The process of exploring a set of ideas about literary works is a treasure hunt for something that doesn’t exist until you find it. In that way, it’s just like writing fiction or poetry.
Because I just reread Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and because so far it’s been a year of transition and loss, I’ve spent several recent nights as a refugee, dreaming about crossing from place to place and country to country, with different configurations of family and friends, ending up in barracks full of strangers. Losing first the material things we value, then discovering that they didn’t matter at all in the face of our real losses, the deaths or disappearances of those who matter most to us. But this isn’t about those losses, or not exactly.
I’m working on my lecture for the summer residency at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. I wrote the description – as one often does in proposing a lecture, craft essay, or nonfiction book – as the first step in exploring the topic, rather than as an after-the-fact synopsis of a piece that already exists. Here’s that description, functioning now for me as a map or set of notations, the kind of hint you give yourself in dreams (it includes the promise – to myself as well as to my prospective listeners – that, by the time I know where we’re all going, I will also provide written directions):
The Pleasures of Hell
A book that depicts some version of hell may be dark without being bleak, whether it shows a true hell, like Dante’s Inferno; a worldly hell, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Nigeria during the struggle for Biafran independence in Half of a Yellow Sun; or a gothically impossible – and yet plausible – hell, like Hilary Mantel’s spirit-haunted London in Beyond Black. These books entice, implicate, and ensnare readers, even though they may set no limits as to what can happen and (sometimes) offer no protection for the characters. We’ll consider ways writers might avoid turning the people in such worlds into victims, as well as the linguistic and textural possibilities of metaphorical contrasts, unnerving pleasures, and the internal light-logic of nightmares. Reading the works ahead of time is recommended but optional. Everything needed for the trip will be included in the handout.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes, discussing Edgar Allen Poe’s juxtaposition of “calculate” and “unforeseen,” “How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”
The unforeseen is always coming at us from all directions, and, under the pressure, parts of our imagination wander off every day. In the world, we may be dividing ourselves between all we have to do and the people close to us who are currently in trouble. We might be crossing back and forth between several different worlds at once, trying to find our paths in each of them.
In our mental lives, we might further divide ourselves between our own projects and all the books or articles we’re reading, everything we’re trying to learn and take in. For teacher-editor-writers, these include the in-progress works of friends, clients, students. Also the published work, new (or newish) by all of these. Unpublished books waiting for our quotes. There’s the pile of active resource books for writers who do a lot of research (this includes 100% of the fiction writers in my household, a statistically significant sample of two).
And, of course, people who live this kind of odd life have further enticing piles of books, waiting all the time: anything brand new, anything we’ve been waiting to see published, or anything that promises the secret to making sense of crucial puzzles, like workings of the brain. Or possible illumination and help for our efforts to intervene in whichever of the world’s problems seem most urgent to us, whether that’s climate chaos, ongoing wars or torture, factory farming, or a resources-distribution system that leaves 2.6 billion people to live on less than $2 per person per day, and almost a billion on less than $1 a day (Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven's Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a Day, Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel's More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics is Helping to Solve Global Poverty ).
So maybe it’s up to our dreams, the ones we have at night or the ones we make in the daytime – if we are to be able to retain any ability to think or to take action – to wind together or collage all these imaginary and real places, whether the bindings are earnest or ludicrous, revealing or opaque, and whether they take us into some form of hell (bright or dark), or some less frightening world.