ON WRITING/READING WITHIN LIMITED POSSIBILITIES

The book-reading, movie-watching nook of my apartment.

The book-reading, movie-watching nook of my apartment.

(The following post includes spoilers for the movie Samurai Rebellion and the novel The Underground Railroad. Neither of them are new, but if you care about not knowing the ending before you begin, you are hereby warned…)

I recently finished reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, and long before I got to the end, I found myself rooting for some sort of enduring romance to realize itself between Cora, who I think it would be fair to call the story’s protagonist, and Royal, a free black man who rescued her from a runaway slave patrol. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Royal is murdered by white racists and Cora has to make her way without him. I found his murder sad, and heartbreaking, but came to realize that it was also incredibly honest, because for every living body who made it out of slavery, who escaped that evil, tyrannical, racist system, there must have been almost countless others who fell victim to it. Also, the number of almost countless others is colossal, and exponentially greater than the ones who made it out. And the ones who made it out must have borne deep and wrenching psychic (and physical) scars not only from living through their own pain, pain caused in the case of slavery by the colonialism and racism of others, but from sharing time, and space, and hopes, and dreams with those who didn’t escape.

It occurs to me that one of the effects of writing/reading truly unhappy stories of people caught up in history, in the lash of events caused by malignant humans and governments (which are made up of humans), is that when we write/read the scenes in which these people live, we are not just living with the success stories, if you will, by which I suppose I simply mean that staying alive in the face of odds counts as a success story, we are also looking into the lives of the people who have, in other, nonfictional, official history book terms, been swallowed whole. (Swallowed whole, I mean, in the sense that we don’t know their names or the details of their lives.)

I love a ‘happy’ ending, but accept the honesty of Royal’s death, and that, speaking historically, there have been a lot of Royals.

Classifying The Underground Railroad as historical fiction would be incorrect, mostly because of the contemporary feel of how the railroad itself is treated. Whitehead’s creation is just that, an actual railroad that traverses dug-out underground passageways. To my knowledge, the existence of certain government structures described in the novel is also fictional, but nonetheless grounded in the very real history of racism and in real events with racist motivations.

Jump to another piece of art, my favorite film, Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion, released in 1967. The story takes place in Japan in 1725 and revolves a lifelong loyal swordsman who, for the love of his son, daughter-in-law, and infant granddaughter, defies his feudal lord. The story is such: Kiku is a courtesan who gets kicked out of court after a fit of postpartum jealousy. She’s shunted off to the swordsman’s son. They fall in love against the odds. The lord’s heir dies and he demands to have Kiku back, because she is the mother of the new heir. The swordsman (played to great effect by Toshiro Mifune, by the way) refuses. The film is based on a true story. In the film, everybody who is disobedient is killed in the end (although there’s a ray of hope at the end when we see a servant rescuing the baby granddaughter). Maybe anything else would be a lie. Maybe anything else would lie outside of strict historical possibility.

Samurai Rebellion differs from The Underground Railroad in that it is based on a single, historical incident, whereas perhaps we could say that The Underground Railroad is based on an entire history, even as the story insists we realize that the history in question is made up of individual people with separate and unique hearts and minds. However, both stories serve as examples of how writing/making art within/about the past comes with responsibility. As writers create characters within the possibilities of the timeframes in which their characters exist, readers should accept that the tragedy embedded in some of these stories comes from the very real friction between the striving of warm, beating human hearts against the virtual and sometimes literal prisons of a brutal world. What furthers the tragedy? That world isn’t cold or impersonal. No. It’s full of the warm, beating hearts of antagonists who work actively against the humanity of the protagonists. In The Underground Railroad, the motivation of the antagonists is racism (and the ‘beneficial’ economics behind the ‘free’ labor enabled by chattel slavery, no doubt). In Samurai Rebellion, the antagonists’ motivations seem to be linked to the authoritarianism inherent in upholding strict feudal structures.

That’s all I’ve got. Just something I’ve been thinking about.

LEARNING TO SEE

A shot from the opening scene of  Samurai Rebellion.

A shot from the opening scene of Samurai Rebellion.

