the literary life 7/31/10
So I'm halfway through reading Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and I have to say it's one of the most moving collections of short stories that I have ever encountered. I've read four of the eight stories, and they each seem to focus on family conflicts between parent and child, between couples, and between siblings. It's a complex collection and so emotionally resonant that I've swallowed back tears on more than one occasion. The fact that she's a writer of South Asian descent, I'm sure, makes a difference in my sense of connection with the characters (who are mainly of South Asian origin), but I don't believe it makes an enormous difference. The stories examine universal concerns with such clarity and perceptiveness that I half expect the characters to leap up and walk off of the page, drinking their cups of tea. Lahiri inspires me. I think she's brilliant, which makes me wonder about her writing process.
I also just finished reading Merwin's latest collection of poems, The Shadow of Sirius, which I started on my trip to Hawaii but stopped reading for a while with the move taking up so much of my time. It's a good collection--very quiet. And it focuses on the transitory nature of things, as well as the contrasts of being, such as light and dark. At times I wanted something more concrete and personal to latch on to; but the pieces are short and comforting. Anyhow, reading poets and short story writers, I am inspired by this whole idea of writing short. I think short pieces carry an intensity, a possibility for mastery that is less evident with longer works. Yesterday I went to the local Borders and came across a book on writing by Flannery O'Connor. Taking a seat on a stool, I read her chapter on short story writing, and she discussed how a short story is about character and describing something dramatic that happens to this character. In a short story, the writer should aim to reveal some aspect of personality. Yet it's important to root the reader to a world that feels realistic, a tactile world that resonates a complexity. A multi-dimensional world. Lahiri's stories are by no means flash fiction. In her latest collection they span 30-50 pages each, sometimes more. The length is enough to draw one in and let one live in one place for a while, but short enough to maintain intensity. I can see myself exploring short stories more as a poet. There seems to be something both these forms share, even if it's just a commitment to intensified language, to brevity.