I was at an education fair for an elementary and middle school at a Barnes & Noble store last week. The atmosphere was galvanized with hunger for story and words. Parents, kids, and teachers didn’t stroll or loll to look at books. The children ran throughout the store and the parents were in fast pursuit behind them. And never did I hear a parent yell at their kids to stop running, nor apologize when they nearly toppled my books off the table to get to me and ask questions about my books and writing. It was fine and I loved the excitement. There should be a new rule for kids and running. They can run outside, on a school track, and at education fairs at Barnes & Noble. There was so much positively charged energy in the store, I didn’t even need my fairy dust this time (although the kids all wanted it sprinkled on them, anyway). When I packed up my books and paraphernalia at the end of the evening, I declared that I must pull out the dusty old manuscripts of children’s stories I wrote long ago. Maybe I should go back to them and not spend another four or five years on a historical novel for adult readers. As a writer, I have never wanted to be genre limited. I recognize that I’m genre challenged, but with the right amount of time, experimentation, tenacity, and some talent, perhaps I could write thrillers or horror novels. Well…probably not. But only because I don’t want to and not because I shouldn’t. The freedom to write whatever I want to write has been utmost important to me. Aside from whether or not I will find a publisher or whether or not the story is marketable, I will damn well write as I please! And, of course, isn’t it wonderful that we can also read whatever we want to read? Ahh, what a life i’tis!
My book table at Barnes & Noble was displayed with piles of my two young adult books, but there were also a few copies of my adult historical novel, Norah, that the staff decided to include. I had a feeling that there would be a few kids asking me about Norah. And as sure as the sun rises and sets, there is great curiosity in children, especially when an adult says something is off limits. I didn’t tell them Norah was off limits, but I did say that it wasn’t age appropriate. Well, that’s about the same thing and so there were plenty of questions and sneak peaks at my book when I wasn’t looking. Who is to stop these kids from prying open Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club or Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov when they’re at the bookstore or at home when their parents are busy?
I was quite young when my mother found Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying underneath my bed. For a young girl who keenly felt family and small town limitations, Isadora Wing’s story was a fanciful flight of freedom for my burgeoning desire for independence. On Erica Jong’s web site there is an endorsement by Hannah Green, “A passionate novel…the body wanting sex, sex, sex and love and safety, comfort; the mind wanting freedom, independence, the power to work, to write…very alive and real.” I don’t recall being aroused by the sex in the book, but I do remember the liberation I felt in living vicariously through this female protagonist’s life. My mother confiscated this age inappropriate book and hid it under her mattress…hmmm….
And when I was sixteen, I read Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and was indeed aroused! But what I was most impressed with was that class lines had been boldly crossed. An unhappy aristocratic woman has an illicit affair with a working-class man. Although in this great country of ours we would like to think that there is opportunity for all, class limitations do exist and they existed when I was a teen. So my reading didn’t just take me into forbidden erotica, but into the possibility of power in choice when there were restrictions and social handicaps. Freedom to choose.
When I was a young teen, I read The Autobiography of Malcom X, the memoir of a human rights activist. Living in a lily white community, this book opened my eyes and heart. Yes, I was frightened, even disturbed by some of what I read, but I grew in new ways that fueled my desire to never become racist.
As an adult, my mentor/writer professor encouraged me to find my own voice in writing about sex and violence. I couldn’t ignore these volatile topics, unless, of course, I only wrote children’s books. But I had already decided I wouldn’t be genre limited and so I explored these themes through my reading and writing. After you read my book, Norah, I hope you won’t walk away thinking it’s all about sex and violence, but these things are there. What I do hope you will walk away with is the triumph of spirit in a woman and immigrant.
I have a few contemporary short stories for a collection I’ve been working on for years. I haven’t persevered in trying to get them published and only one was published years ago. I prefer engaging myself in digging up musty and wrinkled stories from long ago because although history can be viewed microscopically, it is from a distance that gives clear perspective. I don’t dust, sanitize, and romanticize the past, but somehow I feel more at home there. I can see the slanted light come through the xenophobia, prejudice, hatred, and limitations. And I crave the slanted light that is real, not contrived.
But honestly, I can’t see the light, slanted or coming through a tiny pin hole, in many contemporary short stories and novels. I try, but I can’t! Recently, I subscribed to a famous literary journal that I won’t name here. I often visit bookstores to read literary journals and I’ve always considered myself open to bohemian and progressive writing. But lately, I can’t finish any of the short stories I begin to read. And I probably will never get one of my short stories published in these journals, unless I write what I don’t want to write. We don’t want to be censored, nor should we be, but how far do we go? Writers have been kicking against the Victorian pricks (forgive the pun) much too long and it’s gotten old. If a writer wants acclaim, he has to cover new territory, right? How coarse can a writer get? How absurd? How banal? Does it really reflect a segment of modern society, and if so, is it really that dark and hopeless?
At the risk of sounding like another ranter, I’ll stop here. I want to challenge the readers of this blog to consider banning stories from their reading lists. Stories where the sun never shines and the light is always artificial. For my own sanity and health, I will stop reading these kinds of stories. And I consider this a freedom of choice.
Franz Kafka said, “A book ought to be an ice pick to break up the frozen sea within us.” I don’t want to drown in this sea, but have it made warm and womb-like for growth.