Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Velveteen Rabbit

For me, one of the great childrens' stories is Margery Williams' 1922 tale The Velveteen Rabbit. Like many good childrens' stories it's about the world, about all of us.

The voice is perfectly pitched, for the era, and comes alive off the page, begging to be read out loud with verve and rise and fall of voice. Here's a link to an online copy with some superb illustrations. Like some of the best Dr Seuss stories there are pointers in here to human behaviour which reward an adult's reading, while never sacrificing the enthralling style, to keep a young reader engaged.

There were other things in the stocking, nuts and oranges and a toy engine, and chocolate almonds and a clockwork mouse, but the Rabbit was quite the best of all. For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.

For at least two hours, that says so much.

The story contains all the elements of good fiction - including:

  • Character - the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse are hard to forget. Even the minor characters like the toy motorboat stand out. The Skin Horse reminds me of some of John Steinbeck's later ragged and wandering wise men (e.g. Jim Casey from The Grapes of Wrath.)
  • Plot -  the introduction of scarlet fever, which threatens the boy's life - darkens the story and takes it into new and poignant territory. Like all the most effective plot, it develops, raising the emotional stakes at the same time it raises the tension (this is crucial in strong storytelling) and contains subtextual echoes that go way beyond the specific context of the story. 
  • Conflict - at the same time the boy is saved, the rabbit is endangered (by the same act) which cleaves a split in the reader's loyalties
  • A transcendent scene (best put in either just before the plot climax, or at the emotional climax) - the moment when the Velveteen Rabbit waits, shivering, to be incinerated, thinking of the good times in the past, is heartbreaking. 
I'd advise anyone looking to write for children to study this story. Think about how you might adjust the voice for contemporary audiences, or the plot (do children still relate to fairies?)

The two stories that moved me most from my own childhood were The Velveteen Rabbit and The Lorax (Dr Seuss.) Each generation has its favourites, and it's interesting to think that Margery Williams story predates me by four decades. I guess the best stories really are timeless and always open to contemporary re-assessment and interpretation. I once read an online review of The Lorax by a political conservative who described it as 'tiresome environmental, anti-business agit-prop,'

Jesus wept.

But that's a whole 'nutha story.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Who gets to tell our stories?

All the discussion about Wellington's Wellywood sign brings up deep questions about identify. The controversy touched a raw nerve with many and prompted questions about who gets to define us now, to tell our stories. Symbols are pieces of story, suggest a wider and deeper narrative. The people of Wellington rightly complained about a sign that not only was derivative (Hollywood - Bollywood - Wellywood) but gave out a covert message that the entire city had now been kidnapped by the film industry, in particular Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop. There is a difference between recognition and visual ownership.

Corporate entities (which are what Jackson and Weta are) have many means of public relations and marketing at their disposal, to be bought and paid for. A city and its people are more than just a 'thing' to be captured by business interests. They are a history, a culture, a whakapapa, a million stories that all weave into multi-layered narrative of everyday lives and struggles and challenges.

If a corporate wants to pay to put up a sign, they can, just as any of us can advertise. It's the covert kidnapping of the wider public's identity that bothers me, the automatic association that says that we are all now employees or mouthpieces. It's like the separation of church and state: an individual is free to work for both, to move between both, but does not have the right to force everyone to blur both into one.

It reminds me of Jean Baudrillard's book Simulations, 1981, when he speaks of the four stages of the sign. This is part of a recurring narrative in Baudrillard, which he calls 'the loss of the real,' the view that modern film, television and advertising has led to a loss of distinction between the real and imagined, reality and illusion, surface and depth. (from Barry, 1995).

Baudrillard's four stages/orders consist of:

1) Attempt at realism - a sign (painting, poem, story, film etc) that is made to capture the world as it is

2) A misrepresentation or distortion - a romanticized version, soft focus, or hyped up (an example would be some of the pseudo-heroic and patriotic narratives we're often prompted to adopt)

3) A sign that disguises that there is no sign underneath - where the sign is actually all there is. An example is the Rene Magritte painting seen here. Where the painting on the easel and the view outside are one and the same.

4) A sign that bears no relation to any overt reality at all - e.g an abstract expressionist painting where the connections the viewer makes (if any) are entirely subjective and sometimes come from the unconscious.

In Peter Brooker's book Modernism/Postmodernism, (1992, p.154) he analyses the role in the collective imagination and identity of Disneyland, questioning first whether Disneyland is a sign of Baudrillard's second type. (A misrepresentation.)

All its (the U.S.A's) values are exalted here, in miniature and comic-strip form. Embalmed and pacified...digest of the American way of life, panegyric to American values, idealised transposition of a contradictory reality. 

But he decides that Disneyland is in fact a 'third order simulation.' A sign which conceals an absence. (Barry, 1995.)

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it IS the 'real' country, all of 'real' America, which is Disneyland... Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real. 

Food for thought.

If nothing else, the whole issue got people talking about ownership and identity and who has the right to define it. So it's served a valuable purpose in the end. 

Here's an article with the two most popular entries for the contest to fill the space overlooking Wellington airport. The 'blown away' version is okay, though I baulk at it being designed by Saatchi and Saatchi. I prefer the Taniwha, at least visually.

But all that begs the question: where did this perceived need for a sign come from? Does there need to be a sign at all.

A grove of hardy trees would do it for me. Or just the hillside.

Astroturing: narrative in disguise

Surfing around various blogs and Facebook pages recently, especially to do with political issues, I notice that every now and then a poster will arrive on the scene and begin defending businesses or politicians or demographics with great fervor. This is often suddenly accompanied by related articles, charts, graphs, a wealth of links that seem to materialize very quickly. In moments like this I wonder if I'm looking at an example of what is called 'Astroturfing.'

Astroturfing (named after the artificial grass) originated as a term used to describe the formation of a grassroots movement of the people to support a particular cause, which turned out not to be grassroots at all, but instead  a covert paid public relations campaign. One famous example was an organization in the U.S.A. called the National Smokers Alliance, which was an ordinary citizens movement fighting for the rights of smokers. But it wasn't. It was set up by tobacco giant Phillip Morris. In China a couple of years back it was revealed the government was paying people to search blogsites and mainstream and social media to post pro-government comments, and/or make posts and comments to steer discussion away from any protest or complaint about government. Legend has it they were paid $0.50c for each positive post, therefore became known as The 50 Cent Party.

It is organized, usually professionally funded and paid, propaganda. 

Another noted example of a different kind of astroturfing was when Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006 an amateur video clip appeared on YouTube lampooning Al Gore and his message. An American journalist, Antonio Regalado, noted that this clip came up first when he did a Google search on Al Gore's name - something that can only happen if someone pays a lot of money. He traced the 'amateur' video back to a major PR firm - the actual client was never identified, but with Gore's anti Greenhouse Gasses message you can make reasonable guesses.Here is a link to the clip, which is still on YouTube.

There has been much speculation that the Tea Party movement in the U.S. is an astroturfed entity.

Pays to look closely at what you read and who is behind the telling. By the way, my opinions are mine alone. No one is paying me. I don't think anyone wants to.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sons for the Return Home

As part of a course I’ve been teaching in Pacific Literature at AUT I’ve re-read Albert Wendt’s landmark fiction novel Sons for the Return Home. I first read this text when I was in high school in the late 1970’s, which was probably bordering on an act of subversion at that time. The only other NZ work I recall reading in class was C.K. Stead’s Smith’s Dream.  

In the book a Samoan family migrates to New Zealand in the 1960’s (to Wellington) for economic reasons, always planning to return to Samoa with financial security and an increased standing in the local community (as having done well in the Papalagi (White/European) land. This point is crucial, the temporariness of their migration, though it in fact lasted for years. The parents imagine they will return to the same land they left, and that their two sons will fit straight in and somehow become traditional Samoans. This is a pipe dream. As Heraclitus said, ‘You cannot step twice into the same stream.’ The passage of time changes everything. The younger son is soon a hyphenated person, neither wholly Samoan nor a New Zealander. He becomes emotionally and physically involved with a young Papalagi woman, whose parents are an all too common mix of (psychologically unacknowledged) bigotry and themselves still with the strange temporariness of a people who have left the mythical ‘home’ but not quite settled in the new land, even though they were born in it. That both the groups of parents feel ethnical and cultural superiority over the other, is a nice comment on our selective blindness. The Samoan mother’s declaration of all the terrible habits of Papalagi children, then her admission she’s never actually known any, is a microcosm of just how much we take on board the cultural narratives that surround us. The younger son finds when he grows into a young man that he walks with a constant cloud of prejudiced assumptions around him, being constantly assembled into stereotype in the eyes of others.  

Sons for the Return Home is a crucial novel in Aotearoa and the Pacific for several reasons. Firstly it established that Samoan authors had a role to play in creating fiction here, roughly paralleling the rise of the first Maori novels and full short story collections by Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera. Secondly it gave an impression of NZ that was from a source outside of the standard narrative sources. We had had many years of the Eurocentric point of view, with NZ re-cast as a little England (despite the fact the NZ was largely also settled by immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, then later the Dalmations coast in addition to the English). Then the ‘sons of Sargeson’ had given us the viewpoint and vernacular voice of the descendants of British settlers, but now broken free of the sense of being psychologically temporary settlers, or scouts of the motherland. In Frank Sargeson’s work the characters were of the NZ landscape, hewn by it, drawn from it and back to it. But the narrative viewpoint of the novels that followed was still clearly from a Pakeha worldview, and Maori and Polynesian characters viewed as the ‘other’. In New Zealand in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s being an ‘other’ definitely put you into the ‘submerged population groups’ (to use Frank O’Connor’s terminology. See. The Lonely Voice, 1962.)

Wendt’s work viewed New Zealand as a colonising force in Samoa, a new outlook for this country, where we (the general populace) were not that long into the recognition of the British as a colonising force here, as opposed to being ‘home.’ That part of it is still an awakening jolt, the realisation that colonisation isn’t as much about the who as the how. It’s about the supplanting of power, of superimposing a narrative of superiority and primacy, and is not solely Eurocentric in its blindness to indigeneity and existing cultural narratives. Colonialism is a mindset as much as it is military power and entrenching political superiority. Witness the Australian mining industry reps in Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, with their beer guts and stubbies and jandals and disinterest in the ‘natives.’

Some of the reactions to the novel are now pretty hilarious, in an obnoxious sort of way. One review in New Zealand lamenting that the author felt the need to ‘resort to the apparently obligatory florid ethnic scenes to fill out the book.’ Smarter analyses such as Na Te Morehu said ‘Sons, like Witi Ihimaera’s groundbreaking story collection, Pounamu Pounamu, “rips away the covers of niceties” and looks at the sustaining and confining aspects of nostalgia for a mythicised past and home.’ (Sharrad, 2003). 

The book’s strongest moments for me are its most subtle. The protagonist’s father's shock on the boat journeying to New Zealand at seeing two crewman having illicit sex in a lifeboat (metaphorically his fear that his conservative family is about to ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.) The scene where the young boy is made to kill the pig at a feast, and goes through a maelstrom of emotions. The sequence where the two boys save an old man picking over a rubbish dump from being beaten up by bullies and their disbelief that a Papalagi elder could be treated like this. At other times the protagonist as a young man sometimes feels a bit too cool, a young man’s projection of the romantic view of the existentialist loner always swinging his jacket over his shoulder and leaving.   

The New Zealand Wendt was describing was circa late 1960’s, when Samoans were often spoken of as if characters from Kipling’s jungles, with a searing mix of tut-tutting patronisation and outright contempt. But that’s trap set for us by history, this sense that we’ve evolved way beyond that. It is not an invitation for us in 2011 to get cosy and comfortable in leaving those days behind. To do so would be to ignore the warnings of this novel. The story is also as much about class conflict  and inter-generational conflict (which was of earthquake proportions in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) as it is about ethnic and cultural conflict. 
Sons for the Return Home is a brave book by a brave writer who has shown courage and honesty for decades now. I recently read an obituary for a noted business figure that said that the figure ‘was a man of courage.’ A closer reading saw that said businessman in fact always stood up for the apparatus of power and those who held it, for entrenched privilege. To see such shooting from behind mile-high sandbags as courageous is ridiculous. It takes courage to stand against power, to deconstruct the myths of not one society but two, to rattle the bars around you.      

Continuing Education Summer school

For those of you in Auckland the Auckland University Continuing Education Department is running their annual Summer School at the Epsom campus in January 2012. They are offering short courses (up to a week long) in various forms of creative writing.

Here's a link to the general brochure with all the various classes.

I will be teaching a week long workshop in the Novel: From Conception to Completion. It is an intensive interactive workshop looking at all aspects of writing a novel. The format includes mini-lectures, readings from selected texts to illustrate craft points, class discussions, class writing, then feedback and analysis sessions. It's for anyone considering writing a novel and wanting to get a solid grouding in the form and its facets.

AUT writing competition on again...

The third annual Auckland University of Techology Creative Writing competition is now open for entries. Here is a page with all the entry information.
Nb: Where it says entries are limited to unpublished authors only, the definition of 'published' that that implies includes e-books where the book is on sale to the general public. Check with them or at their Facebook page here if you're unsure.

I could certainly use the I-Pad2, they have as a prize.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fact and Fiction

This week saw the death of the great American boxer, (Smokin') Joe Frazier, of liver cancer at the age of 67. The grief expressed by sportscasters and fans around the world has been enormous, and indicative of the place that Smokin' Joe has in sports mythology. Boxing is the most mythologized of all sports, and it's no coincidence that a survey of sports movies once reported that half of all sports movies are about boxers and boxing. It's a little like the Western genre, a scraping away of the accoutrements of 'civilization' to return to a more primeval state, where life and death and the potential for sudden loss is ever present. Where excuses won't save you, eloquence won't protect you.

One of the aspects of this week's reportage of Frazier's death is the twinning almost immediately of Frazier's story with that of Muhammad Ali. This is crucial, for in Ali's constructing of his image was his positioning of himself as pretty/sweet/good against ugly/sour/evil. Ali's ability to sell that image, rocked at first by his (then, for the 1960's) radical cultural and ethnic politics, was eventually all pervasive and persuasive. In the late 1960’s he harangued Frazier publicly, with insults about how (in Ali’s view) ugly he was and how dumb he was. Frazier was then cast as the villain in the public’s eye. The reality was very different.

When Ali was banned from boxing (anywhere in the world) in 1967 he was soon broke, and unknown to the general audience at the time, Frazier, then his sworn enemy, financially supported him. They would meet and Frazier would hand him envelopes with several thousand dollars in them. Ali would then go on insulting Frazier in public. Frazier said nothing, partly because he believed Ali’s banning was unjust, and partly because he wanted to fight him one day, eventually buying into Ali’s taunts that they were destined to meet in some kind of heavyweight boxing apocalyptic moment, which they did, when Ali was allowed to box again. Frazier won, clearly. He quietly went home. Ali went on insulting him.

Boxing in the 1960’s and 1970’s was caught up in the storm of words of a storyteller of genius – in Muhammad Ali. He was able to define other fighters in terms they could never escape from. His characterization of them became the accepted. His three most iconic opponents, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman were all cast firmly into the villain box, with Ali as avenger for all that was good. A deeper reading saw that Ali, the political activist railing against the poverty, lack of educational opportunities and racial prejudice of Black America, had not actually lived that upbringing. Liston, Frazier and Foreman had. Ali had the shadow of slavery over his ancestory, but his parents were part of the black middle-class. Liston was one of 25 children of an itinerant sharecropper, never knew the date or even the year he was born, never learnt to read and write. Frazier’s family were broke tenant farmers who ran bootleg whiskey, Smokin Joe’s first punchbag was a rolled-up blanket stuffed with straw and old clothes and tied to a tree. George Foreman grew up in a Houston, Texas slum called ‘The Bottom.’ Named so because if you arrived there, you had hit rock bottom. They knew the sharp end of being poor and black in the U.S.A. When Sonny Liston won the Heavyweight title he spent the plane journey home memorizing his speech for the press (since he couldn’t read.) When he landed, there was no one there to meet him.

Frazier’s victory over Ali in 1971 didn’t bring him the popularity he’d hoped for, he was respected by aficionados, but not liked by the public. Partly because he had shot down the good guy. He went on about his business. That’s what he did. There was never a more straightforward fighter than Frazier, he just worked and worked. No frills, no fancy moves. His comparitively small stature and short reach meant he often took 2 or 3 punches for every one he landed. He and Ali fought twice more, Ali won both. The third (in 1975) was an epic battle of will where Frazier’s manager Eddie Futch, in a rare (for professional boxing) moment of compassion refused to let the battered and half blinded Frazier come out for a 15th round, as he said he 'wasn't going to watch him die.' An exhausted Ali later said that he himself wouldn't have made it through the round.

In the lead-up to the 1975 fight in the Phillipines Ali had gone all out on Frazier, saying it would be 'a thrilla, a chilla and a killa, when I get the gorilla in Manilla.' Then he called him an Uncle Tom, the ultimate insult for an African-American man of the age. He said he’d done deals with the white man to advance himself. That cut Frazier deep, and he never forgave Ali for that.

In the mid 1970’s a huge chunk of Frazier’s biography was finally brought out into the light, only he wasn’t in it. That’s how his luck ran. He had spent time working in slaughterhouses, punching frozen carcasses to harden his hands. Running in the Philadelphia sleet and snow. The end of his run took him to the steps of Philadelphia city hall. From there he went home. All those moments were used and later immortalized on the movie screen, by Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky. The Rocky character won enormous cultural currency in America. Once again, fiction had won over fact.

A few years ago the city of Philadelphia decided to erect a statue of a boxer on those steps that Frazier had run up. The statue went up with great ceremony, and - you guessed it - now the character of Rocky stands there in all his homespun glory. No statues went up of Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Muhammad Ali is now locked away in a world of Parkinson’s syndrome, from where he can no longer tell his stories, Sonny Liston was long ago found dead of a drug overdose at the age of 38 (or 40 or 42 – no-one knows for sure.) It may have been murder, as Liston was not a drug-taker and was terrified of needles. A needle was found in the middle of his BACK. George Foreman has managed to get out from under the villain image of Ali’s creation, and it was an inaccurate image. Through sheer power of will and relentless optimism he has found his own place.

And now Smokin’ Joe Frazier is dead. He was diagnosed only a month ago, and went on making appearances and signing autographs until they put him in the hospice. We now know the story of Ali and Frazier was very different to the one we were sold but the statue of Rocky still stands in Philadelphia’s heart and in America’s cultural heart. Maybe the fiction will always be preferable, and maybe men like Joe Frazier will always be in the shadows, and as characters in other people’s narratives.

R.I.P to a great, great, fighter. And a good man. A man of fact, not of fiction.