Tuesday, September 13, 2011

War and Fiction - Speaking with Helen Benedict

Her wrists are thin, her neck adorned with pearls, her voice soft, her accent British. Helen Benedict could pass for a professor at Columbia University's Journalism masters program, but an anti-war activist with spools of interviews and notes with women from the American military? Unlikely.

Then again so is Columbia's Oral History Masters Program, I'm surrounded by its students waiting to be addressed by Prof. Helen Benedict. Familiarity suspended, I shall let her do the talking.

Her latest non fiction book is THE LONELY SOLDIER, a haunting account of how women soldiers are treated in the American military -- the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, in school, on tour, everywhere. With her quiet voice she stresses her concerns about the military as a "rape culture" and describes her interactions with the roughly forty women she interviewed when writing the book. Most relationships deepen with time, most interviews become more revealing, but not in this case: Benedict found that her time with these extraordinary women, her questions and prompts, and therefore her voice, became the source of their Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). How ironic that in unlocking their voices via hers, Benedict also encouraged the ghastly memories they had stashed away to scream back to life, shattering mental and emotional barriers the woman had constructed in trying to acclimatize to civilianhood.

"What does remorse do to a person," Benedict wonders. What was she to do with the pages of torment she had documented, whose question-and-answer surveys only just scratched the surface of these women's stories? Her answer was to write SAND QUEEN, a fictional story tracing the lives of Kate, an American soldier, and Naema, an Iraqi woman. Benedict knew she had a plethora of detail, but she had to be careful about constructing a landscape she had never encountered, a country she had never visited, and a job she had never held. SAND QUEEN is a work "mostly of my imagination, fed by interviews," she tells us, and remembers how patience and compassion were key to winning the trust of the women she spoke with.

Fiction that is too close to the facts can "hamper imagination" and sound like "thinly veiled journalism," which Benedict wanted to avoid. It would take a fine balance of reality and its riffs to best launch her narrative and she combined her knowledge about and frustration at the war and how it was being handled, with honest questions to a female Iraqi friend: for example, "is my character angry enough." Such research helped her concoct vivid sentences, such as when Naema watches her father and brother being beaten by American soliders and taken away, no reasons given: "That is when I felt the anger grow over me like a skin," Benedict's voice making Naema sound grim.

Trained as a journalist, Benedict revels in fiction because, unlike non fiction, an author can give characters a voice that they do not have yet. One can go deeper into a character's interior, and it is always easier to "lay bare a made up character than a real person." The book is in three sections, each told by a different narrator. There is Kate, Naema, and finally a third person perspective, which is "where I get literary," Benedict explains. Kate is desperate as a prison guard in the middle of a desert, a "grey blur, dusty grey sand obliterating the horizon." Deprived of humanity in her fellow soldiers -- all men -- she befriends and talks to a tree, Marvin, "whose every twisted branch I know." Driving through the charred remains of a freshly bombed city she recalls the "corpses on the side of the road, like deer back home except with human faces." Fiction, Benedict believes, can "can come closer to the truth in profound ways," being the "old fashioned" approach to telling someone's story.

War stories belonged to men first -- Homer, Joseph Heller, Tim O'Brien -- and Benedict is grateful for the women's voices that are entering the genre today. They are still considered "outcasts," but they are an adamant and emerging community, not unlike Benedict and her followers. SAND QUEEN received all kinds of criticism: it was considered "gloomy" and "unpatriotic", not as "authoritative as a man's book," and, worst of all, made the military look bad -- although she has since spoken at West Point and engaged the government in D.C. to advocate better conditions for and treatment of women in the military, with positive responses. Benedict is inspired by the women she has come to know, whose voices and stories float through her mind, and is determined to be "fair and furious" when she writes, for them as survivors and for us as readers.

More details here: http://www.helenbenedict.com/

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Reading - "We The Animals" by Justin Torres

Most writers do it. Good writers always do it. And best results are achieved if it's done in the morning.

Poetry. The perfect warm-up for a writer, to loosen his linguistic muscles and get the words flowing. Justin Torres, first-time and successful author of WE THE ANIMALS, opens his book reading at The New School with an Emily Dickinson quote: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes
—" and it is clear from the passages he reads us just how lyrical a sentence can be. As moderator Jackson Taylor points out several times, Torres' book toys with all the conventional aspects of a story -- plot, structure, character, voice -- and forces you to question them as lovingly and deeply as he does his own life and family. WE THE ANIMALS sounds (I haven't read it yet) deeply personal, but Torres is careful to separate autobiography from fiction. Certainly, characters in the book have been inspired by people he knows, but the reader should not be fooled by the use of first person. When poets use the first person, the reader doesn't immediately assume the poet is talking about himself, Torres points out, so why is fiction treated any differently?

