Monday, August 20, 2012

CLAIMING DIFFERENCE: The Fourth and Last Instalment of my Piece in LRC


By Ava Homa
Living in a condition of censorship and suffocation, trapped in an abusive relationship where I had no rights as a woman, being harassed socially, politically and emotionally, living with the inevitable horrors of arrest, torture and the perpetually threatened invasion by the United States which had already attacked our neighbours: Iraq and Afghanistan, I fled the country in which I was born and raised. It was August 2007, and during my 20-something-hour Aeroflot flight from Tehran to Toronto, with nine hours transit in a Moscow airport, I was robbed—a passenger had stolen my wallet from the overhead compartment—and my Iranian passport was taken away from me by the Russian pilot, to be returned when I arrived at the destination. None of this mattered much because I eventually landed in Canada, the land of my dreams, ostensibly to be a student but in reality only to seek asylum in a less stereotyped, quicker and safer way.
After two years, I defended my master’s thesis in English and Creative Writing from my beloved University of Windsor. Echoes from the Other Land, my collection of short stories on modern Iranian women—the generation born and raised after the 1979 Islamic Revolution—was published in 2010 by TSAR Publications. Echoes from the Other Land was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and brought me joy and pride. Canada, my treasured country, generously allowed me to experience what it means to be terror-free, to breathe, to write freely, to laugh, to let my scalp feel the breeze … to live. In this country, I met the love of my life and I have been living with him now for three happy years.
I no longer needed to fight to prove that the treatment of women in Iran was unjust and humiliating; kind and gentle Canadians sympathized with the fictional females of Echoes from the Other Land who had to tackle patriarchy while treating the wounds of circumcision, cross-dressing, divorce, cancer, deception and seduction. But…
In May 2012, I read part of my new novel-in-progress, Love and Peace, at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing conference. An audience member asked me if I do any research, if literary merit matters to me! It took me awhile to see that for mainstream readers I am a poor Iranian girl who is supposed to remind them not to take their freedom for granted, and for intellectuals I am the stereotypical exile who gains recognition for a life story without literary merit.
Writers-in-exile have compelling stories, but how valuable are these people in this competitive job market? I have left the supportive English department at the University of Windsor and now work as a part-time teacher in a few private high schools and colleges. I have learned not to let my bosses, colleagues or students know that I am a writer-in-exile, that I have escaped persecution and that Canada is my refuge. I have seen how it exposes my vulnerability, how it turns me into an easy target for bullying. A previous chair tried to get me involved in a pyramid scheme. Maybe it was not a scam, but it was definitely unethical to put such pressure on a contractor striving and struggling to become full-time. When I politely refused, she told me that I did not understand. A couple of months later, she yelled at me when a student complained about her grade. This chair, of course, does not treat other teachers like that. Her primarily pitiful looks changed to contemptuous treatment. I cannot explain how much stress she put me under. I no longer work for that school.
Is being a writer-in-exile an advantage after going through so much pain? Is claiming difference supposed to incite admiration or is it a source of humiliation? Or is being a writer-in-exile a strange combination of both?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Semicolons: A Love Story

Semicolons: A Love Story


When I was a teenager, newly fixated on becoming a writer, I came across a piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut that affected me like an ice cube down the back of my shirt.
“Do not use semicolons,” he said. “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
At the time I was less struck by the cranky, casual bigotry of the statement (a great deal of Vonnegut’s advice sounds as if it was rasped between grandfatherly coughing fits) than by the thrilling starkness of the prohibition. A writer was simply not to use semicolons. Ever.
At that point I’d written a number of not very good short stories over which I’d sprinkled semicolons (along with inapt adjectives and “symbolic” character names) like the wishful seasonings of an amateur cook. Now I would have, if it had been physically possible, scrubbed the accursed symbol from my keyboard and never thought about semicolons again, except to harrumph cruelly when I witnessed other, lesser writers succumbing to this particular form of misguidedness.
Advice from Vonnegut was not, to me, just any advice. To say that he was my literary hero doesn’t quite capture the intensity of the worship and obsession I heaped upon him. I wrote him letters that I can only pray he never saw. I read all of his books and then, once I’d finished, I started collecting editions of “Slaughterhouse Five” in other languages (none of which, it goes without saying, I could read a word of). I even began narrating my life to myself in his weary, gravelly voice. (Ben sat down to finish his history homework. What this meant, mostly, was learning how one group of apes butchered another group of apes. So it goes.)
Vonnegut’s dismissal of semicolons therefore struck me as more than a mere matter of style. This was, like his refusal to describe his war experience in heroic terms, a demonstration of virtue. To abjure semicolons was to declare oneself pure of heart, steely-eyed, sadly disillusioned. I pictured Vonnegut and Hemingway sitting together on a porch, squinting grimly out at the road, shaking their heads at what the literary world had come to. I wanted nothing more in life than to climb onto one of the empty rockers beside them.
Peter Arkle
My disdain for semicolons outlasted my devotion to Vonnegut. Well into college I avoided them, trusting in the keyboard’s adjacent, unpretentious comma and period to divvy up my thoughts. I imagined that, decades hence, if some bright-eyed teenager were to ask me for advice, I’d pass Vonnegut’s prohibition right along, minus the troublesome bit about transvestites and hermaphrodites. By now I’d come across Isaac Babel’s famous description of periods as irons capable of stabbing the heart. And I knew, of course, that commas were indispensable. The semicolon sat there in my literary utensil drawer like a cherry pitter, theoretically functional, but fussy and unloved and probably destined for the yard-sale table.
So it’s been with considerable surprise, these past few years, that I’ve found myself becoming something of a cherry-pitting maniac. This may just, as Vonnegut says, reflect the fact that I’ve now been to college, though honestly I can’t remember anyone’s expressing a single semicolon-related sentiment while I was there. Regardless, I’ve come to love the awkward things, and to depend on them for easing me through a complex thought.
I blame my grammatical fall on an unlikely corrupter: William James. For the past year or two I’ve had on my nightstand a fat Library of America collection of his writing, and it took me a while to realize that one of the things I was loving about it — one of the things that made me feel as if I was sitting beside a particularly intelligent, humane and excitable friend on a long trip in a horse-drawn carriage — was his use of semicolons. James’s paragraphs, as lucid and unpretentious as can be, are divided and subdivided, as intricately structured as the anatomical diagrams he includes in “Psychology: Briefer Course.” Semicolons, along with exclamation points and dashes and whole sackfuls of commas, are, for him, vital tools in keeping what he called the “stream of thought” from appearing to the reader as a wild torrent.
And once I’d seen him using semicolons this way, their pleasing possibilities became irresistible. I’d been finding myself increasingly flummoxed by the difficulty of capturing even a rough approximation of thought on the page, and it seemed absurd to leave such a handy tool unused out of obscure loyalty.
Many times a week I’d been experiencing a mental event like this: I’d be reading an article about a flood in Mexico, which would lead me to thinking about a wedding I once went to in Cancún, which would lead me to thinking about marriage, which would lead to gay marriage, which would lead to the presidential election, which would lead to swing states, which would lead to a fascinatingly terrible country song called “Swing” — and I’d be three songs into a Trace Adkins YouTube marathon before I’d glance back down at the newspaper on the table.
It’s in honoring this movement of mind, this tendency of thoughts to proliferate like yeast, that I find semicolons so useful. Theirtextbook function — to separate parts of a sentence “that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences” — has come to seem like a dryly beautiful little piece of psychological insight. No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle.
And so, far from being pretentious, semicolons can be positively democratic. To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another? And then (in the case of William James) another? And another? And one more? Which sounds, of course, dreadful, and like just the sort of discourtesy a writer ought strenuously to avoid. But the truth is that there can be something wonderful in being festooned in carefully balanced bags; there’s a kind of exquisite tension, a feeling of delicious responsibility, in being so loaded up that you seem to have half a grocery store suspended from your body.
So yes, Kurt Vonnegut: simplicity, in grammar as in all things, is a virtue, not to be sneezed at. But I can’t agree that semicolons represent absolutely nothing; they represent, for me anyway, the pleasure in discovering that no piece of writing advice, however stark, however beloved its deliverer, should ever be adopted mindlessly.
Ben Dolnick
Ben Dolnick is the author of “Zoology,” “You Know Who You Are” and, most recently, “Shelf-Love,” an e-book about Alice Munro. He lives in Brooklyn.

The Point of Exclamation by Ben Yagoda

Anybody who has ever logged on knows that online writing begets exclamation points. A lot of exclamation points! Mocking this punctuational predilection is easy and fun. An amusing blog called “Excessive Exclamation!!” features photos of, for example, a Carl’s Jr. printed receipt with the words “PLEASE LET US KNOW HOW WE DID!!!” Another naysayer is Steve Martin, who recently wryly Tweeted:
David Shipley, the executive editor of Bloomberg View and a former Op-Ed editor at this newspaper, and Will Schwalbe, authors of “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better,” speculate that the trend stems in part from the nature of online media. “Because email is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be,” they write. But what if a particular point needs to be stressed beyond where it would normally be? Well, you need to kick it up an additional notch, with another exclamation point, or three. The unsurprising result has been Weimar-level exclamation inflation, where (it sometimes seems) you have to raise your voice to a scream merely to be heard, and a sentence without blingy punctuation comes across like a whisper.
My 21-year-old daughter once criticized my habit of ending text-message sentences with a period. For a piece of information delivered without prejudice, she said, you don’t need any punctuation at the end (“Movie starts at 6”). An exclamation point is minimally acceptable enthusiasm (“See you there!”). But a period just comes off as sarcastic (“Good job on the dishes.”). For similar reasons, the Obama campaign has encountered blowback over the punctuation in its slogan for the 2012 campaign, which is “Forward.” — period included. Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of the National Economic Council, has been quoted as complaining that because of the period, the feel of the slogan is “like ‘forward, now stop.’”
Habitual e-mailers, texters and posters convey quite precise nuances through punctuation, which is after all one of the points of punctuation. A friend’s 12-year-old daughter once said that in her view, a single exclamation point is fine, as is three, but never two. My friend asked her where this rule came from and the girl said, “Nowhere. It’s just something you learn.”
On one episode of the sitcom “The Office,” Jim got a text from the boss telling him to bring a set of golf clubs to Florida. Jim didn’t want to go at all and told his wife, Pam, that he was going to text back two question marks. Pam said: “No, just do one. Two question marks is kind of aggressive. You know, it’s like wha-what??”
Though they probably don’t put as much thought into it as Pam, some people are artists with the punctuation keys. Here’s a status update posted this spring by a Facebook friend of mine:
“Holy moses! (pun intended) Marc drove through the night to surprise us for Passover!! It worked!! What a great surprise!!!!! Love these kids.”
Note the exclamation point pattern: 1-0-2-2-5-0. It builds to a crescendo of excitement; the last sentence is the most emotional, yet the punctuation treatment is so pleasingly understated that the period expresses not irony but sincere feeling.
The Interrobang
Internet writing also encourages extravagant combining of exclamation points and question marks. This punctuation yoking, traditionally confined to comic-book ejaculations such as “What the ?!…,” had a brief moment in the sun in the 1960s, when, according to aWeb site devoted to this tale, an ad man named Martin K. Speckter promoted the idea of combining the two marks into one, called the “Interrobang.” The Wall Street Journal endorsed the idea, giving the example “‘Who forgot to put gas in the car?’ where the question mark alone just isn’t adequate.”Interrobang was included in some dictionaries, and for a time you could buy a typewriter with a key dedicated to the mark, but it never quite caught on.
Online writing surely shares the spirit of the interrobang, but the symbol itself has not reappeared. I believe that’s because it’s imprecise: “!?” is very different from “?!”, and you lose the nuance when you combine the two marks. You can see what I mean in this online comment about emoticons that uses both sequences:
“The smiley!? That bastard love child of Inchoate Thought and Lazy Imprecision?! Heaven preserve us.”
Question-exclamation combos — to which I’ll give the acronym QEC — have made their way into print in recent decades, mostly in rendered quotations in journalism and fiction. In 2003, the Houston Chronicle writer Jonathan Feigen nicely captured then-basketball coach Jeff Van Gundy’s incredulity when told of his mother’s comment that he had always been very competitive in family Ping-Pong games: “‘Pingpong!?’ Jeff Van Gundy shrieked. ‘That’s really news? Pingpong!?’”
At this point, multiple exclamation points and question marks have not made much headway in printed prose; they’re still confined to the mode of ironic hyperbole pioneered by Tom Wolfe in the ’60s. But the QEC has started to show up, to good effect, in books and essays. In her 2009 book “The Purity Myth,” Jessica Valenti writes, “I’ve thought often about why—why?!—anyone, especially other women, would try to disrupt feminist work that combats violence.”
In that sentence, the QEC does what punctuation is supposed to do: help a writer express her thought. Having already made the Internet its dominion, it’s a comer in print.
Ben Yagoda
Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” He blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education and his own blog, Not One-Off Britishisms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

Excerpt of Many Cunning Passages, a Novel by Ava Homa

It was only in the way Father and Dayah stared into each other’s eyes and smiled that I knew how much they loved each other; they would never speak of it out loud, at least not in front of other people, as was the custom. Nevertheless, Dayah wasn’t Father’s greatest love; Kurdistan was. He spent most of his life far from her, fighting the men he called “the cannibals.” Dayah had waited for him, prayed for him, smuggled food up the mountains on a mule for him. Mountains, the only friends of Kurds! Now that he was gone, maybe she thought mountains were her only friend, too? Maybe she was looking for him up there? Maybe she could talk to his soul? She had not shed one tear since father left her. 

The Third Installment of Ava Homa's Article for Literary Review of Canada


By Ava Homa
By 2006, my bashful partner had turned violent because of my sexual disinterest. It did not occur to either of us that he might be simply unattractive; I was either asexual or some sort of pervert. The intelligence service of the university I taught at would harass me regularly, never short of excuses: why did I teach Animal Farm? Why did I dress “inappropriately” or talk too long with a male student? Why didn’t I go to prayers or stop my teaching to send my students to group prayers? Why this, and why that? Eventually, I was warned, I better watch my non-Islamic behaviour or else…
Back in Kurdistan, my father became clinically depressed and disowned me for being the same bad girl I had always been. My brothers were saved from such cruel treatment. But I was a girl. I was a girl, and I was close to a nervous breakdown. I had no family, career or partner to rely on. I wanted to get out of the country that I called a pigsty, but applying for refugee status meant an illegal escape, meant years of waiting for the United Nations to decide whether to accept a case that did not include physical torture and, if accepted, another indeterminate amount of time to wait for a country to admit me, meant being on my own as a vulnerable girl who viewed men as predators. My education, linguistic fluency, work experience and age qualified me to apply to Canada as a “skilled worker,” but for Iranians this was a five-year process.
But Canada was known to be the friendliest to immigrants. Surfing Canadian university websites, I applied to study creative writing in Windsor and Calgary. What did I know about Canada and the difference between the two cities? What did I care? I only wanted some soil, regardless of where it was located and what was waiting for me. Since my writing, ethnicity, gender and family background had made me a nuisance to IRI, I worried that I could have been listed asmamno’l-khorooj—people whom IRI would not allow to leave the country (IRI, as in any authoritarian regime, has such a list and rationalizes it). I let only a few people know of my plans.
With slow, filtered, dial-up internet, I searched and searched for ways to get into Canada, grateful that my English allowed me to rummage around freely. I worked arduously and secretly for two years to find a university, prepare and raise the money for the required documents, translate and mail them, gain admission, win a scholarship and, most difficult of all, obtain a student visa. I took a deep breath, one deep breath. I would run anywhere that was not “here.”
That is how, in 2007, I packed my life into two suitcases, left all my dear books, journals and photo albums behind, and flew away to a land I did not know anything about and in which I did not know a single person. I did not shed a single tear and did not let anyone else do so either. But as soon as my passport was stamped and I touched my boarding pass, as soon as I was behind the glass where nobody could reach me anymore, with perspiration covering my face, my heart palpitating and throat constricted—worn out, dying and reviving at the same time—I looked up at the high ceiling of the airport, sighed and said out loud, “It’s over!”
A tear dripped down the side of my face.

Random Excerpts from Ava Homa's Upcoming Novel: Many Cunning Passages

 “Shut up, stupid!” you yell at me, “shut up, shut up, shut up.” Sometimes, you’re hysterical; like Baba, like Mama. You kick out the rage but, like a sponge, I absorb suffering and feel heavier and heavier until . . . one day I am a rock: senseless, motionless, drowned at the bottom of Lake Zrebar, not-savable and you won’t be there, you will be too late, I will be too heavy for you to rescue, sunk too far deep into the lake.