This is an odd moment. Three book ideas I have been working on lately have suddenly come into clarity as a single cloth -- not as a trilogy mind you, for each is different enough from the other -- but organically they seem to spring from the same desire to write about early, middle, and late life. I feel as though on any given day, I could write in all three manuscripts without missing a beat. Two at least are set in Italy (thank god the research here helps both novels). The third is contemporary fantasy, so familiar ground.
I turned 60 on January 1st of this year and I think this huge meta-thinking about the novels has a lot to do with my age. When studying African oral narratives I learned that women story tellers in South Africa (and probably in every traditional society) told the same stories (with some changes in emphasis depending on the audience) to all different ages -- sometimes the audience was a mixture of ages and the tales were meant to be entertaining and to introduce the very young to the artistry of story-telling. Other times it was intended for a specific audience such as young women going through rites of initiation, and there the same stories acquired an instructional emphasis, the tales focusing on transformation to adulthood.
But older women also performed those same stories privately to each other. All of them so well versed in a life time of living and of telling those tales. They knew these stories intimately -- and in those variants they told to each other, there is depth and nuance in the performances. It was an opportunity for them to reflect and to comment through mature and evocative perfomances of the tales on their own past rites; their lives as young women, as wives or co-wives, as mothers, and now as elders. One of the great Xhosa story tellers Nongenile Masithathu Zenani towards the end of her life performed three, one-hundred-hour epics. Each epic was performed over about 21 days --with Masithathu speaking for 5 to 6 hours each day. And like Scheherazade, each morning picking up the tale where she left off the night before. The epics were composed from the threads of the oral narrative stories she had learned and told throughout her life, entertwined with a wealth of cultural details and a social history of the Xhosa. (I am still waiting to read one day the final translation of these three epics which were recorded and transcribed by Professor Emeritus Harold Scheub.)
As authors, we continue to reach back into the deep well of inherited stories -- the universality of rites of passage means every generation will want to hear them, read them, and connect to them. But unlike traditional society where the oral narratives and epics could be learned at the knee and then repeated (though different variants even within a culture suggest personal embellishment and emphasis in the telling), modern authors are always required to reinvent old tales and make them "fresh" -- sometimes with wonderful results and sometimes with stunningly bad ones. (I can never get over the dreadful Beowulf movies...Beowulf in Space, Beowulf with a Golden Stiletto-Heeled Monster mother).
So I guess this is the big challenge now for me. Trying to be faithful the tales, to take the time to reflect on how they have shaped and articulated different moments in my life, and yet, satisfy the craving to create something new, something "fresh" out of very old but venerable bones.
For more reading:
* Life Histories of African Women, edited by Patricia W. Romero which contains the autobiography of Nongenile Masithathu Zenani recorded, transcribed, and translated by Harlod Schueb.
**The Word and the World: Tales and Observations from the Xhosa Oral Tradtion. "A master storyteller of the Xhosa people of South Africa, Nongenile Masithathu Zenani gives us an unprecedented view of an oral society from within. Twenty-four of her complex and beautiful tales about birth, puberty, marriage, and work, as told to the renowned collector of African oral tradition, Harold Scheub, are gathered here. Accompanying the stories are Zenani’s detailed commentaries and analyses and Scheub’s striking photographs of her in performance. The combination of these historical and cultural observations with a richly symbolic collection of tales from a single traditional storyteller make The World and the Word a remarkable document."
Art: Edward Hopper: In the Barber Shop, 11:00AM, Summer in the City