Prodded by Taylor, Torres opens up about his life (although not as much as Taylor seems to want) and his artistic and aesthetic style of writing (I think, more exciting for the audience). He believes that events in real life do not follow a practiced and proper sequence, so why should a story in a book be told in chronological order? His books ends at a very different pace from the rest of the book, and this is deliberate:
Torres maintains that plot and structure mirror each other, so a jarring scene can be more arresting to the reader with an unexpected and dramatic structural change. The main character is a young boy and Torres plays with the idea of an "emotionally sharp child, but very limited adult" to tell the story -- the result is powerful imagery, subtle perception, pure nostalgia and innocent humor, and the little boy is totally believable. More interestingly, so is the rest of the boy's family, who could on paper read as very dysfunctional. This is a label Torres avoids. 'Dysfunction' and 'abuse' are "easy labels," too hastily attributed to family. How can a group of people who love each other be dismissed so quickly? Torres demands that the reader ask this question throughout the book, defending the inherent nobility in a family's stories and traditions -- no matter how quirky or destructive they may appear to others.

Dickinson continues:
This is the Hour of Lead --
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow --
First -- Chill -- then Stupor -- then the letting go --

Torres has remembered his past (but NOT autobiographically!), outlived his labels, stupor'd over the pages of his book, and our reward is to read chapters redolent with emotion and wonder that his protagonist will never let go of.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A.O.Scott at The New School: The Critic's Critique

Introducing the prolific byliner A.O. "Tony" Scott to the crowd, moderator Greil Marcus is generous and honest -- Scott has a flair for writing, can grab a reader's attention, but fashions his essays and reviews in the New York Times in such a way that the reader is often left wondering what Scott is trying to say. This is the motivation, Marcus believes, for the reader to watch the movie Scott has just written about, or to think more deeply about Scott's underlying message, and is the mark of a successful critique, but are we convinced? Scott fidgets with the papers in his hand and we wait for his response -- a collective of piqued curiosities, pens in hands poised over notebooks, underdressed students and faculty settling into the start of a new semester.

Scott begins his talk with a warning that panels on any kind of cultural criticism -- literary, performing arts, music -- tend to be "predictable, dispiriting and masochistic affairs," so be warned. He grins, clears his throat and adjusts his glasses. Who is a critic, and who deserves to provide criticism? Who is the audience, and what are they expected to know? He draws a quick comparison between mainstream criticism -- the stuff in books and print media -- and the blogosphere -- that whiny crowd of "self-credentialed elite." But perhaps the old-fashioned critics are just that, "dinosaurs," and it's the information-at-their-fingertips generation who craft more nimble opinions. Does criticism follow any rules, or does the "wide open space" of the internet that encourages such "unregulated discourse" allow for more free-flowing thought?

Visual cues help. Scott asks: who do we imagine a critic to be and recalls Anton Ego from the Pixar film Ratatouille -- a word he elocutes cautiously, giving each 't' a moment to resonate -- who, if we recall the movie, is a gaunt man, perennially frowning at the plate of food cowering before him. "Weirdly monastic," Ego is that stereotypical critic who is "devoted to an art form" but a "miserable, terrifying authority figure" at the same time -- an "intrinsic tension" ubiquitous to art and criticism. Ego's name isn't a coincidence, either; critics are known for thinking highly of themselves and for the opinions and reactions they are about to unleash upon an ignorant crowd. As the infamous Addison Dewitt from the movie 'All About Eve,' says in one scene:
Those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater.
Back to that intrinsic tension: the critic doesn't toil, but he can only survive in his native habitat; the critic doesn't perform, but he is essential. When people ask Scott if it's true that all critics are failed artists, Scott jokes that in fact, all artists are failed critics. The point is, one feeds off the other: an artist is inspired by an audience's reaction to his work, just as a critic is engaged in reacting to piece of art. And so what can seem too analytical, impatient or caustic is also the critic expressing his depth of knowledge -- and, therefore, appreciation -- for something. As 20th century American critic and poet R. P. Blackmur wrote in his widely received essay 'A Critic's Job of Work,' "criticism is the discourse of an amateur." And 'amateur,' etymologically, comes from French, meaning 'lover of' or from the Latin amatorem or amator, meaning 'lover.' So, really, Dewitt's biting criticism is an ode to an art he can't live without!

Scott notes the rising "mistrust of one's own reactions" from which people suffer -- another reason for valuable criticism. Mistrust is a dangerous thing, as is mutation, but Scott -- a self-confessed "cynical, overeducated 45 year old man" -- urges the audience to respect the goal of criticism. To know enough about something and "judge fairly" is difficult, so be sincere.

In his speech 'The American Scholar' given at Cambridge University in 1837, Ralph Waldo
Emerson described the multifaceted community that is mankind, in which he asserted that "the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking." (Read the full essay here.)

Scott concludes that criticism is not meretricious* (I had to look that up), nor should it be sclerotic** (yup, that word, too). Society thrives on debate and campaigns, especially when these originate from honest, if audacious, premises. Does Scott prefer writing a kind review or a nasty one? He quotes W.H.Auden in response: "Pleasure is by no means an infallible guide, but it is the least fallible." Coherency v. truth, scholarship v. intuition, your opinion v. mine -- such is the nature of the beast, and one which Scott will continue to explore as long as his job (a word highly disputed by 9 year old skeptics of his) will allow it!

* Apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity
** Becoming rigid and unresponsive; losing the ability to adapt