Thursday, July 31, 2008

Artistic freedom - not as simple as it sounds

Here in the West, we take our artistic freedom for granted, forgetting that throughout history - and in other parts of our world right now - men and women have died in the attempt to express themselves honestly through their art.

But, interestingly, there are also artists in our “free” society who censor themselves for fear of the reactions their works may elicit. Our artists may not be physically imprisoned, tortured or executed, but they can be attacked by critics and opponents in ways that deter others from telling the stories they want to.

This week, I read an amazing young adult novel by Sally Rippin, called Chenxi and the Foreigner, chosen for me by the Ink-stained Toe-poker (thanks pal: great pick!). The novel’s theme of artistic freedom is particularly meaningful, because this edition is not the first version to make it into print.

Chenxi and the Foreigner is the story of 19-year-old Australian, Anna, who travels to Shanghai in 1989 to visit her father and study traditional Chinese painting. Struggling to cope with her status as a foreigner, she becomes obsessed with fellow art student Chenxi, who ultimately teaches her life-changing lessons about the nature of freedom, and what it means to be an artist in a culture that forbids non-sanctioned artist expression.

It was one of the earliest young adult novels written by the prolific Rippin, who now has more than 20 books for children of all ages in print. It was inspired by her own experiences as an art student in China, and the people she met there. But nearly 20 years later, she realised she’d sold herself and her readers short.

In the after word in this new 2008 version, Rippin explains she had compromised her original story through her own self-editing, “which is ironic given that this is a novel about artistic freedom”.

She says she was afraid of the parents, teachers and librarians who were the literary gatekeepers of her target market. In that original version, she cut out profanity, sex scenes and “unfamiliar Chinese politics”, for fear her book would be blocked and never reach its intended young adult audience.

She was also not sure she was ready for the potential backlash to her political themes. “I was worried at that time that, if my novel was too obviously political, I might stir up a discussion I wasn’t brave enough to enter into at that age.”

In the new edition, the main character’s name has changed, as has – apparently – the ending. I say apparently because I’ve only read this latest, grittier, version, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the political context, honesty and realism that make this story so compelling, without being so confronting as to scar its young readers.

The timing of the novel’s re-release this year, when the world’s eyes are on China, might be a coincidence, or a brilliant marketing ploy. Either way, Chenxi and the Foreigner is an excellent novel on several levels: the characters are fascinating, raw and real, and the narrative brings China – and its politics – into sharp focus in a way a detached news report rarely can.

Yes it is challenging, and yes it covers aspects of Chinese politics many young adult readers may be unfamiliar with – and are now likely to explore to better understand Chenxi and his struggles.
And isn’t that what great stories should do?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Australian stories - I'm addicted

I think I’ve become addicted to quality Australian writing.

Quite by accident, I’ve read more Australian writers than any other this year (just check this blog), and after a brief break last week with Mma Ramotswe, I found I was hungry to return to Australian stories.

I had planned to read a classic piece of American literature next, but I was side-tracked by a $3.50 find in a book cafĂ©. It was Melina Marchetta’s 1992 hit Looking for Alibrandi, a coming-of-age story set in Sydney, spanning a year in the life of 17-year-old Josephine Alibrandi.

The plan was to add this title to the reading pile for a later date, but the lure of a critically acclaimed contemporary Australian story was too strong. So I read it, in three sittings ... and loved it.

I saw the film adaptation back in 2000, which I enjoyed, but – no surprises – the novel is so much richer in its characterisation, conflicts, pathos and humour.

Josie is a second generation Italian-Australian. She's a bright girl, raised by her single mother, and has a scholarship to one of Sydney’s most prestigious schools. Her class and cultural background put her at odds with the world of privilege around her, and the freedom her friends enjoy is in stark contrast to the traditional values imposed on her by her Sicilian grandmother.

Looking for Alibrandi is a story about discovering identity, appreciating cultural heritage and family ties, learning tough lessons about love, and recognising the realities and fallacies of class distinction.

