Using the Common Thread of Connection to Craft Character and Story

March 12, 2014 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fiction, Nonfiction, Opinion, Uncategorized 

Kelly Ann Jacobson on the feminist path she walked to write her novel Cairo in White:

I discovered feminism in a very strange place: a Critical Methods literature class during sophomore year of college at George Washington University. Critical Methods was a requirements for an English major—the major I switched into after realizing that Environmental Studies majors actually had to take science classes—and the instructor was Todd Ramlow, a professor who taught both English and Women’s Studies courses. Though he was a wonderful professor, I could have cared less about linguistic theory, and so I was surprised to find myself unexpectedly rapt when we read an essay about the pressures placed on women. He also taught us to look at how strong and supported our arguments were, not whether we agreed with a position or not. I took another class with Professor Ramlow the next semester, this time a Women’s Studies course, and then the next semester I took another one…and suddenly I was a Women’s Studies major.

In truth, my Creative Writing classes were what had convinced me to switch into English in the first place. I still pursued my passion for Fiction as a minor, and as I learned more and more about feminism, it began to creep into my creative work. I was dating an Egyptian man at the time who, when asked about the gay men and women in his country, told me there were no gay men and women in Egypt. So, a character emerged in a short story (later to be the first chapter of a novel), a woman of color, a Muslim lesbian struggling with feminism in her own country and then in ours. As my boyfriend explained Egypt’s lack of gay acceptance, Zahra was born. Even a little bit of linguistic theory made its way into Zahra’s life.

Of course, as soon as I became a Women’s Studies major, I started questioning my writing. I took a class on Standpoint Theory, and as I read the arguments for and against writing from “the other’s” point of view, I began to reconsider my novel. Was it wrong to write Zahra’s story? Should her story only be written by an Egyptian? A lesbian? A Muslim? What if I got something wrong? What if I quoted a bad translation of the Qur’an, or misinterpreted it by accident?

Eventually, I put my doubts aside. This was a story that had to be told, and as Zahra and then her daughter appeared again and again in my writing, it seemed that I was the one to tell it. I couldn’t give up on my project, so I did everything I could to get close to my characters. I learned Arabic. I asked my boyfriend (and then fiancé) everything I could about Egypt. I visited Cairo. I spent hours poring over Internet descriptions and photographs of the sites in Cairo that passed in a blur during a whirlwind trip, recreating the city for my reader and for myself.

The key to writing this novel, in my experience, was finding my own connections to the characters’ experiences. I, too, questioned my own sexuality. I came from a religious, conservative family, and my borderline Green Party ideals, protests, Egyptian fiancé, and Women’s Studies pursuits didn’t always fit. And, at the same time, I struggled to reconcile some claims of third wave feminism with my Pennsylvania upbringing. Aisha was easier, since I was an American seeing Egypt for the first time and, like Aisha, trying to impress my religious future in-laws.

No, I’m not a Muslim, Egyptian lesbian, but maybe I don’t have to be. Perhaps writers, in order to do justice to the characters and the cultures they write about, just need to find the common thread that connects their experience to their characters’. To empathize, and to work hard to understand. I followed that thread for six years and through countless drafts, and, though it wasn’t easy and though I’m not sure I got everything right, I finally completed a work that I am proud to call my own, my first novel: Cairo in White.

Excerpt from Cairo in White:

Zahra woke in a sweat, her silk nightgown plastered to the curves of her body under the light sheet. The shadows on the walls indicated the time was past noon, and by the feel of the air around her, the temperature was more than thirty degrees Celsius. She turned on her back as the repetitive whoosh of the fan struggled to mask the heat. The oasis between her thighs was wet like the rain stored in a succulent’s leaves. A dream, perhaps, of another sleek body, half-covered and close.

She kicked the sheet off, a scorned lover still damp with her perspiration. Usually she woke to the sound of her mother heating milk in the kitchen or clattering pans as she baked, but only silence met Zahra’s ears. Once her feet slid into the worn cotton slippers at the foot of her bed, she stood and faced the heat like a warrior. Miriam was not in her bedroom, where she sewed loose prayer dresses in flowery patterns. She was not in the kitchen, where she spent her time with the bags of cumin, coriander, and cardamom, combining these lovers into Dukkah mixtures and Mulukhiya. And she was not in the living room, where Baba’s clocks ticked the seconds of a new day.

Zahra looked out the balcony window at the pyramids—sentries that hovered in the distance, reminders of the toil of her people. At the glass, she pressed her palm against the warm window. Zahra judged by the missing grocery bags that her mother would not return for at least four hours… enough time to take a risk, to prove that Zahra owned those wonders as much as any other Egyptian.

__________________________________________________________________________

Kelly Ann Jacobson is the author of the novel Cairo in White. She recently received her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University, and she is the Poetry Editor for Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. Her young adult novel, Dreamweaver Road, is forthcoming from Books to Go Now, and Three on the Bank, her novella, was a finalist in Iron Horse Review‘s Single Author Contest and is forthcoming from Storylandia! this summer. Her work, including her published poems, fiction, and nonfiction, can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.

