Write what you know: tell someone else’s story

  • Amitava Kumar
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2015 00:11 IST

At the college where I teach in upstate New York, when my students in my writing classes turn in stories drawn from their own life, stories about a small disturbance in love or a vague feeling of loneliness during their first week away from home, I let out a little sigh.

My general tendency is to encourage students to turn away from such fictions of the self and begin writing journalism. If I would remember my own younger self, perhaps I’d be more patient. Still, I want my students to escape the prison of their petty love stories; I want them to go out into the world and discover the rich realities of places and people.

We are tempted to make sense of huge historical events by viewing them through the lens of our own individual experience. The philosopher Judith Butler has written: “In the United States we begin the story by invoking a first-person narrative point of view, and telling what happened on September 11.” It is as if history were reduced to the question “Where were you when you first heard…?”

In 2009, when Colum McCann published his novel Let the Great World Spin, quickly celebrated as one of the best post-9/11 novels, I clipped out a statement from an interview with the author to share with my students: “He meticulously researches and studiously avoids writing anything that resembles his own life.”

Know the ropes: Let the Great World Spin, one of the best post 9/11 novels, reaches back to Philippe Petit’s famous walk of 1974 (above) on a rope between the twin towers, as an entry into the world of human courage. (Photo: The New York Times) (NYT)

Let the Great World Spin went on to win the National Book Award. The book’s bravura opening, recounting a tightrope artist’s daredevil walk on a rope stretching between the twin towers, provides a quick entry into a world of human courage and risk. Imaginatively reaching back to Philippe Petit’s famous walk of 1974, McCann found a remarkable leitmotif for what he had to say about other, interconnected lives.

Recently, McCann came out with a new collection of stories, Thirteen Ways of Looking. The first story that I read from it was about a middle-aged woman in mourning for her deaf teenage son who is feared drowned in the coastal waters near Galway. This woman, Rebecca, is a translator. She adopted the boy from Vladivostok when he was six. In the story, Rebecca is translating into English a novella that has arrived from Tel Aviv. The novella is about a middle-aged couple who have lost their two children.

The other: All four stories in Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking touch upon violence. But until you reach his note at the end, you will not realise that the book is partly a response to a violent experience suffered by him. (Dustin Aksland)

Here’s a passage about Rebecca that I lingered over for a long time: “She had come upon the word sh’khol. She cast around for a word to translate it but there was no proper match. There were words, of course, for widow, widower, and orphan, but no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child. None in Irish, either. She looked in Russian, in French, in German, in other languages, too, but could find analogues only in Sanskrit, vilomah, and in Arabic, thakla, a mother, mathkool, a father. Still none in English.”

This was another lesson here, I thought. The richness of the world is to be discovered through language. You need to mine the language for its gifts, or as in the example above, even for its secrets about its limits. And through that, discover other languages and the world.

Each of the four stories in McCann’s new collection touch on violence. In the title story, a retired judge is felled by a fatal blow to the head. In the closing story, an aging Irish nun catches sight of her torturer and rapist on television. The man, once a right-wing guerrilla leader, has reinvented himself as a diplomat. His one-time victim is pursued by the need to find out for herself if the man has really changed.

Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking

A reader unfamiliar with McCann will not know till they come to the author’s note at the end of the book that he had been assaulted last year. This was in New Haven where McCann was attending a meeting of “Narrative 4,” a group he helped found for children to retell one another’s stories. McCann was attacked after he tried to help a woman who had been assaulted on the street by her partner. He ended up in the hospital with three shattered teeth and a broken cheekbone. The stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking are partly a response to the violent experience suffered by the author.

McCann has written in his author’s note that “every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.” This seems exactly right to me. You must write what you know – but how? McCann’s latest work shows that you must tell your story. If you have a story to tell, share it in a way that makes it more powerful. Tell it like you know that it is not your story alone.

The Bookist is a monthly column

From HT Brunch, December 13

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