How to Write a Memoir: Have a Skewed Point of View

As with all prose writing, memoir writing really comes down to voice. You are asking to be invited into your reader’s home. Will they be happy to hear you talk for several hours?

Yes, they want to hear about amazing events, but no memoir has ever sustained itself by just being a series of events. What they really want to know is, even if there’s nothing extraordinary going on, will you have a unique perspective on everyday life? Do you have a properly skewed point of view, showing amusing and perceptive insight that surprises us, but instantly seems right?

Of course, one question that Trevor Noah had to ask himself when he sat down to write his life story was how angry he wanted to be on the page. He’s writing about horrific historical injustices, and the last thing he wants to do is trivialize them, but he does want to make light of them, and that’s a tricky line to walk.

The solution is to look back at injustice with an amused and amusing point of view. The whole point of this book is that Noah, being one of very few biracial South Africans, is never entirely welcome in any community outside of his own home. This means that no historical perspective is “his story.” He looks upon both blacks and whites from the POV of a somewhat-cynical outsider, which allows him to take his amusement where he pleases, neither approving of nor judging those who had to make terrible decisions. For instance:

  • The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”

Or:

  • If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

We just like hearing this guy talk. Another form of skewed point of view that early-childhood memoir writers can and must avail themselves of is child logic. We all remember, with some embarrassment and some wonder, the bizarre logical inferences we made as a kid, looking at the world with unschooled eyes. The ability to capture this way of thinking, and show its wisdom, is a big part of memoir writing:

  • But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.

A great storyteller doesn’t even need interesting material.  They can make anything amusing.  Of course, if you start with an amazing life, and then add a great voice on top of that, you’ll have it made.  
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Rulebook Casefile: Unique Relationships in “Born a Crime”

So we’ve talked about how Trevor Noah creates the classic archetype of the scampish kid, and he also taps into the universal archetype of the indomitable bad-ass single mom. Each character has lots of specifics to make them come alive, but they’re definitely characters we recognize from other stories. But that’s fine, because, as I’ve said before, readers don’t actually crave unique never-before-seen characters. We like archetypes. But while we don’t demand unique characters, we do like them to combine into unique never-before-seen relationships.

Anyone who’s seen “Gilmore Girls” or other similar stories will recognize the idea of a single mom and child who interact as almost-equals, but never quite like Trevor Noah and his mom. Here’s their conversation from the first chapter of his book (It is always dubious, of course, when a memoir recreates this much dialogue, but readers are forgiving.)

  • “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
  • Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
  • “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
  • “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
  • “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
  • “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
  • “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
  • “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
  • “But, Mom!”
  • “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
  • Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.

(This is of course a trick that screenwriters don’t have, jumping in to unpack the hidden meanings behind one word.)

Both characters have unique voices and strong opinions. Together they have a complex, shifting power dynamic. Either character on their own could probably carry the story, but it’s their contentious but loving relationship that will really power the book. Compelling characters are great, but compelling relationships are even better.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Walk the Thin Line Between Rascal and Rotten

Up to a certain point, readers love rascally misbehavior. We’re happy to read a paragraph like this one, in the first chapter of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime”:

  • I was naughty as shit. She would send me out to buy groceries, and I wouldn’t come right home because I’d be using the change from the milk and bread to play arcade games at the supermarket. I loved videogames. I was a master at Street Fighter. I could go forever on a single play. I’d drop a coin in, time would fly, and the next thing I knew there’d be a woman behind me with a belt. It was a race. I’d take off out the door and through the dusty streets of Eden Park, clambering over walls, ducking through backyards.

Such paragraphs are joyous and liberating. They remind us of the freedom from consequences we used to feel, and long to feel again. They make us think that if we were a little more brave we could outrun those that hold us back. We admire the audacity of young Trevor for misbehaving, and of old Trevor for bragging about it so shamelessly.

But at some point, for me as a reader, I started to get a bit uncomfortable with how he related his memories.  Maybe, of course, this was a simple case of “white reader pathologizes behavior in black man that he would forgive in white people,” but I did find myself saying at times, “Uh, this guy might actually be a sociopath.” The most obvious tipping point was when young Trevor was playing with matches and burnt down a house. He describes his feelings after watching it burn to the ground:

  • I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, “Trevor burned down a house.” If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me “Terror” instead. “Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,” he’d say. “He’ll burn it to the ground.”

That same cocky defiance started to curdle for me. Did he really have to say “didn’t feel bad about it at all”? What sort of adult defends burning down a house?  In the next paragraph, I got even more uncomfortable about his imperviousness to consequences:

  • My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.

