Category Archives: my two cents on

The Theatre Royal des Galleries flawlessly plays an adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s “Amadeus”

The play is set in 1781s Vienna, at the Imperial court of the Habsbourgs, at a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire is ruled by an Emperor particularly interested in the fine arts. Joseph II makes sure that at his court composers benefit of a certain esteem: they’re the servants of nobility, “while first the servants of the divine”, and amongst them, Antonio Salieri is the undisputed favorite.

This is a court imbued with etiquette, most-educated and determined to keep mediocre intrusions at bay; all the more reason to be taken by storm by a young German composer, without the merit of a fine education, but with a compelling talent: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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Denis Carpentier as W.A.Mozart

Mozart’s prodigal emergence amongst the most talented of his time is not applauded by all: some of the more conservatorist noblemen and established composers are taken aback by the young man’s vulgar ways, while others acknowledge and begrudge his talent…

There’s a quintessential romantic idea that the human being is only briefly possessed by genius and that the perfect gift of such divine inspiration is too much for its frail, brutish and imperfect nature.

It is this very same idea that Peter Schaffer used when constructing “Amadeus”, the tale of a young Mozart that is as imperfect in life as he is prodigious in music. The more his mortal shell declines, the higher his spirit elevates, and the cleaner and clearer his music.

As creators and witnesses of artistic creation, we too, cling on to the archetype of transcendence of spirit through weariness of body. Suffering seems to deem the bearers worthy of their truest selves, and discipline through pain seems to alleviate the transgression. But in Schaffer’s rendering of the brief life of Mozart, the composer is depicted as a man that is too young to know, to understand discipline: “I always speak too much, that is why my dear father used to tell me that it is best if I simply shut up instead”.

Schaffer’s depiction shows a Mozart that isn’t a virtuous man: he comes to Vienna on the wings of a fulgurating success, and is apparently overwhelmed by the city’s promise of High Court favors, self-infatuated and drunk with public acclaim. He marries outside of his class and without his father’s consent; he ignores society norms and is, often times, vulgar.  These imperfections, the blatant lack of discipline and respect, combined with a talent that makes composers think he is “the voice of God” infuriate Salieri, a most esteemed musician at the Emperor’s court.

  Salieri is envious: he labored his whole life to reach a place of immortal greatness, only to understand that Mozart, apparently without much effort, naturally outshines him. Infected by hubris, he plots the young man’s demise: he attempts to seduce his wife, shatters his career at the Emperor’s Court, and finally renders Mozart pauper and ill.

All throughout his scheming, Salieri believes that the more he tries to silence Mozart, the more he angers God, he shows fear, at times remorse, but thinks he cannot stop: not until God bestows upon him at least a crumble of the talent he so generously lavished on Mozart.  And when God fails to do so while time and time again allowing Mozart’s compositions to sing with angelic voices, Salieri becomes determined that his real enemy isn’t this mortal boy, but the God he so selflessly served without an ounce of gratitude in return. He becomes possessed by the idea of an indifferent God, and decides to “steal” the divine gratitude he was not granted, by antagonizing his earthly protegé, so that when Mozart’s music will soar over the ages, and when hearing it “they’ll speak the name of God in delight, they’ll add that of Salieri, in disgust.”

                Helas, he understands too late that in fact his immortality, stolen this way and not bestowed upon, is finally granted only under the auspice of mediocrity.

                For a glimpse of Peter Schaffer’s final draft of Amadeus look no further than here.

***

a Romanian version of this review can be found here.

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mh17

When they planted wheat they had hopes for grains

Once I saw a lady fainting on a hot day and did nothing to help her. While others landed a hand I still processed the act of fainting and tried to shake it off as if it were some kind of phobic encounter and not a situation in which I could intervene. I certainly wasn’t the hero that day, other people were. But they didn’t look like it. Nobody wore a cape.

We look up to heroes but the heroes themselves often don’t feel all that heroic. We vilify those who, by profession or chance, commit acts we deem heinous. But that is just one side of the coin. Because in the midst of the action everything is quite surreal: the protagonist does not see himself as a liberating hero or an oppressor. In fact it is highly likely that he or she barely distinguishes if the side they are on is the good or the bad. Nowhere is the present more present than during a bewildering event. That is one of the reasons why I distrust any kind of presentation involving a complicated string-pulley for a life-jacket on a high altitude aeroplane. It looks as if it could save your life. It probably wouldn’t.

