Feb 112014

Trey Sager

“The Plot” is a pun that pays off at the end of Trey Sager’s terrific new story “The Plot,” which is notable, yes, for its plotlessness. Instead of a plot, the author rather brilliantly substitutes a couple of backstories that keep weaving into the text and a set of motifs that he juggles like colored balls before the reader. There is even a sex scene; it’s in a dream. “The Plot” is thus an anti-story of sorts that depends on structure and the strength of the author’s wit and writing skills to capture the reader’s interest. And wit and writing skills Sager has in abundance as well as a poetic sensibility that makes the words into images on the page. I love the way the dead birds that collect outside the windows of the protagonist’s house turn into letters. And the way the poet is described as “an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language.” Also the lush word “passerine,” which means, yes, what it means but passes over the story like a dead hand. The poet is a passerine and the word sounds like melancholy itself. Trey Sager is the fiction editor at Fence; you can read a terrific interview with him on the subject of his novel Fires of Siberia



At the end of his life, Ronald Reagan raked his lawn each day, and at night the Secret Service dumped the leaves back onto the grass. Guy wondered if whatever degrading plot the future had in store was already upon him and, like the Gipper, he was simply oblivious to it. But he was only fifty-three. Surely there was more time for him to disappear into his lawn. He sat in front of a half-eaten English muffin and a damask-patterned mug of coffee, both of which looked abandoned, as if part of a crime scene. A Sunday abduction. No, a murder, he speculated, picturing himself prone on the living room rug, his assailiant’s skin under his fingernails, his fish eyes open and staring at the carpet fibers and dust particles he could no longer see. He felt unhappy to be dead. Then he heard a knock at the door.

He thought it might be the mailman. Everyone else would be at church or at home, playing with their round, overemphasized children. He was friends with the mailman. They’d met at the grocery store shortly after Guy moved to town, standing in line with a young girl singing “escargot, my car go.” The mailman lifted his eyebrow as an invitation to deride her, but Guy opted for a joke about snails. Occasionally Guy brought Dickel whiskey to the tracks and the two of them passed the sweetened gasoline back and forth, taking tolls on their mutual emptiness. The more the mailman drank, the more he acted like a thirteen-year-old girl.

It could’ve been a bird at the door, Guy speculated. They were often slamming into the back bay window, beckoned by the reflection of the pines and, for someone who isn’t fully paying attention, the sound of a fist clapping against a wooden door resembles a bird thunking against a house. Guy hated the birds more than he felt sorry for them. He was a poet, and spent his time laboring over which words to pair, an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language. But the birds were ever oncoming. One was always on the verge of cracking its sunflower seed–colored beak and feathered skull on the glass. At a party a woman asked him what’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits your windshield. Its asshole, she laughed. The birds (he looked them up) were passerines.

Of course Susan came to mind, as she often did, but it would not be her either. He’d last seen her a month ago when she came to collect her toothbrush, a package of aromatherapy candles from Target, a few Sade CDs, and an unwashed yellow summer dress. She’d called out of the blue. “I want my things,” she said. Guy lamented the idea, that words came from the blue. The sky. He worked hard to find his. Susan was happy to retrieve her belongings, though she did not expect the toothbrush. She took it in her hand the way a policeman handles a piece of evidence.

Once, Guy dreamed that he and Susan were at a bus station in Los Angeles, and she wanted a package of Razzles. Somehow she slipped inside the vending machine. “I want you to buy me,” she flirted through the glass. Guy checked his wallet but it was empty, and Susan slinked to the bottom of the machine, pretending that she’d been purchased, hiding behind the flap. “Come on, buy me,” she repeated. “Guy, buy me.” A woman whistled behind him. Guy turned around. She was wearing a chinchilla coat and cheap pink scuffs, and although she was not very attractive and wore too much makeup, Guy reached under her skirt and his middle finger whished inside her. She slipped a dollar bill into his other hand and pushed him away. Guy hurried to insert the dollar into the machine, but when he turned back the woman in the chinchilla coat was gone.

“You want to hear a joke?”


“A guy breaks up with his longtime girlfriend and moves across town. He’s carrying a chair to the front door when he notices a snail on the welcome mat. He brings the chair inside and on his way out, he picks up the snail and chucks it onto the lawn. He finishes moving everything inside and settles in nicely. A year passes. One Sunday afternoon, the man is at home. He hears a knock at the door, so he puts down his bag of potato chips and gets up and opens the door. To his surprise, there’s no one there. But then a voice says, ‘Hey, what’d you do that for?’ He looks down at the ground and sees the snail staring at him from the edge of the welcome mat.”

More than once Guy fantasized about standing outside the back bay window, knocking the birds down with a rake. But he hated that the birds died so it didn’t make sense. Anger offered only a sideways path. Early on he wanted the dead birds to transform somehow into the letters or even the words of a new poem, as his karmic reward for enduring their deaths. He tried to write about that idea in a poem, but it turned into a drawing of a deer wearing an army helmet. Eventually Guy decided the birds were killing themselves on purpose. They knew the glass was glass and, like so much on Earth, their lives had nothing to do with him.

He once considered tossing the dead ones into his neighbor’s pool. What else could he do other than imagine them. It was difficult to watch them convulse on the mulch as their broken necks communicated death. Susan said his poems were like cut flowers in a vase, and that she wanted to have sex with the flowers. But you can’t have sex with flowers, she complained, because they’re too delicate. What about a bird of paradise, he asked. After she left him, the mailman brought over whiskey and the two drank in silence, looking at the constellations from his back lawn. Guy convinced the mailman to drive drunk to the supermarket. They bought a giant can of red Kool-Aid powder and, after a few more whiskeys, they dumped the Kool-Aid into the neighbor’s pool so that in the morning it’d look like blood.

What had gone wrong with Susan was the same thing that always went wrong. She loved his books, loved the idea of them, of being with a poet, she thought he was special, and he was special, but special in the way a salamander’s asshole is special. He had interesting secret thoughts, he once imagined straightening her pubic hair with a flat iron, but he could not share those thoughts with her, or in his poems, and she grew bored with her safety. It seemed that a salamander needs its asshole to be interesting.

His poems were full of fruit on crooked tables, a spray of young forsythia, the weary baker walking home to a family saga. He’d made a living off his work, won the Walt Whitman prize and published every year in the New Yorker. Like a telescope he revealed the world in constellations, but Guy did not love the stars. He was the kind of telescope that wanted to spy on his neighbors having sex. Not his new neighbors, of course—the ones he’d abandoned in Los Angeles, they were attractive. But he’d sickened of their enthusiasm, so many charlatans declaring themselves poets, like chocolate chip cookie bakers telling Julia Childs they cook.

If everything is possible, can something be impossible? Guy had discovered the question as a child and felt proud for coming up with it. Some kids got good at baseball, while Guy relished articulation. He hated sports. He thought them uncomplicated symbols of sexual processes, golf the crudest of all. “Get in the hole,” the crowd shouted, like an audience cheering on sperm. You could practically see the flagella in the tracer paths of Titleists. Each competition whittled down the field to a single winner. Unless there was a tie, which they say is like kissing your sister. Always a ball trying to penetrate a goal, usually a circle or a net. Once on television he came across a basketball player dancing at center court after a game, and the man bellowed toward the rafters, tears mixing with sweat on his face. “Nothing is impossible!” he screamed.

Barefoot and in chinos, no shirt, corrugated hair on his lower arms and across his chest, much more than what was on his head, Guy found himself outside. He continued down the street, passing the homes of people he knew the last names of: the Riggs, the Lyons, the Lims, the Carters, the Hardens and the Agbayanos. Their houses were stanzas in a sestina called “Eggshell.” The Carters were right next door, the ones with the aboveground pool. Their son practiced free throws well into the night and everyone knew it would amount to nothing. A few homes down Mrs. Harden had a flower garden, and there she was, crouched on all fours, transferring mums from clay pots into the rich soil. Guy wondered if it had been her at the door. Mrs. Harden sensed someone and turned. She put down her spade, then clapped her garden gloves together and said his name.


“Do birds ever kill themselves on your windows?” he asked her.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Guy nodded.

“Are you well?” she asked.

“No, lately I’m not myself,” he confessed.

“Maybe my mums will inspire you,” Mrs. Harden smiled.

Quietly he watched her scoop the dirt and deposit a bright yellow mum into the earth. He remembered an art installation he’d once seen in Los Angeles. There was a giant representation of a forest, about forty square feet, inside a gallery. When he walked into the room, he heard something squeaking, a machine with an A-B-A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. Soon he discovered the source of the sound was a man made out of plastic having sex with a tree. The man wore a suit, with his trousers at his ankles, and his face was solemn yet ambivalent. Guy thought it was a lurid variation on the myth of Apollo and Daphne, but after watching Mrs. Harden in her garden, he was no longer sure.

“Maybe,” he replied.

“What do you think of my hair?” she asked Guy, her eyes stuttering upon his chest.

A flock of Canada geese passed overhead, honking and honking, a southward bound V.

“I should probably go,” he said.

“Nice to see you.”

Shortly after collecting her toothbrush, Susan had sent a letter in the mail. The stationery smelled like jojoba. Sometimes he took the note from the drawer and breathed it in. All she’d written on the perfumed page was “Thank you.” Guy drove through her neighborhood once or twice. He wanted to write a poem with her looking out the window, forlorn, unemployed, smoking again, terrified. A mirror, in other words. But Susan was never home.

The mailman had announced early on that he did not like poetry. He didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings. At the town lake, they sometimes fished from a rust-trimmed canoe. What a way to pass the time, the mailman said. One afternoon his friend pulled up a small porgy, nothing worth keeping, and he flashed Guy a wolfish grin. He swung the rod in the air, whipping the fish back and forth, then slammed the porgy onto the side of the canoe. Don’t do that, Guy pleaded. The fish bled through its silver scales while suffocating outside the water. Guy had childhood friends who’d strapped fireworks to toads and poured gasoline down the holes of anthills. He wanted to tuck a large metal hook into the mailman’s mouth and swing him into the sun where he would be annihilated in flames. The mailman ripped the fish off the hook and tossed it into the water, where it lilted down, a feather in the breeze.

On his front lawn, three passerines pecked at the grass. Guy went to the front door and rang the bell. No one had been outside. No one would be inside. He waited, regarding the birds with a mild suspicion. They kept their heads down, snapping at insects and hidden grubs. Soon Guy wandered to the back, where he stumbled across a rake and a shovel leaned against the house. He’d once read that John Hinckley was allowed to visit his mother from time to time, and that he roamed the grounds of the mental hospital feeding stray cats. That Ronald Reagan was something else, the pundits often said, but no one knew what. Guy grabbed the shovel and went to the center of the lawn, where he slid the blade into the ground. The earth was surprisingly soft. If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?

Guy worked for hours. The passerines watched him as if he were a different kind of glass. They disappeared at sunset. Crickets replaced the birds, along with a half-hearted moon, which, as the night wore on, faded behind a thick prison of clouds. All the while Guy shoveled dirt from the hole. He dug through the night, and only stopped when the light returned, a mystical pre-dawn that illuminated brush strokes of pine trees and houses and aboveground pools, all cast upon the window that was really the Earth.

The hole, a six-foot pocket, was narrow but deep enough to stand in. Guy slid into it, leaving his arms at his sides, his eyes level with the edge, a gun in its holster. He tiptoed in a small circle, taking in his surroundings, the world of living pine trees and all the rotting houses mocking him with their false precedents. Soon one would become the other. The rising sun would flash across the back bay window, summoning the passerines. They would fly, they would flee one world for another, and each desperate bird would break its neck on the glass. Each would become a word in Guy’s poem, the same word. New life born from death, as if that were possible.

—Trey Sager

Trey Sager is the author of Fires of Siberia, a romance novel loosely inspired by Tea Party champion Michele Bachmann, published by Badlands Unlimited. He’s also written two chapbooks with Ugly Duckling Presse (O New York and Dear Failures), and is a fiction editor at Fence magazine.

Feb 102014


Diane Lefer’s essay about Northern Ireland now, in the after-glow of the Troubles that began nearly half-a-century ago, is a cunning amalgam of observation, intervention and charming self-deprecation. It reads conventionally enough till you get to the seventh paragraph where she writes: “Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite.” At which point you suddenly realize that you’re in the hands of a world-traveler, an activist and a person who knows herself and her perspective. By telling the reader not to trust her, she manages to make the reader trust her (and like her) even more. Oh, such a tricky thing the language is.

Diane Lefer is an old friend, a Numéro Cinq stalwart (a member of what I call the unofficial masthead). She has written a series of essays for NC on subjects varying from abandoned nuclear sites in Los Angeles, to half-way houses for convicts to folk festivals in Colombia. And now she’s been to Northern Ireland. See also Diane’s essay about the Ballymurphy massacre families, “Hunger for Justice,” in the current issue of New Madrid, their special issue on The Great Hunger.



If you fly to Dublin on Aer Lingus, you’ll see that Belfast, Northern Ireland—my destination—is listed as a city in Ireland, not in the UK. Taking the bus north, I must have blinked and missed the border altogether. There’s no checkpoint, no control. Quite a change from The Troubles that erupted in the North in the late 1960’s: 30 years of bombings and shootings. Loyalist paramilitaries killed Catholics, IRA splinter group volunteers killed Protestants and killed police of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and killed British soldiers who did their own share of torture and killing. Ordinary people were caught in the crossfire.

These days, the first time you realize you’re in another country is when you need pounds sterling instead of euros (though if you change your dollars at a branch of the Bank of Ireland, you’ll get perfectly legal pound sterling notes that don’t bear the image of the Queen.)

