Character Development

How do you progress with a character you adore? Trust me on this, as the author and creator you are the last person with any objectivity on this subject. I’ve been carrying the soul of my OC Jamai since my high school days, which isn’t saying much considering way back when she was second banana to her lover Youssou’s predecessor Conan-the-Barbarian wanna-be. Oh yeah, they were white too. A white barbarian tribe in Africa. That’s how much work I had cut out for me.

Well, yes. I brought that on myself. Fortunately, I was connected with some friends in a Seattle group that called itself Writer’s Cramp. I’m trying to remember all the details; forgive for if I get a few wrong. I was invited to one such meeting, in Kent I believe, and as we were leaving for home, Fran asked what I thought. I just spent two hours reviewing the works of five people who were considerably more talented and imaginative than I was, who took considerable pleasure in ripping their precious works to shreds. All I could say was, “You guys are vicious!”

That kind of breaking things down from the ground up was exactly what I needed. It was a hard couple of years, but I am grateful to all my friends for the grueling education in improving your science fiction writing that I acquired. What this meant for Jamai was that I had to take a few months off to do a hard reset.

In Her Dreams 1 closeup- (1)

For starter, that whole ‘white barbarians in an African setting’ b.s. had got to go. Second, and in no way would I suggest there was a stark moment of enlightenment that drove my thinking at this point. Doesn’t really happen in writing, folks. Sorry. At some point, however, I started putting Jamai face-forward, as she seemed to be the stronger character, even with the shoddy works I’d been showcasing her in before.

So where did that leave us? Well, now we had a new problem, something you may have noticed with most TV programs and comic book characters. Namely, that at the beginning of each story Jamai wound up at the same point she started at in the last fekking story! My strategy, such as it was, would be to lead up to the big life-defining conflict she’d face as an adult. The new stories began in childhood and would lead her through her teens. My friends in Writers Cramp pointed this weakness out to me, and honestly, I didn’t want to hear it! I knew what I was doing! Heh heh, I thought did, anyway.

Took a while for the lesson to sink in. Things happened. I lost contact with Cramp, and in the Double-Oughts, the ever-lovin’ 2000’s, I was engaged in a self-engaged quest to raise awareness for the issue of the slave trade in the Sudan. I was proud of the work I did with my fictional team, the Emancipation Posse; I think I did some of my best work with this book collection. I loved these people: Kate, Fong, Quench and Dru. And about three stories in, I added my favorite OC to the mix.

This wasn’t the same girl I’d ben writing tales for before, though. This was Old Jamai, hereafter known as Granny. I liked Old Jamai. She was confident, self-assured, a spiritual guide who did not suffer fools. I needed that time apart in her narrative to jog my brain cells and figure out how that young lady grows into the goddess she would become. And in a way I’m still exploring that issue.

 

B & S new cover

Butterfly & Serpent

in paperback and Kindle

available at Amazon.com

Breakfast of Champions-Review

breakfast of champs

I was expecting more. The follow-up to Kurt Vonnegut’s breakout novel Slaughterhouse 5 reads more like a Target Doctor Who novel from the 70’s-80’s, by which I mean it’s an easy read. IF of course a Doctor Who novel covered such topics as wide-open beavers and crazy used-car salesmen with bad chemicals. ‘Bad chemicals’ would be Vonnegut’s meme fir mental illness. I’ve heard some doctors refer to depression as an imbalance in the brain’s chemistry. I’m not sure if Vonnegut had been ahead of his time or simply being a smartass.

Curiously the author had also chosen to fill his book with his own simple illustrations, including ducks, ‘beavers’ and assholes. I had a feeling there’d be a lot of Fourth Walls breaking since the author, despite all the conventions of written storytelling, frequently takes the opportunity to personally intrude on the narrative. The plot revolves around the unhappy meeting of Kilgore Trout, a frequent cameo character in Vonnegut novels, and Dwayne Hoover, the crazy used care salesman in question. The mayhem takes place at the Midland City Festival of the Arts in 1972 in the American Midwest. He also drops in references to other past characters like Eliot Rosewater, the hero of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

African Americans are not portrayed in a flattering way. I’m not comfortable with that or his frequent use of the ‘N’ Word. At first I thought it might be an attempt at making we the readers uncomfortable, in the same vein as Mel Brooks would in Blazing Saddles. If so it’s a rank failure. In Vonnegut’s hands it’s unnecessarily gratuitous.

This is probably not his best work but it has its amusements. We have the truck driver whose brother works in a factory making napalm for dropping on Vietnam. His truck is also dumping poison gas into the atmosphere and that the planet is turning into pavement so his truck can deliver 78,000 pounds of olives to Tulsa. Observing all this, the nameless driver says, “Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” Another cutaway remark is how one of the most expensive things a person could do in this country was for a guy to get sick. Some things never change….

In fact the relevance to current events never seems to end, as with the destruction of the countryside in West Virginia in the name and authority of the Rosewater Coal and Iron Company. Let’s have one last reference: “Trout couldn’t tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him” [Chapter 10, page 88]. To be honest, I find this an insult to chimpanzees.

[Kurt Vonnegut, c. 1973 for the Playboy interview]

Kurt Vonnegut

On the Other Hand…

4144 south of sahara gatti   attilio-gatti

While some volumes are especially instructive, sometimes in my early researches into African culture and ecology, I may have sampled a few too many books that would give you an altogether wrong picture of the ‘Dark Continent.’

Let’s just start with that descriptive right here. The very expression ‘Darkest Continent’, ‘Darkest Africa’, whatever conjures up fearsome images of cannibals, savages, wild lions and snakes ready to fall on every convenient [preferably] blonde nubile maid. Perhaps it would help to know that Africa is not one big jungle from one end to the other. A variety of habitats, from savannah to desert to river ecosystems to fertile deltas to, yessss, swamplands, exist across the breadth of the land. At least three ecosystems are to be found in the nation of The Sudan alone. So there.

The books I started with unfortunately, were the kid written in the 40’s and 50’s, featuring the brave explorer with the requisite pith helmet on his brave white head. Attilio Gatti’s South of the Sahara from 1945 for example, or Cherry Lander’s My Kenya Acres (1957). I wonder if I should include Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa on that list?               I found these in used books stores, and there’s a reason for that. They’re kind of like Jim Carrey’s 1995 comedy Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, which was funny as hell. Until you step back and realize its portrayal of Africa, the real Africa, is hopelessly, terribly, horrifically out of date by at least 30 years. Sorry, there were no British or any other colonial officers running any African nation by 1995.

One wonders whether Africans were testing the credulity of these so-called white explorers. Case in point; in his 1996 book No Mercy, intrepid explorer Redmond O’Hanlon travels to the Congo in search of the legendary lost dinosaur Mokele-Mbembe at Lake Tele. Over dinner by a campfire Redmond asks one of his guides, “So, Doubla…why did Marcellin swear he saw the dinosaur?” “Don’t you know?” Doubla smiles. “It’s to bring idiots like you here. And make a lot of money.” (That said, it’s a pretty funny book with ‘slapstick, existential dread and brilliant digressions on everything from the sex life of the pygmy chimpanzee to the best method for killing a sorcerer’.)

no mercy redmond

The tendency of such books is to be condescending towards Africans, an Outsiders view not so different from Victorian times where each tribe was charming in and of itself, and yet, due to their lack of the civilizing influence of Christian values, these people always inevitably must be savages. That’s the mindset we have to get away from, one our President unfortunately snuffles every night.

I have tried to shake these colonial misconceptions. It’s taken years and it has not been easy. That conditioning is burned into our thoughts and minds with every safari rerun on late night TV, every Tarzan movie ever made and remade. Word of advice? Don’t believe Edgar Rice Burroughs. The man knew nothing of Africa.         tarzan-terrible-lion

I spent endless hours watching Tarzan movies at my mother’s house as a kid. Today I look back and think of them the way Richard Pryor did. Here’s what he said in Live on the Sunset Strip (1981): “Tarzan wouldn’t last a week in Africa. Either that or they’d think he was a crazy white man. ‘Where’s Tarzan?’ ‘You mean the crazy white man? He’s up the trees with the baboons!’

Richard_Pryor_Sunset_Strip_album

I have developed through painful experience a simple rule when it comes to these books: if it was published before 1970 it’s probably not accurate. especially when it comes to Africa. The further back in time you go, the less accurate the information will be and the more biased it becomes. Think of all the advances we’ve made in the last 50 years. Can you imagine writing a term paper on Mars, based on the knowledge we had before 1964? You’d be crowing about canals and laughed out of university!

If you’re open there is a treasure trove of African literature waiting to be discovered, and its really not that hard to find. There are historical and cultural treatises such as Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, memoirs both personal and historical. Novels galore from such talents as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche await your attention, just as two examples. There are stories of hope and despair, war and renewal. All this is waiting for you, if you only reach out your hand and grasp it.

Reflections: Facing Mount Kenya

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If you’re going to write about a place you’ve never been and people you’re not familiar with, if you want to bring truth to the tales you tell, it might be a good idea to listen to the voices of those who know and what they have to say.

This is the first book I encountered in my African studies written by a man of Africa. There’s a rich literary history most of us are quite unaware of, that is really not that hard to find. The problem is not enough of us are really looking and our schools are not going out of their way to expose our children to Afrocentric literature.

Facing Mount Kenya was something I stumbled on in a used book store in the 1980s. It was the author who caught my eye. Jomo Kenyatta, for all you younglings out there, is not just any Panafricanist; he’s like the father of his country, Kenya. I’m not going into his history at this time. It’s the book we’re concerned with here, which speaks of his pride of home and of his culture.

Published in 1938, this was essentially an anthropological study, from the inside, of Kenyatta’s Gikuyu people. It imparts their values and traditions, perhaps giving away more than he was really supposed to, and mayhaps that was the point, to explain his home and people to the Western world. And perhaps open some minds to the fact that they are more than the mindless savages all Africans are portrayed as in Tarzan novels, as well as too many adventure movies to come.

It may have also been too British in tone, a reflection of Kenyatta’s love for his Anglo home away from home. This is where my true African re-education began. Possibly some of my male characters in my writing are scewed to the lessons I learned from this book, and if so, well here’s where it began.

http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-facing-mount-kenya-the-tribal-life/#gsc.tab=0