Monthly Archives: June 2012

Book review: The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald

The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald

This is a review of the book The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald.  The novel is an Italian crime story, and follows an American-born police commissioner, Alec Blume, as he is drawn into the world of the Calabrian mafia.

I quite enjoy crime fiction. I have a real weakness for a well-written whodunnit, and find it easy to lose myself in that atmosphere. However, I am unused to Italian crime stories, aside from the odd television series like Inspector Montalbano  and Rex in Rome. And yes, this does make a difference. For example, the judicial processes in Italy are quite different from what you would see in your usual American or British crime story, in that the judiciary are involved in the investigation from the start, rather than just the trial. For someone unfamiliar with this, it can take some getting used to.

The other thing that makes Italian crime stories different is the common inclusion of the Mafia or other organised crime. Again, if you’re familiar with how it all works and how those families go about their activities, then that’s fine … but if you’re not, it can be a little bewildering.

Of both of these there was some explanation in the glossary at the end, which was definitely welcome. For me, though, it didn’t quite go far enough – while we learnt the equivalents in the UK and US of Blume’s position in the police force, there was no explanation of exactly what role a magistrate plays in a criminal investigation. Even with my smattering of Italian television, I still don’t really understand how that works.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that there were some aspects to this book that I had trouble following. The intricacies of familial structure within the Calabrian community was a little confusing to my uninitiated mind, and at times I felt there were too many aspects to the narrative. Yes, they were all joined up and linked at the end, but it felt a little like a marathon to get them there.

That said, like all good crime fiction I did enjoy it. Trying not to ruin it for anyone with spoilers, I found the Konrad Hoffman story very enjoyable, and I liked the way we got to know those on different sides of the law, so that their actions became more understandable than they would perhaps have been otherwise. Alec Blume was an interesting character in his own right, too, and I felt a genuine sadness when he found the burnt remains of his trusty shellac-coated suitcase. I would have liked to see more of Caterina, and indeed of Matteo Arconti, the murder of whose namesake gave the story its title, but then again this is the third in a series of Alec Blume stories, so perhaps if I were to read the first two I would get more of that aspect of his life.

All in all, it was an entertaining book. When everything came together at the end it was much more satisfying than I had expected it to be, and I feel I have a much better understanding of not just the Italian police and organised crime, but of Italy itself. Sure, it wasn’t all flattering, but that made it feel all the more real and all the more believable. If you like crime novels, it’s well worth checking out.

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The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
357 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook or paperback

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On losing one’s mind

Forget-me-not

Forget-me-not (Photo credit: Sir_Iwan)

Or, at least, having a memory like a sieve. That’s me at the moment – I have great ideas, but I neglect to write them down or otherwise record them, and the next day I have absolutely no idea what they were. Or even, in some cases, what they related to.

Take today. Yesterday I had a brilliant idea for today’s blog entry. It was going to be a little bit different but still on my theme, and I was going to have no end of things to say about it. Trouble is, that’s all I can remember. It’s not like I have an excuse for forgetting, either; baby brain is on the way out, I’m getting plenty of sleep, and I had my phone (and pencils and paper) nearby at the time so I could very easily have made some record of what this big idea was. But, you know, I didn’t. Something to do with it being nice and warm under my blanket on the couch and not wanting to move, I suspect. (Either that or I didn’t want to pause Death in Paradise. I have such a weakness for British whodunnits.)

Naturally, I suspect everyone reading this can relate. Whether it’s to do with your writing, or just life in general, I’m sure every single one of you has had the occasional sensational idea, only to have it slip away when you weren’t paying attention. Ideas are naughty like that, aren’t they? You ask them so nicely to just stay put until you need to use them, but they insist on skipping off and doing their own thing. I’m sure my idea is in the Bahamas sipping cocktails by the pool by now, thumbing its nose at me, or at the very least tucked up warm in bed. In any case, it’s nowhere near my head, where I need it to be right now.