I wonder how many people feel the same about the instantaneous ability (or lack thereof) of saving one’s life, perhaps one’s own life. Will it work? What will others do? As of late, thinking and acting fast looks more and more like a compulsory skill instead of an empathy exercise. The world swirls out of control from one day to the next and sometimes even from one hour to the next. There is little time for simple things. Routine is more of a luxury than a bore.

“planting wheat one week before to one week after the first frost is generally an ideal time for wheat planting due to ideal soil temperatures that favour rapid emergence.”

Think of the land, of agriculture, of planting and harvesting. The MFA[1] website states that “planting wheat one week before to one week after the first frost is generally an ideal time for wheat planting due to ideal soil temperatures that favour rapid emergence.”

Once the seeds are planted the wait begins. Harvesting only happens in fall.

But the rule of the land and the rule of man have very little in common these days. It used to be that farmers hoped for rain, nowadays they hope for peace. Because between planting and harvesting there are things to worry about that have nothing to do with nature and very much to do with other men.

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I am not a farmer but with the little knowledge that I do have, I strongly believe the farmers of Eastern Ukraine planted their crops in hopes of harvesting their grain. And, like all good farmers, they too hoped for rain. But the rain of lead they received instead was probably different than what they had expected. Then the lead got bigger. Then it turned into men. It is nothing short of surreal to hope for grain and harvest tragedy instead.

“these are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the darkness.” (Lyndon Johnson, 1964)

 In July 1964, president Lyndon Johnson’s campaign aired “the Daisy Ad”. In it, a little girl counting the ripped petals of a daisy, then a countdown, then a nuclear blast. It stated “these are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the darkness.” The president’s line echoed W.H. Auden’s poem (entitled “September 1, 1939): “we must either love each other or we must die”. It seems half a century later we are very much in the same place.

©milena, 2014.

[1] Made for Agriculture: http://www.mfa-inc.com


new Japanese writing

the dawn of new literature or all apologies?

Modern Japanese literature, much like Weimar classicism, seems to be built around areal perception, showing a need to substantiate the empty spaces of interaction within the individual (for instance between body and mind or feeling and thought). Akin to Weimar classicism, it too is regarded with suspicion through the same critical mindset. The Weimar classicism fell short because of “[a perceived] inability of this common-sense outlook [to] convincingly bridge “feeling” and “thought”, “body” and “mind”.”[1] This could mean that it fell short not of defining the bridge but of conveying this definition to the critical audience.

Perhaps it is the same with Japanese writing today.

A proponent of areal literature, aiming to “build bridges within and from within”, is not a mere promoter of introspection but in fact an advocate of solipsism. And solipsism in itself is wildly opaque, prone to produce as many views as readers.

An attempted definition of solipsistic view draws onto the structural shift of perspective; for instance, if one writes about matter, one writes about what is there and uses what isn’t there to frame what is. Accordingly, if one writes about anti-matter, one writes about what isn’t there and uses what is there to frame the absence. Therefore, when one writes of “in-betweens” (what isn’t there), one focuses on negative space, solitary imagery and (sometimes) an overall sensorial numbness in order to emphasize the elevation of only one pure, ideal and/or archetypal experience.

Solipsistic writing is not the only way to write and considering its limitations, it isn’t always popular with European writers.

There are authors that use areal views differently and that ravel in interstitial emptiness using it to build tension, expose emotion or incubate magical realism (see the relationship between title and plot in Alice Munro’s “The bear came over the mountain”, the subject-object relationship in Proulx’s “The half-skinned steer”, or the mystic built-up prior to and culminating with the tyrant’s sale of the sea in “The autumn of the patriarch”). However areal literature is highly praised nowadays, either making a comeback or reinventing German classicism by keeping the same penchant for aesthetics and introspection.

As far as new writing goes, there seem to be two distinctive trends: the first trend, rooted in new American writing, draws on Hemingway’s simplicity of expression while steering clear from formulaic storytelling (steering clear from Chekhov’s gun, that is); the second trend, coming mainly from Japan (but not exclusively), toys with ideas previously considered by the late representatives of the sturm und drang movement, notably Goethe and Schiller, the very same authors whom (not coincidentally) are considered founders of the Weimar classicism.

In the case of authors like Murakami, experience is perceived as intimate and unique and it exacerbates the sufficiency of one (“So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent”). Similarly, in Faust, possession is an internalized experience, a process through which the object of possession is obliterated in favor of the individual act of possessing it (“What I possess seems far away to me, and what is gone becomes reality”). Both interpretations weigh heavily on the audience’s ability to empathize. This manner of producing literature is thus quite difficult considering that in order to obey its core values (in respect to aesthetics and solipsism) it relies on a technique borrowed from dramaturgy (catharsis). But between Weimar classicism and Japanese new writing, centuries of experimental literature came to pass.