Reading the book made me admire Noah’s personal bravery and his skill at telling his story, but it also confirmed some of the vibe I’ve always gotten off him.

I think of his joke at the Oscars this year. As CNN summed it up:

  • “The Daily Show” host introduced the best picture nominee Black Panther and had some fun with the idea that people think the fictional setting of the country of Wakanda is real.
  • Noah, who is South African, joked about knowing the movie’s main character, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman.
  • “Growing up as a young boy in Wakanda, I would see T’Challa flying over our village, and he would remind me of a great Xhosa phrase,” Noah said. “He says ‘abelungu abazi uba ndiyaxoka’ -- which means, ‘In times like these, we are stronger when we fight together than when we try to fight apart.’”
  • But those who speak Xhosa got a good chuckle, because what Noah actually said is: “White people don't know I’m lying.”

On the one hand, this was really funny to find out about the next day, but thinking back on it, knowing what he was actually saying, there was something sorta creepy about Noah’s beatific smile as he said the words in Xhosa, looking into the eyes of hundreds of people who didn’t know he was mocking them.

Noah has been through a lot. His very existence was criminal until the age of five. His mom threw him from a taxi to escape would-be rapist/murderers, who were never arrested. His stepdad shot his mom in the head and the police didn’t care. Police ended his teenage DJ career by shooting his computer dead. Whatever qualities that may have resulted are understandable. And he deserves credit for writing honest and forthrightly about his life and emotions.

As I read his book, maybe I was supposed to revel in his earlier misbehavior and then feel chilled when I saw how far it went. The book made me trust him very much as an honest, self-aware person.  That paragraph shows that he’s admirably grappled with his own psychology.  But it certainly kept me from bonding with him 100%.
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How to Write a Memoir: Digress Deftly

There are a couple of ways to tell a complex anecdote from your childhood when you’re talking to your friends. Sometimes you start with the incident in question, then find yourself having to stop several times and say, “Wait, I forgot, I have to tell you about something else that happened before I go on...”

Or, you can keep all your ducks in a row, and start out with, “So there was this funny thing that happened to me as a kid, but before I begin, let me tell you about three other things that will be important to this story…”

Both of these approaches are frustrating for the listener. The first is too confusing and the second is too boring.

Yes, it is inevitable that telling any one story from your childhood will probably need you to add some background, either before you begin or interspersed, but there are more elegant ways to do it, and that’s a big part of memoir writing.

Let’s look at the skillful way the first chapter of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” is structured:

  1. He quotes the Apartheid Law that meant he was “born a crime.”
  2. He briefly tells us a bit about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa that followed the end of Apartheid.
  3. He jumps into his main anecdote at the moment he gets thrown out of a moving car. He says it was on a Sunday on the way home from church.
  4. He jumps back to tell us about how South Africans embraced Christianity.
  5. He tells us about a typical Sunday with his mother and baby brother, attending four church services all over town. His description of each service is funny.
  6. He briefly reminds us that this will be a story about getting thrown from a moving car.
  7. He goes back to that morning, when the car was broken and he tried to talk his mother out of church, but she said they would take minibuses. The conversation ends with the threat of a spanking.
  8. He mentions that he would sometimes run away from spankings, and she would chase him.  He says they were both champion runners at his school’s sports day (where parents were allowed to compete). He tells stories of other misbehavior and his mom shouting to a crowd that he was thief when she couldn’t catch him.
  9. He briefly goes back to getting on a minibus to head out to church.
  10. He jumps back to tell us more about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa. He talks about his mom walking through the violence to go back and forth to work. She was never scared.
  11. He talks about going from church to church that day, until they were stranded on a street late at night, looking for a minibus.
  12. He explains the nature of the conflict between minibus operators.
  13. Now we finally have enough info to finish the anecdote: They end being bullied into a Zulu minibus. The drivers find out his mom is Xhosa and threaten to rape or kill her. She throws Trevor out of the car and jumps out with her baby in her arms. Their running ability comes in handy and they get away. He tells her that this proves his was right about not going out, and they laugh about it.

A few of these transitions are awkward. Here’s the most awkward one:
 But the other eleven transitions are all fairly smooth. Here’s a good one:

He needs to include that little em-dash to make it clear to us that he’s jumping in time again, but he knows he has to ramp us up to jump us over the gap, so we don’t use that em-dash as an excuse to put the book down.

“Even when she should have been” ends that digress on a note of foreboding. We fear, correctly, that the anecdote we’re jumping back to will be a case where she maybe should have been more scared. He reassures us every time that he’s digressed from the main anecdote for a good reason, which will soon be readily apparent.