I went to Northern Ireland in October 2013 to join my frequent collaborator, Hector Aristizábal, and his nonprofit organization, ImaginAction, dedicated to the idea that accessing our imaginations and envisioning alternatives can lead to transformative social change.

Hector grew up in Medellín, Colombia, when it was the most dangerous city in the world. “Theater saved my life,” he says. While his friends in the barrio were recruited by the guerrilla movement, right-wing death squads, or the drug cartels, Hector found his gifts and a wider world through art. After arrest and torture by the military—but also after extensive training and practice both as a theater artist and a psychologist–he ended up in exile in Los Angeles where we met.

Just as psychotherapy aims to heal individual trauma, Hector believes that theater—a form of ritual—can offer communal healing. “Without healing not much social justice is possible.”

The past few years, Hector has offered theater workshops in Belfast and Derry to support peace building by bringing Catholics and Protestants together in joint creative projects. This time I wanted to be there.

Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite. How does someone enter someone else’s world and in three weeks have the nerve to think she knows it all? Especially when that someone only recently offered a benign picture of life in South LA, including the ice cream truck that made the rounds through the neighborhood. Two weeks after that piece appeared right here in NC, I attended a community meeting where people complained about the ice cream truck that makes the rounds to sell drugs and guns.

This same someone once tried to say Thank you in the Zapotec language to the people who’d welcomed her to their village. Everyone laughed. My bad pronunciation, they said, resulted in my saying Monkey’s bellybutton. It was only years later, visiting again, that a friend said they hadn’t known me well enough in those days to be honest. It wasn’t a bellybutton, it was a penis.

So now that you know I can’t be trusted, let me tell you about Northern Ireland.

make love not war

I’m glad you’re reading this online. Too many trees have already died for the many hundreds of thousands of pages that tell how ever since the 12th century the Irish have tried to drive the English conqueror from their island. In modern times we eventually ended up where we are now: with the south as the Republic of Ireland and the six northern counties still part of the UK.

If you want a full history, please look it up. Instead, I’ll try to give a brief oversimplified account of what made the North different.

Irish chieftains in the North offered the most resistance to English rule and enlisted military assistance from Catholic Spain. To pacify the region–and we’re talking a long time ago, a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock (or wherever they actually made land)–England created the Plantation of Ulster. Land was confiscated from the indigenous Irish Catholics; Protestants from Scotland and England were settled there, trusted to be loyal to the Crown. The first plan was to get rid of the Irish altogether, but someone was needed to work the farms. Catholics were consigned to inferior status not only socially but by law.

Flash forward to The Troubles.

At last the paramilitaries began to demobilize. With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the governments of Britain and Ireland along with the main armed groups agreed on basic principles that guaranteed Catholics in the North equal access to education, housing, employment, and the vote, along with a share of political power. For people around the world, including me, the 1998 accords represented what was possible. Northern Ireland was the model: in spite of hundreds of years of hatred, distrust, and violence, two peoples could say enough, and live in peace.

In Belfast I join up with several other artist/activists who use theater arts to empower vulnerable communities. They are young and eager to learn from Hector and to experience work in a post-conflict society. Anna was born in Poland and raised in The Netherlands which is also home to Evanne who has worked in post-conflict Uganda. Tania was born in El Salvador, raised in Australia. Tamar is from New York but has lived most recently in Germany and Tunisia. Jeroen is an activist from Belgium who knows more about radical politics in the US than I do. The Europeans are all fluent in English though all of us struggle to understand the Northern Irish accent.

So this essay isn’t really about Northern Ireland. It’s about a group of people landing in someone else’s country imagining they have something to offer.

Hector thinks when you are working in your own city or country, you tend to believe you know all about the community. In fact–and I’m living proof–you may be quite ignorant. “People are the experts about their own lives,” he reminds us. In a foreign context, we are less likely to think we know best. Aware of our own ignorance, he says we’re more likely to remain humble and see the workshop participants in an authentic way. Ideally, this will carry over into our work when we return home.

We share a house, shopping, cleaning, and cooking–the latter turning out to be less of a challenge than expected considering our group includes a few omnivores, a couple of mostly-vegetarians, one dedicated vegetarian, and one raw foods vegan. The group dynamic affords Hector a chance to use the skills he developed over decades as a psychotherapist though, personally, I find nothing smooths over tension like the shared viewing of online cat videos.

peaceful coexistence

For me the work starts right away when I meet with the Ballymurphy Massacre Families. Their loved ones were gunned down by British paratroopers in 1971, the killings justified with false claims that the dead were all IRA terrorist gunmen. Forty-two years later, the families are still seeking an official government apology. They want to see the names of their parents and brothers cleared.

There’s already been a documentary about the killings and a stage reenactment but additional ImaginAction artists, led by Alessia Cartoni from Spain, have been helping the families create something different: a play they will perform themselves focused on how they, as surviving family members, were affected. Their stories of trauma and grief should resonate on both sides of the sectarian divide. By evoking shared pain, maybe it’s possible to bolster the shared desire for peace.

Instantly I conclude this is the reality of Northern Ireland today, a place conversant with the language of human rights and the demand that there be no more culture of impunity. It’s not just the Ballymurphy families. Adults who were abused as children in Catholic orphanages and state institutions demonstrate in front of Stormont, the Parliament building, demanding an investigation. People are filing claims for compensation for their torture years ago by the British.

Soon after, though, I conclude that while people are more than willing to air grievances from the past, they won’t face up to problems in the present day.

Then, as the weeks go by, I meet people who don’t want to bring up past grievances at all. Pain is still there, but they want to put it all behind them. “Some people are just obsessed,” I hear. Or, “What do you expect from the lower class?”

People tell me it’s not the same for the younger generation. There’s a frenetic club scene, Protestants and Catholics seeking release, outrunning and out-dancing the past together, fueled by alcohol and ecstasy. But a municipal employee at work in a Protestant neighborhood lowers his voice when he says, “I’m from the other community.” And when I ask a mixed group of university students whether sectarian division is a thing of the past, I get a resounding No.

Causeway for NC

We have time off for sightseeing. Evanne catches me with her camera as I hike the Red Trail at Giant’s Causeway. Tourists wander over the flat stones that were laid down, according to legend, by Finn MacCool so he could cross the North Channel to Scotland without wetting his giant feet.

The next day we tour the two famous working class neighborhoods in Belfast: the Falls Road (Catholic) and the Shankill (Protestant). Belfast now has a tourist trade which seems to be based on being the birthplace of the Titanic–a ship that went down; Milltown cemetery where you can lay flowers on the grave of IRA hunger-strike martyr Bobby Sands; and the sectarian murals that serve as constant visual provocations.

Yes, there are also murals with messages about safe driving and climate change and nonviolent action but for the most part, they honor the martyrs and promise that resistance (on both sides) will continue. “Peace walls” keep Catholics and Protestants apart and allow foreign visitors to scrawl Kumbaya sentiments on whatever blank space can be found. At night, steel doors close off the road between The Shankill Road and The Falls.

Peace Wall

closed road

So much for peace. Of course, as I–and everyone–should know by now, governments and leaders can make all the agreements they want, but real change has to start at the grassroots.

And I shouldn’t be surprised that Loyalist extremists reject any political settlement as a sellout and betrayal. They rioted in 2013 when Belfast City Hall began to fly the Union Jack only on state occasions instead of every day. The IRA still murders—“executes”—prison guards. “Just the screws that abuse us,” a prisoner tells me, but I also hear any guard can be killed if his home address becomes known. Splinter groups continue the armed struggle. Teens and adolescents still enjoy recreational rioting–throwing rocks and bricks over the walls at each other’s communities. Loyalists swear they’ll never surrender their allegiance to Britain. Nonviolent Republicans believe it’s only a matter of time till Ireland is united.

Even away from the working class neighborhoods where the conflict has long been centered, we see curbs painted red, white, and blue in the colors of the Union Jack, high rises where the Irish flag flies, portraits of the martyrs, plaques on buildings everywhere memorializing the dead.

I wonder if the backdrop has become so normalized that no one who lives here even notices the hostile defiance. But I don’t believe that. We return to our house and I feel weighed down with a heaviness I can’t shake.

Protestant farmers wife

All of us who’ve been involved in community work have been told at one time or another not to get emotionally involved, it’s a surefire path to burnout. But Hector says you have to bring your heart to the work The real cause of burnout, he says, is repressing emotion, being unwilling to acknowledge and face what we feel.

I feel fear. I’m not afraid to be in Belfast. The continued violence from extremists and the dispossessed terrifies me because of what it suggests about the US. Don’t these things ever end? I was never so naive as to imagine racism and bigotry were gone from America where we like to imagine that our history–genocide and slavery–no longer count. That can piss me off, but the virulence of the race hate evident since Obama’s election goes further. It shakes me to the core.

Obama disappoints me but sometimes I suspect he’s overcautious because he, too, is afraid. Not just for himself, though rightwing groups have indeed issued their fatwas, making him a legitimate target for assassination. Does he tread so carefully because of a well founded fear of armed insurrection? If you bother to look, you’ll find the threats out in the open, from the most extreme “patriot” websites to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.

I think I’ll shake off my depression once we get to work. I can’t wait to meet Protestant extremists–the more extreme, the better. I’ll allow myself to get involved. I’ll connect. I figure I can feel for them without having to agree with them. No Surrender, they say, but as far as I can see, they’ve already lost if their cause was to preserve the status quo. The police force is now integrated with Catholic officers and can no longer be a purely sectarian arm of repression. Catholics have a share in–at times dominate–the government.  Loyalists must be scared wondering how they’d fare in a united Ireland.

I can see how the loss of privilege would feel–no matter how irrational the feeling–like violent dispossession. I see that at the same time that Catholics were gaining equal rights, Belfast companies and factories were closing and moving overseas. Working class neighborhoods where good manufacturing jobs were once reserved for Protestants now face massive long term unemployment. These days, to generalize, Catholics blame globalization and capitalism for job loss; Protestants blame the Catholics. And I tell myself if I can empathize with Loyalist extremists and treat them with respect, maybe I’ll do better at recognizing the humanity of angry white men back home.

But it turns out we won’t be working on sectarian reconciliation after all.

We’ve been asked to work with other groups: The Playhouse in Derry is connecting us to low-income youth (vulnerable to recruitment by the paramilitaries), and the LGBT community. The Prison Arts Foundation has invited us to offer workshops in correctional facilities.

Hector’s workshops draw on the techniques of Theater of the Oppressed, developed by Augusto Boal, the late Brazilian theater artist and activist. In fact, Hector and I met more than a decade ago when people in Los Angeles interested in Boal’s methods got together to share techniques. For several years we brought the master himself to town to teach us about using theater arts with vulnerable communities.

Like most Boalians, Hector starts his workshops with games to provoke laughter and loosen inhibitions. Games create a sense of community and also demand focus and concentration. Where Hector is different from most facilitators is that he pushes the group to play at lightning speed. When you move fast enough, there’s no time to feel self-conscious. Everyone is bound to make mistakes and each mistake is celebrated. He wants to get participants past the fear of being wrong.

In Los Angeles, we’ve worked and played with torture survivors who needed the chance to experience their voices as something other than what got them in trouble, their bodies as something other than a site of pain. We’ve played with gang members who needed a chance to be children again (or for the first time). We’ve worked–not as much as we would have liked–with prisoners. In California, it’s very difficult to get permission to bring an arts program into correctional facilities. In Northern Ireland, this turns out to be relatively simple.

It’s not the only difference. I meet a man in maximum security whose baby was born while he was behind bars. He was given a 6-hour leave to go home and hold his son before being returned to custody. I can’t even imagine that happening in California. (At the same time I can’t forget that during the Troubles, torture of prisoners was standard procedure in Northern Ireland.) Inmates in California who want to take college courses have to come up with their own tuition money. In the UK, a free university education is available to at least some prisoners.

We, however, have been asked to work in Hydebank Wood Youth Prison with young men, ages 17-24, who’ve refused to participate in any educational or therapeutic programs. They are, however, intrigued by Hector who comes from the land of cocaine. So they show up, sort of. They squirm in their seats, get up and walk around, don’t make eye contact, talk among themselves, ask for smoking breaks and tea breaks (or take these breaks without asking), turn their heads aside and laugh heh heh heh from the sides of their mouths, and even when they do speak, most of us can’t understand their accents.

Back at the house, we’re discouraged by the lack of participation.

“Then you have a narrow idea of what participation looks like,” Hector tells us. “They are always participating, even when rolling cigarettes, leaving the room. They are being who they are.” We should be learning about them, taking the temperature of the room, and understanding they have no reason to open themselves up to a bunch of strangers who suddenly show up in their lives.

I think I’ve experienced this before faced with a student who seems entirely unresponsive, with whom I am completely unable to connect. Until I realize she or he is paying very close attention–to me. Studying me, figuring out if I’m someone who can be trusted. I have to go on the assumption that this is exactly what’s happening. Stay calm, stay present, remain engaged as if there is a connection.

“We are our own worst enemies because we create our own stories of what we should accomplish,” Hector says. “Get out of your own fucking way.”

Eventually some of the young men talk to us about how they can’t see a future. With or without an education, there are no jobs. The only hope is emigration but with their criminal records they believe the necessary visas will be denied them.

I’m seeing an aspect of Hector’s work I never witnessed before: teacher, mentor. Teaching “is not a process of vomiting information or how well I can talk about topics.” He challenges each one of us. What are the voices inside our heads that block us? Where and when does our energy flag? He probes us, looking at what’s going on inside each of us that may affect our work. “Don’t expect to be handed a curriculum with different techniques spelled out step by step,” he warns us. We will live the technique but what we must do is enter the space fully present, aware, our hearts open. “Learning is an act of love, there’s no other way to learn.”

