Literature, nonfiction, self-help, psychology, psychiatry … these are just a few of the fields that help people answer the question, who am I? And, sometimes, who is that person next to me?
I read a wonderful study once on the concept of self. Dorinne Kondo looked at how people in one culture, in this case Japan, think about themselves as individuals. While it may seem like a pretty basic thing, the way we humans define ourselves varies across cultures.
I’ve seen people place a hand over their heart when talking about themselves and feelings that they hold dear. Would you consider putting your hand on your forehead when saying the same things? People in some cultures would. That’s the anthropologist in me talking.
But anthropology isn’t the only way to think about how people define themselves. Fiction is another great way to explore this idea. Sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. In ONE MONTH, a man must figure out who he really is. And figure out what that means to him. In the end, the fact that he was made by another man – and can be re-made by that other man – leads him to a dangerous conclusion.
But I won’t say any more about that, hopefully you’ll be able to read the book soon.
I love exploring questions like this in my writing. My stories are fun – ONE MONTH is a thriller about a man who discovers he’s really a robot, and about to die in one month. Not high literature, perhaps. But an entertaining story that builds on some of the concepts about humanity and culture that have fascinated me for so long.
That’s exactly how I enjoy my fiction – a good dose of entertainment that includes something that makes me stop and think. And remember it after the story ends.
This week I'm posting an excerpt from the draft of ONE MONTH, a book about life, self-awareness and power. This excerpt is from Part IV: Awakenings. Thanks for any comments or feedback.
At the end of the week, Puck felt his life draining from him, as by now he knew he would. He knew that as he lay dying, Mr. Bernard Dworksy would break into his apartment and watch his final moments. The thought terrified and disgusted him, but he had no control over it. He had done all he could. He had left a hidden message that he was sure his successor would understand, better than he had understood the warning his predecessor had left for him.
With these thoughts the only thing left to comfort him, Puck lay down for the last time in his own bed. He couldn’t sleep but he trusted the plan they had developed. The only hope for the survival of his race was not to let Dworsky know that they knew who they were. He had to act normally, as if he weren’t going to die. But sleep was impossible.
He lay silently in the dark and heard the door to his apartment open. Footsteps crept slowly across his living room toward his open bedroom door. Pretending to sleep, he saw a figure through his eyelashes. A frumpy man stood in the doorway, leaning against the door jamb with his arms folded across his chest.
Puck wanted to jump up and attack him, take the satisfaction of watching Dworsky die instead of the other way around. It was only through a supreme effort of self-control, and the knowledge that his true survival depended on the survival of Dworsky, that he lay still in his bed. He lay there, prepared to die, in the view of this odious man, so that his successor and others of his species could live…
England has a number of national parks, each with its own character and experience on offer. I had the great pleasure of traipsing through the Yorkshire Dales National Park last week. Beautiful!
We walked through sheep fields, crossed over stone walls, climbed hills and walked alongside waterfalls. The diversity of the landscape within this area is amazing. Each day’s walk was different than the one before it, each view breathtaking in its own way (sometimes literally – there are a lot of hills!).
I know that each nation chooses to create national parks in those places that people decide are the most beautiful, most important, or most in need of preservation. Sometimes these are places of great natural beauty. Sometimes they’re places of significant historical moments.
I haven’t hit every national park in the US, though I know some people who have. But I’m already creating a list of the other national parks in the UK I want to visit. I like to get to know a country by visiting its cities, getting to know its people. My current draft novel, Deadly Memories, takes place in Warsaw because when I lived in Poland I chose to live in the city.
But I also believe that you can learn something about a country by visiting its countryside, standing on a dale and breathing in the air (including some of the interesting smells that float upon it). So I visited, I rambled, I breathed. And I truly enjoyed it.
I went to see my allergy doctor last week. He’s a nice guy, always helpful and friendly (plus I credit him with my being able to make it through a year without my eyes drying out and turning a bright, thoroughly saturated red which, although a kind of cool look if you’re into science fiction, is not the look I go for in my daily life. But I digress).
I mentioned to him that I have a holiday coming up, and I’m going to visit some relatives in England. That led into a conversation about ethnicity. He’s Italian, and he has stories about growing up in a multiethnic neighborhood, kids deciding whose house they’d rather eat at for lunch based on the food someone’s grandmother was likely to be cooking.
We talked about my ethnic background, my husband’s, and our various experiences.
And we also touched on the question of why we even talk about things like this.
As I prepare for a vacation that will take me back to a place that some might consider my roots, I’m reminded of a wonderful story told by James Clifford.
In The Predicament of Culture, Clifford tells a story about the Mashpee Indians. In this particular chapter, they are on trial – for economic reasons, they find themselves in the position of having to prove their ethnicity in a court of law. Anyone familiar with the singular reality created in a courtroom can imagine what that must be like (why isn’t the court room considered science fiction?).
