Wednesday, November 18, 2009

John Irving on Wrestling and Writing

The author John Irving was interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC Radio a few weeks back. He spoke about how his own career as a wrestler influenced his writing. Irving started to wrestle when he was an ill-tempered fourteen year-old. He told Enright that “you can’t lose your temper on a wrestling mat”, and that wrestling was all about controlling one’s temper. Channeling it. “Wrestling was my first discipline,” he said.

Irving started to write about the same time as he started to wrestle, and eventually made the connection between the two pursuits. Passion, fear and anger are fuel for a writer as much as they are for a wrestler; and just like a wrestler a writer must be able to manage them. He learned how do do this on the mat first through repetition. Through the hours of practice on the mat. He goes on to say that as a wrestler, you...

accept the responsibility of learning a small detail until it becomes second nature. Until a move or a response to someone else’s body becomes instinctive. It isn’t instinctive. It’s a learned process. But it has to be as quick as something instinctive if you’re going to be any good. I was disciplined at that before I became disciplined as a writer. And it helped me.

Irving relates the necessity of a wrestler to constantly repeat his movements over and over to the necessity of the writer to constantly revise. Wrestling taught him the stamina for constant rewriting.

I am thinking of Irving these days as I lay down my rough first draft of the Walls book. Quite frankly, most of what I’ve written is horrible. My experiences overseas were rich, and my notebooks are full of delicious details, but my prose so far is weak and my narrative disjointed. I know that the beauty, if there is to be any, will come later through rewriting. I have a long way to go and I get exhausted thinking about it. I could use a little of the wrestler’s stamina right about now.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Article: "Berlin Wall is gone but Israel’s inhumane barrier still stands"

I found an excellent essay about the West Bank Wall on the Herald Scotland website. The author - who, oddly, is not named - writes eloquently on many of the ideas I mentioned in my last post.

You can find it here.

[Correction: David Pratt wrote the aforementioned Herald Scotland piece.]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Walls in Berlin and Palestine

Along with the Berlin Wall anniversary celebrations this week came the parallels between the Berlin Wall and the wall Israel has built around the West Bank. (The photo is of graffiti on the Wall in Ramallah.)

These comparisons were inevitable, of course, and so was the subsequent scoffing of the West Bank Wall's supporters. There is no comparison, they say. The Berlin Wall was built to imprison East Berliners. Israel's barrier was built to save innocent lives. They point to the fact that attacks within Israel were greatly reduced since the wall was erected in 2002. The Wall is good, they say.

They are wrong.

First of all, the building of the West Bank Wall did not result in the reduction of terrorist attacks in Israel. It coincided with a reduction of violence that was already underway. In the year before the Wall, the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority were already cooperating with intelligence sharing to prevent suicide attacks. Most importantly, key Palestinian groups had already abandoned such attacks as a tactic. The violence was ebbing before the Wall. This is a fact.

Secondly, it is naive to think that the primary purpose of the Wall is about security. If stopping attacks was the goal, then why wasn't the Wall built along the 1967 borders? Why does the Wall divide Palestinian farmers from their land? Why does the Wall appropriate so much Palestinian territory? Why are so many olive groves and fruit trees uprooted for the Wall? I've never heard an apologist for the Wall answer these questions.

Those that have been following this blog know that I've seen these things first hand. I've come to realize that the Wall is not a 'security' barrier. The Wall appropriates Palestinian land for settlement expansion in the West Bank. The Wall disrupts the Palestinian economy by dividing farmers from their fields, or by destroying their orchards altogether. The Wall creates de facto and non-negotiated borders. Rather than create security, the Wall creates the anger and frustration that inspires violence.

This Wall, like the Berlin Wall before it, needs to fall.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Representing the Other

Yesterday I was part of a panel discussion with writer Sid Marty, and moderated by Pamela Banting, about "Representing the Other" in Creative Nonfiction. We covered several interesting ideas during the 90 minute discussion, but a comment from a member of the audience questioned the responsibility of the author in portraying the Other, and I would like to muse on that a little here.

The gentleman suggested - and I am paraphrasing - that writers must work to reduce the 'otherness' of the Other. To show the reader what we share in common and the ways we are the same. This is a common trope found in travel writing: the idea that people in foreign cultures are "just like us." The claim is oft followed by the question, "So why can't we all just get along?"

This idea is politically correct. It may give us a warm feeling and a John-and-Yoko glow. But it is nonsense. No travel writer - and perhaps no creative nonfiction writer - is interested primarily in what we have in common with the Other, regardless of his or her claims. The writer goes off to seek the differences in the world, the exotic, the unfamiliar. That is the point of the whole exercise. I don't give a shit about commonalities.

Besides, it is impossible to un-other the Other. We can never hope to truly know another person, especially one coming from a background completely foreign to our own. How could I truly comprehend a man who has lived his life in a desert refugee camp? Or an Indian migrant camping out on the edge of Europe? Or a Palestinian farmer watching his olive trees bulldozed to build Israel's Wall? Or, for that matter, the young IDF soldier doing the bulldozing? To suggest that we can understand these people and show how they are, in some important way, "just like us" is hubris. It is also, I think, insulting.

Writing the Other is not about comprehension, but about responsibility. We are beholden to the Other to portray him with compassion. We strive to make our readers sympathetic to and respectful of the Other, not to understand him. Perhaps we work to bust myths and debunk stereotypes. In this way, we write to affect change in our reader. To teach the reader something new.

Much of my writing is about the cultures of Islam. There is no Other more maligned and feared these days than the Muslim Other. In my Iran book, Poets and Pahlevans, I show the reader that the Iranian Other is not a fundamentalist and flag-burning radical, but a sophisticated and reasoned caretaker of rich cultural traditions. The book does not claim that the Iranians are just like us, far from it, but it aims to show the reader that the Iranians are not how they perceive them to be. The book is, at its heart, a 300-page love letter to the Iranian people that celebrates the ways in which they are unique from Us. We can learn much from them.

The gentlemen in the audience stated we can prevent war by showing what we have in common with the Other. My initial response to his comment was that stopping wars is not my job. It isn't, but I wish I'd expanded on that a little more. His point is that we are less likely to drop bombs on people similar to ourselves. I think this is naive. As a culture, and as a species, we don't have much problem harming our own. I suggest instead that portraying the Other with compassion, revealing the beauty in their uniqueness, and inspiring sympathy for their culture is a more realistic path to peace. We are even less likely to drop bombs on those we've learned to love.