Am I thinking through an ideological lens rather than with my heart?

I feel…what? Naive. Responsible. I dwell on the American propensity to export war, whether it’s ordinary people in New York and Boston funding the IRA, weapons manufacturers and dealers arming drug cartels in Mexico (and anyone else willing to pay), our support for repressive armies in Latin America, our military interventions around the globe, our drones dropping death from the sky. Yes, we mourn our servicemen and women who die and those who are maimed in body and spirit. But what do most of us, safe at home, know about the killing we pay for?

We’re supposed to be here giving people tools to claim agency over their own lives, while I feel…guilty, and helpless.

UVF paramilitaries

Hector finds it strange that the IRA martyrology bothers me more than the aggressively violent imagery of the UVF Loyalists. It troubles me that political tours and Republican museum exhibits are available in the Basque language. I’d like to believe it’s just that people whose own Irish language was in danger of dying out believe in preserving another rare tongue. But I can’t help but suspect collaboration between the IRA and the ETA. You can choose the label yourself: freedom fighter or terrorist.

I’m not Irish American by descent and can claim kin only through extended family, but I grew up in New York hearing–and not always understanding–the songs of the Irish struggle for freedom. They’re hanging men and women/For the wearin’ of the green. I took those lyrics to heart. When I started kindergarten–my first venture outside the safety of home–I checked my plaid skirt carefully for any trace of the dangerous color.

The Irish Republican Army freedom fighters were heroes of my childhood. Later, it was second nature to support anti-colonial struggles.

When I packed to go to Northern Ireland, I knew I had to be (or at least appear to be) neutral. I was cautious again, choosing clothing with no hint of green.

Which side are you on? was the unspoken–and sometimes spoken–question I faced over and over again. And I was ready with my carefully prepared answer: “It all turns out to be more complicated than it looks from the other side of the pond.”

The Irish Civil War…The Troubles. When is enough enough?

In Belfast, a woman sighs and says no cause in the world was worth all the suffering.

One of the Ballymurphy family members tells me, “The Protestants from up on the hill were shooting through our windows. The British killed my father. The IRA killed my brother.”

Hector, it’s not just ideology. My heart is indeed in this place, and my heart is troubled.

Blanket man and Palestine

We get ID cards and escorts when we enter Maghaberry, the maximum security prison. Then it’s pat-downs and multiple checkpoints with biometrics and down hallways and across yards where guards patrol with dogs.

Most prisoners here spend 23 of 24 hours in their cells. Some have revived the old IRA “dirty protest”–refusing to wash or shave and smearing their cells with their own feces. But we are working with prisoners in “Family Matters”–men who are fathers, and drug-free. They have privileges and are able to move about freely in their own part of the prison as long as they maintain good behavior. They participate in programs meant to reduce recidivism by strengthening parental skills and family ties. Our theater workshops are now part of the program.

We invite people to explore difficulties in their lives by creating scenes for each other. Then we invite participants to reflect on what they’ve seen and improvise alternative scenarios. Theater becomes a rehearsal for life. Improvisation shows you can change the script. People who can’t envision any other path than the one they took can begin to explore other choices.

So: We walk into the room where more than twenty men await us. We have to set the tone right from the start and so we circulate, greeting each individual, introducing ourselves by name, smiling, shaking hands. After fast-paced games and a lot of laughter, Hector continues the workshop with another of Boal’s techniques, Image Theater. Me, I always want to fall back on words, but Image Theater is wordless. We are invited to express emotions through our bodies or, in pairs or in groups, we create random images that are open to multiple interpretations. What you see tells a lot about who you are.

With all this talk about expression through the body, and considering we’re in a prison, it’s no surprise that sexual imagery shows up. One man positions himself in front of Hector who is kneeling. No ambiguity here: everyone sees blowjob. Hector laughs it off and goes on to the next exercise. As he tells us later, he’s glad the subject of sex came up right at the start so we could get it out of the way and move on. I’m impressed with the prisoner, astute enough to test the boundaries with Hector and not with one of the young women.

We break up into small groups to create scenes about problems. But everything’s all right, the men say. They have no concerns.

Of course they have reasons for not speaking openly. One man comes right out and says, “The enemy is here.” They may fear retaliation from the guards. Or, as Hector reminds us, “Why should they open up to you? They don’t know you.”

I try to explain to my group, “For the scene to be dramatic, we need a difficulty or a conflict.”

“No complaints.”

“It’s all right.”

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” one man suggests.

Why do you look outside, at somewhere else? I wonder.

Then I have to wonder who I mean by “you.” Back home in Los Angeles County over the course of 30 years, 25,000 lives were lost to street gang violence–more than in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine combined. And why was I saying we needed conflict?–an idea that, as a writer, I always resist. Even Hector has needed to seek alternatives. When he was in China, people insisted conflict could not exist in their society. They structured scenes instead around a dilemma. Maybe a question would work.

“Do you worry about your kids?” I ask.

“Naw. Their mother takes good care of them.”

“Is it difficult for them to come for visits?”

“Naw. No problem.”

“Be ready in five minutes,” Hector says.

Under pressure, we start to role-play a family visit. The father is besieged by his children and his wife all wanting his attention at once. He is stressed and miserable and doesn’t know who to turn to first.

“Time’s up.” Hector wants to see each group’s piece. He adds, “Whatever you do is perfect.”

In the scene we present, the father is reluctant to leave his cell. He wants to see his family, but he hangs back. As he walks at last to the visiting room, Tamar shadows him, speaking aloud the words in his head. During the visit, his two kids and his wife all clamor for attention. By the time the guard tells them to leave, he’s exhausted and depressed, feeling inadequate. Now he opens up about his feelings: As long as he’s in prison, he can’t give them what he wants to give and that they need.

None of the scenes that day looks like professional theater but so what? Hector is right: each one is perfect because it provides fertile ground to ask What do you see? Does this really happen? How might it be different?

Another man tells me later that watching these scenes teaches him empathy.


Every time we drive back to the house, the good feeling of human connection dissipates. I feel assailed by the sectarian slogans and the flags. People tell me no one talks about conflict resolution anymore, but rather conflict transformation. It’s not peace, they say. It’s just a lull. This one context–Northern Ireland–tells me a larger story about wounds that don’t heal. Hatred like a virus lies dormant between deadly outbreaks. The violent troubles throughout the world never seem to end.

I walk in the park behind our house to clear my head. I remind myself that among the Falls Road murals, there’s a portrait of a Nelson Mandela. He smiles down at everyone who passes, symbol of reconciliation and hope. Inspiring, but the South African story isn’t done. And to use one of Hector’s favorite words, images are “polysemic”–having multiple interpretations. The mural artist included a quote: In my country we go to prison first and then become President.

The writing on the wall: was the artist thinking of forgiveness, or of power?

Before you can forgive, do you have to win?

What a person sees in an image can reveal who she is.

We go to the beautiful city of Derry (also known as Londonderry if you’re a Loyalist or Derry/Londonderry–“Stroke City”–if you’re hedging your bets). The 17th-century city walls stand complete and intact. Catholics, once forbidden to live inside the walls, created the Bogside neighborhood which became the center of the nonviolent civil rights struggle and its own kind of walled city. “Free Derry” lasted from 1969-1972 when residents of the Bogside and Creggan neighborhoods put up barricades to keep the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army out.

The armed wing of the IRA was active in Derry too. The famous Bogside murals memorialize the innocent civilians gunned down on Bloody Sunday but also honor the Irish heritage of Che Guevara and the iconic Petrol Bomber of Free Derry, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Brits.

Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch

These days, the Derry police station has a security perimeter worthy of a U.S. Embassy and the police do an excellent job of defusing live bombs before they explode.

A Protestant university student tells me, “I’m a Hun.”

“A what?”

“That’s what they call me. A Han. Like in China.”

The Han Chinese were sent to colonize Tibet, to break the back of Tibetan culture and make the region loyal to Beijing.

How long can Protestants in Northern Ireland be considered colonizers and interlopers? I think of Southern California where I live, land that was taken from the Chumash and Tongva and then from Mexico. The descendants of those early inhabitants are still struggling for an equal place.

“I’ll say it about myself,” says the Han. “But don’t call me that.”


Derry was designated the UK City of Culture for 2013. Dozens of cultural events and celebrations would, in the words of the organizers, provide “a new story for the city to tell to the world.”

In the Neo-baroque Guildhall, Anna and I find an exhibit about the Ulster Plantation and learn some new facts: Scottish settlers were sent over in part to break the power of the Highland chieftains who also resisted English rule. Many were Presbyterians who–Protestant but not Anglican–sought to escape religious persecution. The laws that limited the rights of Catholics in Ulster were applied against Presbyterians too. Anna and I watch a series of panel discussions and debates on video, with actors in period garb offering different perspectives on the Ulster experience. The monologues are carefully scripted so that after each debate when the visitor is asked to push a button to say, for example, whether the sectarian divide is surmountable or insurmountable, almost anyone relying on the video presentation would be likely to choose “surmountable.”

The Bogside artists whose partisan Republican murals draw visitors from around the world were excluded from the City of Culture program.

Mandela also said, “Let bygones be bygones.”

But what if what’s going on hasn’t yet gone by?

Sometimes I think those who remember history are doomed.

I think about that silly book, The End of History, that people unaccountably took so seriously a few decades ago. Fukuyama argued that history had ended with the triumph of Western liberal democracy. I never noticed any such triumph or that humankind had reached a utopian end of the road. But now I begin to wonder if what we’re really seeing is the triumph of the Market. Not the free market, of course, but the rigged market, signaling the End of Society–something Margaret Thatcher famously declared did not exist. With the End of Society, we face the End of Civilization.

Hector takes me to task over my pessimism. If I bring that energy into a group, people will feel it. “Especially when working with young people, it is a huge responsibility to bring medicine. Otherwise you just contribute to hopelessness and apathy.”

And we do work with kids in an afterschool program in an impoverished community–though Hector and I see no homeless people, no burned-out lots filled with trash, no derelict buildings, no graffiti (except on one wall, a phrase people either agree with or fear to paint over: JOIN THE IRA). In spite of decades of Thatcherite austerity, maybe there’s still more of a safety net in the UK. Tania, on the other hand, recognizes signs of deprivation invisible to us. “This is what it looks like in Australia.”

With these kids–a couple of quiet girls, a lot of very jumpy adolescent boys–we start off by playing soccer so they can burn off energy, have some release after hours of sitting in school, and get ready to focus. We also bring them snacks and sandwiches. We have a chance to get to know each other before starting the theater games. And we learn the area is indeed deprived. The kids can’t remember a time when their parents were employed. Families live on government assistance and the adolescents expect they’ll grow up to stay home receiving government checks and playing video games or else they’ll go to jail. There are no jobs.

Their scenes portray teachers blaming kids for offenses they didn’t commit; parents unconcerned when their kids are suspended from school; kids getting into fights and then facing their fathers’ wrath.

The kids are so lively, the love between the older boys and their little brothers so evident, it’s easy to dismiss their realities, the “hopelessness and apathy” that shadow them. I like them so much I want to believe they can step out from under that shadow. I want to believe my pessimism doesn’t show.

Anyway, there’s a difference between rejecting optimism and being a pessimist. Years ago, at the start of the AIDS epidemic when it seemed like everyone who contracted the virus would die and die soon, an activist explained the difference between optimism–blind faith that everything is for the best and will work out just fine– and hope, which keeps you going regardless. He said he’d learned this from Vaclav Havel. Years later, I heard that Havel learned it from B.B. King. Whoever should get credit, I embraced the idea years ago of commitment without any guarantee as to outcome.

The UK no longer recognizes people arrested for sectarian violence as political prisoners. Some political groups have indeed devolved into ordinary thuggish street gangs. (Is that what’s meant by conflict transformation?)

At Maghaberry, some men do consider themselves politicals with the Republicans more outspoken than the Loyalists. One day the men improvise another Visiting Day scene. The young son tells his jailed father he is ready to join the IRA. The father expresses pride.

“What else could the father say?” Hector asks. “Does he really want his son to end up in prison?”

This is how Forum Theater works: people in the audience have the chance to replace a character onstage and try out different words, different behavior. But it seems no one wants to contradict the committed Republican.

I can’t stand it so I volunteer to take the father’s role. “I’m proud of you, my boy,” I say, “for your commitment to our cause. But you don’t want to end up here like me.”

“If it’s where I end up, it’s where I end up.”

“I don’t want that for you.”

But the son is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“All the bloodshed and the time in prison,” I say. “What good has it done? It hasn’t brought us closer to our goal.”

“We have to keep fighting.”

“The fighting hasn’t been effective. It hasn’t gotten us anywhere. There has to be another way.” Idiot American, I think. Keep preaching.

“I’m joining the IRA,” says the son.

“There has to be a better way,” I say. “At least, tell me you’ll think about it.”

I do believe in their cause. But what I’m thinking about is the well intentioned exhibit in the Guildhall. Am I equally guilty of using culture to manipulate?

The father who is playing his son lowers his head and studies the floor. He accommodates me: “I’ll think about it,” he says.

Our last day with the recalcitrant young men at Hydebank Wood, we’re scheduled to present a performance for other prisoners and the staff. We’ve developed and rehearsed a script but our lead actor disappears. The other men don’t want to perform.

Hector actually seems pleased. He’s been trying to teach us that when you work with vulnerable communities, people have very complicated lives. You don’t complain about who’s missing; you work with whoever shows up. You can plan an elaborate production, but you always have to be ready to shift gears. Offer something that engages the audience even if it’s very different from what you planned.

