Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014: One Summer

“What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love. By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings." Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a writer, among many other things. The summer before my second year of university, I sat in a cafe on the first floor of Hodges Figgis, a Dublin city bookshop mentioned in Joyce's Ulysses, and I read every volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. I began with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and I read them out of order until I had finished them all. I don't know how long it took - I am a fast reader and her writing is fluent, so probably not as long as I think it did.

But I remember it as a whole summer. I hadn't been able to find a job, so I left the house every day and read books and did work for the college English Lit society, of which I was a committee member for the first and only time. I was in love with books, with writing, with the passion you get when a group of young writers come together and learn from each other how to be human beings as well as how to be better writers. Some of the writers in that group were giants - I dreamed of being the Dorothy Parker to their Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I dream of it still, sometimes.

It was a warm summer. I read Maya Angelou's memoirs and drank tea. I watched the green leaves of the giant tree that grows outside Hodges Figgis. I took photographs of Dublin. I compiled a guidebook for book-loving students moving to Dublin for the first time (I found an old copy of it recently. It wasn't as bad as I had come to remember). Sometimes when I got tired of the cafe in Hodges Figgis, I crossed the road to Waterstones and wrote in the cafe there. I wasn't working on novels then - I was writing about my life, such as it was. I was preoccupied by a schoolfriend who had died the previous March, by the lessons I could (or couldn't) take from her life and her passing. And into this strange, intemperate Irish summer stepped Maya Angelou, an African-American poet, memoirist, bus conductor, sex worker, waitress and nightclub singer. 

Walt Whitman, maybe the most American of all poets, wrote "I am large, I contain multitudes." One of the architects of the white male American canon, I don't think he could have imagined Angelou, but was ever anyone larger than she? Did anyone contain more?

The cafe in Hodges Figgis is long gone. Waterstones across the road is gone. I am no longer in college, no longer a young writer who thinks she can be successful if she buys the right sunglasses (God, I was a nightmare. The others were so kind to me). Maya Angelou is gone, too. Hodges Figgis is still there. I pass it on my way to work in the mornings, may it stand for ever, God bless it - and so is the tree I used to stare at. Its leaves still blow when the wind picks up, and this autumn they will fall, and the rest of us will walk underneath it, dare to love, and build bridges.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Books That Are 'Bigger' Than You: Tell Me Yours

It was late February 2008. I was in the centre of Dublin, killing time until the next showing of Juno. I went into the Kylemore Cafe in the Stephen's Green Shopping centre - not somewhere I eat often, but it has a couple of huge advantages:
1. No one aggressively whips away your plate saying 'Can I get you anything else?' with a fake smile if you sit there for too long, and
2. It has a great view of Stephen's Green and the southern end of Grafton Street (I call this the bottom of Grafton Street. The entire rest of humanity calls it the top. I think I'm right).

I ordered a mug of vanilla rooibos tea and looked out the window. I remember that I had a headache. I can't remember if I'd bought aspirin to take with my tea. I know I considered it. I'm a hypchondriac - I remember these things.

I started a novel that day in the Kylemore. My first novel as an adult, a big novel. A novel bigger than I was then, probably bigger than I am now. I don't remember starting it, but the opening of the novel never changed, and I have it still.

After her father died, it took a while before Hannah and her mother managed to fully
sort through his belongings. The very day that he died, within an hour of leaving the
intensive care unit, Nora had started to dispose of anything that visibly reminded her
of Jack. His alarm clock, his work files, the watch he’d left on his bedside locker, his
shoes, his laptop were boxed up and stowed away or thrown out. His books took a few
weeks to disappear, mainly because no one knew which books were his and which
he’d borrowed. Hannah’s brother Tony sorted the books and Nora distributed them
between his friends at the golf club and in his local. His clothes took the longest,
because they still smelled of his aftershave and cigarette smoke.
No one dared touch his desk.

Inelegant and clunky, that is word for word what I wrote that day, looking down at Grafton Street. I think it was raining outside? But I live in Ireland, so all of my memories are rainy, like photos left in a damp attic for too long. Afterwards I went to see Juno, which I loved, and I sat there in the dark thinking, for the first time in years, that I could do that. I could make a whole world out of words.

That novel was never quite finished. I wrote most of it, including the ending, but never managed to complete some of the necessary filler chapters. It was a product from my father's death when I was 21, being directionless in my early 20s, not knowing what career I wanted. It was about grief and loss and parenthood, the latter of which I've never experienced. It was about Ireland's history and the church and homes for 'fallen women'. I read more Irish history while I was writing that book than I have before or since, and let me tell you, it was bloody depressing.

But I don't regret starting my life as a writer with a book that was too big for me. I hope to come back to it someday, and get it right.

Am I the only one with a book like this?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Link: Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Stories Bigger Than You

Every now and again I'm browsing the net and something hits me between the eyes. Today it was Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Janice Hardy's excellent blog, talking about tackling stories that are bigger than you are. She says:

Over a decade ago I found myself in a small wood-paneled room surrounded by a crowd of angry people I didn’t know. Well, I knew two of them. My husband, and the new friend I’d made when we moved to the small mountain community, who invited us to the meeting.
It was a meeting between former copper miners and the mining company who wanted to open a scenic railway going north from the town around an interesting and rare turn-around. They wanted to fund the railway by reopening the mine and shipping one load of sulfuric acid out each week. The miners wanted nothing of it. 

They stood like gnarled oak trees in their denim overalls and plaid flannel shirts and told heart-breaking stories of their family, friends and coworkers who had been lost to injury or illness—all because of the mine. Their emotions were raw as they made thinly veiled threats that if the company went forward with their plans, the tracks would be sabotaged. 

I sat with my mouth open wondering what I had stumbled into. I didn’t choose to write A BIRD ON WATER STREET that night. I was chosen to. 

That last line gave me shivers. More on that tomorrow.