The Sound Clown: A Tribute to Kinesthetic Comedians

One of my favorite things to do is to examine the life and body of work of an artist (very often in the performing arts). To choose someone whose work I am vaguely familiar with and get to know them more in depth. Though I had certainly been exposed to his songs on old records and a couple of his films as a child, I wanted to know more about the late, great Danny Kaye, who was nothing short of a genius. He was a singer, actor, dancer, conductor, Chinese chef, pilot, UNICEF goodwill ambassador–the list goes on. What struck me about him was his gift for language and wordplay, and how he manifested it physically. And I have never been the greatest fan of stand-up comedy (with a few exceptions), which can feel artificial and forced and ultimately not very funny. 

This got me thinking about comedians whose work I have always loved: performers who are very auditory and kinesthetic, who’s comedy is based on sound, funny noises, how something is said, and how this verbal modality is expressed in the body. In other words, body-based comedians, whose very physical entity is their vehicle, rather than words spoken into a microphone. We can look at a lineage starting with Kaye that includes other performers of the same ilk.

Danny Kaye had a tremendous ear for languages and could fake them very credibly. He could take each line of dialogue and know how to extend certain words with exaggerated gestures for comic effect. His timing, sense of rhythm and musicality, and his versatility made him like no other, though he often played the ever-vulnerable clown. One need only see his last performance, in a guest turn as the dentist Dr. Burns on “The Cosby Show,” to see all his best qualities: the physical clowning, the very accurate German accent, his natural affinity for children, and his acting prowess.

One could include Kaye’s contemporary Victor Borge same vein, though he is technically a musician who happened to perform rather than an actor. Borge (born Børge Rosenbaum) was a Danish Jewish pianist who was a serious prodigy and accomplished classical musician. He went on to develop a career as musical comedian, interspersing jokes and routines with piano performance. Those of us of a certain generation will certainly remember his famous punctuation routine from “The Electric Company!” He turned classical music performance into something very accessible, or we could say, he brought intelligence and sophistication to comedy.

The disgraced monster/comic legend Bill Cosby also incorporated sound and physical comedy, as we could see frequently on “The Cosby Show.” He had beginnings in stand-up comedy and expanded into acting. Who could forget his routine about the lemon that daughter Denise wanted to buy for her first car? Cosby was a master of onomatopoeia, a device that I would assert is one of the best combinations of sound and physicality. Watching him do a funny walk or dance was hugely entertaining, and though his personal life is beyond horrifying, he left behind a remarkable body of work.

The lineage continues with the late, brilliant Robin Williams, whose loss we still feel dearly. Gifted not only as a comedian but also as a dramatic actor, Williams’s off-the-wall antics were like jazz: spontaneous, improvisatory, yet hitting all the right marks. We think of all kinds of funny voices when we think of Robin Williams, from Mork from Ork to the DJ in “Good Morning Vietnam” to Mrs. Doubtfire and beyond. Williams’s speed was astonishing, the way he could change gears between characters and thoughts and voices and gestures. He was like a barometer of human follies who left no stone unturned. Even dance–his brief, brilliant routine of styles of choreographers in “The Birdcage” is pure comic genius. Roberto Benigni could be considered the Italian equivalent of Robin Williams. His brief turn in the film “Night on Earth” demonstrates a Williams-like goofiness and spontaneity, and he is beloved in Italy and even here (as is evidenced by his Oscar for “Life is Beautiful.”) There was also the late Phil Hartman who was accomplished both as a writer and as a comic actor, someone who was tragically murdered when he had so much potential left.

The rightful heir to Robin Williams is Jim Carrey (who seems largely to be on hiatus from acting these days).”Rubber-faced” is frequently used to describe Carrey, who is capable of doing absolutely anything and everything with his face and body. We watch Jim Carrey to see him go off the rails: there is nothing funnier than watching his character go unhinged! He is a master of accents and mimicry, be it Clint Eastwood or the inimitable impression of Wile E. Coyote, complete with harmonica sounds. He is laughing and he wants us to laugh along with him, because he will push the limits of normal human life for humor. And just like Williams, Carrey also has an incredible depth as a dramatic actor, which makes sense because tragedy is the counterpart to comedy.

It pains me that I cannot think of a female actress/comedian who is quite in the same category as these men. I am a huge fan of Carol Burnett (who is only second to Lucille Ball, in my opinion), and while Burnett indeed is an expert in pushing limits for humor and very physically gifted, I would argue that she is more of an actor and an accomplished singer whose comedy focused on characters in her sketch/variety show. She is no less talented than these men, but her style is not exactly the same. This leads me to ask why there aren’t more auditory-kinesthetic comediennes. Is it because we do not encourage women to go as wild, and socialize women to be more polite? Are women expected to have a slightly more team form of comedy? Or are there certain biological gender differences behind this? Comedy has been very male-dominated art form in America, though we have gifted women who have risen and continue to rise to the top (think Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and the wonderful Melissa McCarthy)?

In any case, we need to continue to encourage women in comedy while appreciating the great heritage of “sound clowns.” It will be exciting to see who is next in this lineage!