It’s about romance, life, death, estrangement and self-discovery, and explores the consequences of choices – even those made with the best of intentions.
Classed as young adult fiction, it's yet another story that transcends its label. It captures an era of Australia (both good and bad) that we, as a nation, haven't quite outgrown.

Major book chains these days are packed to the ceiling with blockbuster international titles, with only the most prominent of Australian writers able to score reasonable shelf space and time. What a shame.

I love great stories, regardless of who writes them and where they are set. But I must admit it has surprised me to discover this deep passion for Australian stories, and I’m not sure whether it's my stage of life, or simply the fact I’m bothering to read more of them.

So, my questions this week:

For readers of this blog in Australia: do you read Australian authors? If so, who, and why?

I pose the same questions to those who are outside Australia. And for those who answer yes, I wonder: do those stories with a strong focus on Australian people, culture and issues resonate with you? Do they, in fact, shape the way you see our country?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Returning to the simple life in Botswana

Sometimes, when life gets a tad overwhelming, even reading material can add to the pressure.

It may be because the story is intense, distressing or tension-filled - or I'm simply racing to finish a library book due back in a few days.

But shouldn’t our reading be our “quiet time”? A time to reflect?

I tend to try and cram “doing” into every waking moment. Some days the closest I come to reflecting on life is while reading –and that only happens if what I’m reading is conducive to quiet reflection.

So, every now and then, I consciously choose to read a story I know will slow me down – in a good way!

This week, it’s been a return to The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

It’s a wonderful series set in Botswana, about Mma Ramotswe, a woman who “finds things out for people” as the owner of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

In between solving the small mysteries troubling her fellow townsfolk, she muses about the important things in life: the people she cares about, the landscape she loves, the country of which she is so proud. And spending time with her is soothing for a busy mind.

In Smith’s latest release, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Mma Ramotswe finds her usually calm life stirred up by personal challenges. So what does she do? She squeezes her “traditional” build into her tiny old white van and takes herself back to the land.

She returns to a hill overlooking the village of her birth. There, looking out over the plains she loves so much, listening to the sound of cattle bells drifting up from below under a big Africa sky, she finds peace.

She sat, doing nothing, staring out over the plain below. If, when viewed from above like this, our human striving could seem so small, then why did it not appear like that when viewed from ground level?

In this place of contemplation, she finds perspective on the issues troubling her: an employee who may be the author of threatening letters; a husband willing to believe in a miracle cure for their wheelchair bound foster daughter; a puzzling search for a client’s birth mother.

Some series, with sweeping narrative and character arcs, beg for their books to be read back to back (JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a classic example).

Others, like The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, work best in isolation, because the growth of characters is so subtle and the pace so gentle. These are books to be savoured, not devoured one after the other.

They are my literary refuge when I need a reminder of the simple pleasures in life and the value of gentle stories.

Does anyone else have a book, or series, they turn to for a peaceful narrative experience?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Do you believe it?

One last post about the idea of “truth in fiction” and then I’ll move on.

When I was writing last week’s post, I remembered something I’d read in The Playwright’s Guidebook by Stuart Spence about the idea of “believing” a story.

Spence says the phrase “I don’t believe it” is the enemy of art. He says that when you set out to have an artistic experience, you need to decide that, no matter what, you’re going to believe it: “We suspend our disbelief, and we do it willingly – because if we don’t we’ve locked ourselves outside the room where the art is happening.”

By using the phrase “I don’t believe”, he’s referring to a reaction in which we don’t believe in the truth of a character’s actions or a story’s twists, turns and resolutions. “I just don’t believe anyone would do that … I didn’t buy it when he decided to… that’s just ridiculous - Lassie couldn’t possibly give precise directions to Timmy’s well…” etc.

Spence says that when people say they don’t believe a certain plot twist or character action, what they actually mean is they can’t accept it, or it’s offensive, off-putting, difficult or even dull.

It’s not even about whether or not you like the story. It’s about accepting the story is true and then reacting subjectively to those “facts”. How could you enjoy Lewis Carroll if you didn’t believe Alice really fell down a rabbit hole?

