by Kim Triedman My gym misses me. I haven’t exactly been pulling my weight lately. Or blasting my abs or busting my butt, either. In fact I can honestly say that from the moment I started writing my second novel this past September, I have gone through the gym …
Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel and she sets the bar high. Her novel revolves around the a Chinese-American family living in small town Ohio, a rarity in the 1970s.
What works in this novel is Ng’s use of a third person narrator, and through this narrator, we learn how deeply dysfunctional and non-communicative the Lee family is. The novel begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six-thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this Innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast” (1). Lydia’s death reveals how isolated each family member is from all the others. Set apart from their community because of the bi-racial nature of the family, they are also set apart from each other. Lydia’s death isolates her family further from their community–her death is a suspected suicide–and, when most needed, each other as well.
Ng’s third person narrator slowly reveals the inner thoughts and disappointments each family member harbors. Through her death, this narrator also shows each family member struggling to cope with what the each wanted reality to be, and the truth. The old saying is the truth shall set you free. In this case, the truth severs the frayed threads tying this family together, sending each of them tumbling through their grief, unmoored from each other.
Lydia is sixteen and a perfect mix of her genetic heritage: “But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s too” (3). The ‘they’ in this quote are Lydia’s siblings, her older brother Nate and younger sister Hannah. Within the first few pages, the narrator reveals several secrets. Nate and Hannah know black-haired, blue-eyed Lydia is the favorite child out of the three. The only hidden secret is the parents unaware their other two children have picked up on the favoritism.
Marilyn Lee sends Nate and Hannah off to school and takes a mug from the cupboard, a routine gesture in a morning suddenly thrown off the routine. As she does so, she flashes back to a memory of Lydia when Lydia was eleven months old. Marilyn left Lydia playing in the living room on a quilt, and had gone into the kitchen for a cup of tea:
“Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway. She had started and a red, spiral welt rose on her palm, and she touched it to her lips and looked at her daughter through watering eyes. Standing there, Lydia was strangely alert, as if she was taking in the kitchen for the first time. ..The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?…Marilyn often had her back turned, opening the refrigerator or turning over the laundry. Lydia could’ve been walking weeks ago, while she was bent over a pot, and she would not have known” (4).
Here we learn through the narrator Marilyn doesn’t know Lydia as well as a mother should, especially when it comes to walking. After a short time, Marilyn calls the police and James at work. Eventually, through the narrator, we learn this isn’t the first time the police have been called about a missing family member.
We also see James, grading history papers in his office. He’s a tenured faculty member, a professor of American history, at Middlewood College. When younger and:
“still junior faculty, he was often mistaken for a student himself. That hasn’t happened in years. He’ll be forty-six next spring…Sometimes, though, he’s still mistaken for other things. Once, a receptionist at the provost’s office thought he was a visiting diplomat from Japan and asked him about his flight from Tokyo. He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” but becomes defensive when people “blink.” (9).
He still feels the outsider, set off by his ethnic heritage, even though he’s as American as the people he is talking too.
Throughout the novel, Ng’s effective use of the third person narrator continues to reveal the secrets of the Lee family and how those secrets keep the family isolated from each other.
Toward the end of the novel, Ng also uses her narrator to flashback to Lydia, when she was alive, allowing the dead girl at the beginning of the novel a voice in her own story. It is an inner story that has shaped Lydia’s life, one she needs to revise, with devastating results.
The novel raises questions: how well do we know family members? Is what we “know” true, or assumptions, because it’s far easier to deal with assumptions–what we want to be true–than what really is? Everything I Never Told You is a novel that has stayed with me, long after I finished reading it.
Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. New York:Penguin Group. 2014. Print.
By Robin Black This post first appeared October 11, 2011 What can renovating and reclaiming your home after years of neglecting it teach you about revising fiction? A lot more than I imagined, it turns out. My husband and I have lived in our house for sixteen …
I stumbled across this post this morning and wish I had found it sooner, but here it is. The sale date is tomorrow. Read on:
By Robin Black Any interest in having your prose or poetry manuscript reviewed by the likes of Philip Levine, Elizabeth McCracken, Ron Carlson, Tony Hoagland, or perhaps some other equally amazing author?? There’s an app for that. . .or anyway, there’s a website. And you’ll be …
From the Brevity blog–Pooh and imagination.
A guest post from Andrew Panebianco, on the act of imagining:
Because as you probably know, Pooh has his own Tao, now.
So let’s leave it here—there’s an immensity to Pooh. There’s a touch of eternity to all his bumbling; a bottomlessness to his most rumbly of tumblies.
There’s a stare into the open eye until the closed eyes open kind of Zen to Pooh.