So we foreigners get up and improvise scenes starting with a girl telling her teenage boyfriend she’s pregnant. His response is to walk away.

Hector extends an invitation to the audience. “What else could he say? What else could he do? No, don’t tell me. Come up here and show us.”

All of a sudden we have volunteers. Maybe the guys just want the chance to play at being Evanne’s boyfriend. But one by one, they step up. Telling her to get an abortion. Telling her abortion is wrong. Asking her to marry. Denying it’s his baby. Saying his parents will help. Promising to get a job.

The audience is rapt.

“Now they have the baby. What do you think happens next?”

The baby is crying, the wife is desperate, the unemployed husband comes home drunk and angry. He looks for work. He goes back to selling drugs.

The young men who never sit still, never listen, never “participate” have their attention riveted. They all want to have their say. The prison staff has never seen them like this. One after another they improvise alternatives to the situations they’ve seen in their families, experienced in their own lives, or feared.

“If someone sees you,” says Hector, “it saves your life. You may recognize a gift in a young person who has spent his life misunderstood and stigmatized.” Modest expectations, I think, reaching one person out of many, one at a time. But believing as we do that every human being is of inestimable worth, it should be enough. “By truly seeing him, you give him the experience of seeing himself in a new light, and the strength that comes from this mutual recognition can last a lifetime.”

I’m frustrated by how much people don’t want to see. They are supposed to be the experts in their own lives.

A 12-year-old girl in Derry tells me she can’t wait to get out. Her dream is emigration to Australia. (Australia seems the destination of choice these days. People say they’d love to visit relatives in Boston and New York, but to live in the States? Too violent, too much inequality, not enough opportunity.) She talks about the constant bomb threats, the grenades, and the shootings but assures me, “No, I’m not scared. I’m not nervous. I’m not troubled.” She says everything’s all right, but she can’t wait to leave.

Members of the LGBT group blurt out their concerns: how a lesbian mother has no parental rights and can lose her child if she’s not the biological mother. But when it comes to dramatizing the situation, “No, it’s negative.”

We try a different approach and ask for coming out stories. Of any sort. Tania tells how for years she didn’t want to identify herself publicly as a “refugee.” One man insists he never had to come out because he was always out. Later in the conversation he tells me he was married for years. When his wife learned he was having sex with men, she exposed his secret and he was promptly fired from his job.

I don’t get it. Why all the denial?

One evening a gay man offers a scene in which he goes to donate blood and is turned away. He sits, wordless, head down.

“What is he feeling?” Hector asks.

Sad. Depressed. Humiliated, people suggest.

“What else could he do?” Hector asks.

No one in the LGBT group reacts so members of our group take turns replacing the actor. I ask whether the blood is screened. It is. So there is no medical reason to refuse anyone. I threaten a lawsuit. Jeroen replaces me and, instead of threatening, asks the doctor to sign a letter and petition agreeing there is no medical reason to discriminate. Another member of our team talks about wanting to give blood because a family member was saved by a transfusion. In this scenario, the doctor still can’t change the policy but responds with human empathy instead of putting up a cold bureaucratic wall.

The gay and lesbian members of the group seem to me speechless with surprise. As though it hasn’t occurred to them before that you don’t have to accept things as they are. You don’t have to take it and absorb the hurt. You may not be able to change law or policy right away, but you can assert your humanity. You don’t have to accept discrimination as inevitable and normal.

One day at Maghaberry the prisoners show their scars and merrily reenact the form of street justice called “the six-pack”–as though it’s normal to shoot someone in both knees plus a bullet in each elbow and each ankle. As normal as the murals and the flags. And I think again of the 12-year-old girl. Violence will drive her from her birthplace but at the same time, she won’t admit it bothers her. It’s such an accustomed part of daily life.

It’s her life, their lives. I shouldn’t judge people who are just trying to get by the best they can in a world not my own.

petrol bomber

I return home and land at LAX the day before the terminal is invaded by a young man who shoots to kill. A couple of days later, another young man takes his rage to the shopping mall in New Jersey near where my sister lives. The Sandy Hook school site is being demolished. There’s a mass killing in a Detroit barbershop. And another mass shooting and another. I sign a petition or two and go on with my daily life. The 12-year-old girl wants out. I’m not going anywhere. What do I feel? Sad. Depressed. Ashamed.

And I remember the day in Maghaberry Prison when I was paired with a man I could barely understand. He didn’t seem to get what I was saying either. But what with the Irish and Yankee accents, incomprehension had become entirely normal to me. It took two hours till I realized the prisoner was an immigrant from Lithuania with limited English.

Don’t trust me.

— Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include a new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, and The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit,awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor toCounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”

Jan 172014

The hoary catchphrase “Show, don’t tell” and the reputation of American minimalism skewed the assumptions of generations of writing students by sending them down the rabbit hole of restraint and obliquity. Time and again, I have seen writing students try to write with both hands tied behind their backs. Somehow all sorts of emotional and mental description have become forbidden in the culture of creative writing. “Show, don’t tell” means that simple sentences like “Bob was sad” are ineffably old-fashioned and somehow improper in the modern world of prose (fiction and nonfiction). The only solution is to make people read actual stories and notice the myriad ways real writers do indicate, well, emotion. Herewith, an essay by a former student of mine, Walker Griffy, who read and saw  and now describes — a healthy corrective — some simple techniques for telling emotional states of characters.



A clear representation of character emotion does not necessarily mean writing things like “Bob is sad.” Actually, “Bob is sad” can work just fine as a starting point. But we generally expect a text to go further, to let the reader know not only that Bob is sad, but how sad Bob is, why Bob is sad, and how that affects Bob and his place in that particular story. The examples I’ll be using in this essay will provide a better understanding of what techniques can be used to accomplish all of these tasks simultaneously.

Before looking at those examples, I want to clarify exactly what it is I’m talking about when I say “character emotion.” I’ll start with the most concrete definition of emotion from Merriam-Webster: “the affective state of consciousness.” When that is applied to the writing of character emotion in fiction, it is literally placing the reader within the character’s consciousness and explaining how a character’s emotional state affects his behavior. This allows a character to act in a rational or irrational way without confusing the reader; the motivation is not coming from a place of logic and reason, but rather a well-understood emotional state.

Now that I’ve provided an idea of exactly what is being discussed when using the phrase “character emotion,” I want to break down some techniques for representing emotions in a story.


Techniques and Definitions

First, there is the technique of direct reporting. With the direct reporting technique, a narrator can describe the way a character is feeling, or a character can identify his or her own emotions. This is the most clear and effective way character emotion can be presented to a reader. Aside from a first-person narrator, a character only identifies his or her own emotions in dialogue. Of course, when used in dialogue, it is only as trustworthy as that character may be, but when employed by a narrator, the reader is left with a concrete understanding of what the described character is feeling. I will primarily look at examples of the narrator employing the direct reporting technique, but it can also be used by characters within the story. The example I used earlier of “Bob is sad” is a simple, but perfect, example of direct reporting. The reader knows what the character is feeling and applies that to any actions that follow.

In her story “Nettles,” Alice Munro employs a first-person narrator to explore the feelings and thoughts of a woman struggling with her definition of love. The story begins with a flashback to the narrator’s childhood and her first encounter with love as a young girl, which unwittingly set the standard for love that would last her whole life. The story then moves ahead to the narrator’s divorce and her finding her first love again after many years. The narrator uses the direct reporting technique to describe both her emotions as an innocent child experiencing love for the first time as well as an adult searching for a fulfilling relationship following a failed marriage.

Recalling the first love she felt for a traveling well-digger’s son, the narrator describes the relationship in adult terms, but makes clear how the emotions felt as a little girl: “We were like sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression. And for me at least that was solemn and thrilling.” Although she is looking back on her time with this boy, the narrator is directly telling the reader how she felt thrilled by the relationship, which then, in the following narrative, serves as a contrast to what she experiences with her husband as an adult. It is a powerful emotion because it is one she longs for long after she has grown up. The technique of direct reporting tells the reader exactly what the narrator’s motivation is.

The story goes on to describe her adult life after she’s left her first husband, and the narrator uses direct reporting to describe the emotions she feels for a lover in this passage:

We exchanged news—I made sure I had news—and we laughed, and went for walks in the ravine, but all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex fused people’s best selves. I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman of my age. There were times when I would be so happy, after our encounters—dazzled and secure—and there were other times when I would lie stone-heavy with misgiving.

First, she describes scenes that took place with her lover and the conflicting experience of casual discussion while wanting sexual gratification. By the time the narrator gives a direct report of the emotions “happy” and “stone-heavy with misgiving,” the reader is already caught up in a well-defined, conflicted situation, so the clear statement of the narrator’s feelings helps to anchor the reader in that emotional state.

The second technique I’d like to discuss is the indirect reporting of character emotion. Indirect reporting is the technique of having the narrator or a character guess, judge, or intuit the emotion of another character based on an interpretation of actions or statements. The difference between direct and indirect reporting is that the emotion being expressed is interpreted; it is not presented as a factual emotional state, but rather a perceived one. With this technique, the narrator, or more commonly, another character comments on a character’s possible emotional state or motivation. This allows the reader to simultaneously see that emotion from an outside perspective and gain further insight into how the commenting character is seeing and processing those around him or her.

A good example of this technique is found in Andre Dubus’ story “The Winter Father,” where the protagonist is a divorced man learning to be a part-time father to his children who live with their mother. The story begins with the couple’s divorce and then follows the first few months of their separation, focusing on the father’s relationship with his own children with whom he no longer lives. The first time the man goes to pick up his children after moving out, he sees his ex-wife and makes the following observation: “Her eyes held him: the nest of pain was there, the shyness, the coiled anger; but there was another shimmer: she was taking a new marriage vow: This is the way we shall love our children now, watch how well I can do it.” This excerpt contains both indirect reporting of character emotion and thought. The third-person limited narrator is observing, interpreting, and reporting both emotion and thought that the father deduces from the expression on his wife’s face.

A third technique is character emotion depicted via physical manifestations. A writer represents a character’s emotion, say, sadness, in action, say, crying. When I first began studying this technique, I was looking for physical manifestations of emotion that stood on their own. And while those certainly do exist, I came to the conclusion that the most effective examples are often used in conjunction with direct reporting. This discovery had a particularly strong impact on me because I have found through personal experience as a learning writer that the emotion I believe I am clearly depicting with only physical manifestations is almost never clear to the reader. These exclusively physical manifestations, I’ve found, are almost always lacking in terms of revealing character emotion because they are just too subtle. The benefit of using the physical manifestation technique coupled with direct reporting is that it creates a visual to go along with the emotion being expressed.

I found a good example of this technique in Carson McCullers’ story “Sucker,” which is told from a teenage boy’s first-person perspective. The narrator tells the story of how his relationship with his younger brother Sucker blossoms and is then destroyed in tune with the narrator’s blossoming and then failing first romance. The story ends with the narrator lamenting the loss of a relationship with his brother following a frustrated outburst one night. This example uses direct reporting with a great amount of physical manifestation to show the younger brother’s reaction to an angry outburst from the narrator: “He sat in the middle of the bed, his eyes blinking and scared.” Here, the physical manifestation is given with a single-word of direct reporting: scared. However, that single word is enough to establish the young boy’s emotions and place the following passage into context for the reader, allowing the narrator to use exclusively physical language without sacrificing information:

Sucker’s mouth was part way open and he looked as though he’d knocked his funny bone. His face was white and sweat came out on his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and for a minute his arm stayed raised that way as though he was holding something away from him.

I’ve given these few short examples just to illustrate the techniques in practice. These were all stories I read early in my time as a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and they stuck with me as some of my favorites. It was only in going back in my reading in preparation for this essay that I began to notice things that I had skimmed over while focusing on other craft aspects the first time around. Now I want to look at two more short stories that utilize all three techniques and set a great example for all writers to follow.


The Dead

The first of the two stories I’d like to examine is “The Dead” by James Joyce. In this story, Joyce uses a third-person limited narrative in Gabriel Conroy’s point of view. The story follows the protagonist through a night of encounters at an annual celebration. Throughout the story, Gabriel has three different encounters with women that affect his mood and cause him to grow self-conscious before he can assert himself and move past it. As the story moves forward, each encounter grows in its respective influence on Gabriel’s mood. As the story progresses, so does the insight into Gabriel’s emotional state.

“The Dead” focuses on Gabriel’s relationship with women in his life, moving from the rather inconsequential (a maid at the party) to a female journalist, Miss Ivors, a colleague whom he respects, before ending with his wife. During the party, Gabriel’s conventional patriarchal social assumptions are exposed through successive conflicts with the three women. Most of the story action takes place during the party, but the significant action with his wife takes place after the couple returns to a hotel room for the night. Gabriel mistakes his wife’s moodiness for sexual passion then becomes angry when she doesn’t react to him. Suddenly, she begins telling him about a lover, Michael Furey, who died many years before, died of love, and Gabriel is left mourning the fact that he had never loved anyone, even his wife, the way this ex-lover had loved her.

After each plot event (with the maid, with the journalist), the narrative always returns to Gabriel’s internal state, and as such, his emotions are paramount to the tone and meaning of the entire piece. Each encounter makes him gloomy and self-conscious until he engages in various ritual behaviors such as focusing on his speech or making condescending jokes that help to discount the women and make him feel better. Only when he has the plot conflict scene with his wife does Gabriel find that his habitual practices do not work; he is unable to render the encounter insignificant. Finally he has to see himself and his wife as they really are.

