April 30, 2009
Let’s face it. An economy in shock is not such a shock if you are not only a writer, but a writer from and remaining in the working class.
I am not allergic to the thought of making big money with my writing. Not at all. But the real joy would not be receiving a bargeload of wealth from my writing but enough for my writing. Enough to write as my main occupation, and to do the kind of in-depth study of craft and of whatever subject writing a novel may require me to do.
For me and for many of us, the real connection between writing and money is not about how much money we do or might make with our writing, but, rather, it is in obtaining the money that gives us the time and peace of mind and a healthy environment to help make possible the writing itself.
As some of you might know, I received a 2008 Artist’s Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This has been a great help to me in the project I am working on, a novel called History Artist. Part of what this grant has given me is certainly support for some more writing time than I was looking at with my work schedule. We all know how remarkable a gift that is, how freeing of our time, and how affirming to be paid to do just that thing which feels so central to writers and yet usually goes unpaid: writing.
They used to tell us to write what we know. The imagination be damned. Although, indeed, the realm of imagination is a realm of knowing, yes? Sometimes, it is the only realm in which we know aspects of our own stories, or that of our families or tribe. We imaginatively know those who are gone, whom we have never met. We imaginatively know the places our ancestors, or parents, came from, and we imaginatively know the very places we came from or were born into, since they exist in those ways, no longer.
We know things in many different ways, and at many different levels. We know things from the images that haunt us, or invade us, from memory, from the news, and from the imagination. And it is all that and more which cooks within us and comes forth in writing a novel.
This State Arts Board Grant gave me not only some free time to write, but it gave me a chance to do some very intensive research for this book. I went to Boston to do research about Cambodia and the war in Southeast Asia, and about relief workers in Cambodia after Pol Pot fled to Thailand. I spent time going through the resources at the American Friends Service Committee (thank you, Paul Shannon), and at the Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences (thank you, Kevin Bowen). I spoke to many people, walked many streets, and immersed myself in the archives at Healey Library at UMass Boston (thank you, Elizabeth Mork), where I listened to taped interviews of war vets, read carbon copies of communiqués in the field, some in French, and peered through a magnifying glass at contact sheets of photographs of war, its aftermath, and the “clean” negotiations and ceremonies as power was transferred from hand to hand. I watched old films and studied slides at AFSC, going back again and again to images that opened a door to truth for me, that called up my characters. I have been in touch with many people in a network that keeps growing and blessing this work (thank you U Sam Oeur and Rony Toeum).
Research therefore helps me more deeply and precisely know what I already, in some ways, know. It reveals things that I have been blind to, opens terrain into which the imagination rushes. Research offers a kind of “reality check” to a writer of fiction who wants to respect truth if not mimic it, pour truth into imagined images, pour story into images gleaned from research, and yet not violate. Such a fine line, such an unknown, that line between the way the imagination functions and the way that an agenda is imposed, or that a misplaced old story is projected onto the images of history.
At dawn on April 17, 1975, Cambodian New Year and the day after the U.S. pulled out of its embassy in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge entered the city and began the forced evacuation of its two million residents, perhaps half of whom had been refugees from U.S. bombing in areas outside of Phnom Penh. Pol Pot considered cities and all things modern as evil and intended to recreate the 12th century greatness of Cambodia as seen in the largest religious complex in the world, Angkor Wat, by developing an agrarian society without cities, as well as without intellectuals, teachers, artists, monks, family and religion.
What was left in Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot years was a city emptied of people.
A completely empty city from which 2 million people (about the same number of Cambodians slaughtered, tortured, starved, and worked to death by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from that day until the very end of 1978) had been forced out.
Imagination rushes in to that empty/haunted place.
But how to avoid that syndrome of violation which Marlowe in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness could not? Africa’s heart, for the narrator of that novel, was a great empty space, this “heart of darkness”, upon which he could, and many Europeans did, project any and all ideas of people savage or noble, as well as reformulate images of themselves as aristocrats of superior race and intelligence, adventurers of supreme courage and resourcefulness. This idea of Africa’s center as a “blank” space served the colonialists but made its inhabitants static, deformed, backdrop, in the narratives of their own land.
I am looking at film, the camera moving at the rate of a slow car, of Phnom Penh emptied of men, women, and children.
This is research. Research to teach me what I do not know, but also to understand what I do know. I am now to do the delicate work of not violating, and yet allowing the full work of the imagination to happen, to be filled with what I learn, what I see for the first time, what is familiar, what I am haunted by, what lives in my bones, what I cannot remember, what others tell me, what I read, in the sacred quiet places, in the archives of people’s fragile, enduring, brutal, exquisite, unfathomable and familiar lives.
Thanks so very much to the Minnesota State Arts Board, for this chance, and to all who have been helping me in this work.
I had just better do a good job.