Saturday, May 26, 2007

The What

Dave Eggers has a fascinating piece in the Guardian about the challenges of collaborating with Valentino Deng on his story (I've got to get that book, I've been meaning to for a while now).
Here's the problem, as Eggers recounts it:

I had been working on a book of oral histories from the lives of public school teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. So I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemble the book from his words. I even imagined for a while - much of our first year together - that I would simply be the editor of the book, not its author.

But after that first year of interviews and my first attempt to assemble the resulting narrative, we both realised that there were great limitations, in this case, to the oral history model. Valentino was six years old when he left his home and began his 800-mile journey to Ethiopia, and thus his memory of that time was very spotty. When we looked at what we had from our recording sessions, it was fascinating, but it did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaper articles already available to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes. In addition, a new book called They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky had just appeared, and it did much of what we had originally intended to do: it wove together the oral histories of three Lost Boys, and did so with great skill.

And here's the solution:

When we returned from Sudan, Valentino and I were more committed than ever to getting his story into print as soon as we could. In an attempt to kickstart the writing of the book, I published an account of the trip in journalistic form in the Believer magazine. The exercise made clear, though, that my telling of Valentino's story, in my voice, would be distracting and tonally incorrect. In the account I wrote, I was present, both as narrator and as the guy riding in the cargo hold next to Valentino; there was no way to excise myself from the story. But in the book, I knew I had to disappear completely.

The first decision made that spring was to have Valentino narrate his story. His voice was so distinctive and powerful that any other way of telling it would be criminally weak by comparison. But my standards for what would qualify as non-fiction were strict; as a journalist, I was trained not to put any dialogue between quotation marks unless it was on tape. We had no such thing, and Valentino couldn't remember who said what at almost any point in his life, and thus the book would be without any dialogue at all.

So already we were straying from our intent - to bring Valentino's story to the general reader. Without sensory detail or dialogue, the book would be parched, and likely to reach only those already interested in the issues of Sudan. I was holed up in a cabin a few hours north of San Francisco, trying to figure out the book, when, after wrestling with all these problems for the year or so after our trip, I finally gave up. I was cornered. I couldn't make an interesting non-fiction account of his life - I do believe another writer could, but I personally couldn't - and a simple oral history wouldn't add anything significant to the material out there. I didn't know how I would tell Valentino that the thousands of hours he'd given to the process were for nothing, but I knew that I'd spent two years on it and didn't feel any closer to doing justice to his life and everything he wanted from the project.

Yet hours after I had given up - and I truly gave up - something occurred to me. Or many things occurred to me. First, I remembered that, at the refugee camp in Kakuma, in northern Kenya, Valentino had been part of a theatre group whose mandate was to write and perform one-act plays to educate the residents of the camp in various issues - HIV/Aids, gender equality, conflict resolution. So he knew that one usually needed to adapt the facts of life and shape them in such a way that they came alive in the minds of an audience.

By the same token, I realised that so many of the books I'd brought with me for inspiration, and the books I'd been reading on the shelves of this book-filled rented cabin, were novels. The books about war and upheaval that I'd turned to again and again, and that best (in my opinion) communicated the realities of war, were in fact novels: The Naked and the Dead, The Things They Carried, The Painted Bird, Catch-22 - War and Peace, for Christ's sake. Only with a bit of artistic licence could I imagine the thoughts in Valentino's mind the first day he left home, fleeing from the militias, never to return. Only in a novel could I imagine the look on the face of the man who rescued Valentino when he became entangled in barbed wire one black night in the middle of his journey to Ethiopia. Only in a novel could I apply what I had seen in the various regions of southern Sudan to describe the land, the light, the people.

Now, this is interesting for all sorts of other reasons also, but it especially caught my attention because of his reflections on what it means for an author to work with someone on capturing their voice and translating it into the form of a book, whether non-fiction or novelistic. I did a short piece like this recently with a friend who's having a health crisis and needed help translating thoughts into the form of an article about how to hold onto one's humanity in the deeply dehumanizing conditions of hospitalization, and it's a kind of work I intend to do more of in future. I think that the theatrical analogy Eggers invokes is actually even more deeply apropos, it seems to me that as the writer helping out one is trying in part to come up with a style on the page that captures the essential qualities--the spirit rather than the letter, as it were, though it's meaningless to use the term "letter" of something that's intrisically a matter of voice--of the speaker's voice, so that it's in many respects more like the playwright's task.

(If you have ever taped an interview or transcribed someone's speech, you know that a literal transcription in most cases--most but not all, some people have very distinctive ways of speaking that do translate well onto the page--comes across as flat or deadened compared to the rich affect of the audible voice. Your job as the writer is to--what's the word?!?--oh, reconstitute that voice on the page, like adding water to sea monkeys...)

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