Audiences today are far more opened to texts that create and control settings and have a broader understanding of decorum. Playwrights such as Sorescu (with Iona) or Brecht (with Baal) achieved the task of emphasizing what isn’t there by constantly showing the limitations of what is there (in Iona, the belly of the whale is a metaphor for solipsism: escapism is used as proof of a need to escape and the ultimate sacrifice is viewed as proof of the impossibility of transgressing one’s condition).

Japanese new writing today benefits from the experimental span across artistic means of expression; writers who are painters and playwrights, singers who are poets, film directors who write novels, all contributed to our better understanding of areal literature, a literature that focuses on subtle changes within an opaque framework, or between opaque frameworks.

What of translations?

There are two ways of accessing a text: reading the original or reading a translation. The original is not only revealing of the message the text is trying to convey, but also an open window into the culture it’s originating from. The reader can use this experience to gain access to the message, but also to trace cultural parallels between their own culture and that of the text.

Elements such as idioms and use of tense are telling when critically reading originals.

When reading a translation, the situation changes depending on an array of factors, such as the literary movement the original belongs to or the expectations of the literary environment it is translated into. Most critics agree on the fact that a translation is an independent work that can only achieve so much and only inspire to be similar, never identical to the original it translates.

In the case of areal literature it seems the devil is in the details. All cultures perceive identity differently and the markers for cleavages or dualism are not always the same. For instance one translator, working on translating a Japanese new writing piece for Granta magazine, says:

“I think of translating as involving both empathizing with and identifying with the voice of a piece. Most of the time, these two things are not so different. But if it’s challenging to empathize with the voice of a character who’s this self-absorbed and isolated, then, working to identify with it – and perpetuate its solipsism – is downright hazardous to the translator’s sense of self.

The whole point of translating is to make a piece more accessible, but what do I do if the voice I’m translating seems to alienate the reader without even trying? The more I identified with it, the less I found myself caring about the reader my words were supposed to reach.”[2]

Additionally, the framework of a literary piece is determined not only by the translator’s choices, but also by the language of choice and its pre-existent literature. Juxtaposing a translated original to the works of the literary movement it translated into and exposing it to the critical apparatus of the adopting language can lead to transformation. Promoting the translations of new writing, no matter the language, is not tantamount to promoting the originals. If our quest is to simply become aware of the existence of Japanese new writing, then a translation can serve the purpose.

But if our quest is truly to promote a new literary movement, the translations can only do so much. And while the audience understands and perceives the novelty of style, it does not always subscribe to the apologetic packaging, perhaps also due to the limitations of translation.

Boy Viewing Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (1839)

milena ©2014.

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[1] Quoting Wikipedia, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weimar_Classicism

[2] From Granta online, translator’s note by Asa Yoneda, on The Dogs, original by Yukiko Motoya


a thorn in one’s side

the anti-human spikes and the anti-spike humans

photo credit: "ethical pioneer" for Twitter

photo credit: ethical pioneer.

London, 2014. Metal is a marvel of engineering. Like all marvels that bend and shape, this one too can be either blunt or sharp to suit one’s crafting needs. In the spur of a moment, some Londoneers decided they wanted it sharp, kind of like their anti-European political discourse. Therefore spikes were errected to protect the sidewalks from unwanted inhabitants. Floor studs, to be precise.

The story is, of course, larger than that but we cut it down to size, for the sake of brevity.

What happened after the thorny matter was settled is more interesting. It turns out not everyone is ready to give up charity and, contrary to general belief, the next door neighbour isn’t just about willing to spike the less fortunate.

Spiking: this is a matter we traditionally know a few things about.

photo credits:  Tom Johnson for Vice

photo credits: Tom Johnson for Vice

In the dark of night (or perhaps early dawn) activists carrying buckets of concrete covered the spikes and leveled the ground. This is good news: it means we’re not cynical enough to irrevocably hate each other just yet and the days of “we must either love each-other or we must die” are still upon us. Perhaps there is still hope for our wolf crying humanity after all.

photo credit: Tom Johnson for Vice

photo credit: Tom Johnson for Vice

 

milena ©2014


what saves the poor boy?

Working as a curator in your spare time is a lot similar to digging for gold in your back yard: it’s fun working the metal detector, but the precious ore is rare. Still, every now and then you come across fiction that promises. Burgeoning short stories saying you will meet their author again. One such short story is “poor boy” written by a promising new voice: Elahzar Rao.

