The kernel of this passage is insightful, but it got reworked and retold in a much more humorous vein in my novel What’s Left.
Well, he had every reason to feel out of place, I suppose. He might as well have been a Tibetan or a man from Mars dropped down in the middle of America. But reincarnation would assume that Iowa was the right place for him to be growing up, that he’d found the right set of parents and right surroundings, and that would mean I’ve been overlooking a lot.
Well, the alienated individual is one complex issue to take up. Just look at Kafka. Cassia’s having her own struggles, so let’s concentrate on those, especially as she’s becoming aware of surroundings that work in her favor, unlike those of her father’s youth.
Perhaps nobody’s in a perfectly right or wrong place. We usually make do, as best we can, although I’ve lived some places where that could be challenging.
What’s been “right” for you where you are? Or, if you’d rather, what’s felt “wrong”?
I was in the midst of revising what’s now Nearly Canaan and found myself surprised to find myself living vicariously in the minds and hearts of the villains. Well, three of them. (I won’t name them, since they all start out as darlings. Don’t want to spoil your reading.)
In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s brothers and cousins — the ones she calls the Squad — are essential for bringing the story fully up to right now. It’s their turn to move forward. What do they want to do with their lives? What does this family mean to them?
Cassia makes her own bold decision for her future — one I sense is enabled by their solid identity.
But there are the other cousins — the ones from the other side of the tracks, the ones who don’t fit in and never will.
So it’s not just about the family restaurant.
As she noted in an earlier draft, comparing her mother’s side of the family to her father’s:
From everything I’ve seen, his family wasn’t warm or truly close. They did what they were supposed to. Had what they were supposed to. Basically, they followed orders. So what Baba found and embraced with Manoula’s family was more disorderly and conflicting and yet also affirming when it came to his own existence. Privacy here is not taken for granted. Thea Nita, for all of her love of solitude, would spend far more of her working hours surrounded by the public, where the action and people were. Maybe that’s why the Buddhist meditation held such appeal for Nita and her siblings — it was one time they could really focus on themselves alone.
There are flip moments when I’d say my family was defined by the TV programs we watched together. Think of the TV dinners we ate on those TV trays we set up between us and the screen (black-and-white, for the most part). Even the pizza we ate on very special nights, scraping off the toppings to eat separately from the dough and its crust. Or the burnt popcorn we ate afterward.
Cassia’s close kinship was more active than that, but working with her father’s photos did give her a place of retreat.
Do you ever feel trapped in your family? Or in your social circle? At moments like that, where would you rather be?
Sometimes details advance a story. And sometimes they raise unnecessary hurdles. In my novel What’s Left, what Cassia discovers about her deceased father (her Baba) is much better than this. So I cut it.
Hey, how many 12-year-olds would even know what a biochemist is? Or, for that matter, 16-year-olds, depending on when she’s making the connection? You still get the drift in the final version.
Under a different system of education, he might have become a biochemist or mathematician. He had leanings that way, which were not supported over time. So instead, he became a photographer — a very adept one who leaves behind what I’m finding to be an astonishing archive of social upheaval and redirection.
Oh, my, she wouldn’t ever say that last sentence, would she? Of course it had to go!
The point of her observation, though, remains pertinent. Many kids are thwarted at key points in their development, not just educationally, either.
What would you say has been a crucial obstacle in your past? How have you coped? Has it changed the direction of your life?
In my novel What’s Left, what she discovers about her deceased father (her Baba) is much zestier than this passage. So I cut it. You’ll still get the drift in the final version.
As a kid, your Baba figured out he never quite fit in with his surroundings. He thought about things he couldn’t explain to others, though to be fair about it, he rarely caught their signals, either. Deep within himself, he sensed there was much more to life than what was happening around him. I think he wanted the big picture, which is what he must have felt when he was climbing mountains.
Too many things are trying to happen there, I’m afraid. We can move along better without having to trip over the added baggage. I do like the image of climbing mountains to feel the big picture, though — something I see as recharging his soul.
Where do you turn to recharge yourself? Anyplace special? Music? Dancing? A deep bubble bath? Meditation? Or is it something else altogether?
I’m also thinking about typical encounters with professional photographers. There were strange, formal portrait sessions when my sister and I were very little. Do families still do that anymore? Then there were the senior portraits in high school or yearbook group shots, which were akin to elementary class pictures earlier. But weddings are the big event for many, the mother lode of the profession.
Tell me about your parents’ wedding pictures. What do they reveal? What do they mask?
Catching up on my stack of Harper’s magazine, I came across a remembrance of the poet Etheridge Knight, and it stirred a long buried memory.
Etheridge? I paused, before remembering he was a black inmate of the Indiana State Penientiary when he began writing seriously. Damn good stuff, as I discovered.
My introduction came in the mid ’70s when Roger Pfiingston asked if I wanted to go with him up to Indianapolis, aka Naptown, to a reading and open mic. I was free that night. The trip from Bloomington was a little over an hour, and he was driving.
The event was at a bar in the inner city, not a familiar terrain, and Etheridge was hosting. I should go back to my journals for details, but I recall it as a warm and comforting evening. I think Jared Carter was the featured reader. Another damned good Indiana poet.
I was a bit nervous about one of the pieces I’d brought with me, one that quoted a friend’s father about a lover in the ’30s, but I read it anyway.
The line in question triggered delighted, loud laughter from Etheridge, especially. I was sooooh relieved!
Looking back, I see it as one more confirmation – and welcome – as my identity as a poet.
The application of positive and negative spaces — that is, the contrast of light and dark — is a basic concept in visual art. One of these will appear solid; the other, empty. Think of black versus white, with no shades in between.
In another way, think of a doughnut or bagel, defining an empty hole.
In my novel What’s Left, she applies a similar strategy after her father vanishes in an avalanche when she’s 11. She yearns to know much more about who he was — in fact, intends to recover him in her own way — so she assembles everything she can find to create a positive impression and then dives into the remainder, the negative, to dig up the rest. Maybe you’d see this as trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle.
Since he was a professional photographer, she carefully investigates another kind of negative for answers — the many strips of film stored in his studio. At first what she views is reversed from normal perception, where everything that’s light should be dark and everything that’s dark should be light, but then she learns to transform what’s there into contact sheets and glossy prints. Just like he did.
Thanks to digital photography, negatives are ancient history. Maybe that’s somehow appropriate, since Cassia’s life at that point would now be ancient history, too, even as she’s investigating what she would consider ancient history.
Have you ever handled photographic negatives? Is there some other way you’ve looked at things reversed from normal? How about funny mirrors? How did it change your perception?