Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Behind the Words - Killing the Kitten

The basic problem facing fledgling short fiction writers that I encounter is a fundamental one, that of finding the material and shaping it into the final thing. Most jump into a piece because they encounter a particular narrative, directly or indirectly, and want to retell it. Others have some dream or vision that they want to put down on a page and hence give some meaning to.

What I've come to is that while these approaches may not be wrong in the strictest sense, what you first need to do is to consciously access the basic thesis at the centre of this narrative or that dream. Once you latch on to that, this grand statement that is the cause d'ĂȘtre of a particular piece, you have now the option of choosing experience or imagination or - as is likelier - a particular combination of both as the raw material from which you're going to shape, mould, sculpt, carve that story. Then you can set to work constructing the story proper... character, setting, plot, style, perspective. As Nabokov put it in one story,

"We, Writers, alter the themes of Life to suit us in our drive towards some conventional harmony, some kind of artistic conciseness. We spice our savorless plagiarisms with our own devices. We think that Life's performance is too sweeping, too uneven, that her genius is too untidy. To indulge our readers, we cut out of Life's untrammeled novels our neat little tales for the use of school children."

As ironic as the above delivery may be, this essentially is what the short fiction writer does. Finding exactly where to start cutting, and how much is the trouble. For example, the inspiration for the story Killing the Kitten came from four 'narratives'. The first is recounted in part in the story, the titular act, the killing of the kitten, something I actually did. The second is a conversation I had with a former girlfriend in my late teens, an angst-ridden bit of dialogue concerning the possible consequence of one of our youthful amorous indiscretions. The third came from a short story I read, a year later, at the Cropper Foundation Workshop in Trinidad, Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants. The fourth is the novel by John Irving, The Ciderhouse Rules, which I read a year or so after the workshop - as has been a habit of mine, working a reference to a thematic source text within dialogue, I referenced that novel within the story itself.

Inspired initially by real life as it was, my thesis was a variation on that of Hemingway's piece, and after considering the options, not many at the time, I decided that his use of dialogue, modified by framing exposition, with minimal description was the most apt mode of telling the story, letting the serious of the story come out in the realistic tenseness of the dialogue, the compromises, the parrying, the assaults, the deflections; I did however end the story with a lyrical flourish since Hemingway's abrupt, non-commital cut wasn't applicable to what I wanted to communicate.

I should note here that David Forster Wallace tackles the same thesis - granted with a decidedly American political slant or sensibility - in a brilliant short story Good People, but choses instead his inimitable rambling but also lyrical stream of conscious, freight train style; why this was necessary in this case, as opposed to the minimalism I adopted in homage to or imitation of, or whatever, Hemingway.

I think the major innovation I brought to the story, the thesis, was my use of perspective. I felt with the Hemingway story that the lens was too far away, and even had I read the Wallace story - published in theNew Yorker some four years after Ariadne - the lens would have been too close. I needed something that was midway, that offered a perspective between the intimacy of the first person and the objective distance of the third. When I was young, about nine or ten, I had a brief but intense flirtation with those chose your own adventure books and when I started writing the story, it came to me that I could actually use the second person/reflective first person mechanism that they used to pull the reader into their narrative, to essentially inhabit the main character.

All that was left therefore was to create a fairly detailed backstory for the characters. I chose to make the couple Hindu for several reasons, foremost of which was that as a perceivably non-Hindu writer, I wanted to underscore that my thesis within the story was a universal one, in defiance of and challenge to both the presumption by dark-skinned, kinky haired persons that as a dark-skinned, kinky-haired person I was automatically writing for other dark-skinned kinky haired persons to the exclusion of everyone else, as well as the rising Hindutva sentiment that was at its peak at that time that saw this space as somehow, for all practical purposes, an extension of BJP's India.

For me, finding your thesis, seeing the essential message that you want to carve out of experience and imagination, is a crucial step in getting the story off of the ground. It may not be the skeleton of the piece, and hence finding it doesn't necessarily mean you're just going to have to apply the meat of your tale to it in order to get to complete your fiction - but, that said, your thesis is the soul of your story and your conscious perception of it defines how you end up going about putting everything else together.

Finally, it should be noted that nowhere above do I explicitly or even implicitly state what that thesis is. If you have the time and have read this far, the story is below and you can make your inferences from that.

Killing the Kitten

You sit on the bench, waiting. You run the fingers of a hand through your hair. In the damp air, it is springy and slick.

People pass by. All walking towards North Road, most bound for Regent. Lanky basketball players, T-squared boys from the Technical Institute, fat female clerks with that dour look that graces the faces of all public service clerical staff, petite girls in plaid skirts, white shirts and Nikes, the one muttering madman, some University Students with the slow, self-assured drag that only aspiring lawyers and Rotaract/Rotary members can achieve, thick-thighed, high-gut women in large t-shirts and tights. Some of the bolder women stare at you.

"Hey, Ravi," a voice says and you turn around. You try not to notice that she has deliberately worn her hair loose, or the lip gloss that you can't decide whether you like or dislike intensely. The shirt is white, long-sleeved and loose; the jeans are tight. You have waited too many seconds to reply. She sits and turns away briefly to avoid you seeing her smile.

"We know each other too long for you to give me the silent treatment," she says.

"Sorry," you stumble, "I was just kinda lost in thought just now. How everybody…Auntie Sukhie, Naresh, you father them?"

"Everybody ok. So…Mr. Bholanauth. What have I done to…ah…for you honour me with your request to speak to your honourable and hardly-seen-these-days person?" She waves her hands, juts her chin, in a mock grandiloquence.

"I miss you," you say, and this stuns her.

"Please," she says quietly, a slight quake in her voice, "…remember? No more words like that."

"I miss you, Bharti…" You try to touch her hand but she pulls it away.

"Talk bout something else or I gone, ok, Ravi? When last you see Nirmala."

"Which one?" you ask, stubbornly.

"You know more than one now? I'm talking about the one I know. Wha used to go to Bygevalt. Which other Nirmala you know?"

"They get a girl does English with me. Creighton course."

"Well I won't know that Nirmala, dear. I could only ask about the one I know about, from Bygevalt."

"I ain see Nirmala for a long long while, girl I think Sunil seh last time he see she was pun GTV…the Bhajan show they does get on early in the morning, round four, five o'clock time."

"Sunil don't work?"

"Yes. He on probation at Scotiabank."

"Then what he doing up at four, five o'clock in the morn…"

"Preparing for work," you offer, cueing her.

"Uhn-uhn, not Sunil. An-y-bod-y but Sunil. Remember? Sunil used to come to school ten past nine every morning. Oh God, Sir Bristol woulda ketch heart-attack if Sunil din spend one more year at Campbellville…."

"Bharti," you stop her, "we didn't come here to talk about Sunil. Both of we know duh, awright?"

"Then talk then"

You wonder where to begin. Before you came, there were a million things that you wished to say to her, accusations you would have confronted her with. You wonder which one you should begin with.

"I remember this time up Mahaica," you begin "I went walking by myself on the road past Boyo shop and I here this sound, 'miaow miaow' -"

"A kitten."

"Yes, a kitten and I look inside some bush by the roadside and I find but three or four dead kitten, like tom-cat kill them and one still alive but barely moving and I pick he up and carry it to the bridge near Boyo shop and throw he in the trench"

"Ooh," she says, "that's cruel, Ravi"

"Anyway, I think it woulda just sink like that, but the current din kinda strong and you know that thing float like in slow motion like if it swimming until it float for couple minutes straight the legs moving. The other day at Sanskrit class, I ask guruji, the one from India, whether what I did was wrong, you know, adharmic, but he didn't hear me properly and went off on some rant about how Indian people will rise up and overthrow the oppressors or something like that. You think I shoulda kill it?"

"I think you shoulda given it a chance to live," she says "You just calling bad Karma for yourself."

You pause, because what you are about to bring up is going to hurt. But you go ahead anyway.

"I was reading this book - they made a movie out of it the other day, with Michael Caine - The Ciderhouse Rules and I was reading about the whole procedures for "throwing away a belly" like Auntie Sukhie would say and I read that one of the required procedures was shaving…down there."

"Whaz you point, Ravi?"

"All the time we been together, I never see you shave there except that one time, you know after you went away suddenly fuh spend that weekend with your family at Parika"

"So, I probably changed my mind one time…"

"And I been thinking since, you know, my problem, you know, shooting blanks…"

She gets up and turns her face and starts crying. You try to hold her but she shrugs you off and people are beginning to watch. You leave her there, your heart in your throat and head towards the seawall.

And there are nights along Camp Street, yes there are nights along Camp Street, when the wind from the ocean blows a heart-breaking cold, so cold that it, the very air, sometimes seems as if it's been encased in a layer of thin ice, thin, fragile, crystalline ice, and you walk, afraid of your passage, afraid that one wrong step and the whole world might shatter, and there is nothing more to be said, there are no more words left to say, and you walk, and you hope and wish and pray for rain.

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