Returning to Sunetra Gupta’s ‘Memories of Rain’

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memoriesofrainIt’s been 24 years since I first read Memories of Rain by Calcutta-born Sunetra Gupta who, when not writing fiction and translating Tagore Poetry, works as a Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. It’s one of my “go to” books whenever I run out of factory fresh books. I’ve read it numerous times and find the prose fresh and new every time I return to it.

Moni, who is Bengali, marries an Englishman who, in those early days that began on a rainy day, ignited her passions and promised her everything. Years after that day, Moni is planning to leave him because he not only has another woman, he has brought her into their home in what he sees as a perfect love triangle. Flashbacks tell much of the story.

When the book was released, Kirkus reviews said: “A stunning, luminous debut set in Calcutta and London by a young, true heir to Virginia Woolf. The forward action of Gupta’s hypnotic novel takes place during a single weekend: Calcutta-born Moni, despondent over her English husband’s infidelity, secretly plans to take their daughter and return to India on the child’s sixth birthday. But the stream- of-consciousness narrative weaves together memories and images, providing not just the history of a fragile love but of a woman’s psychology and soul.”

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, so I was stunned to see such adulation on the back cover of the novel. It turned out to be true, though I wonder how Gupta survived it and was able to write four novels after that one without losing her nerve or her voice. Her most recent is So Good in Black (2011).

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, though you can still find used copies available on Amazon. Several reader reviews on Amazon’s US and UK sites are less than kind, proving my thesis that if you don’t normally read a book in a certain genre, you shouldn’t be writing a review. Such reviewers lambaste the style which is essential to the kind of book it is.

The Independent said, “Do not be put off by this (Kirkus’ viewpoint) – the comparison might have been provoked by the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but Ms Gupta has a refined sensibility and a graceful style all her own. She shows an intelligence, wisdom, and judgement astonishing in so young a writer – she is only 27.”

Ms. Gupta and I have corresponded by e-mail from time to time, and when she came to Georgia for a medical conference several years ago, we planned to meet for a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the conference schedule changed, and we couldn’t make our schedules match. I was one of the early reviewers of So Good in Black and had despaired that it took so long for a U. S. publisher to discover and publish the book, so I expect we might have talked about the book.

Her research of infectious diseases has brought her awards. I marvel at how she juggles two loves, science and art, biology and fiction, and novels that immerse readers in other worlds while she is otherwise focused on the health of this one. Is she Woolf’s heir? Yes and no. If she wrote more fiction, then yes. But since she doesn’t, then probably not. Either way, I think Woolf would appreciate her work.

Perhaps I should hold a seance and talk to Ms. Woolf. Who knows what she would say. Or, if Ms. Gupta comes to Georgia again, perhaps our schedules will match. Meanwhile, I read and re-read Memories of Rain and continue to wonder at its words.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and fantasy, including Conjure Woman’s Cat.

 

This and That from, well, me

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coracoverYes, I’m the guy behind the curtain of this blog. Seemed like it was time for a books update:

  • Two more of my e-books are being translated into Italian, “Cora’s Crossing” and “Moonlight and Ghosts.” Meanwhile, we’be found a translator to create a Spanish edition of “Sarabande.”
  • The sequel to “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman” is now on the editor’s desk. (uh oh) I’ve seen a partial version of the cover art and it’s looking good. It’s being done by the by the same artist who did the cover art for the first book.
  • For years, I’ve put off writing the third book in the Mountain Journeys Series that begins with “The Sun Singer” and then moves forward with “Sarabande.” Don’t laugh, but I didn’t start it sooner because the protagonist knows more about magic than I do, and I thought, “Well, Malcolm, how in the hell are you going to write this book.” I thought about faking it, but that seems wrong. The book’s name will be “Aeon.” Shhh, my publisher doesn’t know about it yet.
  • My review of “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing,” which I posted here recently, also appears on Literary Aficionado. Nice to show up on that site again! It’s been a while.
  • Have you seen this article: How Long Until a Robot Wins the Pulitzer? I don’t think it will happen for a year or two. What about you?
  • Since this is banned books week, let’s end with a quote about it: “I urge everyone to celebrate Banned Books Week by picking up a book that some closed-minded person out there wanted desperately to keep out of your hands.” – Jessica Herthel
  • If any of my books are banned, I’ll be really ticked off and might even use some profanity.

Malcolm

Review: ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

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“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll hear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.”

halfformedRiverrun of words, past church and family and worse, from swerve of hope to bend of knee, you might think you’re reading “Finnegan” again as you start Eimear McBride’s streamOFconsciousness novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. James Joyce leaves early on, though when you reach the novel’s final words, you might agree this story is a wake.

