Photostory, n. [foh-toh-stohr-ee] A narrative or collection of ideas communicated through photography and the written word.
As someone who is fascinated by the intersection of the visual with the textual, this is right up my alley. I’ve been browsing Solomon Dutch’s archives quite regularly since I came across them a few weeks back and urge you to do so as well. Some outstanding examples that I’ve come across so far: River Walk, Ghazal As a Metaphor.
Feeling quite inspired by some of the work, I wondered if I could too do a photostory. I am a writer, yes, but my interest in film-making grows unabated by the day. It is after all the medium that made me fall in love with stories and storytelling. And being friends with some pretty cool Sri Lankan photographers (Tim, Natalie, Ruvin and Thiva for instance) has inspired me to experiment with the digital camera.
It needs to be said though: I don’t see myself as a photographer at all. I see myself a writer foremost and a storyteller at that. With camera in hand, I can only enhance my abilities in the latter and perhaps provider for a richer reading experience.
So here it is: a photostory combining my poetry and photography. The poem, Black Caesar, is one of my early efforts (circa 2005) at narrative poetry in the vein of Alfred Lord Tennyson. In fact, I think I was reading Tennyson (and enjoying a healthy dose of intoxication) when the idea for the poem dawned on me. There is no historical basis for this poem at all.
Theena Kumaragurunathan, 2005
Beyond the riches of Persia,
Away from the great land of the spices,
A speck on a great ocean,
Known only to the most weather-beaten sailor,
‘Serendib’, said Marco Polo.
‘Caesar’, the sailors called him.
But his land wasn’t Rome.
Here he ruled with an iron fist,
Benevolent yet terrifying,
Loved and reviled,
A study of contradiction,
‘A Caesar indeed!’, they said
Yet even Rome fell,
And his land wasn’t Rome.
Jungles in the centre,
Golden beaches around,
The people spoke different tongues,
Yet one Emperor ruled them all,
A wonder indeed,
‘A black Caesar’, they said
And his ‘Rome’ would fall.
He heard of their plans,
And hastened his troops,
Swords drawn, they mounted their horses,
They heard of his plans,
And loaded their canons,
Smiles wide, they waited for Black Caesar.
The sun shone brighter it seemed,
Not a cloud in the sky
The Gods smile upon us, said he.
Then a thunderous boom,
Great balls of fire they threw,
Behind him, his men lay dead he knew.
Black Caesar stands alone,
His Rome has fallen.
I asked the Officer,
‘What of my son?
Is he on his way home,
In uniform sparkling bright?
Or is he carrying a flag -
Prolonging your plight?’
He looked at me,
Face sincere yet eyes untrue -
‘A patriot’, I reasoned -
A father of a son he was too;
The Happy-If-His-Was-Alive-And-Proud-If-Dead type -
Empathy, he never knew.
From wombs to wooden coffins,
From blankets to the ceremonial embrace of flags,
The journey is complete for them, our Sons of Flags,
But in them live the oldest lie,
And a nation’s news.
- Theena Kumaragurunathan, 2005
The book is taking shape.
Like the clay the potter shapes into all manner of things, what will be my first book began as nothing more than a mound of clay. I would stare at it, constantly asking myself what, if anything, could be made out of this mess. Over four years of staring, reading, re-writing, editing and repeating the cycle has paid some dividend. Looking back, I am glad I quit my semi-comfy job last year to focus on the writing.
Today I have eight thematically joined pieces, four short stories and poems – in various stages of editing, revising and, in one case, polishing – that I am proud of and would be happy to show to the world. But this piece isn’t about the results, rather it is the process.
Sportsmen have coaches to guide them on the mental and technical approaches to their games. Musicians and actors receive their baptisms in the fire of collective public glare, of audience and band mates, which help them refine their respective artforms over time.
A writer on the other hand is usually denied this. Ours is a solitary amusement. It can be argued that writers in this day and age are better off; unlike some of our quill and ink or typewriter-bound, writing-under-candle-light predecessors, the sheer range of modern conveniences, writing technologies and platforms, workshops and residencies allows us the chance to polish our work in more-forgiving environments. While that is true – and I have taken advantage of some of these workshops in Sri Lanka – I found the focus on ‘reading-aloud-what-you-wrote’ followed by ‘I thought it was great!!!!!’ (and the ever popular ‘I didn’t like it…I don’t know why. Just didn’t’) kind of critique a bit tiring. I was in it to understand the process first and critique second.
I came to realize the process is something only the writer is privy to. In my case, it came with a degree of self-awareness brought upon by a potent cocktail of circumstance, debauchery and plain grope-in-the-dark experimentation. Which is cool. Writers hoping to cull the little beads of inspiration life throws at them are risking a piece themselves, risking being hit where it hurts most.
If they are prepared to.
And I am. Always have. From the time my dad bought my sister and I those Ladybird classics, I wondered if I could be a writer myself. For the past two years a tiny voice in my head has been saying, ‘Yes’. Encouragingly, it is sounding quite increasingly resounding, despite the fact that these two years have at times been the darkest days of my life.