According to the online bio, ELAHZAR RAO has a B.A. in English from Hunter College, and is currently pursuing an M.S. in education at Long Island University.  His publication credits include artwork in Cerise Press, Prick of the Spindle, The Centrifugal Eye, Fogged Clarity, and Convergence, as well as short stories forthcoming in Hawai’i Review, Fiction Fix, Pilot, and The Literary Review.

I came across the author while curating for Fiction Magazines, and made a mental note to “look it up” later. The piece I initially saw was different than the works I found published, but all stories were glued with an intriguing style. He is a versatile artist interested in more than just writing: I suspect he isn’t at the end of his creative transformation as he still ably toys with multiple means of expression and his photography is rivalling with his writing.

One of his published works appears in the Cortland Review (issue 57). It is called “poor boy” and tells the story of an ordinary family that gets so caught up in fighting the windmills of modern existence that it loses sight of their sons.

Their involuntary omission comes at an unforeseen cost, and their effort to climb the ladder to a better life are deemed shallow and scattered in the four winds in the aftermath of the disaster.

While still holding the overweight of the sensational narrative, the short story is redeemed by a very personal use of language. The author has a strong voice and gives special attention to style.

He makes good use of symmetry, apparent in phrasing such as “whatever he had worn now seemed shed”. The piece has an adequate sense of rhythm and laboriously builds momentum through reminiscence. It is well-balanced and stays true to the POV. Still rough around the edges, but undoubtedly good. I have a feeling we will hear of M. Rao again, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

In fact, I encourage you not to. Go and see for yourselves. Find out what saves the ‘poor boy’ on ‘”the Cortland Review” website.

milena ©2014


words particle zoo and noViolet Bulawayo

Back in mid-February a newspaper title caught my eye. It insisted on forcing the conversion of a very English verb – “to bluff” – in tight, latin suffix-ed, shoes. This lead to a heated debate in a close circle of language afficiandos. We argued language is a living organism, but we failed to reach an agreement on what kind of healthy food it should eat. The case of natural growth was argued, neck and neck with that of academic trimming.

Are the new imported words part of an unnatural ‘particle zoo’ of the linguistic kind, or just the result of ageing in diversity?

Below, I will delve in the intricacy of language innovation, enlisting the help of a methodical words crafter that goes by the pen name noViolet Bulawayo.

NoViolet Bulawayo © Man Booker Prize 2013

Elizabeth Zandile Tshele is a talented and meticulous words crafter. Only four years my senior, the Zimbabwe-born author spent her formatting years in a place imbued with story barely waiting to be told. And when she started writing down the words, a powerful narrative came to play. Her novel, We need new names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Her short stories are ready for their readers within the pages of Guernica mag.

She took to writing using the pen name NoViolet Bulawayo: NoViolet translates as “with Violet” and it is an homage to her mother (who passed away when the author was only eighteen months old); Bulawayo is the author’s home city.

Longing is ever present – both in style and in name. The stories are grown on a backbone of objective narration, but they blossom out of the factual and they shine with glistering new language dew. Because even though we know the words, when we read noViolet’s stories we realise we don’t know these words that swirl about, forming a new language of the soul. Adjectives and nouns fall differently in place and work in a different harmony and rhytm. This is partly because English is by no means a sufficient ambassador of the African spirit and partly because the author took to the language and internalised it in a unique way.

In the case of noViolet’s stories, it feels as if the author is not speaking, but wearing the language.

As far as the author is concerned, English stays awkward and foreign:

The problem with English is this: You usually can’t open your mouth and it comes out just like that–first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right.
But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it’s as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it’s the language and the whole process that’s messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don’t know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying. – from We need new names

She wears English like a well-tailored suit and she has successfully weeded out the obstacles in the way of story-telling.

But there is another thing: nurturing. If you are to transplant a plant from one pot to another, you always make sure it has some of its original soil and you always make sure it is nurtured enough. We can argue the same about language: if you are to internalise a foreign language to the point of making a first hand creative use of it, you must nurture it. So, if we return to the well-tailored suit analogy, the relationship between language and words-crafter is symbiotic. This is not unheard of: Shakespeare alone is considered responsible for some two thousand new English words. The language is the words crafter’s tool and if it isn’t sharp or broad enough, it is up to the words crafter to adjust it.
So what of the particle zoo, then? Well, not everyone is a cunning enough words crafter, ready to internalise and improve a language that isn’t capable of expressing the exact message conveyed. Some simply resort to ungracefully jamming an obviously foreign word into latin sufix-ed shoes. Hence the odd-looking particle zoo-like result.

many mad monsters © nikki frances

milena ©2014


the creative pet project

They don’t speak your tongue, they speak into your eyes: There’s word of a wonderful artistic project aimed at the animal lovers out there.

