“You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “I mean if I had my goddam choice?…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all…And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d be the catcher in the rye…”
Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
Who wouldn’t like to have written that? You can hardly put into words everything he’s caught in those lines–every bit of longing and need, every bit of hope, every bit of love. We want to know Holden, and we think we do.
I don’t think JD Salinger even wanted the fame and fortune that book brought him. What he wanted was to write it.
Taller than the Eiffel Tower, in a flat, desert area in the center of Australia. Eight miles around. More than 600 million years old.
Sacred places–unknown forces are at work to activate space with spirit. They hold things we want to know. Some of us believe we are meant to know. Some of us have a passion to know.
We want to.
But our history says should we?
Carrie Jean is a main character in Jumping: a Novel. She’s Native American, with a multi-tribal background, raised by a Navajo grandmother. The group of students she travels into the Void with come to rely on her spiritual rituals as reminders of gratitude. I, a white writer, venture into all those areas.
Nathan is another character, a fellow Void traveler, who is African American. I write of his family and history, too, and of his thoughts and dreams.
In another part of the book, I write about a Muslim man meeting his maker (who is a white non-Muslim woman from another life).
Is this right?
Some writers are still divided on this issue. Others offer advice (these happen to be cartoonists):
“Don’t just parachute them in.”
“Ask your PoC friends to read your stories. If you have to ask if something is racist, it probably is. Base your characters on real people, but don’t just project your own feelings into a stranger’s life. Don’t assume that because someone is a minority that they’ve lived a certain kind of life.”
—Maré Odomo, author and illustrator of Internet Comics
Is it better than the alternative?
I like to think so.
I lived in Roswell, NM, for about five years. I managed an HIV agency that served the southeastern quadrant of the state, 33,000 square miles, which was pretty impossible, with about 126 clients, so I did a lot of driving on little-traveled roads.
One night, driving home late, I was brought out of my usual driving stupor by catching sight of lots of small crawling things on the road. Tarantulas! I slowed but couldn’t help running over some of them and began to wonder if they could get into the car. What are they running from? Was it the end of the world? Would I be swarmed by them?
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the annual tarantula migration. The males go in search, in mass, for female companionship. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing–except in a nightmare. I was horrified.
I later learned that a tarantula bite probably won’t kill you. I learned, too, that they’re gentle arachnids, nocturnal and shy, despite how scary they look.
I saw lots of other living things on the back roads I traveled–ring-tailed cats (just like out of Dr. Seuss), badger families, crowds of migrating jack rabbits lining the road, petite silver wolves, hawks, eagles–but I always remembered the tarantulas. Alone as I was, in the dark, being surrounded by lots of spiders (one of my worst fears), knowing I just had to get through it, wondering if it was a dream.
Lots of people think that part of NM is a wasteland, devoid of life, a desert. But it’s full of life, going about its business, searching for other like-minded partners, like we do.
What else don’t we know?
Photo from: rebeccamezoff.blogspot.com
One of them is a woman I saw once, in Tasmania. I’m surprised to see a woman with whom I have had only one encounter, and we never even spoke. . . .
I take in the woman, who looks strikingly like me, and remember seeing her in the crowd of evening strollers along the pier one night, on the Tamar River. . . I felt so strangely drawn to follow this woman, knowing there was some sort of connection, and hoping she knew it, too.
I think she was afraid of me—she noticed me, but only peripherally, and wouldn’t look at me head-on. I was a little freaked out—knowing she was me somehow, some other version of me. I wanted to see her and have her see me, as validation of something, but at the same time I felt as if something irrevocable would change, and I didn’t know if I was ready for that. I think she felt the same way.
The woman approaches. The silence lingers.
“Babe, this is Hardin,” Philip says, just as I’m thinking the name in my head.
Hardin and I hug. And Hardin, laughing, says, with a distinct Australian accent, “Of course, I did see you. I’m an aspect of you and you of me. It was my first time to ever see such a thing. I wasn’t well at the time, and I thought seeing you meant immanent death!” She laughs again, “I know now that’s not the case. And I’m sorry to have missed the opportunity, but I was a frightful little thing in that life. Not like you!”
“Oh, I was scared, too!” I reassure her.
Carrie Jean in Jumping:
“We were both tall, like our mother. Made for horses, Granny said. She kept our hair like she had our mother’s, according to tradition, long and never cut.”
“I don’t know our heritage for sure. I think we’re Algonquin and Sioux and Navajo, but I think there’s some African slave and French Canadian in there, too, and maybe even some Irish. You tell me what to make of it. Maybe it’s no different for you.”
“I have lots of Void stories. The Tribe watches over the Void. At night, I stand in the dark, watching the Void breathe. The ground swells as it draws breath and sinks when that breath is expelled in a shower of colorful living sparks that shoot far up into the night sky. The Ancestors, our larger Tribe, come from the Void to watch, colorful and glowing in the dark themselves. ‘Those are messages for those searching,’ they tell me, pointing at the disappearing sparks, ‘so their hearts don’t become empty shelters for anyone’s messages.'”
I think good female characters are messengers themselves, telling us what we need to know so that we don’t go too badly astray. We get the message not just from who they are when they step into our story, but as we learn who they are in their entirety–past and present, and who they might become as this story unfolds.
Carrie Jean is a main character in Jumping. She calls herself a part-time Indian (a term from Sherman Alexie) because she’s still working out the tribal intermarriages, displacements, abandonments, and the conflicting stories that give them context. She’s lost more family than she’s kept, and she’s a recovering griever, recovering the wisdom bound up in the experiencing of all those losses. We witness who she is becoming as she spends time in the company of the Void, wondering if she will find her family there. She knows the Void is a keeper of all that we lose–either because we tossed it away or because it left before we knew to stop it.
I’m caught up in who she is becoming. I like her.
You can’t let it change you. Then it’s not selling out. But is that even possible? Nowadays, if you’re a writer, you’re in sales. We just used to think someone else would be doing it for us.
The other day, the 21 year old technical whiz who works with me and I produced the first draft of a video for youtube. The publisher will either edit it and put it up or send us back to the drawing board. Their marketing person said two minutes, don’t read, talk about the book, but don’t give it away. Right now, we’re at five minutes and six seconds. And we’ve got lots of out-takes. A couple of times we got to laughing and almost couldn’t stop. The techie/director took care of lighting, sound, time, setting, wardrobe, hair frizzies, script management, feedback, production design, and more. I supplied the script and showed up. That was a lot!
I think the truth is my apprehension, at core, comes from the fact that I’m still getting to know the book. I wrote it and moved on to the next one. Now I look at it and try to remember. I’m surprised and unsettled by the comments of others who’ve recently read it. They’ve seen something I didn’t know was there and been moved by it. The book is clearly a thing unto itself.
I will say, as I go back into Jumping, looking for things to quote or things for readings, I find a lot I remember and still like. Maybe that’s because I know the book wasn’t written just by me. Go, little book!