Hamlet Redux

(This post is adapted from an analytical journal entry I wrote this semester for my MFA program.)

We know John Updike from his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, and the subsequent two novels and novella) and for his chronicling of suburban life. But one of his later works is a masterpiece, a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet called Gertrude and Claudius. At the intersection of historical fiction and a retelling, the novel gives us the backstory to the play, and puts a unique feminist spin on it.

A major concept I have hit upon in my analyses of retellings is the idea of a “hinge.” In all of the retellings I have looked at, there is some element that connects the old work to the new one, some sort of a hinge. Very frequently, it is plot points, and almost inevitably, characters. But sometimes there are other elements that connect the retelling and the classic. Sometimes it is language or phrases, the use of diction. The novel makes frequent use of that, and the author adopts a very old-fashioned tone that seems fitting for Shakespeare.

Gertrude and Claudius is a masterwork that stands on its own as a successful “retelling” of  Hamlet. Structured in three parts, the novel is a prequel to Shakespeare’s play. It focuses on the backstory of two crucial characters, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his uncle-turned-stepfather Claudius. I have examined a number of retellings: how they function, how they are crafted, how they work. What strikes me so saliently about this novel is it is a retelling heavily built on character. Of course, this is only natural, given that it is a prequel; it cannot borrow the same plot as the original. But what the novel does so brilliantly is flesh out to key characters in Hamlet and show us their motivations for doing what they have done. This is not to say that there are not some overlapping plot points, especially at the ends of Part II and in Part III. But giving us the backstory of characters who have caused or triggered Hamlet’s grief makes the play so much more vivid. Showing us the actual murder scene with Claudius poisoning his brother is very satisfying, as we it learn only by hearsay in the play. Therefore, Hamlet is the aftermath of the novel, and it makes full sense when we know what evil machinations have happened before.

One of Updike’s motivations for writing the novel is to give the female character some agency. In general, Shakespeare’s plays heavily emphasize men; Hamlet is no exception. Gertrude is not a minor character, but she is not necessarily given her full due. In the play, she is a wife and mother. She is second to the men, and seems at times passive, an innocent victim, helpless in the sway of the powerful king, or too weak to stand up to her son. Gertrude and Claudius gives us the chance to see Gertrude as a key agent in her destiny and in the outcome that will happen in Hamlet. The title itself is a giveaway–she is included in the title and given top billing. Therefore, we can assume that Updike is taking a rather feminist angle upon retelling Hamlet. The presence of Ophelia also represents Updike’s woman-centered retelling.

Updike has essentially constructed the novel so that Parts I and II culminate in Part III, as any good novel should. Everything in the novel has been building up to the end. But what is especially brilliant is that Part III is building up to the play, so everything at the end of the novel will culminate in the actions of the play. “[Hamlet] was letting it be known that he resented his mother’s swift capitulation to his uncle’s suit.” Just before the end, we get the beginning of the play, where the watchmen see the ghost of the King. “It was rumored that battlement sentries on the midnight watch had been seeing an apparition in full armor.”

But the ending of the book belongs to Claudius: he has married his queen, he has been crowned, he has summoned Hamlet back to Denmark to train him to be the next King, and therefore has established his dynasty. Updike himself has lined up all the ducks, so to speak, in his novel, so that the play can shoot them all down. All of our expectations for a successful reign will be threatened by the vengeant Prince. The play is his story.

Foreshadowing is frequently used to hinge the two works: Updike is connecting us through the sense of doom. Also, there are frequent biblical allusions, especially to the Garden of Eden and snakes. The novel is also very much historical fiction, drawing on details of conquests and kingdoms. The sense of the past is palpable; we could truly imagine this love affair and murder happening as part of Danish royal history.

But none of these craft elements would matter, none of this analysis would hold any relevance if it were not for the fact that Gertrude and Claudius is just incredibly well written and a pleasure to read. We read the classics because they know they are time-tested and will please us. Hopefully the retellings should as well.


Nobel Laureate Frances H. Arnold’s Reply!

I wrote to Prof. Arnold and the other 2018 Nobel Laureate women to congratulate them and included a link to my last post:
On Oct 5, 2018, at 11:43 AM, Sonja Srinivasan
> wrote:

Dear ladies,
I was so inspired to read about your wins that I blogged on it! Hugest heartfelt congratulations, and thanks for being so inspiring to women around the world, even in different fields (I am an opera singer and writer).
Very best wishes,
Sonja Srinivasan

And here was her response. I feel so lucky, grateful, and am thrilled beyond belief!!