It’s also a mental letter of sorts, an interior monologue, from a rebellious sister to a brother with a brain tumor, within.the.tight.confines of a dysfunctional household, abuse and other perversions, rape and WorseThanRape, and the protagonist’s desperately destructive behavior. We are INside her head. Too much for simple syntax there, though sin is a constant theme, and prayers, too, so when James Joyce leaves the book by the back door, Virginia Woolf arrives at the front door. Figuratively speaking. You should be afraid, for this book will wreck you as though you yourself are violating the protagonist page by heartbreaking page, you bastard.

It’s also a raw poem, laced with the worst muck of life, the flotsam any free-flowing river carries along with sunlit ripples of lyr(within lyrics)ics more beautiful than anyone other than the doomed brother deserves to hear. The flow of words, blood, semen, vomit and other prayers are dAZZling to experience. The book’s un-named characters lead sad lives that would be sad if McBride had told the story through a conventional approach. Yet the fractured prose fits all that’s broken in the story and the poetry of the riverrun of words accentuates every vile UNformed and 1/2Formed thing.

Mammy is a single parent who is randomly holy.past.all.understanding, loving, vicious, and blind to everything but her son in her unkempt house in this small Irish town. Daddy is absent, resting in hell or elsewhere. Uncle is perverted. Schoolkids are cruel. Men have one thing on their minds. Brother is slow. Sister is wantonly searching for herself. And fate is relentless. Life inside this story, and inside the protagonist’s head, is difficult, difficult to read in half-formed thoughts, and impossible to set aside.

You won’t forget this story even though you will try.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Why or Why Not?

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“I read a piece in Marie Claire titled “I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim – and Then I Promptly Went Broke.” And I caught my head nodding in agreement with the writer. http://www.marieclaire.com/career-advice/features/a22573/merritt-tierce-love-me-back-writing-and-money/

“About once a year I find myself at a crossroad in my writing. I love freelancing, and Funds for Writers, and novel writing. I wish I could do just one of them, but the fact is these days you cannot just do one. You must diversify and spread your name (and talent) around to reach all the pockets of readers out there. It takes diversification to earn a living.” – Author Hope Clark

You would think, wouldn’t you, that if an agent accepts your novel, sells it to a big New York publisher, and the book becomes a bestseller, you’d be ready to work as a full-time author of fiction everybody wants to read. Hope Clark and I read the same article and, as she said in today’s newsletter, she does several things to maintain her income even though she wishes she could pick one of those things and work on it full time.

One way or the other, we need to ask how we can diversify and make it all work. A lot of writers teach. That’s their full-time job and, like most regular jobs, it provides the health insurance and other benefits. Well known writers can make money with speaking engagements. Others work for magazines, newspapers, corporate public relations departments, and other places who need writers. Many, of course, work full-time at some a job totally unrelated to their fiction.

If you have a family, your time is even more limited whether the children are in pre-K and grade school or are in high school or college. Having a family is a joy, if it’s meant for you, but it also carries a lot of time-consuming responsibilities. If you’re working full-time and then coming home to maintain a household and chauffeur your kids around to activities, your writing time during most weeks might be slim to none.

I worked as a technical writer, a job that’s not so much in demand any more. What I liked about it was that–except when my company was kicking off a new software package–the job seldom required overtime hours. On the other hand, when I worked in corporate communications, I always had to contend with deadlines that extended my working hours, or that involved after-work activities.

When a full-time job and one’s family take up most of one’s time, it’s very easy for the writing to fade away. For one thing, assuming you publish anything, it’s probably not going to bring in enough money to justify spending multiple hours a week away from your other chores. So, if you want to write books, the challenge is discovering why you want to and how to manage those reasons into why you want to (or have to) do the other things on your plate.

Simplistically, keeping up with fiction writing often means staying home when everyone you know is at a party, ball game, concert or outing at the park. It probably means that when the fall TV schedule begins, you won’t be able to watch all the new shows. So what are you going to do? Watch this season of “Survivor,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” or slog it out on a novel a few hundred words per evening? And, as most writers discover early in their marriages, the spouse is likely to be unhappy if you sequester yourself in your den every night instead of doing something together whether that’s watching a favor TV show or cleaning out the garage.

So, why are you writing? Perhaps wanting to write isn’t quite enough. Yes, I know, a lot of writers say during their first interview, “I always wanted to be a writer.” When they first started feeling that way, they probably thought they’d pay their dues by writing for pennies, then nickles, then dollars, and then ultimately have an agent and a big publisher behind them helping ensure a steady income. This is like every kid who plays sandlot baseball thinking they’re going to be accepted by a major league ball club. Chances are slim to almost none.

