Between grading finals and working like crazy to meet my May 21 deadline, I am not posting any new content today. Instead, here is an oldie but goodie. (Part 2 will be posted Friday.)
This has to do with writing, take my word for it. Think of it like a Cosmo quiz– you know the ones that try to explain how the way you eat pizza determines who you’ll marrry. Answer the question below and I’ll get back with you to tell you what it all means.
Here’s the set up:
You are on a road trip, in a fabulous mood as you burn up the highway. About 100 miles down the road, you realize that you have forgotten your wallet! You make a u-turn, go back home, get the wallet, and then set out again.
The word is “freak.”
It’s funny how words that you think means one thing can mean something else to another person. I am going over the editorial notes on THE SILVER GIRL and for the most part, I agree with my editor. However, every now and again, I will be a comment that makes me scratch my head and say, Aroo? These moments usually are due to region and/or cultural understandings of language. Although the example here is pretty minor, it’s a serious issue worth talking about.
The sentence from my manuscript goes like this: It wouldn’t be fair to say that Marcus changed me, that he took a sweet innocent girl and turned her into a freak. My editor wrote in the margin, “How is she a freak? What is freakish about her?” I’d confused her with my sentence and she’d confused me with her answer. I stared for a while, drank some coffee, and then I got it. She understood the word “freak” as in “freak show”. I was using freak as in “The freaks come out at night” as in “she’s a very kinky girl/the kind you don’t take home to mother.”
What to do?
The use of freak in the Rick James sense of the word is perfectly in tune with the voice of my character—she’s a black girl growing up in Atlanta in the late-eighties. But at the same time, I don’t want to use a word in a context that will confuse a reader who isn’t from that place. If I change it, I will alter the voice, albeit in a minor way.
Of course, if I were to change it, what would I change it to? There is no real equivalent. A “freak” is not the same as a “slut”—although there is some overlap. Sluttiness is about lack of exclusivity, but freakiness involves a sort of adventurousness. It’s as much about depth of experience as breadth. (Sidebar: There are a lot of casual words that sort of defy translation. I will send a signed copy one of my books to someone who can give me a clear definition of “trifling.” And if you can give me a synonym, I’ll send copies of both.)
It’s sort of the issue that Latino authors deal with about the use of Spanish in a story—to translate or not to translate. But the matter of regional or cultural English vernacular is that the reader sees my words and assumes that she knows what it is supposed to mean. If I see a Spanish word, I know it’s in another language, I either use context or I’ll google it. If it’s an English word, the reader may just be confused.
For now, I am leaving the word “freak”, where it is. For me, it’s worth potentially confusing some readers for the sake of preserving the voice, and meaning.
The great Ms. Lena Horne has passed away at the age of 92. The NYT has done right by her, ending her obituary with this wonderful quote.
“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
I reviewed The Long Song by Andrea Levy for The Washington Post.
Levy’s previous novel, “Small Island,” is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and with “The Long Song” she has returned to the level of storytelling that earned her the Orange Prize in 2004. Her heroine narrates the beginning of the end of slavery in Jamaica, coming to a climax with the 1831 Baptist War, when enslaved men and women fought their enslavers for 10 days. It’s clear that Levy has done her research, but this work never intrudes upon the narrative, which travels at a jaunty pace. Levy’s sly humor swims just under the surface of the most treacherous waters. (For example, a shocking suicide is preceded by a delightful farce.) Her refusal to reduce her characters to merely their suffering does not trivialize the experience of enslavement, but underscores the humanity of all involved.
Self-censorship is not always a bad thing. I think we all have things that we would like to write about, but don’t think it would be worth the fall out. The question of what’s worth it is entirely up to you. That said, never censor yourself while you are still writing the story. Save the censoring for the final draft.
Self-censorshipisn’t an exact science. While you’re making sure not to write anything that will offend your parents, you may also be holding back some important emotional truth that will make your story rich and insightful. Don’t block the creative flow. Write it all. Every detail that occurs to you. Until it’s published, it’s private, so be honest, frank, and free.
Side Note: Sometimes I meet young writers who are living in a special sort of artist-hell. On the one hand, they are anxious and are convinced that they will NEVER publish. But these same writers totally freak out and become blocked because they self-censor for fear of what people are going to say about their work. This is the worst of both worlds. Learn to let your insecurity work for you: If you really feel you will never publish, let that free you up. Cut loose! Who’s going to see it anyway.
But seriously, “What should I write about” and “What should I publish” are two really different questions. You should write whatever comes to your mind. Writing is personal, it is art. It’s between you and the page.
When it comes to publishing, I recommend letting the story sit a while and then read it over carefully. If there is someone who knows your situation– be it family or whatever– ask that person to read it too. Consider your loved ones’ feelings. Don’t let them steal the show, but consider. (Also consider if they are ever even going to read your book in the first place.) If there is something that may be ouchy, but isn’t that crucial to the story, take it out or tone it down. On the flip side there may be something that’s freaking you out, but your reader may convince you that it’s not nearly as out there as you thought.
There are folks out there who disagree, who believe art is the only obligation of the writer. And I must admit that I have been very enriched by the work of the take-no-prisoners writers. I’m just not one of them.
This Thursday there will be a sneak-peek at my new novel, The Silver Girl, at SWEET: Actors Reading Writers. SWEET is a really cool series where the writers turn over five or so pages of material and actors interpret. My work will be read by Heather Alicia Simms, whom I met yesterday at a cafe in Brooklyn. She’s a terrific actor with gorgeous credentials– August Wilson on Broadway, y’all! (Right: Please note that in this cast photo from The Brother/Sister Plays, she is wearing a silver dress!) Also featured will be the work of Matthew Aaron Goodman, one of the Amazing Eight.
If you’re in NYC on Thursday, Come on out. Here are the deets.
Date: Thursday, May 6, 2010
Time: 7:30pm – 8:45pm
Location: Three of Cups, 83 First Ave @ 5th St.
First off, I would like to thank everyone who was so supportive of my decision to cancel my Arizona appearances. There were one or two people who reacted with outright hostility, but I opted to leave their comments on the blog. We must know what we are up against as we struggle for a free America.
The story got picked up all over the place including national venues like the LA Times and abroad in the UK Guardian. But even more importantly were those of you who wrote about Arizona on your own blogs, facebook, and twitter. I believe we are making a difference, by not allowing this issue to just disappear.
My colleague and friend, Rigoberto Gonzalez, has written about his experiences with Arizona on the Poetry Foundation blog. His post, includes this photo of him as a little boy marching with the grape pickers.
But in the end, it’s not even those things that anger me the most: it’s that out of fear, undocumented people will no longer seek out the police to report crimes, making them more vulnerable than they already are. It’s that it’s that much easier to victimize a population that has been labeled criminal, unwanted, and worthless.
Some might say that this is not about me, but about “illegal aliens.” I say to those people, I am the child of an “illegal alien,” and a place that would detain, demean and oppress my own mother is not a place for me.