‘Heart Berries’ describes the rough places

Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries (Counterpoint, 2018; available from BookPeople) gives an important perspective on interpreting one’s own emotions and place in the world.

Mailhot, who is from Seabird Island Band, transcribes her experience with a psychiatric hospitalization. She shares what mental illness means to her:

“I am sick or possessed. The spirits used to possess the people. We called it ‘Indian sick,’ and it was the first illness to be accounted for. It begins with want, with taking, and ends with a silence that hurts and makes us beg. There were stories about the cures and causes. Women tried to eat soapberries, or nothing, and talked about how we all had it coming. When the first children died it was too late to stop talking. … The only thing, the right thing — the thing that brought about our immunity — was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back. The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.” (p. 15)

So much happens in these few sentences. “I am sick” gives us the simplest possible assessment of the situation on the ground, the assessment likely to be understood by the greatest number of people. She immediately grounds it culturally: “the spirits used to possess the people” is a mythological narrative, followed by “we called it ‘Indian sick'” which is a lesson on language and history, then “it begins with want, with taking” which is about how those particular sufferers experienced this sickness. “When the first children died” is a memorial to those who were lost. Then, the faith in redemption: “something instinctual would carry us back.” What is happening now will become part of all of this history: “our ancestors were watching.”

This small book accomplishes a lot. This is a lesson in how to describe those patches that are very nearly unexplainable.

‘Freshwater’ gives fresh language for body and spirit

4-panel digital art by Tucker Lieberman

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (available from BookPeople) tells the story of someone whose identity has always been defined by multiple spirits, the ọgbanje.

“So we were still caged inside the Ada, with the grainy memory of charcoal coating the back of her throat. She was more isolated than ever and we were chafing at still being flesh, so the only thing left to do was hunt. If we were trapped in a body, then we would do bodily things. We painted the Ada’s mouth and lined her eyes with night, and we went out with Asụghara on a long and relaxed leash.”

The physical world, especially the human body in relation to it, and Ada’s body in particular within this novel, is called an “oath.” It serves as a reminder that spirits belong in the spirit world; hence, it is a promise made to those spirits who have stopped in and bound themselves to the physical world only for a time.

“With a force like ours, we dragged other things along — a pact, bits of bone, an igneous rock, worn-out velveteen, a strip of human hide tying it all together. This compound object is called the iyi-ụwa, the oath of the world. It is a promise we made when we were free and floating, before we entered the Ada. The oath says that we will come back, that we will not stay in this world, that we are loyal to the other side. When spirits like us are put inside flesh, this oath becomes a real object, one that functions as a bridge. It is usually buried or hidden because it is the way back, if you understand that the doorway is death.”

Emezi has achieved something special in their book. This is a powerful way of speaking about gender, personality, embodiment, culture, authenticity and fidelity to oneself, and the conflicting emotions and inner forces that pull us. Their website: akwaeke.com

Can the truth-tellers win?

Conspiracy theories lost their place in fiction as the 21st century approached, says Alan Glynn in his Vulture article last week. First, it no longer seemed “shocking that those in power might be bad actors.” Second, Internet-fueled “information overload led to a sort of heat death of what we know and understand, a point of entropy at which, if a conspiracy theorist believed one theory — chemtrails, say — they would most likely believe all of them: the moon landings, fluoridation, Waco, Lady Diana, the New World Order, WT7, take your pick.” This excess meant that “conspiracy theory itself had become a devalued currency.”

Conspiracy theories today, he says, are “customized to achieve desired political outcomes and then injected into the news stream via social media,” thus being “weaponized in the most cynical and partisan way.” So: “The new challenge is to catch them at it — to identify the truth of any given situation, to back it up with evidence, and to inoculate that evidence against the twin viruses of perception management and narrative bias.”

Powerful people always lie — there’s no problem with that premise for a novel. But, in such a fictional world, we should ask whether there’s any drama in watching ordinary people try to speak truth to power. Put another way: Does the novel hold out any hope that truth-tellers can win?

A couple hours of exercise music (a half-marathon playlist)

Need a half-marathon playlist? Here’s a couple hours of music to get you there. Organized by beats per minute (bpm) from slowest to fastest so you can gradually speed up.

Exercise relieves stress, clears the head, and can make opportunities for creative breakthroughs.

