

— from Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

All are chasing God

“The spiritual writer … acts in service to something higher, purer, truer than himself. In a sense, of course, everyone does; Eliade correctly observed that ‘even beneath its radically desacralized forms, Western culture camouflages magico-religious meanings that our contemporaries, with the exception of a few poets and artists, do not suspect.’ Don Juan chasing skirts, eccentric collectors chasing Lepidoptera, nuclear physicists chasing the quark: all are chasing God. This is true also of those who chase reality through the artistic manipulation of words. Every mystery novel points toward the mystery of existence; every erotic tale, the divine lover; every poem, the language of paradise. In spiritual writing, however, the implicit becomes explicit, eschatology lifts its veil, and—following Coleridge—ignorance gives birth, after a mighty labor, to adoration. Spiritual writing, whether storytelling, confession, exposition, memoir, manifesto, argument, scholarship, poetry, or any of its other myriad forms, becomes the literary equivalent of puja, of self-effacing devotion and service. This shared sense of service binds together the writings in this and every volume of the series. How could it be otherwise? In a thousand years, all the words we will write will be dust; only the good they may have done will continue to bear fruit.”

— from Philip Zaleski’s foreword to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008, edited by Mr. Zaleski (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

(Image by dabacahin.)

Telling stories about yourself

“Is the unexamined life worth living? Or Socrates’ great motto, Know thyself. […] I was probably forced by disposition and depression to examine myself at great length before I ever put anything to paper. It’s not like there was information I didn’t get into earlier drafts, but obviously immersion in such subject matter is cathartic. We remember through that filter of self, and to bring my fifty-plus-year-old body back to that time was edifying. Do I think everybody should do it? Yeah, I think we fall in love and become adults and become citizens in a way by writing stories about ourselves. We have one story when we’re living with our parents and they’re these Colossi, another story when we leave home, and then you’re thirty-something and it’s a different story. So telling stories about yourself, whether on a therapist’s couch, or in the arms of your beloved, or on paper, is one of the ways we become adults. We grow up by honing the narrative.”

Mary Karr, Lit (from the Huffington Post interview by Steve Ross)

(Photograph:  Albert Braun with Mirror, c. 1928, by Lotte Stam-Beese. Thank you, 1stdibs.)