So, instead, today you get this rambling post from me about forgetting things. I seem to be doing it more often these days, which isn’t ideal, especially as I have this annoying habit of not writing things down. This happens even more when they don’t directly pertain to my WIP. I’m aware it’s a simple case of retraining myself to record more things, but unfortunately this old dog isn’t that keen on learning too many new tricks. Surely this reinvention of myself as a writer is enough? Why do I have to remember stuff too?

Okay, I’ll stop whining now. Hopefully this episode will in fact be enough for me to learn my lesson and take note of the ideas when they come calling, even when they don’t move the plot of my novel forward. There is clearly merit in the occasional idea outside that particular creative process. Therefore I am now going to my brain, cap in hand, and promising to pay it more attention in future. Promising to write things down when they come to me, rather than assuming I’ll remember them when the time comes. And hopefully,  next time the creative urges strike, I’ll be ready and able to jot something down.

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Guest post: 4 Sure-fire Places to find Inspiration for Character Names, by Barbara Jolie

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Alyssandro, Jeezera, Pepper—these names and about 200 more can be found in a floral notebook I keep on by bedside table, a collection of names I’ve worked on since I was  in college.  At first glance, it may seem like a list of potential baby names, but in actuality it’s my character name book— something I refer to when I start a new piece and need to give my main character an identity. Some of these names belong to people I’ve met in real life, some were given to starlets, and some appear to me in dreams. Whatever the case, if I like a name, it goes in the book.

Establishing names for your characters can sometimes be the hardest part of the creative process; after all, the name needs to not only “fit” your character’s personality but  there are other factors that must also be considered too, like geographical relevance, spelling,  time period and age appropriateness. And since character names influence your reader’s first response to them, it’s important that you pick the “right” name.  While keeping a character name book like I do can make the process easier, there are other outlets you can turn to get some inspiration and come up with an appropriate list of character names too. That said, no matter if you’re crafting a novel for your advanced creative writing  program, or writing a novella or short story for fun,  continue reading below to help gear you in the right direction.

Phone Books

Most people use the online version, but scouring names in a traditional phone book can really help get the creative juices flowing. No matter if trying to pick a first name or last name, the phone book can really help. If you more or less know what you want the name to start with, then go about it that way and look under P’s or M’s. Or, you can be adventurous and open random pages—you may just get lucky.

Baby Books

Resorting to baby books can also be helpful. Not only do they help you come up with ideal names but they also share their meaning, so you can see if it really fits your character’s personality or not. There are plenty of baby name books that are accessible for free at your local library or for cheap at the local discount book store. There are also online resources you can use, like the Social Security Administration website. Here, you will be able to find the most popular baby names of the current year, or even search them by decade or territories if trying to create a historical piece.

Movie Credits

Another easy way to come up with appropriate character names is to simply stick around after a movie and check out the credits. There is a colorful and diverse group of people who work in the movie-making industry and you will most certainly come across a few gems if you pay enough attention.

TV Shows/ Soap Operas

Lastly, some writers are also inspired when watching TV shows or soap operas—and who’s to blame them? Some of the names are really creative and original, but be careful if you go this route, especially if the name is already too popular. You don’t want your audience to associate your character with the conniving woman from General Hospital. On the same note, stay clear from “loaded” names—those that when said can only be associated with one person like Oprah, Madonna, or Cher—unless it’s part of the story. Maybe your character’s mother was obsessed with watching Oprah.

Like mentioned before, these are only a few ways that you can come up with some character names for your story. It might take some time, but keep an open eye and you should be able to find a fitting name in no time.

