While Alex is teaching at the Pen to Press Writers’ Retreat in New Orleans and then racing back to BEA today, Murderati is proud and thrilled to host the amazing Megan Abbott.
Megan Abbott has taught literature, writing and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego. Born in the Detroit area, she graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English Literature. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000, and in 2002 Palgrave Macmillan published her nonfiction study, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. She lives in New York City. Die a Little is her first novel and has been nominated for a 2006 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America and a 2006 Barry Award and Anthony Award for Best First Novel.
Her second novel, The Song Is You, arrived in bookstores in January 2007 and centers around a true-life missing persons case in 1940s Hollywood. Her third novel, Queenpin, came out in June 2007 and won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
I’m a weekend writer. Well, that’s not entirely true. I write all week at my day job as a grantwriter at Union Settlement, a 113-year-old nonprofit agency in East Harlem. But the writing I do there is so different. It’s about constructing an argument. It’s about rationality, logic, supporting one’s argument. It comes from a completely different part of my brain than the fevery stuff that sometimes stutters onto the page during my weekend writing. I write in an entirely different voice and a different part of my head gets activated at work. All week I write about the need for more after-school programs or senior nutrition services in Spanish Harlem. And on the weekend, I write about 1950s Hollywood, or after-hours gambling clubs or b-girls in trouble. Mostly, it’s a split life, the life of so many novelists I know who, in the daylight hours, write as lawyers, journalists, professors, etc. and, vampire-like, transform when they turn on their home computer every evening.
The common ground, I guess, is that most kinds of writing are about persuasion. Trying to stir up the reader. Follow me down this dark alley. Give our agency money. Kind of the same thing. This week, I had a moment when I realized how fundamental that connection is, the foundation of maybe all writing, even the writing we only write for our own eyes (don’t we, in our diaries, try to persuade ourselves of things?).
Each year, our Adult Education Program holds a student reading at the 92nd Street Y. In a beautifully restored auditorium, our literacy, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), GED and Citizenship students fill the space and take turns at the microphone. Students from Mexico, Colombia, Yemen, Morocco, Senegal. There’s the 52-year-old New York native with five daughters who decided to finally get that GED. There’s the group of women who speak three languages but can read or write in none of them, having never been permitted to go to school in their native country. The cabbie who writes lovely poems about his childhood home in Chile. It’s a little bit of memoir, a little personal essay, a lot of warm gratitude between teachers and students. It’s always a poignant experience for everyone involved.
This year, it just hit me more. Among the many students who took his turn at the microphone was an older man, very dignified, from Uruguay. He read a short piece of his own, in tones so delicate, about his family coming together for his beloved sister’s funeral in his hometown. “She was so beautiful,” he read (and I paraphrase), “hair so black and eyes deepest blue. The most beautiful of all my sisters. And I loved her. We all looked at her, we looked together. Looked at the black hair and those bluest of all eyes. The most beloved of all of us.”
His pronunciation was so unusual, the way the words moved in his mouth, the way he cradled them, speaking so movingly. It felt like he was tucking the whole audience under long robes. I guess I was only half-surprised when the Program Director leaned across and whispered to me excitedly, “He’s an undercover priest!” She went on to tell me he was a priest in Uruguay and speaks several languages and of course knows Latin but had never before written in English. “He’s been waiting for this,” she said. “In class, everyone always wants him to read.” He carried the whole audience with him, and it was not just the content or the melodic quality of his voice. The writing itself was so delicate, musical, with artful repetitions that, like a good sermon or a perfect poem, engage you in the writing, make you feel a part of it, make you feel connected. I was envious and mesmerized.
It all reminded me of another work event, a year ago. Novelist Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) visited our students. He read a piece about his own awkward adolescence, about the way he used to escape into books and into his own first attempts at writing. During the Q&A, the eight- or nine-year-old son of a student rose to ask, “When you write, do you feel powerful?” Franzen laughed admiringly, paused, then said, with all gravity, “Sometimes.”
Thanks so much for having me!
Oh Megan, thank you for this. A needed reminder of the power of words.
I did a library presentation last summer that was attended only by adults for whom English was a second language. An Hispanic man in his 60’s asked me to read a poem he’d written, the first writing he’d done in any language, as he’d never been taught to read or write.
It was such simple language but — my God — what powerful imagery and message.
I was mesmerized.
Thanks, Louise! Mesmerizing is exactly right. There are so many factors at work but one is that, when good writers are writing in a language different from their own they often seem to approach it from such a different place, put words togeteher in ways uncommon and magic can happen. There’s less use of idiom and cliche and it just feels so new. It also made me wish I had stuck with high school French (or better yet, taken Spanish instead–more useful at work!)
Megan,Great to see you here on Murderati. Thank you for this beautiful piece.
I’ve studied seven languages — more than casually — and each one has taught me how differently people see the world, what’s important to them comes down to the actual vocabulary and grammar of a culture.
One of the most powerful cross-cultural/cross-linguistic moments I ever witnessed was in Ann Arbor. There was a symposium of Russian emigres and at one particular panel, a painter was talking about his work. The interpreter — probably a Russian professor — kept stumbling over the words. Poet Joseph Brodsky was on the panel, too, and you could see him turning redder and redder in the face.
Finally, he’d had it. He stood up, rudely told the interpreter she was full of sh*t and proceeded to translate the painter’s words into the most sublime language I’ve ever heard.
Wonderful, Megan!But then, could I expect less?
Beautiful story, Megan, and beautifully told.
My workdays are spent looking for language that is just minimally informative but absolutely inoffensive. The business objective is to defend our director. Language is the wall we use.
It’s much better to use language as a bridge.
Megan, lovely to have you here at Murderati! What a great story — thank you for sharing your blessings with us.
You did your job. I felt as if I were right there at the secret priest’s speech. No, it was better than being there.
” It felt like he was tucking the whole audience under long robes.” Lovely!===================Detectives Beyond Borders”Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/
Pari, that Brodskey story is amazing! And what you say about how different languages reflect/express different ways of seeing the world is so true. That crosscultural/linguistic moment can be collision or creation or conflagration or commingling, but mostly I think it’s all those things and more.Tom, I know exactly what you mean. Do you find your awareness of those strictures make you value moments of unconstrained (or at least less constrained) writing more? That’s what I always hope!Thanks so much, all!Best,Megan