Frances H. Arnold
Wed, Nov 14, 7:39 PM (19 hours ago)
to Sonja

Dear Sonja,

Thank you. I am still stunned by it all. And digging through thousands of nice messages.
It’s a good year indeed for recognition of women.
Viva la evolución!

Frances H. Arnold
Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry
California Institute of Technology 210-41
Pasadena CA 91125 USA

2018 Women Nobel Laureates: The Ultimate Women of Letters

This week’s announcements of the 2018 winners of the Nobel Prize have been heartwarming and inspiring due to the three women who have been nominated. Groundbreaker Donna Strickland (one of only three women who have ever won the prize in physics), Renaissance woman Frances H. Arnold (one of only five women to win the prize in chemistry, and as much a hero in her personal life as she is in her career), and brave survivor-turned-activist Nadia Murad (one of the younger Nobel recipients at just age 25, mentored by another extraordinary woman, Amal Clooney). Evidently, the Nobel nomination committee is becoming more attuned to the aware of the dearth of talented women receiving prizes or even just receiving adequate acclaim for their work in general. Dr. Strickland was so generous as to compliment her male colleagues, saying that her co-recipients also deserved to win the prize – one can only wonder how many men would have done the same with their female colleagues. Consider this in light of physicist Alessandro Strumia’s comments at CERN. While I always try to look for a grain of truth in what the opposition says, and not immediately jump to a position, I do feel that his remarks and data were short-sighted, incomplete, foolish, poorly researched, and overall offensive to women and even the men who support us. Thankfully, CERN has suspended him. And sadly, he is not alone; there are numerous silent Alessandro Strumias out there, and cultures who subscribe to his viewpoint.

The other unfortunate occurrence, in my view, is the fact that the Nobel committee is not awarding a literature prize this year. This is due to the sexual assault scandal among the nominators. While I can understand there is turmoil on their end, this shortchanges writers who deserve to win the award. It shortchanges readers and literature-lovers all over the world who look up to the literary firmament to inspire them in their daily lives. It’s a shame when sexism has to get in the way of people getting their due credit, be it in physics or writing.

Let’s hope Monday’s announcement for the Nobel Prize in Economics includes a woman.

Celebrating 6 Years!!

Dear Readers,
That time of year has come (well, came!) to remember the origins of this blog and celebrate another anniversary. Begun as a pet project and as a way to converse with a scholarly friend, the blog has taken me in greater directions than I could have imagined. Thanks to you, dear readers and writers, for making this blog a worthwhile endeavor. And to anyone thinking of blogging—do it!
Best wishes,

Interview with Journalist Ian Shapira

Today’s post is an interview with Washington Post journalist and fiction writer Ian (pronounced “eye-an”) Shapira. Journalism is its own unique form of writing, and fiction is as well. But is there any overlap between the two? How can one genre inform the other? We will explore this in depth below. I conducted this email interview with Ian, a classmate of mine at the Warren Wilson MFA program, who also shares my conspiratorial sense of humor!

TWOL: Tell us a little bit about your own background in journalism.
IS: I started out in the mid-1990s writing for my high school newspaper, Pandemonium, at the Louisville Collegiate School in Kentucky. My best friend and I were co-editors and we decided to have the staff do all sorts of hard-hitting pieces like testing which was better, Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts. I think we also wrote serious stories — one was about Gorbachev’s visit to the city and I’m pretty sure we covered that. I do remember once that, in haste to make deadline, I misspelled the name of the newspaper in the banner at the top of the front page. “Pandemomium,” it said. Amazingly, “Pandemomium” came out on or about Mother’s Day.

When I got to college, I wrote for The Daily Princetonian, starting out as a news reporter before going on to write lengthy arts and pop culture essays. (Major shout-out to my editor, Marshall Heyman, who taught me so much.) During my summers, I interned as a reporter at a tri-weekly newspaper in Bardstown, KY called The Kentucky Standard (where I shot photos for my own articles and developed them in something called a “dark room”!), The Washington Monthly magazine in Washington, D.C., and The Boston Globe in its Living/Arts section. After graduating from Princeton in 2000, I got an internship in the Style section of the Washington Post. That fall, I was supposed to go Columbia University to attend its MFA program in non-fiction. But the Post hired me and [I ended up] forgoing an MFA program.