I’d like to now look at some examples of the techniques I’ve already discussed asthey are used to represent the emotional aspect of “The Dead.”  In the first scene, Gabriel makes a slightly off-color remark to one of the maids working at the party. To show Gabriel’s response to the maid’s retort, Joyce uses direct reporting of emotion:

He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the heading he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

This passage contains a great amount of information about Gabriel, and most of it is emotional. It begins with the direct reporting of his emotional state following the conflict with the maid: “He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort.” The paragraph continues with another example of direct reporting: “It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel.” This continuation of direct reporting by the narrator gives another emotion to Gabriel’s reaction to the incident. His thoughts, affected by the gloom cast over him, then turn to his upcoming speech, and the narrator continues to employ the direct reporting technique: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers.” Although the language in the passage then changes to express more character thought than emotion, the entire paragraph serves as a perfect example of direct reporting and clearly establishes the internal condition of Gabriel.

Later, Gabriel has a social conflict with Miss Ivors, a woman who is essentially his equal and a friend. The conflict begins when Miss Ivors needles Gabriel for writing a column for a paper not as pro-Irish as she would like, a charge that confuses Gabriel: “When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive.” The scene continues with more chiding from Miss Ivors as Gabriel grows more flustered: “Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy.” The scene also contains outbursts from Gabriel, a brief example of direct reporting in dialogue, such as proclaiming, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” in response to Miss Ivors’ accusing him of being a West Briton (an Irish insult something like an African-American being called an Oreo). However, following this more rattling conflict, we again see the other side of Gabriel.

Once Miss Ivors has left the party, before dinner is served, Gabriel is able to forget all about the encounter: “He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.” This example contains two different descriptions of Gabriel’s emotional state. The first describes him as “quite at ease” and the word “now” following that description adds the element of a change in emotional state, so it is clear to the reader that he has overcome the previous emotional struggle that was causing him to feel agitated. This is not only a good example of the technique, but it is also very important to the momentum of the narrative; this scene repeats the conflict of the earlier scene with the maid with increased dramatic intensity. More is at stake in this encounter for Gabriel than with the maid.

Near the end of this story, Gabriel’s emotions swing again when, instead of making love to his wife as he desires to do, he listens to her talk about a former lover. Joyce uses the direct reporting technique to show how, in an instant, Gabriel’s rush of giddiness comes to a halt: “The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to grow angrily in his veins.” As far as emotional language is concerned, this is perhaps the strongest description in the entire story. Both the mental and bodily representations of this sudden anger are first described as dull before growing almost uncontrollable. The scene continues with Gabriel’s wife telling him the story of her relationship with Michael Furey, including how he had died for her. The tale of Furey’s death inspires this last example of direct reporting, which shows, I think, perfectly the intensity of Gabriel’s internal struggles and the realization that he has failed to love his wife as much as his wife’s dead lover once did:

A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself.”

Joyce doesn’t use indirect reporting as much direct reporting in “The Dead,” but there are still some fine examples. Joyce’s focus on Gabriel’s internal state leaves little room for indirect emotional commentary, but he uses the technique increasingly near the end of the story where, instead of primarily reacting, Gabriel begins looking at his wife and trying to interpret her mood.

First, here is an example from earlier in the story when in the second act, so to speak, after his conflicted exchange with the journalist, Miss Ivors, on the dance floor, Gabriel becomes self-conscious and tries to figure out why she suddenly wants to leave the party: “Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing.” In this description, Gabriel is attempting to exonerate himself from blame, but he is attempting to do so by indirectly reporting the emotional state of the woman just before she leaves. I’ve found that indirect reporting can also contain information about the character commenting on the emotion, and here is a good example. Although he is providing emotional information about this woman, the narrator is also showing the reader Gabriel’s frame of mind and how that affects his interpretation of the woman’s emotional state.

But to return to the end of the story — once Gabriel and his wife have gone to their hotel room, he feels a sudden afflatus of love and sexual attraction for his wife and he thinks she is feeling attracted to him. Gabriel’s emotions in this scene swing wildly as I’ve already shown in my discussion of direct reporting, but here, Gabriel also attempts to read his wife’s emotions. When she has not reacted to his affection the way Gabriel hoped she would, he asks himself why. “Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord!” Although he is not making a clear statement about what he believes is bothering his wife, the questions Gabriel poses internally do provide commentary on the woman’s emotional state. From those questions, the reader knows she is distant, perhaps hesitant, and emotionally unresponsive to the love Gabriel is attempting to display. Like the first example of indirect reporting, this commentary also supports the emotional representation of Gabriel himself. He poses these questions internally, as well as hoping that she will do something differently, without ever speaking directly to her.

Joyce’s story provides many examples of how the third technique of physical manifestation is almost always informed or aided by direct reporting. Going back to my first example of direct reporting, in the passage which shows the gloominess that Gabriel experiences early on in the narrative, the narrator expands on how Gabriel attempts to dispel the gloom by “arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.” This example provides a strong outward manifestation of Gabriel’s emotions, but the action of rearranging his cuffs and bow-tie would not be as effective without the clear purpose behind the action: dispelling the gloom that comes over him. Tying such clear emotions with a character’s natural physical reaction to those emotions creates an extremely successful bit of characterization in only a few words.

Finally, I’d like to return again to the end of the story where the narrator gives an intimate view of Gabriel’s relationship with his wife. After an agonizing back-and-forth inside his own mind about wanting to be affectionate with his wife and alternately wanting to possess her violently, Gabriel finally reacts to a kiss she gives him: “Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it.” This is really a good example of how a strongly physical scene, or sentence really, is aided so much by the inclusion of a small example of direct reporting.

When I first selected this text, I was attempting to use it as an example of pure physical manifestation, primarily because so much of the description is physical. But it was also this example that informed my decision to focus on how physical manifestations are informed by directly stated emotions. If the directly stated emotion of delight were removed, the reader would be left with Gabriel trembling at his wife’s kiss and smoothing her hair. Although it would remain a touching moment, with all of Gabriel’s emotional conflict, the reader might be left wondering if he was in fact nervous or overwhelmed or even feeling guilty. But much like the previous scene where Gabriel was about to carve the goose, this is a brief moment of reprieve, and the inclusion of that delight tells the reader that Gabriel believes his wife has felt his adoration and that all is well. The act of smoothing her hair is the continuation of that adoration and, in light of the story’s ending, perhaps Gabriel’s most admirable attempt at loving his wife as well as dead lover had before.

This final excerpt stands on its own as an example of this third technique, but in reading the story as a whole with a focus on the emotional elements, I really began to see how the constant, consistent inclusion of clear emotional language and motivation builds a foundation and then an entire structure that manifests in a character who is wholly understandable, regardless of how irrational his behavior or thoughts may seem on their own. And as a writer, that certainly sounds like an achievement I would welcome in my own work.


Good Country People

The second story I would like to discuss is Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” In this story, O’Connor uses a shifting third-person limited narrator and a healthy dose of irony to show how false perceptions and assumptions can have unforeseen consequences. The story is about an unassuming mother, Mrs. Hopewell, who seems to find the best in people, and her cynical daughter Hulga who is handicapped by a childhood accident that left her using a prosthetic leg. The action of the story really begins when a naïve, seemingly simple-minded boy visits the house selling Bibles. After being invited to dinner, Hulga agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic with plans to take advantage of the young man, who she assumes is a dumb, backwoods Christian. As their date progresses, Hulga is tricked by the boy into removing her prosthetic leg, which he steals, leaving Hulga helpless in a barn loft. In this story, character emotion is especially important because it sets up the dark humor and irony that are trademarks of O’Connor’s work.

One of the first examples of direct reporting in the story does not describe either of the two primary characters, but rather the nosy and stubborn Mrs. Freeman whose husband works for Mrs. Hopewell. The description of Mrs. Freeman comes from the third-person narrator, but it is given from the daughter’s point of view:

Mrs. Freeman would take on strange resentments and for days together she would be sullen but the source of her displeasure was always obscure.”

This example of direct reporting clearly describes the emotion Mrs. Freeman would take on, that of being sullen, but also adds a bit of emotional characterization; not only does she exhibit her sullen mood in her behavior, but it can come from unexpected sources and even last for days. At the beginning of the essay, I used “Bob is sad” as a simple example of emotional reporting, and O’Connor’s line here a perfect example of how an author can say exactly that: “Mrs. Freeman is sullen,” but also how sullen — “for days” — and why (in this case, she directly states that the reason for the sullen mood is not always clear).

After the young Bible salesman has been introduced, the narrator provides the first bit of information that suggests some contradiction to Hulga’s cynical demeanor. After the young man stays for dinner, she agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic, which is a surprising turn in itself since the young salesman seems like a person Hulga would normally avoid or spurn. Her agreeing to meet him is surprising enough, but the larger surprise comes when the narrator introduces the reader to a vulnerable side of the young woman by directly reporting her emotions when she believes she has been stood up:

She looked up and down the empty highway and had the furious feeling that she had been tricked, that he had only meant to make her walk to the gate after the idea of him.

Here, we get the direct use of the noun “feeling” to accompany the emotion of fury. She is not only upset or angry that the boy she agreed to meet with, a boy she would normally mock, has stood her up, but she is furious. The passage has the added bonus of expressing her insecurity with the accompanying exposition and shows the reader that Hulga may actually be more defensive than gruff and impatient.

Although O’Connor shifts her third-person point of view throughout the story, the reader gets very little information about the young salesman aside from what is given by other characters. In one example of indirect reporting, the emotional impact of Hulga’s statement of atheism on the young man is described: “At this he stopped and whistled. ‘No!’ he exclaimed as if he were too astonished to say anything else.” Hulga’s perspective here provides what she imagines the young man’s emotional reaction would be.

O’Connor uses direct reporting quite a bit, but very often she combines it with physical manifestation. In my first example, Mrs. Hopewell is reacting to the young Bible salesman’s pitch. He presents himself as simple, doing the only thing he’s capable of to help provide for his family. He mentions that he has a physical defect that prevents him from other opportunities, which has a strong effect on the mother.

He and Joy had the same condition! She knew that her eyes were filling with tears but she collected herself quickly and murmured, “Won’t you stay for dinner? We’d love to have you!” and was sorry the instant she heard herself say it.

There is a great deal of emotional information in this example. First, the thought that the boy has a similar physical condition to her daughter is informed by multiple direct reports of the mother’s emotions toward her daughter’s ailment earlier in the story. The physical manifestation of this emotion comes in her eyes filling up with tears. The reader understands that her tears are coming from both her sadness about her own daughter and sympathy for this young man and possibly tears of joy because her daughter has found a co-sufferer. However, there is more direct reporting that follows this to better depict the woman’s exact emotional state. The fact that she collects herself, asks the young man to dinner, and then is instantly sorry she extended the invitation shows her struggle with her own emotions.

Now, finally, I’d like to show how O’Connor uses physical description to represent emotion in a complicated and calculating character like Hulga. Unlike her mother, Hulga is the type of character who does not express her emotions in a direct or (connected) physical way; however, it is still important for an author to be able to describe both the internal and external simultaneously for effect, and that is exactly what O’Connor does in this example:

She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood.

“She sat staring at him” is the kind of line I used to use in my own work. But O’Connor goes further. Whereas I would leave that line alone and beg the audience to make an intuitive leap, O’Connor’s narrator gives a deeper physical description (stoic face, freezing-blue eyes), as well as the emotional reason behind this description because there was nothing in her stare or her eyes or her face that suggested she was moved. Then we get the key word but, and we know there is a shift. Then the narrator gives us a direct report of Hulga’s contradictory, but powerful, emotional response. Although the description is of her heart stopping and her brain pumping her blood, the narrator uses the verb feel — “felt as if”, telling the reader immediately that this is not a physical reality, but rather an emotional reaction to the young man’s words. This emotional information supports the final scene of the story when the young Bible salesman, who has moved Hulga to trust and vulnerability, removes her artificial leg and steals it, revealing himself as a fraud and a rather twisted individual.

— Walker Griffy

Walker Griffy received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches composition and literature at Santa Monica College.

Jan 112014


Katie DeGroot is an old friend who lives in a farmhouse on the picturesque banks of the Hudson River just outside of Fort Edward, NY. Her son Niles was in day care with my boys. Her husband Jon and I used to ski together while the three boys practiced mayhem on more dangerous slopes. Like most artists I know, she has a quiet, obsessive side that drives her to long solitary hours in the studio relentlessly putting shapes and colours on paper or canvas. In this case, the shapes come notionally from nature, those rotted, knobby logs you see off the trail, festooned with things growing upon their morbidity. Strange symmetries. But she takes the logs out of nature and puts them up on a white ground, often in tandem (parallel constructions), with the images running off the page, and the moss, lichens and fungi elaborated in fantastic profusion.


It’s funny, but as an artist I hate to even say I use watercolors because it’s the medium so much bad art is made with. It’s what your mother uses to paint with in her art class. I only started using watercolors because I had them and I was waiting for the oil paint to dry on a group of paintings. I have never learned the “correct” way to use them. I think of it as fast drying paint that can give you the most amazing color and translucency. You really only have one chance to make the artwork, the watercolor demands that you work quickly and then walk away. If you push too hard, or second guess your first take on the painting, the result is often an overworked failure. I edit a lot.

I have worked from nature for many years. Recently found objects such as sticks and logs have become a starting point for my studio investigation. Where these objects lead me in my artwork has to do with my interests in surrealism and abstraction, as well as my own quirky interpretation of the objects’ personality.