Process is sometimes mistaken as a technical thing: your writing technique, clarity of thought, economy of language, those things that we writers look for in any good writer. But seeing the development of your writing from the perspective of a potential reader is another. Readers don’t buy books to understand and be awed by technique, they buy it to read stories well told. That has been the biggest revelation this year for me. Sounds simple and certainly not dripping in profundity, but to be able to distance myself from my own writing as my writing, reading it as a potential reader would, and critiquing it from that standpoint has made me a better writer.
I would love to know what other writers make of this. Are you self-aware of your creative process as a writer? Or is it an innate thing that you don’t think about?
The Paris Review has a brilliant series called The Art of Fiction in which they interview some of the best scribes around. In my view, the best living writer in the world is Gabriel Garcia Marquez and this interview is a must for any writer learning his or her craft.
I was first introduced to Gabo’s writing a little over three years ago when I was gifted a copy of ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’. ‘That’, I thought at the time, ‘is a brilliant fucking title for a book’. The novella in a nutshell was on an ageing journalist who decides to gift himself a night of passion with a virgin on his 90th birthday. Sorta like a Lolita except, you know, weirder. I remember raising an eyebrow as I read the synopsis at the back, but I had heard about this Marquez guy and decided I’d give it a read. Suffice to say, the book went beyond a great title. Over the next 70 pages, I gasped in awe at his mastery of prose. If the translation read like this, how good would it be in the original language it was written in?
At the time, I had almost given up any notions of becoming a writer – writer’s block had had the better of me for over three years. It’s a funny thing this writing business. I’ve not been formally taught on the craft of writing. What I’ve picked up has been through reading as I digest words becoming phrases becoming sentences becoming paragraphs becoming chapters becoming books.
Writers, unlike musicians, are sometimes weighed down by our most precious tools, words – especially in this day and age where attention span is quite low and time is precious. Marquez’s prose, even in translation, reads like a dream because he writes like a musician. No where is that more visible than One Hundred Years of Solitude, the epic tome on Macondo and the Buendía family.
There is a section in ‘Solitude where the town is besieged by a storm that lasts ten years. Everyone in the town is more or less restricted to their homes, businesses wither, and age-old habits die natural deaths. Aureliano Segundo is stuck at the home his great grandfather built with a wife he shares no connection with and away from his mistress who lives in the other side of town. Supplies at home are running low and his wife, Fernanda del Carpio, begins to complain one day and doesn’t stop.
Now any man knows the feeling of being nagged at by women (I say this with no malice intended towards you, ladies). It begins with our mothers and sisters and extends to girlfriends and wives. It feels like a never ending torrent of sound that we barely pay attention to – even though sometimes we ought to. So how does Marquez portray this on prose and page? He writes it as a never ending torrent of words: a five page long sentence.
My reaction at the time of reading it was sheer incredulity. You can’t do this, I kept thinking. This goes against everything writers and writing teachers tell you to do. But here was Marquez taking the supposed rules of writing, tearing it apart in front of me, setting it on fire, dancing around the blaze and doing it without sinking the narrative of the story in the process. He was liberating language in my head. As someone who always wanted to be a writer, I was left breathless. I knew then with absolute certainty: I am going to write that book I always wanted to write. This was all the inspiration I needed.
But back to The Paris Review and their interview with the great man: I urge all writers to read this regardless of whether you’ve read Marquez or not. Pearls of wisdom adorn this page for us scribes.
It is long so I’ll attempt here to highlight the salient bits.
When asked about the two tools – truth and fiction – that separate the work of a journalist and a novelist respectively, he replies:
‘In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.’
While that may strike some as obvious, the sheer possibilities that arise when a novelist applies the training and prudence of a journalist are enormous. Says Marquez, ‘That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.’
It is this technique that allowed him to get away with some of the more outlandish plot elements in ‘Solitude like flying carpets and the like.
In closing there is a piece of advise that hit me quite hard precisely because it is my biggest weakness: ‘I don’t think you can write a book that’s worth anything without extraordinary discipline.’
Read more here.
Haven’t blogged in a while, which isn’t quite surprising if you knew my previous attempts at blogging. But hey, I am still here. Blogging today because I came across something pretty cool and just had to share. Salon has done a wonderful slideshow/presentation on the most inspiring bookstores in the world. Click here and be in awe. Some absolute gems in there, like John K King in Detroit, about whom Salon writes:
‘Cardboard signs, musty paperback aromas, and a hand-scrawled map out of a Wes Anderson panic attack are your only tour guides as you lose track of time and the person you came with. Outside, it’s urban decay. Inside, it’s a creaking, pulsing monument to how much Kindles suck’
The last comment – about why Kindles suck - got me worked up as inane shit like this usually does. Let me state this right out: I hate e-books, audio books, e-book readers, etc., And I love old book stores. If you are Sri Lankan like me, you’ll know that a number of our mainstream bookstores are – how to put this kindly? – crap and, like the Kindles, suck. If you like the musty smell of old book stores, like to take your time in exploring the shelves, have a greater selection of books at your grasp, then a more serendipitous atmosphere for bookworms I cannot think of.
Directions: If you are coming from the Union Place direction, pass St Josephs College on your left, take a left prior to the roundabout. If you are coming in from Forte, turn into D R Wijewardene Mawatha off the Forte roundabout, head straight towards Maradana, book stores will be on your left just prior to the Maradana roundabout.
PS: Anyone know of other good old book stores in the Colombo area? Or indeed in Sri Lanka?