jessie cole

novelist/writer

Tag: inspiration

On The God of Small Things

god of small things 2

It’s hard to think about the writing of Indian author Arundhati Roy without conjuring an image of the political activist she has become. Confident, articulate, brave. Decrying injustice wherever she finds it. The hard truths she speaks seem to echo around the world making her appear large instead of small, fearsome instead of vulnerable. So sure of the validity of the causes she fights for. But what strikes me most forcefully about her 1997 Booker Prize winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, is how much Roy grappled in order to understand her world. As her haunted protagonist, Rahel, asks – ‘What had it all meant?’

The God of Small Things reveals such an intricate world of childhood trauma, of powerlessness and loss, that instead of dealing with certainties the reader is left to muddle their way through the mire of a place so complicated by ancient and modern history, political chaos, and long-standing familial discord that it is hard – at least initially – to have a clue what is going on.

At the heart of the novel lie Rahel and Estha, seven year old twins who haven’t yet learned how to control their Hope, but somehow know that this isn’t a Good Sign. The book unfolds slowly. It is non-linear and tangential. We know from early on that things will go badly, we just don’t know quite how or why. The process of reading the novel is that of piecing together a puzzle; frustrating and illuminating in turn. Revelations accumulate and by the end everything is clear. Even though I can’t possibly know, I suspect the process of writing the novel mirrored this journey. That Arundhati Roy wrote it in attempt to bring clarity to what had been, for her, a mess of confusion.

The end result is masterful, yes. But the power of the novel lies in its capacity to take a familial tragedy – three young children crossing a swollen river in a boat, one of them drowning – and show us how complex and far-reaching the consequences can be. In The God of Small Things it isn’t just the family and community who are both affected, and implicated, by the events of the novel, but everyone. Roy delves so deeply into her country’s systemic problems – the touchables and untouchables – that the whole book becomes a gigantic treatise on injustice without ever seeming preachy or didactic.

Even though I’ve read it many times, my mind still boggles.

When The God of Small Things was first released I was two years out of high school. My adolescence had been marked by two inexplicable losses within my immediate family. Nothing about the world around me made any sense. I was deep in the fog of grief and desperately in need of meaning. I read books to escape, but mostly I wanted to find new ways to understand my world; new ways to understand myself and what I’d been through. Disorientated by life, in fiction I sought a sense of the familiar. I steered clear of Indian fiction, staying within recognisable parameters.

But Arundhati Roy broke the stalemate between me and all-things-foreign in a way that I least expected. Even though the book is set in ‘Ayemenem,’ Kerala –a bamboozlingly unfamiliar place – the experience of Rahel and Estha, children lost in the drama of unravelling adult lives, echoed my experience so wholly that reading it I could hardly breathe. Despite all its lush Indian imagery, quirky similes, extravagant metaphors, and obscure socio-political detail the book captured so entirely how I felt as a child it could have been my life.

My mother gave me The God of Small Things as a present sometime in my early 20s. I probably accepted it with an internal roll of the eyes, thinking – ‘Thanks Mum, I’ll add it to the pile.’ But reading it cracked something open inside me. It made me wonder how the childhood trauma I’d been through related to the world at large. It widened my vision and opened my world … and it made me curious about writing. About whether or not I could do it. But mostly, it gave me the impetus to try.

And now when I see Arundhati Roy and the activist she has become, I think of who she once was: a young woman grappling with injustice so deep and wounding it barely made sense. But it did. Once she turned it into words and made it a story.

First published in Newswrite, Issue 208 April-May 2013, as part of their Writer on Writer series.

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Words and Music

When pondering inspiration and where it is found, the cross-pollination that occurs amongst artistic genres always comes to mind. Art works that inspire writers, novels that inspire plays, plays that inspire films … the list goes on. Think of novelist Tracy Chevalier and her meditative take on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But one of the least talked about of these artist-muse relationships is the interaction between music and writing.

A couple of years ago I read Paul Kelly’s mongrel memoir How to Make Gravy, and what struck me most forcibly about it was the breadth and depth of Kelly’s reading life. At seventeen Kelly was reading Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, by nineteen it was Walt Whitman and Jean Paul Sartre, with a bit of Nietzsche on the side. He spent large chunks of his twenty-fourth year lying on his bed reading Marcel Proust.

The opening line of the memoir alludes to Homer’s Odyssey, and the references to literature just keep coming. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Henry James, Sir Walter Scott, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver,as well as more contemporary writers like Nick Hornby, Tim Winton, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Ondantje, Robert Drewe, Peter Carey, Jeffery Euguenides and Gao Xingjian. Don’t even get me started on the poets! It seemed to me that Kelly’s book was, among other things, a meditation on the place of reading in an artist’s life. In this case, a songwriter.

