Thursday, September 15, 2011

Standing In The Ashes At The End of the World

Sometimes I think life likes to mess around with me, just a little. I say this mainly because I spent most of the earlier part of this year going through a series of nervous breakdowns, mostly due to work and a sense of not knowing who I really was. I don’t actually know why I chose the past tense there because I still have no bloody clue, but there it is.

So, with that in mind, I ended up finally biting the bullet, quitting my job, and traipsing halfway around the world with only my trusty backpack for company. It’s been a bit touch and go so far, what with Hurricane Irene and then an interesting journey home from Turkey, not to mention my next plan appears to be a trip down the Nile, but here I am. I do need to either get a job or make more serious travel plans as not to be a burden on my poor sister, on whose couch I am currently crashing, but I still just don’t know what I really want to do.

As I weigh up my options, I am beginning to realise my power as a writer. That’s a very hard thing for me to say, I have to point out, in that I am a born and bred New Zealander and if you happen to read a book called The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Kiwis you will come across the entry that points out that we are not very good with singing our own praises. It’s considered crass (sometimes I think this can be why Southlanders and other Kiwis south of the Bombay Hills can be so dismissive of Aucklanders; they’re much quicker to say how much they rule the roost). So, my actually exploring how my writing is improving…makes me uncomfortable, to say the least. But I’ve always written stories, a habit I picked up not long after beginning to read them, and I think now…it’s like being a magician, I suppose. It’s an apt analogy as I am prone to fantasy in my own work. But think of it this way: I am an adept, someone who has always held the power somewhere within her. Throughout my life it’s been largely unfocused and uncontrolled, and while occasionally things have worked out, I’ve always been very rough and ready (and probably very self-serving) in everything I’ve written. This year, I’ve started to look for that control. And it appears to be working.

While I was in Turkey earlier this month, two things happened: my first short story publication came out (something I will update on later, when I actually receive my comp copies and get to see the book as a whole; from the reviews I’ve read I’m dead excited about seeing the other contributors’ works!), and right before I left New Zealand I discovered that not only had I placed in the Dan Davin competition, I had actually won first place. I obviously don’t have access to the local paper from here, as such, but it came out the day I was in Turkey and I only got a look at it last night thanks to my proud daddy and his kindly provision of his library card number. So, I trawled through some online archives and took a look. And laughed. I had a two-page spread in The Southland Times publishing my story on the third of September, just days before my first book publication, and it was that same-self paper that first published my writing at the age of ten. I was in Mr. Ovens’ class and it was a ghost story called Mr. Nobody. And I suppose I haven’t really changed my tune, as Tea For Two is primarily a ghost story, and The Journey of the Magi is certainly headed that way.

It’s The Journey of the Magi I principally want to talk about in this entry, of course. (If you want to read it before this entry, just send me a comment or an email or something and I can send you a copy.) When the paper came out, I was highly amused by what few facebook comments I caught via my sister’s smartphone in Istanbul and beyond regarding the story and how people reacted to it. My mother, who was clearly quite excited to finally see me doing something with my writing, announced on facebook: “Even though I may not have quite understood the story I do appreciate how beautifully written it was - very jeaslous [sic] of your writing ability!!” Which is why I decided to explore a little my reasons for writing the story and what I meant by it – bear in mind, though, that analysing your own work is a touch and go process. I love literary analysis, and I am not afraid to say I’m very talented at it. When it comes to my own work, though…well. It’s a director’s commentary at best, I suppose? ^_~

The principal reason I wrote this story at this time was to enter a competition. I have to say that first up, because it is the truth. I needed a story, and this one came to mind. But as you can possibly guess from my wording there, I chose a story that had been in embryonic form in my mind for a long time anyway. This is what I usually do when I need to write “to order;” I dig up one of my previous “what ifs?” and run with it.

Though this story ended up with multiple influences, the one that set it off was a song. The band She Wants Revenge has a song called Pretend the World Has Ended, and I first heard it probably a year or so back on the recommendation of a fellow fan of Ashes to Ashes and Life On Mars. The lyrics immediately struck me, in particular this bit here:

We can run away tonight,
Pretend the world has ended.
No matter what they say we'll work out fine,
‘Cause you and I know this is heaven

That was the original seed: I liked the idea of exploring the idea of two people shutting out the world around them to indulge in one another. But then, I thought, what happened if it wasn’t a pretence any longer? What if the world really had ended?

I chose the characters I did for any number of reasons, but they are two men principally because it was the easiest way for me to present in a short space a “taboo” relationship. Not that I find it particularly taboo myself, I’ve dealt in the slash genre for a very long time. But that’s the way of the world around us, and so I used the ingrained knee-jerk reaction of our society for an easy fix. Which I suppose is a trick all writers use, in varying shapes and forms. I had a bit of fun in name-changing, though; I always choose my characters’ names for their meaning, and I went through any number of choices before I settled on these. And it was to do with another emerging influence on the story: T.S. Eliot.

Anyone familiar with this poet’s work would immediately have picked up on his shadow over my words by the title alone. It’s not my favourite poem of his by any stretch – I am a Prufrock girl, first and foremost – but the idea of the magi came to me as I was creating the story behind the POV character’s current situation. He is a docent because he is a “wise man” of a sort, but he both teaches and learns himself. The magi themselves, of course, are the three wise men who came to seek Jesus. In a way this is what Thomas Kandahar is doing: in a world on the edge of apocalypse, he stumbles in the dark, looking for the shining star that will lead them all to their salvation.

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."

But people are bastards, according to (by the way, if you follow that link and get stuck there all day, it is totally not my fault). Which is why the fate of creatures of Matsya Kalkirn’s type is to be taken as a tool and then discarded when their use is over. This is something relevant to the world today anyway, as we all tend to wonder what makes us human – but it’s been there always, this idea of those who are “better” or more deserving of the world than others. This comes back around to the name selection; Matsya was purposely given a less Western name, but then Thomas’s surname is also non-Western in origin, implying the mixture of society at this undefined point in time upon this world that parallels ours.

Thomas was given that Christian (!) name simply for the association with the Doubting Thomas well-known to any of us raised in a Christian society. Thomas doubts -- both himself, and the world around him. That is his principal function. His place is to be wise, but he knows nothing. Which brings to mind another Eliot poem, actually; here’s a bit of The Waste Land:

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, 
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not 
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither 
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,  40
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

This is what Thomas is – he is full of misgivings, and therefore in a liminal state. This story deals in parallel worlds, which I’ll get to in a minute, but Thomas has created his own world, unwittingly upon the ashes of another, because he does not have the strength to rise above his doubts. Saint Thomas had a wound he could place his hand into – my docent, however, has only Matsya. And how much help he is…well.

The origin of Thomas’s surname confounds me a bit – I am having trouble recalling why I chose it, but I believe it was because of its linguistic relation to Gandhara, a former ancient kingdom now in Afghanistan. I think I liked the idea of a name within two worlds – one closer to Matsya’s, and then one beyond it, in a different culture. Gandhara is also a very rich name, with a lot of world history behind it from before Alexander the Great to today, so…I think I liked that aspect. Thomas is our world from our viewpoint, as we want to “save” this world and all that comes with it, but there’s a price to be paid and at the time of the story, Thomas doubts he can personally afford it.

Matsya’s name was built on several things. Partially I liked his first name because I was reminded of two characters from a long-standing favourite Japanese anime of mine, Shoujo Kakumei Utena. I won’t go into details, as they are spoilers and it’s a wonderful story, but the pathos of that arc came through here for me in this story. But Matsya is the first of the avatars of Vishnu; to quote Wikipedia, Vishnu is “…the All-Pervading essence of all beings, the master of—and beyond—the past, present and future, one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within. Vishnu governs the aspect of preservation and sustenance of the universe, so he is called 'Preserver of the universe'.” We’re getting an echo here, yes? Matsya is the first, as I said, the avatar who saved humanity. Kalki is the tenth and last, the so-called “destroyer of time” who is expected to appear at the end of our current time. With that said, it’s fairly easy to see why I chose his names, I guess? ^_~ Matsya is a beginning and an ending, salvation and destruction in the same package – but because of his nature as a Defiant he’s something otherworldly, too. Hence my borrowing from the Hindu canon, there.

As for the story itself, it came about from several influences – I mentioned the tragic story of Souji Mikage from Shoujo Kakumei Utena, but I was also thinking of a wonderful fanfic I read years ago for the series Gargoyles that dealt in characters stuck in a parallel timeline to the proper one, and I also recall being fascinated by a similar concept in Doctor Who a few years back. And naturally I must give a tip o’ the hat to the Master himself, one H.P. Lovecraft, because the Others in this story are certainly close personal friends of Cthulhu Himself. So, that’s where my sense of the apocalypse came from – and then I wondered, if your world has ended, what do you do? If your whole universe collapses, where do you go?

This is Matsya’s question, and he goes to answer it. And that’s where the story got scary for me, I think. Thomas is a doubter, but for all he was named after a canonised saint, Thomas is still human. Matsya…is something else. Was Thomas right to indulge him? One would think not, given the result. But then did Thomas have the right to chose whether to indulge him or not? Ah, there’s the rub, there. But as someone who has personally been haunted her whole life by the meaning of déjà vu, I enjoyed writing this story. My problem with déjà vu, you see, is that it makes me wonder if a future self has brought me back to this point to make a decision over. And I always fear I am doing it wrong. But in this story, Matsya sees the opportunity to make his choices over and over again, as much as he likes. And the tragedy of it all is that it was having those choices taken from him by his own world that led him to destroy it to get what he wanted.

I know I said Eliot’s dear friend Prufrock didn’t directly inspire this story, but as I come to the end of this little digression…he likely did. So, I’ll end it with one of my favourite quotes from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, because I can hear echoes of Thomas in these words. And really, all the words we speak today are just echoes of those already spoken, and those as yet unspoken in tongues poised on the moment of speech.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—        40
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

I also have to note that Morag, a dear friend of mine who is part of my beloved writing group back in Invercargill, mentioned to me that apparently I was the first Southlander to win the open Dan Davin Award; Davin was himself a Southlander, of course, but I believe he spent a lot of time in Oxford. I suppose I could go over to Oxford today and look for inspiration, but I lived in Abingdon for six months and I'm kind of done with Oxfordshire. ^_~ Tim Jones, the judge of the competition, also said much the same thing about my being the first Southlander to do this, so there you go. But before I stop warbling about this competition, I need to make one last link: the winner of the high school competition was a girl named Pooja Pillay, and it sounds like we've lost a wonderful writer in her. I recommend you go and read her story and enjoy it as much as I did. The imagery is haunting, almost horrifying, and at all times I am helpless in its wake. And again, I am reminded of Prufrock, and on his words we can end this.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown        130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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