Almost getting murdered is a hell of a story, and he’s stretching it out as long as possible, threading in a lot of not-quite-as-interesting material that now become much more interesting when we know that it will come into play in this anecdote. He starts us off with just a little about the Zulu-Xhosa Civil War, but he works most of that information in once he’s telling a story about almost getting killed by a Zulu for being Xhosa.

Now we care: about his anecdote, his life, and his country. Smoothly interweaving wild anecdotes with less-interesting background details is a big part of memoir writing.
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How to Write a Memoir: Establish that You Were in the Thick of It

There is nothing you can do that is more self-important than writing a memoir: “Hey, you! Hey, everybody! Stop what you’re doing and devote 10 hours to hearing every detail of my life! In return, I will not listen to a word of your life! Because I am so much more interesting than you!”

Trevor Noah has a bit more claim to our time than out last memoirist, Tara Westover: We’ve at least heard of him. We’ve maybe been entertained or edified by his TV shows. We might say “Oh, sure, that guy, let’s hear what he has to say.” But that only gets us as far as the first chapter. If he launches into chuckleheaded tales of celebrity shenanigans, we’ll check out quickly.

No, all memoirists ultimately face the same test: Once the reader is reading they’re going to ask, “What can you tell me that’ll blow me away? What about your life is remarkable or shocking or harrowing enough to be worth my time?” As veterans used to ask of each other, “Sure, you were in Vietnam, but were you in the shit?” Noah understands that even celebrity memoirists, if they want to reach beyond their hardcore fans, have to assure the reader: “I was in the shit.”

Luckily Noah has three historical horrors to power his story. His title lures us in by promising a tale of one of history’s great crimes, apartheid, which we’ve all heard of. But that turns out to be sort of a fake out, because Apartheid ends when he’s five, so, after getting us to pick up the book, he transitions us on the first page into another conflict, the subsequent civil war between Zulu and Xhosa ethnic groups. American readers are less familiar with this (and wouldn’t have bought a book that promised to be about this), so he has to get us up to speed, and convince us that this, too, is the shit.

So his first chapter is about a time that some Zulu minibus drivers almost killed him and his mom for being Xhosa, until they leapt from the moving vehicle to get away. And he makes it kind of funny, while still totally harrowing. It’s a great first chapter.

And lest that conflict run out of steam, he briefly mentions in this opening chapter that he’ll also be telling the story of his stepfather shooting his mother in the head! Noah is going out of his way in this first chapter to tell us, “It doesn’t matter if you love me or not, I have a hell of a story to tell.” He is holding himself to the same standard that Westover or any unknown memoirist has to meet: I will make you care whether you want to or not.
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The Annotation Project: Born a Crime

I’m memoir crazy now!  And 2018 crazy!  I figured why not try another bestselling memoir from last year, but this time with an antipodean jump from Idaho to South Africa?  A little funnier, and with a more loving parent, but still with lots of that horrific violence against children that readers crave! Get the doc here.











More to say about it soon...

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Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Necessity of Personifying Nature in “Educated”

We already talked about personifying nature with “The God of Small Things”, but Tara Westover in “Educated” does it even more so, many times over on her first page.

As I said last time, Westover has a problem, in that we will want Tara to run away from her family home long before she does, and then we’ll want her to stop going back, which she will not do until the final chapter. (In the end, she says she’ll keep visiting other relatives in Idaho, but seemingly never again her parents or her mountain.)

How can Westover help us understand her decision?

  • First, she must make Tara’s relationships to her family complex: None of them is all bad. They all love her in their own insufficient and/or twisted ways. We can even understand the appeal of “Shawn”, her most abusive family member. We understand how she would keep trying to get the love she’s lacking from these people, even though we can see long before she can that she never will.
  • Second, there’s a big element of wish fulfillment in self-sufficiency. The first sentence recalls “The Boxcar Children”, a book about orphaned kids in the depression that kids nevertheless read as wish-fulfillment, dreaming of living on their own wits and whiles in the woods. The mere fact of not being protected at all is seductive, both to young Tara and to the reader.
  • Third, there is a character that Tara can have uncomplicated love for, one that it will be the most painful to leave: The mountain itself.

You often hear said of good books that “The setting is a character”, but that’s especially true here. Let’s just focus on examples from the first paragraph.

  • The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling.
  • Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air.
  • Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base.
  • If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.

Two pages later, she will soon explain that there is an Indian legend that says the mountain is a princess:

  • My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley. Dad said the nomadic Indians had watched for her appearance as a sign of spring, a signal the mountain was thawing, winter was over, and it was time to come home.

