On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.

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Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

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Something

“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”

— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt

They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either.  I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.

Bricklayers, Childe Hassam

In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.

The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.

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New Article on the #FolkloreThursday Blog: Bars of Flaming Swords

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I have a new series of three articles going up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! The series is called Stories my Parents Tell Me, and the first piece, “Bars of Flaming Swords,” is up now.

If you’ve been reading Multo for a while, the articles may seem familiar: I’ve based them on several posts from my Stories my Parents Tell Me category. I’m excited to be sharing my parents’ stories with the larger #FolkloreThursday audience.

“Mom, what do you know about the aswang?”

My parents never told me much about Filipino folklore when I was growing up. As professionals with advanced degrees, maybe they felt that old folktales and superstitions weren’t the kind of thing to share with their American-born daughters. Or maybe they just never thought about it. It wasn’t until much later that I got curious. So on a sunny Boxing Day morning a few years ago, I decided to ask.

Read “Bars of Flaming Swords” here.


Image: Mt. Isarog at the ricefields of Kinalansan, San Jose, Camarines Sur, Philippines. Photo by Geopoet. Source: Wikimedia

The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part One

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First of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.


I recently bought Mark Valentine’s anthology, The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray, which is a collection of some of my favorite authors riffing on the themes found in Oscar Wilde’s novel. It had been quite a while since I’d read The Picture of Dorian Gray, so I decided to re-read it before diving into the anthology.

Of course, I noticed (again) all the things in the book that one usually notices: the gay subtext of artist Basil Hallward’s feelings for Dorian, Dorian’s moral decline, the characters’ witty (or precious, depending on your point of view) conversation, Wilde’s little digs at Victorian upper-class society, and what a poser and asshole Lord Henry Wotton is.

About a third of the way in, I ran face-first into this passage. Basil has just learned of Dorian’s engagement to Sibyl Vane, and Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian are having dinner before going to see Sibyl’s performance in Romeo and Juliet. In conversation, Henry says, “When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”

To which Basil responds, what does Henry mean by good?

“Yes,” echoed Dorian, leaning back in his chair and looking at Lord Henry over the heavy clusters of purple-lipped irises that stood in the centre of the table, “what do you mean by good, Harry?”

For some reason, that paragraph stopped me cold. What on earth were those irises doing there? Wilde does spend a lot of time describing settings: the furniture and bric-a-brac in a room, the plants in a garden; but he hadn’t described this particular room at all. Was it important that Dorian had to look over the irises to see Lord Henry?

That sent me back to the beginning of the book, looking for all the flower references. And I realized that there are a LOT of flower references. The Victorians were into floriography, the language of flowers; did Wilde fill the text with symbology that I wasn’t catching?

Probably he did; and probably literary and mythological references that I also missed. But he also built quite a lot of explicit structure into the novel through flowers, as well. I’m sure there’s a dissertation out there somewhere on this, but it was new to me, and so for fun, I thought I’d suss it out, along with some possibly apropos flower symbology.

Warning: plot spoilers abound. I’m assuming that you’ve read Dorian Gray, or at least skimmed the synopsis in Wikipedia.

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The Saga of Pele and Hiiaka: New article on the #FolkloreThursday Blog

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I have another article on the #FolkloreThursday blog! This one tells the saga of the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele and her sister Hiiaka.

This one especially struck me because I started the research soon after Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie came out. That movie was a big sensation among (especially) female action movie and comic fans: finally, we have a movie of our own! Everyone loved the strong portrayals of woman by Gal Godot, Robin Wright, and even (in a minor, but not completely fluff, role) Lucy Davis as Steve Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy.

And then I started reading about Pele and Hiiaka and I realized — Hawaiian mythology has had this all along! The women in this saga — both major and minor characters — rule their own lives, with all the good and bad that this entails. It was a pleasure to discover it, and a joy to share it with other folklore aficionados.

A fiery-tempered, jealous deity; passionate friendship and love; brave warriors on a quest. These are elements of great myths and sagas from all over the world, but the saga of the volcano goddess Pele and her sister Hiiaka is special: it is a saga of powerful, self-actuated women. As John Charlot wrote, the Pele saga is “among the fullest, most interesting characterizations [of women] in world literature.”

In addition to the fascinating story, one of the best parts for me was discovering the hula and chant, Ke Ha`a Ala Puna, which commemorates one episode of the saga. I included a performance of the hula in the post.

Read about the saga here.

Enjoy!

Hunting for the (Male) Batibat

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It started as a quote in Maximo Ramos’ The Aswang Complex in Philippine Folklore. Ramos was explaining how rural Filipinos often prefer to sleep on the edge of the room, rather than the middle, for protection against the viscera sucking version of the aswang — the kind who climbs on the house and drops its tongue down between the chinks of the roof to suck out its victims innards.

Sleep towards the edge of the room, Ramos warned, but not too near a post:

for the posts may harbor a tree-dwelling mythical demon like the bangugot or batibat. This is a nightmare-inducing, insanity-causing creature resembling the genii of the Near East. It is said to have refused to leave its tree when it was felled and stubbornly to have gone on living in a crevice of cavity in the wood, emerging to sit on a tenant’s chest and suffocate him by plugging his mouth with its phallus and his nostrils with its testicles.