Back on the rugged continent we call old, much turmoil has set our last half-decade ablaze. Most of us forgot to be kind. And when that happened, others denounced cruelty and deplored its innocent tongue-tied victims.

Gandhi once said; “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. Our history in recent years has shown evidence of the neglect humankind has shown toward it’s follow Earthlings. The Creative Pet Project book is an attempt by the arts community to highlight some of the beauty of our animal companions, in order to help raise money for charity.

Why? Because some people tightened their belts and loosened their pets’ collars, letting them go so far that the animals were sent to oblivion. The people forgot that any pack is only as strong as its underdog. Their “new found forgetfulness” dripped poisonous ooze over moral fabric, portraying it to be as elastic as any momentous whim of desperation.

Started in July 2012, the project began as a small idea, and has now grown to its present position. The concept of asking artists to contribute art, that would be bound in a single volume, to raise money to animal concerns is, as far as we are aware a unique addition to the literary world.

But artists had enough:  they gathered together for a marvellous project to say that well, when the going gets tough, the tough don’t have to get going. 111 artists from 250 countries started making artwork for a pet project: a book telling the illustrated story of their relationship with their pets; a book illustrating our kindness instead of our fear ridden yellowed fangs. The profits for all the hard work? They will go to the animal charities that need them the most.

the creative pet project

The Creative Pet Project, started in 2012, is aiming at raising thirty thousand dollars on indiegogo.com, in order to print a fantastic book, sell it and donate the profits to charity. Prints and e-books are involved. Lots of personalised gimmicks are involved. There’s a reward for every participant, “no matter how small”. But the biggest reward is the feeling one gets from seeing this project unfolding, from hearing imagined pet voices saying squeaky “thank you”s because we all know  that they don’t speak our tongues, but they do speak into our eyes.

You can find more on the creative pet project here.


the split hairs of narrative art

Dan May is a fine artist currently living in Northern Michigan. A native of Rochester, NY, Dan attended Syracuse University where he achieved a BFA and began to immediately pursue his artistic interests.[1] He was featured in publications such as Hi Fructose Magazine (Vol. 9, USA, 2008), Dangerous Ink (Issue 4, UK, 2010) or Dark Inspiration – Victionary (Hong Kong, 2010). His works are imbued with story, making him a representative of narrative art who chose surrealism as a form of expression. Today, we’ll take a look at his latest portfolio, enriched with some of the oneiric magic we seek to brighten even the most uneventful of days.  

                The things that address one’s imagination are the things one cherishes most, for deep down – although some believe that “this is the best of all possible worlds“, we’re all curious and hungry for novelty: a novelty that can be explored, understood and that can nourish us.

Imagine for a moment that “the world that is” is only a prelude to a world that could be: full of wonder and magic, full of things that haven’t yet crossed your path. The two worlds now cohabiting before the mind’s eye are highly unequal (one believed to be preternal, the other a brittle new-born of last moment’s imagination), but one feels drawn to exploring both.

So far, one knows that the two worlds stem from the same source (momentary perception), but the rest is an every moment’s history of what could be, an alternative with similar causality.

What would you populate this alternate universe with?

M. May populated his world with velveteen creatures, or with girls with long, silky hair. He populated his world with owls, beautiful, big, white owls that calmly flap their wings instilling a dreamlike décor.

Sting of the Season by Dan May

Possibly his most intriguing choice, he decided that his world will have no ordinary ground, but instead it will have dense and anaesthetising hair, a metaphor really, for greater aspects of humanity, a different view over what is safe and what simply is.  And with his choices, the artist told a story.

The Reunion by Dan May

“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent (…) and a lot of love.

But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.[2]

There is a difference though, between carving worlds made out of words and carving worlds made out of image. For one, whilst the storyteller tells his story over time (in a diachronic fashion), the narrative artist creates pictures that are all seen at once (in a synchronic fashion). This allows for episodic events to be conveyed faster to the viewer, while leaving an imprint over the primary sense of man: his sight. And whilst it might seem an easier task, it really isn’t: for the mind’s eye holds the key to portraits that stem from within, whereas the hand must replicate them in a way that speaks to those without – a wordless task that this artist addresses well.

Moon Walk by Dan May

                Out of all current types of narrative art, M. May’s latest works seem to prefer that of the monoscenic narrative, leaving the door ajar for the viewer, who can catch a glimpse of the artist’s soul.  This glimpse will be later used as inspiration for yet another different world that conjures a different story: a story that happens in the viewer’s mind.

Th eOffering by Dan May

For more of M. May’s work, visit his website.


