A DIFFERENT SET OF RULES
by Mahonri Stewart
NOTE: This was written for a final paper in my Dramatic Writing MFA Writer’s Workshop class where I was supposed to apply Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares to my own work. Thus the navel gazing…
In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a director’s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriter’s point of view as well.
Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when I’ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays is…
In her book, Bogart states:
Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).
For me this statement from Bogart has resonance on so many levels. In my work, I’ve focused a great deal on historical drama, especially from my Mormon heritage. My intense interest in Mormon history has bled into a number of my works, reaching back as far as my high school juvenilia. more
I had planned on reading Stephen Carter’s What of the Night? on the side, as I worked to plow through other books I wanted to get through. It was a book of personal essays, so it would be easy I thought to read one or two a day, while focusing on the full length fiction on my new pile of books I wanted to read and review. About a day and a half after starting the first essay I had read the entire book in two sittings. Granted, the book is a slim one (168 pages), but the book had caught me off guard with how entrancing and poignant it truly was.
Carter’s voice is intimate—exposed. He speaks of faith and doubt and spirit and family and struggle with the disarming honesty that causes you to lay your judgmental attitudes aside and simply listen to his complex thoughts and simple heart. His tales include his time with Eugene England before he died, the disappointments and triumphs of a Mormon mission, a tutorial through clippings with his grandmother, bright Alaskan lights and dark Alaskan doubts, a black sheep brother who showed him the way, the weight of priesthood, and the liberation of the Spirit. Each essay was carefully crafted like a sonnet or a piece of excellent cinema. Ponderous, vulnerable, honest, loving, good, afraid. Many of the things we carefully sidestep, Carter plunged into and felt his way through it, even when it became painful. It’s a brave, beautiful piece of work. Personal essays aren’t my typical reading, but this particular collection had me enraptured and made me want to pick up some more of Eugene England just to get some more of that style of intimacy and quietly spoken lives.
Now I do have a beef with one of the essays, “The Departed.” I started writing it about in this review, but then realized how disproportionate my discussion about that one essay was becoming in regards to the context of the whole book. So if you’re interested in reading my comments about Richard Dutcher and Eugene England in context of What of the Night? go to this other post here.
As it is, though, I wanted this short review to highlight how truly moved I was by Carter’s work. I recommend it enthusiastically without hesitation. Those who read it will be blessed by an insightful mind, a compassionate soul, and a troubled heart.
“My lifetime is shorter than my literary ambitions” writes Anneke Majors in the forward* to her new book, The Year of the Boar. She continues, “Many of the stories came to me in a much more barebones form than you see here. . . But I stand by these stories as true stories because the characters are true. Everything that actually matter is real.”
And so begins The Year of the Boar, a lovely and comforting offering in the genre-blending “autobiographical novel” style of Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven.
Primarily a missionary tale that follows the author’s own mission in Japan, this novel-in-stories swirls in and out of time–even jumping to the future in a final section– but finds its anchor in the Chinese Zodiac and the soulful Sister Majors, who seems to be the very embodiment of the traits of the zodiac Boar. She is diligent (when it comes to persevering through bad weather she beats the US Postal service) and compassionate (when stuck with a negative companion she tries to love that companion by always finding positives and doing the emotional lifting). She is extremely likable and everything a sister missionary should be.
However, the story seems to shine most in the small moments of transitory characters. My personal favorite was Tetsuo, a man who survived World War II in Japan, helped translate the democratic constitution and later serves a public servant. Tetsuo’s defining moment comes when he finds a crucifix (“the European god nailed to the character for ten like they always depicted him”) in a bombed out Christian church. Majors writes,
“[Tetsuo] thought for a moment about taking it home, showing it to his mother, keeping it as a curio. But as he went to slip it into his sack, he felt a pang of guilt. It wasn’t his to keep, and it should be with someone who would know how to take better care of their god than he. The statue’s face was pitiful, contorted with pain. For so long he had resented this big European church up on the hill, staring down at them all like it deserved to be above them. He had had no regard for the Europeans or their little god, but now, holding it in his hands that way, it looked so frail. He hesitated, wanting to make the right choice. But was leaving it on the ground in the rubble the right choice either? He decided to hold onto it, but only for safekeeping. He would come back when there was someone back to rebuild or take care of the church in some way, and he would return their god to his house, hopefully a house that would be strong and beautiful again.”
Moments like this one, small moments where the characters must negotiate between the ever-shifting political and spiritual forces around them, are what give this book its heart.
Occasionally, the book stumbles. Some characters appear and are lost too quickly in the revolutions of the zodiac calendar, making their backstories hard to hold on to (although a family tree would have been helpful in alleviating some of that). Other times bits of Mormon phraseology creep in where they shouldn’t (at one point a Baptist minister offers to pray over a man’s dying wife and asks, “would you like me to be the voice” in a way that seems a bit too home-teachery). Sisters Majors tends to think in run-on sentences that often take up paragraphs at a time and give the book a rushed feeling. There are even odd moments of over-explaining, like when a fictional Chinese stake is being formed in 2013 and the author stops to explain what a stake means to Mormons.
But overall the book is ambitious and heartfelt. Sister Majors’ love for Asian cultures and peoples, her love for the gospel, and her own personal optimism make The Year of the Boar an enjoyable read. Full of interesting historical tidbits about Japan and China, and small period vignettes in Texas and France and even Algeria, this is an ideal book for book clubs and summer reading. It is, as the author insists, very real. And very good.
*This is the first book review I have written after reading the work on my Kindle. Since there are no page numbers and the “high-light location” numbers are not reliable I have zero idea how to cite quotations. The best source I could find for how to cite a Kindle ebook was this website which said to reference sections. I’m still figuring out how to figure out what section things are in. So for more details about the quotations and references above you’ll just have to read the book yourself!
When ordering a whole grouping of Zarahemla Books’ titles last Christmas, Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven was at the top of my list. Having won both the Association for M0rmon Letters Award for best novel AND the Whitney Awards’ prize for best novel proved that it had won universal praise from across the whole spectrum of Mormon writers and readers. And every review I had read of the novel had pretty lofty praise for it. So I went in with the bar set high regarding my expectations. Coke Newell cleared that bar, and then some.
For those who are unaware, the autobiographical novel by LDS journalist and writer Coke Newell tells the story of “Kit” West (a Rocky Mountain loving name, if I ever heard one), who is a Zen believing, semi-hippie, pot smoking, vegetarian, guitar playing, hitch hiking, Colorado mountain man… who also happens to give up his life and lifestyle to follow Jesus and join the Mormon Church. Kit, from the get go, had me invested in him. His narrative voice was engaging, his heart sincere, his principles rooted, his spirituality sublime, and his flaws beautifully human. His instinctual attraction to nature made me think of those rare moments in my life when I have been able to escape my predominantly suburban existence, and find myself in the wilderness, with millions more stars above me than I was used to and the wind swaying the mountain aspen peacefully. His inner romantic for the love of his life Annie was something that completely mirrored my own amorous strivings when I was younger. And his deep spirituality, even before his introduction to the Church, sealed my affection for this marvelous character. He was a spiritual seeker, he was a lover, he was a poet. My kind of guy. more