A Cast of Characters: Paying Tribute to The Ensemble

In working on a novel with numerous characters, I ask myself what is it about a cast of characters who interact closely that we find so appealing? How do we juggle lots of people? How do we keep them all interesting and worthy of a reader/viewer’s attention? It strikes me that this is a difficult task, whether it be in literature, television, or film.

One thing that strikes me is that there has to be plot lines of equal weight; that is, no one plotline is more important than the other. Each storyline must be intriguing enough that the reader/viewer will remain engaged, have events that grab the reader/viewer in a dramatic way. Think of Anna Karenina: we want to know if Anna will be able to divorce Karenin, but we also want to know if Levin will ever find love again after being rejected by Kitty. Or “Ted Lasso”: will Ted open up to Dr. Fieldstone and reveal his past trauma? But wait, we also want to know if Nate will develop confidence and get proper acknowledgement of his talents, and if Rebecca will find romance with her mystery texter on Bantr!

Second, there have to be characters that are generally equally interesting. One may be a villain, one may be finding their strength, one may be driving the plot, etc. In the performing arts, this requires an ensemble cast of actors who are all extremely talented. I recently saw the “Top Gun: Maverick” sequel and the cast was full of heavyweights. It is hard to say if Tom Cruise is a better actor than Val Kilmer or if Kilmer is a better actor than Ed Harris or if Harris is better than Jennifer Connolly. It is a good sign when a production can cast the best people who are at the top of their game and equally talented. In literature, if we look at Little Women, we are invested in Jo’s desire to become a published writer, but also in seeing if Meg can succeed at domestic life and marriage, if Amy will change after a trip abroad, and, sadly, if the frail Beth will stay in good health or succumb to illness.

All the characters must be working together toward the momentum of the plot and the narrative. Their interactions contribute to what will happen, building tension and moving the story forward. We don’t want too many weak links because they will stick out like a sore thumb. The characters together must also form a whole, a sort of literary “family” that we care about, beloved group and community that we want to see succeed–or perhaps fail! I believe this relates to our communal nature as human beings, a primal urge to value groups and understand their dynamics. It is also very important to note that many non-western or non-white literary traditions place a high value on the ensemble or group over the individual. The “Great Man Theory” that predominates in our artistic culture is not necessarily esteemed elsewhere.

I have always believed there should be an Oscar category for “ensemble cast,” because sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it feels wrong to nominate one actor and not another who was equally excellent in a film. The Screen Actors Guild rightfully does this, likely because its nominating members are fellow actors and people in the field who understand the importance of this. And the best writers who can juggle many balls in the air, so to speak, create complex works of literature that are tapestries of narratives and characters.

Why Comedians Make Good Actors

There always seems to be an endless string of tall, thin, glossed, photogenic, “pretty” women who decide to try their lot with the dramatic arts. In other words, models-turned-actresses or MTAs, in showbiz lingo. These performers take a few acting classes and presume that just because they can generate emotions in front of a camera, they can act. Even an Oscar winner such as Charlize Theron looks blank much of the time onscreen, and then “acts” by emoting wildly in a dramatic scene. With a few notable exceptions, such as Audrey Hepburn (whose voice was incredibly expressive) and Penelope Cruz, these MTAs can’t act, or perhaps to be more charitable, they are not the best actors.

However, there is another group of performers who go into acting whom I think are far more successful: comedians. Think of Alex Borstein (a female comedian who is phenomenal as Susie on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), Adam Sandler, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Jim Carrey to name a few. They made their name and comedy, but they have been able to cross over into dramatic roles quite respectively. Even Will Ferrell, whom I do not find funny, is quite good as a straight actor.

Why is this so? I believe it is because comedians must have an impeccable sense of timing. Especially for those who began as stand-up comedians, a split second makes all the difference with a joke. And for those who spent time in improv, how you react to the other actor and saying yes to all the different variations you can create in a scene make for rich possibilities in multiple takes in a film.

Also, with most comedians, there is a great importance placed on the word. Where or how you emphasize a word makes all the difference in creating humor. Many comedians also write their own material, so they understand the importance of the text in driving a performance onstage or onscreen.

When you add physical comedy into the mix, as is/was the case with physical performers like Jim Carrey and the late, great Robin Williams, they understand how to inhabit a character–the character’s gestures, body language, movement, etc. The LeCoq technique (by late French pedagogue Jacques LeCoq), for example, features an exercise where students physicalize a word in front of other students, such as “give,” “take,” etc.

Finally, one could also make the point that the counterpart to comedy is tragedy. The stereotype is that many comedians have suffered difficulties in their lives, so perhaps they understand tragic drama well. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that to understand comedy, one has to understand the seriousness in it. Great actors have often spoke of the challenges of doing comedy, that it is harder than doing dramatic acting, because the actor must believe in the seriousness of what one is saying. The actor can’t be laughing at the situation, because for them, it is true: the comedy comes from the situation. In any case, we are graced with excellent performances by gifted thespians who are both comedians and dramatic actors.