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Thanks Barbara! If you would like to know more about this week’s guest blogger, please go to her website at www.onlineclasses.org. Barbara enjoys writing about online college classes and other trends in the academic world. Even when she’s not blogging, she is always contemplating and considering issues concerning education and modern society. Barbara is from Texas and has completed her BA from Ashford University. If you’re interested in any of her work or want to check out her classes, you can reach her at barbara.jolie876[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Assorted writing tips #5 – juggling points of view

Point of View - IMG_7561

Point of View (Photo credit: Nicola since 1972)

 

POV is always a tricky thing to get right in a manuscript. You have to decide whether you’re going to write in first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient; you have to get voice right; and you have to ensure that you don’t do too much head-hopping. Quite frankly, it’s enough to do your head in.

Firstly, here’s a quick rundown of what the above terms mean.

First person is when one character narrates:  I said this, I did that, I didn’t know what to think. Some people swear by it, and some hate it. I’ve had some success writing in the first person, but it’s limiting in that you can only really be in one person’s head and therefore there can be a lot going on in the story that simply isn’t told because the narrator doesn’t know about it. (Sure, there are exceptions – Helen Smith’s Alison Wonderland, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, has some chapters in the first person and some in the third, and Jodi Picoult has absolutely mastered telling stories in the first person, but from a different person’s POV each chapter. Generally, though, you are in one person’s head for the entire story, and that’s that.) This kind of limited narrative can be done really well because you’re always guessing at other characters’ motivations, and can be great for unexpected revelations, but it’s really a matter of personal taste.

Second person tells the reader the story: You said this, you did that, you didn’t know what to think. It’s not very common, possibly because a lot of people don’t like it due to the implication that it’s telling them what to think. I’ve seen it done very well, but I’ve also seen it done very badly and in general prefer not to read this kind of narrative. This is limiting in the same way that first person is – you’re only reading one person’s story.

Third person limited is like both the above in that you’re only in one character’s head, but it’s told from outside that character: John said this, John did that, John didn’t know what to think. This method is the most common, and while it’s limited to one character at a time, it lends itself better to POV changes. George RR Martin‘s Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, uses third person limited, but from the POV of a different character for each chapter. A lot of other authors use this technique – breaking up POVs by chapter or by in-chapter breaks (eg ****) and using that to delineate whose head they are inside.

Third person omniscient is when you’re inside everyone’s head, so to speak. The narrative isn’t limited by telling one character’s story at a time, and can reveal the thoughts of any character at any time. Believe it or not, this is the hardest to get right, because of the danger of head-hopping, which is when you tell us too many characters’ thoughts in a short space of time. This can just get overwhelming and confusing for the reader, and is apparently one of the main things that agents reject manuscripts on.

I know that a lot of people reading this are just shaking their heads, thinking, I know all this stuff; why is she spelling it out like that? Well, first, I know that a lot of people hear these terms but aren’t always totally sure what they mean, so I figured better safe than sorry. But it also helps me talk more about voice, and how that affects a story.

Voice is most important when you’re in the first person, because it’s that character telling the story. Having an individual voice for that character is very important since we’re stuck with them all the way through. It needs to be engaging, it needs to be consistent, and the thought processes and conclusions made within the narrative need be logical for that character’s opinions and experiences. This is why I’m so impressed with authors like Jodi Picoult, because she manages to have completely different voices for each character, so that a number of POVs within first person actually work. Too often, though, an author will try to do this, only to have each voice essentially sound the same.

Voice in third person limited is also important, though arguably not AS important as in first person. Again, we’re experiencing the story from the POV of one character (at a time, perhaps) so we need to understand their thoughts, their emotions, their motivations. Going back to George RR Martin (I’m currently reading that series, so it’s prominent in my mind right now), he delves into each character’s head very well, but the voice of each chapter isn’t necessarily very different from the last. Descriptions, dialogue tags and the like feel the same no matter whose story we are reading, which can be considered a flaw considering the ages of the characters involved range from seven to close to seventy. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the story in third person limited, but had he attempted to do it in first person it definitely would.