Find a copy of Cairo in White at Musa Publishing or any major online bookseller.

 

Post-AWP Withdrawals

It’s now been almost 72 hours since Seattle’s own Sherman Alexie closed the annual national celebration of all things writerly known as AWP.  But writers everywhere, and this writer in particular, remain jetlagged and not just because of the 12-hour trips each way for those of us in the east coast.

(Ahem, if you don’t know anything about AWP check out Peter Mountford’s Guide to AWP for People Who Don’t Know What AWP Is. His Useful Stereotypes are especially on-point: example 1. Earnest Poet, example 2. Mid Level Writer You’ve Never Heard Of. )

This was my second year attending AWP and I have to say I was a little less dazed and confused but just as googly-eyed as the first time.

There was running into my undergraduate prof., Allen Gee, at the top of the fourth floor escalator on registration day, then later in a rather intense panel on Writing Fictional Characters of Another Race led by the phenomenal Randa Jarrar and Mat Johnson among others.  (I chased them both after the panel and hope to feature them on StS soon!)

While womanning the StS table at the bookfair along with StS Asst. Poetry Editor, Alicia P, I saw and invited (manhandled-fawned) over the Great Joy Harjo whom we featured back in November, and yes there were pictures and yes this is us bragging.

 

There was the joy in Joy Castro‘s packed panel on Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family which offered touching and surprisingly humorous tales of the logistical and emotional negotiations endured when writing about everything from incest and sex addition to adoption and parenting and autism. StS will work tirelessly to bring Joy to you in the near future.

Dorothy Allison was greatly missed at Lambda’s 25 for 25, but at least I was able to see Butterfly Boy’s Rigoberto Gonzalez in action. Then, there was the pleasure of a first-time reading with Chang-Rae Lee and the discovery of the lazy charm of Chris Abani. (You had to be there! Were you? Tell us about it in the comments! But rest assured Abani would approve of my qualifier.)

Finding and sitting next to former StS Blog Editor, Sheila McMullin, at The (She) Devil Inside: Unlikeable Women in Fiction, where Samantha Chang and others referred to Edith Wharton and Claire Messud’s work to illustrate how Likeable = Respectable in literature and in life, was a special treat. And an impromptu reunion with StS featured poet Javier Huerta in the convention lobby and later at a ConTinta/CantoMundo offsite reading moved me so, it’ll have to be its own post.

So l’ll  stop here and not bore you with any more of my literary stalking, or with what could very well have been three George Saunders sightings –Asst. Fiction Editor, Julie D. is my witness–except we couldn’t be sure. We were too tired and either non or under-inebriated to approach him, though he was, we swear, no more than 5 feet away all three times.

Will continue AWP-detoxing  for weeks to come. Bear with us.

 

Pine Box Reading in Seattle Tonight!

For those of you in Seattle for the AWP conference, don’t forget the So to Speak reading today, Saturday, March 1, from 3 PM to 5 PM! Our reading features poetry by Laura-Gray Street, fiction by Jessica Barksdale, and nonfiction by Tim Denevi and takes place at the Pine Box, a restaurant and bar located only a half-mile from the Washington State Convention Center at 1600 Melrose Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98122.  We’d love to celebrate great feminist writing and have a drink with you! Most importantly, you’re not going to want to miss the line-up!

 

The Artist Activist Online

Former So to Speak Poetry and Blog Editor Sheila McMullin on the history of the StS blog and using online platforms to advocate for social change:

On March 8, 2011 I launched So to Speak’s blog with a simple one line post. No in-depth journal and provocative claim, just a quick message with the beginning word “Celebrating.” With this word began So to Speak’s interaction as an online open forum for discussing feminist issues as they pertain to art and artist communities. In those early days our editorial circle saw the blog as a supplement to the print journal, providing a space for our contributors to speak in broader terms on their creative process and artistic and feminist intentions in relation to their printed pieces. The blog was an opportunity for the community at large to engage with our activist-driven organization and find in us a community of peers who understand the importance of celebrating feminist dialogue, a safe space to explore identity relations, questions, and build new relations. It was a space for those curious to learn. A place for those skeptical to debate. It is no secret that women and those who don’t identify as cisgender are unproportionally harassed and denigrated on the internet. In launching a blog dedicated to feminism in the arts, I with Blog Co-editor Alyse Knorr were fulfilling a lack we saw in So to Speak’s organizational structure, and stepping up to fight against the notion that women aren’t allowed to play. Of course feminists and budding feminists waiting for a call to action were on the internet. And So to Speak needed to find them and bring them together. We believed that to meet the needs of our feminist allies we had a firm obligation to participate in the online community.

Today StS is still all these things under the care of the current editorial circle, and better, more expansive, more in-depth, more provocative. I am eternally grateful to Blog Editor Sheryl Rivett and her Assistant Blog Editor Paula Beltran for continuing and fostering StS’s online presence. One thing many people don’t really yet understand about encouraging online communities through dedicated and consistent blogging is that it takes a whole lot of energy  and a s**t-ton of time. With open minds embracing online opportunities So to Speak has been able to be more of an engaged feminist advocacy group expanding its reach to promote gender parity in the arts and in our communities at large.

That beginning celebratory word on StS’s fresh blog, jumpstarted my personal endeavors of becoming more involved in utilizing web presences for social causes within organizations dedicated to advancing gender parity. I want to celebrate creative bravery. These days many of us engage in online communities through various social media sites that encourage surface level and sensationalist interactions. With sites like Facebook the tendency becomes to showcase only the most thrilling, titillating side of ourselves. These kinds of interactions can at times be a reprieve or fun, but if taken too seriously can interrupt crucial opportunities for empathetic human interaction. Similarly to how hyper-sexualized advertisements and media affect our collective conscious on definitions of “natural” and “beauty,” our most popular social media sites can actually make us feel more lonely, more isolated. Through these sites we have been trained to compare our behind the scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel, a well-worn yet accurate phrase. I don’t deny that sites like Facebook and Twitter play huge roles in providing low-budget socially-conscious groups opportunities to advertise, promote, and connect. These are often the hubs individuals go to see what’s the latest and check updates on news and events. But sites like these can also encourage an ego that denies the validity of another’s identity because of the lack of an ultimate goal of interacting in offline spheres. We forget the avatar on our screens represents a beating human heart, with just as many complex emotions and needs as we have.

I like using the internet very much. It is fun, serves a knowledge-based purpose, and connects me to like-minded folks and family and friends all over the globe. And while the internet allows me to stay in touch with people I love and explore the world without necessarily leaving home, it is still incredibly important to remember that the surface level of interaction while on the internet is through an inanimate object.

As I have become more involved in online communities I understand more the complete necessity for my online presence to directly influence my offline actions. The internet is a tool to make my material and physical life more fulfilling, more understanding, more substantial. So, for AWP 2014 I wanted to bring together creative literary thinkers who actively engage online in platforms they either built themselves because they saw a lack and wanted to fill that space with positive community-focused interaction or significantly monitor and update a unique platform with a socially conscious action-orientated mission for creative thinkers who want to learn to engage online in meaningful, nourishing ways and to talk about how to do so in productively.

On Saturday, March 1, the panelists and I will discuss building unique online platforms, or participating in already existing platforms to shape a cyber presence that provokes actual social change and propagates dissemination of educational materials in the physical world. We’ll discuss and explore opportunities for using our online platforms to evolve typical trite conversations, to change language, to vocalize inclusivity, reform out-of-date sexist traditions, and push out of comfort zones to empower individuals. Through our conversation, I hope we can come together to celebrate our unique visions and encourage users to create an internet that moves away from trolling, harassment, anxiety-provoking sites and moves toward representing the diverse cultures we participate in and the diverse human beings we are.

For you, in the cybersphere, who are ready to start using your online platform to advocate for social change consider what it means to blog with integrity, and focus on opportunities for offline activism by providing links at the end of your posts to others’ organizations or groups who argue for similar productivity you do and could benefit from a charitable donation or some type of volunteer action.

Now go write and share!

Headed to AWP? Be sure to check out the panel that Sheila is moderating!

So You Want to Build a Platform: But What is It & Why Do You Need One? Women Writers & Editors Speak Out (Sheila McMullin, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Molly Gaudry, Sheryl Rivett, Arisa White)
Room 608, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
Saturday, March 1, 2014

10:30 am to 11:45 am
While women’s voices are underrepresented in print publishing, online activism can balance the scales. Cultivating an online presence is not as easy as DIY and shameless self-promotion tales make it look. Creative thinkers, to highlight minority and emerging voices, develop unique online resources to build ever-expanding communities and celebrate accomplishments. Panelists explore empowerment, utility of web-based writing, maintaining professionalism, and ways to keep viewers returning and sharing.

AWP Dreaming!

Headed to Seattle? Looking for a guide to all things literary and feminist at the AWP conference?

We’re pleased to share the line up put together by poet Sheila McMullin, past So to Speak editor and current VIDA web assistant. Check out her fantastic list of exactly which AWP panels next week in Seattle fall under the feminism umbrella!

“For your feminist appetite I have complied a savory dish of 2014 AWP Seattle feminist panels. How, you ask, do I know these are feminist panels, when few of them self-identify as feminist? Well, identify, rather, identity is going to be the key term here.”

http://moonspitpoetry.com/2014/02/19/awp-2014-seattle-feminist-panel-guide/

Looking forward to seeing some of you at the events. Don’t forget to stop by the So to Speak table for custom buttons and to say hi!

 

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