Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Freak's Own: Solve the Puzzle

Freak's Own: Solve the Puzzle

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Fictional Reportage

Most people are familiar with the non-fiction writing style known as creative non-fiction. It has also been referred to as the new journalism or literary non-fiction. The idea is fairly simple: non-fiction in which many techniques more commonly associated with fiction are utilized. Scenes are reconstructed using dialogue, characters are fleshed out, and themes are developed. The result is a much more emotional and engaging reading experience. People may disagree on what exactly qualifies as creative non-fiction, though one of the determining factors seems to be that the quality of writing is exceptional.

Creative Non-Fiction Classics

Some creative non-fiction classics are Hiroshima by John Hersey, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. Another lesser known but superbly written example of creative non-fiction is Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land by David K. Shipler. All of these examples focus on either war or crime, though those topics are certainly not the only ones which have yielded fantastic results in the right hands.

Hiroshima by John Hersey
Compared to creative non-fiction, writing which simply delivers the facts can be bland and unreadable. Of course, books dense with citations and few evocative descriptions of real-life characters or settings can be enjoyable and informative in their own way, but are usually not as appealing to the average reader as creative non-fiction.

Critics of the style exist. No doubt the word "creative" suggests embellishment to some people. I would argue that believability is at the core of all criticism of non-fiction writing. Every writer is susceptible to bias, editorializing and in extreme cases, brazenly misleading readers. Of course, some of the best creative non-fiction is completely absent any editorializing whatsoever and instead relies on the "camera as reporter" style of writing which many people believe is the closest thing to objectivity. And yet, critical thinkers will point out, accurately, that the details a writer chooses to focus on is a form of editorializing.

Fictional Reportage

The flip side of creative non-fiction is a writing style I call "fictional reportage." It is fiction that reads like non-fiction. Or, more accurately, fiction that reads like creative non-fiction. One example is Bomber, by Len Deighton. It's the story of a British bomber flying its last flight over Germany during the Second World War. It spans a period of 24 hours and includes time stamps for many of the chapters. The book still contains plenty of dialogue, but something in the moment by moment action and descriptions has the feel, at times, of well-written creative non-fiction.

Bangkok Filth by Ken Austin
Bangkok Filth also contains many stories that qualify as fictional reportage. Like most people who write fiction, I had previously written countless hundreds of thousands of words of non-fiction, including essays, political rants, travel writing and book reviews. Yet I found myself wanting to insert made-up passages into non-fiction pieces for no other reason than the desire to try something different. The results were mixed, but I always found the fictional reportage mindset made the writing easier than when I wrote more traditional fiction.

Do works of non-fiction that turn out to be largely fabricated qualify as fictional reportage (think A Million Little Pieces by James Frey)? I suppose they do, at least the fabricated sections. The point is, a certain writing style has to be maintained throughout the book. The author has consciously done something to give those made up a passages a certain feel he may not have brought to his other fiction writing. As mentioned, the question of authenticity has always plagued non-fiction writers, and some take more liberties than others. Of course, most fiction will inevitably contain some scenes cribbed from the writers' lives, though there is normally little outrage, even if easily recognizable characters are obviously real people plucked from the author's life.

So what exactly is the criteria for classifying writing as fictional reportage? Just as with creative non-fiction, the definition is subjective. It's more about degrees. For my own fictional reportage, detailed descriptions of places that exist in the real world interwoven with fictional characters and storylines are the most common features. Authorial asides, or passages that have that feel, may also show up in fictional reportage. Not surprisingly, sometimes fictional reportage will feature writing that employs turns of phrase or methods more common in newspaper reporting. But as with creative non-fiction, the determination about what qualifies as fictional reportage will often be up to the reader. Fictional reportage will hopefully hit readers differently than other fiction, and may even make them question whether what they are reading is factual or not.