Maybe we don’t know why we write. We just do it because we have to. Okay, that might be enough as long as we understand the realities of the money side of this business. Or, perhaps you have a more complex reason and that lends itself to your involvement in multiple kinds of writing in addition to novels, or in work in businesses and groups that relate to the WHY of your writing–justice, the environment, law, politics. Perhaps that WHY is the foundation for a diversified income that fits hand-in-glove with the time required for writing.

Let’s hope we all find what that WHY is so that we can make our careers work.

–Malcolm

 

 

Writing magical realism: step-by-step suggestions

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When the magic within a story is accepted as usual within an otherwise realistic setting, you’re probably reading or writing magical realism. It requires a light touch: if the magic becomes too overt or too over-the-top in terms of Hollywood special effects, then you’re out of the magical realism genre realm into fantasy, occult or science fiction.

Here’s an example

gardenspellsIn her novel Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen tells a story about a woman named Claire Waverly living alone in the family’s old house in a small town. Her family has always been viewed by others as odd or unusual in some way. She runs a catering business that’s in high demand because she’s not only a great cook, but uses the products of her own garden to enhance her dishes in ways that seem to help those who need to be helped: their luck or their emotions improve, they feel better, find their lives improving. She doesn’t advertise this: if she did, it would sound like an unbelievable health food scam and would no longer be magical realism. Each member of the Waverly family has a special gift that causes others to see them as slightly odd and/or highly talented.

The novel works on many levels as magical realism because: (1) We’re not seeing Harry Potter magic, (2) The small town setting lends itself to local legends and gossip that create an eerie overlay of maybe and perhaps that’s never quite analyzed in the light of day, (3) The magic is low key, not the kind that in other novels would turn into a thriller, witchcraft hysteria, (4) Her characters do what they do without overly using “magical techniques” that require practice, meditations, or the stuff of either fantasy or dark arts novels.

If you  want to write magical realism, it helps if you’ve read a lot of it and have a feeling for the genre as well of being comfortable leaving a lot of things unsaid or hinted at rather than approaching the unusual in your story with a full-bore emphasis on “creepy stuff” as  Stephen King might approach similar material. Here are a few suggestions

Tips for Writing Magical Realism

  1. This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn't.

    This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn’t.

    Unlike fantasy, magical realism has strong plots and characters that would draw readers through the story if there were no magic at all. It’s hard to imagine the Harry Potter books without wizards and their magic. Garden Spells might work as a story in a small town even if the Waverly family didn’t have unusual talents.

  2. Choose a setting that lends itself to magic, unanswered questions and unusual events without attracting the attention of, say, the news media or the police or others who might shine a strong light on it. Small towns and rural settings both have legends and myths (whether you make them up or do a riff on those of the real place where you set your story).  Since a lot of people in today’s society get spooked by swamps, remote mountains, piney woods in the moonlight–along with the real or imagined creatures that might be there–going off the beaten track for your story gives you a lot of opportunities for implying that, say, the land is conscious or that birds and animals have unusual motives, or that keeping on the “right side” of folk beliefs is the healthy thing to do.
  3. The people who create the magic seldom talk about their magic; if they do, they don’t see what they do as any different from the way anyone else uses the tools of his/her trade to do or to create what most people cannot do or create. If you borrow from a real magical tradition such as Voodoo, witchcraft or hoodoo, research (or your own knowledge) will bring you a lot of ideas about ways of living a magical without turning the practitioner into a caricature.  As the author of a magical realism story, you never ever demean the myths, legends, beliefs, spells and practices of your magical characters or the enchanted landscape in which they live.
  4. If you use a real wilderness or other remote setting, your book will be more believable if you research the flora, fauna, weather and people who live there now–or lived there in the past.  For one thing, you need realism to play off against the magic. For another, it’s hard to show characters moving around in an area if you don’t know what it looks like. And finally, natural magic uses things from the land that witches and conjurers grow, harvest or find. Don’t make this up: it will kill your story. Find out what kind of leaves are used for the spell you want, research what the plants look like and whether they grow in the area where your story is set, and make that a natural part of your narrative.
  5. Refer to an area’s legends and myths. For real settings, you’ll find these from folklore societies, books with titles such as “The Ghosts of Quincy” or “Florida Legends” and “Creation Myths of the Sunshine State.” Your job is usually not to retell any of these stories, rather to refer to them the way people in a city might mention in passing the day the trolley car first came by the house or the fact that some accident happened years ago in a certain place. For example, in my novel in progress, one character tells another not to eat gopher tortoises because they were created by the devil. The legend about that is longer than this post, but in a magical realism book I can simply refer to that as a fact and move on. I always prefer to use nuggets out of the real myths and legends from a place rather than making them up from scratch. For one thing, they fit the place well. For another, they convey a folklore truth that many people living there have heard before and/or a bit of folklore I want to help keep alive.
  6. Certain events/feelings that are told as metaphors in a mainstream realism novel can be told as though they actually happened. Be careful with this, or it won’t seem believable within the story’s context and the character’s beliefs. For example, in realism, a character who needs to apolgize to another might say, “I felt as though I was so small, I could hide under the dining room chairs until my parents left for work.” In magical realism, you don’t include the words “as though” or “as if.” You state it like it’s temporarily the case. Interior monologue and/or lyrical propose are two ways you can do this so that a typically unrealistic event suddenly seems plausible within the magic of the moment. For example: “When my conjure woman is angry, she is taller she doesn’t look smaller when she walks down to the far end of the beach.”

