The Mockingjay Speaks

Suzanne Collins spoke at the Wellesley, MA Free Library tonight. She had no commentary and took no questions. But the 100+ or so children and young adults did not care. They arrived in force. I saw at least two “District 12” T-shirts; my friend saw a “Down with the Capitol” shirt. Fandom for books (or writing in general) gives me hope. When children get excited about things, they REALLY get excited. So it’s pleasing that they go all out to get creative and design their own shirts based on the messages that spoke to them. They dog ear yellow copies of paperbacks and write notes on pink sticky paper. Girl who did that tonight, I was you 10 years ago. I am you now. Let’s never lose that part of ourselves.

I love book events for the motley expressions you pick up while waiting. Behind us, a grandmother talked to her teenage grandson. She had just got the book; he had read it. “Is it any good?” He passed her the book. “Yeah, but well, there are some girly parts.”

In Mockingjay? Must have been the rare Peeta-Gale-war-driven make-out scene. Is it not spoilerish if I refrain from saying with whom?

Suzanne read from Catching Fire and Mockingjay. She always imagined Katniss having a “futuristic Appalachian” twang. I cringed at first. That’s not how Katniss sounded in my head! Also, she pronounced Panem as “Puh-nehm”,  not Pan (like the cookware)-ehm like I always heard myself read. It was jarring. But that brings up the musty-dust-jacket-old question of how you reconcile not wanting your reading experience invalidated with the writer’s vision and the notion that the writer is boss.

As a writer, I feel like my kitten’s been forced into a scratchy costume if everyone changes how the people in my head talked and looked. But as a reader, I like meeting the characters on my own terms. I befriend them and make them my own. Whenever I get published, I hope I have the answer that makes everyone happy.

Questions I wanted to Ask.

If anyone has uncovered the answers to these in interviews, please let me know!

1. Did you consciously know that Book 3 would be heavy on the revolution and depiction of war and vastly different from the first two books in the series?

2. A recurrent theme is the idea of a “sustainable population” and how awful it is that children are being used in war. What thoughts do you have about the real issues of declining birth rate in Europe and Japan as well child soldiers? Did they play any part in the writing of the 3rd novel? I mentioned the focus on the child and Katniss’ ultimate thesis that adults should not use children, and she deemed it pro-life. How do you feel about these readings?

3. Gale…changed. Did you consciously mean to depict him as a very real youth in certain very real societies in which young men whose homes have been destroyed resort to vengeful violence?

4. Katniss wonders to Beetee and Gale about their war tactics. “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being,” (185). Sure there is. Or was. Panem is in a time and space removed from religion and seemingly the rest of the world. What happened?

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Word Jumble

I have much to say but feel nothing will come out today save for an incoherent mess. I was up until 1:30 a.m. reading the hotly anticipated Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, you see.

(Not a) Spoiler Alert

–  How do you all feel about spoilers? What level of spoilery? Do you just want to refrain from names, plot developments, the last word? Do you want to refrain even from what those things are not? Do you you want to stick fingers in your ears and say “LA LA LA, I can’t hear you!” if I try to tell you that by page eleventy-two you will need to cuddle with something? Or that by page eleventy-seven you will sobbing?

I suppose I spoil (however lightly) out of a desire to try to protect the ones I love from books. Because some lines in books have a way of giving you the feeling of “Pow! Right in the kisser!” And some do that over. And over. And over again. In rapid fire succession. Some books have a way of delighting you in one moment and laying bare this un-articulated vulnerability. Words have power.

I heard recently that President Obama gave The Hunger Games (first in the series) to his elder daughter. I hope he, and all the other world leaders read this series and take it to heart. Then again, anytime I encounter a dystopic, post-apocalyptic fiction, I always want to make sure the people in charge are as emotionally invested. I’m sure my parents thought it wasn’t so smart for my 13-year-old self to watch The Day After on cable. And now why at 25, I tell my father, my main movie date, that I will never, ever watch or read The Road.

The Child in Fiction

In college, I took a few classes with John Cech, a great student of children’s literature. One was “Children and Film.” Yes, we got to watch Disney movies, but also very adult movies with child actors. We were encouraged to watch a film related to the week’s theme that had a portrayal of a child but was not necessarily something you’d pop in the DVD player for just any 8-year-old. Another class was “From Hermes to Harry Potter.” That was a study of the archetypal children in fiction. It took a couple of years to let the molds fade from my brain. I can enjoy a book again without analyzing it immediately as an orphan story and predict when he will meet the Wise Earth-Mother (if it so happens to be an orphan-hero journey crossover).

I suppose I write this to make sense of what I’ve just read. The first two books of the series (especially the first) are definitely classifiable as true Young Adult. This last one –  I feel discomfiture to give it to Malia once she’s powered through the THG and CF. It’s the mama-bear mode in me. I’m godmother to a 10-year-old boy who gets nightmares from The Terminator movies. Some children are sensitive. Heck, I’m sensitive. But I’m an adult and I can process and recover from things. Things like this last book. If you’re truly in media silence, stop reading, even though I give away nothing terribly revelatory.

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Who’s still here? This last book…it dredged those memories of class because it can be classified as literature about children. They are not the main characters.  They are not narrators. At 17, Katniss is a young adult, emphasis on the latter word. But they are in the book, in a crucial thematic way. I read this last book with the sense it was about the way people use children. When everyone else is caught up, we can have discussions about one particular phrase uttered by PC and its relation to what’s been going on in Europe and Japan for a while now.

