Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"The Art of Written Works"

One of my goals this summer was to read as many books as was physically possible before the start of the next semester of college. During school, I get lots of reading done, but it's almost always readings that have been assigned by someone else, on subjects that may or may not interest me. So this summer, I cut myself loose - raiding my university library, borrowing books from friends and relatives, and rediscovering old treasures on my bookshelves at home.

I read about nearly anything: Iranian history, American politics, Islam, Christianity, theology, feminism, orientalism, philosophy. But then, about a week ago, I read Gabriel García Márquez's recently published autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. It was the first piece of literature I'd picked up all summer. And suddenly, everything changed.

Márquez's masterfully written autobiography let me live another life. I ran through the corridors of his childhood home, suffered with him through law school and smoked his endless cigarettes while writing away the day's hours at his typewriter. I shared in his obsessive hours of Kafka readings, and sat next to him at the daily literary circle he attended. With him, I loved and fought with his family, pushed for his independence and later sent a monthly "lifeboat" to keep his parents and siblings out of the marshes of poverty.

I did and learned so much in just one book - whereas in the other, more academic books I read, I was confined to a single subject or discipline. Finishing Living to Tell the Tale, I recognized something I had known as a kid, but had forgotten in my college attempts to aquire grown-up knowledge: stories are the essence of life.

Now, don't get me wrong. Specialized, academic writing is definitely important. But reading a single academic book takes you down a single, well-defined path. You pick up a book on anthropology, you learn about anthropology. Literature, on the other hand, (what Wikipedia calls "the art of written works") opens up worlds. Pick up a book like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and you get so much more than a story about boys stuck on an island.

Part of the reason I sank so deeply into Márquez's story was that some aspects of it mirror my own. Like Márquez, I've always wanted to be a writer. My childhood dream was to be a novelist. And like Márquez, journalism and more academic writing sort of just "happened" to me. I never thought I would consider working for a news agency or writing academic papers on the history of women in the Middle East. But, once again like Márquez, I've decided to use my writing experiences in other fields to hone my skills for the ultimate dream: literature.

So for now, I've decided to include a lot more fiction and poetry in my reading schedule. And to continue writing with a greater goal in mind.

On to the next book.


Nicholas Karavatos said...

All that dry, academic reading can also be brought to life through narrativity. For example, this summer I read *Jerusalem 1913 - The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict* by Amy Dockser Marcus.

I noticed the author had written *The View from Nebo* and was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but what sold me on picking the book were two things.

First, that this pivotal era was brought to life in the biographies of 3 central players at that historical moment, from the dusk of the 19th century through the First World War. Yes, narrative!

The second is that it dealt with the sunset of the hundreds-of-years-old Ottoman Occupation (or "empire"). Since I have found that this tends to be erased from the historical memory of most debates, I was pleased to be able to learn more about it.

Commonly, my experience in the Middle East is that the popular discourse on the topic begins at the earliest with the British Mandate. In discussions, whenever I introduced the Ottoman Empire - political, cultural, & military nexus of the Islamic World of the period - I was met with blank looks. It messed with people's world view as Victims of European Colonialism.

I was facinated to live in the daily lives of a Turk, a Jew, and an Arab of those pivotal years. In a topic that is usually nothing more than a series of emotional outbursts, the narrative made it real life with real people with all the inner contradictions, etc., of living persons.

Who now talks about the Ottoman governor hanging Arabs & Jews suspected of sepratism at the Jaffa Gate and letting their corpses rot? Who now talks about Jews not being allowed in their holy sites by Muslims, such as going no farther than the 7th step to Abraham's Cave? Who now talks of Zionists legally buying land from the Ottomans but sold without the consent of the Arabs living there, or the lack of accurate maps and deeds because of shady dealings by waasta-filled elites in the region.

To quote George Bush the Elder speaking on another topic, "this is good versus evil; this is right versus wrong," it suddenly doesn't all seem so black and white, but rather confused, as most things are.

You probably know many other details from your extensive readings of things we could call the "pre-history" of the present conflict.

Daydreaming of how it could all have gone differently - oh, well.

Anyway, yes. I'm agreeing on the power of The Story. (No, I'm not opening up that *other* can of worms.) This is why people fight to control narratives and become, sometimes, hysterical regarding counter-narratives.

Good book.

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