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly talks about the way songwriters continuously ‘borrow’ from one another – “Ever since Homer’s repeated use of ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘ wine dark sea’, and other formulas in The Odyssey, songwriters have been drawing on the communal pool of phrases and images available to anyone with ears.” He follows this up with – “Some people continue to be surprised by this – those who have notions of the artist as some kind of self-dredger, dragging pieces of originality up from the depths of their soul.” And then the somewhat cheeky – “Self expression is overrated, though. There’s so much of it around these days …”

Reading Kelly’s memoir, it was interesting to imagine the young Paul devouring all those literary classics, and how they must have swirled about in his subconscious, coming to light – sometimes years later – in mysterious ways. He wrote the song ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ – a retelling of the Raymond Carver short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ – five years after reading it. When he got back to checking the story, he was startled by how exactly the details of story and song matched up. Kelly explains how some of the time this borrowing is subconscious – “Writing, though it may involve a lot of thinking, is never entirely under our conscious control.”

As with ‘Everything’s Turning to White,’ sometimes these cross-genre inspirations can bear wonderful fruit. Singer songwriter Gyan’s musical interpretation of the poems of Michael Leunig – Billy the Rabbit – is another tantalising example. In this case, Gyan turned to the work of Michael Leunig as solace when she was feeling burnt out. She spent twelve months putting a host of his poems to music. Eventually a friend who had worked with Leunig encouraged her to send the songs to him. She did, and Leunig loved them. And there began an unusual mixed-media collaboration, with the two of them giving performances involving Gyan singing while Leunig drew.

But what about how songs influence other art forms? A fan of the 1999 film by Paul Thomas Anderson – Magnolia, years ago I bought the movie soundtrack, and discovered within the liner notes a rather unusual dedication. It seems the whole movie was inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann. As Anderson explains – “Like one would adapt a book for the screen, I had the concept of adapting Aimee’s songs into a screenplay.” He gives details of how the process worked – “For instance, in my original motion picture screenplay, Claudia says ‘Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?’ I must come clean. I did not write that line. Aimee Mann wrote that line as the opening of her song, ‘Deathly,’ and I wrote backwards from that line. It equals the story of Claudia. It equals the heart of Magnolia. All stories from the movie were written branching off from Claudia, so one could do the math and realise that all stories come from Aimee’s brain, not mine.” Thomas ends the CD liner notes with: “So here it is, the perfect memento to remember the movie – or you can look at the movie as the perfect memento to remember the songs that Aimee has made.”

When I first read this dedication I was a few years out of high school, crazy about music but not a musician, interested in writing but managing nothing more than a few occasional scribbles in my diary. It struck me as wondrous that someone could hear one line of a song and a whole movie might spring from the earth like a blossoming tree. I’d never heard of Aimee Mann, but I was dazzled by the potential in this kind of relationship.

Fast forward ten years or so and I was writing. The idea for my novel Darkness on the Edge of Town hit me late at night like a whack to the back of the head. It wasn’t something I pondered; all of a sudden it was just there. I was more than three quarters through writing it before I realised how distinctly (in my mind at least) it echoed the early work of Bruce Springsteen. His song ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ seemed to hold all the nuances of my main character’s voice, even though I’d never consciously thought about the song at all. At that point I began to consider the influence of songs on the work I was doing. Before I started writing Darkness on the Edge of Town I’d come out of a very bewildering love affair and was obsessively listening to the Lucinda William’s album West. It must be said that listening to the raw and heartrending Lucinda Williams after having your heart broken is not the wisest of musical choices, and in an effort to buoy myself I’d turned to Springsteen, who has the knack of imbibing his music with a kind of hard won optimism. It was as though the work of the two musicians had somehow morphed in my brain. Lucinda’s sorrow and pain with Bruce’s tentative redemption. And the result was a novel, a strange hybrid of musical influences, but somehow all my own.

I’m not the only writer who feels awed by the power of music. When asked about the musical references scattered throughout his novels, Jonathan Franzen answered – “I’m more envious of music than of any other art form – the way a song can take your head over and make you feel so intensely and so immediately. It’s like snorting powder, it goes straight to your brain.”

But I’ll leave the last words to Kelly himself. In his memoir he says – “Writing songs is a magpie business. You build your nest and fetch and carry to it the bright shiny things that catch your eye. You don’t care where they come from just so long as they fit just so … New life begins when strange things connect.”

First Published in the Northerly, July-August, 2103

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