Well. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m ready to query agents for my Beowulf novel. It’s been some time since the first word of the (totally different) ur-draft of this thing, and there have been other things that have happened in between then and now. But it has recently struck me that it took me so long to find my fiction-writing stride because I was trying to write into received form.

By which I simply mean: tab over for the first line of a paragraph.

I started breaking out of this when I started dabbling in short fiction last year. Instead of an initial tab, I started each paragraph at the left-hand margin. I wrote blocks of text with section breaks. (I like to write in sections, so this suited my personal narrative style.)

Meanwhile, I was struggling with an earlier draft of my Beowulf novel. I had the characters, the plot, but I couldn’t get the language right. This frustrated me to no end. I’m a poet. I can do language. So, what was going on? Why were paragraphs so difficult for me?

Then I read Max Porter’s Grief Is This Thing With Feathers and the proverbial light went on. (Seriously, if you have not read his book, check it out.) Suffice it to say, Porter finds a way to marry form and story in his short tale of a recently widowed Ted Hughes scholar and his two sons, who are all mourning the loss of their wife and mother.

I started a new draft of my Beowulf novel and started writing with hanging indents so that the language scrolled across the page, and this made me feel more connected with my subject matter (which, after all, is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem) and more able to plug into rhythm.

Fast forward to yesterday. Yesterday, I watched this short film, Skateboard Confessional from Mitch Mitchell, and loved it because it is funny, and tender, and sweet, but I also noted the way the cinematography interacts with everything else that is happening here. And I was reminded that film, like poetry, tells a story (or gets its point across, if you don’t want to think of a poem as a story) in more than one way. There’s what people do and say. There’s the plot of a film, or what happens in a poem, but there’s also always the form of the telling.

(For years I didn’t realize that this could be true in fiction as well, to my detriment. But reading authors like Han Kang and Ali Smith has cured me of that.)

What strikes me about Skateboard Confessional is the (I think) almost self-mocking art film quality of it all (black-and-white, some edgy music, the camera angles) coupled and contrasted with the incredible personable-ness of the actor making the confessions and the weird, yet familiar quality of these mundane, but pressing, admissions. (Whether these confessions are real or imagined hardly matters in my mind.) The effect is again, incredibly sweet and feels funny and awfully honest.

And then, after thinking about all of this, I sort of had to sit around and mourn for a few moments that I haven’t spent nearly enough time watching good film recently, and that good film, in which the cinematography plays a vital role in telling story, can be just as inspiring to me as poetry, where everything from space on the page, to line breaks, to syntax helps explain to me just what is going on.

And then this all takes me back to my college film class and the stern talk the professor, whose first name was Art, gave us—many of us were English majors—about how a film wasn’t exactly like a book and we had to learn to see differently, to look at color, angle, space, and shot in order to understand the story being told. In other words, a film is more than people talking to each other.

And then (a lot of and then here, I know) I thought about the opening shots in Samurai Rebellion, my favorite film of all time. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, the film stars Toshiro Mifune as an aging samurai who defies his feudal lord out of love for his eldest son and daughter-in-law. The story takes place in 1725 and because of historical reality, there’s not going to be a happy end. And I think we know this from the minute the film starts, when we get a series of (in my mind somewhat claustrophobic) shots of rock wall and rooftops as the opening credits roll. The effect is very foreboding. The accompanying music and the fact that the rooftop is shown in a series of shots that increase in close-up, and delve further and further into details, and blot out the surrounding sky definitely add to this. But then I felt myself lulled somewhat away from the sense of the foreboding by the domesticity of the story. I found myself rooting for the son and his wife, a former mistress of the daimyo, who were married at the daimyo’s orders, and have fallen in love, and don’t want to separate when the daimyo demands that his former mistress return to the palace. And Toshiro Mifune gives a wonderful, understated performance—well, understated in comparison to his turns in some Kurosawa films I’ve seen—as a man who has been loyal for his entire life, but who is inspired by love to fight against injustice. But then, you know, the end comes. And I remember those rooftops and the music from the opening. Almost as if those rooftops were telling me: You thought you could get away from reality, but you couldn’t. There is no escape. And so those rooftops are telling one of the stories of the film. (You can watch the opening credits on YouTube here.)

I think this is all rather poetic.

That is all for now. Thanks for reading.