Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Islamophobia


Tonight, as I write this, Dutch politician and outspoken critic of Muslim immigration into all Western societies, Geert Wilders, is speaking somewhere in Melbourne (where I live) on this very subject.

He’s in Australia on invitation from a fringe organization, Q Society, who are openly anti-Muslim. Not surprisingly, they had trouble finding venues, and their meetings will be picketed by protesters, including the one held tonight as already witnessed on the news.

I’ve seen all this before, more than once, where some foreign group is going to overwhelm our cultural heritage and supplant our identity or the identity of our children. This is pretty much the rhetoric of Wilders, specifically aimed at Muslims, yet I heard the same rhetoric aimed at ‘Wogs’ (Italians and Greeks) when I was growing up, then Asians, especially refugees from Vietnam, and now it’s Muslims, as they are the predominant refugee group seeking asylum in Australia.

Xenophobia has always been alive and well in this country, as it is all over the world, yet we pride ourselves on our multiculturalism. Wilders, and the people who support him, equates multiculturalism with cultural relativism, therefore it is untenable. This is a gross simplification and misrepresentation, and is certainly not what most people see or experience who live in Australia.

Wilders has come here to warn us that we live in a delusion and that we will become an Islamic totalitarian state simply by maintaining a tolerant and open attitude towards Muslims. Wilders believes strongly that all Muslims are trapped already in this state and we will be forced to follow. Obviously, Wilders hasn’t met the Muslims that I know and he’s never had a conversation with Waleed Aly.

Wilders’ bonhomie claim to a ‘friend’ and kindred spirit in Australian politics is Cory Bernadi, who was recently forced to resign his front-bench post in Federal politics as a result of him comparing gay marriage to bestiality. Personally, I’m not surprised that Islamophobia and homophobia should produce common bedfellows. They are both based on paranoia, intolerance and a desire to freeze our society in aspic.

My observation from witnessing 3 generations of immigrants is that it’s the children who determine the result. They experience a range of cultures that sometimes creates conflict with their parents, but they’re the ones who seize the opportunity of education, social interaction and workforce experience. At the end of the day, they have to reconcile their cultural heritage with the society they call home, and, generally, they seem to manage quite well.

I find it interesting that Wilders repeatedly points out our Judea-Christian heritage being at odds with Islam, yet we are a secular society, and its strength is not to politicise religion; something other societies struggle with.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Prisoner X


The original story of this, aired last Tuesday, 12 Feb. 2013, is very disturbing to say the least. His imprisonment was so sensitive and security-averse for Israel that a gag order was put on all media in the strongest terms. The impression one gets is that the Israelis wanted him to disappear completely, and then, almost conveniently, one might say, he suicided in circumstances where suicide should be impossible. This all occurred in 2010.

A later story in the same week (Thursday) gives a slightly different story where DFAT  (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade for Australia) apparently did know of his imprisonment and his family had been informed, and he had access to legal counsel.

On the same night (Thursday) we have an interview with a Melbourne-based foreign correspondent, who apparently spoke to Ben Zygier (believed to be prisoner X) prior to his imprisonment.

This entire story is an embarrassment to Israel, and must surely strain relations between Australia and Israel, not least because it is now apparent that Israel is recruiting Australians on Australian passports to visit countries, that Israeli citizens can’t enter, for espionage purposes.

Addendum 1: If nothing else, this story reveals the necessary self-regulating role that journalism plays in a democracy. Apparently, Israel still maintained a gag order on their own media even after this was aired on Australian TV, but now they can't ignore it.

Addendum 2 (11 May 2013): There is an update to this story, which is both instructive and tragic.


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Writing well; an art easily misconstrued


A friend of mine lent me a book, How to Write a Sentence; and how to read one by Stanley Fish, which is a New York Times bestseller according to its cover. It’s not a lengthy book and it’s easy to read, but I’m unsure of its intended audience because I don’t believe it’s me. And I’m a writer, albeit not a very successful one.

Fisher is a 'professor of law at Florida International University' with an impressive curriculum vitae in teaching at tertiary level. His deconstruction of the humble sentence reminds me of why I’m not a teacher; though, at the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I think I make a good teacher, with the caveat that the quality of my teaching seems to be more dependent on the quality of my students than myself.

I recently watched a biopic on virtuoso Dutch violinist, Janine Jensen, which I considered so good I’ve seen it twice. At one point she’s asked why she doesn’t give master classes. Given her schedule (200 concert performances in 1 year) she might have said lack of time, but one of her close friends said she won’t teach because it would require her to analyse her own method; deconstruct her technique. A lot of artists would empathise with her, including me, yet I have taught writing. The point is that I never analyse how I write sentences and, to be frank, Fish’s book doesn’t inspire me to.