TWOL: Even in journalism, the best articles tell a story. How do you shape a nonfiction story?
IS: Whenever I’m writing a lengthy story for the Post, I think first about what point the story is trying to make. Then, I look at my reporting to see if there’s a pithy scene that I witnessed or can reconstruct that would make a good “lead” — the first paragraphs of an article that can draw readers in. From there, I tend to think about stories chronologically. How did it all start? And then go from there. But there’s no single right way to tell a non-fiction story, especially in books and literature.

TWOL: And now the flip side – you are also a fiction writer. How does your background as a journalist shape (or not shape) your fiction?
IS: Let me make it clear: I still consider myself very much of a hobbyist when it comes to fiction. I haven’t even published anything yet. At Warren Wilson, I feel a bit like an imposter, a basketball player, for instance, sneaking into a baseball team’s practice. I will say that my journalism career has given me a natural impulse to write “reality-based” fiction and pursue subjects that I’ve researched well. I have to know the language, the right verbs, nouns and adjectives, what people wear and what they eat. Once I feel fluent in the characters and language of a story, then I can feel like I have the authority and velocity to write. This is true for my journalism at the Post and very true for my attempts at fiction. If there’s any advantage to having been a Washington Post reporter all these years, it’s that I can write pretty fast. I can churn out the rough draft. And once I have a rough draft to work with, then the revision and the re-writing comes. This, frankly, is pretty fun. Especially cutting. I love to cut. (My editor at the Post may think otherwise, but I swear, it’s true!)

TWOL: You’re certainly not an impostor, though every writer feels that way! Do you see any overlap between fiction and nonfiction writing, personally, or are they two completely different things for you?
IS: I think the best narrative journalism tries to achieve the same goals as all fiction — making readers feel something deeply emotional. Short stories and novels are all about the pure story, the poetry of language, but much of journalism, especially in the age of Trump, is about accountability and setting facts straight. These are not so much “stories” but articles. And yet, some of the very best magazines and newspapers — The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, the list goes on — all routinely publish deeply reported “stories” that can feel like fiction but are, in fact, non-fiction. The structures and elements of those pieces will have traditional journalism nuggets like “nut grafs” high up in the article that explicitly tell you why the story is important, and might even give you a bunch of data — information that wouldn’t really necessarily be in a piece of fiction. So, if there’s overlap between the two genres, it’s that we both want to rip your heart out and keep you reading for as long as possible. Let me also add that I don’t think you need to write 8,000-word narrative articles to accomplish this. Some of my favorite “stories” in journalism are not that long at all, maybe 1,000 words or even less. But they still have a narrative arc.

At the Post, we have to be extremely judicious from paragraph to paragraph, making sure that the articles read fast and that we do the best we can to keep readers’ eyeballs moving. I think the same should be true for fiction, especially literary fiction, even “hard fiction.” So, I try the best I can to ensure that my attempts at fiction have a certain level of propulsion and momentum. The risk, obviously, is that you go too fast and you wind up writing stories or fiction devoid of any emotional power and character depth. Some of my favorite fiction writers are Adam Ross, Ottessa Moshfegh, Colum McCann, Sally Rooney, and Elena Ferrante. (I’ve been obsessed with this short story published this year in The Sewanee Review — edited by Adam Ross — called “Beautiful People” by Lisa Taddeo, a journalist/fiction writer.)

TWOL: Very interesting point about tradeoff between speed and emotional depth! With nonfiction and journalism, you already have a narrative arc laid out for you in that you know what has happened, so the task is how you tell it. However, with fiction, you have to create the narrative arc as you go. And also the characters. Can you talk a little bit about this?
IS: One of the reasons I like fiction so much — both as a reader and aspiring writer — is that I don’t know what will happen. I suppose that many fiction writers outline their stories or novels in advance, knowing what they’ll write every step of the way. I haven’t done this yet, mainly to avoid cornering myself and preventing twists and character development that might happen organically, from paragraph to paragraph. In my Post stories, I tend to know where things will go from start to finish mainly because I’ve done so much reporting and have sold my editor on a complete package. But in fiction, sometimes I don’t know where a story will go until I’ve got a rough draft and even then, I’ll take a look at it and say: This stinks. Let me re-write the last two-thirds so the story will end up in this new place.

