October 12, 2014
I have been traveling in other worlds lately. The worlds of William Maxwell and Frank O’Connor’s words. I am in Ireland and in New York but I am still here too as I stare upon Elsewhere.
“Elsewhere” is always a place in Lahore or somewhere in South Africa. I see corners of streets from “Elsewhere” if the sunset’s light hits the smog on the leaves a certain way. Some days, the quiet on a street after the cars leave an intersection takes me to this “Elsewhere” to which GPS coordinates don’t exist.
I have lived many lives and when it comes to “Elsewhere” I have lived them more than once in this very lifetime.
I sometimes wonder if I am everywhere but Lahore on purpose, at least in part unconsciously. Some secret resolve to keep oneself protected from such depths one can’t claw out of, at least not without bleeding. How much blood can you shed for the past? It requires immense strength to pull your entire body weight to toss yourself over the other side of a wall. Now, add to that weight the additional poundage of memories, good ones, of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, not even in pictures that can now be touched to insta-glorify even garbage.
I think of William Maxwell’s words, thoughts, dispositions, in his stories, interviews, anecdotes about him, and his letters and editorial notes to Frank O’ Connor. I relish the characters in Frank O’Connor’s stories; I have been reading many of them, almost all of them. “Ghosts” is a remarkable piece of art, sheer genius in my opinion.
“They could go looking for ghosts, but he had ghosts there inside himself and I knew in my heart that till the day he died he would never get over the feeling that his money had put him astray and he had turned his back on them.”
That’s how it ends, that story, and that’s how it stays with you forever.
The ghosts within us, of our other selves, that remember different worlds, aren’t scary but they are persistent. They don’t haunt us for the sake of nostalgia but as a plea to save the present.
Anyway, I think of William Maxwell and others and can’t help but wonder if any of them could ever relate to the stories I want to write, characters that don’t belong to one city, characters whose edges can’t be neatly cut according to most MFA programs that follow a trend even when they try so hard not to follow one. More importantly, I wonder if any such editor exists now. What I mean by that is, editors who hold their current positions because they are or were writers first. I mean, take the current editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, I can’t seem to find any creative fiction she has penned despite being part of the literati long before taking on the role as an editor. (Side note: I use The New Yorker just as an example, not as some implicit attack; perhaps it is not fair to mention an example of a magazine whose fiction I don’t read, it was a very different magazine before the 90’s. This is not to say they haven’t published authors who deserve their public or literary reputation, but one doesn’t have to read The New Yorker to “discover” them).
But perhaps there is hope after all? The recent Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to an unknown author (to me and probably majority of the United States’ readers), French writer, Patrick Modiano. Lucy shared an article with me which sheds light on the current creative conundrum. Horace Engdahl, Nobel judge, part of the Swedish Academy, hopes “the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors.” The article in The Guardian continues, “Engdahl slammed novels which ‘pretend to be transgressive’, but which are not. ‘One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,’ he said. ‘These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.’”
What precisely constitutes as “westernization” is a dated concept in itself in my humble opinion. It’s not as easily defined as it once was. The advent of social media has changed the landscape in many ways, but in as many ways Internet and social media have brought this change, in equal amounts, thanks to people’s self-absorption everywhere, they now know even less about the world outside of their mobile devices and computers.
Frank O’ Connor’s Ireland reminds me of Lahore.
“I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said; but that doesn’t mean that the stories themselves were inspired by events in Ireland. Many of them should really have English backgrounds; a few should even have American ones. Only language and circumstance are local and national; all the rest is, or should be, part of the human condition, and as true for America and England as it is for Ireland. The nicest compliment I have ever received was from a student while the authorities of the university were considering the important question of whether I was a resident or non-resident alien. “Mr. O’Connor, I find it hard to think of you as an alien at all.” (Steinman, Michael, ed. The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell 1945-1966. 15. New York: Knof, 1996. Print.)
Writing stories makes feel less of an alien on this planet, where geographic divides don’t make sense, given the human condition, made of ignorance, sufferings, joys, dreams, are as common throughout as the oxygen we need anywhere to stay alive.
Sometimes I feel this digital space will be known as the place where I recorded my challenges “to get it down right” till I finally got it down, even if not right, and I could care less because there would be no more ghosts.