amfolklore

There’s no recipe here. In a sense, you have to feel it and sense it before you can do it. Once you practice the genre a lot, you don’t have to consciously think about the components any more than a person with years of experience thinks about what s/he does to make a bicycle work. It also helps if you have an open mind and a sense of wonderment or even magic about people and the natural world.

At any rate, I toss off these suggestions as ideas that might work. Or might not.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

Positivity is the world’s saving grace

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“I’d like to invite you to join me for two days of pure positivity. Forty-eight little hours of looking for and at only the good stuff. Of ignoring what isn’t beautiful. I’m not asking you to give up misery forever. Forty-eight hours and one minute from now, you are welcome to seek out all the stuff that makes you angry, sad, frustrated, and worried, but for two days, let’s sweep all that under the rug and then dance atop it. What do you say, are you in?” – Beth Grace in Your Voice Within

Focusing on the good stuff ain’t easy.

positivveSeems like the world throws a lot of curve balls at us and our friends–and at other good people as well. Getting depressed or angry is probably a very human response.

Plus, many of us have “hot buttons,” issues that almost automatically bring fire-breathing anger and personal issues that upset us so much we lose our cool and say words we can never call back.

I’ve spent a lifetime working on controlling negative emotions, damping down what I jokingly refer to as my “volatile Scots’ temper.” My temper doesn’t flare up  as often as it used to, nor as forcefully. For one thing, the logical side of myself realized years ago that anger primarily hurts the person who’s angry unless they haul off an hit, shoot or bully somebody with words, things I hope I will never do.

My logical conclusion is: anger is a waste of time. The person or group I’m angry at doesn’t even know it. Yes, if it’s a social matter or a political matter, I can join others in protesting it or expressing my beliefs about the issues involved, but anger won’t help me do that. Meanwhile, the anger is hurting me, causing anything from indigestion to a preoccupation with fuming thoughts that distract me from the things I’d much rather be doing.

The Silva Method

Years ago, I took a two-weekend seminar that was developed out of the research of a man named Jose Silva that focused on positive thinking, mediation, improving memory, and on techniques that helped bring dreams into reality. Few of us could match the adeptness of our instructor in any of these areas. But we all reported a similar benefit: for many months after the course, we all felt like we were walking on air. We were simply completely happy and confident.

Unfortunately, most of us didn’t spend enough time in the years following the course to maintain such a high level of bliss. The world gets to you after a while. It not only throws those curve balls, but it mocks you if you maintain a peaceful and nonviolent approach to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Like the martial arts, sports, music, learning another language, and almost everything else we may wish to master, mastery of oneself and one’s emotions and negative mental chatter requires constant monitoring and practice. Life gets in the way, doesn’t it? We get up at 6:30 a.m., commute to work, get home early in the evening, have supper, and then fall into an easy chair and watch TV until it’s time to go to bed. It just too darned easy to skip meditation and practice. So, without vigilance, even after one takes a course or listens to an inspiring speech, it’s easy to slip back into the old habits.

Rosicrucian Order

I have been a member of the Rosicrucian Order for almost half a century. I’m embarrassed to admit this because I’ve probably spent a tenth of the amount of time required to fully take in the wisdom of this mystery school and apply it to every day life. I apply it more to my writing than to myself. I’m grateful for the magic and mystery that ancient wisdom brings to my writing. However, I have–it appears–chosen to bring less of it into my day to day living than I should have. Like studying Kabbalah  and other ancient “big picture” approaches to the universe and how it works, the order takes a positive, non-judgemental approach to improving one’s life while making Earth a better place for everyone.