He’s got Pooh-dist leanings, you could say.
I want to talk about everything that makes Pooh, Pooh. But I don’t even understand it all. So instead I’ll focus on a single point—my very favorite moment, from my very favorite character, from my very favorite story from the entire World of Pooh.
Which is my very favorite.
Here’s how it starts:
Christopher Robin has sent Pooh off…
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At the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every other year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, I heard James McBride discuss his novel The Good Lord Bird. He had wanted to write a novel about the abolitionist John Brown, but wanted to do it in a way not done before. He more than accomplishes this goal with his first person narrator Henry “Onion” Shackelford, a ten year old slave boy in the Kansas Territory in 1856, who is kidnapped by John Brown following an argument between Brown and Onion’s owner, Dutch Henry Sherman. Unfortunately for Onion, who is a male, but like most colored boys in those days, he wore a potato sack for his clothing and with his light skin and curly hair, Brown mistakes Onion for a girl.
Onion narrates this novel and begins his tale by stating “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” (McBride 7). Onion is a confident narrator, and this confidence makes the novel, as he relays his efforts at trying to pass as female and his adventures with John Brown. He’s an adult, looking back on his life, and his sure voice carries the cadence, humor, and words of someone who’s experienced much and takes pride in relaying his story.
Onion is an exceptional storyteller with the strong cadence of his voice and his choice of words. “Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death–his or the next man’s–unless the subject of the Lord came up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him…Next when he spoke, he were talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin. Taut as gauge wire” (16).
Onion takes great offense to being mistaken for a girl by Brown: “Now, I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about kings and heathens and Zions and so forth, with him [Brown] waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck on the “daughter” section of the speech…Everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like the men” (18).
Onion describes Brown’s actions during a fight in Pikesville, a slave town. The fight is taking place outside, in an alley: “Well, I don’t know if it was that lit cannon belching smoke over his shoulder that done it, or them rebels losing heart when they seen the Old Man hisself in person standing in the clear, untouched with their bullets zinging past his face, but they turned and took the tall timber…And with that cannon fuse lit and burning home to its maker, the Old Man stood right next to it and watched the fuse burn to nothing and fizzle out. It didn’t hit the hammer. The thing was dead” (197)
Onion’s voice paints a picture that is hard to miss–Brown standing in an alley, oblivious to the danger he is in. Onion’s voice paints vivid scenes–some funny, most not–throughout the novel. Onion grows from a ten year old boy to a young man, present at Brown’s final stand at Harper’s Ferry. Throughout, Onion’s voice is strong and uniquely his because of word choice, and the cadence of his speech.
The Good Lord Bird won The National Book Award for Fiction.
McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books. 2013. Print.
By Yolande Clark-Jackson
I write creative nonfiction. It’s hard for me not to write nonfiction, unless I’m writing about Rocko Rocket. I finished the final edits on a children’s book called, Rocko’s Big Launch in 2012 while completing my MFA. My dad was dying, writing my craft lecture felt like it was killing me, I was overwhelmed at work, and my asthma had gotten so bad that my lung capacity was at less than 60%. Ultimately, I finished 150 pages of my memoir, my MFA requirements and had a successful kickstarter campaign to self-publish one thousand copies of the children’s book I wrote and my husband illustrated. I attended my MFA graduation ceremony, and my dad died a week later. I had about three more chapters to expand and complete my memoir about the death of my four-year-old daughter, but I couldn’t seem to write them. I still haven’t. I’ve focused on Rocko Rocket instead. Rocko is a boy with a big head full of ideas, big eyes full of dreams, and a big smile full of the happiness I’ve needed to take a break from reflecting on loss.
When writing a picture book, like writing any book, there must be a conflict. With a picture book, however, the main character generally has a problem that can be solved. Rocko’s persistence gets him to his goal. He has a dream that readers can believe he can achieve, and he has a passion that makes his readers want to reach out for something amazing. This kind of book works on not only kids, but also adults. Kids need to believe that anything is possible for them. Having that belief early on sparks the confidence to set goals and accomplish them. Adults need something that keeps them from focusing on the things that don’t go right in the world. Picture books remind adults of how it felt to be young and expectant of a happy ending.
I wrote the first few drafts of the Rocko Rocket series over eighteen years ago for my oldest daughter who we will be attending her first year of college less than a week from now. Yet, when I revived Rocko’s story and re-wrote it, I did it mostly for me.
This summer I have had so much fun sharing Rocko’s story with adults and children. It has been inspiring to see how my 48 page story about this little boy can make people smile. It’s been a great summer, and although the best books I’ve read have often brought me to tears, there is nothing wrong with taking a break to read or write something that can put a smile on your face.
Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.
Regular contributor Gabrielle Brant Freeman has several poems published around the web:
“The Art of Deception” page 64 in the Minetta Review
“Guess My Name” and “Linen” at CSHS
A short story from Kyler Campbell. You can download a free issue and read his story “Caretta Caretta” & short interview from Driftwood Press. Story starts on page 13.
Travis Burnham is a fellow Converse alumi and his short story “The Bone Washer” is up at Bad Dream Entertainment.
Core faculty member and fiction member Leslie Pietrzyk, author of A Year and A Day: A Novel and Pears on A Willow Tree has an interview up at Reader’s Lane. Leslie also has a blog at Work In Progress and edits Redux: A Literary Journal
The following is an excerpt from a longer work on the influence of fairy tales in contemporary short fiction.
Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) was a contemporary writer best known for his weird and witty short stories. The short story “Game” can be understood as a kind of modern fairy tale.
“Game” is the story of two men, Shotwell and the narrator, trapped in an underground bunker. They hadn’t planned on being in the bunker for very long, but when the story begins they have been in the bunker for one hundred and thirty-three days. The two of them have the power to launch a nuclear missile, though that is never explicitly stated. “If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys…If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies,” (Sixty Stories, 56). Each man has one key for one lock. Both men have been instructed to watch the console, but also to watch each other. If either behaves strangely the other is under orders to shoot him. Not only does each man have a .45 issued to him, but they each also have a concealed firearm. Shotwell plays jacks by himself, refusing to allow the narrator to play. The narrator writes descriptions of natural forms on the wall (4500 words describing a baseball bat in one instance) using a diamond in a ring he bought for a woman. Neither man can tell if the other’s behavior constitutes as being ‘strange’. They both attempt, at different times, to reach both locks by themselves, but the locks are placed too far apart for just one man to reach. The narrator claims to know what Shotwell wants to do (turn both keys and let the bird fly), but he refuses until he gets his turn with the jacks.
“Game” opens with an image of Shotwell and his jacks. While it does not provide the immediate distance from reality that a fairy tale beginning does, the opening to “Game” does show what the narrator’s focus is. The narrator is obsessed with Shotwell’s jacks, he even goes so far as to attempt to pick the lock on Shotwell’s attaché case to get to them. The second paragraph of “Game” gives the reader their first glimpse into the world these characters inhabit. Both men are trapped in an underground bunker, waiting for a prompt from the console which never comes. In short, the narrator and Shotwell are trapped (it is worth noting that their situation is similar to that of the fairy tale hero being trapped in the deep, dark woods). In the opening two paragraphs the reader knows this is a story about isolation and the effects it can have on a person. However, the opening of this story isn’t fully realized until the ending, when the potential consequences of the narrator’s obsession with the jacks are revealed. “…I understand what it is Shotwell wishes me to do. At such moments we are very close. But if only he will give me the jacks. That is fair. There is something he wants me to do with my key, while he does something with his key. But only if he will give me my turn. That is fair. I am not well,” (Sixty Stories, 60). If the narrator gets his turn with the jacks, then the bird will fly. Thus, the very first image in “Game” contains all the stakes of the entire story (and being a story about nuclear weaponry the stakes are high indeed). Not only does the opening of “Game” function in the same manner as the openings of fairy tales by introducing the reader to the truth of the world, but it also presents the central image and conflict as well.
There are only two real characters in “Game”: the narrator and Shotwell (there is a third character, Lisa, but she is only mentioned in one, albeit telling, line). The two characters are quite similar in many respects: they both want the bird to fly, they both have concealed weapons which take up “a third” of each man’s attention, and they have both tried, all alone, to turn the keys at once. While both of these men are enduring incredible stress from being trapped in the bunker for such a length of time, Shotwell is holding up better than the narrator. Shotwell’s activities strengthen, or at the very least maintain, his connections with the outside world (in the form of working on his business administration degree program), while the narrator uses his last item from the outside world (a diamond ring for Lisa) and inscribes descriptions of natural forms on the walls. Just as in fairy tales these two characters can be seen as simple representations of a single, more complex character. Isolation is a difficult thing to endure, and the characters in “Game” could be interpreted to be an isolated person’s desire to give up (the narrator) and their desire to fight on (Shotwell). By Shotwell refusing to give in to the demands of the narrator (in the form of the jacks) the determined aspect of the character wins out over the aspect that wants to give up. If, however, Shotwell were to give in and allow the narrator to play with the jacks it would have disastrous consequences for the world of “Game” and for the person stuck in isolation.