I urge writers with a lot of non-fiction writing under their belts, but who want to try fiction, to consider consciously approaching their first fiction writing project with this frame of reference. You may find it easier to get the words flowing, and in the process you might embrace a writing style that works for both you and your readers.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Freak's Own: Alien Abduction

Freak's Own: Alien Abduction

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Book Review: North of South by Shiva Naipaul

North of South by Shiva Naipaul
Some things defy description. For example, an LSD trip or the inexplicably surreal atmosphere a first-time traveller to Africa encounters. Imagine travelling to Africa, dropping a hit of acid and then later trying to describe the experience to someone who has done neither? In fact, Shiva Naipaul's book, North of South: An African Journey, has nothing to do with drugs. But he does a good job of capturing the incomprehensible absurdities that inevitably rain down on the heads of visitors to the dark continent.

In 1977, Naipaul had the idea of traveling to East Africa and writing about countries which had shaken off the shackles of colonialism. How had the politics of the new regimes affected the people? Had colonialism actually been good for Africa? What did the blacks, whites and browns (Asians) in Africa think about the state of affairs? It was a broad-brush outline in advance of his journey, and his publishers and editors were as leery of the relative lack of focus as he was himself.

The result is one of the most cynical and relentlessly unsympathetic accounts of the doomed nations and people of Africa that has ever been written. In short, just the kind of book I enjoy. Naipaul has the ability to quickly size up people he meets on his journey and deftly bludgeon them into memorable caricatures. The descriptions are larded with sarcasm and vicious wit, but more often than not, the absurd contrast between people's words and the apparent reality of the situation is enough to do the job. Naipaul puts everyone he meets through the wringer, regardless of colour, creed or social standing. At the time, Naipaul's book garnered some negative reviews, and he was labeled a racist by more than a few people. But if  anyone of any literary accomplishment were to write a similar book today, it would result in a tsunami of criticism and calls for career-ending sanctions.

I spent a year in Africa a few decades ago, and have also subsequently spent many years in various third-world countries. And so the descriptions in the book ring true. The invincible dishonesty, shamelessness and short-sighted, self serving behaviour that drag people and nations into a cesspool (largely) of their own making. The bizarre feeling that the people are like a race of vicious children who are forever amazed that they can create reality anew with each new lie as they attempt to cheat other human beings. The desire to be led by others and the willingness to believe every ridiculous, head-up-the-ass lie they are told. To live in such a society is to know that if someone with power enters a room with chocolate cake smeared on his face, 99% of people present will act like nothing is out of the ordinary, and the other 1% will volunteer to lick the person's face clean in hopes of gaining some kind of benefit.

Naipaul begins his journey in Kenya and the ridiculous encounters begin immediately. Smirking, shamelessly corrupt immigration officials size up arriving passengers for potential bribes and offer cryptic answers to questions regarding visas and other regulations. Naipaul talks to expats who revel in mocking ignorant Africans, and has surreal run-ins with locals who try to cheat him. A running theme emerges: any relationship or interaction will necessarily provide one or both of the participants with the opportunity to lie, cheat or somehow take advantage, and the opportunity will rarely be passed up. Naipaul also offers some potted history of Kenya with references from books written by early colonialists as well as native writers. But the most entertaining parts of the book are the characters Naipaul describes. Here, he meets an African student:
So often when one is talking to Africans who seem thoroughly modern, something is said that suddenly jars; that brings one up short and makes one realize that not all is what it seems to be. I think, for instance, of the modishly dressed student who told me that he was "studying literature." I asked who his favourite writer was. He said he did not have one. 
"But," I said, "there must be some books, some kind of writing you particularly enjoy."
He shook his head. "I don't care much for reading," he said--not without pride.
Even in this day and age, 40 years after the book was written, the above passage rings true. Bizarro-world interactions like this are still part of life in third-world countries.

As with all non-fiction books, a reader will undoubtedly question the authenticity of the conversations Naipaul includes and the characters he meets. Are they mainly composite characters, or characters made up of whole cloth with the aim of constructing a certain kind of narrative? Almost without fail, the people are of a certain stock type, their absurdities seen clearly only by Naipaul. And yet, if real-life conversations were included in novels, they would be undreadable. So too, non-fiction dialogue is inevitably condensed and made more readable. It's impossible to know how many liberties Naipaul took, but at least he is consistent in ripping everyone he comes across. White settlers, black politicians, Asian shop keepers and white tourists all come in for a hardcore verbal kicking.

