Tag Archives: Ru Freeman

An Interview with Ru Freeman

3 Dec
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan born writer and activist whose latest book is the anthology, Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine.

Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan born writer and activist whose latest book is the anthology, Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine.

Ru Freeman is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane and, most recently, the editor of the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine. She was born in Sri Lanka and is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review. She has been a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and was the 2014 winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman.

To read an exercise about avoiding ideological and biased language, click here.

In this interview, Freeman discusses the eye-opening possibilities of faith, the responsibility to try to understand the incomprehensible, and why Edward Said’s daughter, Najla Said, loved the play Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Michael Noll

Identity plays a significant role in the book. Naomi Shihab Nye in particular hones in on this with her poem, “Before I Was a Gazan,” which asks the reader to see the speaker first as a human. In the poem, Gazan is a political term. As I read this poem, I couldn’t help thinking of when Mike Huckabee said there is no such thing as the Palestinian people. How important was it to you for this book to fight for a particular way of seeing this conflict and the people within it?

Ru Freeman

When you ask 65 writers to speak of anything, you cannot inflict an agenda on them; writers are, by nature, both opinionated and in flux at all times. My editorial statement made the point that we were at a historic moment where it was impossible to say nothing, and asked each writer to consider what their response could be, what form it might take. Definite and specific or diffuse and searching? Did a lack of knowledge prevent any of them from speaking and did having deep familiarity with Palestine have the effect of paralyzing them? If there was a fight, it was only to make the book itself, to create a solid, unassailable, complex work of collective art about a topic, a word even, that we had avoided for far too long.

Michael Noll

There’s a particularly bitter poem by Alicia Striker (who is Jewish), “The Story of Joshua,” in which God tells the children of the Jewish slaves who escaped from Egypt, “Here is what to do, to take/This land away from the inhabitants: Kill their men/Kill their women/Consume the people utterly. God says: is that clear?/I give you the land, but/You must murder for it.” In short, the poem is asking us to reconsider what is probably the central narrative for those who support Israel’s right to build settlements. It’s also a central narrative for Americans in general, not just because it’s the basic story most Christian kids are taught but also because a lot of us grew up watching that very American movie The Ten Commandments every Easter. How difficult is it to get people to reassess a narrative that they’ve been taught basically from birth?

Ru Freeman

Well, if we were robotic entities, it would be very difficult, but we are not. We are human beings whose learning comes from living, from adaptation, from withstanding, and from engagement. Alicia’s poem is particularly salient because, as you say, it speaks to a certain interpretation of God’s word. A different reading of that story would maintain that God did not “give” the land to anybody, but rather that “He” asked that work be done upon land which belonged to “Him.” To claim ownership of that land could be considered as ludicrous as tenant-farmers fighting over the earthly spoils of the land-owning class. But more than that, of course, is the absurdity of the notion that any single system of belief can dictate our human relationships with each other. Faith ought to open our eyes to the existence of faith in others even if they do not believe what we believe. Any other practice of it would make small what should in fact be vast.

I am reminded by your question of Edward Said’s daughter, Najla Said, who has a beautiful performance piece where she talks about how much she loved the play, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and how she would stride about the house singing “for we have been promised a land of our own,” while her brother railed at her. So yes, we pick these things up, even the best of us, the most unlikeliest of us. Still, religion is, in the end, a story we tell ourselves, but unless we are psychologically aberrant, it ought not to persuade us to murder.

Michael Noll

Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated, here, by Edwidge Danticat: "It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world."

Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated, here, by Edwidge Danticat: “It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world.”

The book draws many parallels, comparing or juxtaposing the Palestinian conflict with, for example, racial conflicts in the United States and Mexico’s struggles with narcos. On one hand, the introduction of these other conflicts could potentially distract from the book’s subject: Palestine. On the other hand, it seems that the book is making an argument about injustice in general—about conflict and racism and bigotry and violence in general. When you first began putting the book together, did you expect Ferguson and Tijuana, for example, to appear in it? Or was the scope of the book shaped by the writers within it?

Ru Freeman

Oh, absolutely! The line between what happens in Ferguson and what we as a nation are comfortable with allowing to continue to happen in Palestine is crystal clear. Tracing that line in words and images is an acknowledgement of how deeply these things are connected, and certainly brings it to light for people who may not have been paying attention. Some of these pieces actually talk about the responsibility, as writers, certainly, to stay open to what we see, to listen, to report back, no matter how incomprehensible a situation might be to us, or how divorced from our own realities, like in Leslie Jamison’s essay, “La Frontera.” That whole essay ends with the request that people try to listen above “the clattering of your own guilt.” The book, too, aims to overcome that sense people have when they hear of the magnitude of suffering (in Palestine, elsewhere), of shutting down. It says, listen to what is being explored here by these many voices, let in the nuance of feeling that is missing when you just read of numbers in a newspaper.

Michael Noll

As I write this, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is speaking in Washington D.C., a day after meeting with President Obama. Relations between the two leaders are not warm, to put it mildly. Netanyahu is saying that he still supports a two-state solution, but the consensus seems to be that there is not presently any conceivable plan to achieve that solution. It’s also the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli religious extremist who did not believe in negotiations with Palestinians. On this anniversary, several newspaper columnists have asked the question, “Would Rabin have brought peace?” It’s an impossible question to answer, of course, and any answer says more about the person asking than what might have happened. Given that, here is what a writer for the Jerusalem Post had to say on the matter: “Palestinians will always oppose a peace agreement with Israel regardless of who the prime minister is…Any compromise by Israel is viewed by Palestinians as demonstrating weakness. Any concessions only encourage more violence.” This is a pretty common point of view. I won’t ask how peace can occur when two sides are so apart. But I will ask this: This is the chasm of perception that Extraordinary Rendition enters. What effect do you hope the book will have?

Ru Freeman

Always, never, forever: this is the terminology of kindergarteners, not great leaders and certainly not great literature. The writers in this anthology engage at a deeply personal level, bringing the weight of their art and their own history to bear upon the idea of solidarity with our fellow human beings. They explore the connection between grief and grievance (as Tom Sleigh does), between Palestine and Ferguson (as Kiese Laymon does), between travel and return (as Jane Hirshfield does), and on from there into what they have seen, what they imagine, what they hope. Yes, we enter a chasm of ignorance, but we come bearing news of other ways of seeing. It’s a victory, don’t you think?

December 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Escape the Trap of Ideological Language

1 Dec
Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated, here, by Edwidge Danticat: "It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world."

Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated by Edwidge Danticat: “It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world.”

In the novel 1984, George Orwell famously coined the term newspeak: language that is manipulated to reinforce the beliefs and ideology of the ruling party. The most famous example of newspeak is blackwhite, which has multiple meanings, the most important being “the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.” This ability is an example of doublethink, which begins as the capacity for holding in one’s mind two incompatible ideas (black and white) but becomes a kind of mental self-erasure: “consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.” In other words, a person knows one thing to be true (black is black) but consciously tells a lie stating otherwise (black is white)—and then willingly forgets both the act of lying and the original, actual truth. Black becomes white.

Many people before me have pointed out the relevance of newspeak and doublethink in today’s public discourse. Our political beliefs are often revealed by the terms we use: illegal or undocumented, unborn child or fetusmigrant or refugee, terrorist or gunman. These words color our perception and are consciously chosen: black lives matter or all lives matter. The real danger comes when we forget that these terms were created for a purpose and that we’ve chosen to use them. When they become as essential to how we view the world as floor or sky, then we’ve become victims of doublethink.

Writers are as susceptible to doublethink as anyone else, and so it’s crucial to be thoughtful about what terms we use—in fiction as well as in nonfiction. The choices matter. After all, we craft narratives that shape how our readers see the world. Using words thoughtlessly can lead to narratives that unintentionally reflect a particular rhetoric more than any reality.

A timely reminder of the dangers of doublethink and the importance of choosing the right word can be found in the new book, Extraordinary Rendition, an anthology of Americans writing about Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

How the Book Works

Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, "Before I Was a Gazan," can be read in full at the Academy of American Poets website.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Before I Was a Gazan,” can be read in full at the Academy of American Poets website.

Extraordinary Rendition brings together poems and essays by sixty-five writers. One of them is the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, whose poem “Before I Was a Gazan,” which begins like this:

I was a boy

The poem cannot be read without the title, and so it effectively begins with this construction: “Before I was a Gazan/I was a boy.”

The distinction between Gazan and boy matters. The first is a political term, indicating that someone lives in the Gaza Strip, a small area of Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea, between Israel and Egypt. To call someone a Gazan highlights geography, something we do on a daily basis. I am an American. Since I was born in Kansas, I consider myself a Kansan. I live in Texan and can probably be called a Texan—though “real” Texans might disagree with this statement (and now we can begin to see how fraught such simple geographic terms can be).

Someone’s identity as a Gazan can be important to know, but it can also color everything that we see, hear, or read next. Shihab Nye’s poem is about a bombing, and its title and first line point out the fact that, for many of us, these two sentences will not be read the same way: “Some Gazans died in an explosion” and “A boy’s uncle and teacher died in an explosion.” For most American readers, the word Gaza almost always appears alongside a report of violence. As a result, when we see the word Gazan, we anticipate violence. We expect it and are not shocked by its presence.

But if, instead, the violence happens to a boy, we’re more likely to pay attention. As writers, it’s important to understand the associations that readers have with the words we use. If we want our characters to be viewed as people, not political furniture, then we should use terms that highlight humanity, not politics: boy, not Gazan.

That’s the first step. The next requires that the writer invest the character with the texture of humanity, as Shihab Nye makes clear in the poem’s next lines:

I was a boy
and my homework was missing,
paper with numbers on it,
stacked and lined,
I was looking for my piece of paper,
proud of this plus that, then multiplied,
not remembering if I had left it
on the table after showing to my uncle
or the shelf after combing my hair

The boy is not doing anything political. He’s being a boy, a child, and so that is how the reader sees him, as a person doing things that all people do. When the politics arrives in the poem, when the boy becomes a Gazan, we experience the violence differently than if we’d only viewed the boy as a political figure. He isn’t collateral damage or any of the other dehumanizing terms we invent to reduce our guilt over the victims of war. He’s a person. We’re invested in the boy’s humanity. This is one of the purposes of art, to combat the dehumanizing effects of political language and make us see people as people.

On Pandering

Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay, “On Pandering,” is based on a lecture she gave during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop.

Of course, endowing our characters and writing with humanity isn’t easy. We often use words and phrases without thinking about their source or the intent behind their creation. So, we must be thoughtful and self-aware. Thanks to writers like Junot Diaz and Matthew Salesses, among others, there is now an active conversation about the experience of writers of color in writing workshops. Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent essay, “On Pandering,” has reminded us that women are part of that conversation as well.

Anyone who has read student writing has, no doubt, seen a story with a black or Hispanic character or a female character who acts, talks, and thinks like a Black or Hispanic Character or Female Character. (Many of us have written drafts of such stories and then shelved them.) It’s been my experience that the authors of such stories don’t usually mean to fall into cliché. They may even be actively writing against it. But the characters never realize any kind of humanity. Instead, they’re representatives for the beliefs and attitudes of the writer or the discourse informing the writer’s prose. If you believe that art has any mimetic property—that it’s intended, on some level, to represent or reveal or portray the world around us—then these purely ideological characters are an artistic failure.

