Their Eyes Were Watching God and meta-storytelling with a frame narrative

Some critics have said Zora Neale Hurston’s novel about love and loss is not “good” because the narration slips between Janie’s dialect and the narrator’s voice.

I think Edwidge Danticat’s words in the introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God say it best, though: “Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or real time, Janie may have simply grown tired of talking.”

The novel makes use of a frame.  We start at the end of the story, when Janie is returning home after burying her lover Teacake.  Hurston generates interest immediately when we hear the villagers gossiping about Janie and where she’s been.  We find out a lot about her character when she ignores all of them and decides to tell her story to her friend Phoebe only, who can then do as she wants with it.

So, Danticat’s explanation makes sense because Janie is telling her story to her friend Phoebe “in real time.”  It also sets up the narrator as a fly on the wall in Janie’s life, someone who is telling the story of Janie telling her story.

If we look at the way Janie tells her story, she is always frank and honest, and does not sugarcoat the truth, although there are some ugly ones in there.  But, more importantly, she tells the story in her own voice–and a strong voice it is.

Although writing in dialect has gone out of vogue and is generally considered disrespectful and crass, I think it’s integral to this narrative.  Perhaps Hurston could have conveyed the same dialect and inflection without “misspelling” words, but then we would read the story in our own voices, with our own pronunciation.

By using dialect in this way, Hurston forces us to read in Janie’s voice, and in the voices of the other characters.  We have to become them, if only for a moment, to experience their stories.  That makes the narrative immersive.

Despite the frame narrative and the fact that this is a novel about a woman telling her friend a story, I have difficulty calling it metafiction, because of how immersive it is, and how wonderfully it draws the reader in without calling particular attention to anything but the story itself.

Yes, the astute reader is going to think about the way Janie tells the story and the frame narrative and what it means, but a casual reader will probably not.  After all, who hasn’t sat down after a particularly difficult experience and told the story to a close friend or family member?

I also have difficulty not calling it metafiction, or meta-storytelling at the very least, because the book does proclaim—rather loudly—that this is Janie’s story, and Janie is telling it her way, and she is not making any apologies.  Not to her neighbors, and not to the reader.  And that is a proclamation that should make us think about the structure, characters, and why we tell stories to each other.

A version of this post first appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, on September 7, 2010.

#FridayReads: The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie

cover for Ancillary JusticeJust yesterday I finished reading the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I enjoyed every second of it, and am excited to learn that a new entry in the series comes out in September, right after my birthday!

I’ve felt a bit out of the sci-fi loop for not having read this series since it made the awards circuit in 2014–and all of them are well earned, that’s for sure.

Science fiction has been asking the question, “What makes us human?” since its earliest days, and this trilogy continues that tradition with its own take. It also explores themes of colonization, empire, class, and gender.

The trilogy consists of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. In this universe, military spaceships and space stations are run by powerful, intelligent, and emotive AIs. Many of these AIs have ancillaries, which are human bodies essentially wiped of their consciousness and tied into the AI’s consciousness. It’s a brutal process that involves the death of the person inhabiting that body.

cover for ancillary swordThe leader of the expansionist Radch empire, Anaander Mianaai, has hundreds of clone bodies and has ruled Radch space for thousands of years. Several incidents with various alien species has caused her to split into multiple factions, which leads to the destruction of the ship Justice of Toren, minus one ancillary, who now goes by Breq.

The Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish genders, so all characters are referred to as “she” throughout the books, and we learn (some of) their genders through interactions with people who speak languages that do distinguish gender. Interestingly, we’re never explicitly (that I remember) told what gender Justice of Toren’s last remaining human body is. It doesn’t matter, though, and that, I’m sure, is Leckie’s point in concealing the gender.

cover for ancillary mercyBreq has set out on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, and thus sets in motion the trilogy’s plot. Leckie balances the demands of writing an overarching plot for the trilogy while also giving each book a true beginning, middle, and end. There’s a lot of internal tension, which balances well against the bursts of action and violence. This is definitely intellectual science fiction more than action-adventure-type sci-fi, though there’s plenty of action.

The trilogy is all about revenge, but I appreciate that the revenge Breq exacts involves out-maneuvering rather than outright killing the Lord of the Radch–which would be almost impossible, because of her many many of clone bodies (though Breq does try to kill as many bodies as possible anyway, and who can blame her?).

I could probably write at LEAST half a dozen critical essays on the way Leckie handles class, colonialism, and humanity in general, but I’ll leave this review here: If smart, well-written, character AND plot driven science fiction is your thing, you’ll enjoy these books. I can’t wait for the next one!

#FridayReads: Finishing School

I read Finishing School: The Happy Ending to that Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done awhile ago, but have been too caught up with life to write about it, which is ironic in a sad, pathetic way.

Here’s the thing, though–I didn’t need to read this book. Sometimes I struggle to finish things, but I do finish them. I’ve written two books plus three novels for National Novel Writing Month, so clearly I’m capable of finishing things.

photo of the book finishing school on top of a notebook

Here’s Finishing School on top of the notebook containing the almost-complete first draft of my novel-in-progress.

Even so, I’m always looking for ways to improve myself, my writing, and my writing process. Hence my obsession with self-help and time management books. And that’s what Finishing School is, really–a self-help/time management book for writers.

It’s written by writing buddy duo Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton, with alternating chapters in each of their voices. Sometimes this is annoying, but here I thought it was helpful to have two different perspectives on the writing process and its pitfalls.

The book’s premise is a simple accountability system geared toward writers specifically. You find a group of people (or a single partner) who are all working on a writing project. You set up a regular meeting time. At the meeting, you talk about your project, then pull out your calendar and schedule times you are going to work on your writing project. Then you go your separate ways, do your writing thing, and report back at the next meeting. During the week, you text or email your writing buddy to let them know when you start and finish your writing sessions. They do the same, and everyone (ideally) feels motivated to get their writing done.

You’ve probably heard over and over, in many different contexts, that having an accountability partner–for quitting smoking, losing weight, learning a new language–makes you more likely to succeed. So you don’t really need a book to tell you the same will work for writing.

That’s not all Finishing School is, though. It also explores the common writing hangups people get stuck on. Things like fear, insecurity, jealousy, despair, and all the other wonderful negative emotions that plague humanity.

Only after it goes through all the reasons you might not be writing does it get to the accountability stuff. This is smart, in my opinion. It’s the same in customer service: you have to deal with the upset customer’s emotions before you can address the root problem.

If you’ve been having trouble completing a writing project, you may want to give this book a try.