[1] Quote from the artist’s About page.

[2] McKee, Robert – Story, Chapter I – The story problem, p.21, Regan Books, 1997.


minimalism

Mathematics is the language of nature. This means that algorithms are involved in the creation of everything that lives, twists, swirls or simply stands on the surface of the world and beyond.

There’s a core of everything too, and a shape of everything, just like there is a shape of nothing, an all-encompassing shape in which everything so perfectly and gracefully fits. Knowing this is what makes understanding minimalism possible. Because shapes come from shapes evolving into shapes, and the more successful a pattern is, the more likely its natural replication becomes.

Many of the neurons in the visual part of the brain respond specifically to edges orientated in a certain direction. From this, the brain builds up the shape of an object.

The Science Museum in London, feeds us this bit of useful data: Many of the neurons in the visual part of the brain respond specifically to edges orientated in a certain direction. From this, the brain builds up the shape of an object. Information about the features on the surface of an object, like colour and shading, provide further clues about its identity. Objects are probably recognised mostly by their edges, and faces by their surface features. This means that, much like the mental short cuts our brain takes when understanding words, in the case of images too, we function from simple to complicated, understanding edges and shapes first. Amongst others, the neurologist Oliver Sacks also approached shape perception, when confronted with a patient who mistook his wife for a hat. In that particular example, the patient – who suffered from visual agnosia – had trouble recognising the surface features that differentiated people from other people, or even from inanimate objects.

In the case of a healthy human being, the normal way of looking at things applies, so that from shapes and edges patterns emerge. And because these patterns emerge, short cuts emerge with them, allowing us to see a shape in a cloud, for instance.

Let’s try a simple exercise of understanding minimalism: three images of carved fruit were used to create imagined covers of known children books. Have a look at the covers and try your luck at guessing which works they refer to:

1:

2:

Veggie figurine from http://www.artglass-pottery.com

3:

Elephant veggie figurine found at http://www.annabelkarmel.com


love, loss and insects with Dan Stockman

Dan Stockman is a writer who only recently made the transition from the factual world of journalism to the relative world of fiction. Before taking this step, he acquired some fifteen years of experience in journalism, striving for authenticity alongside his colleagues at The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His novel, Brood X, character driven and with an intriguing parallel between our world and that of the elusive seventeen years cicada, tells a story of love, loss and insects, a story that teaches us a valuable lesson: it isn’t death, but life that we have to constantly make peace with. The insects in the novel seem to know that well, in an atavist fashion their human counterparts’ lack.

A few things on love, loss and insects with Dan Stockman

M. Dan Stockman

 Changing the imperative of fact for the imperative of word carving isn’t the smoothest of transitions. Therefore, we will begin our interview, by asking the author how did he cope with the pesky need of the verisimilar, a need Mark Twain turned into a mantra for most of the budding writers out there, when he advised them to “write what you know”.

Considering that journalists write under the predicament of truth, was it a challenge to commit to paper a work of fiction?

It was very difficult at first, not because it was hard to write the words, but because it was hard to read them – in my head they just didn’t sound believable, because I knew I had made them up. It turns out I had a couple of things working against me: First, of course, was the fact that for the 15 years before that, my standard in everything I wrote was “Can I prove this in court?” That is a very good habit to have in journalism, but a difficult one to break for writing fiction. The second was that voice that any writer hears in their head, the one that says your words are not good enough, that no one wants to read them and that you have nothing worthwhile to say. The combination of the two made everything I wrote just seem so “made up” that I couldn’t get past the first page for a couple of weeks. I must have re-written that thing 100 times. Later, in revisions, I rewrote the entire first chapter, but that was only because I wanted it to flow differently.

What was the easiest part of the creative process? Also, what was most difficult in completing Brood X?

Let me start with the second question first: The most difficult part was the outline. Usually when I write, I know the characters and the ending – everything else comes later because, to me, everything else is in service to those two things, preferably both at the same time. In this case, I knew the main characters of Andy and Ashley, that they had been in love as teenagers until Ashley disappeared, and that in the end, Andy would discover not Ashley, but himself. But weaving adult Andy’s story together with the flashbacks to young Andy’s story with Ashley, plus the story of the cicadas, was like putting together a very complicated puzzle, especially since I knew I wanted it all to happen in exactly seventeen chapters. But once that puzzle was put together, the fun part began: The writing. I used my outline as a sort of roadmap for how the novel would work, but left the in-between parts open to the creative process. In other words, with each chapter, I knew which things I had to accomplish but left it up to the writing to figure out how to get there. For example, I knew that in Chapter Ten, Andy and Ashley needed to talk about the future and their plans for themselves and each other. I knew that Andy had to in some way help Ashley reach for dreams she never thought possible. But the scene where they visit the guidance counselor together just came together on its own.