Spence’s point is that if a writer tells you a character is thinking this, doing that, planning such and such, it’s true. After all, the writer should know: it’s their story. As a reader, our job is to believe it, and then decide from there how we respond to it, whether it be annoyance, joy, relief, disdain, repulsion, etc.

“Any of these feelings are perfectly valid responses to art. But they are purely subjective.”

I must admit there were moments towards the end of Tim Winton’s Breath I wasn’t particularly comfortable with, but I certainly believed them.

Spence summarises his lesson about believing thus: if a story is interesting enough, most people won’t give any thought to whether they believe it or not.

Do you agree with this idea?

Have you ever read a story or plot twist you didn’t “believe” - regardless of what Spence says?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Truth in fiction

Last week we talked about the authenticity of novelists. This week, I’d like to go one step further and talk about the notion of truth in fiction.

I’m not talking about truth as it relates to history or events in a fictional narrative; rather, I’m talking about whether or not the character’s reactions, revelations and resolutions are “true”, or based on reality.

James Bradley, in the June Australian Literary Review, points out the general notion that most narratives have therapeutic value, with arcs that feature “an uplifting journey from squalor to redemption, purpose-built to elicit the bursts of spontaneous applause that pepper American talk shows like the ‘hallelujahs’ they have taken the place of”.

Bradley argues that narratives which set out to inspire people and change lives are fantasies and fairytales, which “not only do not enrich our moral imagination but denude it. It isn’t true stories we hunger for at all, but manufactured stories that resemble true stories in every way but the ones that count”.

He says these types of “fantasy” narratives (assumedly ones involving happy endings) are “symptomatic of our culture’s growing resistance to the messiness and moral ambiguity of real life ... Our impatience with complexity, our desire for resolution, our need for clear moral messages … are the driving the erosion of the cultural authority of fiction”.

Is this true?

I guess it depends on what you want from a story (and for me this changes as often as my reading material) and how well it is delivered.

In my teens and early 20s, I think I always wanted clear resolution and happy endings. Now, in the latter half of my 30s – after experience more of life and its complexities – I’m satisified to read a story without a clear resolution, providing there’s been some sort of meaningful emotional journey by a major character, and they (and I) are left with a sense of hope about the future.

I’ve just finished reading two excellent Australian novels that manage to be firmly grounded in the “real” and yet still deliver emotional resolutions.

The first is Helen Garner’s first novel in 15 years, The Spare Room. The other is Tim Winton’s first offering in seven years, Breath.

The Spare Room is told through the eyes of Helen, a woman who agrees to support her friend Nicola - in the final stages of a terminal cancer - while the latter undergoes bizarre “experimental” treatment. Over the course of three emotionally-charged weeks, Helen becomes Nicola’s nurse, guardian angel and unflinching judge.

The novel appears to contain even more “truth” than usual: the narrator shares the author’s name, and her experience of living next door to her daughter and having recently helped a friend through the latter stages of cancer.

But instead of penning this story as memoir, Garner’s written it as fiction, which no doubt gave her greater scope in the storytelling. An interesting question for the author then, would be which parts reflect her actual experience, and which parts are fictionalised for the sake of the story.

Of course the answer is actually irrelevant, because this story rings with truth as Helen struggles with rage, grief, compassion and affection towards her friend.

Meanwhile Breath is a rites-of-passage story of Pikelet and Loonie, two risk-taking, competitive mates who team up with a gun surfer, Sando, and his fractious wife, Eva. The boys become obsessed with risk and danger. It begins simply enough, with staying under the river water for as long as possible, but moves on to the more intense physical and emotional risks posed by huge surf and confronting sexual experiences.

Like The Spare Room, Breath is expertly written. Winton captures a wonderful sense of place and uses fiction to ask questions about addiction and its costs, about risk-taking and about their long-term consequences.

In both stories, the endings are not what many might call “happy”, but the tension is resolved, and all experiences have meaning. If they were to follow the rule of being “true”, I suspect the endings for both could have been very different; which might have made them more realistic, but less satisfying.

Many literary experts would tell us that fiction (like other art forms) should reflect society and reality, but can’t we have more than one type of “legitimate” narrative?

Is it wrong to crave a happy ending, in a world where so few rarely exist?