Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Onager Encore


By Jeanne Mackin

Think of history as narrative. Think of historical fiction as expanded narrative, history with all the trimmings, with cause and effect, speculation, personalization. Think of expanded narrative as the story teller reaching out to you, saying, ‘pay attention. This is important.” Or as novelist Jeanette Winterson repeats over and over in The Passion, ‘Trust me. I’m telling you a story,’ and then as she relates a Napoleonic narrative of a Venetian woman who walks on water, you do believe her even as you know she is lying through her teeth, because that is what novelists do. But this important: you don’t believe that Venetian women necessarily walk on water (though it would be a convenient skill, considering global warming and the state of Venetian canals) but you do believe Winterson’s message that love changes us, that war changes us and that war is not conducive to happy endings, because that is what her story is really about.

We best believe what we remember, and narrative is about memory: giving memories in the form of stories, receiving memories and adding them to our personal stores. But historical fiction, as memory creation, asks us to do the impossible, to remember experiences we can’t possibly have had, to ‘remember’ the smell of the rosebush growing outside Hester Prynne‘s jail in Hawthorne‘s The Scarlet Letter, to remember crouching in darkness outside the mead hall, the perpetual outsider, as John Gardner’s Grendel does; to remember the sensation of the earthquake that begins the action of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica; to remember the wild vines strangling the decaying plantation in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. All of those things were before our times; yet having read them, we remember them.

There is a relationship between memory and freedom, asserts Dr. Chris Nunn, author of De La Mettrie’s Ghost: the Story of Decisions. Nunn examines free will and the decision making process and ultimately concludes that “stories…are the mediators of free choice.” He argues that people whose ‘memories are more malleable should, other things being equal, be less prone to conditions like milleniarianism “{belief that the world will end on a given date simply because of the date} and other forms of private or mass delusion. People with flexible memories are less gullible…“thanks to its intimate relationship with the memory process, consciousness can to some extent determine its own future.”

Call me an idealist, but perhaps fiction can prevent us from making even bigger and more dangerous idiots of ourselves than the species already has. Perhaps historical fiction keeps our memories malleable by constantly recreating and adding to those memories; perhaps there is a connection between fiction, memory and freedom. Gardner’s Grendel can be read as an early eco-novel, among other things: “They {man} hacked down trees in widening rings around their central halls and blistered the land with peasant huts and pigpen fences till the forest looked like an old dog dying of mange.”

In Jean Rhys’ post colonial devastation in Wide Sargasso Sea, the destructive misery of failed empire comes home to roost in a suicidal conflagration: “I got up, took the keys and unlocked the door. I was outside holding my candle. Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draft for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.”

Richard Hughes’ incredibly convincing narrative of the connections between entitlement and violence in A High Wind in Jamaica reveals how a lack of self-responsibility so easily leads to murder and how that violence estranges us: “Mr. Thornton made no attempt to answer her questions: he even shrank back, physically from touching his child Emily..Was it Conceivable she as such an idiot as really not to know what it was all about? Could she possibly not know what she had done? He stole a look at her innocent little face, even the tear-stains now gone. What was he to think?”

Murdered pirates, decaying plantations, mead halls, Napoleon’s roasted chickens…artificial memories bestowed by historical fiction, but who’s to say that an artificial memory is less meaningful than mundane ones? De La Mettrie argues that memories become encoded in neurons and have physical properties, so why can’t the memories acquired in a reading of fiction matter as much as the memory of today’s first cup of coffee and who poured it for you? Read, and remember. Is it possible to also understand something from what is given us by the memories in fiction? “The pastis the present, isn’t it? It’s the future,too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us,” Eugene O’Neill tells us in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Perhaps what fiction most asks us to remember is that memory keeps us human, and if we remember enough and remember well, we can add an e to human.


Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels including The Sweet By and By and The Frenchwoman.  She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Goddard College.  Her latest novel The Beautiful American is forthcoming in June of 2014. You can read about it on her web site: JeanneMackin.com


Friday, January 10, 2014

The Underage Driver

a short story by Sasha Thurmond

MY MOTHER BEGAN letting me slowly cruise around our driveway when I was only ten years old. Her vehicle was a Woody Station Wagon large enough to accommodate myself, my three siblings, and numerous friends. Our driveway had two entrances, and was a veritable race course, complete with a steep uphill climb that fed into a flat parking area at one side of our house where there were three garages. Off of this, a shorter hill led to the back of our New England clapboard-gray, wood shakes house, with white shutters, trim, and soaring, white square columns in the front of the house. A gigantic circular drive, landscaped with pink and white rhododendron bushes flourished in the driveway interior. The driveway's second egress led out to the little traveled road we lived on. I dreamed of being old enough to maneuver around the U.S.A. in an automobile.
             My Mother drawled in her southern accent that she had "complete faith" in my siblings and myself, and frequently let us drive around our rambling driveway.
             One drawback for me was that I could barely reach the accelerator or brake. For a while, all was going fine. I respected my Mother's request to only drive when she was with me . . . unlike my older sister and brother who were allowed to navigate solo. Then one ill-fated day, when my Mother said I could stop the car in front of one of the three closed garage doors, my right leg floored the accelerator instead of the brake. "Wrong pedal" flashed through my mind as I careened through one post, smashing into the concrete wall beyond. So much for the new electric garage door my father had recently installed. My mother was aghast, and I was comatose and speechless ! have little idea what my mother said after that. Of course I was horrified that my father was going to kill me! He breathed fire like a dragon when he was angry. He was an acclaimed surgeon who was always busy saving people's lives. Thus, he was always under lots of pressures. He didn't need to come home and get overloaded with family problems or chaos
           In a panic, I decided to camp out beneath an awe inspiring, mammoth size willow tree on our property. It was a quarter mile in front of our humble abode,   Let my father chill out a while till he was done with dinner, or maybe even until after he left for work the following morning, or perhaps I should disappear altogether. I was spinning out of control. I mulled over the idea that just maybe I could be independent and a free spirit like Huckleberry Finn. However, right now I was just trying to  postpone my guaranteed punishment. I knew my driving days would be immediately terminated. They had just begun, and it felt awesome to be the one at the wheel while driving an automobile.
           Things were moving along nicely. Then, my champion field trial dog, Silver Tip, sniffed out my scent and ran through the curtain of willow tree branches that elegantly, kissed the ground and shielded me. I was overjoyed to have her company.This desperate plan was already getting to be a lot of fun. I had brought my horse books, comic books, detective stories, a strong flash light, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Silver Tip could eat some of them with me. Then, much later, I heard my father return from work. Next, a sonic boom exploded. I knew this sound . . . it was my Dad going ballistic, only it was much louder than usual.  The barrage swiftly moved into our house. Eventually everyone was screaming for me to high tail it home and face the music. Silver Tip and I were muffling our laughter, not that they could hear us since we were so far away. For some strange reason, this all made me feel more powerful, and very giddy. Finally my family went back inside and began eating without me. 
             Suddenly, Silver Tip froze in a point. Something was sneaking through the willow tree curtain, and heading toward my bag of vittles. Before a blink of an eye, the black and white ball spun around and began spraying us with something burning and stinky. It was a skunk!  I screamed at "Silver Tip" to forget about the skunk, and raced hastily back to the safety of our house . . . although I had quick misgivings that we may not be so safe there when my dad saw us The Venetian doors in the dining room were open, but we ran through the screen doors to get inside for refuge. Everything  burst into turmoil because of our frantic entry and pungent odor. My father ordered me and Silver Tip to take a bath in tomato juice immediately         

              While we were scrubbing off our skin, and hair, my mom told my father how the garage door, post, and front of her car got so mangled . . . and who was behind the wheel. He blew another gasket, and questioned how my mother could be so idiotic to let me drive her car. When Silver Tip and I were all dried off, we silently crept into my bed and pretended we were asleep. After dinner, my father peeked in on us, but quietly shut the door, and walked downstairs to fume at my mother some more. Eventually, I did fall asleep because I was exhausted from the drama. 
               The next morning, after my father had left for work, Silver Tip and I cautiously crept down stairs to feel out the situation. My mother promised to not let me drive anymore, but when I turned thirteen she again resumed allowing me to drive. My father spoke to me about the incident when he arrived home that evening, but he chose to forgo punishing me  My passionate plans to drive and explore the continent flourished I figured that Henry Ford would be proud of me.  

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Where it all happened.

SASHA THURMOND is an artist and writer who lives on a farm in South Carolina with her horse and numerous other animals. She has a MFA degree in fine art from Cornell University.

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