So it is that I am pleased when I read posts like Beth Grace’s “48 Heart-Centered Hours.” Beth, and others, remind me how dangerous to oneself negative thoughts can be, and lead us back into the fold where positive thoughts are more the norm than an anomaly. Sheepishly, I think, “Well, I knew that, so why haven’t I been more dedicated in living a life based on a positive focus?”

Beth’s invitation to two days of heart centered hours came at the same time that I’ve been doing the final revisions on my latest book. What a wonderful experience this has been! The words fell into place because I was staying away from negative thoughts, thoughts that really have no value whatsoever no matter how “right” we think we are about one issue or another. And yes, I have felt more bliss and energy during the last 48 hours than usual!

I have an edge, perhaps. Age has brought me to a point where getting angry is just too much trouble. I tend to look for other ways of addressing issues that need to be fixed. But I need reminders. There are many positive blogs around that help me find my loving center again. Beth’s is relatively new and one that has helped me ind my bliss again.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell writes magical realism because he believes in magic.

Seriously, why do I need to know everything right now?

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We’re living in a right now world.

Of course, it’s always now.

But the now I care about is the now I can see, hear, taste, touch and smell.

  • skunkIf I’m enjoying smelling the roses in my side yard, I don’t really need an “urgent” text message from a friend saying, OMG I just ran over a skunk on Interstate 75. (Unless the skunk or the smell of the skunk caused a car wreck, this information can wait until later–or possibly never.)
  • When I turn on CNN, I see that the words “BREAKING NEWS” are always on the TV screen even if the news happened a week ago. The primary breaking news on CNN is that a bunch of talking heads are telling me what they thing about the news rather than covering actual news. (I got fooled by this at first and though some hideous events were happening over and over again.)
  • Looking for interesting posts on Facebook, I don’t need to see status updates that look like this: “Good one.” “Oh no, look at that chick’s ugly dress.” “What a bunch of crap.” “Yikes, the killer is getting away.” (I took me a while to figure out that the people posting these updates weren’t necessarily crazy–though that’s possible. They were making comments about some TV show they were watching, you know, like were were all watching it together.
  • When I’m busy defusing a bomb that somebody left under the hood of my car after watching the movie called “Speed,” I don’t really want to get a slough of voice mail messages from you saying stuff like this: “Hi Malcolm, this is Bob, just calling to see if you’re still alive.” “Malcolm, I know you’re not dead, please pick up.” “If you don’t answer your GD phone when I call you, why do you have a GD  phone?” (Bob, the Earth circles around the sun rather than around you.)
  • When I’m watching an exciting episode of NCIS, I don’t really want my local network station to preempt the the show with five minutes of emergency “JUST HAPPENED” commentary about a dead skunk on the Interstate with on-the scene coverage from reporters saying, “This is Bob Smith standing next to a dead skunk a mile south of the Highway 53 exit for Calhoun. It smells really bad. Back to you at the station, Susan.” (Meanwhile, I missed the stunning conclusion of my program and have gotten back to the network feed in time for a Preparation H commercial.)
  • Let’s say I just ran over a skunk on I-75. You send me a text message: “7132 hh lol”  (First, I need to remind you that looking at text messages while I’m driving is illegal in Georgia. Second, I need to remind you that I hate text messages because typing is a lot more trouble than actually talking. Finally, I have no clue what that gibberish means anyway and think maybe you’re a troll or a hooker.)
  • I try to avoid Twitter because most of it’s gibberish from people who think I care about what they’re doing right now as opposed to what I’m doing right now. When you say, “fantastic sex with my hooker BF is happening while I tweet,” I want to respond with “TMI.” (Actually, I don’t want to respond at all and will assume you’re insane, arrogant, or are having lousy sex that leaves you time to be on Twitter.)
  • If you just discovered minutes ago that a Hollywood star most of us thought had been dead for years has just now passed away, it really means you just now heard of it and think that my life will be changed forever if I don’t know about it immediately. (As it usually turns out, the breaking news in this information is the fact you just heard about it even thought it happened last week.)

There are days when I want to throw away my cell phone, swear off Facebook and Twitter, and stop listening to the so-called breaking news that isn’t breaking.

If you just discovered something, please don’t call.*

–Malcolm

*Unless you think I just ran over a skunk and want me to know there’s a bomb in my car that will go off if I don’t keep going at over 55 mph in spite of the smell.