Archive for February, 2013

Jane Underwood

❝Interestingly, literary fiction is considered to be free of formulae. Sometimes, my students even insist that the difference between literary and genre fiction is that the former isn’t formulaic. But isn’t it? Don’t most literary stories start a scene, then introduce some back story, create primarily emotional conflicts, and then end only a few paragraphs after the protagonist experiences an epiphany. Sounds like a formula to me. Of course, there are an infinity of stories one can tell with this formula, or with subversions of the same. That’s true of literary fiction, definitely!❞

To Underwood’s blog entry, “On Formulas and Fiction”…

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☞ At the onset, I must say that what Emmanuel Iduma says below deserves to be heard. However, with regard to his belief in the need to transcend genre in order to engage in politically committed writing as an African writer — or as any writer from the third world for that matter — I am not sure if I agree with him completely. I have to say at the same time that I am hugely sympathetic to his cause, but perhaps not precisely in the terms formulated by him. My difficulty lies with the belief that genre could be avoided, or that, to use his word, it could be transcended. I don’t think genre can be sidestepped. It exists in all texts. Even Finnegans Wake belongs to an overall genre, even if it is the only member of its generic category. It should also be said that a complex of (other) genres infuses Joyce’s work: it might be “genre-bending,” but genre or a whole army of genres informs the work. Writing something elemental, essential or basic does not mean that genre can be left aside. If there is an obsession with literary classification, and with placing works according to their genres for commercial purposes, it does not mean that genre itself is at fault: it might be an overly simplistic or mechanical understanding of genre for taxonomic purposes that is amiss here. What is perhaps needed is a more complex and less rigidly formulaic appreciation of genre, and the kind of simplistic pigeonholing of creative texts for commercial purposes is something that we should all move away from. (See also the next entry: quotation from “On Formulas and Fiction” [listed below]).

“‘An elemental narrative’ is the description we should use for a story that transcends genre. Our understanding of  ‘elemental’ relates to what is ‘essential’ or ‘a basic part.’ It means that our elemental narratives always bear the premise that we are writing a ‘basic’ story that touches at the heart of who we are and what we have become. The goal of the writer will be to write a story that is as elemental as a shared humanity, those recognizable qualities that makes us human, and sometimes inhuman.

The word ‘novel’ will serve merely for classification because in my thinking a narrative traverses the edges of fiction, reality, and everything in-between. The writer will not seek to write a story that fits into such categories as literary fiction, because in our time no one has successfully defined what those words mean. Perhaps that term, and classification, resulted from the arrogance of writers of an earlier generation who wanted to distinguish the stories they wrote, or told, from those of writers whose work did not fit into their artistic vision.

Even more, this goal should be taken seriously by an African writer. In truth, classifications – and the conscious practice of adhering to them – have not helped us much. Our publishing industry suffers in part, I believe, from an attempt to elevate one genre over the other. Genres may suffice for bookstores, and libraries, but they should not suffice for writers when they struggle in solitude. Assuming the African writer cares little about attempting to write ‘literary fiction’ but feels compelled to imagine a post-apocalypse world in Mushin, and remains faithful in telling the tale, perhaps we can have narratives that reach an otherwise neglected audience.”

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☞ From the Palestinian conflict to Australian politics: two very different issues and two very different sets of narratives. Both are political in their own unique ways, even if some of their features could be generalised or universalised. Both are also ultimately dependent on the right narratives to set things right for particular groups of people. It’s not the case that Australian politics or the Labor Party have lost all narrative: there are quite a lot of narratives or potential narratives going on there, with their own plots or potential plot outcomes. They are discussed in this article, and also, the readings listed below. The problem is not with narrative per se but the appropriate narrative or set of narratives that could save the Labor government. In this regard, the readings below have some interesting stories of their own to tell: such as the well-known one that there is a man waiting in the wings (a.k.a. Sir Kevin) who will very probably save the tribe (a.k.a. the Australian Labor Party); but his problem is that he is more popular in the land of Oz than among the fellow knightsmen and knightswomen of his tribe. Other narratives have to do with metaphors, such as Gillard being a zombie (“dead woman walking”) or that she is a woman with ba***. I am not sure if becoming the latter was helpful, or that, indeed, she has metaphorically undergone the tranformation (one of the occupational hazards of being a woman politician). She has in fact been accused by another female politician of using her gender to shield herself from complaints about her performance as prime minister.

“Governments ultimately thrive on narrative. Voters are not merely electing a suite of set policies. They are electing a party that will respond to future, unforeseen policy questions. They therefore need to know what you’re about. That’s what a clear consistent story tells them.

A party without a narrative is reduced to seeking your support as a lesser evil. Hence Labor’s focus on Tony Abbott.