TWOL: That’s always part of the fun of writing, seeing how a story unfolds on its own in ways you didn’t plan! Any other thoughts or comments?
IS: Since I write all my Post stories in the third-person, one of the things I am doing at Warren Wilson to make myself take even more risks is that I am working on a collection of short stories all written in the first-person. It’s rare that I pen first-person essays for the Post. (My favorite was this one about my late dad and daughter: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2014/06/11/my-dad-died-one-month-before-my-daughter-was-born-here-is-how-my-family-honors-him/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0bc176212e56.) It feels very new and uncomfortable to me. And the longer I’ve been at Warren Wilson, the more I am learning about the craft of point of view and the pitfalls of first-person. This is where I must thank my first supervisor, C.J. Hribal and my current supervisor, Sonya Chung, for pushing me to make sure my narrators are not over-narrating and being annoying. Which brings me to my final point: I feel so grateful for the friendships and mentorship of Warren Wilson. I learn so much from fellow students, especially during workshop, and I take those lessons and feedback and incorporate them into my own work.

TWOL: I, too, have had to learn a lot about point of view as I had done a lot of academic and social science writing, which requires a very “neutral” or objective narrator. That’s very admirable and bold to take that risk to write in first person. Doing things like that is the sign of someone who is truly committed to art, in my opinion. Thank you, and happy writing, Ian!

The Silver Lining to the #MeToo Movement

Would that it did not happen. Would that millions – no billions – of women did not face some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination or molesting on a daily basis around the world. If only it did not involve power, and women feeling threatened for their jobs or their lives. But unfortunately, this has been a part of women’s lives probably since the beginning of time, and we are in a period where so much of this sexual harassment has come to the forefront, starting with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It was quite disturbing to see how many of my friends had posted “MeToo” on their Facebook pages, friends from all around the world. So the scale of this problem is immense and acute. But as with any bad or traumatic situation, is there something positive that can come of it? I think so. Here are some thoughts on the silver lining to the #MeToo movement and the spate of cases of sexual harassment that we have been hearing about so much lately.

-It cuts across class and all social differences. Everyone from multimillionaire Gwyneth Paltrow to a waitress at Denny’s can relate. It affects athletes (as we have seen in the Larry Nassar cases), young journalists (think Charlie Rose), seasoned professionals, and women of all colors. Therefore, we see the universality of the issue.

-It normalizes the experience of sexual harassment. Notice that I did not say it normalizes sexual harassment. What this means is that women do not need to feel alone in what they have suffered. One of the most difficult things for any victim of an abusive situation is feeling alone and isolated. Certainly nothing can take away our individual sufferings. But there is some healing that comes when we see we are not alone.

-It brings feminism back to its core values of gender equality and non-discrimination of women. In the recent decades, I feel that feminism has often gotten ridiculous, focusing on dissecting words (i.e. herstory instead of history, which if you know its Latin roots has nothing to do with gender), radical feminism, academic feminism, an obsession with sexuality and sex practices, and everything that is extreme, esoteric, and individualistic. Now that we see the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment, we have to step back and ask ourselves questions about relations between men and women, and how women are treated as a whole in a society. It makes feminism accessible to everyone, not just someone who’s white and upper middle-class in an Ivy League school, or someone funky and pierced and tattooed in San Francisco. Therefore,

-It has a collective impact and makes institutions rethink policies. As above, since feminism in the recent decades focused so much on individualism, we are looking at women’s issues as a whole now and what kinds of programs and policies and rules will benefit the majority of women, and hopefully all women.

-It gets men involved with the discussion. I will say that there are and can be indeed gray areas in terms of male behavior toward women, and a range of behaviors that women will accept. (For example, some women may feel flattered when men comment on their body, but it can depend on whom, and some women may feel extremely harassed by such behavior.) However, men need to be aware of their own actions and behavior, the possibility that they will be misread, informed about respecting healthy boundaries and limits, and calling out other men who do not respect women and abuse their power. Many men are simply not aware of the power that they hold, that they are abusing it, or simply not aware of how women may feel inferior in certain situations. We cannot have a discussion about women without men. This was the great fault of radical feminism, not including men. Not all men are abusers or harassers. Many men are allies and supporters, friends and lovers.

-It has an impact on men who behave badly. They are getting forced from their jobs, positions of power, and most importantly, urged to seek treatment. While we have to be careful not to conduct a witch hunt and immediately oust men without hearing the full story and their side of the story (history is rife with examples of those accused being put to death or punishment very hastily), there are countless cases of multiple women coming forth with evidence against men, or even individual women who have proof. Women need to be believed when they come forward with a report of harassment. Institutions need to trust in them, rather than covering up, as Michigan State so sickeningly did with Larry Nassar. Consider the Stanford rapist case with Brock Turner and Judge Aaron Persky. After his lenient sentencing of the rapist, people protested and eventually voters in California recalled the judge. This was a successful move by the people and the law. We mustn’t have knee-jerk reactions to things. But we have to understand cyclical behavior in men, the abuse of power, and be aware of the existence of predators.