Whenever people ask me why write fiction for children (or about) or even read it, I try to articulate in that foreign language  of spoken word the notions hinted at in this post – that for some reason, we the adult readers are sensitized more to an emotional response when it involves children. That children, who are literally the future, are sensitized more to everything in general are more likely to remember their emotional response to a book (see Everything I Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey) and hopefully, if it was about a future no one would want, those readers would grow up and prevent it from happening. I say often that words have power. I’m slightly off. Children have power.

“Stories Can Change Hearts.”

The declarative sentence that titles this post comes from Mitali Perkins, author of the newly published Bamboo People. I’ve always loved the power of simple declarative sentences after an Honors College professor gave us War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning to read. Though intended for two very different audiences, the two books share a common thesis. Bamboo People tells the stories of two young teen boys in Burma who learn the nature of the ethnic war and what meaning it can ascribe to humanity.

Perkins wrote this story to delve into the experiences of the young involved in such heavy a conflict and show how their small moral choices could lead to some semblance of justice for all. She says, “If words were not revolutionary, the Burmese wouldn’t be banning them.” She hopes she gets on the government’s hit list. Friends who are relief aid workers will bring copies of her book into the jungles in the hopes some young guys will fall into them.

Perkins’ book brings up the age-old publishing question of “When is it appropriate to write about conflict, people of different ethnicity, and/or the occurrences in a little-understood, shrouded country?”

Perkins’ answer was that she once heard “Never write about a suffering people until you’ve held their babies.”Why? Maybe it has something to do with the connection one feels when you having a breathing, pulsing, squirming bundle of softness next to your own chest. Your life rhythm syncs with his or hers. You also hold the most innocent of the conflict; the purest of hearts. And that starts to affect your own thoughts and perceptions, until your heart is changed figuratively, if not literally.

Perkins has held infant Karenni (Burmese ethnic minority) refugees in Thailand. She has peered across the border. She has extensively interviewed her friends who have intimate knowledge of the situation. That research and familiarity contributed to a well-thought-out novel with accessible language, a strong message, and wildly beating heart.

Congratulations, Mitali. You have a wonderful book, and even if you weren’t “Mother Teresa at 25,” if your books can change the hearts of people on either side of the Burmese conflict for the better, I will nominate you for literary sainthood.

Mean What You Say, Say What You Mean

Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are two brilliant explorations on communication. But should our own real-life interpersonal realtions involve such dramedy?

A dear friend passed on this story of a woman who thought she was being clear when ordering at Starbucks:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/waitwait/2010/08/16/129234614/showdown-at-starbucks?ft=1&f=112176971

Below is the link to the journalistic  piece (in the sense it is froma  paper, which implies some standards – we’d hope):

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/venti_size_fury_A0uKw71Ky1UAOksmbjrBhI

Yes, I do get narrowed eyes when I order my small Frappucino (no whip). Inevitably I play their game and say “tall.”  I had no idea coporate-inflicted training was causing earnest people in need of a paycheck to follow procedure to the point where “a multi-grain bagel” is not clear enough.

Having worked in the retail business for far too long, I have learned a few things that impede communication.

1) The barista could have been under supervision and wanted to go by the book. Similarly, the barsita could have been warned about “secret shoppers” who will rate the store on this person’s performance, down to the script undoubtedly from some green binder memorized during training. [Note: I have never worked at Starbucks, but have at a coporate monolith, and such places literally iterate every last little “i” in conversation).

2)  The construction of this store’s “language” has so influenced the barista and Western society at large that anything else sounds like it’s coming from a foreigner.

What do we do?

A) The customer is always right. Handle things gracefully and humanly. And if she says just a bagel – first ask nicely if she’d like anything on top.

B) Order like Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally.

C) Give in a little to the new language and customs. You’re entering their world with their worlds. Be gracious, too.

What does this have to do with writing?

I believe each literary expression creates its own microcosm. Characters develop their own slang (even the phonies). Writers will take words we know and ascribe new meanings to them, to the point where we can’t understand “our” language (see the opening pages to M.T. Anderson’s Feed). Personally, I think engaging with “new” languages enriches our experience with the world.

You mission: come up with a new word using common ones OR ascribe new meaning to an existing word.

Mine is “huggle” (hug+snuggle).

Summer Vacation isn’t Just for the Europeans

One thing you hear on morning “news” programs and in culture in general is that Europe essentially “shuts down” for the summer, especially in August. They take long “holidays” over there. I suppose that’s what I could call my extended absence from this blog – a holiday. Now, in the sweltering slog of August, I am oddly refreshed and ready muse on writing and embrace my writing muse.

Instead of the typical “What Did I Do on my Summer Vacation” or even the now-trite “What I DIDN’T Do on my SUmmer Vacation” essays, I have a different prompt. Because screw summer. Too hot.Writing about things you hate can be fun, but things turn angry. And ugly. To ease yourselves into harder work after a mental and carpal vacation, write with pleasure.

1. Pick a season/month/day you LOVE.

2. Then, using the first letter of that thing you love (imagine Old Spice Guy saying this to get you in the mood), make a list of everything you associate with it.

Mine is Fall: Fall leaves, football, fresh cider, French ki cinema, I mean CINEMA! Mmm…cinammon in apple pie

3. Lose yourself (as I did) and suddenly, you’re writing beyond the confines and exhilarated to continue.