Every successful government can be summarised in a phrase or two. Bob Hawke: a new, deregulated, globalised economy. Keating inherited that story, then added Asia, a growing economic power in our backyard we should embrace by shedding our British skin. Howard was about nationalism, security and capital’s triumph over labour. Everything – asylum seeker policy, counterterrorism, foreign affairs, even unsolicited social commentary about minority groups – was tailored to fit the story.

Exactly what story has Labor told us since 2007? It began with something about ”Australian working families”, but that too was a relic of the WorkChoices campaign. After that, it has been mostly a blancmange of conflicting messages. Perhaps it started when Kevin Rudd wanted to be ”tough but humane” on asylum seekers. It took Gillard only a matter of days as Prime Minister to continue the incoherence, declaring both that the number of boat people arriving in Australia was much smaller than many imagined, before swiftly going on to reassure those worried about invading hordes that their concerns were legitimate, and that they’re ”certainly [not] racist”. We learn nothing from this about how Labor sees asylum seekers. We learn only that it’s trying to please everyone.”

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☞ There is no question that the Palestinian problem is one of the great humanitarian crises of today. Like some of the historical problems of this nature, it has to do with the attempt to manufacture, promote and impose a dominant narrative through unjustifiable and savage means. In this case, as the Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa notes — in her review of a film which shows how the Zionists tried to demolish the Palestinian identity and intellectual heritage through the robbing of their books — the interpretation of the Palestinian narrative might depend on “who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it.” To Abulhawa, unless the narrative is told from a historically-informed Palestinian perspective, there are bound to be gaps that do not allow the more complete picture of Palestinian nationhood from being conveyed.

(Image: Via Al Jazeera)

(Image: Via Al Jazeera)

“I finally watched The Great Book Robbery at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend with some friends.  It’s a film documenting Israel’s systematic looting of over 70,000 books from Palestinian public and private libraries after Jewish gangs in Palestine proclaimed the state of Israel and ethnically cleansed the native population.

The film itself is excellent and I have a lot of good things to say about it.   But I was bothered by a certain element, at the very end, which was repeated by the Director, Benny Brunner, who was at the showing to answer questions.  So I raised my hand and asked a question about it.  Mr Brunner became very defensive.

His reaction made me think and re-think on a topic that already preoccupies me on a near daily basis – namely, the Palestinian narrative: who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it.    The importance of such a discussion regarding a people’s narrative should not be underestimated, particularly in instances of oppression and ethnic cleansing.

Putting aside the single, albeit important, element that bothered me in the film, and the film director’s unfortunate reaction to uncomfortable questions, I will first tell you everything that was right and good about this documentary.  For starters, it unveils another facet of the Zionist project to strip the indigenous Palestinians of everything tangible and intangible, not merely out of pure greed and opportunism, but also to necessarily fill in the various gaps and requirements of manufacturing a Jewish state in the 20th century.  This documentary deals with our books – some ancient, others contemporary; some rare one-of-a-kind books, others reproduced.  Most of them were personal, all were historic, and each was a piece of Palestinian cultural and intellectual heritage and identity.

As Zionists did with our homes, bank accounts, photographs, farms, orchards, and all remaining worldly possessions, they also stole our books.    A large number of them were looted from wealthy families from Jerusalem and Haifa, and in the process of watching this documentary, the viewer gets a sense of the cultured and highly-educated Palestinian society that was dispossessed of home and history by foreign Jewish newcomers.  One man in the audience made reference to this in a comment to the director.  This film clearly changed the image of Palestinians in his mind from something other than cultured, to people he could relate to.   That says something about the film’s power.

Several Palestinian personalities were featured, including Nasser Nashashibi, whose tears fell as he spoke of the loss of his library.  Ghada Karmi, too, was in the film.  Footage showed her returning to her home in Qatamon and finding the same lemon tree and porch tiles from her youth.  Another poignant interview was with a Palestinian by the name of Ahmed Batrawi.  He described himself as a prisoner of war who was forced to work and to clear out other Palestinian homes, including his own, and turn over all loot to Zionist authorities.  Although the director did not mention this, all evidence points to Batrawi having been in one of the many forced labor camps that Israel apparently established just 4 years after Nazis closed the last of their forced labor camps.  Little is known of these camps and I first heard of them from Dr Salman Abu Sitta, whose research into the archives of the Swiss Red Cross revealed 5 camps with 6,360 prisoners who were forced into slave labor after 1948.  But I digress.

The story was haunting and compelling.  It provoked anger in me that plunged into a depth of sadness and loss.  I think it would seem silly to some to mourn old books, especially when there is so much more to mourn, from stolen futures to extinguished lives.  But perhaps it is precisely for the magnitude of our loss that our books, our intellectual heritage and narrative, matter so much.”

