Thursday, December 20, 2018

Happy Birthday, Paul Klee!

To celebrate, here's a chapter from A Commotion in the Heart, my just-finished book about writing.

I love Paul Klee’s paintings, so simple at first glance that it’s not uncommon to hear the person next to you scoff, “A child could have done that!” 

But if you look long enough, almost transparent dabs of burnt sienna and eucalyptus green might give way to long rectangles topped with triangles at the top of the canvas might become desert and a faraway walled city, so evocative that for a moment you’re standing in the hot dry air under the bleached sky. You can almost hear the muezzin’s call to prayer.

What first seems like a real thing—a crude black outline of a house with a tilted roofline set on a mosaic background of thousands of tiny squares—blue and orange, umber and red—might shift and suddenly become no more than a tilted triangle. In fact, the painting might actually be no more than a study triangles and almost-triangles. That single arch, the solid orange disc you thought was a sun when you thought the painting was a house, inviting only for their difference.

Then there are the countless color studies. Blocks of what seem like random color
marching across a canvas. That’s it, you think. Just that. Until you look long enough to hear them singing.

The more I look at a painting by Paul Klee, the more I listen to the colors, the more I’m drenched with emotion, unbalanced by the intensity, the mystery of how color and shape can make that happen. The whimsy underpinned by strangeness and wonder.

Entering a retrospective of Klee’s work, I couldn’t wait to see room after room of his paintings, but what caught my eye when I walked into the gallery was a glass case containing an open sketchbook. Cool, I thought, expecting Klee’s sketchbook to reveal experiments with color, bits and pieces of patterns or images later incorporated into paintings. But what the open sketchbook revealed was a drawing of a farmhouse and the landscape surrounding it, so perfectly rendered that it might have been a photograph.

Turns out, Paul Klee had a degree in fine arts, and his passion for color led him to endless experiments in color and form. Over time, he developed his own color theory, which he taught to students at the Bauhaus.

Rules are made to be broken, artists often say. Which is true enough. The best of them broke the rules of preceding generations to create something wholly new—and which created a whole new set of rules for following generations to break. But, like Klee, the best of them had mastered those rules first. They broke them because what they imagined could not be contained in the old set of rules.

There are rules for writing fiction, too—guidelines we use to talk about aspects of the craft that must be mastered to write a good story. Occasionally, it happens, as it did to me, that someone writes a publishable first novel by some combination of instinct and dumb luck. But there were twelve years between the publication of my first published novel and the next one. I knew too much to repeat the dumb luck approach, and it took me all those years to understand the elements of craft well enough for them to become second nature to me.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Pink Hats, Privilege, Point of View

The other day on NPR's "Here and Now," there was a story about why so few Black women participated in the Women's March—a issue the host referred to as “intersectionality”—which is, I guess, how and where the multitude of issues and problems that need to be solved intersect. 

(Yet another word to hate, but that’s a whole other post.) 

I had been troubled by how few African-American women attended the Indianapolis event. It was obvious, looking at the photos, that the same was true of Washington and other cities. Reading a piece in the "New York Times" a while back about leaders of the March squabbling over inclusion, I thought, do we (meaning not only women) always have to argue about who’s in charge? I felt the same irritation upon learning it was the topic on “Here and Now.”

Then Ijeoma Oluo began to speak.

"I thought about [attending],” she said. “I gave it a lot of thought, and honestly, emotionally, it was really too hard. As the day became nearer, and I saw a lot of people who had never marched before, who had never marched with me before and with other people of color before, so excited to march for the first time, it became a really conflicting and emotional time, and it honestly wasn't something I could handle."

"It was wonderful to know that so many people were taking to the streets and were speaking out,” she said, “but if you are a person of color who has been fighting for black lives and brown lives, if you are a water protector who has been hosed down in Standing Rock, you have been begging people to stand next to you for so long. So, it can be hard to look at it and not wonder how many lives could be saved if we had even a tenth of these many people showing up at a Black Lives Matter march to push for police accountability and to push for reform. And that becomes hard because you can't bring people back from the beyond the grave."
She wondered what the turning point was for these women, wondered why it hadn’t been watching any number of videos of young black men being murdered by the police.
"Where were they then?" she asked.
Where, I wondered, was I?
At which point, suddenly, I saw the Women's March through her eyes: the sea of white faces, the pink hats, the clever, in-your-face signs, the air of celebration and self-congratulation. 

Finally! Women were going to rule the world!

Before our group left for the Indianapolis March on Saturday morning, my daughter shared a handout from UNITEWOMEN.ORG. with tips for what to do if the demonstration went bad. “I really don’t think anything’s going to happen,” she said. “But just in case, you might want to take a photo of this.” We did. But I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be in danger, and I’m guessing none of the other women—and for that matter, none of the millions of women who marched all over the country that day—did, either.

Because most of us were white--and if we weren’t white, we were surrounded by a wall of white privilege. Privilege, in this case, being the knowledge that there was no way the police were going to mess with a bunch of white women, many of whom were pillars of the community.

This hit me so hard I wanted to cry.
 “Oh, and about the hats,“ an African American friend of mine said, quietly, when I shared this story with her and told her how I felt. “My vagina isn’t pink.”
Oh, my god, I thought. 
Everything, everything comes down to race in the end, whether it is intentional or an honest, if insensitive, mistake—and we are so completely nowhere on even confronting that problem, let alone solving it. 
Can it even be solved? 
Is a country whose grand experiment in democracy was built on the backs of black slaves and the genocide of its native people so skewed from the beginning that it can ever shed its sins and become a place where everyone is equal, everyone is free?
Not if we don't acknowledge those sins, acknowledge where they are still alive among us. 
Not until all of us do everything we possibly can to see the world through the eyes of those who still suffer their lingering effects--and get a a small taste of what its like to be a Black person in this country.