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Thursday, November 06, 2008

significant writers: gail tsukiyama

Those who've read something by Gail Tsukiyama will likely have read Women of the Silk or its sequel. I've read those too and, at this point, I've not picked up any of her latest works, but I still have to say she will be hard put to beat the excellence of The Samurai's Garden.

I've made it clear in my previous "significant writers" blogs that I like fine simile and metaphor in my writing. Tsukiyama has all of that, painting pictures like Joyce in Portrait of the Artist, memorable images that even now, not having read The Samurai's Garden for several years, I open my mind eyes and see: sunlight on the Japanese homes, the beach, the sea, the two doomed lovers embracing in a cascade of colour and scent.

Doomed - I had to drop that cliche like a stone into the midst of my praise, didn't I? And why doomed? Because Tsukiyama has a Chinese mother and a Japanese father and, if you follow international events at all, you will know there is a long-standing tension that simmers between China and Japan. If you have never given pause to how that affects love between a man and a woman, The Samurai's Garden will show you in a story wonderfully put together, yes, and painfully put together.

Even though I knew of the atrocities perpetrated on China by Japan in the 1930s - while the world stood by and watched - I honestly had not thought about how the conflict must have tainted personal relationships between the Chinese and Japanese prior to reading the novel. Tsukiyama is well aware. The tale though tragic, is perfect, an incredible glimpse into a cultural agony few of us have pondered or read much about. But as in all good literature, the strength of Tsukiyama's writing is not in the fact she has chosen a neglected and controversial theme. The strength of her writing is her writing.

Born in San Francisco, Tsukiyama is an American jewel, a scintillating artistic light in a nation of many bright literary lights. Having talked briefly about The Samurai's Garden here, it awakens in me a desire to look into what she has penned since, an awakening I hope and believe will afford me many pleasant and intense hours this fall in the chill weeks before the Christmas season.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

significant writers: rudy wiebe

Most readers familiar with Canadian literature will be aware of Rudy Wiebe. To readers outside of Canada, he is not as well known as Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). He does not live the life of the author-celebrity so even Canadians are not often aware of what he's writing or what he's up to.

There is a bit of experimental writing in Wiebe's most ambitious novels and some unique uses of stream of consciousness (sometimes like Faulkner's writing in The Sound and The Fury though Wiebe doesn't quite push the envelope so much). I can only describe the rhythms of his prose as jagged. I don't say these things to put you off. Wiebe's writing is extremely rewarding and satisfying for those willing to turn on their minds. Any of his books are a meal. But his novels are not dumbed down read-while-you-wait-for-the-plane thrillers.

I first read The Blue Mountains of China. I think what struck me the most was Wiebe's wonderful use of simile and metaphor. As brilliant as those of Nikos Kazantzakis. Highly original and full of colour and life. They make his books poetry in motion. This characteristic of his writing I found held true when I read The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched-Wood People.

Wiebe's asymmetrical rhythms and his rugged surge of words and seizure of your imagination and intellect make him unique, in my opinion, among world writers. Impressions left are indelible. I am not affected much by writers who have no metaphor or simile to speak of, and there are more of those around than I'm comfortable with. In my lifetime, and from very early on, poetry has easily affected me as much as story, so for someone to write a piece, however well put together, and not work at the lyric of their art - I can only say it leaves me stone cold dead.

A few people make a great deal of Wiebe's Mennonite background. It comes up in Peace Shall Destroy Many and in The Blue Mountains of China as part of their storylines but Wiebe does not proselytize, in fact that appears to be the farthest thing from his mind. What he is is a good writer who leans towards historical fiction and who can make his stories crackle with intellectual and emotional force. It is, I think, impressionistic writing, making you feel intensely because of the way he paints his sentences and paragraphs. He pulls you into not only the characters and the plot but into the sunlight and the shape of the leaves and the shape of the wind and the long arching contour of the land.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

significant writers: jennifer johnston

I thought I'd do a series of blogs on writers from around the world whose works have particularly impressed me. Most will not be that well known, I think (though you can always write in and surprise me and tell me you've known about them for decades), while others, like Alan Paton of South Africa, will certainly be familiar to many.

I have liked Jennifer's work for years. It began with the short novel Shadows on our Skin, a troubled tale set in Northern Ireland that is swiftly and brilliantly told, impossible to forget. I think I read The Railway Station Man after that, again about The Troubles, though this time set in the South, again hurtling into the mind with a high velocity impact. The third novel was Fool's Sanctuary, easily one of her best, set in Ireland during the South's war and break with England, yet, despite this background for the novel, surprisingly delicate and peaceful, idyllic, until the sort of denouement that always leaves you pondering the cliffs and crags and crevasses of the human condition.