The human brain has the remarkable ability to delegate tasks that we perform routinely to the subconscious level, so we can use our higher cognitive facilities for higher cognitive tasks. We do this with motor tasks as well, which is why we can walk and talk at the same time. Other animals can also do this, but they don’t do it at the cognitive level like we do. Young animals play in order to hone the motor skills they need in adulthood to survive, whether they be predators or prey. Humans do it with language amongst other things. And creating sentences is one of those things that the brain delegates so that when we are having a conversation they seem to come ready-made, pre-constructed for delivery as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Elite performers like professional sportspeople and musicians (like Jensen mentioned above) are so good at what they do that their brain delegates tasks that we can’t even do, which is why they dazzle us with their brilliance. When it comes to writing fiction, the same level of delegation applies. The first hurdle in writing fiction is to create characters, and, in fact, when I taught creative writing the first lesson I gave was to give an exercise in creating character. This is something that most people can’t do, even though they can write coherently, yet writers create characters in their sleep, sometimes literally. In other words, creating characters becomes second-nature, something they do without really thinking about it too much. Characters come into their head, complete with dialogue, temperaments and attitudes, in the same way that melodies come into the heads of tunesmiths.

Fish gives us two new terms, “hypotaxis” and “parataxis”, both Greek words; technical terms for the 2 main sentence ‘styles’ that he discusses at length: ‘the subordinate style’ and ‘the additive style’ respectively. To be fair to Fish, he acknowledges, after referencing them once, that we will probably never use them again. By ‘style’ Fish means structure, and the subordinate style is effectively a main clause with subordinate clauses added on. The best example he takes from Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963), where King delivers a train of clauses describing the oppression of his people at that time, ending with a succinct final clause that sums it all up: “…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” The entire sentence is some 300 words long, yet it’s a rhetorical tour-de-force.

The additive style is where clauses are strung together almost dissociatively and the examples he gives seem to ramble a bit, which I suspect was a deliberate device by their authors to create the impression of a disjointed mind. Then he gets to Hemingway, whom I think was a master. I believe Hemingway was such a significant influence on 20th Century writing that it’s worth quoting Fish at length:

Hence his famous pieces of advice to writers: use short sentences, write clearly, use simple Anglo-Saxon words, don’t overwrite, avoid adjectives and leave yourself out of it. The result was a style that has been described as realistic, hardboiled, spare, unadorned, minimalist, and lapidary. The last two words are particularly apt: a lapidary style is polished and cut to the point of transparency. It doesn’t seem to be doing much. It does not demand that attention be paid to it. It aspires to a self-effacement that allows the object to shine through as a master stonecutter allows the beauty of the stone to shine through by paring away layers of it.

I read somewhere last year, a reviewer saying that Hemingway changed the way we write, and I agree. I had just read Islands in the Stream, a loosely connected trilogy, published after his death, concerning the exploits of an artist living in Cuba and performing undercover operations in the War. What struck me was how he put you there, and you felt like you had experienced what the protagonist had experienced, some of which was emotionally gut-wrenching. As I said, Hemingway was a master.

So there are places in Fish’s tome where our minds meet and concur. In other places he suggests exercises in creating better sentences, which I neither promote nor condemn. If a writer is an artist then they ‘feel’ their sentences without analysing them or dissecting them. A writer of fiction should write as if they are the first person to read their words, as if they were actually written by someone else. I know that doesn’t make sense but anyone who has done it knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Reading Fish’s deconstruction of style (as opposed to content) prompted me to re-read the opening page of my novel, which stands pretty much as when I first wrote it, and they were also the first words of that story I put down. What I notice is that it has an edginess and urgency that reflects the content itself. In fiction you have to create a mood; there is always an emotional message; but you have to create it in a way that the reader is unaware of it, except subliminally. I used to tell my class that good writing is transparent: readers don’t notice good writing; they only notice bad writing. The reader should be so engaged by the character and the story that the writing becomes subliminal. The medium of the novel is the reader’s imagination, not the words on the page. The words are like notes on a music score, which, without an instrument to play them, are lifeless. In the case of a novel, the instrument is the reader’s imagination.

Before Hemingway, writers used long-winded descriptions, though I think film has had a lot to do with their progressive extinction. But Hemingway, I believe, showed us how to create a scene without belabouring it and without ‘adornment’, as Fish describes above.

I’ve said on this blog before, that description is the part of a novel that readers will skip over to get on with the story. So, not surprisingly, I provide as little description as possible, and always via the protagonist or another character, but just enough so the reader can create their own images subconsciously, which they do so well that I’ve had people congratulate me on how good my descriptions are. “I could see everything,” they say. Yes, because you created it yourself.