Her family is hard to love, but who wouldn’t want to have their own beautiful mountain, literally right out of a fairy tale? To leave the mountain is to leave her own princess-tale.

Let’s look at one more sentence from the second paragraph:

  • The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads.

This is beautifully written and very seductive. We will want to read the book for its lyrical power, and for the way it will get us to fall in love with nature again, as we would fall in love with a lover. And we will understand Tara’s love. Even when it seems like her parents want her dead, she will have the Princess to love and the Princess will seem to love her back, in its anthropomorphized way.
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Rulebook Casefile: The Power and Peril of the “Put a Pin in It” Scene

As I said before, Arundhati Roy begins “The God of Small Things” by jumping all around, not landing at the book’s real 1969 timeline for 40 pages or so. As we jump around, the first scene with dialogue we get is Sophie’s funeral, which comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning. After the funeral we see Ammu take her twins to the police station to half-heatedly try to save Velutha, but we have no idea what’s going on, and Roy doesn’t tell us (Partially because Rahel, our POV character, doesn’t understand, or wants to pretend that she doesn’t understand). The police send Ammu away, and she gets on a bus where she mysteriously says to her kids, “He’s dead, I’ve killed him.” Then we move forward again two weeks to when Estha is sent away, then we move ahead to adult-Rahel’s return, then back to Estha’s earlier adult life, etc.

The brief police station is a “put a pin in it” scene. “Remember this for later, reader, because it will finally make sense to you 300 pages from now.”

This scene could make us say “Ooh, what’s going on here with the police? Who did Ammu kill? I can’t wait to read the book and find out!” but it doesn’t really have that effect. If we had immediately jumped from Ammu saying “I’ve killed him” back to a week before, then we’d have the sense of “Good, now we’ll find out what she meant!”, but since we keep jumping forward, and then jumping around in the adult timeline for a while, we strain to keep our finger on that pin, occasionally asking ourselves, “Wait, what was going on at that police station? Will any of these events we’re seeing now make that clear?”

The trick with such scenes is to keep the reader from wondering, “Wait, was I supposed to understand that?” That’s always my problem with such scenes. Instead of thinking, “Ooh, I can’t wait to find out what was happening there!”, I always find myself thinking, “I’m so dumb for not understanding that scene. It should have been obvious to me how Ammu was killing a man in that last scene.”

How do you write such scenes so they’re clearly unclear? So that the reader will say, “Obviously I wasn’t supposed to understand that yet, and now I’m excited to later find out what was going on,” rather than “I think I was supposed to understand that, but I didn’t.” I would have appreciated a little more hand-holding. Roy could have said something like, “Rahel didn’t know what she meant, and it was only many years later she would put the events together and figure it out.” That would let us know that it wasn’t clear yet but it would be clear later.

Ultimately, Roy doesn’t seem particularly concerned with this question. This is literary fiction, and the reader is supposed to bring some hustle to the game. This is a wildly successful novel, by any measure, but nevertheless, if I’d been giving her notes, I would have begged for just a tiny bit more help, making it clear that it was unclear.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Help Us Get Our Feet on the Ground (Or Don’t, If That’s What You’d Prefer)

Last time we looked at the way Arundhati Roy accumulates reality from small, odd, vivid details, but once we piece it together “The God of Small Things” is actually a fairly plot-packed story: We get a riot, a molestation, an accidental drowning, and a police murder all happening in a weeklong-period.

So let’s talk about how authors get us to commit to a book in the first chapter, especially one where the narrator (1st or 3rd person) has some perspective on events. The traditional way to is to promise that a lot of juicy stuff is going to happen later on if you keep reading. And indeed, this book is well set-up to do that. We begin with an adult Rahel coming back to town in modern-day to reunite with her long-lost brother and deal with how the event that separated them and traumatized their lives. We will then spend most of the book reliving that eventful week.

I know how I would have written that first chapter: We meet our mysterious heroine as she gets off the train, we find out just a little bit about her, we see that she’s on a mission. She meets with someone from her past while looking for her silent brother, and obliquely references the riot, the molestation, the drowning, and the murder (Now our appetite is whetted for the shocking events to come). Then she finds her brother and tries to speak but the memories flood over her. Then we cut back to the day of the riot and we quickly get dialogue of 7-year-old Rahel in that time period. Now our two heroines (adult Rahel in 1993 and young Rahel in 1969) are established. From that point, Roy would be free to jump around to other points in time, such as the birth of the twins, the mother’s later death, Rahel’s own failed marriage, etc.

But Roy doesn’t do that. She’s all over the place and it’s hard to put your feet down anywhere for the first thirty pages or so. When I read the book, I read those thirty pages, realized I was totally lost, and decided I’d better go back and read them over again if I was going to continue. I did so, was glad I did, and then kept going until I was able to put my feet down around page 40 or so.  While this whole process was going on, I was loving the book, because of the sentences, but I was struggling with committing to the plot.

Roy does foreshadow the book’s momentous events in these opening chapters, but because I didn’t have a sense of whether they were going to happen in a timeline I was going to stick to, they didn’t whet my appetite very much. What I really wanted was dialogue. Dialogue tells me to put my feet down, but the first dialogue we get is at Sophie’s funeral, which actually comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning, so that just discombobulated me further.

Here are four consecutive paragraphs that show how Roy is jumping around

  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.

Now, obviously, this book was a huge award-winner and best seller, and Roy knows exactly what she’s doing.  She isn’t trying to do what I want her to do and failing, she’s doing what she intends to do and succeeding. To a certain degree, her style is emblematic of what is referred to (somewhat problematically) as post-colonial literature (Roy would probably dispute the “post” part). One of the most famous first sentences in literature is from what is perhaps the ultimate post-colonial book, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

  • Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Right there in the opening sentence, we have three time periods mixed up, and the reader will have a hard time getting his or her feet on the ground after that …and yet it’s very easy to fall in love with the book.

Such writing has its pleasures. Readers do enjoy being challenged. We can admire how such writing captures the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed by the modern world, and, as we make sense of it, we can gain tools to sift through and make sense of our own jumbled lives.

Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground yanked out from underneath their feet by invaders, and now that they have reclaimed their countries, they’re trying to find their footing again. But the ground isn’t letting them. It keeps shifting. When they describe their work in interviews, many of them say that their sense of identity, both personal and national, remains fractured. The style of post-colonial literature captures and grapples with that problem.

So the question is, should non-post-colonial writers emulate this style? These are, after all, best-selling and beloved books. But it’s a lot to ask of your reader, especially if it’s not a style that you are personally deeply committed to. Unless you feel that such a style is an essential expression of your theme, you might want to put the reader’s feet on the ground a little more firmly than Roy does, just with a few uses of grounding dialogue.
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Straying from the Party Line: The Abundance of Adjectives and Adverbs in “The God of Small Things”

You may have noticed that in each of my annotations I’ve praised opening sentences for having no adjectives or adverbs, and in our last post I was especially critical of two adjectives together that require a comma. Well let’s look at the opening sentence of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”:

  • May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month

The dreaded stumbling-block comma! Indeed this first chapter is an avalanche of adjectives, with sentences like this one to be found later:

  • She heard (on Sophie Mol’s behalf) the soft sounds of the red mud and the hard sounds of the orange laterite that spoiled the shining coffin polish.

Five adjectives in one sentence! But let’s go back and look at the rest of that opening paragraphs to figure out how Roy gets away with using so many adjectives without trying the reader’s patience:

  • The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

Ten more adjectives and, what’s worse, two adverbs! Yet it’s a glorious opening paragraph, is it not? So what is she doing?

  • First of all, it’s intriguingly odd how she imputes human emotions to nature: “Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously.” She’s not really describing what we would see, she’s generating a strange world we would never see if we didn’t see it through her eyes. Simply saying “bluebottles hum” wouldn’t do that job.
  • She’s using fresh adjectives of her own invention: We get the first of many portmanteaus with “dustgreen”. Later we’ll get “wetgreen” and “thunderdarkness”. When the mom passes away, Roy will point out that 31 is “a viable die-able age” (Roy knows she’s got a great, pithy phrase there, and so she reuses it four times in the book!)
  • Her adjectives create conflict: Black crows (death) gorge (a violent verb) on bright mangos (life).  “Dustgreen” is death and life in one word.  She’s not just painting a pretty tableau, she’s imbuing nature with life so that it can fight itself. Her adjectives clash.  

Ultimately, she will justify her non-leanness, her abundance of detail, with the book’s title. Who is the God of Small Things? It’s Roy herself. The whole idea is that tragedies can only be remembered as, and are perhaps best understood as, an accumulation of small things. Why does Sophie (and the book’s actual victim of injustice, Velutha) die? What is the one cause? There isn’t one, because there are hundreds of small things that added up to it.

This is a memory book (though the book is third-person and not entirely limited to Rahel’s firsthand memories). Rahel is trying to piece it all back together and sifting through portentous images and impressions that she accumulated that week, which she and Roy are now re-examining in great detail. Fine-grained descriptions are the whole point. Somewhere in these small things, there is a god who will tell us why these people had to die.
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