—Katie DeGroot

PanoramaNatural Attraction,  watercolor on paper, 45″x 60″  (2012)
3D0A6845 (1)
Big Diva, watercolor on paper, 45″x72″ (2013)
De Groot;K;5;Untitled3.13
Untitled (Nonquitt), watercolor on paper, 24″ x 18″ (2013)
De Groot;K;3Untiltled3.13
Untitled (Grey), watercolor, 24″x 18″ (2013)
2012-03-12 at 21-51-44 - Version 2
Dumbo, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2011)
2012-03-12 at 22-10-19
Mr. Smiley, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2011)
Family Relations, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2013)


SPACE—Katie DeGroot


Katie DeGroot attended New York University and Illinois State University before living and working as an artist in New York City for nearly twenty years. Katie now resides and works in a studio on her great grandparents farm next to the Hudson River in Fort Edward, NY. Katie has exhibited her artwork regionally and nationally. Currently she is exhibiting work in the 2013 Mohawk-Hudson exhibition at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, and the Albany Airport Gallery. This fall she had a solo show at Gallery Gris in Hudson, NY. She is currently the Director of the Skidmore College Summer Studio Art Program.

Dec 272013

Savage Love Cover

Best of 2013

Savage Love by Douglas Glover (Goose Lane Editions) Shuttling from the 19th century to the present, and running from a brief five lines to a sprawling 50 pages, the stories in Glover’s collection are stylistic marvels, testing the tensile nature of language as they explore the more outré – and, yes, savage – aspects of love in all its forms. This was, hands down, the best book I read in 2013.

via Shortcuts: Things Withered, and Someone Somewhere | National Post.

Dec 272013

Savage Love Cover

Douglas Glover, the mad genius of Can Lit, came out with Savage Love, a grab bag of everything the form can do, in turns hilarious, intriguing and truly chilling. Intellectual pleasures abound just by recognizing the playful way Glover gives the nod to Borges, Thomas Bernhard, Cormac McCarthy. But Glover also seizes your soul. At the end of Tristiana, his McCarthyesque tale of a 19th century murderous duo roaming the American West, I scrawled in pencil, “I will never recover…”

via Globe Books 2013: Long story short, it was a remarkable year for short fiction – The Globe and Mail.

Dec 242013

Savage Love Cover


Douglas Glover (Goose Lane)

This was supposed to be the year of the short story, but these brilliant tales – often brutal, always beautiful – were criminally ignored by prize juries. The last story, Pointless, Incessant Barking In The Night, is one of the best I’ve read in years. What’s the matter, jurors, too much to handle?

via Susan G. Cole’s Top 10 Books | NOW Magazine.

Dec 222013
Albano 3


Francesco Albano is a skin artist, also Italian, though he lives in Turkey. He’s been creating such a stir of late that Huffington Post has anointed him. Click on the images or his name to  see more. They are icky, horrible, funny — discomfort makes you want to tell jokes. Surprising, because, of course, you’re used to the skin with bones and flesh inside. Here we have boneless skin or partial bodies or skin and fat but no bones or just skin and bones (no flesh). All this is obvious. What is less obvious and more beautiful is the sag of gravity, the lush heaviness of the unsupported skin, or the fat folds, or the bulging density of knees, the tension between what should be there and isn’t, between up and down (or between standing up and being strung up). Skin also the seems simultaneously both a puddle and a rock, marble. The artist mixes classical techniques with conceptual headstands. The effect is amazingly energetic, startling. My first thought:  Francis Bacon meets the bug in Men in Black (putting on his human skin suit) — yes, I had to make joke, but I am restraining myself.



The Age of Games Has Gone

francesco albano

On the Eve

Dec 202013

Sir Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony. Just awful commentator, unless of course she is doing a parody, always a possibility. Amazingly, she tells us at least twice, Handel wrote the piece in just 24 days. This is apparently the most remarkable thing about it. Her name is Verity, truth, which I like. She asks Sir Colin why he thinks the piece is so popular (she wants him to say because it was written in 24 days). He is clearly stumped. All he can come up with is a lame answer: Because it’s good. I will name my next child Verity.

In any case, ignore the commentary; it’s not a football game.


Dec 192013

Marcantonio_Raimondi_i_modiParis and Oenone, Marcantonio Raimondi

Just a reminder that art doesn’t have to be proper (have I mentioned this before? moi?). The i Modi is a series of Renaissance engravings of erotic mythological encounters, wildly energetic and wonderfully sumptuous, very naughty indeed. The image above is Posture One (Paris and Oenone) from the original set by Marcantonio Raimondi. The images below are from an 18th century version by Agostino Carracci. Click on the links to see multiple postures and versions. Clarissa Hurley sent me the site; she wrote:

…the 16th century engravings, i Modi (The Ways or The Postures), by Marcantonio Raimondi, based on drawings by Giulio Romano. It’s sort of of an Italian renaissance Kama Sutra. Later the salacious poet-satirist Pietro Aretino composed naughty sonnets to go with each image. They are a fairly well-known series for those of us who toil at the lunatic fringes of Italian Ren & Baroque studies, but I assume are less known to normal humans.

This site is pretty good: Eroti- Cart: The History of Erotic Art, and there is a recent print edition by art historian Lynn Lawner, I Modi: The Sixteen Pleasures — An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance.


b154772f076fa0d766935d8827f3c2dc.image.439x550.Pandora__Click_Image_to_ClosePandora, Agostino Carracci

2317b91a7727a829c1af5e36f75e376a.image.455x550.Posture_05_(Polyenos_and_Chriseis)__Click_Image_to_ClosePolyenos and Chriseis, Agostino Carracci



Dec 182013


Gorgeous, haunting photographs of two Argentine girls/women taken by San Francisco photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti. There are many more images at the site.

Again, Clarissa Hurley sent me this link. Many thanks.



Alessandra Sanguinetti tells the story of two young girls living in a rural province south of Buenos Aires in book one of her ongoing series The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. The San Francisco-based Magnum photographer spent her childhood summers at her father’s farm, and found herself drawn to the sisters as they navigated their way from the innocence of childhood to the complexities of puberty—although not at first—Sanguinetti says of her subjects: “Beli and Guille were always running, climbing, chasing chickens and rabbits. Sometimes I’d take their picture just so they’d leave me alone and stop scaring the animals away, but mostly I would shoo them out of the frame. I was indifferent to them until the summer of 1999, when I found myself spending almost everyday with them. They were nine and ten years old then, and one day, instead of asking them to move aside, I let them stay.”

via Magical Photographs Follow the Lives and Friendship of Two Argentine Girls | Feature Shoot.

Dec 172013


In Canadian director David Cronenberg’s short film “Camera,” an elderly, retired actor speaks of his fear and malevolence towards an old film camera that a group of children bring into his home. The children assemble into a film crew, each with their own specific roles, and carefully prep the camera as the actor rages on about his career, death, disease, and memory, knowing that the children are inevitability preparing his next close up.


The actor fears the camera because he identifies the device with death. He sees the lens as like his eyes, capturing experiences he will relive at the end of his life. Yet unlike memory, the camera fixes a moment in time and in a sense causes the death of the moment and experience. This makes the camera, recording the death of moments, a device that solidifies his mortality. He anticipates he will look back on his life replaying experiences and memories caught on camera and will enter a voyeuristic state, disconnecting from his own perception and becoming a mere observer of himself, of his own life.

This identification with the old camera speaks to a central struggle for identity that Cronenberg circles in his work. He spoke of this, among other topics, in a recent interview celebrating his 70th birthday (which can be seen here and is well worth the 90 minute watch):

In the interview he was asked about identity in his 2002 film Spider:

We are all the creators of our own identities. Even if we feel that is something given, we are actively involved in creating our own selves. You wake up in the morning and it takes you awhile to become who you are. It’s not just that you have to have that coffee. You have to remember who you are, where you are, where you’ve been, were your dreams real, who you were in your dreams. You have to reconstruct yourself every day. And if for some reason you could not do that, because of something that happened in your brain or nervous system, I can understand that, I can feel that, I feel very close to that.

In “Camera,” the actor speaks of recorded moments and their longevity. He alludes to how, when he is dead or eventually loses his memory, these fragments of time will represent how he is remembered. The camera will become the constructor of his identity, his memory. Rather than being an accumulation of his thoughts, feelings, and what he has or has not done, he will be only what has been recorded or documented.


When the actor appears on the children’s camera in the final shot, we see him in a new, rejuvenated way. Though aesthetically beautiful, with its warmer colors, light music, and smooth inward zoom, this is quite a false image compared to what the more documentary camera eye has captured before the children’s film camera. If moments like this become all that is left of the actor, the camera will not only construct his identity, it will do so through a sepia lens, blurring the pores and flaws that might be the truth of who he is. If similar false images are all he leaves behind for others, and create their perceptions of him, then what becomes of his true self?

As the children’s camera slowly penetrates the actor’s privacy, his initial disdain for it disappears: what he initially sees as fearfully other, slowly becomes a part of him. Cronenberg’s work is fascinated with how what is other becomes part of the self. In Videodrome, we witness the protagonist, Max, become the type of violence he strives to air on his independent cable station. As he descends, his stomach morphs into a VCR-like wound, allowing others to control his actions by injecting him with videotapes. In The Fly, a scientist rushes his experiment and, using himself as a test subject, accidentally crosses his DNA with a fly, mutating his body in increasingly horrific ways. Crash involves characters who have fused their desire for violent car crashes with sexual pleasure, rending them unable to achieve one without the other. All these Cronenberg protagonists eventually come to embrace the other working against them. The violence and technology become a part of who they are, leading them into a spiral of self-destruction.

In “Camera,” the synthesis is more ambiguous, not entirely horrific. The camera invades the actor’s home and his resistance to the device gradually fades away. The camera and the actor synthesize their abilities to create something, an image, which without one another could not be whole. By the end of the short, the actor comes to associate, sympathize, and identify himself with the camera, comparing the two to an old couple aging alone together.

This old couple analogy draws attention to the children’s celluloid film camera as a technology, and as a technology with a mortality, too. There are two cameras in the film, the documentary digital camera and the children’s celluloid camera, the one he fears and is growing old like him. The camera that the actor directly addresses throughout most of the film captures a more digital or documentary style image, scrutinizing every inch and pore of his face in an unflattering and yet perhaps more suitable aesthetic for his cynical personality and perspective. In contrast, in the final shot the celluloid camera the children use has a more gentle and vibrant tone, creating a more nostalgic depiction of the old man as he reminisces about memories from long ago. This is the same man seen two ways and on this other level the film displays a debate between the old and the new technology.

Film is always on the brink of creating, discovering, and infusing new technologies but not without conflict at each stage of change. Rudolf Arnheim argued that the invention of sound recording would be the death of film. Filmmaker Peter Greenaway thought that home video, with the dreaded pause button, would destroy the experience of a film. Others believed that color would tarnish the significance of the story and actors. Recently though, there has been much debate over the proliferating use of digital film and the decline of celluloid, and “Camera” seems to reflect this.

Is this Cronenberg’s argument for the use of celluloid over digital film? To the disdain of many, in recent interviews,

Cronenberg has sided with digital film, arguing “it’s about time film died its natural death.” This stance may be a surprise to some, but Cronenberg has a track record of creating stories that expose some of the more honest and brutal truths about humanity and our obsession with technology. Perhaps he feels that digital film is more apt to capture this harsh and coarse nature. Or perhaps he enjoys viewing the cautionary themes within his work become a reality as the world swiftly embraces the newest technologies, without fully realizing their limits or implications, and leaving older forms behind in obsolescence. Film historians argue that we have lost nearly 80 – 90% of all silent films, most due to the deterioration of celluloid. In losing parts of our history we lose pieces of ourselves, and perhaps this is what Cronenberg is alluding to as the actor speaks of the camera causing irreparable damage to us all. Regardless, “Camera” contains an argument for both celluloid and digital, depicting the unique qualities of both and how the aesthetic of each can affect the tone of a story.

TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) is currently hosting an art exhibition on David Cronenberg titled Evolution.


The exhibit is an accumulation of the filmmaker’s career, an eccentric collection of things Cronenberg that offer a close-up on the filmmaker much the same way the children’s camera in “Camera” offers a close-up. The exhibit continues until January 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox HSBC Gallery in Toronto.

–Jon Dewar


Jon Dewar

Jon Dewar is a grad student at University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and is working towards a degree in education. He is an avid film fan, interested in both film analysis and filmmaking. Some of his inspirations include directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, and Martin Scorsese. Jon has written numerous screenplays and is working towards eventually producing some of these projects.




Dec 162013

Savage Love Cover

Savage Love by Douglas Glover (Goose Lane)

The best book of 2013 you probably never heard of. How such a terrific collection of short fiction, perhaps the liveliest and most exciting yet from this master of the form, slipped under the big prize radar is a mystery.

via Books for the holidays: 15 of the most intriguing of 2013 | Toronto Star.

Dec 162013

Check out these uncanny figurines by Scottish artist Jessica Harrison. Something deeply and hilariously disturbing here. Just the sort of thing I like. Great site, too.


Harrison in particular has a rather unsettling take on this with her series of ghastly ladies, the ones on view in MAD just being her most recent. She’s also crafted “skin” furniture complete with real sprouting human hair (ideal decor for the salon of the uncanny valley), a miniature piano full of red tongues, and, um, used fly legs as fake eyelashes. In contrast to some of this prior work, her figurines in this show — with their severed heads dripping on their petticoats, wearing neck wounds like just another fine necklace — seem rather refined. But their slasher-movie carnage rips through the fiction of mass-produced sophistication.

via Bloody Bloody Boudoir Ladies: Turning Kitsch Ceramics Into Horror.