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☞ The notion that one needs a career narrative, especially when applying for, or changing, jobs, is increasingly recognised. A narrative is usually more attractive and effective than a set of facts. As Gardner and Zalisk note in their article, one should start thinking of a career narrative early, and it is not something to be left later in life. Of course, not all career narratives may work. Gardner and Zalisk have some advice on how to write one. 

“In recent years, much has been written about the importance of career narratives for mid-career and senior professionals, particularly those making a career transition. But, we’d argue, they’re even more important for younger professionals who don’t yet have a multipage CV or a high-powered headhunter in their corner. What, then, makes for an effective narrative?

First, it should be easy to remember and retell. The whole point is to give your colleagues a narrative that quickly comes to mind whenever they’re asked about you, preventing them from making assumptions and drawing conclusions on their own. Two or four sentences, maximum.

Second, it should meaningfully link your past successes to your near and long-term development needs and suggest the kinds of assignments that would help to achieve those objectives. Those goals might certainly be developmental (to test a particular skill; gain experience with a certain tool or methodology; explore a specific industry). But they can also be more personal (limit travel to spend time with family, for instance).Think of it as a “sound-bite resume” — on hearing it, senior professionals should have two reactions. First, they should be interested in working with you. Second, they should know if it makes sense for you to work with them.

Third, your narrative needs to hang together with the right combination of honesty, humility, and personal flavor. Doing so creates an authentic and compelling career narrative. Narratives that just articulate a string of successes are not credible and are not likely to be repeated. Similarly, boilerplate chronicles without any personal flair rarely get traction.”

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☞ Steve Jobs was responsible for the transformation of Apple from a maverick outfit to the highly valued mainstream company that it is today. In addition to the fact that he is no longer around, this transformation — or what the following article has described as its “narrative arc” — has made some business forecasters question the viability of a company that has lost its identity. This claim, of course is debatable. The extract below is taken from the article “Sustainable storytelling is a powerful tool that communicates vision.” Like many discussions on Apple, it views the company’s history and its future in narrative terms.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” — Philip Pullman

“Stories have real power, and which ones we choose to tell ourselves matters.” — Ed Gillespie

“…perhaps the most interesting narrative arc is that described by the rise of Apple.

I’m old enough to remember Apple’s legendary 1984 advert. In those days Apple was a challenger brand attempting to “overcome the monster” (another of the seven basic plots) of IBM, which dominated the market. Their vision and ambition was clear: we will fight for freedom and prevent a form of enslavement to the ordinary. Because of us, 1984 won’t be like Orwell’s vision in his 1984.

Their narrative journey continued through the equally famous Crazy Ones campaign and the reinforcement of Apple’s purpose – their why, their raison d’etre – to Think Different.

It is arguably this evocative mantra that has driven the company’s relentless innovation from desktops, to laptops, to revolutionising digital music through the iPod and iTunes; telecoms through the iPhone, and tablet computing with the iPad, which we didn’t even know we wanted.

Over the three decades since Apple’s 1984, the company has become the most valuable company in the world and is no longer the plucky, creative challenger brand. In the aftermath of the untimely demise of its charismatic founder Steve Jobs, it squats as a market dominator, leveraging control over multiple platforms, squiring dubious supply chain practices and submitting patents and issuing law suits left right and centre. Hardly the behaviour of a maverick interloper. Has Apple passed its peak and lost touch with its story?”

☞ Narrative is often associated with creativity. It is generally assumed that one is involved with creativity if one engages in narrative: narrative journalism, for example, is quite often regarded as “creative non-fiction” and not merely another mode of, or approach to, journalistic writing. Also, as some of the posts on this blog illustrate, one need not be extraordinarily creative for narrative to do its job in our everyday lives, or, for it to perform a function in seemingly non-creative activities, such as the buying and selling of goods and services. But the association is there, even if one wants to contextualise and question the extent of their linkage. In this regard, an article on creativity is certainly useful in helping us arrive at a richer and more multi-faceted understanding of narrative.

1.      You are creative. The artist is not a special person, each one of us is a special kind of artist. Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker. The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative, are not. Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs. This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.

2.      Creative thinking is work. You must have passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of creating new and different ideas. Then you must have patience to persevere against all adversity. All creative geniuses work passionately hard and produce incredible numbers of ideas, most of which are bad. In fact, more bad poems were written by the major poets than by minor poets. Thomas Edison created 3000 different ideas for lighting systems before he evaluated them for practicality and profitability. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music, including forty-one symphonies and some forty-odd operas and masses, during his short creative life. Rembrandt produced around 650 paintings and 2,000 drawings and Picasso executed more than 20,000 works. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Some were masterpieces, while others were no better than his contemporaries could have written, and some were simply bad. …”

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