This failure can impact an entire story, novel, or essay. Plot is determined by characters: they make choices that are influenced by their circumstances, personalities, preferences, vices, virtues, and desires. If a character represents an ideology or bias, then that character will make a choice or act in a way that fits within that ideology or bias. The plot becomes a kind of ideological allegory and, as a result, predictable and clichéd. Prose that thoughtlessly parrots politically-created language is bad prose. A novel, story, or essay that reinforces or follows ideology, even unconsciously, is almost always bad art.

Of course, some will say, well, what about this book, Extraordinary Rendition? Doesn’t it have a clear political bent? It’s true that some readers will take issue with some of the essays or poems. But it’s also true that the overriding ideology in the book is the need to recognize the humanity of the Palestinians. This means actively dismantling the language of politics and ideology, seeing black as black.

So, how can we write prose that escapes the trap of ideology, bias, and politics?

  • First, to create “real” characters, the writer must be willing to imagine how the world might look from those characters’ eyes. This means stripping away received rhetoric and its corresponding ideology. It also means filling in the gap left by that rhetoric, whether by research or observation or by the general trappings of humanity: “paper with numbers on it,/stacked and lined.”
  • Then, the writer must re-examine what he or she has written—this potentially “real” character. I give some strategies for this below, and some of these constitute a kind of test. Just because a writer—and, let’s say it, a white writer or a white male writer, like myself—has tried to escape bias and create, for example, a “real” African-American character doesn’t mean that he has succeeded. Trying doesn’t guarantee success. As with all aspects of writing, sometimes we fail, and we need to learn to recognize those failures, especially if they reinforce a bias. Sometimes this means scrapping a novel, story, or essay.

No writer is perfect, but, as writers, we have an obligation to ensure, to the best of our abilities, that our failures don’t advance beliefs that contribute to oppression and human misery.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to escape ideological or biased language, using “Before I Was a Gazan” by Naomi Shihab Nye as a model:

  1. Avoid words that can’t be drawn as a picture. Gazan can’t be drawn. Boy can, as can a stack of paper. This is an old idea. In his novel A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway’s narrator expresses disgust at the language that brought him to war. He says, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” Glory cannot be drawn in a picture. Courage cannot be sketched. The point of much of Hemingway’s early writing was to escape such abstractions, as he most successfully did in “Big Two-Hearted River,” which contains a two-page passage about making coffee, pancakes, and onion sandwiches and ends with the sentence, “It was a good camp.” The language is aggressively plain and concrete. I’m not saying to never, ever use abstractions, but there’s a real risk that a story that begins with such words may never become more specific and concrete.
  2. Consider your audience. Certain words are used by politicians like dog whistles. Some of them are invented terms, like Islamofascism. Others invoke real things but with a consistent connotation, like welfare. Some, like mugger or terrorist, have been given racial associations—not for everyone, but certainly for some people. If your readers may have such associations, you should be careful about using words that trigger those associations. An interesting test is to find a purely biased website, something that every reasonable reader would identify as biased. Read it for a few minutes and then read a passage from your novel, story, or essay. Does any of the language get repeated? If so, you don’t necessarily need to cut those words, but you should be aware that they have been politicized. Or, simply imagine that you’re a reader with a particular set of beliefs. Read your passage with that reader’s eyes. Are there words or images that trigger a kind of automatic ideological or biased response? If so, you might consider revising those words in order to complicate that response.
  3. Build a character with mundane details. Characters need to inhabit a concrete world, whether that world resembles ours or is some invented world. The character should take up space in that world. The dust should get kicked up when your characters walk across it. The boy in Shihab Nye’s poem is looking for his homework, “papers with numbers on it/stacked and lined.” In his novel Long Division, Kiese Laymon (whose work is included in Extraordinary Rendition) begins with a sentence that focuses on race (“LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him.”) In that same first page, though, we also learn that Peeler wears “blue-black patent leather Adidas” and has “an ellipsis tattoo on the inside of his wrist.” He “smells so good that sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a small beast farted in your mouth when you’re too close to him.” Writing about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, geography, and politics doesn’t require generalization. Specific details drawn from the mundane grit of the character’s world give breath and odor to the character and bring him or her to life.
  4. Put your character into a scene with other similar characters. A scene with all white characters and one character of color carries a great deal of risk. It’s true that such scenes exist in life, but it’s also true that these scenes are often the only times that white people encounter people of color. In these scenes, as in life, it’s tempting to make the token character a standard-bearer for his or her race, ethnicity, or gender. No real person can bear the weight of such expectations, and neither can a fictional character. So, to test whether your character is merely a standard-bearer, put him or her into a scene with other black characters, other Latino characters, other women, other Muslims, etc. Make them argue about something simple: where to eat, what to watch on TV. Can you write that scene? If not, you may need to re-conceive the character as something more than a manifestation of a group or ideology. Political figures, such as Gazans, are framed by politics; it’s what they talk and think about. Humans, such as boys, are not restricted by frames. They worry about where their homework has gone, who farted, and what’s for dinner.
  5. Identify what your characters believe. Some writing teachers like to say that no character should voice the writer’s own views—or that you should put your opinions into the mouth of the worst character in the story. That’s not bad advice, though I’d add something to it. If the characters who most resemble you consistently believe things that you don’t or act in ways that you wouldn’t, and if the characters who don’t resemble you consistently state things that you do believe or act in ways that confirm your beliefs, you may have a problem. We tend—both as writers and humans—to endow the other with our hopes and fears. If the other in your work always confirms something you believe to be true or that you find comforting, then that character may be an ideological construction, not a fully realized character. A good example of this is the magical negro, a term for a black character who exists primarily to teach a white character a lesson. If characters who don’t resemble you exist mostly to impart some knowledge or experience on the character who more closely resembles you, you may need to re-conceive of both characters and the narrative itself.

The goal is to use language that is free from politics and ideology and to create characters that have the idiosyncrasies of humanity, not the consistency of bias.

Good luck.

An Interview with Ru Freeman

4 May
Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed,

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed, “Piercingly intelligent and shatter-your-heart profound.”

Ru Freeman was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is the author of the novels Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane. She is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Extraordinary Rendition, a collection of the voices of American poets and writers speaking about America’s dis/engagement with Palestine. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights, and her political writing has appeared in English and in translation. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR, Guernica, World Literature Today and elsewhere. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review and a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Freeman won the 2014 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

To read an exercise on using an omniscient narrator and an excerpt from Freeman’s novel, On Sal Mal Laneclick here.

In this interview, Freeman discusses the challenges of explaining historical context in a novel and creating an omniscient narrator and the politics of Sri Lanka and On Sal Mal Lane.

Michael Noll

On Sal Mal Lane begins with a prologue that functions very much like the infamous prologue to Star Wars. It sets up the politics, geography, and history of the place—and also indicates that, in the story’s beginning at least, the major conflict is some miles away from the main characters. What was your approach to this prologue? Do you think it would have been written the same if you could assume that your readers knew a lot about Sri Lanka and its civil war?

Ru Freeman

I like the way you use that to discuss the book. The prologue in this form was added after I had written the first draft. The original prologue, several pages longer, focused mainly on the characters, and all of it eventually got whittled down to that last paragraph. When I finished writing the book, I felt that there was a sense of longer-term history that couldn’t be contained within the main text of the book without burdening it with those kinds of explanatory treatises on history that can kill momentum. It was necessary that people understood that there was this regional and international context, this history of colonization and brutality, but also that, in the end, none of those things were relevant to the daily lives of ordinary people like those who lived on Sal Mal Lane. As a way of tracing immediate history to a pivotal moment, I included the murder of Alfred Duraiappah and the call to war by Prabhakaran. Whether people knew this history or not, setting it down with those few brushstrokes helped to establish the voice of the narrator who is, to continue with your image, a Yoda like character who knew all that came before and all that was to come to pass and could maintain both warmth and distance from every composite part of the story—the human and the inanimate.

Michael Noll

The prologue also has this remarkable pair of sentences:

“And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passes through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors.”

In essence, you have created an omniscient narrator and then embodied it in something of the novel’s world. Was this a conscious decision—in response, perhaps, to readers or yourself wondering who was speaking? Or did these sentences arise spontaneously in an early draft?

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

It was an asking of myself as I tried to wrap my head around this voice that had come into being while writing the earlier version of the prologue, and the novel itself. It occurred to me that the narrator here was someone (or in this case perhaps something, the road), who was intimately familiar with the this place, with compassion for everyone, but a particularly keen fondness for two of the characters, Mr. Niles, and Nihil. In the scheme of things there is no one main character here, but the ties that bind these two are elevated above all the other bonds that form—and are broken— between the people of Sal Mal Lane. Why this voice lingered over those two characters got me thinking about the entity to whom the voice belonged. So, it was spontaneous, in one sense, but also deliberate.

Michael Noll

Each chapter gets a title. Obviously this is something that some books do and some don’t. What made you choose to title them?

Ru Freeman

In my first novel, I alternated the story between Biso (an older woman leaving an abusive husband, taking her three children with her on a journey that lasts just about 36 hours, all related in the first person), and Latha (a little girl who comes to live in a house as a companion to a girl her own age who lives there, and whose story covers about three decades and is told in the third person). When I began this book, I imagined that I’d write it by alternating the voices of the children, staying close to each in turn, sort of like what Barbara Kingsolver did with Poisonwood Bible. I must have written about a third of the book when I began to feel oppressed by this framework. I abandoned it as a strict guideline and began to simply write the story, though, as you can perhaps tell, I do concentrate on one or the other of the children as I go along, at least in certain parts. I decided to break the book up by year into sections, and then title the chapters. I enjoyed coming up with those titles. It’s not something people do too often, as you point out, but it is a lot of fun and if I’m having fun then the writing tends to be better than when I’m straining.

Michael Noll

At the risk of veering into politics, I was reading this novel when Sri Lanka held its presidential election in January, and so I couldn’t help holding the two events (the events of the novel and the election) side by side. In the novel, animosity is rising between Tamils and Sinhalese. Now, the war is over, and the minority groups (including the Tamils) who suffered during it have managed to vote out the president who claimed credit for ending the war. Do you imagine Sal Mal Lane today? Do the current events cause you to think about the years of the novel in a different light or way?

Ru Freeman

Freeman's website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

Freeman’s website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

There is never a veering into, I think. We are always situated quite firmly and centrally in the middle of politics. As far as the election goes, while it is true that many ordinary citizens came together to vote out the former president, there were machinations that went beyond Sri Lanka, including the United States, to bring the current one into power. When I hear the rhetoric from the new leadership, I don’t feel optimistic; the alignment of the new president is with the United National Party, which in its time of power reigned over the massacre of more than 60,000 youth. The language used is old, it panders to American interests, and it is, frankly, disorderly. That combination can be deadly in a country like Sri Lanka, with a highly educated, enfranchised, and engaged civil populace.

Be that as it may, the Sal Mal Lanes of my country never disappeared. They went on through another quarter century of war, they mended fences, came apart, celebrated and mourned. There was a weight felt by everybody as they did these things, that was only lifted in May 2009, when the war officially ended, when the walls and barricades and checkpoints were dismantled, and the soldiers went to work on reconstruction and other support work. Devi, therefore, was a symbol to me of a fragile beauty that underlined all life in Sri Lanka, as well as a stand-on for the country itself. How people dealt with her presence and absence was and is similar to how they dealt with what happened during those decades of war.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use an Omniscient Narrator

14 Apr

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane "soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor," according to a New York Times review.

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. The literary critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).

Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.

As everyone knows, Star Wars begins with a two-paragraph intro that scrolls up the screen, prefaced, famously, with the line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Just as the text that followed laid out the basics of the war (who is fighting, what’s at stake, and one of the characters), the opening paragraphs of On Sal Mal Lane lay out the basics of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The problem, though, is that a novel is not like a film, or, at least a literary novel is not like a B movie (which Star Wars absolutely was). If the voice that opens the novel vanished suddenly like the text that opens Star Wars, the reader might close it and walk away. It would be like a film changing from color to black and white, which can be done, but only under very special circumstances. Rather than risking that readers might not make the jump, the novel creates a narrator that can handle both the large scale of the war and the small scale of a few characters affected by it.

Of course, many readers will encounter that narrative voice and quite naturally ask, “Who is telling this story?” So, the novel provides an answer:

And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passed through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors. I am the road itself…

This self-identification goes on for a bit and ends this way:

To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing. I am that.

You can’t state the problem and solution more neatly than that. Now, how does such a voice operate, on a practical level?

Mostly, it follows different groups of characters, with each getting their own sections in the novel. In these sections, characters will be spoken about as groups (an entire family, for instance) and as individuals. But the voice will occasionally speak about things in general, as it does here:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

So, it operates by speaking in a kind of godlike voice but also, quickly, zooming down to a more human perspective—a perspective that we’re more comfortable with, being, as we are, humans and not gods.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing from an omniscient point of view,  using On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman as a model:

  1. Create a reason for such a point of view. The reason should be practical: what about your novel cannot be conveyed by a narrator with a limited point of view? Freeman’s reason is the complexity of explaining the context and development of a civil war. Your reason may be similarly political. Does the novel’s conflict involve parties larger than a single person or handful of individuals? Does it involve groups and national or international politics or movement (like migration)? Does writing the book require the occasional use of a kind of professorial or journalistic mode? If so, you might need an omniscient narrator.
  2. Identify the registers the narrative voice must hit. What is the range the voice must cover? Every novel (at least every one that I can think of) follows individual characters. But what is the opposite end of the spectrum? To use the language of film, how far out must the camera move? Will the voice talk about a community as a whole? About a region or country? About the entire world? The universe? The range doesn’t really matter; the important thing is to know in advance how much ground you must cover.
  3. Identify the voice. This may be the trickiest part. Freeman writes that the voice is the wind and the road (in other words, the world itself and also the people as a whole). Some reviewers have found this identification awkward. You can probably imagine how such a move would be met in workshop: “How can the wind talk?” But the move is probably also necessary. Without the identification, the same reviewers might ask, “Who is telling this story?” There’s no perfect solution. The short passage about the narrator’s identity is a bit like the scene from the original Rocky, when Apollo Creed is choosing his challenger, eventually picking Rocky Balboa. It’s the most contrived part of the film, a scene where the mechanics are laid out in the open, and yet it’s necessary because, without it, Rocky will keep collecting debts and will never meet Apollo. In short, without that scene, one of the most iconic American films of all time doesn’t exist. In the same way, without the passage about the narrator’s identity, Freeman’s great novel might not have come together. So, think about the identity of your narrator. Is it God? Is it some manifestation of the world? If so, what manifestation would make sense for your novel’s particular world?
  4. Write from the broadest register. What is the grandest, largest scale the voice can manage? Think about the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” Or think about Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” How can you craft a voice that is vast enough to make such statements?
  5. Transition to a more narrow register. Unlike Star Wars, a novel must make this transition as smooth as possible. This is where Freeman’s novel really shines. In two sentences, she moves from “God was not responsible for what came to pass” to “surely, these children were beautiful.” The first part is vast and the second is beginning to focus on specific characters: these children. Freeman links the two with a single world: surely. It’s not a causal connection but a logical one. Here’s the full sentence: “People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful.” Basically, the sentence says, “Beauty exists in the world, and these children are beautiful.” It’s moving from a general statement to an illustration of the statement. This is a great way to transition. Make a general statement and then illustrate it: “and here they are.”

Good luck. Take risks. Have fun with the exercise.

%d bloggers like this: