Tag Archives: Narrative Magazine

An Interview with Mũthoni Kiarie

24 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. A finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest, she lives in Oakland, California.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story, “What We Left Behind” was a finalist in the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Story Contest.

Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. She lives in Oakland, California.

In this interview, Kiarie discusses her approach to intensely emotional moments in a story.

(To read Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” and an exercise based on the story’s indirect treatment of emotion, click here.)

Michael Noll

This story is about a mother and her two children who flee their village after it’s violently attacked by armed men. Though the story describes the attack, it only focuses on certain parts. So, for instance, the mother’s torn dress and bloody lip are clearly and specifically described, but the body of the murdered father is described less directly as “painting the ground a lush red.” Did you make a conscious decision to show certain people and things in greater detail than others? In other words, how did you know what to describe clearly and what to suggest more indirectly?

Mũthoni Kiarie

When writing this, I knew the story was going to be focused more on the mother and that the father would sort of fade into the background. However, it was important to show that his was still an important role in the story. The way he died to me showed in a restrained way, how that community was decimated. I also wanted to make sure that his death was also lovingly portrayed, while still showing that it was a violent death. The mother’s details, the dress, the bloody lip I almost felt were even more subtle than the father’s because she underwent what was possibly an even more violent experience that I didn’t necessarily talk about but give my reader a strong sense of what may have happened.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a list of the items abandoned in the desert, and great care is taken to distinguish between the different types of baskets and different sizes of sandals. The list is powerful–and the power doesn’t abate even after several reads. The items that are shown reveal so much about the characters’ live, and the fact that we see these items and not the people who left them is chilling. It reminds me of one exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It’s a room filled with children’s shoes—for some reason, when I visited the museum, those shoes affected me more than any of the horrifying photographs that I saw. Why do you think personal items like shoes or baskets or sandals have this effect on us?

Mũthoni Kiarie

I think as human beings, the value that we attach to material possessions defines our existence. Like your example of seeing the children’s shoes in the Holocaust Museum, you attached a certain child and their life to those items. This is really where this story came from. Thinking about these material things that hold so much value to us when we are alive and all is well in our worlds. But then, what do you take with you when you have three seconds to get out of the house? Your child or your shoes? That’s kind of an obvious question, but you get what I mean. I imagine that at each step when my characters or others who’ve been faced with a similar journey, have to chose what to leave behind. And those decisions must be excruciating.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Convey Emotion Indirectly

22 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie's story "What We Lost" appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Sometimes the best way to approach important moments in a story is indirectly. To that end, the writer John Gardner gave his students this exercise: Write a paragraph about a farmer grieving after his son’s death. But you can’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, you must describe the barn and, in the details you choose, convey the farmer’s sense of loss.

This can be a difficult exercise because we realize how dependent we are on direct treatment of everything in a story. If you try to describe the barn, though, and if you continue to find indirect approaches to key information in fiction, you might be surprised at the effect on your writing. You’ll also begin to see the strategy everywhere in stories.

A great example is in the opening paragraph of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind.” It was a finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest from Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now. (Note: Sign-in is required, but it’s free.)

How the Story Works

The premise of the story is very simple. A Kenyan village is attacked by armed men, and the survivors flee. Notice how long the story waits to state the premise—not until the fourth paragraph. What precedes that paragraph is, in part, an indirect description that conveys the survivors’ depth of loss:

“In the beginning, the sandy ground was littered with the things that those who went before us had abandoned: sisal sleeping mats, many with the threads that bound the fibers together loosening as they flopped in the wind; suitcases; water troughs; beaded jewelry; tin cooking utensils; thin cotton dresses, skirts, shirts, and trousers; woven baskets, the kind that carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day; rubber-soled sandals, ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned. But as the days went by and we continued to walk, there were fewer and fewer of these things, and instead we began to see a scattering of carcasses from animals left to die in the dry desert heat.”

At first, the description merely lists the objects that litter the ground. But as the list proceeds, it begins to offer greater detail. For instance, it distinguishes between baskets that “carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day.” And between types of sandals: “ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned.”

The passage ends by upending the list: the items are gradually replaced with animal carcasses.

Though the paragraph never shows the people fleeing the village, we get a strong sense of their presence (and of the narrator’s emotions) through the attention given to the objects on the ground.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to convey important emotional information without approaching it directly. We’ll use Mũthoni Kiarie’s story as a model:

  1. Choose an event that produces strong emotion. Ideally, the emotion should last for a while, as opposed to a flash of anger or frustration that is quickly forgotten. Examples of events include these: death, marriage, divorce, birth, moving to another house or city, losing a job, changing jobs, professional disappointment, professional success, winning the lottery, or your team winning a big game.
  2. Try the John-Gardner exercise. Describe the contents of a room or place that is significant to your character. Don’t state the emotion or anything related to the event. (And no cheating with synonyms or giving animals or inanimate objects human dimensions—ducks skipping, walls smiling, that sort of thing.
  3. Add an element of time. How does the room or place change as the minutes/hours/days pass? This may be easier since it makes the description active rather than static.
  4. Optional: End the passage with a single line that states the emotion or something related to the event. Sometimes a line that bluntly states what has become obvious after an indirect description can shake the reader a little. For an example of this effect, read the last paragraph and sentence of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story.

Remember, the idea is to get inside the character’s head. Bad fiction tends to state what it cannot show. It tells the reader that a character is excited or sad or angry, and it’s no accident that the prose in such fiction is mechanical. But when you read good fiction, you’ll notice passages that are not directly related to plot or character development—they’re simply the book/narrator telling us about things in the character’s world. It’s the ability to write passages like these, without falling into dull description, that opens up the range and possibility of a prose voice.

Good luck and have fun.

The Inscrutable Stranger Comes to Town

16 Apr
Kirstin Valdez Quade's story "Nemecia" won first place in Narrative Magazine's Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia” won first place in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

The writer Charles Baxter once wrote in an interview that he liked “to throw characters together into situations that create stress so that as the story goes forward, something in the situation or the characters is forced to reveal itself.” And yet Baxter has also written, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.”

This contradiction is faced by all writers. We must seek to understand the motives and meanings of our characters’ actions, but if we understand them too well, the story loses any sense of mystery. As a result, some of the greatest stories—such as “Bartleby the Scrivener”—are those about the search for understanding. In Melville’s story, the narrator nearly drives himself  mad trying to figure out why his employee, and then former employee, Bartleby, responds to all requests with “I would prefer not to.” In the end, though, Bartleby resists explanation. He remains a cypher.

That same inscrutability can be found in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia.” The story won the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Short Story Contest, and you can read it here.

(Note: Registration is required–but it’s free and definitely worth the few seconds required to do so.)

How the Story Works

The story is about Nemecia, an unsettling character who has joined, under chilling circumstances, the narrator’s family. The narrator’s attempt to understand Nemecia’s odd behavior shapes the story. The first section acts as an introduction.  Here are some select lines:

  1. Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated…At night she stole food from the pantry, handfuls of prunes, beef jerky, pieces of ham…The quick efficient bites, the movement of her jaw, the way the food slid down her throat—it made me sick to think of her body permitting such quantities.
  2. I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.

The next section operates in the same way as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The narrator’s new knowledge affects her view of the entire community. Here are some select lines:

  1. The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.
  2. I wondered if they were afraid of what she might do to them. Perhaps the whole town was terrified of my cousin.
  3. At night I stayed awake as long as I could, waiting for Nemecia to come after me in the dark.

A great story can put goosebumps on its readers’ arms, and following that last line, the story leaps into action. With each new awful attack by Nemecia, the narrator tries to understand her nemesis, to comprehend what has made her so cruel. But she repeatedly fails and, by the end, she can only watch as “Nemecia held a wineglass up to the window and turned it. “See how clear?” Shards of light moved across her face.”

Nemecia remains inscrutable.

The Writing Exercise

This story is a fresh version of the age-old tale “Stranger Comes to Town.” Let’s try our own version. As you brainstorm for each step, write quickly. Don’t think too hard. Let your subconscious spit out material. You can edit it later.

1. Pick a town/neighborhood. Describe the main street, the stores, the residential streets, a house. Who lives there? What objects are important in the street, the stores, etc. Be specific.

2. Pick a stranger. Keep in mind that the best strangers have poker faces; they do not give away their thoughts. Some people will consider them sweet, and others will find them menacing. Give the stranger behavior that suggests both views—but that also suggests something isn’t quite right.

3. Pick one of the objects described earlier in Step 1. Make it go missing. Or make it malfunction. Or make it suddenly turn up in the stranger’s possession. In other words, disrupt the world that you created. Regardless of what disruption you choose, the stranger should be implicated.

4. Provide the stranger with a logical excuse—or simply allow the stranger to remain quiet so that others will make the excuse for him/her.

Your goal is to slowly increase the pressure on the town to discover why the stranger has behaved in this way, to understand what is happening. Yet you must also allow the stranger to resist this understanding. When done well, this can produce an incredible tension in your story.

Good luck.

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