Thursday, September 18, 2008
Magic, humor, and class were the topics tonight. In listening to the first speaker in the Portland Arts and Lecture Series, writer Richard Russo, I discovered much about my own self. And I thought much about my own writer's voice.
A magic realist Russo is not, but a humorist who believes that adults need to be reminded of the magic in our mundane, every day surroundings. Isn't that magic realism, in some small strand of its definition. In that, somewhere in the weary task of survival (in whatever form that takes, maintaining the loft in the Pearl or foraging for food in the wild), our brains find explanation for every gap in the continuity of our rational minds. So if we see a commode, to use Russo's example, in the yard, we decide that the workers are working on the bathroom. Our adult, linear minds do not allow us to wonder at the vision of a commode in such a wide open space. Writers, said Russo, make the readers see the wonder.
Humor. Russo is a humorist who finds the funny in the serious and the serious in the funny. He said that when he first started writing, he didn't know what his writer's voice would be, only that he wanted to be a writer. He hoped that editors would publish his work and find it profound even though it wasn't. I related to that. I fought my narrative voice, wanted a deep, thought-provoking, serious voice. When in life, I'm a goof. When I workshopped Secret of the Plains, the writers in my group latched onto my humor, and soon I realized that I could not fight that part of my personality, or my way of relating to the world. My writing is earthy, and ghostlike, but it is also goofy and silly just like me. Russo helped me to articulate that about me as a writer.
Class. When I was getting my masters, I loved studying Marxist Literary Criticism because it looked at class. I've always been fascinated by class, which is one reason I like writing about Nepal because class, or cast, used to be barriers that people wouldn't even question or consider crossing. Now it is messy and that has caused much tension in the villages. Russo came from a small work class New York town, probably not far from where my brother-in-law, Chris Russo, grew up. I know east coast working class, am a product of that culture. And so I understand Richard Russo's experiences and the moral imperative he feels about putting that lens of class before his readers. He touched on the fact that talking about class has become almost an old-fashioned notion, and he warned against such sentiments. I agree with him.