So, which one to choose? If you’re trying to work out how you want your story to read, POV is something you really need to get sorted. I’ve written in first person and in third person limited, mainly because I feel most comfortable staying in one person’s head at a time. If you’re really having trouble choosing, though, there are ways to help you decide. Usually there’s a key scene in the story that you’ve already got worked out – a battle, perhaps, a moment of high suspense, or maybe when your main pairing get together for the first time. In any case, it’s important to your story and it’s going to be in there, no matter what. Well, try writing it, even if you haven’t written anything else. Try it in first person, in third limited, in third omniscient, and see how you go. Normally one of them will feel more comfortable and will be easier to write than the other two. Then try it with another scene you’ve thought about. Is the same type of POV winning out? Then you’ve got your answer. If not, then you might need to work on a compromise. Either way, you’ve got something to base your decision on now.

Well, I hope this has helped at least one person deal with the complexities of POV. For the record, I’m using third person limited (with POV changes) in my novel, because that was how I thought it would work the best. It’s important to do what feels most comfortable for you, but just be wary of the pitfalls, because no one is immune to mistakes.

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Guest post: Online Self Publishing, by Peter McLennan

Hello all! Today we have a guest post by YA author Peter McLennan, who has recently entered into the foray of online self publishing and has volunteered to share his experiences. This is something that a lot of writers will find very interesting and, I hope, most informative, as it gives hints about the best way to go about things, pitfalls to avoid and the like. Useful stuff, right? I thought so too. Peter’s Australian, so this is from an Australian’s perspective; however, it’s relevant to everyone I think. This is the first of three parts, the second of which will be posted three weeks from today, and the final three weeks from then. They’re separated because Peter wrote too much for one post and I didn’t want to cut it down, and the three week gap is so (a) you don’t get overwhelmed by having them all together, and (b) to keep you coming back to see what’s up next. :) So, without further ado, here’s Peter.

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English: Photographic composition of Granmata ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

On-line Self-Publishing: Some Gory Details

I recently self-published my first novel, Who Will Save the Planet?, via CreateSpace (Amazon print-on-demand), Kindle Direct (Kindle eBook) and Smashwords (other eBooks). Since there are a lot of overviews of the process already out there, this series of articles will concentrate on some specific tricks and traps I encountered (some of which are relevant to those outside America and, in some cases, specifically Australia). It’s divided into three parts:

  • I: Laying the Foundations
  • II: Formatting and Uploading
  • III: After Uploading

Part I: Laying the Foundations

For non-Americans, publishing through modern high-tech channels requires some ironically Draconian steps, such as snail-mailing forms to America and handling cheques. These things can take months to organise, whereas uploading and distribution can take only minutes. Therefore, you might want to get some of these preliminary steps started before getting your hands dirty with your manuscript.

Selecting Distributors

Unlike traditional publishers, many on-line self-publishing sites don’t insist on exclusive rights for the distribution of your work. As a result, you can publish simultaneously with more than one of them, and this obviously maximises your sales. There are exceptions, such as Kindle’s Select program, so check the fine print.

Factors to consider when selecting distributors include reach, royalty rates, payment arrangements, attitude towards DRM and ease of conversion.

Study and Mindset

You’ll need to study the documentation provided by the site(s) you’ve chosen and be prepared to learn some new skills. It isn’t really hard, but does require some diligence and perseverance.

Tax Evasion—Legally

The longest lead-time task, and therefore that which should be started first, is sorting out the payment arrangements. It sounds like counting your proverbial chickens, but if you start making money before getting a few things in place, the US tax department (IRS) will happily take 30% of your earnings and you may not be able to get it back.

Australia, like many other nations, has a tax treaty with USA. This can be invoked to reduce the IRS’ cut to 5% (although why it remains above zero, when the local taxation department is going to tax you on it as well, remains a mystery). To avail yourself of this, you have to get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Some of the advice you’ll read on this says that you have to send a Form W-7 and your passport(!) to America and wait a couple of months. However, it can actually be done over the phone—or, better yet, Skype or Yahoo! Messenger Voice so you don’t have to pay a fortune. For details, see here and here, as well as the advice on the publishing web sites. Before calling the IRS, I recommend filling in the form W-7 so that you won’t be caught by surprise by any of the questions asked.

