Monday, January 24, 2011

How Much of This Story Is True?

Question: Is Every Time We Say Goodbye based on your own family?
Answer:  Yes and no. Or, better yet: yes, but.
Yes: I wrote a novel about absence, abandonment and adoption because so many members of my family have been separated from those they love – children from parents, parents from each other, people from themselves.
Yes: many of the details in Every Time We Say Goodbye were snipped, clipped or ripped from my own life: my brother and I did grow up in my grandparents’ house beside a creek, we did see our mother one Saturday a month until we were teenagers, and there really was a stolen car in our garage at one point.
But it’s hard to describe that particular room in the mind where the past (or anything else) gets turned into fiction. I don’t think there are two separate production lines, one for autobiographical fiction and one for completely made-up stuff. (In fact, I would argue that the same machinery is used for both fiction and autobiography -- hence the spillover that so outraged some of James Frey’s readers.)  
In Every Time We Say Goodbye, the text became a separate place, and the narrative made demands of its own. Characters that might have begun their lives as somewhat resembling Auntie Jan and Uncle Trink began to live and breathe as independent creatures. Sometimes I reached out of the text and groped around in a remembered room for details, but more often, the writing self was doing what it needed to do: making stuff up in order to get the story right and true.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Money for Nothing

In my college class on humour, we begin our unit on comedy and censorship with a discussion of Lenny Bruce’s 1961 arrest for the use of the word cocksucker. My students find this quite shocking -- the arrest, not the word.
In comedy, the line of acceptability is there to be crossed. Once the line is crossed, of course, it moves.  What was once unacceptable becomes merely risqué, and eventually, with repeated crossing, mainstream and safe.
In its recent decision declaring the song “Money for Nothing” unsuitable for broadcast because the lyrics contain the word faggot, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council argues the reverse -- what was formerly safe (a 25-year-old song) is now unacceptable.
 The CBSC argues that the acceptability of the word has changed: other racially driven words in the English language, ‘faggot’ is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so.  The Panel finds that it has fallen into the category of unacceptable designations on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.
And if the lyrics disparaged sexual orientation, I would agree. But they do not. They disparage the bigotry of the oafish character spouting the words. He scoffs at the bands he sees on television, calling them yo-yos and yes, faggots: “That ain’t working,” he proclaims. “That’s the way you do it: you play the guitar on the MTV. “
In its decision, the Panel did acknowledge the legitimate artistic usage of an offensive word:  “Individuals who are themselves bigoted or intolerant may be part of a fictional or non-fictional program, provided that the program is not itself abusive or unduly discriminatory.”
The Panel goes on to say that while the song may fall under this category, legitimate artistic use is apparently not enough to make it acceptable for broadcast.
The Money for Nothing Guy is the Archie Bunker of 1985. We are meant to laugh at him, not with him. (In fact, you can hear Mark Knopfler cracking up as he sings “banging on the bongo like a chimpanzee.”)  The lyrics satirize a discriminatory attitude, and as in all satire, we align ourselves not with the speaker and the literal or surface message, but with the implicit moral code underneath.
In my humour class, we discuss instances of satire being misread, that is, where readers or listeners mistake literal words for implied message. So sorry, CBSC, that you missed the message, and are now on my list of Examples of People Who Just Don’t Get Satire.
It's a good thing no one in Canada is broadcasting "A Modest Proposal."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Banished Words

I look forward to the list of overused words published by Lake Superior State University every New Year's Day. This year's list includes Facebook and Google as verbs.

Jordan from Waterloo, Ontario nominated these words, saying,"Facebook is a great, addicting website. Google is a great search engine. However, their use as verbs causes some deep problems." 

What are these deep problems? Yes, I could say, "Please contact me through Facebook," or "Search online using Google," but honestly, why would I when "Facebook me" and "Google it" are so much more concise? Would I also have to stop using email as a verb?  How about phone? ("Please send me a message through electronic mail if you are not able to contact me via the telephone.")

People! Language changes! Nouns get turned into verbs! Verbs get truncated! Some words die and slip from living memory. Others are born and take their place. This is what language does. Diss is now a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary! (Disses, dissing, dissed!) This is what language is.

My grandparents, who were born during World War I, sometimes prefaced a particularly dire warning with "I'll tell you something, and that's not too." Or maybe they were saying, "And that's not two."  Either way, the phrase makes no sense. They're dead now, so I can't ask them what they meant. I've tried reconstructing the sentence ("I'll tell you one thing, if not two"?). I've tried asking other family members, and while they remember the expression, they cannot explain it. I've even tried googling it, to no avail. The phrase remains incomprehensible. That's a deep problem in communication.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A History of Reading

You may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worthwhile to be tormented for two or three years of one's life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it. – Jane Austen
1. I come home from kindergarten in a quivery state of awe. "Michael Pearce can read!" I announce. "He read a whole book for Show and Tell!" My eyes fill with tears of bitterest envy: all I can do is look at pictures while I wait to be read to. Like a baby.
My grandfather says he will teach me to read. After dinner, he sits with me at the kitchen counter and begins sounding out words. “C-A-T, cat,” he says, writing it out. “R-A-T, rat.”  Now it is my turn: B-A-T, he writes. "What does that say?"
I have no idea. Cat, rat.... “Catches,” I guess.  No. Chases? No. Hits on head with giant rubber mallet?
Thirty minutes later, I am thoroughly sick of learning to read. Also, I have not learned to read. Also, my grandfather is not a patient teacher. I am in tears.
But he persists, night after night at the kitchen counter, and eventually, I can read.  The best day of the week is library day. The best days of the school year are when Mrs. Smith, the district librarian, comes to our class to tell us about the new books in our library. Sometimes she has to bore us to death with the Dewey Decimal System first, but she never leaves without reading. She is the best reader I have ever heard, changing her voice and accent and pitch as she shifts from character to character.
I read all the time.  I read when I am supposed to be cleaning my room. I read when my grandparents say I should be outside playing (in the four days of summer that befall Northern Ontario).  I read before school, after school, and during school, especially during math class. Thus, to this day, I can read like a wizard but can barely add.
In my early adolescence, I read indiscriminately. I finish The Shining and pick up Jane Eyre. I read all the Bourne books and then Heart of Darkness.  Wuthering Heights is sandwiched between two Harlequin romances.  
My father gives me a box of books for Christmas: Dickens, Orwell, Austen, but also, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I open it up to find that language as I know it has been dismantled and reconstructed on every page. Are people allowed to write like this? It is the most wondrous thing I have ever read.
I no longer want to read the Bourne books. I can’t fully explain it. Something is missing in the language.  
I tell my grandparents I want to study English in university. My grandfather wants to know what kind of job this will lead to. Oh lots of jobs, I say and recite a list (journalist, editor, copywriter, teacher) but the truth is, I’m not going to university in order to get a job. I’m going so that I can leave home, first of all, but also, to read. For the next four years, my primary responsibility, my job, will be to read.
Best. Job. Ever.