Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Funny how things sometimes converge and you have that “EUREKA!” moment. Happened to me this morning – but through a slow process of bits slowly drifting together before spiralling into the vortex and - KABOOM!
You know how it is always said that a writer must find his/her “voice” and that agents and editors are looking for voices that are unique. A lot of that uniqueness, that finding of voice, comes from being true and writing true to yourself. That doesn’t mean being autobiographical, but rather writing about things for which you feel deeply.
But there’s another element - and that's what struck me this morning. In writing true to yourself you also have to find your metier, your genre. For some it may be gritty contemporary realism, for others sci-fi or fantasy or paranormal. It may be thrillers or crime or romance - or even a hybrid of particular styles. For others it may lie in non-fiction. We each have a preferred way of placing the stories we have to tell, and a unique way of writing those stories. And each of those stories belongs to a particular literary style or genre.
When I wrote my first manuscript – which I hasten to assure you will never see the light of day – it was in the fantasy genre and partially autobiographical. I recall the rejection letter I had from Bloomsbury (which arrived a year and a half after I’d submitted the manuscript). The reader said while “it wasn’t what they were looking for right now,” she loved the voice and the lyricism inherent in it and hoped I'd continue writing. I should have taken greater note at that point. Of course, I didn’t. I went on to write a mid-grade fantasy trilogy, which, while nearly picked up by local publisher, bombed out at the sales and acquisition meeting because a local bookseller said South African fantasy writers could never compete with US or UK writers. Given it was the era of Harry Potter, no big surprise there, I guess.
So I sat down and wrote a teen contemporary fantasy which I set locally and in an entirely other world. I showed the first three chapters to Beverley Birch at the first SCBWI-BI conference I attended and while she was incredibly encouraging she felt the story lacked voice. Again, I should have sat up and taken further note.
I was, however, reaching the realisation that fantasy wasn’t entirely my thing. So I wrote a paranormal novel. Of course that tanked because I missed the “trend” by a nanosecond - but I was deeply conscious that my writing had moved to another level – primarily because I was blending worlds and because I had professional input. Again, however, there remained the issue of that elusive “voice”. So I sat down and tried something completely different. Urban sci-fi. Yes, well, definitely not my genre. The first draft is still sitting in a file rather aptly named Annihilation.
You’ll gather that, long periods of illness and deep forays into local activism aside, I was getting through a fair bit of writing and not getting very far. The illness, involving a near death experience, prompted my next manuscript – the plot was all over the place and surprise, surprise, the story lacked… yep, you’ve guessed it, voice. And I know why. I was afraid to go too deep, afraid to set the story where I should have set it in the first place, my own country. I just didn’t believe I could pull off a story set locally given all the political and social overlays which make up South Africa. I simply didn’t have the guts to do it and I was convinced all those overlays would mess with “my” story.
Things were coming to a head for me: I was seriously starting to question why I was still writing, and I was embroiled in the Nightmare Build from Hell and what rapidly devolved into The Year From Hell. Nevertheless, amidst the emotional turmoil I sat down and, over what, for me, was an excruciatingly long period, churned out another manuscript. (You can read about that journey here.) It is my current work in progress.
Having completed the first draft just over a week ago, yesterday I sat down to start pondering the rewrite. The story is unlike anything I’ve ever written before. For one, it is set almost entirely in my home province. Secondly, while my previous manuscript had elements of it, this story is firmly rooted in magical realism.
Now here’s where the eureka moment starts.
I remembered a South African novel I’d read several years ago, set in the magical realism genre. I couldn’t remember the author or the title. So I googled several key words – and came across a review article by South African author and academic Andre Brink.
In the article Brink says: “the critic Fredric Jameson may not have been so far wrong when he put forward that magic realism has become the literary language of the emergent post-colonial world… a burgeoning new kind of writing which has begun to displace the novel of realism and commitment that marked the dark years of political oppression in South Africa.” Talking of the development of magical realism in South American literature he says, “magic realism became the hallmark of literature built on the conviction that a nation needed stories in order to define its identity. No political, or social, or economic programmes aimed at constructing a new society could hope to succeed, these literatures show us, unless they were inspired by that leap of the imagination which expresses itself in the telling and inventing of stories.” He goes on to add that magical realism is a “genre characteristic of a young society in a stage of transition and in search of a new identity.”
My brain started to race.
In the transformation from the apartheid to democracy, I suspect it is no small coincidence that South Africans have clung to what is termed “Madiba Magic” or Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation.” In a country in difficult transition, this “magic” gives us hope, helps us leap over some of the lingering atrocities of apartheid and current governmental inadequacies, to find new ways forward. If one thinks about it from another angle, it should be no small surprise that magical realism is such a “natural” genre. Most of us live our lives with feet in two worlds – the gritty, hectic 24/7 contemporary world, and a more spiritual world - the world of our faith, of the mythology that underpins our cultures - a world, you might say, of magic.
I never set out to write in the magical realism genre but it’s working for me. It allows me to write to a voice that is entirely mine. It is more real for me than fantasy or paranormal or sci-fi. It allows me to write about the things I feel passionately, it allows me to express myself with both lyricism and humour. And it provides me with a vehicle in which to tell stories set in a country fraught with a variety of socio-economic problems, a society that is trying to rediscover and redefine itself. It allows me to take all that is “horrible” and all that is special, and mix it with something magical in order to create a new hope, a new beginning.
As my thinking progressed, bells started ringing in my head. I renewed my search for the elusive novel and hurtled downstairs to look for Etienne van Heerden’s The Long Silence of Mario Salviati. I didn’t find it; presumably, along with the Life of Pi, it was lost or nicked in the move. What I did find, however, were shelves overflowing with magical realism. Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Isabelle Allende, Laura Esquivel, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Paulo Coehlo, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris... I don’t need to list them all, you get the idea.
You’d have thought the stuff I’ve been reading since my teens and through to adulthood might have given me some clue, wouldn’t you?
The eureka moment having dawned, I finally feel like I’ve found my writing purpose, my natural metier, like I’ve come home. It's as if all the years of pieces and bits of puzzle have finally started to flow together to reveal who I am as a writer. Me? Excited? You bet!
Needless to say, the WIP needs extensive rework but all the bones are there, including the magic, and the elements that Brink says “transform time and space into magical and elastic concepts… that restore a sense of wholeness to the world, covering breathtaking tracts of history in one leap, embracing genesis and apocalypse in a single gesture, charging the here and now with the fiery breath of symbol and allegory, discovering the universe in a grain of sand…”
Right, I’m going in, I may be some time. If you see a praying mantis, a wandering eland or a surging whale, be sure to offer it tea and cake.