Faulkner’s Vietnam: Kelly Morse on the “The Saigon Kiss”

January 29, 2014 § 2 Comments

morseKelly Morse discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “The Saigon Kiss“:

It took me almost two years to find the format and pacing for this piece. The original draft was a prose poem, containing only the story of the man in the wheelchair with the boy. At the end, some impulse pushed me to add the line about the Saigon kiss, a bitter joke among expats, even though I didn’t understand what it was doing in the piece. Quite frankly, I was uncertain about lots of aspects of my life. I’d just returned to the US after living in Vietnam for two years, and I floundered in my re-entry, angry and grieving because I’d experienced a culture so markedly different from my own that now there were jagged canyons in my heretofore smooth understanding of the world. I was mad at Vietnam for exposing my ignorance to myself while never letting me integrate into the culture, and mad at the comfortable incomprehension my contemporaries maintained (through no fault of their own) that made it difficult to talk about the new terrain in which I found myself. Over and over again, I ended up in conversations about either the war or the current popularity of Vietnamese cuisine. Burning babies or bánh mì sandwiches. Neither is an accurate depiction of contemporary Vietnamese life – two-thirds of the current population were born after the conflict ended, and a lunch snack does not a people make.

Strangely enough, the place where I found the most kinship with my Hanoi life was in a Faulkner class taught by scholar James T. Matthews. Like Gabriel García Márquez, who in an interview said that Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet “was the best South American novel ever written,” I too in those pages found myself recognizing situations, gestures, and relationships I’d witnessed on another continent. Faulkner’s descriptions of an agrarian South being forced to reckon with economic subordination to an urban, industrialized North especially mirrored life in Vietnam’s two metropolises. Vietnam was re-entering global capitalism through sweatshops and startups, even as a recent census noted that 80% of the population held jobs related to farming, and over 90% lived in rural areas. The new brutality of Hanoi’s main streets was in opposition to traditions of interdependence holding together the dense neighborhoods and rural villages. It was through Faulkner that I figured out how to write about Vietnam.

When we read The Wild Palms, Matthews related that, after completing the first storyline of the novel, Faulkner found it oddly flat. He realized that he “needed something to lift it, like counterpoint in music”, and so interspersed the original narrative with another that dealt with similar themes from different angles. This idea came back to me months later when I found my own piece was missing something. The story of the man in the wheelchair was interesting, but it alone didn’t explain why I found in the situation a reflection of myself that gnawed at me. It also only showed one side of a particular aspect of Vietnamese culture, and a negative one at that. I had to draw out the complexity of the situation somehow, even (and maybe especially) if it revealed how I manipulated the social hierarchy when it suited me.  At the same time, I wanted to show how this complicated idea of relationships could be wonderfully intimate and friendly.

In the end, I printed out the three experiences and cut each up into paragraphs, arranging and rearranging them on the table until together they formed a greater narrative. Only then, with all the pieces together, did I understand why I’d originally included that line about the Saigon Kiss.

Nin Andrews on Her Essay “Bird Watching with James Dickey”

January 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

Nin-AndrewsWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Nin Andrews tells us how she came to write “Bird Watching with James Dickey:”

My father was an habitual story-teller. It was a day like no other day, he would say, beginning one of his many stories. Immediately my mother would correct him.

It was a perfectly ordinary day. I remember it well.

The air was so electric, my father would continue, ignoring my mother. Even the hairs stood up on my hands.

Hairs don’t stand up on hands, my mother said. Besides, it’s hair, not hairs.

I said hairs. I meant hairs. 

Sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in front of the box fan after dinner, I would listen to my father’s tales, and my mother like a hound tracking his every word. They were good stories, made better by my mother’s interruptions. And they were evolving stories that changed with every telling.

Sometimes my father would be joined by his friend, the writer, Peter Taylor. The two would trade tales about their families, the south, ghosts, and famous writers. My father, a competitive man, could hold his own on the first three categories of stories. He even suspected Peter was stealing his tales and using them in his fiction. Secretly my father thought he was the better raconteur of the two.

But when it came to stories about authors, Peter Taylor, held most of the cards. He and his wife, Eleanor Ross Taylor, could talk at length about Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford and many others. But my father did hold one ace. William Faulkner visited our farm before I was born. Did I ever tell you about the time William Faulkner was thrown off our horse? he would begin. Peter nodded. After a while, my father decided to tell a James Dickey story instead. After several tellings, my father went back to talking about William Faulkner. I’ve often wondered how many times William Faulkner fell off our horse.

First be sure you have something to say. Then say it and say it right.

April 5, 2011 § 4 Comments

From an interview with William Faulkner:

Q: How do you find time to write?

WF: You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can’t is living under false pretenses … Don’t wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don’t wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression.

Q: What is the best training for writing? Courses in writing? Or what?

WF: Read, read, read! Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it is good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.

Q: How do you go about choosing your words?

WF: In the heat of putting it down you might put down some extra words. If you rework it, and the words still ring true, leave them in.

Q: What one obstacle do you consider greatest in writing?

WF: I’m not sure I understand what you mean. What do you want to do? Write something that will sell?

Q: I mean whether the obstacle is internal conflict or external conflict.

WF: Internal conflict is the first obstacle to pass. Satisfy yourself with what you are writing. First be sure you have something to say. Then say it and say it right.

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