Last week I ended my column by stating that “[w]e need to draw deeper not just from those other wells [of inspiration], but from [our] own, understand our own depths before we go diving into others.” This week I want to discuss that statement, pick it apart and try to articulate what it signifies to me. That statement is significant to me as writer and reader because it reflects the importance and promise of literature to me. And by “literature” here I mean the written work that has meaning for me and brings me joy and fodder for rumination. Much of that literature is fantastic in nature, and I want to reflect on what the explicitly fantastic has to offer us as literature, what good writers can do with it and what good readers can glean from it.
The problem is, this idea of drawing deeper is subjective; it depends on the individual writer (and reader!) for its infusion and decoding in a story. What does it mean to “draw deeper?” What qualifies as doing so? Personal investment? Fine detail? Mythic resonance? Beautiful writing? The answer is hard to pin down, but what I am driving at is a combination of care and insight. I use both terms as broadly as possible, but when I think of drawing deeper, I think of assiduousness and illumination. I think of attention to detail, but attention that is sensitive and deft; I want to feel what I am reading has empathy and veracity (as opposed to Truth, for example).
Let me give an example: Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, which I discussed as a panelist at Readercon’s Book Club this summer. This novel is, in all the manifold and best ways, strange and unsettling, dizzying and wandering. It’s story is simple, but the execution draws deeply from folklore, comedy, a delirious surrealism, and disjointed, sometimes impossible details to produce a work that resonates with my idea. Tutuola takes inspiration from Yoruba folklore and uses it to simultaneously infiltrate modernist sensibilities and to undermine any feeling of fixity or safety in the reader’s journey through the narrative. You have no choice but to trust the narration because you given no anchorage of certitude in the story. It is a dream, a nightmare, an epiphany, a burlesque, and it accomplishes all of this because the care and insight come through in the reading of the text.
Now, this novel is distinctive in its style and effects, and I am not arguing that authors try to duplicate what Tutuola specifically produced or to adapt his style. That would be difficult and inappropriate. But what I do think is that there are lessons here that we can learn. The first one is that “Worldbuilding,” the conjuration of a setting and milieu for the narrative, does not have to be mechanical and can be integrated into the telling of the story. We do not have to create a veneer of the exotic or a mimetic foundation of prosaic details to “transport” the reader; by picking up a book the reader has already signaled that they are ready to travel. What we have to do is blend the displacement that they are searching for into the text and break down the segmentation and artificiality that often arises in fantasy, from massive epics to quickfire urban fantasies.
There’s a great paragraph towards the end of M. H. Abrams’ Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature that begins “The ground-concept is life” and goes on to extol the virtues of love and joy and other Romantic ideals. For me, the idea of drawing deeper, of piercing the surface of our assumptions and habits, is a process of finding that ground-concept and bringing it distinctively into view for the reader, and for us as writers too. What ideals arise will vary, as they should, but it is only through reconnecting with life in some fashion, diving through preconceptions, that we can understand our personal, cultural, epistemological depths and find something within them worth reading and writing about. I think that we touch those depths when we find “the norm of life” that Abrams calls joy but that I think is much broader and richer than that word can connotate.
Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams is a great example of what I mean. In its unraveling wonderland of folklore and desires the main characters must discover the meaning of their lives. But this is not an existential act of navel-gazing or a decontextualized vision of philosophy. The characters must move through a messy, magical world to find a sense of themselves that grounds them in a world of seemingly infinite possibilities. Sedia borrows from many folkloric sources, and I think makes up some of her own, but this is not an attempt to borrow significance or an exotic thrill from other sources; it is a search through many varieties of conceptualizing human experience. It is about how stories make or break our ideas of who we are and how we move through the world. Sedia uses the lunacy and instability of her characters’ world to cut through reality and by doing so her characters arrive at a level of truth about how they are.
This is the “harsh wonder” that I am referring to in the title of this column, and this is for me the value of a story that draws deeply from the well of inspiration. Sometimes this wonder is giddy, sometimes perverse, often partial and temporary, but it is also harsh. It is not flimsy or hollow; it is everything that the word harsh offers us as meaning: rough, raw, itchy, rude, thistle-like in its beauty and irritation. It transports us but demands that we accept all that it has to offer. It says “trust me, even when I betray or befuddle you.” Real life has a harshness to it, but what makes us marvel at it and recoil from it and scream at it is that we take that harshness and give it intention and value through story. Stories that embrace that, and then pointedly make it different, weird, preposterous. . . those stories give us a chance to find the wonder that keeps us going. When they can bring us a story that has something genuine in it, for whatever essence the reader gives that term, we have drawn something powerful from the well. When we add to the displacement of that through the lens of explicit fantasy, we are given even more opportunities to imagine the world more richly and find that “ground-concept” in ourselves.