Monthly Archives: May 2011

“the firebird’s nest” by salman rushdie

Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.
– Ovid, The Metamorphoses

And so, “The Firebird’s Nest” by Salman Rushdie begins.

It begins with language, painting the landscape with words, allowing us to feel dry heat settling and stagnating over the barren land, and immediately connects the land to the body, defining the land in terms of gender, knowing that the body is always political.

It is a hot place, flat and sere. The rains have failed so often that now they say instead, the drought succeeded. They are plainsmen, livestock farmers, but their cattle are deserting them. The cattle, staggering, migrate south and east in search of water, and rattle as they walk. Their skulls, horned mile-posts, line the route of their vain exodus. There is water to the west, but it is salt. Soon even these marshes will have given up the ghost. Tumbleweed blows across the leached grey flats. There are cracks big enough to swallow a man.

An apt enough way for a farmer to die: to be eaten by his land.
Women do not die that way. Women catch fire, and burn.

Then Rushdie drops us into the story; we are travelling over the landscape with Mr Maharaj, a prince, and a yellow haired American woman who is presented as his bride. It is the beginnings of a fairy tale.

Here Mr Maharaj is still the prince, and she, his new princess. As though she had entered a fable, as though she were no more than words crawling along a dry page, or as though she were becoing that page itself, that surface on which her story would be written, and across which there blew a hot and merciless wind, turning her body to papyrus, her skin to parchment, her soul to paper.

It is so hot. She shivers.

Rushdie draws strong connections to the body, and directs us towards the physicality of “story” as told through the body. He alludes to books, tangible words, pages and papers in which a story is written, leading us to the actual story being written, our present history, our present fairytale. “It is so hot. She shivers.”

The fairytale idea also continues when they pass a wedding party. The American imagines that “they have found this happy ending” and is surprised that the wedding is between an old man and a young virgin from a distant village. She is even more surprised at the talk of dowry, the economic exchange of brides and money, and panics as transsexual dancers and chaos surround the vehicle after recognizing her as an American.

Then the story begins to present the characters in a more complex way. The yellow haired woman is a financial advisor, a “rainmaker.” She is America, the “american dream”, an embodiment of the physical country. Mr Maharaj is India, old India struggling to survive in this modern world.

The body, once again, becomes the stage in which this plays out. And all of a sudden, the story is no longer about these two characters, but about these two countries, and ecomomic realities dictated by money, the terrible divide between the poor and the rich.

Once upon a time in ‘America’, they had shared an Indian lunch three hundred feet above street-level, at a table with a view of the vernal lushness of the park, feasting their eyes upon an opulence of vegetation which now, as she remembers it in this desiccated landscape, feels obscene. My country is just like yours, he’d said, flirting. Big, turbulent, and full of gods. We speak our kind of bad English and you speak yours. And before you became Romans, when you were just colonials, our masters were the same. You defeated them before we did. So now you have more money than we do. Otherwise, we’re the same.

The American then guesses that “he came from a place unlike anything she had ever experienced, whose languages she would struggle to master, whose codes she might never break…” She enters the crumbling palace of Mr Maharaj, and is woken in the morning by the sound of drums and dancers. The lead dancer is Miss Maharaj, Mr Maharaj’s sister. The American faces her, asking

What are you doing?
A dance against the firebird. A propitiatory dance, to ward it off.
The firebird. (She thinks of Stravinsky, of Lincoln Center.)
Miss Maharaj inclines her head. The bird which never sings, she says. Whose nest is secret; whose malevolent wings brush women’s bodies, and we burn.
But surely there is no such bird. It’s just an old wives’ tale.
Here there are no old wives’ tales. Alas, there are no old wives.

Again, the body. The dance inhabits the body and gives it power, weaving movement and intention; the dance becomes a ward and protection against the firebird; the firebird’s touch is the touch of men, the annihiliation of women. Later, Miss Maharaj tries to explain to the American:

Without noticing its beginnings, so that we did not resist until it was too late, until the new way of things was fixed, there has occured a terrible, terminal rupture between our men and women. When men say they fear the absence of rain, when women say we fear the presence of fire, this is what we mean. Something has been unleashed in us. It’s too late to tame it now.

Miss Maharaj goes on, trying to explain the meaning of the firebird in another way, a simpler way. “Once upon a time there was a great prince here…” Here, Rushdie engages fairytale again as another method of truth telling. “And the villagers said that the old prince, consumed by rage, has been transformed into a giant bird, a bird composed entirely of flames, and that was the bird that burned the princess, and returns, these days, to turn other women to ashes at their husband’s cruel command.” The American asks her if she thinks the story is true, and she responds:

Do not mistake the abnormal for the untrue. We are caught in metaphors. They transfigure us, and reveal the meaning of our lives.

And that is the crux of what I love so much about this story, that it spins and spirals and reveals itself in all of its many facets, by connecting the body to language and love and sex and enviornment and politics and economics and mythology and history.

The story expands again when the American becomes pregnant, and culminates in a confrontation with the firebird. I am not going to transcribe or summarize any further, only to say that this is an amazing piece of work, important and devastating and brilliant, and deserves to be read and shared and reflected upon.

I found this story in the anthology “Telling Tales”, edited by Nadine Gordimer, an overall excellent collection!


the truth inside the lie

A couple of months ago, I read an excerpt from one of my stories at an open mic. It was well received, and afterwards a man asked me if my story was true. “True?” I had answered, “Well … it’s fiction.” “I know,” he said, “so did that really happen to you??”

Deep breath.

One of my favorite quotes is by master horror writer Stephen King, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

It’s a quote I used often when I was teaching “Intro to Creative Writing” classes to generate discussion about process, inspiration, perspective, and honesty. Most of my students were new to writing, and their fiction tended toward thinly veiled autobiography. It’s common to do; I did it myself as a young writer. But there is a world of difference between a story that is true and a true story.

Stories do contain truth and honesty, but a fictional story is basically a web of lies. When I first was introduced to storytelling as a method of lying, I was a bit taken aback. It’s not nice to lie. Morally, most people, including myself, feel that lies are negative and bad. Nevertheless, every single thing in a story can be made up, and it can still retain elements of truth.

One way made-up stories retain truth is through the basic elements of plot. A plot is the skeleton of a story – the story stripped down and presented in a universal way. The plot is not the story. One can look at any hollywood movie and find the same plot over and over. Joseph Campbell talks about “the hero’s journey” which has its early roots in mythology, and speaks directly the idea of storytelling using classic plots that we as a society respond to.

Sometimes writers do use real things to flesh out and augment a story. It is impossible to fully detach from our experiences, whether they be personal, politcal, environmental, etc. Stephen King, the progenitor of the quote that fiction is the truth in the lie, writes most of his stories set in Maine, a real place, where he actually lives. His characters have been created in fiction, but more likely than not, they are also based on people he has come across.

In King’s stories, fantastic and weird things happen – things that are completely and totally fabricated. However, people still respond to his stories because of the universal plot lines he tends to use and his infusion of elements of truth and emotional honesty.

The emotions we feel when we are scared, the real things in a story that we attach to, things that we identify with on some level and bring us further into the story make it feel real, even as we know it is fiction. We feel the seed of truth within the lie.

This is always an interesting idea to think about and talk about, because it becomes a circular thing. In the act of writing, we create worlds that have never really existed; yet, now they do exist, if only in the mind, or in the mind of someone else. If we write from a place of naked emotional honesty, people respond. Even if “the story” is something they have never experienced in real life, even if it is something the writer has never experienced in real life, it becomes true – as experienced in the mind.

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that these lines between truth and lies blur or sharpen depending on the genre of writing as well. In poetry, I almost always use the first person. Right there, “I” am telling the story. Who is I? The reader sees the narrator of the story often as the author of the story. However, the “I” telling the story is not necessarily the “I” who wakes up in the morning, drinks coffee, gets the children off to school, and so on.

But … poetry as a genre blurs those lines a lot. Sometimes it is -me- and sometimes it is a character or a voice that I have taken on in order to express an image or an emotion or a situation that really resonates with me, that speaks to me as a truth I recognize and want to share.

The other genres I mainly write in tend to keep a sharper boundary between truth and lies. My gothic fiction and erotica are similar in nature, with the exception that my erotic stories are explicitly sexual. In both types of stories, I tend to be more experimental and to see how far I can stretch these imaginary worlds. I play with how the story is told, twist traditional plot lines, and allow my mind to search dark and edgy places. And even so, there are elements of truth. In fact, most of the time I know a story is done when I believe it, when I am so involved in the story that at the ending, I have tears in my eyes.

A friend who also writes erotica recently said “you’d think that being an erotica writer would mean I have a lot of sex!” It is funny because some of her stories have left me breathless and thinking that she must have the most amazing sex. And maybe she does (when she does!) But I think it is more a testament to her excellence as a writer. Her lies are emotional, mental, and physical truths; she taps into things that we recognize, things that we desire or fear or both, and leaves us with that essential element of what happens when you create a world in fiction, the truth inside the lie.


doing the dishes

Today while doing the dishes
I glanced over at my daughter
lying on the floor in the living
room, reading a book, and I
paused to wonder about her mind
her perception of time and space
how her world is centered

I felt the gentleness of my hand
on the plates, the running water
on my wrists, I watched my daughter
who once called my body home
assert her space on the floor, kicking
out her feet and stretching her lean
body against the hard wood grain

I smiled and washed the silverware
glinting in the dim light, every act
was purposeful, every gesture poetic
my hands are powerful, even
in this domestic chore
the sink empty, I washed it down
and returning the sponge to its place
I rinsed it clean.

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Originally published in The Mom Egg, Volume 7. The print issue is also available through amazon.

*

Happy Mother’s Day!!!


robert mapplethorpe

Recently, I’ve been thinking about Robert Mapplethorpe. I don’t remember how I first heard of Mapplethorpe’s work. I knew that he was a photographer, and accompanied by vague uneasiness, perhaps an overt sexuality and/or interest in taboo. I knew that many people found his work shocking. At some points during his career, his work was deemed unacceptable and inappropriate, shows were cancelled, grants were taken away, and his books of photography were banned. He was condemned, vilified, and ultimately, made into an icon.

I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before. ~ Robert Mapplethorpe

But what was it about Mapplethorpe that people found shocking? His photographs of flowers were well received and generated a strong interest in his work. Mapplethorpe had a brilliant eye. One can look at any of his flower portraits and feel deep sensuality simply throbbing on the surface of the petals.

It would seem natural, a progression of his vision, to turn his eye toward the human body, to seek and expose the body much in the same way as he exposed his flowers. Light. Shadow. A captured image, fleeting, showing itself on the surface, leaving one with strong emotions, feelings, tapping into the non-verbal core within us.

But instead of just capturing beautiful bodies as still life, he began taking pictures of action and behavior. Images of Transvestitism, Homosexuality, Bondage, Discipline, and Sado-masochism (BDSM) became a focus of his work and many of his self-portraits. People were shaken. The negative reaction to his work is directly related to these themes. I think it is interesting to question why these themes are so threatening, and why the most common reaction to his work during this period is that it is disturbing, sick, and deviant.

Mapplethorpe’s growing reputation as a celebrity photographer also gave a wider audience to his work. His artistic vision became a real threat to conservative society, and he had to fight many people who accepted his brilliance as a photographer but could not understand what he chose to photograph, or why.

His work called the world into a dialogue about the powerful nature of Art and the body, places of silence, of longing, and the power of expression, infused with the language of non-verbal image.

For more information and photographs, check out The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and Artsy’s Robert Mapplethorpe page.