I read my first Steinbeck during December’s annual bookmas, and ‘East of Eden‘ became an instant favourite. I like how the story felt coaxed through its characters; a tale that is already salacious and mad and allegorical and no less literary mastery — but the characters, full, imperfect, timeless really stood out. I love how each person wove into or contrasted against the backdrop of the Salinas Valley. It left me with a feeling of completeness, a reader’s nirvana at the end of a book.
Reading during the holidays often feels like a headfirst dive through a book, wholly immersive, with the added benefit of having the time to back-stroke through the story later on, sometimes with my writing goggles on. This is in part why I started this rather bookish instagram – to reflect and connect with other book nerds.
The Salinas Valley features heavily in Steinbeck’s work, bringing to mind the adage ‘Write what you know.’ I read The God of Small Things‘ prior to ‘East of Eden‘ – another book that’s been on my mental ‘to read’ shelf for over a decade, which features another kind of river and another parochial setting conveyed with an intimate understanding of landscape, a carbon copy memory that transfers naturally when written down, making it a richer, authentic read. It’s why I crave Japanese food after reading Murakami. Ever notice how his characters pay attention to their food? The detail is both wonderful and cruel.
This has been on my mind recently, as a third-culture poet, writer, whathaveyou. As someone who was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Hong Kong, and spent some of my formative years in the Philippines. Reared on a post-colonial hangover, snacking on morsels of American media. Write what you know becomes an existential balance of what you’ve observed, and what you think, and what needs context, and a voice that changes several times. How the hell does one manage that, when I can’t even tame my own accent? (Bidialectalism – see, it’s a thing.)
Ruthless rootlessness. There are several places I can pull from, but what’s right for the character can be overwhelming when there is no default setting.
Naturally the only way out of this is to write myself out of it. Narrative voice comes easy – but when dabbling in longer-form writing, my fingers stumble on my keyboard when voicing characters. Some conversations sound thin because the writing is rushed, other times it’s because of a lack of character development – and more often than not, for me it’s because I can imagine a character like an avatar builder at the beginning of a gaming console. And like in a gaming console, I can imagine that character accessing multiple worlds. Temptation is rife.
Is this why fantasy or alternative reality as a genre does so well amongst my fellow third-culture friends, not just as readers but as writers too? With the story I’m currently writing, there is temptation to move into a completely different world where place does not matter, but this would be too much of a cop-out and render the whole exercise moot. Although its obviously not the case for all writing, I’ve decided that backdrop matters to this particular piece.
The other consideration is when fantasy plays nice with reality. There is an undeniable Englishness that underpin Neverwhere, Harry Potter, the Thursday Next and His Dark Materials series’.
So either way, I need to pick a lane and allow myself the license to stay in it.