Dec 162013

Emma Jesse

I’ve been hoarding these Letters from Saskatchewan from Byrna Barclay. This is the last until she sends me more. They are a delight just for themselves — Byrna’s quick, direct sentences are packed with charming detail and wonderful to read. But then she offers the old photos, and the memories turned into fiction, into poetry — a deft lesson on the uses of the past, on the power of personality. The subject of this “letter” is Byrna’s Grandmunch, Jesse Emma, who married a tea-planter in Indian, then ended up moving to Saskatchewan with her prized violin and came to be friends with none other than John Diefenbaker, the wobbly-jowled prime minister from Prince Albert (whom I once interviewed as a cub reporter in 1972 in Saint John, New Brunswick — he proudly showed me his gold-topped cane that once belonged to an even earlier prime minister, the great Sir Wilfred Laurier).


Emma Jesse


Pics of Jesse Emma done electronically for me on disc ready in a.m. so will send them then for your selection.  One of my mother & J.E. in the same boat.  One of her young in India when she met my tea-planter husband some time before 1904, quite lovely, and the other of her in Canada in HBC coat, with dog likely named Diefy, most definitely in the Days of the Flapper, given the HAT…

Jesse Emma would arrive Christmas Eve on the train, dressed in a muskrat coat dragging behind her red high heel shoes, “bottled up for hours.”  She always wore a black straw hat so smothered by violets purchased at the Blue Chain Store in P.A.  When she was blue & alone she pinned violets to the hat, and when the top brim was full, she pinned them to the under brim, so her face was shadowed by lilacs.  She also wore an Isadora Duncan scarf to hide her goitre. I could never invent such a character. I hid behind my mother, embarrassed by Jesse, which worsened when we arrived home and Jesse called Prime Minister Diefenbaker and made me screech/squawk the vilon. He always said, “That’s very nice, and don’t forget to practice.” Shortly thereafter, I received a telephone call from Mrs. Claus, telling me to go to bed, Santa was on his way. Years later, Grandmunch confessed that it was Edna Diefenbaker, John George’s first wife.

After she died, Diefy wrote me a long letter that began: I am so sorry to hear of the passing of my dear friend. I knew her from the time of my first campaign in 1925…  The rest of the letter is only about him!  I’m giving it to his archives in Saskatoon, along with the letter the second Mrs. D. wrote me on the night of her honeymoon. Olive. Really and truly.  She asked me to write to my grandmother. I now feel guilty. But how Jesse Emma must have touched them. She had an enormous campaign poster of Diefy in her window even between elections.  The junk dealer took that too.  Regrets, I have some. That’s why I write. Well, not the only reason.



Halt, Those Are My People: from House of The White Elephant

THE VAULTED AND DOMED CEILING of the Canadian National Railway Station echoes with bygone farewells of troops being shipped off to Halifax, of brass bands playing Will Ye Nae Come Back Again.

Every Christmas Eve, for as long as Annika Robin can remember, her mother brought her here to meet her grandmother’s train from Prince Albert.  First she took her into the Ladies’, lifted her high onto the window ledge so she could watch for the train.  Farr off, at first, a haloed yellow light, but it grew stronger and larger until the rumbling of steel on steel could be heard, and just when she was afraid the one-eyed, screaming monster would crash into the umber-brick building, it slowed and grumbled past, its coaches partly obscured by steam escaping from its brakes.

They rushed into the great hall.  Soon, passengers trudged up the grand staircase, none of them Grandmums. There was some kind of elaborate maze down there, with short passages and doors leading to platforms beside the tracks, and it was all strange because she had seen from the window that the train was not underground.

Grandmums could never manage those broad steep stairs.

Finally, the side door opened for a prancing redcap, his eyes rolling upward with disbelief, and he clutched under one arm a small bulging valise that Annika recognized and knew contained oranges and jars of rhubarb chutney.  Its locks has long since broken and it was stoutly belted, with the ends of an Empire scarf trailing from its sides.

An outlandish, dark-skinned woman tottered on high, red heels behind him.  Heavy ankle-length muskrat coat, with a matching muff dangling from a cord wound round one wrist.  Her black straw hat was so smothered with silk violets, even on the underbrim, it was a wonder she could see where she was going.  When she was blue she always bought a bunch of violets at the Blue Chain Store, and when the rim was full, she pinned more to the underside.  In one arm, she carried her Derazey violin, and in the other her sterling silver champagne cooler, not trusting either one to a redcap she called a Darkie.  Of course, she explained to Annika, she couldn’t leave her prized possessions behind for fear of those black damnable thieves who first stole her diamonds and sapphires when she lived in India.

“Halt!” she cried to the redcap.  ‘Those are my people!”  She suddenly had a dignified, almost regal bearing, her head uplifted; she appeared accustomed to issuing commands and having them obeyed.  If the sight of her was not mortifying enough, her air of superiority and prejudices made Annika Robin cringe and try to hide behind her mother’s wide, crinoline skirts.  Older now, she simply lowered her head, pretending she didn’t know the woman who caused everyone to turn their heads and stare.

The worst part was yet to come when Jesse Emma would phone her friend John George whom she called Diefy – as well as her Irish setter – and make Annika Robin play the violin for him over the telephone.

Why oh why couldn’t she have been given a grandmother who made peanut butter cookies instead of chutney and crocheted doilies instead of dancing the Can-can for the Prime Minister of Canada?


The Music Teacher

After she died no one wanted
furniture worn beyond use,
not even the junk dealer
who carted to the dumping ground
a mahogany gramophone,
chipped records, Caruso’s voice
cracked.  A metronome without a timer,
sheets and sheets of thin music
yellow as old skin.  The last to go
a battered case.  He didn’t know
the violin was a Derazey.

It’s all I have to give you

Bottled up for hours, she sought relief.
I failed to hide the violin under the clawfoot tub.
After chutney and oranges, she’d ring up her Diefy.
Forced to screech and squawk the violin
over the telephone, I cringed and cried.
Our Man from Prince Albert told me
not to forget to practice.

Before bed, she let down her hair, a miracle
how the unfastened braids never unraveled,
her boot-blackened bangs reeking,
olive skin sleek with glycerine.  She tuned
the Derazey applied resin to the bow,
then tucked it in its nest of Isadora Duncan scarves,
chiffon to hide a goitre the size of an orange.


You must never part with my Derazey.  Promise me.

After my grandmother died
her sister shipped the violin
wrapped in her moth-eaten leopard skin,
stoutly bound with her red belt,
the one she used to strap
my wrists together if I failed to practice,
preferring to turn magic circles
around the music stand, while Jesse Emma
pounded out the Sailor’s Hornpipe on the piano.

Something must be done about Grandmums’
violin.  Lend it to the youth orchestra?
Give it to my own grand-daughter?  Surely,
Jesse Emma would forgive that kind of parting,
never the neglect.  After all these years
dare I open it?

I’m afraid to open the box.  Shelved
for thirty-odd years.  Against night noises.
Hinges creaking.  The case might open
like jaws.  Snapping.  Shrieks
like a fingernail on a blackboard.  Freed,
the violin will float over my bed, bow drawn
by my grandmother’s disembodied hand.

Peel away the leopard skin.
Hinges broken on the box.
Inside: the smell of old resin,
Midnight in Paris wafting from chiffon.
Coil and spring of snapped cat’s gut.
Wood warped.  Neck broken.  No wonder
the Derazey wailed nightly for oily palms,
glycerined fingers ringed with cat’s-eyes,
and the sweat of a musician’s brow.

In the dead of night
I dig a hole in my flower bed
big enough to bury a box
the size of a child’s coffin.
I leave off the lid, cover the violin
with rich damp loam.  Rose petals.

I will water it every morning,
just as the sun that long ago set
on my grandmother’s British Empire
rises at the call of new robins.
I will tend this small cairn
until the wood absorbs the dew.
Renewed, will someone play
a new song of forgiveness?


Fear of Falling

The three-legged teak table was a trap
laid in the middle of the passage

between rooms in Jesse Emma’s suite
above the Hudson’s Bay Trading Post.

Deeply etched with thistles & exotic birds
her music pupils could not name

the tea table was a precarious perch
for her multi-dented silver champagne cooler,

a monument to more affluent days in India
where turbaned servants set the table

at sundown with quinine and soda
for artistocrats believing the sun

would never set on their Empire,
never on Jesse Emma’s.  Every Saturday morning

farmers’ daughters from Duck Lake,
awkward & gangly fledglings,

failed safe passage past the table & cooler
to the ballet bar fastened above a steaming radiator

that would scorch their leotards
if they didn’t lift higher their wobbly legs & toes

often bruised from the crashing cooler
when the table’s tripod unhinged and collapsed

sending the cooler toppling, lid clanking
& to the floor hundreds of Christmas card

addressed to Mrs. Robert Hand-Burton,
postmarked Calcutta, London, Winnipeg.

Not easy putting it all back, making it
right, one hinge broken the tripod legs

unable to withstand the weight
of the cooler, so heavy two pupils

lifted & heaved while two more
tried to hold steady the tabletop,

& backing away, gingerly, hands held out,
willing it not to fall

the table crashed again, the cooler lid
cracking an ankle this time,

but greater than the students’ fear
of toppling table & crashing cooler

was Jesse Emma’s need to place furniture
in the middle of rooms, her terror of insects

red & black ants, roaches & malaria-carrying
mosquitoes & other beasties

falling from walls.


In the Same Boat

This poem isn’t about me..  I wasn’t even born when the women climbed into the boat & I don’t know where they are, the north end of Turtle Lake, maybe, because of the tall sentinel pine on the shore.  Yet the poem pulls me in, like a lover already immersed reaches out and grabs you on the dock by the ankles, oh yes sweeping you off your feet so you fall, of course you do.   And now I emerge inside the poem, gasping with recognition.

The woman at oars is radiant in this northern light. Her flared tweed skirt has curled up just above her knees, showing off the sheen of the white silk stockings, a gift from her intended, the man I cannot see, the one who makes her toss curls the colour of a sunset, the one who causes lights to dance on water.  She will never be this happy again.

Behind the woman rowing the boat, perched on the prow, is a dark-skinned woman craning her neck like a startled drongo shrike from her homeland far away, trying to speak words of caution to the man who makes the young beauty pull bravely shoreward.  All that can be seen of her are the stab of light in her black eyes, the dark stray of fringed bangs beneath a cloche the colour of sun-burnt oranges.  Oh, do sit down, you juggins. 

The man disappears.  I never saw him, yet I know he was my father wearing his white wedding suit, moss clinging to his soft-soled shoes the way it grows on the north side of birch,    He leaves forever captured there, in a moment at once as prolonged & as fleeting as the click of his Brownie Kodak, his wife and his mother.  In the same boat.

 —Byrna Barclay


Byrna Barclay

Byrna Barclay has published three in a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award,  YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.  In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award.  She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine.  A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine.  Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.

Dec 152013

via Wikipedia

Since the beginning NC as made it a habit, now and then, to publish a sermon. It’s an old form, not much thought of in literary terms these days — you don’t see many college courses on sermons. But it’s a form that was once immensely popular; books of sermons were published regularly and became bestsellers. I have friends whose fathers were ministers and I’ve loved listening to their memories of the weekly composition process — think of it, an ESSAY a week, 52 weeks a year! Kind of like a blog but with God as one of your readers.

Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont, runs a window-cleaning business, and gives sermons — in a sense, she has given her life over to helping people see better. This is her Christmas sermon delivered earlier this month to the UU Fellowship in  Stowe. The subject is close to my heart because when I was six I played Tiny Tim in the school Christmas play. Picture this: rural, one-room, stone schoolhouse with a raised dais along the front for the teacher’s desk, Union Jack and the Queen’s portrait prominently displayed, and me with my theatrical leg-brace made (by my father) of soup tins and cut-down harness straps. Hilary quite rightly focuses on Scrooge, who is the reclaimed character, but still I love the line I got to say (raising my wine glass filled with apple juice), “God bless us, every one.”

The images are John Leech’s original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, via the wonderful Victorian Web.



Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster….

Nobody ever stopped him on the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? when will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him, and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “no eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance….


Charles Dickens wrote his famous Christmas Carol in 1843, and from the very first, it sparked changes in the people who read it, momentous and generous changes. Robert Louis Stevenson for instance, wrote a friend this: “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money—I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”

The historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle was seized with his own verifiable fit of generosity. We don’t have an account of it in his own words, but his wife wrote her cousin, referring to her husband by his last name and saying this: “A huge boxful of dead animals from the Welshman arriving late on Saturday night together with the visions of Scrooge—has so worked on Carlyle’s nervous organization that he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties with only a day between.”

And yet another conetmporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, pronounced the book, “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”

But it wasn’t just other writers who were affected. Some years later, after the queen of Norway read A Christmas Carol, she sent gifts to disabled children in London, signed “With Tiny Tim’s love.” And an American industrialist, a certain Mr. Fairbanks of Massachusetts, having heard Dickens’ own reading of the book one Christmas Eve, was so inspired he closed his factory the very next day for Christmas, somehow managing to get a turkey to every worker he had.

Used with permission from http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/eytinge/49.html.

Plain folks too, numberless people whose names and stories we’ll never know, were affected as well. For instance, in the spring after A Christmas Carol was published, one English magazine noted that charitable giving was up across the whole country, evidently a result of this one little book. People were moved! And moved to action.

Even Dickens himself was deeply moved by the act of writing A Christmas Carol, pushing through it in the midst of other projects in a remarkably short six weeks, crying and laughing as he wrote, taking long walks through London—and I mean long walks—supposedly fifteen or twenty-mile walks!—at a time of night when, as he put it, “all sober folks had gone to bed.” And when he reached the ecstatic, joyful end of the book, and finished it, he said he “broke out…like a madman.”

But of course acting like a madman is just how Scrooge behaves too in the joyful conclusion of A Christmas Carol:

“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel. I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded….

“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge, “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”

I don’t know about you, but whenever I get to this short section at the very end of the book, I always feel a little mad with joy myself, almost embarrassed by the sheer exuberance welling up in me too. And why is that? What is the power of Dickens’ little fable? Why has it touched and changed so many people?

One reason surely is simply because it’s a remarkably well-written book. If all you’ve done for years now is watch the various movie versions, I suggest this Christmas season, you go back to the book itself. It’s sheer pleasure. But there’s more to its effectiveness than its high level of craft. There are, after all, lots of well-written books. But very few of them have worked the kind of change in people that A Christmas Carol has.

So walking a little deeper into the story itself, let us next consider the book’s most obvious lesson, a lesson that can’t be repeated too often, and that Dickens himself thought of as the “Carol Philosophy,” which is simply to give, and to give in particular to those who don’t have the money or resources you do. But though this is, as I say, the obvious lesson of the book, and giving is itself a profound practice that has its own momentum in people’s lives, taken alone, it still can’t account for the singular transformational power this book has.

That power, I think, lies deeper in the story itself and is related to its more fundamental teaching—which is to open our hearts, or as E. M. Forster put it: “Only Connect!”

This approach to life of course, the way of connection, is entirely the opposite of how Scrooge conducts himself at the opening of the book: Dickens makes that abundantly clear in the description I quote earlier of Scrooge as a man who is “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” edging “his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”

That is to say, Scrooge is a man who has disconnected himself as much as is humanly possible. He may have a business and a good reputation as a businessman, but in the beginning of the book, he has no authentic intercourse with anyone, spurning even the one surviving relative he has, his nephew Fred–and on Christmas Eve no less.

photo 3

Fred however, a plucky chap, never loses his good humor in this early scene, giving his uncle a fine little speech about the particular value of Christmas, calling it

a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

Scrooge’s response is to belittle his nephew. Then, after Fred, still persisting, invites him to dinner the next day for Christmas, Scrooge turns even uglier, vowing to see him in hell before ever he comes for Christmas dinner.

So then, think about it. How does this work really? How does Ebenezer Scrooge shift from a miserable, money-making oyster, poking his head out of his shell only to insult people, to a man who frisks about his rooms and heads right out the door, engaging right and left in handsome acts of generosity? What can actually account for his new, miraculous and permanent habit of connecting whole-heartedly with people everywhere he goes?

Another place to look for the answer I suppose lies with the power of the spirits who visit Scrooge. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story after all, and who wouldn’t change their tune faced with these visitations? Scrooge, you could say, is scared straight.

But now I’m really setting up straw ghosts here, because clearly,  this is not the whole answer either: Scrooge is plenty afraid at various points along his journey, but it’s not fear that is the most potent catalyst for his change. It couldn’t be. For though fear may change us, its primary effect is not to open our hearts, but to close them.

I think the key to Scrooge’s transformation lies in something else.

So let us start with him after Marley has gone, at the beginning of his journey with the three spirits. As you recall, Scrooge’s first companion amongst these spirits is The Ghost of Christmas Past, who confirms, as Marley foretold, that he has indeed come for Scrooge’s reclamation.

What you might not recall however is that just before they fly from Scrooge’s dismal rooms, the spirit, having compassion for the fear Scrooge is feeling, places his hand on the man’s heart. And his hand is still there when they make their first stop, a “gentle touch,” Dickens writes, that though “light and instantaneous,” is “still present to the old man’s sense of feeling.”

Where they are now when first they alight, is on an open country road, in a place that catapults Scrooge into a wholly different frame of mind as he recognizes countryside from his boyhood, happily recollecting and relishing the old familiar sights as they walk along. But soon they are not alone: the road is filled with boys Scrooge also remembers, boys who are traveling home for Christmas on horseback, on gigs, and on carts. “All these boys,” Dickens writes, “were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.”

In the midst of all this, we see a side of Scrooge we haven’t seen before, a side that no one has seen, evidently, for years: “Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds…why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past!”

But this opening jaunt, pleasant as it is, is just an ice-breaker, a little warm-up before the next step in Scrooge’s reclamation. Because a whole nightful of recreated happiness would not have the power to thaw the deep freeze Scrooge has packed around his heart. Not permanently anyway. That will take something else.

And that something else comes soon enough, the Ghost of Christmas Past going on with Scrooge to the school building the boys have just left, a mansion of “broken fortunes”: desolate, shabby, damp, and cold: “There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.”

Surprisingly, as moving as this scene is, Dickens, in the theatrical readings he used to give in later years of A Christmas Carol, dropped it. No doubt he had good reasons—the whole book, for one thing, couldn’t be read in one sitting, and it is also said that Dickens’ contemporary audiences favored Tiny Tim and the merrier feast scenes in the story too.

But I wonder if perhaps another reason Dickens declined to share this passage with an audience live was because it touched too painfully on a similar kind of desolation he himself had experienced as a boy during a period of acute family crisis.

Charles DickensDickens

Dickens’ father went into a financial freefall that ultimately landed him in debtors’ prison. This resulted in two things: while most of the family actually stayed in the prison along with the father, the young Charles Dickens, who considered himself a gentleman in the making and who had been going to school, instead now found himself at the age of twelve living alone in rented rooms and working, trapped, ten hours a day, six days a week, in a broken-down factory pasting labels on pots of shoe blacking.

And this went on for months, an experience so traumatizing for the boy that years later, as a grown man, he could not walk past the place where the factory had once been, without crying.

Strikingly Scrooge has the same reaction when he is confronted with the sight of his younger school-boy self: “They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.”

It’s a painful moment, but a momentous one, because it’s the point where Scrooge’s transformation truly begins. For it’s not only the house that’s broken–it is the boy himself who is broken too, the boy whose heart Scrooge still bears within, that same heart the Spirit has laid his careful and abiding hand upon.

Understated as the scene is, compared to, say the later scenes with Tiny Tim, this moment conveys a kind of human miracle. Though utterly sunk in his old, overwhelming desolation, Scrooge now has a companion, a calm and deeply accepting witness to his anguish.

photo 2

So now it’s no longer a question of how long Scrooge will take to thaw: his melting is instantaneous. And why? Because of the power this kind of witnessing has, the ghost’s compassionate spirit bringing clear-eyed acceptance, allowing Scrooge the boy and Scrooge the man to reconnect with the whole truth of himself.

And this, I’d say too, is the underlying dynamic in the transforming power of the book itself. One word for it of course is connection. But more specifically, the process that Dickens is enacting on the page for us is the process of vulnerability. Because it’s not just that the spirit connects with Scrooge—there’s more going on, an ultimately mysterious, paradoxical process, one I think that quietly runs beneath all the rest of the story, through all of Scrooges’ journey through the Past, the Present, and the Future, through all the wrenching scenes and the boisterous ones too.

But wait, just what do I mean by vulnerability?

Well, as I was saying before, the fundamental truth of being human is that we need to be connected—like it or not, we come wired for it. Without connection, we’re stifled; with it, we thrive. But in order to be connected, we have to let others see the things in us that make us feel like we’re maybe not good enough for anyone to connect with. It’s like Brene Brown, the researcher whose TED talk on vulnerability went viral, says: “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

What Scrooge discovers when he revisits his abandoned younger self in the company of the spirit, is that he must embrace his vulnerability in order to live again. Not only that, he must have the courage to do it with others. But courage, as Brene Brown reminds us, is not to be confused with bravery. If you look at the original root sense of the word, courage means having the heart to tell your whole story.

This of course, at the beginning of the Christmas Carol, is exactly what Scrooge doesn’t have. All he has is money, lots of it. But ironically, given the ways he has compensated for his extreme lack of connection with others, it turns out he is no better off than he was as a boy. He has in fact, recreated the hateful circumstances of his younger years with an unwitting fidelity. Whereas the young Ebenezer was left alone on Christmas day huddled by a small fire in a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building–Scrooge, on Christmas eve, rich as he is, takes himself home to a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building. His fire too, is the same fire, a dispiriting thing, a “very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night.”

But as ironic as the situation is, it’s natural too—in fact it’s exactly the kind of thing lots of us do, recreating the old wounding dynamics of our childhoods and imprisoning ourselves in the process.

For Scrooge himself is certainly in a prison, as the spirit of his former partner Marley recognizes. He sees that Scrooge needs drastic spiritual reclamation, a kind of crash course in vulnerability, and that of course is what Scrooge gets, the ghosts with their spirit of compassion handling him not with kid gloves, but compelling him simply to see things as they are. And that’s what does the trick: the spirits usher our man Scrooge into a fuller vision of himself, one that makes the prison of his own construction finally visible to him. Once he has seen that, the process of reclamation really takes hold in him, and he makes reconnection his own habit, his own philosophy, his religion really. For Ebenezer Scrooge is a man joyfully resurrected.

No wonder then, he goes frisking about his rooms! It’s not just because he finds he’s still alive, but because he finds at last he truly is alive. And what else to do then but make his reunion with mankind manifest, not only through giving spontaneously and generously, but by going forth to join the world on the streets of London? And here is how Dickens, who was himself his whole life a great walker of the streets of London, describes Scrooge’s jaunt that Christmas morning:

“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.”

Yes, it has taken a long night of work, but here at last, rejuvenated on Christmas Day, Scrooge has found out the wisdom of his nephew Fred’s words the day before—that is, for all that we continually fail to see it, other people really are our fellow-passengers to the grave: they are the only companions we have.


Now I know Christmas certainly is not always the festive occasion Dickens painted. It truly is not. And it can be a time of particular and pointed anguish. But at the same time, it is also a time of year when, again, as Fred claims, “men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” In that way, Christmas offers precious opportunity, a chance for us to disregard what pains us most about the holiday and do instead what we’re here to do: connect.

So may the spirit of the past, the present, and the future be with you this Christmas season. May you have the courage to reconnect yourself with others and to find yourself whole. And may it bring us all joy.

Amen and blessed be.

 —Hilary Mullins


Hillary Mullins

Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.



Dec 142013

Oh yes! Dali illustrations for Don Quixote. Clarissa Hurley, who just read The Enamoured Knight (bless her heart), sent me this link. This also reminds me that once in Paris (Christmas, 1969) I saw Dali emerge from a black limousine-like car with a  fancy woman dressed in furs. It was morning, yet they seemed dressed for the evening. This is my memory.


Salvador Dalí was no stranger to literary illustration, from his heliogravures for Alice in Wonderland to his drawings for Montaigne’s essays. But arguably his most elegant take on a literary classic comes from this rare 1946 edition of Don Quixote De La Mancha (public library) by Miguel de Cervantes. (Cervantes’s exact birthday remains uncertain — September 29, 1547 is the commonly agreed upon date, but there are no surviving birth records; the only official record is that of his baptism on October 9, 1547.)

Scrumptiously surrealist, Dalí’s drawings — a combination of black-and-white sketches and watercolors — are the best visual take on the Cervantes classic since Spanish graphic design pioneer Roc Riera Rojas’s 1969 illustrations.

via Salvador Dalí Illustrates Don Quixote | Brain Pickings.

Dec 142013

This is a scholarly essay about two short stories of mine that I only just now noticed is available online. (Many academic journals, lately, seem to be adopting a new openness to readership that can’t help but be a good thing.) It appears in a journal called Studies in Canadian Literature (one of the editors, John Ball, has an office just down the hall from my Writer-in-Residence office at the University of New Brunswick). The stories are “My Romance” (about the baby dying and the husband having an affair with his wife’s OB/GYN and then trying to kill the monkey) and “Iglaf and Swan” (about a pair of artsy writers who manage, via self-obsession, to drive their daughter to tattoos and suicide). The stories are in my books 16 Categories of Desire and the U.S. collection Bad News of the Heart. The author, Adam Beardsworth, is an astute and intuitive reader of my work, none better. He is especially good at parsing the philosophical ideas that underpin my very strange plots.


THEORIZING THE AMBIGUOUS RELATIONSHIP between desire and experience, Jean-Paul Sartre realized desire’s precarious, if not paradoxical dependence upon the tension between presence and absence: desire’s very insatiability testifies to its origins beyond objective conciliation. It is upon this philosophical premise that Douglas Glover hinges his short stories “My Romance” and “Iglaf and Swan.” In both stories, Glover explores the epistemological problems that arise when those objects that we desire most are traumatically displaced only to reveal the lack that lies at the core of being. Reluctant to revel in post-modern incertitude, Glover’s stories demonstrate a compelling movement from a confrontation with desire and nothingness, to a realization that the only redeeming desire, however ephemeral, is that which one finds in an “other,” or in the recognition of a mutually intrinsic desire for the infinite in one’s object of love. Demonstrating a concern with the proximity between the compulsion to satisfy sensual appetite and the inclination towards linguistic expression, Glover allows his exploration of longing to extend beyond the parameters of his narrative and into the realm of allegory. From the self-reflexive title “My Romance,” with its coy allusion to both narrator and author, to Iglaf and Swan’s tragic conflation of the desire for the other with the will for literary acumen, Glover’s stories foreground an ostensible preoccupation with the link between desire, art, and death. Recognizing language as central to all experience, Glover, in “My Romance” and “Iglaf and Swan,” allegorically invokes writing as a medium compelled by insatiable desire, a manifestation of our human impulse to objectively inscribe our fascination with the pure loss, death, trauma, and love at the limits of human experience.

Read the rest at Romancing the “Mysterious Bonds of Syntax”: Allegory and the Ethics of Desire in Douglas Glover’s “My Romance” and “Iglaf and Swan” | Adam Beardsworth | Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne.