Tag Archives: Per Bastet Publications

“The Sweetest Dish”: On the Healing Magic of Storytelling

51BBuzGzKIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Forgive me my absence of these several months. By way of apology, rather than excuses or explanations, I offer the following pages – on the art of storytelling – from last fall’s personal journal. It is only lightly edited.

Saturday, October 14 – It is arguable that the lead character in my friend Marian Allen’s book Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage (2016, Corydon / New Albany, Indiana: Per Bastet Publications. 125 pages) is Farukh, the storyteller, “from the distant land of Sule” (p. 54). He does make an appearance in five of these thirteen stories, and dominates the two mythic tales (“The Mountain Who Loved the Moon” and “How the Tortoise Got His Shell”); that’s more than the next two in line, the members of the Festival Players’ acting troupe. But while Farukh’s presence is made explicit in only two of those five instances, one must imagine that he or someone like him is implicitly there in the others from which he is apparently absent or invisible. Because, at its heart, each of these tales is, in its own way, a study of the art of storytelling. Now that I finally sit down to read them through in their final form – I remember several from her reading of the drafts at our writers’ group meetings – I really take the measure of Marian Allen as a specialist in that art. This only makes me more determined, someday, to read the Sage trilogy of fantasy novels from whose world these new, shorter tales are spun.

“Hear! Hear!” Farukh exclaims at the outset of the second and shortest tale, “The Mountain Who Loved the Moon.”

“Yes, it is I, Farukh Suria’ Apa-Dan , storyteller extraordinaire. Settle upon the cobbles of the marketplace, here, around my rug, and listen.”

And then, his story told, the request for coins: “Please toss them into my hat. If I find enough in there to buy something to soothe my voice, I’ll tell you another” (p. 18). He emerges as something of a rascal, a personality, a presence as permanent as the towns and countryside through which he travels, as vital as the bigger actors who populate the different tales.

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Marian Allen

“There are two people who are always welcome in any village in rural Istok,” we read at the beginning of “The Sweetest Dish”: “a good cook and a good storyteller”; and, further: “Some say that feasts attract storytellers – pratiers, as they’re called in Istok – the way honey attracts badgers, but truth is, when a pratier shows up, forehead crossed by colorful beaded band, a reason for the feast is found” (pp. 85-6).

And, at story’s end, this wonderful line: “Everyone agreed that the sweetest dish is one that comes with a story” (p. 90).

At the end of the brief introduction to “The Warmth of Midwinter,” second to last story, these two paragraphs, which end with a similar sentiment:

“‘This story,’ said the storyteller, ‘ takes place in the land of Layounna, not far from the capital city of Kadasad, on the bank of the Fiddlewood River. The time was in that lean and cheerless passage of the season, and the year was such-and-such.’

“The audience chuckled. Who cared what year a story happened? In the mouth of a good tale-spinner, a story took place around you – to you – even as it was related” (p. 102).

The itinerant acting troupe, in their consecutive tales (“Heart’s Desire”; “The Planting of Evidence”; “Command Performance”) serve a similar function, with their theatrical productions. Though, like roving Gypsies and circus or carnival crews, they were not always trusted after certain hours: “A city supper and beds in an inn were rare treats,” we read early in the latter of these stories.” “Only large towns were sophisticated enough to risk allowing such rascals as actors to linger overnight” (p. 49).

But the open road, the freedom and the risk of the unknown path, are themselves fruit of much popular and even literary narrative. This is certainly the case in these tales, which often bring the protagonist up against the known borders of their worlds, landing them in mortal danger. Will they have the qualities of strength, imagination, and determination necessary to meet and prevail in the face of the uncanny and the shifting tales of fortune?

th9XH9XU5FI remember, in a television production of The Arabian Nights that I really enjoyed, the role of the old, white-bearded storyteller whose crucial task it was to coach an extremely vulnerable Sheherazade in the art of suspense, of leaving the, in her case, lunatic-psychotic listener on the edge of his seat, so that she could gain one more day to entrap him in the healing magic of her fictions. The importance of story was so well articulated there; I used the film to good effect with my English students.

Likewise, from literary writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and the wonderful Sholom Aleichem, I have learned the extent to which the story is central. It is central even in experimental works like Joyce’s Ulysses, though few readers will be able to get through the artifice to the narrative; Virginia Woolf does it just as artfully, but with a narrative simplicity – even as it flowed on the protagonist’s consciousness, on the stream-of-consciousness on which the larger narrative is woven in Mrs. Dalloway.

Marian has asked me what it is that distinguishes “literary” fiction from the genre fiction that she and other writing group members tend to work in. I don’t know how well I’ve been able to answer that, only to point to some of the techniques that I have used (in A Bride Called Freedom, for instance) to make the historical romance visibly pertinent to our present moment. Explicitly pertinent, I might say, as I do by juxtaposing the modern voice of Viviana whose emails become the frame through which 19th-century Argentine legend is made immediate to both North American past and present. Each work has its own method, which may be more subconscious than conscious. In “Courting Mel,” my romantic comedy that will grace the pages of the anthology that I’m presently struggling to put together, among other things there are a series of allusions to the immediate backdrop of build-up to war in Iraq that gives the romance some of its darker edge. Then there comes the allusion to Twain’s “War Prayer,” which puts (in Cameron’s mind) the story’s dilemma of love won or lost up against the dilemma of the one who prays for victory on his own nation’s field of battle – and, thus, blight and destruction on the enemy’s. Thus and so forth.

But I mention all that because, here, in the simple grace of Marian’s “genre” fantasies, the seriousness and importance and pertinence of the work are implicit in the craft itself. She who has ears, let her hear. There were at least a couple of moments in these stories – I won’t try to pinpoint them now (I read, as I rarely do anymore, without marking up the text!) – where it occurred to me that I wish a certain contemporary politician, not to mention a few of his more reactionary cohorts, could read this and reflect on its teaching. But, of course, some ears are not made for hearing, and I suspect that he is beyond comprehending, incapable of shame or self-revelation. But, there the wisdom lies, in all its simplicity and its nuance.

My present journey amongst Marian and her crew of southern Indiana writers has certainly helped me to push aside whatever snobbery might exist or might have existed in (especially my youthful) ambitions as a distinctly literary artist. Though, in fairness to that idealism, what I really felt a revulsion toward were the cookie-cutter Harlequin Romances and such. And, beyond that, I have always been open to instruction, as when I picked up Louis L’Amour’s memoir – Education of a Wandering Man, I think it was – which led me to take a respectful, if brief, glimpse at the art of his Western fiction. At the same time, I have always been attracted to the populist in literary fiction: John Steinbeck, for instance, read and admired by the common man. And that’s the kind of literary writer I have always wanted to be. Even in my wildest experimentation, I have been at pains to make the experimental form accessible and comprehensible.

th461VYQDSA new milestone in this evolving understanding of the subject occurred on Saturday, last week, at the Imaginarium in Louisville, where I attended a panel discussion on which sat Marian’s pseudonymous daughter, “Sara Marian” (well, her flesh-and-blood daughter, who uses that pseudonym). She, like me, had literary pretensions, and has abandoned her early efforts along those lines, viewing them as hopeless failures. But now, with her rather popular (one of Per Bastet’s top two sellers) The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, in the writing of which she simply tried to write a good story, she feels that she has expressed a good deal of what she had hoped to say in a more deliberately literary fiction. Inspired, by the way, by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky! How could I not love her?

That book, I gave as a gift a couple of Christmases past to my daughter Nadina. Don’t know if she’s read it yet, but someday I must. As for me, while also having moved on from my early efforts, I continue to fashion a more deliberately literary body of work; and, at the same time, I have some faint hope of returning to some of that early but, ultimately, unsuccessful work and crafting something more palatable to a general public. If I succeed at that, I imagine that my present sojourn among so-called genre writers like Marian Allen and her charming daughter will have played a role equal to, if not superior to, my “literary” influences and models. This book – Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage – makes that ever so clear. The proof is not in the pudding so much as in the story, the narrative, dressed up however it might be in literary apparel. I don’t believe there is any need to look down one’s nose at this popular literature, so long as it is finely crafted and imagined. As this work is.

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Confabulating with Cows and Herding Cats

Aside from my collection of essays, announced in the previous post, hot off the press at Per Bastet Publications is issue 21 (Herding Cats and Other Alien Creatures) of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group’s Indian Creek Anthology Series. I happen to have short fiction in issues 20 and 21, the most recent of which I also edited.

My story for the present issue is briefly described in the volume’s foreword, which I excerpt below. My contributions to the previous issue (XX: SIW Goes Platinum) include a series of comedic short-shorts under the general title “Madcap Midwestern Mythologies” and scattered throughout the volume; and “Brotherhood of Man and Beast,” a comedy about the encounter and unlikely friendship between a conservative Christian preacher and a teacher of the literary-rhetorical arts of Charles Darwin. I have written about them previously.

Following, by way of introduction to the new volume, is the text of my foreword:

As I was reading the recent English translation of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s The Farm in the Green Mountains, the chapter called “Confusion in the Chicken Yard,” I reflected on the theme of this twenty-first volume of the Indian Creek Anthology Series. Herdan-Zuckmayer’s book is a memoir about the author and her husband Carl’s experience, as political refugees from Nazi Germany during the first half of the Forties, running a farm in backwoods Vermont. Neither she nor Zuck, as Alice called him, were experienced farmers. So the account of their time in that American wilderness – with its echoes of some of the more remote rural communities in southern Indiana – was full of humorous adventures as they labored to herd those chickens and other farm animals into some semblance of order.

The “herdee” in question, in this passage, was Hermann, an ungovernable goose who was enamored of a duck and violently resisted their being housed every night in separate sections of the poultry shed. “Without the broom,” Herdan-Zuckmayer writes, “we could not have controlled Hermann, who was wild and dangerous. In fact, the broom often played an important role in driving the animals home, in separating fighters, and in self-defense.”

All the farm animals, except for the goats who liked “to nibble at the broom straw,” were afraid of it. All they had to do was “hold the broom in front of [them], like a witch who is ready to mount her broomstick to ride to the Blocksberg, and the animals scattered and took flight in the desired direction.

“Even the hair on the cats began to stand on end, and they arched their backs and started to spit when the stubby face of the broom approached them. It seemed almost like a magical fear of the witchly attributes that made the animals run away.”

A sort of writerly magic exists in the collaborative effort that has brought together the nine stories, two poems, and single work of creative nonfiction in this latest production of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group. In “Herding Cats,” the poem that opens the volume, Jen Selinsky speaks of the magician’s act involved in bringing together such a “wild assortment” of writers and authorial visions, both in person and in these pages. She is followed in almost seamless transition by Marian Allen’s fast-paced, antic, police comedic-drama “By the Book,” which places the literary arts where they belong at the center of sentient life: the action unfolds on the planet Llannonn, in and around a “Living Library” (“a group home for people who chose to make careers out of memorizing stories and novels and reciting themselves to anyone of good character who presented a library card”) where quick-drawing and impassioned Assistant Librarian Holly Jahangiri leads the charge against a band of ruffians who have been waylaying some of the Living Books.

From across the pond in Great Britain, our own “alien” writer, Andrea Gilbey, contributes “A Furry at the Bottom of My Garden, or, The Cat Who Fell to Earth.” What, on the surface, is a charming comedy of errors, in Andrea’s deft hands becomes also a comprehending glimpse into the lonely experience of “otherness.” She does this with a lightness of touch capable of planting, in the garden at the bottom of her readers’ hearts, a resurgence of compassion in this world of competing nationalisms that are so quick to place human beings in boxes or shipping containers stamped with such dehumanizing labels as “illegal” or “alien” or “refugee.”

The two pieces that follow, J. Baumgartle’s fictional “Cat Power” and Janet Wolanin Alexander’s memoiristic “Humans: Herders or Herdees?” share the anthropomorphic conceit of being narrated by the little furries at stories’ center: in Baumgartle’s story, which shares some of the social consciousness hidden at the heart of Andrea’s tale, the narrating cat is instrumental in preventing a minor environmental atrocity; in Alexander’s, the series of cats who have insinuated themselves into the lives of “the Js” (Jim and Jan) make the case for a re-ordering of that power structure.

“Leader of the Pack” is Brenda Drexler’s whimsical recasting of the Shangri-Las’ 1965 hit, its feline dialogue connecting it happily with Disney’s anti-tragedy The Aristocats. Ginny Fleming’s hilarious “Cat-O-Strophic Spelling,” for its part, makes lemonade out of an almost-tragic metamorphosis that, through some seriously bad “spelling” (of the magical, not orthographic sort), takes an apparently mismatched pair of human lovers in a direction in part feline, but ultimately and rather sweetly canine.

The “wistful lion” that, in Baumgartle’s elegant poem, “hauls itself slowly upright from the pride-scented grass” to survey its landscape, would seem to beckon toward the guardian goyle and its kitten-goyles in the richly imagined fantasy world of Bonnie Abraham’s “Out of the Cabinet.” Mistress Playit Wrenmother and her “small covey of future mages” paint a subtly humorous picture as they traipse through the school of wizardry and surrounding city, engaged in some of their own at-once less catastrophic and more cosmically significant spelling than the lemons-to-lemonade spelling of Fleming’s story.

That fantasy, with its almost Biblical overtones, leads to the Lakota Sioux spirituality underlying the science fiction of T. Lee Harris’s “Ghost in the Machine,” in which Captain Miranda Morningstar, a United Americas Marine Corps Ghost Walker, is called on to investigate an explosion that shook the asteroid where they are based; only, in a process that her shaman called “the snapping of the tether between body and spirit,” her spirit leaves the body behind in anticipation of her mission. T. Lee’s story is full of darkness, light, and the vicarious thrill of mortal combat with some truly alien creatures.

Returning, at last, in “Covenant Restored,” to the familiar mortality of this present Earth, Glenda Mills explores the making and sundering of human relationships from a Catholic perspective; her narrative is one woman’s inner struggle that lands, with hope but no more assurance than any of life’s ventures, in a new romantic attachment whose initial promise is to be sealed with the purchase of a cat. And finally, I offer my own somewhat dark-edged (but ultimately exultant) romantic comedy, “Courting Mel,” whose struggling middle-aged lovers – heads of a colorfully eccentric Mormon family – find their way, before a backdrop of looming war in Iraq and a rebellious teenage daughter’s dalliance with a biker several years her senior, through their own crisis of faith and love.

I am much indebted, in this my first year editing SIW’s Indian Creek anthology, to Marian Allen and T. Lee Harris with their twenty years of previous experience; but also to the club’s other members, old and new, in particular those who have lent me their excellent writing. It is without the slightest hesitation that I recommend our combined labor to a reading public that completes our sister- and brotherhood of lovers of the incomparable magic of good stories. We hope that you will be at once entertained and edified by our work.

 

 

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Confabulating with the Cows: Wit, Whimsy, and Occasional Wisdom from Perry County, Indiana: 1992-94

On men, beasts, madding mythologies, and so much more: Southern Indiana Writers anthology

41x2q4x2c9l-_sx331_bo1204203200_1The Southern Indiana Writers, which I joined while the previous book was being readied for publication, has just come out with the 20th volume in their Indian Creek Anthology series. To commemorate the occasion we decided to name it XX: SIW Goes Platinum, with the work that appears in it to be arranged broadly around that theme: “Twenty, platinum, X, XX, cross, double-cross….” as editor Marian Allen summarizes in her short foreword.

Since I had nineteen volumes of lost time and space to make up for, I muscled my way into this one with a single longer story and a series of four short-shorts. The first and longest, actually, “Brotherhood of Man and Beast,” some of my readers may recall my having spoken of in a couple of earlier postings. Added to the mix rather late in the process, the story itself seemed to fit the mold while, at the same time, the SIW anthology and small publisher Per Bastet answered my need with an immediate and fitting Kentuckiana-centric (but non-exclusive!) audience.

“Brotherhood,” in any case, is a serious-minded comedy with a light touch and an odd coupling of protagonists: a high-school English teacher who, in the context of a unit on argument and persuasion, decides to introduce Darwin into his curriculum; and the country preacher who learns of the scheme and inserts himself, at first adversarially, into the process. However unlikely the friendship and dialogue that ensue, I believe the story is credibly imagined and, therefore, hardly inconceivable; it is my hope that, beginning with a small segment of Middle-American society, it might provoke a spirited and civil conversation that extends itself outward in a gradually expanding circle of readers.

The series of shorter “Madcap Midwestern Mythologies” (united under that title and dispersed, with their own subtitles, among the anthology’s other offerings) attempts to bring hearers and readers alike, with whatever “thread of sanity” we retain possession of, pleasurably into a safe, reflective place beyond the clutches of “this infernal Funny Farm we call the civilized world.” While “Brotherhood” could take place here or in just about any state roundabout, these tall tales do originate precisely in a southern Indiana county much like the one I inhabit—in a country village not unlike Tobinsport, the “wide spot in the road” where my father grew up.

With more than a bit of a magical-realist flair, our young narrator Madeline (“Maddie”) S. Polk, “village fabulist and yarn-spinner extraordinaire,” enriches the local folklore with improbable accounts interwoven with elements ranging from frontier America and ancient Mexico or Guatemala to the Spain of Miguel Cervantes and, of course, ancient Greece—fabricated, as we intuit by the end of the fourth story, in the context of a classroom assignment.

The Napoleon Bonaparte Sanders who appears in a couple of these stories is born of foggy memories of decades-old conversations about my even-more shadowy great-great grandfather who (I kid you not!) bore that name. While the particulars of his legend are strictly invented, I like to think that they fit very nicely with the spirit of his character as it came down to me; and am pleased to recognize Maddie Sanders Polk as a precocious forerunner of her distant cousin, the literary translator and writer of slight renown who has composed these words.

Other writers whose work appears in the volume are Brenda Drexler, T. Lee Harris, Andrea Gilbey, Bonnie Abraham, Ginny Fleming, Janet Wolanin Alexander, Marian Allen, and Michele Hubler.

worstbook2c1Copies of XX: SIW Goes Platinum may be purchased for Kindle or in paperback from https://www.amazon.com/XX-Platinum-Indian-Creek-Anthology/dp/1942166184. (For others of Per Bastet’s offerings—including volume 19 of the anthology series: The Worst Book in the Universe, the latest sensation among middle-grade readers; along with a growing selection of speculative fiction including fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, mystery, and even the struggle of a recently-dead woman to escape from Hades and a gritty crime-drama with a vampiric narrator-protagonist—visit their site at www.perbastetpublicatons.com.)