The “Booster Shots”: The People Who Encourage You

If we borrow the metaphor from current pandemic, we can see that a booster is something that enhances and fortifies a positive quantity that has been given to us earlier. A booster shot strengthens the primary vaccine we have already taken. Sometimes in life, there are individuals who boost our moral, confidence, or ambitions, and these people are invaluable, because they give us that little extra dose of what we need to go forward.

Sometimes these people are professional, in an early stage of our career. The seasoned expert who sees something in the sincerity of your dreams and ambitions, who calmly assesses the actions you’ve taken and affirms you, tells you that you are on the right path. That person is invaluable, for they believe in you when others don’t and when the field you are in is fraught with challenges.

At other times, it may be someone from left field, so to speak, someone who is in a completely different area of life, but they are so fascinated by what you do and encouraging that it feels refreshing and cheerful. This person might ask, “Why not do that?” when everyone is asking why you are doing something. They might even suggest a grand idea to try out that you had never thought of before. Or when your pursuit seems complicated, and you are being given so much advice and there is so much to read up on, somebody tells you to just dowhat you are doing, without all the fuss and information overload.

There are those who advocate for simplicity, who simply say to go for it. These people will tell you the things you need to do to accomplish your goals, rather than all the ways in which your goals are difficult. They are cheerfully pragmatic, neither depressingly grim in the name of realism nor people who build castles in the sky in the name of optimism.

Something nobody tells you about aging when you are young is mindset. One of the most important and difficult things to do as we go through life is to keep a positive outlook and tune out all the cynicism and negative people around us.

Great literature and art can serve as a source of optimism during difficult times. Listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet suite can bring a sense of old-fashioned grandeur into our day. Reading some Oscar Wilde or looking at websites for tea rooms in London can bring a bit of necessary sparkle to the humdrum routine of paying bills, work, cleaning the house. These things are not simply helpful but vital to any artist or anyone who is pursuing a big goal. 

Recently, a rather arrogant individual who had no idea about the publishing industry asked me if I needed a venture capitalist to back my novel manuscript. When I reflected on it later, I felt incensed and outraged, because I realized something–I am my own venture capital! My creative work is my most important product that I have produced and am putting out there. Every artist needs to believe this, that they are their own venture capital, that their work is absolutely worthy and, most importantly, priceless.

Accessibility in the Literary Arts

Recently at a very intelligent, interesting story discussion group, we hit upon the subject of whether a piece of writing or work of art had mass appeal–in other words, was it accessible? The other participants mentioned a poet who was not critically acclaimed or regarded as “good,” but who was quite popular. There was lively debate about this, because some people said they did not like poetry, they found it too difficult to follow, or it brought up bad memories of English class and forced memorization. I also mentioned the appeal of popular, plot-driven books as opposed to literary fiction which focuses so heavily on narrative voice and character development. All of this got me thinking about literature and accessibility. Does a work of literature need to be easily understood? Or if it is, does that mean an author is pandering to modern readers? Perhaps the answers are not so easy.

Poetry is probably the easiest target when it comes to attacking the written word. Many people claim they “don’t get” poetry, that it is arcane, confusing, boring, and/or elitist. This is very sad, because poetry is some of our oldest literature. Ancient texts were often in verse and rhymed because they were orally transmitted from generation to generation, prior to mass literacy. The language was accessible, followed a certain meter or rhythm, and was meant to be memorized. (I believe there is still great merit in having K-12 students memorize poetry, as it involves the auditory and kinesthetic–something missing in our touchscreen, digital age.) From ancient Sanskrit works and slokas to ancient Greek plays, to early medieval motets, there is something to be said for carefully chosen words that are easy to remember and follow a certain pattern. This is why we love songs–perhaps there, we still connect to our primal love of poetry. 

The 20th Century saw the advent of confessional poetry, beat poetry, and the freeing of the structured word. It also saw the rise of personal expression and subject matter that was not glorifying historical events, The Exalted, gods, or anything grandiose (though this change in subject matter had been happening since the Renaissance, and very visibly in English poetry from the late 1700s with the Romantic poets.) There was a shift from the external to the internal, a shift from the structured to the freeform/ flowing, and rules were loosened. Perhaps this was where many people began to dislike poetry, however irrationally, because it did not conform to what their ideas of what poetry “was supposed to be.” There may be some truth to this, though things are not so black and white as if there is nobody between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Allen Ginsberg. 

But I would also argue that the love of efficiency in American society, and the rapidity with which we live our lives has also diminished our affinity for poetry. British English by nature tends to be more florid and lengthier than American English, which is all about “getting to the point.” I would also argue that some of the loss of love for poetry in American society has to do with the lack of rhyme. Some might find rhyme simplistic, but there are many that would argue they love the harmony of vowels and consonants at regular intervals.

But isn’t the reader also responsible? The answer is yes. Poetry takes time, because it gives our lives a certain depth, and uses language in infinitely creative ways that give us a new way of perceiving things. We also live in a digital age which emphasizes the visual over the literary. It’s much quicker to send someone a GIF for their birthday than it is to write them a poem, much faster to look at photos on Facebook than it is to read a sonnet. Why not take the time to read something that may not be what our conventional ideas of poetry are, reflect on it, evaluate it, and then decide what we like and what we have learned from it? We can feel free to listen to a bad poet who drones on in a monotonous way and say we dislike it. We can also choose to read a poet who inserts many words from their native language which we don’t know, and yet somehow feel the universality of what they are saying and their experience.

And what about fiction? I would say literary fiction could learn more from popular fiction. In literary fiction studies, so much emphasis is placed on (as above) narrative voice and character development. This is what distinguishes literary fiction from popular fiction, in a nutshell. There is a complexity of language and depth to the main actors in the story or novel, a fleshing out of people so they seem real, recognizable. Writers often bring their own experiences to their fiction; it’s a truly democratic platform that is becoming even more democratic with more diverse writers who are expanding conceptions of what American literature should be. There is a beauty to the craft of literary fiction, how it is constructed is truly a marvel when we analyze it. The equivalent is examining at a designer jacket: the seams aren’t showing, the stitches are even, there are no gaps at the shoulders, and it fits beautifully.

But what of the deceptively simple task of just telling a damn good story? Literary fiction can get lost in itself, which is why “airport fiction” or plot-driven novels are hugely successful, drawing in millions of readers and millions of dollars. Same with young adult/middle grade books: they tell engaging, intriguing stories, and many of them are very well written. There is a reason for J. K. Rowling’s popularity–she knows how to engage the reader. Some people might associate this with “dumbing down” good literature. I believe that these two things are not mutually exclusive. Think of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies—all works that are literary fiction, but also very popular (all of these writers have had novels turned into films.) Overall, however, I do think literary fiction writers would benefit from understanding plot more, being aware of the reader and not only telling a story for their own personal expression. Just as there is the proverbial Morose Poet who drones on and on at a reading, there is the Self-Obsessed Fiction Writer whose work is a therapy session on the page. Again, bringing one’s personal experience to one’s fiction and being appealing to a reader are not mutually exclusive. The question is simply how it is done.

What can we learn from these popular novels? It relates to a wonderful piece of advice that was given to me by a near-centenarian named Norton at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015: “Just write,” he told me. People get so caught up in all the hows and worrying about technique, he continued, but it was important to simply write a good story. I have kept that advice in mind, though Norton is no longer with us. I also believe that as writers, we must fundamentally writers what we want to and believe in; we are not merely entertainers who are serving a target audience. It also depends on what sort of writing career we want to have: some people want to be the next Sue Grafton or J. K. Rowling, whereas others would loathe that sort of trajectory, preferring to be read by connoisseurs and published by a small press that champions unique voices. However, there is no harm in learning from other genres: artistic cross pollination only makes us stronger.

Structural Change

I still have thoughts after last week’s post, and after previous posts related to Critical Race Theory, so the discussion continues. As you may notice, I have commented on the need for a change that is greater than lip service or genuine good will. I have written of the need for inclusivity in education from a paradigm based on international education, rather than our current paradigms which can sometimes be politicized and alienating rather than constructive and informative. Why do we not have structural change yet? I believe there are a few reasons.

-We have an emphasis on language and image. For example, we can instruct kids and students and people about what words to use to address someone or a particular group. Of course, it is crucial to set certain boundaries and rules about respect (such as never using the N-word with Blacks, or the F- epithet with the LGBTQ community). But this emphasis on language often remains superficial. A white woman may love listening to “Chicano and Latino” singers but vote in ways that don’t stop discriminatory gerrymandering. A college freshman may refer to an 18-year-old as a “woman” rather than a “girl” in the classroom but use her as a booty call on a Friday night after a few drinks. It’s very easy for people to tweet and retweet things like “Black Lives Matter” or post a “Stop Asian Hate” image on Instagram, but are they taking action to help lower SES black kids, or informing themselves about Asian geography and immigration? 

            I am not saying language and image are not important; however, I believe that these things have become a rallying cry and superficial solutions to what are structural problems. People can feel like they have accomplished something by using a politically correct vocabulary. The sad result is that there has been a backlash against political correctness, as we have seen from the rise of the right wing in politics as well as the media. There is a sad reason why Trump got elected. And there are many liberals or generally open-minded people who are also tired of having their speech policed. The Atlantic featured an article in 2018 about this, with the clincher that (from polls and data) those in favor of political correctness tend to be “Rich, highly educated – and white… and make more than $100,000 a year.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/large-majorities-dislike-political-correctness/572581/

-America is a country founded on individualism, which can create ignorance. So, is it any wonder that people may like minorities they know personally or elements of minority culture such as food or music, but not understand the greater challenges various minority groups face? We need to be informed about history, domestic and global, to understand our demographics. We also need to be aware of the economic structures of this country, and how they have favored certain groups. The right wants to blame the immigrants (who are supported by the left) for economic problems; what they don’t realize is that both right and the left are being manipulated by the 1% who have all the power and resources. Class stratification is a huge problem in developing countries as well as the United States, where there are a few government regulations or social support to mitigate the problems. It’s not only our personal individualism that is destroying us as a country, but also the economic individualism.

-A lack of knowledge of history. We scarcely know our own history, let alone the history of other countries who were also powerful and global empires. The late historian Chalmers Johnson mentioned in a lecture I attended that the United States was going the way of the Roman Empire, which fell nearly 2000 years ago. Rome controlled so much of the world, and yet we do not heed any warning signs or choose to learn what brought the downfall of the mighty. We should not repeat past mistakes that were made.

-A lack of knowledge of science and the application of science to public policy. In America, science has largely been ignored or politicized. The number of politicians who truly understand science, the scientific method and rationality, or preventative medicine are few and far between. In popular culture, stereotypes abound about the “nerdiness” of scientists and those who work in STEM fields. There is inadequate explanation by the medical establishment about procedures, wellness, preventative care, and the limits of what medicine can treat. Granted, this has improved in the past few decades. However, not enough attention has been paid to underserved communities and communities that have been manipulated in the name of science and “experiments.” And therefore, we have paid a price, as we have seen during this pandemic, with many communities being suspicious of the Covid vaccine, or not even getting access to it easily, resulting in sickness and death. The individualistic mentality has also led to a questioning of the medical establishment (which is not necessarily a bad thing when done carefully), and so we have anti-vaxxers and quack medicine movements. 

            Medicine has been treated as something very individual. The extreme privatization of our healthcare system is immoral, disgusting, and criminal. Public health has not existed as a visible entity until recently, because we do not think about community and health as a collective issue. Hillary Clinton was bullied for trying to institute universal healthcare; Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”) has met with many challenges as well as opposition from the public and politicians.

-Transportation. Outside of a few urban areas, public transit is poor. This is a country built on the automobile, and even many urban areas require a car. Owning a car also involves maintenance, paying for gasoline, and insurance, all of which can be very expensive depending on where one lives. For many people, this is a huge expense and leaves people in debt. For others, they are dependent on public transportation, at this adds hours of commutes to their days. Families pay a price for this. In addition, there are millions of people who live in extreme climates where it is severely cold or wet, so walking, cycling, or taking public transportation is not always an option. In these cases, eco-friendly vehicles are a key solution, but the economies of scale and availability and technology are not yet affordable for the majority, and so we continue to use polluting vehicles. 

These are just some signs that those in power need to rethink the underpinnings of our society. What are the key institutions that support us? How have we been misinterpreting the Constitution and principles set by our founding fathers to a degree that there is absolutely no collective well-being or consciousness as a society? Why have the obsessions with individual rights going to such extremes that they jeopardize basic well-being for everybody (think: school shootings)? Let’s hope that the recent Black Lives Matter protests, incidents of violence, elections, and pandemic will get people thinking and most importantly, effecting structural change.

Beware the Power Grab

The war on the Ukraine (which is personally disturbing to me, as I have a good friend who grew up in Mariupol) has led me to think about how such terrible acts happen when a very high majority of people in the world are so peaceful, loving, or at the very least, not willing to take action even if they are angry or disagree with someone or an ideology, a people, a religion. Most ordinary citizens are trying to go about their daily lives: paying bills, buying groceries, taking care of their families, going to work, trying to get enough sleep. This is the plight of billions of people in the world, and there are often many more stresses added to it for people in difficult socioeconomic conditions, such as no water, no reliable electricity, poor access to healthcare and education. And when there are crises, these people feel alarmed, deeply affected, sad, or at least concerned. There has been a global outpouring of support for Ukrainians, be it performing music and concerts to raise money to help the people there, hanging Ukrainian flags in their yards, donating money, or wearing a button with a kind message.

When there is this deluge of love and sympathy, how is it that Putin and other warmongers, sociopaths, dictators, or even local-level bullies, greedy individuals, and manipulative people manage to have so much control and wreak havoc? One big piece of it, I believe, is a power grab. While people are attending to daily preoccupations, some people are willing to sacrifice their personal life for power. They are willing to lose sleep, have terrible quality relationships, commit unethical deeds to get ahead. Granted, political activists have told us for decades, centuries or millennia even, that we need to be involved in our political systems; otherwise, the power-hungry will take over. Perhaps, after attending to their Maslowian needs, people get caught up about their clothing, enjoying entertainment, feeling apathetic about the political system, or checking social media ad nauseam in the modern era? 

While there could be an element of truth to this belief that people are sleeping while a few grab power, this is a gross error and huge misassumption in the overall context of culture and evaluating power dynamics. People in power often use force or violence to get there. Think of countless coups in Latin America, genocide in Cambodia, Armenia, and Central Europe, or 9/11. The access to weapons and tools of aggression is frightening at a level that is staggering in our globally-interconnected world. Trying to find the paper trail of, say, a Saudi sheikh who is funding terrorism would be quite difficult, perhaps even nearly impossible in some cases. Same for the one percent who can stash their money offshore through all kinds of financial havens and evade paying taxes. In their case, their weapons are loopholes in the law.

What does this tell us? That the structures and institutions we live in are unjust, unethical, and favor a tiny minority who is in power and in control.

We all start out the same as babies and children. We differentiate into unique personalities, and in these early stages, trauma can have a lasting impact for the rest of a child’s life. Personality disorders form: if not treated, they grow and become a menace not only to the afflicted individual, but also to society. Sometimes these things are invisible: think of the doctor who is accomplished, holds a prestigious degree, appears respectable on the outside, but is cheating her tenants as a landlady and violating local laws. (I, unfortunately, have been the injured party in this situation not once but twice.) Or perhaps an event later in life like a major life change, or a discovery of a talent for making money, amassing property, or holding sway over people leads a person to develop a false sense of power and confidence. Unchecked and unregulated, this individual develops into a narcissist. At the core, this person is weak and frightened, and can only compensate by losing a sense of empathy for others and getting ahead. We live in a frightening era with the rise of the far-right all over the world (with South Korea most recently added to the list.) Innocents and truth tellers are punished, even killed: for every Maria Ressa, there is a Daphne Caruana Galizia.

All these things which I have discussed are things we have witnessed in all sorts of institutions: the Catholic Church, the Oval Office, 1930s German politics, academic departments, 12th-century Mongolian rule, and too many more to list. What does this tell us? We need to evaluate our institutions and ask what sorts of people they produce. Are they enabling bad behavior? Are we, on an individual level, enabling bad behavior simply by not speaking up about it? The bystander effect is something very real. Fundamentally, how do we regulate human behavior, eliminate violence of any form, and develop empathy? These questions extremely difficult to answer and are as old as human beings themselves. So is the situation of powerlessness. But so is the human capacity to fight back and offer love and support.

Random Thoughts, Reflections, and Musings

So much has been on my mind lately and paying tribute to just one idea did not seem satisfying today, so here’s a post with different topics, no rhyme or reason.

-The situation in the Ukraine is nothing short of tragic. Putin has ordered the cruel destruction of lives, buildings, cities, culture, and history. This is something personally heartbreaking to me, as I have a close immigrant friend is from Mariupol. She enlightened me on the history of the area. What we don’t learn in America is how complex Ukrainian-Russian relations have been, historically. Western Ukraine is where more of the ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers reside. Eastern Ukraine is heavily ethnically Russian. Things had been relatively peaceful (except for the Chernobyl disaster) until the rise of nationalism in the 90s. 

            Putin is attacking his own people, destroying a country with whom it is vital to have good relations, as it provides necessary access to the Black Sea and has produced oil and gas. Despite this, there is still much poverty in the Ukraine, and now the war is adding to economic destruction (while people are still living through a pandemic). Even the mere act of sheltering together from bomb attacks is perilous, as it involves people coming together in a closed, airtight, small space–exactly what must be avoided during Covid. Only 35% of Ukrainians have been fully vaccinated. Many feel Putin should be tried for war crimes and sentenced to prison for life. Unfortunately, doing this may be quite difficult. We can only hope that international pressure will end the war, and that wealthier countries will provide humanitarian aid and assistance to this war-torn country that is suffering.

-The process of revision in fiction is endlessly complex and surprising. In revising my novel, I expected there to be much material cut, believing that brevity was a big part of it. This is true. However, sometimes revising long work requires adding new material and writing new scenes. Ironically, this can make the piece more “efficient”: that is, putting in some key scenes early on can help cut material later.

-Plausibility and motivation are two important concepts that we do not learn much about in the craft of writing. Literary fiction place is a high emphasis on character and narrative voice. But some important questions we need to ask ourselves are “Is there clear cause-and-effect?” “Would this outcome really happen from that character’s/those characters’ actions before?” “How can I make what happens more believable, how do I build up to this?” Perhaps this is such a hard concept to teach because it is quite slippery and vague: cause-and-effect are so particular to each piece of writing, each context. But an analysis of how a writer got from point A to point B can be very helpful. The key reason I am not a fan of Alice Munro’s writing (yes, I am commiting lèse-majesté here) is because I do not find her causes and effects very clear; there are odd jumps and rapid shifts that leave the reader in the dark.

            This reflection is the result of trying to strengthen one character in my novel so that he does not seem two dimensional or just motivating factor for the protagonist, but someone who has real drives of his own that lead to the immoral things he ends up doing.

-Don’t underestimate the importance of joy. We will NEVER create a better world without adding joy to it. The fundamental principle of activism and world-saving is for people to become happier in whatever form that takes: more justice, less racism, improved economic situations, better conditions for animals and flora and living beings. Very often, activists fail to realize that the people they wish to help would want to be joyous, not an angry bluestocking or militant radical who is obsessed with the Principle. It is a rather Buddhist way of looking at things that if we want to relieve suffering in the world, a big part of that is not to bring more suffering and negative energy into it. 

            Many people mistake joy for a lack of empathy and sensitivity to others’ suffering. These things are not mutually exclusive. One can be cheerful and joyous and bring that positivity into life while still taking action to help others and being deeply empathetic. HH The Dalai Lama has said, “The purpose of life is to strive for happiness.” This from a man who lost his country, whose people have been killed and persecuted and been forced to be refugees, but who chose to spread compassion, joy, and wisdom all over the world.

-What makes your heart sing? Is it romantic love? A beautiful piece of music? Your bond with an unconditionally loving animal? A passion for baking? The adrenaline rush while playing a sport? It’s so important to reconnect with that part of ourselves when we have been suffering through pandemic for two years.

Wishing my readers love and peace and joy.

Non-Traditional Narratives

I am working on a novel with a very traditional narrative structure, which has been an appropriate, necessary, and enjoyable challenge for me at this stage in my writing. It has been my experience that MFA programs and literary fiction education focus highly on narrative voice and character development, and so sometimes a writer just needs to learn how to tell a darn good story with an intriguing plot! Ironically, a friend recently told me about a novel she was working on and sent an article in the New Yorker about French filmmaker Céline Sciamma by Elif Batuman. What inspired her from the article was the idea of building tension in non-traditional ways in the narrative. This got me thinking about movies and books that have non-traditional narratives, and what I have observed in them. 

Writer Antonya Nelson has mentioned in workshop that she doesn’t always use a traditional narrative, choosing instead to build tension through contrasts and opposites. This is one way in which a writer might think about creating the necessary conflict in a work of fiction. Fragments are another device used in literature and film, or perhaps this is better described as vignettes. Susan Minot’s “Lust” comes to mind as an example of this, a story in which a young woman narrates her love life through boarding school through episodes of the boys she has dated. Naturally, a fragmented type of narrative would work well for literature that deals with trauma and any kind of memory fragmentation. That is, the form reflects the content. However, this is something that takes a great deal of skill, because too many (new?) writers attempt this and the reader has nothing to follow or latch onto, no thread to connect the fragments. As a tangent, I would also say that this is also a problem with a lot of modern atonal music in particular: the listener has no continuity to grab onto.

Novels-in-stories, in a sense, I could argue are not traditional narratives. We may not get the through line of one character through the whole novel, certain scenes may be omitted, and there may not necessarily be connections between the stories. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is an example of this (see my earlier post about this novel at https://wordpress.com/post/thewomenofletters.com/404). Cather has accomplished this successfully, as has Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge. Both works succeed because there is enough connection through title characters, setting, community, and themes.

With film, there is much more leeway for non-traditional narratives because the visual element can connect many things cognitively for the viewer. A lot of independent films eschew traditional Hollywood formulaic plots for nontraditional narratives. Recently I saw a Swiss film called “My Wonderful Wanda” (“Wanda, Mein Wunder”) of Polish caregiver and the Swiss family she works for, which is tripartite in structure, with each part addressing a different issue, but it is still a fairly traditional narrative based on a key conflict and the setting of the house on the lake. My favorite example is the stunning, visual poetry of Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel über Berlin) which features different characters in swirling around in different situations in Berlin, with a loose narrative about an angel who wants to become mortal. There is an occasional voiceover from that angel, which leads me to another point: a narrator can also help tie disparate elements together. We see this in film, theater (think about ancient Greek plays and the choruses) and even occasionally in literature. And a common setting or place also allows for more freedom in the narrative.

One final point that is very important to touch on (though it requires a whole post) is that many BIPOC and non-Western/non-canonical writers embrace non-traditional narrative forms, things that have been often erroneously criticized by Western readers and critics. This often reflects a lack of understanding of literatures from different countries/cultures, and a lack of knowledge about linguistics and different languages. It can, however, be a difficult line to tread when a writer’s work is simply unclear, but the reader needs to be aware of the cultural context. This issue is one of the current topics for debate in modern fiction, and one for which there are multiple responses and perspectives.

This post is by no means comprehensive and only scratches the surface of a topic that is so rich and diverse. However, it is meant to get readers thinking a little bit about the question of the narrative, and if it always has to be predictable.

Perceptions of Blackness from an Indian-American

This week’s post was supposed to be for last week, to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have written on various black writers and artists as well as mentors. But there is one other area I can comment on, and that is on perceptions of blackness by someone who is not white. I am the daughter of South Indian immigrants whose father did a PhD in the pre-civil rights deep South and encouraged black students in his career as a chemistry professor in the Midwest. I wish to make my points sensitively and with great consideration, but also with honesty, as I can only speak from my experience. 

I have no vested interest in taking sides, or reason to take sides, and perhaps have a more neutral perspective. Like most black people, I have brown skin and know all too well how difficult it is to be a different-looking minority and have suffered discrimination. But like many people in the white elite, I have a prestigious education and move in very cultured, educated, well-read, and well-traveled circles. And my own ethnic group is considered the most successful in America, my sub-ethnic group even more so (the second most powerful person in the country has maternal heritage that is the same as mine.)

First, I must say that I don’t always understand the polarization of black and white. Some people may call me naïve or stupid for saying this. In the Metro Detroit area, for example, there is intermixing, and many white people have grown up with blacks and black culture (it is the seat of Motown, after all). I grew up in a small town in the Midwest where many people found black culture “cool,” and in general, my perception of race in the Midwest has been that black and white are considered more “real American,” with immigrants of all colors being considered the “outsiders.” Both cultures have the common bond of language and Christianity, and many blacks and whites identify as “Americans” who lack connections to- or knowledge of their roots overseas. This is not to say that there isn’t racism in the Midwest: we cannot forget the Detroit riots and white flight. Milwaukee is notoriously segregated. Tensions still exist with South Side Chicago and whites. Gentrification threatens black neighborhoods in Rust Belt cities. There were certainly many people in my hometown who had antiquated, racist ideas, who wouldn’t want to sit next to someone with dark skin. However, all of this is meant to point out that there has been a long history of black people in the Midwest, starting with the Underground Railroad and then the Great Migration, as well as educational institutions that were integrated from the beginning.

In the West Coast, one generally feels there are few blacks. Proportionally, this is true as per census figures, though metropolitan areas such as Oakland, California have significant numbers of blacks. On a recent visit to San Diego, I saw only one sign in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on the car of an Asian driver. But given that so many California suburbs are full of immigrants from different countries, especially from South and East Asia and Latin America, I believe there is a good deal of ignorance of the suffering of many black people and of the civil rights movement that ensured rights for all people. Sometimes I am furious at members of the Indian community who stay only in their narrow little prosperous suburbs with only people of their own kind, taking everything for granted and assuming all blacks are criminals. 

Having lived in New York City and spent a lot of time in the East, I can say that race relations there are very complex. There are notorious ghettos, and yet there is tremendous knowledge and activism and effort made by people of all backgrounds to support black people. Given the presence of mass transit, a democratizing factor, and densely-populated cities, one feels that society is very diverse and more integrated than in other parts of the country. I have heard some black people say that the racism up North is worse, because it is covert, compared to the South. The intersection of class and race is so visible in big cities, and yet, there are black communities that have been there for decades and even for centuries, prosperous black neighborhoods and professionals and the black elite. I have often encountered a certain kind of self-righteous white liberalism in the East in which people are good and supporting causes in an organized way and spout rhetoric, but in their day-to-day lives, might not even say hello to a black doorman or worker. At other times, this type of liberalism becomes like a quota, with people feeling they need to have black friends or be activists to check off a box that says they are Diverse with a D.

I did my MFA in the South outside Asheville, and while I only spent brief periods of time there for my residencies, I got a strong sense of the deep roots of history in a way that one does not in the agrarian/20th century industrial Midwest. North Carolina’s political history is quite ugly and frightening in the way black people were treated, and there are other states and even more frightening histories. The South was indeed the bastion of slavery, and though black people form a significant percentage of states in the south, there are still examples of everyday racism as well as institutional and historical racism. A friend who taught in Alabama spoke of microaggressions that seemed right out of the 1950s rather than the 2010s. Poverty cuts across all races in the south, to be sure, and just because someone white is from the South does not mean that they will be racist. It is important to distinguish history versus the actions of current citizens. Many Southerners are offended when the finger is pointed at them alone for racism and will give numerous examples of the KKK and other hate groups all over the country (in the recent past, we have seen this in Oregon). A significant percentage of white Southerners have black blood, and vice versa. Many blacks distinguish between Northern and Southern blacks, which makes sense when we think about the socioeconomic waves of migration up north during different time periods. I believe that many of our institutionalized, racist policies stem from plantation culture and the history of the South and became codified up North. One can still feel the palpable presence and reminders of the Civil War down South. However, it is imperative for Northerners (liberal and otherwise) not to approach the South with a condescending, holier-than-thou mentality. 

These observations may sound simplistic due to space limitations here. There are still non-geographical reflections that I also wish to note. I believe that some white people have an irrational, visceral hatred of black people that I cannot understand, a violent impulse that is inexplicable. (These people often also have a gut-level hatred toward Jews.) For many immigrants and traditional communities, including those from Africa, we are puzzled by the family structure of many African-Americans and lack of the nuclear family/two-parent households (which is a statistical fact). A friend in Fort Wayne mentioned that African immigrants will tell their children not to associate with African-American children, due to the differences in values. Many Asians feel that blacks do not place the same emphasis on education as they do. And yet, there is often much solidarity between minority groups and (an expression I personally dislike) People of Color. A South Asian or Latina woman writer may feel more of an affinity with Alice Walker or Toni Morrison than with David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen.

In sum, I want to point out the complexities of perceptions of blackness, especially by people who are not white. Often it is the white liberals who feel there should be one way of seeing and interacting with black people, when there is really a great diversity. I get tired of “white vs. non-white” or “white vs. black,” as if whiteness and blackness are monolithic.

There are no easy answers; all we can do is continue to work together, really listen to each other, allow people to say what they believe and have constructive dialogue, and most importantly, take action to create a more just society for a group of people who is as old as America, but who have not been treated equally and still live under the daily threat of horrifying violence.