In this passage, he visits the British owners of a tea plantation in Kenya. After observing the way they exploit the locals for labour, Naipaul has this to say about their son:
Ralph did not have much to say for himself. He sat hunched over his food, head bent over his plate, masticating with noisy devotion. I watched him shovel meat and potatoes into his mouth. There was something degenerate, something savage about Ralph. In Africa, European civilization did not penetrate the second generation. 
Naipaul, an Indian from Trinidad and Tobago, returns repeatedly to the special loathing that many Africans seem to have for Asians. He meets an Indian family, the Mukerjees, during a trip to the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. The husband shares his views of himself with Naipaul and everyone else in the mini-bus:
"These people had never seen anything like it. They had no idea what to do with me--and I was wearing a dhoti, which confused them even more. Their trouble was that they didn't know the kind of man they were dealing with. They thought I was another spineless Asian who they could kick around like a football." He waved contemptuously at our Goan companions. "They must have thought I was like one of those. But I'm no Asian. Not by a long chalk. I'm an Indian national, and I showed them what a nasty customer I could be." He giggled. "I can be a very nasty man when I want to. I can turn very nasty indeed." 
For anyone who has travelled extensively, a certain strident, imperious, repellent type of individual comes to mind, and the belief that Naipual is being straight in his descriptions of characters and dialogue is strengthened.

But Naipaul reserves his greatest contempt for white tourists. If they happen to be female, his loathing reaches pathological and twisted levels. Here he describes a pair of young American women who share paid transport with him in the back of a pick-up truck:
I suspect, not without a certain amount of trepidation, that they regard me as a potential ally in their cold war with the others. They are hedged about with an aura of failure, of futility. I could see them being flung into jail on trumped-up charges, being swindled, being raped, even being murdered...nothing will ever go quite right for them.
From Tanzania, Naipaul makes his way down into Zambia before finally returning to Kenya. The characters he meets make this book well worth reading. But he also includes the requisite passages describing the awesome beauty of Africa. He also comments extensively on socialist government initiatives and the confused citizens who mouth the associated platitudes but never quite know where their countries are headed. He finishes the journey completely jaded and without hope for Africa:
Black and white deserved each other. Neither was worth the shedding of a single tear: both were rotten to the core. Each had been destroyed by contact with the other--though each had been destroyed in his own way.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I realize a certain type of commentary can grow wearing at times (a good lesson for many...), and perhaps would be more trying for other readers. And yet, the lack of niceties and the commitment to a book-length verbal assault on so many people and places is refreshing. I've never had the chance to read any of Shiva Naipaul's other books. He was the brother of the more famous writer, V.S. Naipaul, and yet, Shiva also produced a number of novels and non-fiction works in his relatively short life. In 1985, perhaps while gleefully hammering out more bilious descriptions of people and places on his typewriter, he slumped forward onto his desk and died of a heart attack. He was 40 years old.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Book Review: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
It's surprising that more people have not heard of Ryszard Kapuscinski. That's not to suggest that his books and essays are not well known. But he was such a skilled journalist and writer that he should be more widely read and celebrated.

Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who arrived in Africa in the late 1950s to chronicle the political upheavals in numerous countries as colonialism started to unravel. Writing for Poland's state news agency, he would continue to visit Africa for extended periods and write about the invincible dysfunction in many of of the continent's most troubled locations for almost half a century. The Shadow of the Sun is a collection of his reportage and essays about Africa that span those nearly 50 years.

Translated from Polish, Kapuscinski's writing is at turns sparse, reflective and poetic. His detailed descriptions and shrewd insights highlight him as a keen observer capable of distilling the convoluted machinations of revolution and war into easy-to-follow accounts. The Shadow of the Sun is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn about the culture and history of African countries. Or simply for anyone who enjoys beautifully written articles ('articles' is somehow too pedestrian a word--perhaps 'timeless accounts') about distant lands.

Because Kapuscinski was a journalist who wrote mainly about the politics of the places he visited, he isn't known as a travel writer. Yet his ability to vividly evoke a sense of place, bring characters to life, explain cultural habits and provide succinct, accurate historical background make his writing a must read for every novice travel writer. And, in fact, a number of the pieces in the book could qualify as travel writing, although some of them are preludes to subsequent pieces that focus on political strife.

Early on, Kapuscinski provides some unwitting advice to anyone who wants some quick insight into a place they are visiting:
In the morning I bought the local newspaper, Ashanti Pioneer, and set out in search of its editorial offices. Experience teaches that one can learn more passing an hour in such an office than in a week of walking around to see various institutions and notables. And so it was this time.
Readers who have traveled or lived in Africa, or in any third world country, will nod their heads in agreement at many of the observations. Here, Kapuscinski writes about a mini-bus driver and departure schedules:
"What do you mean, 'when'?" the astonished driver will reply. "It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up."
And in a related passage, he writes about punctuality in general:
In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon, but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, "When will the meeting take place?" makes no sense. You know the answer: "It will take place when people come."
Describing a bout of malaria:
The malaria attack is not merely painful, but like every pain also a mystical experience. We enter a realm about which a moment ago we knew nothing, though it now turns out that it had existed in us all the while, finally capturing and incorporating us: we discover within ourselves icy crevasses, chasms, and abysses, whose presence fills us with suffering and fear.
Probably the most prescient discussion about life in third world countries comes when  Kapuscinski relays the discussion he has with an Englishman in Ethiopia. The man talks about the culture of criticism that exists in Europe and laments the hypersensitivity of many people in Africa.
They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc. Representatives of these cultures treat criticism as a personal insult, as a deliberate attempt to humiliate them, as a form of sadism even. If you tell them that the city is dirty, they treat this as if you said that they were dirty themselves, had dirty ears, or dirty nails. Instead of being self-critical, they are full of countless grudges, complexes, envies, peeves, manias. The effect of all this is that they are culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.
I've lived a good portion of my adult life in a third world country, and the above quoted passage perfectly sums up people's attitudes to criticism in this part of the world. Multiply that mentality times a thousand if an outsider dares to offer even mild criticism about his adopted home. I think this difference is also evident in humour. In Europe and North America, humour often revolves around mocking and ridiculing people with power. Here, humour is slapstick, men dressing up as women, and for the real connoisseurs, midgets.

Among Kapuscinski's detailed accounts of war and strife, the lengthy reportage on Rwanda and Liberia struck me as the most informative and memorable. Regarding the decades-old conflict in Rwanda that flared into holocaust numerous times, Kapuscinski evokes the physical setting, simply and eloquently describes the history and players and laments the hopelessness of it all.

The chapter about Liberia also provides some good history and describes the kind of surreal events that seem so commonplace in Africa. Kapuscinski reports on the fall of Liberian president, Samuel Doe in 1990. One of his former associates, Prince Johnson, puts together his own army and captures Doe. Johnson's followers videotape the macabre scene that plays out and Kapuscinski details the events that unfold in the video:
We see Johnson sitting and drinking beer. A woman stands next to him, fanning him and wiping the sweat from his brow. On the floor sits a bound Doe, dripping with blood. His face is so battered you barely see his eyes.
But Johnson just yells at Doe in a local creole dialect. It is impossible to understand most of what he says, except for one thing: he demands that Doe tell him his bank account number. Whenever a dictator is seized in Africa, the entire ensuing inquisition, the beatings, the tortures, will inevitably revolve around one thing: the number of his private bank account.
And sure enough, you can find the gruesome footage posted on YouTube (warning: not for the faint of heart).

A correspondent posted overseas in the same geographical region for many decades is almost a thing of the past. That's too bad, because the quality of insights and well-written accounts of people, their cultures and their political dramas that appear in The Shadow of the Sun is also becoming a relic of a bygone era.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Freak's Own: 10—Bombing Syria

Freak's Own 10: Bombing Syria

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Freak's Own: 9—Confirmation Bias

Freak's Own: 9