90 bpm “Kyrie” Mr. Mister | Amazon | iTunes
95 bpm “Water Under the Bridge” Adele | Amazon | iTunes
98 bpm “I Want You Back” Michael Jackson | Amazon | iTunes
103 bpm “Something Just Like This” The Chainsmokers | Amazon | iTunes
117 bpm “Billie Jean” Michael Jackson | Amazon | iTunes
120 bpm “Oh Sherrie” Journey | Amazon | iTunes
125 bpm “High On You” Survivor | Amazon | iTunes
128 bpm “Born to Hand Jive” Sha Na Na | Amazon | iTunes
128 bpm “Shut Up And Dance” WALK THE MOON | Amazon | iTunes
130 bpm “Jump” Van Halen | Amazon | iTunes
131 bpm “Invisible Touch” Genesis | Amazon | iTunes
133 bpm “If I Had My Way” Peter Paul and Mary | Amazon | iTunes
133 bpm “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” The Charlie Daniels Band | Amazon | iTunes
133 bpm “Boom Boom” Rye Rye | Amazon | iTunes
136 bpm “I Am Free” New Life Worship | Amazon | iTunes
136 bpm “No Air” Jordin Sparks | Amazon | iTunes
141 bpm “The East Wind” Gord Downie & The Country Of Miracles | Amazon | iTunes
141 bpm “Generals and Majors” XTC | Amazon | iTunes
144 bpm “Written In Blood” She Wants Revenge | Amazon | iTunes
147 bpm “Born to Run” Bruce Springsteen | Amazon | iTunes
148 bpm “Bottle of Smoke” The Pogues | Amazon | iTunes
149 bpm “Heartbeat Song” Kelly Clarkson | Amazon | iTunes
150 bpm “Only If You Run” Julian Plenti | Amazon | iTunes
150 bpm “Bang Bang” Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj| Amazon | iTunes
153 bpm “The Promise” Within Temptation | Amazon
153 bpm “Sex On Fire” Kings of Leon | Amazon | iTunes
153 bpm “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” Queen | Amazon | iTunes
160 bpm “Greased Lightnin’” John Travolta | Amazon | iTunes
160 bpm “Zephyrus” Bloc Party | Amazon | iTunes
160 bpm “What I Like About You” The Romantics | Amazon | iTunes
163 bpm “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” Wham! | Amazon | iTunes
167 bpm “To Mistiko Mou Na Vris (I Can’t Help It)” Ivi Adamou| Amazon | iTunes
167 bpm “Georgia On My Mind” Ray Charles | Amazon | iTunes
169 bpm “Take On Me” A-Ha | Amazon | iTunes
170 bpm “Frei Zu Sein” In Extremo | Amazon
170 bpm “The Middle” Great Northern | Amazon | iTunes
170 bpm “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” Ida Maria | Amazon | iTunes
174 bpm “Man or Animal” Audioslave | Amazon | iTunes
174 bpm “Unstoppable” Sia | Amazon | iTunes
174 bpm “Change My Life” Ashes Remain | Amazon | iTunes
175 bpm “Attack Of The Ghost Riders” The Asteroids Galaxy Tour | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “Another Girl Another Planet” Blink-182 | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “Masai” Elli Kokkinou | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “Good Fight” Unspoken | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “I Am Yours” The Afters | Amazon | iTunes

Can fiction writers benefit from falsificationism?

In “The Falsification Mindset: How to Change Your Own Mind,” Mike Sturm explains why a belief system or theory should state “what specific evidence would prove it wrong.” For one thing, as proposed by Karl Popper, the theory isn’t scientific unless you do this. It’s also a useful exercise for making good life choices, even if you’re not a scientist. Contemplating the conditions under which you’d admit your own wrongness, Sturm writes, makes you explicitly state what you believe, realize that you could be mistaken, and commit to changing your mind if you’re proven wrong. This can spare you from making big mistakes.

I wonder how writers might use this insight in fiction. A fictional story as a whole, of course, is false. Still, the details of the story need to hang together consistently, and the insertion of certain details can spoil the story by introducing inconsistencies into its narrative. Other details may interfere with the insight or moral that the writer is trying to convey. Still other details may make the story seem implausible, absurdist, or nonsensical.

It may be wise for a novelist to divine ahead of time at least some of the words that simply will not work out within their tale. I don’t know what this process would be called. “Falsificationism” isn’t right, because the wrong details don’t falsify the fiction; the fiction is already false. “Parasitism” may be closer, because a wrong detail is like an invading organism that drains energy from the story. The writer or any given reader may be unaware of the parasite. Regardless of whether anyone notices it consciously, the parasite can injure or even kill the story. It may be a valuable exercise, therefore, for a writer to list the potential parasites that could threaten their story.


Image: Live Tetragnatha montana parasitized by Acrodactyla quadrisculpta larva. Digitally altered, based on a photo that appeared in Biodiversity Data Journal in 2013 and is available on Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons 3.0 license).