Did you feel close to Andy Gardner? After a while, the readers begin to root for his happy ending. What about the author? Did you feel like siding with him?

Absolutely. In fact, I felt close to all of the characters, but especially Andy because I had spent so long trying to tell his story, and I wanted to do that because it’s a story that I think anyone can relate to, because we’ve all fallen too hard for someone at some point and lost ourselves in the process. So yes, I certainly was siding with Andy, but I also knew before I started writing how his story ended – not the particulars, but that he would, in fact, discover who he is and who he is supposed to be; his story was always about that particular journey.

If anything, I have become a bit protective of these characters: A few readers have asked for a sequel, with one suggesting she would like the sequel to be about Ashley. But I feel that, though she’s not real, Ashley deserves her privacy and that she’s been through enough already and it would just be cruel of me to punish her with another book, especially one about her.

In your book, Andy Gardner has his destiny entwined with that of the seventeen years cicada, but the link is fortuitous and the character isn’t giving it too much consideration. Other authors, like Philip Pullman for example, made a more apparent link between humans and what we loosely call the animal world: creatures like shadows moving about and morphing in the ages of the soul. Could it be that in Brood X’s case, too, the main character is morphing into a different age of his soul?

Andy is definitely changing; the cicada metaphor is particularly apt for his transition because of the long period in which cicadas appear to be dormant but only show the changes they have made in the last few moments of their lives. In Andy’s case, not much appeared to change in his life in his first seventeen years – though we know from our own experience that humans change dramatically in that time. But outwardly, and to him, the change only came that seventeenth summer when he met Ashley. The next seventeen years of his life outwardly also seem to be a type of dormancy – he was emotionally paralyzed and still stuck where he was in that moment when Ashley left him. All the action – at least all that we see in Brood X – is in that (second) seventeenth summer when he decides to go find her.

However, I didn’t want Andy to be aware of the link, at least not fully aware. He realizes there is some kind of link with him and the cicadas, but in his mind, he thinks that Ashley may be the cicada and he the cicada killer wasp, as if he was somehow responsible for her disappearance. A lot of his decisions and emotions are based upon that mistaken notion.

Most authors admit to having used “hooks” or “crutches” well embedded in their surrounding reality, in order to be able to keep on going down the path their writings took them. Does Brood X contain such real life elements, neatly added to the fabric of its fiction?

Yes, and for Brood X, it was definitely a crutch. As I said earlier, it was very difficult as a long-time journalist to write things I knew hadn’t actually happened. The way I overcame that was to include many elements from real life: I set the story in my own neighborhood. The house Ashley lives in exists in reality a few blocks from mine. Andy drives my brother-in-law’s red Grand Am and works at a job he used to hold, in a cabinet factory. Adult Andy lives in a neighborhood I’m familiar with because of flooding in recent years, his favorite restaurants are my favorites: Coney Island and Powers Hamburgers.

All of those things ground the story in a real place, which I think is important, but they also let me get past that feeling that the story wasn’t believable. Otherwise, it may never have been written.

The book also makes for an interesting audition. The characters are surrounded by the cicada song, but also, every here and there, as their story unfolds, the important moments are accompanied by music. Are their songs your favorite songs too? What made you choose the soundtrack of Brood X?

I think the only song young Andy listens to that I would call a favorite would be “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, the song he and Ashley dance to when they’re worried about their future together. I love 80s music, but that song is one of my absolute favorites – I’m mesmerized by it.

The other song that’s important both to Brood X and to me personally is “A Song for Someone” by Elaina Burress. I was working on the end of the book when an old friend from high school posted some songs by Elaina on her Facebook page; Elaina at that time was a student at the high school I went to in Muskegon, Michigan, until she transferred to the singer-songwriter program at Interlochen, a prestigious school for the arts near Traverse City. I was immediately taken by her music, but the lyric for “Song for Someone” just fit so perfectly with what both Andy and Ashley were going through that I knew I had to use it somehow. Fortunately, Elaina granted me the rights to use the lyric, for which I’m very grateful. You can hear the song at: http://www.elainaburress.com.

Towards the middle of the book, Holden Caulfield is mentioned. This prompted us to consider the reason why Brood X sounded so fluid, so familiar: the narrative voice is original, yet archetypal. And this is something we’ve encountered before, in the short stories of one J.D. Salinger. This made us curious as to what inspired the author: Which classic voices does he hold dear, and does he think they have an influence over his style?