Huh. That deserves more investigation, I thought.

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The Most Famous Book Set in Your State?

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Jim Booth at the blog The New Southern Gentlemen recently took issue with a Business Insider called “The most famous book that takes place in every state”. Mostly, he takes issue with BI‘s nomination for his own state of North Carolina.

I have no opinion one way or the other about Nicholas Sparks, and given that my reading tastes runs to both genre and short stories, I’m probably not the most qualified person to weigh in on which full-length book should represent which state. But of course I couldn’t resist checking what they picked for California. I don’t know what I was expecting to see — but it wasn’t what they chose:

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

Hmmmmmmm…….

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The Pishtaco: New article on #FolkloreThursday Blog

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I have an article up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! I write about the Pishtaco, a fat-stealing ghoul whose legend circulates among indigenous communities in the Andean highlands. I first heard about this legend on a visit to Peru — and it hit the news internationally as recently as 2009 (as you’ll read in the article)!

Known by many names, this legendary fat-stealer stalks indigenous communities in the rural Andean highlands.

In the Peruvian Andes, they say he wanders the roads at night. He may look like a gringo (someone not Hispanic or Latino): hairy and bearded, wearing boots, a hat, and leather jacket. He may be on horseback, or in more modern times, in a car. He may look like a priest, walking along the side of the road. With his long knife, he attacks solitary travelers and dismembers them for food and for their fat.

In the Bolivian Andes, he might be the stranger next to you on the bus; don’t fall asleep! And don’t walk alone on the roads, either. If you meet him on the path, he will put you into a deep sleep with his prayers, or with powdered human bones. As you sleep he extracts the brown, hard fat around your organs (cebo: tallow or suet) with his knife, or with a special machine. You awaken, feeling weak. You fall sick. In a few days, you die.

Read the rest of the article here.

Hope you enjoy it.


Image: The Andes, Ayacucho Region, Peru. Source: Wikimedia

Buildings and Dreams

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I was flipping through my notebooks not too long ago, in search of material for a blog post, when I stumbled upon a couple of old fiction pieces that I had been wrestling with, then put aside. They were partially influenced by a motif one finds frequently in ghost stories written when “scientific” explanations of apparitions were de rigueur: ghosts as the “psychic recordings” of violent events or emotions. The idea, I believe, still circulates in ghost-hunting circles. Listen to the discussion/definition at about 2:55 or so of this YouTube video about the “10 Types of Ghosts”:

To me a ghost is an apparition… sort of a replay of an event that happened a long time ago because of an imprint or place memory…

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On Reading Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is God’s own life.

Up until recently, the only piece by Rabindranath Tagore I knew was the lovely ghost-story/fairy tale “The Hungry Stones”. Ever since I first read it, I’d wanted to read more, yet for whatever reason never got around to it.

Then the other week while wandering the stacks of the San Francisco Main Library, I tripped over the Oxford Press collection Selected Short Stories, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. This was a great place to start; the translations seem excellent (of course, I can’t read the original Bengali to compare), and the volume has an great introduction, with enough information about Tagore’s life and history to give his stories context. All the stories have extensive footnotes, to explain details that would be obvious to a South Asian reader, but not necessarily to a western one: points of Indian culture and history, literary and folkloric references.

I binge-read the whole thing. Then I found other collections on Project Gutenberg, and read more.

There’s all kinds of nerdy pseudo-intellectual things I could say about these stories. I could talk about how I love the way Tagore weaves Indian folklore and mythology through his stories (right down to the choice of characters’ names). Or about his criticism of contemporary Hindu society, with its caste-system and problematic attitude towards women (the editor has a great quote: “a society that cannot protect its women but is inhumanly insistent on their purity”). About the gentle, even sympathetic way he presents his flawed, weak characters — without ever leaving a doubt that, yes, some of them are very flawed indeed.

All of these things are true, and they’re points that I admire. But none of that really describes how I feel. I loved these stories. Some of them made me cry. But to say that isn’t enough. I’m an analytical person by profession, and I have a concrete viewpoint by nature. I often have a hard time describing something as abstract as my reaction to something that I’ve read and loved. So I’ll just quote this, from “The Victory:”

[The poet] took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud him.

That’s kind of how I feel about these stories. Often so sad, always so beautiful. Just read them.


Here are some of my favorites (that I could find online):

  • The Kabuliwala: I love this story.
  • The Hungry Stones: Of course.
  • The Renunciation: Pointed attack on the caste-system. Also one of the few instances I can think of in Tagore’s short stories where the heroine’s male ally stands up to society and supports the heroine.
  • The Wife’s Letter: A biting picture of woman’s position in the Hindu society of Tagore’s time. It’s a powerful story, though I like the translation in Selected Short Stories better.

Enjoy.


Image: Rabindranath Tagore, painted by his nephew, painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore.