There’s Death, Good Sir, And Then There’s Death

There’s death in a blinking cursor; death in a blank page.

I often find myself staring at the John Doe of poetry titles, ‘Document1’ (Microsoft Word); a thousand words bled white. I then look through my poetry archive [read: ramblings of the poor man’s Stephen King/M. Night Shyamalan] and think Holy Frack, what the pig’s scrotum happened to me? I could find terror in a teacup, a tale of macabre waiting to unfold behind the steely blue eyes of a doorman.

Now, there’s only wretched white noise. I think ‘vampire’ – bam! Head stuffed with images from the latest episode of ‘The Vampire Diaries.’ Next thought: evil fetus that drives its mother insane through violent nightmares – hello, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ slash ‘Splice’ slash ‘Alien.’ Every thought is unoriginal, derivative. Where once all I needed was a word [‘Whack!’ was my inspiration for ‘Incubus’], a phrase [‘Eat some of my remorse’ from ‘a la carte’ just came to me], or a character [suicidal closet-homosexual, for example – see ‘Sodom’], now I find myself fishing for inspiration; forcing my hand on the keyboard. I wrote two poems recently – they were as effective as Stephenie Meyer’s take on Nosferatu [my umpteenth ‘Twilight’ reference; do you see where I’m going with this?]. To her credit, though, I found ‘The Host’ to be a particularly riveting read. Gaah – I’m digressing again. I can’t write 224 words without – sigh. Moving on.

I once wrote a concept about a little boy who walks in on his parents having sex; he’s told they were playing a ‘wrestling game.’ I must have forgotten all about it: just came across the document while cleaning up my ‘My Documents’ folder. [I also came across a document that only read: ‘PRIVATE MALE ESCORTS NOW AVAILABLE, HANDSOME GUYS FOR YOUR SWEET MASSAGE, DINING AND NIGHTLIFE PLEASURES’ – and before you triumphantly pump your fist in the air, Shehla (she insists on interpreting ‘Sodom’ as my subconcious urging me to come out of the closet!), that was character research: I played a gigolo in a Lahore Grammar School production – but that’s a story for another time].

The draft/concept read:
“9 year old boy (8? 7? How young is too young?) sees parents in Kama Sutra position number – oh just pick a number. Goes batshit ballistic till daddy tells him they were ‘wrestling.’ Boy wants to ‘wrestle’ with sister – [comment added later: ‘You’re fu***ng sick, Obi, make it girl from school.’], scary freaky shit – to show or not to show?
‘I drew mommy as a trout’ / daddy as (what’s a really big fish? Shark? Lol, this gives ‘Jaws’ a whole new meaning.)”

When I couldn’t think up of anything more original than that concept, I decided to write out a poem based on the material my perverse mind conjured more than a year ago. This is what I came up with:

I drew mommy as a trout; Snotty Steven thought it was a grey
SpongeBob SquarePants – he doesn’t know they don’t have
spines; silvery freshwater seafood – Steven laughed when
I used the fuchsia pink crayon to fill in mommy’s cheeks; but that’s her
only camouflage against the rose bed spread when daddy plays
the wrestling game with her. Mrs. Trellis was quite bemused (I learnt the word
in English-II today) when she saw daddy
devouring mommy; a great big shark, or the whale that wolfed down Geppetto
“Why would you draw your parents that way?” she asked me; but that’s how I saw them,
Swear on the old ghoul that lives in the attic. She said she’d call home when it’s
After dark, but that when’s they play the wrestling game most; the trout and
The shark. Tonight, canvas in hand, I opened their bedroom door, just as
Daddy was done wrestling her on our hardwood floors; they were so quiet after those
Three seconds I was sure he was going to dogheaven (just like old Scooby did)
From a heart-attack, just like that mostly shirtless man from mommy’s favorite soap opera –
And mommy was going to be crushed under that human grand piano
(Sylvester does many times, but a cat has nine lives, doesn’t he?)
They were staring at me but not staring too; so I asked mommy if what they were doing
Was just for fun; and my heart skipped a beat – what if daddy turns into Jaws and mommy’s
No more – sometimes I wish Steven hadn’t made me watch that movie – but then mommy
Laughed in a voice that was much too hoarse, and said of course, baby, of course.
Daddy took me to my room, and while fidgeting with my Transformers model said
that it’s not scary what they do; that might be true
I’ve seen them pray sometimes in between their game; just yesterday I counted
Mommy taking the Lord’s name
Five times (or was it six?) – so maybe it is holy and daddy’s not a monster after all; he crinkled
His eyes and laughed when I showed him my picture;
he tousled my hair and said
I’d have my fill of the wrestling game one day
Little Peggy makes me all funny inside, with her painted toenails and
Maple syrup scent; I wonder if she’ll be at school tomorrow
I wonder if she’ll play.

After writing this, trying to change and alter it into something worth salvaging [read: making it so complex it seemed as though the poor boy was spewing Sanskrit], I have now resigned myself to the following:
a) I should stop trying to enter the mind of an eight-year old (as poetry protagonist, gaah – this reads like I’m a bizarre Inception pedophile),
b) I should stop trying to write poetry that rhymes,
c) I should just … stop?

Oh sweet Krishna, I started off this blog post saying there’s death in a blinking cursor.
Well, there are some things worse than death.

How we write when we write about IDENTITY (The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison)

posted by Noor

I have always thought of writing as a narcissistic activity. Many of my characters invariably start looking, sounding, and even acting like me. They are always conflicted – struggling with identity, roots, cultural values, treading two value systems at the same time, their senses continuously at war. It is often difficult to separate yourself from your writing, take a step back and view it from a stranger’s eye – but you don’t always have to. Sometimes, to preserve the integrity of the story you want to tell, you absolutely have to draw from what you know best, what you have lived through, what you have observed, witnessed, and learned. Most importantly, in order to recount a story and remain true to its essence, you must do so in an unapologetic fashion and write it not for the reader, but because the story deserves to be told. I learned this from one of my favorite authors – Toni Morrison and the genius that is her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye spans a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl in Lorain, Ohio. I am not going to recount the story for you all, because that will take me away from the themes that I want to cover today. If you have not read this book, PLEASE do yourselves a favor and get a copy. It is a very fast read, and though the story is tragic, the imagery is delightful. I was struck by the vividness and beauty in the images that Morrison has so effortlessly created. What I really want to focus on is the narrative organization and themes of the novel and how she has managed to create this book of immense power without actually victimizing or criminalizing any of the characters. You are simply told about the suffering and the way Pecola experiences and internalizes it.

1. “Writing without the white gaze”
Toni Morrison has written this book without being cognizant of a white audience. She has not explained herself or her characters. She has simply written this story without apologies or warnings. She has incorporated important elements of the black culture of Lorain, Ohio around the time of the second world war. She has talked about music extensively – both jazz and blues – to the point where you start to hear it as you’re reading the book. Most importantly, she mentions in the afterword that it was very significant for her to use “speakerly” language.

2. Seasons in The Bluest Eye
The novel begins thus: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.” This is compounded by the organization of the book in seasons: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. Right in the first line, Morrison introduces this idea of something being wrong – and we all know it’s not just about the marigolds. There has to be more to it, but she employs a beautiful distraction to develop her theme. By introducing this idea of nature and marigolds that did not sprout, Morrison has skilfully started to build upon the themes of seasons, the natural order, and the thought that “something has gone wrong.” Right away, we learn that Pecola Breedlove is having her father’s baby – the problem of marigolds skirts this horrific reality, which is mentioned in passing, perhaps to make it more bearable. This theme of seasons continues throughout the book.

3. Developing “foils” for the main character and explanation without excuse
(Foil: A character that by contrast serves to highlight the distinctive nature of another character).
Throughout the narrative of The Bluest Eye, we see many contrasts between the Breedloves and the MacTeers. Pecola’s story is so horrifying and tragic that if it had been presented without the strength of Claudia and Frieda, perhaps we, as readers, would not have been able to accept and process it. So Morrison developed the characters of Claudia and Frieda as foils for Pecola’s character. Claudia and Frieda shoulder the weight of Pecola’s suffering because their positive experiences and their strength allows the reader to digest the horror in Pecola’s story. Pecola by herself is too frail to carry the book on her own. Through their positive experiences alongside Pecola’s harsh life, we are able to read the book with a sense of loss and despair, but without getting completely despondent. This is helpful because it allows the reader to see why the characters choose what they choose and how their choices are ultimately a reflect of their experiences.
Cholly, Pecola’s father is a product of his circumstances. This is explanation without excuse. We understand how and why someone like Cholly might come to be. Morrison, at no point, makes excuses for his behavior, but when you learn about Cholly’s experiences – how vulnerable he is made by all that he faced as an adolescent, you begin to understand his motives and why he committed the terrible act of sexually assaulting his daughter. All this is done by Morrison’s organization of the narrative. It is important to pick up a few things here.
The narrative is organized so that we immediately assume that Cholly is a heinous person. Right from the beginning, we know that Pecola was having her father’s baby – many of us immediately develop a bias against Cholly for this reason. However, as the narrative unfolds and we gradually begin to discover what brought Cholly to this stage in his life, we begin to understand his intentions and motivations. This is an extremely difficult task for a writer. To make your reader understand your character, think like your character, and realize that what your character does is a culmination and reflection of his/her life experiences is paramount! And very, very difficult. As I mentioned before, however, Morrison has done this effortlessly and seamlessly. The narrative flows from one character’s story to the other’s in a fluid manner.

There is a long list that I still have in my notes – topics that I wanted to highlight in this entry, but I think I should stop now and let you all mull this over. But if you take away anything from this entry, let it be the importance of organizing your narrative. The Bluest Eye is one of my favorite books, and I discover something new in it every time I read it. Please have a clear theme in your mind when you begin to tackle a story. Even if you know exactly what you are writing about, it is very easy to be distracted – adhere to the themes that you want to establish and develop in your work. Use creative ways to explore the nature of your characters. Develop foils – they do more for your characters and your story than you can possibly imagine! Write without apologies and explain without excuses and keep building on those themes.

Here’s to writing like Morrison one day!

Random Trivia: The title of this entry was inspired by a Raymond Carver short story. GUESS WHICH ONE?

Austin’s Favourite Haunt

posted by Afia

Picking up from Shehla’s blurb from last week, consider this the first in a line of completely unrelated posts. Now that we’ve started our group blog format, you can expect to see a LOT of randomness in this space: fiction, news, comment, observations on life and, of course, DWL updates. The only common feature in these blog entries will be that the team behind Desi Writers will be penning them. We’ll get to yap on everything under the sun, and you’ll get a peek into the sordid minds that run this place.

Experimental? So was LSD, a long time ago.

Speaking of tripping, I have a delicious story to tell. About three weeks ago, my husband and I made a dramatic, weekend getaway to Austin. Alright, so we had our toddler with us – but it was the weekend and we did get away from Houston and anything could be considered dramatic as opposed to this city. Unknown to me, ye ol’ better half had set up a real experience for us on our arrival (if you’re still thinking this is about drugs, you’re about to be sorely disappointed). He had booked us into the swanky Driskill Hotel in the heart of downtown Austin – one of the city’s most famous historic landmarks, a living testament to the opulence and grandeur of the South’s past, and widely known to be Texas’ most haunted hotel. Eep!

No, really. There is something about the Driskill that makes it exceptionally susceptible to ghostly activity (some of the staff likes to joke that it’s better than Heaven, so the dead don’t want to move on). Whatever the cause, incidents abound. Grown men (as if that’s supposed to be some measure of rationality) have reported waking up in the middle of the night to find all the faucets in their bathrooms on. Sounds have been heard of a little girl bouncing a ball on the hotel’s main staircase – these have been attributed to a US Senator’s daughter who fell to her death while playing with her ball on those stairs in the late 1800s. Even celebrities have had their share of ghostly experiences at the Driskill: Annie Lennox stayed at the hotel while visiting Austin for a concert, and apparently received some paranormal assistance in choosing what to wear for the performance (she laid out two dresses on the bed and went in for a shower; when she came out, one of the dresses had been neatly put away in the closet).

The story that really caught my attention was a classic case of unrequited love resulting in tragedy. It took place in Room 427, also known as the bride suicide room. In 1989, a young socialite from Houston had been all set to get married when her fiancé broke off their engagement at the eleventh hour. Heartbroken beyond consolation, she escaped to Austin, where she checked into the Driskill and then took the ultimate revenge: she went on a huge shopping spree on her ex’s credit cards and spent every cent of credit he had to his name. Amongst the many expensive purchases she made that day was a gun. The last time she was seen alive was when she walked through the hotel lobby to the elevator, laden with shopping bags.

Her body was found a few days later, crumpled in the bathtub of Room 427. She had clutched a pillow to her chest and shot herself with the very gun that her lover had unknowingly paid for.

Ten years later, two women on a vacation checked into the hotel and requested a room on the 4th floor of the Historic Wing. Some of the Driskill’s formidable array of ghosts were thought to make appearances on that floor. They were disappointed to find that the Historic Wing was closed for renovations. Not to be deterred by logistics, however, the two adventurers took the elevator up in the middle of the night, hoping to catch some paranormal activity. They found the floor dark and completely deserted, the walls swathed in black plastic sheets. A little unnerved, they reconsidered their plan and decided to return to their room.

This is where it gets really interesting. At the elevator, the two ladies were stunned to bump into a young woman who was evidently returning to her room after a full day of shopping. They called out to her and asked if the renovations had been bothering her. The woman stopped in front of Room 427 with all her bags, turned around slowly and replied, “No, not at all.” Sensing that their presence was not welcome, the ghost-hunting friends returned to their room for the night. They were determined to take on the hotel management the next day for refusing them a room when clearly other guests were being allowed to stay in the Historic Wing.

When they did return with the baffled concierge the next morning, not a soul was to be found on the floor (pun intended). The room to which the mysterious guest had gone was empty, save a ladder and a few paint cans. No one could explain why anybody would be returning from a shopping expedition at 2 am.

I’ve heard a lot of spooky stories in my lifetime (who hasn’t had those late-night, giggly assemblies with cousins where everyone’s terrified out of their wits but still strangely compelled to recount one ghostly incident after the other?) but somehow, this one really affected me. The thought of a jilted bride who took it upon herself to die by her own hand, alone in a hotel room, knowing that the only way she could touch the love of her life was through his wallet… it signified such terrible loneliness and absence of hope. Could it be that her spirit actually roams those corridors, reliving those final terrible moments over and over? Could she still be keeping watch over the last door she ever walked through?

We’ll never really know… but there are two women out there somewhere who have their suspicions.

New Chapter, New Goals

posted by Shehla

In the interest of preserving my reputation as a writer/blogger, a disclaimer: I have not blogged in years, and never seriously.

As we undergo a management change, there are many new ideas and plans in the pipeline for Desi Writers Lounge. This post is meant to introduce the blogosphere (see, I know all these bloggy words, I’m legit!) to some of the developments that are scheduled to happen at DWL over the next few months.

First off, we’re revamping the Lounge’s blog. Previously, this space has served as a place where DWL-related announcements go up. We are now trying to morph the blog into something a little more… meaty. We are switching from a primarily solo authorship to a joint one. The purpose is to introduce people who haven’t registered on the forums to the kind of topics, debates and discussions that make the community that much more enjoyable for writers. The less noble motive, of course, is to kick ourselves back into writing mode. Over the last few years, the editing and forum moderation, though pleasurable responsibilities, have taken time away from most of the founders’ writing. We are hoping to get our butts back into the writers’ seats again, so from now on you will see us posting on a host of different topics, reflecting the diversity of our experiences but always seen through the lens of a writer (or something to that effect). We are also hoping to give the members a chance to get to know the team behind DWL.

Many of you may not know me at all, as my involvement with Desi Writers Lounge has mostly been behind the scenes. Being away from Pakistan has also made it harder to interact with the members offline.But DWL has been a big part of my life since 2005, and on most days, my main link to “back home”. I think this is a big reason why DWL is so important to me. As I navigate cultural assimilation andthe constant sense of detachment that is the core of the immigrant experience, DWL allows me a forever-open window into my Desi-ness 🙂

Last night, a few of us founder members were discussing some of the changes that you will all see unfold at DWL in the near future. In the middle of the discussion, one thing struck us. We started as a collective dream of 12 individuals. When it came down to practically implementing that dream, it faded down to five. Now, as life brings new possibilities and challenges, we have essentially whittled down to three.

We have achieved a lot in the past half-decade. We have all grown, as individuals, and most of us also as writers. But we have also been guilty of many mistakes – one of those being not setting achievable goals for the community. There were many wonderful ideas, many strokes of genius, but not many implementable ones. The result was a loss of interest in the project for many of us. There is so much potential in this platform, and we never fully explored it.

I am not here to be Debbie Downer. I am simply admitting that DWL, for all its glory and unique strengths is far from where it can be. And that is what the new administration is hoping to change, with your help. For starters, we are planning on being a lot more stringent with writing samples from now on. Second, we are hoping to recruit more by word of mouth. That is where YOU come in. If you know someone who writes really well, tell them about us. Tell them how a group of random strangers will take time out of the day and give detailed feedback on their writings. Tell them about this wonderful writing workshop that will cost them nothing, but give back plenty (and of course, tell them about the joys of venting about anything and everything on the vengeful B*tch Letters thread, or having the coolest writing prompt in One Day Two Minutes).

We are also planning on taking things to the next level for our writers. Papercuts is going to change significantly from its current format. We’re hoping to build a serious readership and to ensure a broader exposure for our members. And while it’s great to aspire for Papercuts publication, we are now also contacting publishers about a potential DWL poetry anthology to come out in print. We are also going to be on the lookout for competitions and other opportunities for our members regularly, an effort spearheaded by Noorulain Noor. Along with the workshopping of material that goes on in the forums, we’ll also be introducing several exercises, a teaser of which you saw in the shape of the 2010 Desi Awards Competition. (And we do need a better name for that, don’t we? Alright, add that to the list).

These are all things that we have already started the groundwork on, and if things stay on track, there is a lot more coming. Achievable goals to help this community of writers grow. That is the promise, and it’s one we intend to keep 🙂

p.s. How was that for a “welcome to the new and improved DWL blog” post? How did I do? Good? Terrible? Don’t care?

p.p.s. This is where I shut up, right?

p.p.p.s. Ok, thought so. Bye then.