If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend Identity in Mashpee, a chapter in The Predicament of Culture. There are a number of reviews that give a sense of the chapter, too, (here’s one) but the chapter itself is not so long and worth a read.
The very concept of trying to legally prove one’s ethnic identity seems absurd, but I suspect it happens a lot more than we realize, from issues surrounding marriage and the parental approvals that may be required, to the challenges faced by teens in cities around the world who are trying to fit in to any given crowd.
I’m lucky that I don’t have to prove my ethnicity. I just get to go hiking in the Tatras Mountains or flyfishing in the Yorkshire Dales followed by a few good ales. Then I get to write books that take place in Poland and (eventually) in England. I’m lucky that way.
Man, that makes me so angry!
Yep, that’s something I say a lot. It could be in reference to anything from a political statement I don’t support to a disrespectful comment by a coworker to a TV commercial that I think is not even remotely funny. Most of the time I’m not really angry when I say it. It’s an expression I use.
I suspect that a lot of us talk about emotions we don’t really feel. Or struggle with expressing emotions we really do feel (who else is thinking about those quick “love you’s” tacked on to the end of phone conversations?).
One of my favorite ethnographies while I was in graduate school was Never in Anger by Jean Briggs. There’s a great re-cap and you can listen to parts of it here:
Anthropologist Jean Briggs lived with an Inuit family during the early 1960s, when she was doing research and writing about them for her doctoral thesis. When she got "angry", they treated her as a child, because they thought that "anger" was an infantile emotion, something never expressed by Inuit adults. This experience led to many more years of research on the emotions and ideas by which Inuit lived, and how they learned and taught them.
Emotions are culturally constructed, just like food and clothing. What’s right, wrong, hip, hot, uncool (kind of like my 70s lingo).
Emotions are also a fascinating subject when it comes to robotics, and particularly SciFi.
Roboticists are working on robots that can demonstrate human emotions (through their physical stance or even through their facial expressions).
In SciFi, robots really do feel emotions. Writers have used this construct as a tool to expose how human emotions affect our choices and actions – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse (think 2001: A Space Odyssey or I, Robot (the original and the movie both touch on this)).
Here’s a great review (from 2011) about robots and emotions, SciFi to reality.
In ONE MONTH, a robot’s emotions help make him more human. Which in turn helps him realize just how not-human he really is.
I love reading books that make me really wonder “what if” … what if I lived among those Eskimos, who would I be? What if we really could live without emotions, a la Spock? And what if people loved reading about a robot whose emotional rollercoaster ride forced him to determine what being human meant to him?
The United States is in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the civil war. As someone interested in history, I’ve been following the various events, activities, and controversies surrounding this. One article I read recently explained that we cannot use our values to judge the actions of those in the past. That’s a perspective you hear a lot when looking into difficult subjects from the past.
I’m working on a book now that’s set in a place and time where people are actively looking into the past and judging others based on what they find. And while the book is fiction, the setting is based on fact – the book takes place in Warsaw in the late 1990s, when lustration was in full force.
Anthropologists take great care to always respect the people they are studying. The Ethics Code of the American Anthropological Association states:
“Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work. … In conducting and publishing their research, or otherwise disseminating their research results, anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities, or who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research.”
The American Anthropological Association comes to this point after years of considering and working with some tricky situations. How does an anthropologist conduct fieldwork with drug users in Los Angeles? Or in a culture in which consumption of one’s enemies is believed to benefit society as a whole? Tricky situations indeed.
I recently read and enjoyed Ruth Rendell’s book, The Monster in the Box. In this story, Hannah Goldsmith, a young detective, struggles between her opinions as a feminist and her strong belief in the value of multiculturalism when she is faced with a Muslim family she thinks might be mistreating their daughter. Hannah is not the main character, but her struggle provides an interesting subplot that also keeps the story moving forward.
Fiction is a great venue for exploring questions like this – authors can create characters and put them in difficult situations, just to see how they work their way out of it. Something anthropologists can not do!
I heard the other day that someone is making another new movie based on one of the stories of Shakespeare. My first thought when I heard that was, wow, imagine being able to write a story that still resonates with readers hundreds of years later!
Jane Austen stands out in my mind as another perfect example of this. Both of these creators (or all of them, depending on which stories about Shakespeare you choose to believe) have a gift of insight into character and personality that few share.
While I can’t bring the skill and talent of an Austin or Shakespeare to my writing, I can bring my background of studying culture.
As an anthropologist, I conducted fieldwork in Warsaw in the late 1990s. I wasn’t there as a sociologist or political scientist, though my research overlapped substantially with those fields. I was there to study culture.
(As an aside, my favorite definition of culture is provided by Clifford Geertz: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of signification he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs.”
See this wonderful, short biography of Geertz by Richard Schweder on the website of the American Philosophical Society.)
I loved doing fieldwork. I met fascinating people who inspired me, and I enjoyed my time in Poland. Now, years later, I have the opportunity to take that experience and share it with others through my fiction.
The Adam Kaminsky series starts off in Poland. Specifically, in Warsaw in 1997. That’s a time and place that I know intimately. What a joy it is to be able to pore back through my fieldnotes and try to capture the people, time, mood of the city and country. I hope my love for the place will come through and be shared by my readers.
The story is a mystery – a whodunit of sorts. But the setting is integral to the plot. Once completed, the book will, I hope, take readers back through time and space to experience a different land and a different people.
I had the great pleasure of attending The Write Stuff Conference hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group in Allentown, PA this past weekend. What a blast!
As well as meeting and mingling with writers at all stages in their careers, I had a bevy of instructional workshops to choose from, from submitting short stories to increasing the tension in my writing to beefing up my social media platform.
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe gave a timely presentation on using (or choosing not to use) the wide variety of tools available to authors to build readership online, from twitter and facebook to google+ and pinterest. The discussion during the program inevitably turned to how much time each of us is willing to commit to building our online platform. But the agent panel that morning made it perfectly clear: you may choose to limit the time you spend on this, but it’s not an option anymore to choose to ignore it.
Gayle Roper taught us to build a framework for creating and maintaining tension while Katherine Ramsland explained why – and how – everything we write should and can be based on sound research.
Highlights definitely included the opportunities I had to meet with and listen to a number of agents from top literary agencies and the keynote speech and presentations by James Scott Bell, a great presenter as well as a successful author. His ideas for increasing suspense, grabbing the reader from the start and building a scene are still bubbling around in my head, just waiting to jump out onto the page. I came home from the conference with an urgent need to get writing!
I would recommend this conference to anyone interested in learning more about the craft of writing, understanding the logistics of publishing and meeting other writers. What a pleasure to spend the weekend actually being a writer – a little bit of heaven in Allentown, PA.
On Saturday, February 25, 2012, the Jane Goodall Institute turned 35.
When I was in college studying anthropology, a number of my favorite professors were primatologists. While that was not the field I ultimately chose, I found the study fascinating and delved a little bit into the subject matter in some of my research. Even in graduate school, when I was required to hone in on my subject matter – cultural anthropology – I still enjoyed physical anthropology. But a lot has changed since I was in school – and a lot more has changed since Jane Goodall launched her world-changing research. Much of it thanks to her!
How does studying Great Apes change the world, you might ask. There are many ways to answer that, from impacts on medicine and pharmacology to our knowledge about the world’s climate. But for me, given my bias, it’s because it helps us understand ourselves better – that’s us, humans.
Thanks to Dr. Goodall’s research, we know that Great Apes use tools, eat meat, and form strong family bonds.
Each time a new discovery is made about our closest relatives (at least in terms of DNA), the question is once again asked – then what makes us, humans, different?
I love asking that question. Because there are still so many answers. And I am excited for the opportunity to explore those answers, not just in an academic sense but through fiction.
Some of the greatest characters (human) I have met in literature stand out in my memory like real people: Uriah Heep, Mr. Darcy, Henry Perowne, Offred, Edmund Dantes. (And I don’t know why most of those are men, that doesn’t seem good).
Of course, I’ve met some great characters (non-human) as well. Who can forget Wilbur or Black Beauty?
I enjoy the challenge of getting into a character’s mind, figuring out what makes her tick – what make him the human being that he is (or, in the case of ONE MONTH, isn’t).
Who are some of your favorite characters?
My husband and I enjoy going to art galleries. Sometimes just to view the works on display, sometimes to browse with the possibility of purchase (though our budget has a direct impact on the likelihood that we’ll be able to buy anything!). One gallery in particular has always intrigued me. On our occasional visits, we’ve seen everything from art work created out of tea bags and tea leaves, to colorful interpretations of the city, to traditional nature scenes.
We visited this gallery while I was contemplating the opening scene of my book, One Month. In this scene, a man wakes up to a disturbing message that sends his mind reeling and his emotions racing. How could I best capture his feelings on receiving this world-changing news? What would I feel like if I was told something that I couldn’t believe … didn’t want to believe … and over which I had no control?
As these thoughts bounced around my mind, my eye was caught by a vivid image. The artist had captured a violent scene. A small boat, maybe a fishing boat, maybe recreational, was caught in a storm. Furious waves threatened to dash the vessel onto nearby cliffs. The scene was painted in shades of an angry sea – cold greens, dark grays – that made me shiver as I looked at it.
And I thought: that’s the feeling. A feeling of helplessness and despair. The knowledge that despite all of your strength, knowledge and skills, this storm is stronger than you. It will toss you around, it will terrify you, and in the end it might kill you. If it chooses to. Or it might relax its grip and let you live. And there’s nothing you can do about it, you have no control.
Despite the powerful impact this painting had on my understanding of my character’s emotions during this scene in the story, the painting itself plays only a cameo role – much like the ship in the painting is only a blink in the eye of the awesome sea that threatens to consume it.