Updated: Jul 26
Vertical Reading is when I stand on the shoulders of a writer, and jump high into the air, to fly up even higher--as higher as the impetus of my feet could possibly take me, to then skydive into the liquid ink of a book’s pages. It's a full immersion where I perceive phenomena as a whole, as I swim beside the people in the story that I read. The outside world fades away, and I inhabit the new world of an author’s creation wherein with certitude, I belong, and my identity--for then and there, I breathe underwater. It hasn’t happened too often ever since I read my first book, half a century ago. But last year, it happened about nine times while I read the books written by Alistair McCartney, Idra Novey, Bill Clegg, and Genevieve Hudson. My A-List.
"To my beautiful Cecilia, an outstanding Kindergarten student, my little friend forever, with warm affection from your teacher, María del Carmen, 1971."
En La Selva Hay Mucho Por Hacer [In the Jungle There Is Much to Do] - Mauricio Gatti
Ediciones Solidaridad. Montevideo, Uruguay, 1971.
To climb up onto the shoulders of an author that would spur me into the ether, and then dive into the world of a book, a connection has to be made first. I have to hear welcoming phrases, as though I was an alien arriving on a new planet, and the narrator salutes me speaking an unknown language but so universal that I understand it immediately. Meaning should resonate in me, elicit awe, birth empathy, ignite my curiosity, coax me to savor words delectably, answer long-ago formulated questions, resolve my present dilemmas, place a mirror before me--I should see me in my reflection, and in the multiple bands of light refractions of my identity as I read their stories. So, the book speaks to me first, as I open it randomly with my eyes closed, place my index finger on the page, and read its message. When Serendipity becomes Kairos, only entonces, I sky-dive, and I let go. And I swim within an ocean of ink.
I suffer from a (self-diagnosed) rare ailment that I call RWOCD, reading and writing obsessive-compulsive disorder. This ailment coaxes me to go to bed relatively early to read until I've fallen asleep. Whichever book I am reading would, eventually, lay flat on my chest. In a honed and sweet routine that my husband and I have danced over the years, he would gently remove the book, mark the page where he'd found it open, and place it on my night-table. Occasionally though, I'll set a timer to stop my reading allotted time, and I would quickly ignore it, Oh no! just one more page, as I'd read at the rhythm of his slumbering. Before I realize it, the dawn enters my room through the blinds of my window. Oops. Holy Shit! I gotta go teach even though I'm Sleepless in Santa Monica.
Some morning symptoms of my RWOCD manifest a few minutes before the alarm clock goes off, often before, or at sunrise. I open my eyes wide, blink a few seconds to adjust my eyes to the darkness aided by a dim Sea Salt Lamp, and reach out for my eyeglasses. Who cares about light or darkness, when I only see the lights within? I read the pages of my manuscript that I've edited while dreaming. I see the scenes that I must prune to show more than to tell, the dialogues that I must condense, the expositions that after revisions made by my brain during REM are destined to be so transformed that my manuscript's original DNA has transmuted it into a different creature. Because of my RWOCD, I binge-read, as much as binge-write. Now, my manuscript exhibits a copper-colored body, it's less legged, less hairy, and its antennae are feathery. Still a creature, but no longer an untamable beast. And I'm confident that reading the works of these authors had contributed enormously for my little creature to evolve developing fluorescent scales and iridescent wings.
It was then (before I started my AULA MFA) when I discovered Alistair McCartney's books and became obsessed with his writing to the point of wanting him to become my mentor. And so he did. Disclaimer: I'm incredibly subjective about my opinion about McCartney's works. I confess that I'm biased because of my gratitude for his mentorship, for his awe-inspiring narratives, the accuracy of his editorial recommendations, and for the friendship we have forged (BTW, don't you reader love this word? This verb: To Forge, to fabricate, and to fashion, which is so ambivalent, ambiguous, and in the same vein with the semantics of the word fiction, from Old French, ficcion, invention; from Latin fictionem, to feign, and etymologically blended with fingere, to craft). Oh boy! Here I am drafting an encyclopedic-style entry as Alistair's first novel, The End of the World Book.
Alistair's Existentialist narratives are concerned with mortality and the fragile state of the mind. Rendered as philosophical musings, his encyclopedic entries transpire as a dictionary of the Absurd, as if the thinker lived in a liminal space attempting to make sense of it. He wonders while wandering to find where the place of reality is, where the center of imagination lies. His narrator yearns for epiphanies amidst digressions and Alistair's prose employs metonymy, synecdoche to render the character's irony, and humor out of metaleptic extrapolations. The narrator moves from the general definitions, denotations into connotations and proves that semantics is vital to make sense of experience and that it is determined by individual perception. McCartney's narrational method is informed by Arthur Rimbaud's notion of his obsession with madness, and which the poet would seek and invite to inspire his creative process. Indeed, Rimbaud believed that as a poet, he could become a seer in the method of rational derangement of all senses to reach the unknown, to become the "supreme scholar." I've read Rimbaud's Illuminations countless times, and I revisit it at least once a week. McCartney's philosophical and homoerotic obsessions blurry the frontiers of reality and fiction. Reading The End of the World Book as a scholar, I find at its core the Foucauldian notion of madness in civilization, but under Alistair's lefty penmanship the story makes absolute sense in the surreal realm where reality is the fruit of the imagination.
Similarly, McCartney's The Disintegrations seems to yearn to wipe, demist and defog the blurry whole of what it means being in place, mortality, and purpose, and whether the span of a lifetime is sufficient to find meaning and focus. Beneath McCartney pages, I find Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, and a lot from Søren Kierkegaard. These guys are whispering answers into the ears of the narrator, from their coffins, from the afterlife. As I read Alistair's novel, I am not swimming oceans of ink but navigating subterranean rivers, flowing near buried coffins. An important character in my novel is Cassandra the seer. She takes my hand and guides me through underground passages, for she knows she's going to die. She knows that she will reach absolute liberation in the afterlife if she practices the Art of Dying. Hey, watch a music art video of [Cassandra's Vow of Love] for my second blog post, which is about integration with the self.
Nevertheless, the voice in The Disintegrations re-enacts Albert Camus' Existentialism of the Absurd as in The Myth of Sisyphus, and there's this constant preoccupation with memory, and it's fallibility. But it is identity politics, which serves me the most for the craft of my novel. Alistair's story it’s a genre-bending narration like I am attempting my project to become--non-fiction, story, and eulogy, poetry and obituary. In mine instead of an obituary, Cassandra writes journal entries about death and existence.
I want to include my mentor's works, into my curricula for English Composition, English Literature or into a Creative Nonfiction syllabus that I’ve designed for my M.A. in Urban Sustainability’s Capstone, which delves into Grief and Resilience for place-based narration. Like me, Alistair turns to works by other authors, [read University of Wisconsin Press, ] which aided him in solving "aesthetic problems, and that placed [him] on the path of totality" because reading the works of other writers always is a "source of illumination."
Idra Novey's works are perfect for me, as they came to me with great timing alongside with the beginning of AULA's MFA. She's a poet and a translator whose debut novel is about a foreign experience. Certainly, Ways to Disappear is about a fiction writer in Brazil named Beatriz Yagoda, and the story is told from Emma's POV, her translator, who will rely on her de-codification techniques interpreting literature to find the author who mysteriously vanished. Novey's notions of translation resonate with my method, my Theory of Translations as Transmutations of Language. In my working project, my character also looks for clues in a diary, to find everything they can about their mother, unpacking metaphors and allusions that debunk stereotypes and reclaim archetypes.
Similarly, Novey's cartography of clues aiding her search for the missing author draws from old-time quest stories, and from stories that tell stories within stories--storytelling from diverse perspectives. In Ways to Disappear, the relationship between the fictional author and her translator resonates with me tremendously in both of these my identifications. And it resonates with my work in progress, my life in progress. Now, on the low burner, I have my cauldron brewing Memoracles/QuHerencias: a bilingual collection of prose poems about the capriciousness of memory, and identity, family and community. The water is bowling though—I’d been offered publication. Only that my novel consumes me, and I’m loving being in the center of its fire. So kindly, publisher! just give me a little more time.
In some ways, I’m like Emma, the translator, searching for meaning inside narratives and translating them to resolve my own puzzles. And so are my characters. Ways to Disappear takes place in a Latin American country, and Beatriz Yagoda is a prolific writer who disappears leaving no concrete traces except for the truth concealed in her fictionalized stories. This really sounds like Borges’ Chinese Boxes, and Metafiction; bold strategies to persuade readers to still suspend disbelief. The real-life of the author is about her fictionalized works that the translator uses to translate, transmuting into current experience, and making sense to arrive at the truth. Hey, me, me!
My studies in ecology while on my first year at AULA, for the Urban Sustainability MA program, opened my mind to understand place-based storytelling, which I believe it's vital to ground fictional settings. I try to create a relationship between setting and my characters, very much inspired in my experience of living in over fifty homes, and in over a dozen countries, always finding ways to be home. So, I expect that my novel's settings are organic, personified, anthropomorphized—that places become characters and that they are home, as they find self-identity. Idra's experience as a poet, fiction writer, and translator transpires in her work, and so do places and characters, organically, I believe that our skill is a natural consequence of being translators, making us empathetic as authors, able translators of foreign emotions, aspiring to create respectful narrators speaking authentically; sensitive to the traits of our characters' othernesses.
Advocacy for environmental and social justice are causes that Idra and I share. The river in Idra’s second novel Those Who Knew, is tantamount to a landfill-- as is the book a political and an economic indictment to the fouls of progress, greed, consumerism, and commodification. The island where the story happens is an archetype of a liminal place stricken by the ripple effect of climate change, pollution, depletion, inequality which axis originates in developed countries. Another great tool that I learned from Novey's craft is her capacity to move from settings (place) to her characters' state of mind, their inner place of being. Some of her characters come to life via her capacity to render reality into an apocryphal place, "In the aging port city of an island nation near the start of the new Millenium" (TWK 2).
Idra translated one of my most beloved and admired writers, Brazilian genius Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. I've assigned the reading of Lispector's Agua Viva for three consecutive years, and a short story, Love, in the Brazilian unit of my English 57, Latin American Literature at SMC. I find a lot of inspiration in Lispector's works and identify traces in style, and most definitely in word choice, metaphors, and language in Novey's writing style. And yet, while Lispector is a master of digressions, Novey's prose is precise, dialogues are concise, and the author controls with great ease, syntax, form, word-choice, diction, thus rendering a powerful agency on semantics. In my view, her poignant brevity is pure brilliance. And like Lispector, Novey never loses the attention of the reader while obsessively worrying about the accuracy of language amidst its transcendent and transient nature.
I'm currently preparing my English Latin American lesson plan and I've decided to include Novey's Ways to Disappear, to tackle literature in translation. I will draw from my BA's Honor Thesis which draws from Umberto Eco's Experiences in Translation and George Steiner's After Babel. I think that Those Who Knew would be an ideal fit for my English literature courses, when I teach an Ecofeminism unit, the relevance of grassroots and hashtags movements while introing students to Gender Studies and foster Gender Justice. The goal is promoting language justice while bringing forth new voices bridging cultures and breaking barriers of dominant vs. dominated/dying languages, such as Zapotec, while students observe poems by Irma Pineda, translated by my friend Wendy Call.
I stumbled upon Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family, his first novel, by chance, and it soon became one of my personal choices for my MFA craft annotations. One of my students from my English composition course mentioned A Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, and Ninety Days, his first CNF books. My student wrote a personal essay on addiction and recovery that ensued a research paper, arguing about the need to identify the underlying causes leading to substance abuse, and there I read in text citations from these memoirs. My wish to include one of Clegg's memoirs for my CNF curriculum on trauma and resilience is then a natural corollary to these serendipitous confluences.
Clegg's novel proved itself ideal for my observations on the craft of creating multiple voices and diverse points of view for various characters. His narrators narrate from the first person and some from the third. There is, however, a latent purpose, interspersed puzzle pieces that promise to be put together, like in my story. And somehow, Clegg figures out a way to make these many voices merge as one, in the shared experience of grief and resilience. Clegg's prose, style, and narrative tension never disappoint. I read his pages while listening to Did You Ever Have a Family's audio, and I assure you that if you listen to it, his narrational voice will bewitch you. His tone and delivery for each character of his novel, is fluid and incredibly authentic, regardless of the differences of each character's identity, whose backgrounds differ in gender, age, and class.
Reading Did You Ever Have a Family like a writer, aided me in the craft of switching POV's between the protagonists of my book, and guided me to learn how to move back and forth between dual points of view. It also helped me in establishing different tones for different voices attempting to carry the narrative tension sustained by the themes that my work seeks to ground itself in. Clegg's narrational sinews are the concepts of love, family, forgiveness, and resilience. His writing is very poetic, and I found me reading many of his lyrical passages, as if I could see his efforts in finding the right words, the right sound to craft a vision, as ekphrastically as I attempt to create.
Clegg's sense of place, featuring intense connections to the human experience, resonate with my writing, although I'm yet to achieve such precision. The first part of my work lacked an implicit relationship between my characters and the city. So, I followed Bill's lead, and let my imagination envision a place, very much as he did to create the fictitious town Moclips, for the essential Moonstone hotel. And he brings it to life via the characters' perceptions and feelings as to what place signifies in their lives. Paradoxically, Clegg's fiction inspired my new creative nonfiction project—a collection of essays All the Places that Called Me Home, which sparkled out of a dream, and precisely a year later, when the story of my novel exploded in my mind: like a star. Did You Ever Have a Family's structure and pace inspires the chapter outline of my brand new project.