-Women do not have to feel guilty for their sexuality and sensuality. A woman has a right to be beautiful in whatever way she sees fit, be it high hemlines or a hijab. We need to take the onus off of women for the predatory behavior of men. This is not to say women should not be wise; I am still an advocate of young college women not getting drunk and going off with men at parties or otherwise, and believe in personal responsibility. There is some truth to what Camille Paglia has long said. But a woman should not feel that she does not have the right to express herself just because some creepy man will make comments or make her uncomfortable. Female sexuality holds tremendous power, and that is a universal truth. Men should not punish women or make them and feel comfortable for that power.

Southern Lit: An Interview with Lane Osborne

Today’s post is an interview with a Man of Letters. Lane Osborne is a Lecturer of English at Coastal Carolina University, creative writing fiction MFA student, and Southern gentleman who is one of my classmates at Warren Wilson. I am very much a Northerner in my sensibility and in the places I’ve lived, so I thought it would be interesting to get a broader perspective on the literature from a different region of the United States. I read a number of Southern writers during my second semester, which was a necessary part of my literary education, as I had read very little literature by Southern writers before.

SS: If I remember correctly, you are originally from Ohio, as am I! What took you to the south, and how did you get interested in Southern literature?

LO: My parents worked for the federal government, so two of my brothers were born in Africa, one in Alabama, and I was born and raised in a small town outside of Dayton, Ohio. I moved to South Carolina, where my mother’s side of the family is from, to attend college and have lived here ever since. I think my interest in writers in and around this area was simply born out of a desire to understand and appreciate the place I’ve called home for nearly thirty years now—no different than enjoying the local arts, cuisine, or coastal landscape.

SS: It’s always hard to generalize characteristics about a group of people or an artistic movement. But are there some commonalities or characteristics you would note about literature from the South? Obviously, one would be the geography and the place. But what does “Southern literature” mean to you?

LO: Well, “southern,” by definition, does speak to a particular geography, but it’s more than that.
I see place as not only the given topography, but also its history and culture. I generally tend to resist thinking of literature in regional terms, though, because I find it, like any label, a little limiting, especially for those writers whose work is so thoughtfully crafted and compelling that it transcends beyond those borders. However, if there’s one distinction that tends to set Southern writers apart from other writers, it may well be that they’re inherently good storytellers. The oral tradition is still time-honored in these parts.

SS: I think that’s what makes the literature so rich. Who are, in your mind, some of the best Southern writers and why? And are there some great writers who capture the South who aren’t originally from the region?

LO: I admire the work of canonized writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, but there’s also a strong contingency of contemporary writers from the South I really enjoy too like Tom Franklin, Ron Rash, and Jesmyn Ward, whose work Michael Parker introduced me to—himself, by the way, a writer from the Carolinas whose work I also admire for its attention to language and sense of place. And maybe Cormac McCarthy might qualify as a non-native “Southern writer” whose work I’ve enjoyed. He was born in Rhode Island, but grew up in Tennessee, and, I think, still lives in El Paso, where he’s been for years.

SS: What changes have you seen in Southern literature over time? Like, say, if you were to compare 19-century works with 20/21st century ones?

LO: That’s a great question, and one I’m not sure I have an answer for. I can certainly attest that the landscape of the South has evolved in the time I’ve lived here, so it stands to reason that the literature produced in this area has along with it. But it’s not something I’ve been attuned to enough to offer any valuable input.

SS: And of course, there is the elephant in the room: the issue of race and slavery. What can you tell us about that?

LO: Well, they differ slightly in that slavery is a historical feature principally found in the South, while racism remains a current, cultural feature of the entire American landscape—found in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, in a Yale dormitory, outside an Airbnb in Rialto. I feel as though we have a responsibility as writers to address those issues, among others, in our work, irrespective of what region of the world we’re from.

SS: Well said! We tend to label the South as the only region with racism when really, it is widespread. Also, the South is known as the “Bible Belt.” How does religion play out in the literature?

LO: I suppose it depends on the story, the writer, and what he or she hopes to accomplish as to whether or not religion plays a role. I’ve read stories where faith is central in the telling of the tale, and others where there’s no mention of it at all.

SS: Thank you, Lane, for taking the time for this interview!

LO: The pleasure was mine!