As a young writer in college, I struggled a long time to try to find my own voice. Then, in journalism, I worked very hard to hide my voice. So when I set out to write Brood X, I knew I wanted it to be similar to the very clear, plain voice that I use in journalism, but with the freedom granted by the novel. In short, I wanted the voice to be my own, but also to have the ability to create the beauty I don’t get to develop for the newspaper. This was especially true when I read Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” which flows so easily between clear, straightforward text like Salinger and Hemingway (both are favorites) and passages that are just gorgeous. At the same time, as a journalist I work very hard to use the voice of the people I’m reporting on, so I knew I needed to be very careful about what books I was reading while I was writing this novel, because I did not want another author’s voice to start coming through in my own writing. So while I think Barry Hannah’s writing is so beautiful it hurts, I knew I should not be reading his work while writing Brood X. Eventually I settled on some of Toni Morrison’s older novels, “Sula,” “Tar Baby” and “Song of Solomon.” I was certain that Morrison’s voice was so distinct and so different from my own that it would have no effect on my own writing. And it didn’t – at least as far as voice goes. But “Song of Solomon” ended up being a big influence, because the main character’s transformation gave me the assurance I needed that Andy’s transformation was strong enough to hold its own as a narrative arc.

When we speak of the novel, we are compelled to mention cicadas. Chapter eight, for instance, is entirely dedicated to these fascinating creatures.  The manner in which their life cycle is depicted, tell us that there is perhaps more to them than just a plot detour. What is it about seventeen years’ cicada that interests you most?

Many things, from their synchronized emergence (scientists now believe it is probably based on soil temperature) to their long dormancy and amazing changes. There’s certainly something tragic about their life cycle, but also something beautiful. And that is how I think of humans: You can choose to look at our lives as short, tragic cycles of birth, pain and death, or as something made even more beautiful and precious by its fragility.

The characters spend some time driving. In fact, the main character goes on a self-seeking journey right out of a bildungsroman.

Contemporary writers give a great deal of significance to the ritual of driving and often use it to portray key moments in a character’s life. Annie Proulx, for instance, used driving in the The Half-Skinned Steer to take the character to a funeral.

In Brood X too, the car ride is isolated from other events and gains significance. The meditation and remembrance, combined with the growing Song of the cicada makes us consider the impediment of doom. Was this part of the building momentum all along? Is there any particular significance to their driving?

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by watching traffic, in that each car is sort of its own bubble, a piece of someone’s world. In this car is a professional woman driving to work; surrounded by the things she owns and carries, maybe in her mind she’s contemplating a divorce. But in the very next car are three teenagers, with all the tension and drama of the complicated relationships between them, their search for who they want to be in life, and a great song on the radio. In the next car is a farmer, maybe he’s coming in to the city to buy life insurance. All of these individual worlds, in tiny spheres of metal and glass, rolling past like a parade of the human condition. That being said, I didn’t think of the driving itself so much as the journey Andy takes. Dostoevsky once said there are only two types of stories: A stranger comes to town and a journey of discovery. Andy’s on a journey of discovery; I suppose if the story had been set in Europe he would take much the same journey, only he would do it on a train.

The novel has scenes from Kalamazoo and Muskegon, would you consider both the scenes and the characters states of mind as telling of mid-Western sensitivity?

Yes, and that was deliberate. So much fiction these days is about self-obsessed people on the East Coast of America who have nothing to do but go to therapy and worry about what’s wrong with them while complaining about everyone around them. Some of those books are great; but they’re not about people I know and live around. I wanted to write a book about people that might live next door to me, the kind of people I know and grew up with. It is definitely a Midwestern book.

And lastly, what is Dan Stockman currently working on and what should the readers expect next?

Right now I’m working furiously on my master’s thesis; if all goes well, I’ll graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University in August with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. I hope that thesis will become a non-fiction book or at least a long magazine piece about a tragic auto accident that occurred in the area. In the meantime, my wife and I are working on an adoption memoir, together we write a wine column at Cheers! Wine Consultants, and I’ve got a few ideas for the next novel kicking around in my head…

Thank you for your time, Dan, we wish you the best of luck with future endeavors and we are eager to read more.

Brood X by Dan Stockman

Dan Stockman’s novel, Brood X, debuted in November 2013, and is readily available to the readers on both sides of the pond, via Amazon. You can find more about the book here, or purchase the novel on amazon.  Also, you can check out our article on topic, here and even get a glimpse of chapter eight in the pithead chapel’s archives.

by milena with the excellent collaboration of m. dan stockman © 2014.