Her writing is crisp and clipped and tight, not like Joyce at all, if you'd like to compare her to another Irish writer. She is not obscure or dense, like a fog over Dublin's busy harbour, but more like clear light striking the Kerry coast. Blades of grass and waterdrops on the blades are obvious and each grain of sand on the beach, each water-rounded stone, each gull feather in the surf, each whitecap racing to the land, all are finely engraved in the words with which she chooses to strike the imagination.

I remember a time in Carlow - I have visited Ireland at length on several occasions, once for an entire summer - when evening clouds pulled away and gold light lit up the countryside. How emerald the grass was, how precise the cottages and full-leaved trees, how black a stallion that ran over his pasture. That is the clarity of her writing.

It is very moral writing, yes, I'll say that, she cares about rights and wrongs, not so much in the political sense (as in siding with Republicans or Unionists), but in terms of how people treat one another, love or betray one another. She is not a cynic about human nature but she does not pull any punches either. Her writing wounds you but it blesses as well and any tears are well spent and any hurts well felt. You turn away grieving a bit, wary of those around you in this brittle world, yet with a sense that tragedies can be other than they are and we can choose different fates and often do choose different fates. Sometimes, of course, no matter how well we lay our plans, fate or life or God chooses something much different than we'd hoped, and the clean white porcelain walls come crashing down anyway. But even then, in her writing, we still get a feeling that there is another day and there can be light and space and other choices on that day as well, regardless of yesterday. Yesterday is not trivial or easily forgotten. But it is not a mill-stone about the neck either.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

the Jesus fictions

Every author has certain pet stories, some of which are recognized by the reading public and some of which aren't.

For instance, I am so used to people reading The Divine Game Of Pinzatski that I am delighted when someone contacts me because they liked a different story, the more obscure the better. An author likes all his children, not just the more well-known ones.

So here is something. If I was asked to relate which story most hit the nail on the head in terms of an accurate description of an actual experience, maybe in a sentence, maybe in a paragraph, which story would I point to? Pinzatski? Boj? Mister Good Morning? The Emperor of Ice Cream?

Good Night, John King is a fictitious retelling of a boy's experiences in America in the spring of 1968. His parents are heavily involved in the social justice activities of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) and Robert Kennedy (RFK). Some people have been comparing the summer of 2008 in America with the summer of 1968 and maybe that is something to talk about in another blog. For now, this story is the context for a paragraph which perfectly describes one moment in one morning in my life.

In the story it takes place in a motel room. In real life it took place in my bedroom. Dad usually called up the stairs to make sure I was awake for school. This time he came upstairs, asked me very gently if I was awake, then began wandering aimlessly about the room. I watched, surprised, from my bed, because he had never done anything like this before.

I can't tell you how long it took me to write the paragraph that describes this moment. If I had my original draft, which was in longhand in ballpoint pen, I would be able to see immediately what had been scratched out, what retained, what added. I can almost see that page in my mind's eye right now and I'm pretty sure it wasn't one of your got-it-right-first-time pieces of prose. But I do remember that when all was said and done and I re-read that paragraph, I knew that was it, those words described the moment and the feeling perfectly, nothing could or should ever be altered. I still feel that way. I like other things I have written, of course, but nothing, I believe, has come so close to accurately describing a critical moment in my human experience as that paragraph. That's how I felt, that's exactly how it was that early morning in June.

And what could my Dad not tell me that he finally did tell me? That Robert Kennedy had been shot. And because he felt it, he needed to talk to someone. He risked that I would feel it too, so he told me, and then we were both alone with the awfulness of what we knew . . .

You see, a work of non-fiction might have been able to describe to a certain degree the impact of Robert Kennedy's assassination on my father and I. Only fiction has the freedom and power to re-create the moment - sounds, smells, light, shadows, personal sensations - and even put it in a different place to suit the story, and yet more accurately describe the emotional impact of the moment than any fact-finding essay could do.

It is time Christians, in particular, start waking up to the fact that fiction is the great purveyor of truth. It is not simply a vehicle for end time thrillers or murder mysteries or western romances. It can carry very well indeed the weight of truth that even non-fiction cannot, to the extent of placing the reader right in the middle of the truth both emotionally and spiritually.

Jesus knew this all along. That's why he had stories, fictions, suitable for every occasion. "Without a fiction, he did not speak to them." And his fictions, along with the truths they convey, have remained with us for over 2000 years. Where books of fact and history lose stature over time, and are often declared obsolete and set aside as museum pieces and curiosities, his stories never fail to strike deep into the human heart and imagination.

It is time Christians increasingly wrote and spoke fictions of simplicity and complexity just like Jesus did. A world turns precisely on such profound tales of morality and mortality.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jesus the Includer

With all the sharp divisions these days between Christians and so many other groups and individuals - gays, pro-choice advocates, proponents of stem cell research, evolutionists with an atheistical slant - it's hard to imagine Christ as an includer, not an excluder. To many people it must seem like Christianity is about confrontation, polarization, isolation and exclusion. It's important this Holy Week to remember that Jesus brought people close and then transformed them, not the other way around. In fact, it was his bringing them close that often began the transformation.

Consider Zaccheus. Did Jesus begin the relationship by condemning him and mounting a protest march? No, he invited himself over for lunch and there was not even the whiff of a sermon in the air. That very act broke Zaccheus's heart just enough for God to rush in. It was the inclusion that Jesus offered that saved him.

Or consider the woman at the well. Another one of the excluded that Jesus included. He broke all sorts of taboos, a Jewish man sitting with a Samaritan woman who was living with a man she was not married to. He came close, joked with her, brought her back to life, saved her soul, without argument, without anger, without condemnation.

The same is true of the woman caught in adultery. Where was the condemnation? Where was the exclusion? Where was the sermon? The ones who got the sermon were the ones who hated her and wanted to kill her. Jesus would not condemn her, not hate her, certainly not kill her, but defend her and include her in his love.

It never stopped. Men and women with leprosy were touched. Romans were not marginalized. Nor the Jews who wanted to kill the Romans. Nor, despite his clashes with them, did Jesus exclude the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin who condemned him. He made room for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea and other religious leaders. There was room in his band not only for the tax collector Matthew, but Simon the Zealot, the activist who would have loved to kill Matthew for collaborating with the Roman occupiers, but who instead wound up loving to love Matthew because of the love Jesus gave to Simon himself.

Were children excluded because they were children? Women because they were women? Soldiers because they were soldiers? Murderers? Thieves? Prostitutes or sex trade workers?

Jesus was the great includer. The very act of inclusion changed people from the inside out. Today, many Christians act as if the world around them and all its people must change first and then they will love them. Jesus loved the world and the people first and then both world and people changed for the better.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

the road to easter and the fairy tale of the rose

My last blog was about Advent - I've been MIA for about two months - and now I'm writing my first blog of 2008 and already it's Easter. How come I'm into Easter so soon?

Well, it's not really that soon. Easter is very early this year. Palm Sunday comes before St. Patrick's Day (March 16th) and I can't remember the last time that happened. One of our community's study groups has already started examining the Easter Story in depth because if we don't start now we'll never get it done by Easter Sunday. It's only about six weeks away.

I think it's kind of cool that we're just done celebrating the Incarnation and here we are talking about Redemption. For obviously these are the critical moments of Christ's life on earth. We don't need to have months and months between them. A few weeks is sufficient.

If this were a fairy tale we would talk about the search for a magic blood that would save the Kingdom. And how the King had put up a reward of 10,000 gold pieces for whoever offered up that blood. And how people journeyed for months to come to the castle to let three drops of their blood fall upon a shriveled rose - if the blood was magic the rose would burst into life and dispel the cold and darkness and death overwhelming the Kingdom.

And, as fairy tales go, many would come, few would be chosen. In fact, none would be chosen. And the Kingdom would be at death's door. Until, by chance - or some heavenly design - a milkmaid's son, hauling some wood for the fire in the great hall, stopped to look at the shrunken rose, touched it, and pricked his finger on a thorn. Then became frightened as the rose swelled and grew and flashed red fire and began to burn away the cold and darkness. Perhaps he would stand rooted to the spot until the King came running and found him. Or perhaps the boy would flee and they would not find out whose blood had saved the Kingdom for days or weeks or months. Who knows?

The important thing is, a simple story like that can help us look at the familiar Easter Story with new eyes. We have heard the tale of the Cross so many times. And some don't want to hear it at all if they can help it, they want to skip right past the Cross with the dead body on it, the Cross of Good Friday, to the empty grave with no body in it, the Resurrection of Easter Sunday morning. But it's a funny thing - Jesus didn't tell us to remember his resurrection until he came again, he told us to remember his death.

He shed blood. Magic blood. Holy blood. Blood that could do things no other blood could do. Just as the Christmas baby was born to do things no other baby could do, and be someone no other baby could be - God.

So let Christmas and Easter be woven closely together this time around. Let the stories be told right on top of one another. Let stars and crosses and angels and stables and graveyards be intertwined. For really the story is one story, is it not? The greatest story ever told. Even if sometimes we have to tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson suggested, "tell the truth but tell it slant", so that maybe by doing so Easter won't be a ritual or a ceremony or just another holiday or a great chance to kick back. Maybe it will be an encounter with the supernatural. Maybe it will be one of the great God moments of my year and yours.

Because the God did die. And the blood did do what no other blood could do. And the baby was what no one else could be.