Inheriting Trauma

Image of a porch with a wicker chair and a floral couch with a blanket over it in black and white.Until a few months ago, I thought Aleppo, Syria was one word. I’d never seen it in print, only heard it, and just once, from the lips of my grandmother. “I was born in Aleppo, Syria,” she said, and since there was no pause between the “o” and the “s” I figured she was referring to a country somewhere in the Middle East.

“You know, Damascus?”

That’s what she said next. I know because I have it on a cassette tape. I recorded her for an Oral Interpretation class I was taking in college.

This was probably my first tryst with the genre of creative nonfiction, and I loved it. I’ve always been shy and so it was freeing to immerse myself in another world while using my voice, my body, and my personality to portray that world. Learning someone else’s story helped me learn about myself.

My grandmother lived about two blocks from Calvin, the college I attended. The day I came with a recorder, she made coffee and “S” cookies,” buttery cookies smothered in powdered sugar. I had a list of questions for her, but once I pressed “record” my grandmother took off. “I was born in Aleppo, Syria,” she began.

I sipped my coffee, ate cookies, and watched. She looked pretty in a navy blue sweater, happy to her tell stories. She sat up straight and her hands rested on the table or around her mug, except every once in a while when she used an index finger or palm to thump the table when she wanted to drive a joke home. [Read more…]

An Interview with George Saunders, Part 1

Photo of George Saunders in b&w looking at the camera. He has a gentle expression on his face, but his eye contact is direct. His hair is balding a bit with a tuft on top of his head. He's wearing dark, thick rimmed rectangular glasses, a dark jacket, and a pattern shirt underneath.Beloved fiction writer George Saunders has long been known for his daring short stories, collected most recently in 2013’s Story Prize-winning Tenth of December, and his keen interest in moral introspection, highlighted by his much-shared commencement speech for 2013 Syracuse University graduates about the importance of kindness.

Saunders just published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, an unconventional work of historical fiction about the moment when Abraham Lincoln was embroiled in the Civil War and lost his son Willie to typhoid fever.

I recently spoke to George Saunders on the phone from his home in California about his novel of voices, the Tibetan concept of the Bardo, and how he drew on classic ghost story tropes to create his distinctive spirit characters.

Jenny Shank: You create a chorus of voices in the commentaries about Lincoln that are taken from historical sources. Did the feeling of these contrary voices inspire the fictional characters you created, or was it the other way around?

George Saunders: It was both. It was like a feedback loop. You’d write a ghost section in which there was a certain rhythm in those exchanges, and that rhythm would be in your head the next time you went to arrange the real sources. And vice versa. You’d get a certain kind of velocity in those factual sections that would make a high bar for the ghost sections.

There was a big breakthrough one day where I was trying to figure out where to put the attributions—because you could put them at the beginning or the end. If you put them at the end, then the ghost speeches are at first glance indistinguishable from the factual ones. I liked that there would be one rule for all of them.

This book isn’t actually that long, so you could always be rewriting all of it. If at the end of the book I had a certain tone, I might find myself revising an earlier section in that spirit.

J.S.: Did you consider it a risk to make a good portion of your book out of other people’s words?

G.S.: Yes. I remember thinking, this isn’t writing, this is typing! But I really wanted to communicate some of that emotion of that image of Lincoln holding Willie’s body. [Read more…]

An Interview with Newbery Medal-Winning Author Clare Vanderpool, Part 2

walking-away-by-simple-insomnia-on-flickrClare Vanderpool, Newbery-Medal winning author of the novels Moon over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) and Navigating Early (Delacorte, 2013), got her start by attending a writing workshop at The Milton Center, with which Image was associated in its early years and whose programs are now run by Image. While under a Milton fellowship in the mid-90s, I read one of her earliest works and now discuss her accomplishments in a two-part interview.

Moon over Manifest, set in depression-era Kansas, features 12-year-old Abilene Tucker, whose itinerant father arranges for her to stay in a small Kansas town where he spent his boyhood. There, Abilene is met by a variety of townspeople that have a story as mysterious to her as the reason her father has sent her away. Navigating Early, set in post-WWII New England, tells the tale of young Jack Baker, whose military father puts him in a Maine boys’ school following the death of Jack’s mother. Jack has to make his way in a new world, and finds himself befriended by a strange boy, Early Auden, who sets the two of them on an adventure to find something that everyone, except Early, believes is lost forever.

Continued from yesterday.

AGH: The idea of a youth setting out on a journey, on a “quest” to find himself, is in the line of romances, of chivalric literature, where the hero sets off to prove himself and earn his name. The second novel even has parallels to the Fisher King myth. Was that kind of literature an influence?

CV: I’m sure it was. My two sons grew up reading Tolkien and the Redwall books, so I knew how much questing books were valued by young readers. I read these books as an adult, but really all the books I’ve read throughout my life have gone into a story vault and somehow come out when I need them. [Read more…]

What My Kid Knew about Kubo

kubo[Spoiler alert: This post is about the end of the movie, Kubo and the Two Strings. However, since, I believe, the ending nearly spoils the film itself, you can read this and still enjoy the other, real pleasures of the movie.]

In the dramatic climax of Kubo and the Two Strings, our young hero defies the cold will of his grandfather, the Moon King, standing in a graveyard with nothing but his shamisen and delivering a (frankly) pretty forgettable speech about stories, memories, and identity.

His point, anyhow, is that our memories are our stories and our stories make us who we are. The ghosts of the dead rise up from the graves to reinforce this, and through some incomprehensible mechanism Kubo and the ancestors break the power of the Moon King.

In the wake of the battle, the Moon King has been transformed into an old man with no memory. “Who am I? What am I doing here?” he asks the gathered townspeople.

They quickly jump in with answers: “You’re one of the kindest, most generous citizens of our community,” they say (or something along these lines). “You’re loved by everyone.” A child adds, “And you always give children candy.” [Read more…]

Purple Light in Sarajevo

Sarajevo MountainsMy fellowship liaison, Sevko, drove, and his gaze flicked across teenagers spilling over the sidewalks. The center of town spread within the cradle of the mountains, lit by the pink and blue haze of underground clubs. Gray office and apartment buildings faced the street, many of them gashed open, levels of exposed brick and wood open to view.

As we drove, it was hard not to notice that this place was beautiful and that the air tasted like all air that lives near mountains. It was hard not to notice that the mountains were built with cemeteries, ridges and floes of graves cupping the city.

I was in Sarajevo as part of a month-long fellowship to study environmental policy. I’d grown uncomfortable with the lack of humanism in environmental debates in the U.S., and I wanted love of people and love of nature in the same breath. [Read more…]