Once you’ve got your magic number, you have to fill in another form (W-8BEN) and snail-mail it to your distributor(s). Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to short-circuit this. If you wish to proceed with your publishing without waiting, CreateSpace and Smashwords will let you defer their payments to you so your royalties will just accrue while the paperwork catches up.

Cheques and Balances

Amazon (CreateSpace and Kindle) will only pay international authors by cheque. Since banks (at least those in Australia) typically  charge AU$25 or more to process an overseas cheque, you could find yourself paying about 25% of your royalties to your bank. CreateSpace lets you defer payments until you’ve accrued enough earnings to justify the fees, but this isn’t possible for Kindle.

Some other sites, such as Smashwords and Lulu, provide the option to pay via PayPal—but unfortunately they don’t have Amazon’s coverage.

A possible way to get the best of both worlds, at least for your eBook version, is to publish via Smashwords only in the first instance. Once your sales reach US$1000, Smashwords can then sell your eBook via Amazon, but could still pay you via PayPal. Unfortunately, most of us will never achieve that level of success, but hopefully Amazon will relax the $1000 threshold in the near future.

If you can open an account with a US bank, or possibly even a local bank that has a retail branch in USA (if there are any), you may be able to avoid the cheque fee problem by receiving royalties via direct deposit.

If you decide to go with payments via cheque, consider opening an account with a bank that will process your cheques relatively cheaply. I’ve found charges ranging from AU$15 to AU$60. Shop around!

ISBN

Some distribution channels require your work to have an ISBN, and it can take a few weeks to get one organised.

Some self-publishing sites can provide you with an ISBN for free. I eschewed this option because I didn’t want the distributor to be registered as the book’s publisher and because it would have complicated my publishing of the book through other channels: an ISBN obtained from one site can’t be used elsewhere.

The DIY route requires you to buy an ISBN (tip: they’re a lot cheaper if bought in bulk), assign it to your work in the official ISBN database, then tell your distributor(s) about it.

Marketing

You might also want to get a head start on some marketing activities so that, when your masterpiece goes live, interested parties will be able to find out more about it—and you. Each site provides some recommendations and facilities to help with this.

Shameless Advertisement

And speaking of marketing…

Who Will Save the Planet? by Peter McLennan

If you’ve found this information useful, then you probably wouldn’t like the novel that yielded it. But you might have kids, nephews, etc, who would! It’s about a fourteen-year-old named Jason who can’t work out how to get climate change fixed—until he saves the life of the mysterious and powerful Graham. Graham promises a reward, and Jason asks him to do something to stop climate change. The request is caught by the media, so Jason thinks the man’s trapped and has to keep his word.

But Graham’s got other ideas.

Jason’s got a fight on his hands.

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Peter McLennan

Peter McLennan served for 28 years in the Royal Australian Air Force, where he focused on strategic planning. He has tertiary qualifications in engineering, information science and government, and a PhD in planning for uncertainty. He has had several non-fiction monographs and papers published.

Peter now writes fiction from his home in country Victoria, Australia. His hobbies include playing computer games badly and developing software badly. You can find Who Can Save the Planet? online in print versionKindle, and other eBooks.

Thanks, Peter! This has been most informative. I’m definitely looking forward to the next instalments.

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Inspiration, where art thou?

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

This past week, I’ve struggled with inspiration.

I don’t just mean I haven’t written much, more that I haven’t written at all. For someone who’s supposed to be doing Camp NaNo this month, it’s a bit of an issue. And I can’t even say that I haven’t had time, because I have – I’ve just chosen to spend that time catching up on TV shows I’ve missed, or reading, rather than writing.

I’m not going to get worked up about it, though. While common advice is to make yourself do it (and I’ve endorsed that sort of advice myself), I don’t think that the occasional break from writing is necessarily detrimental. In fact, I think it can leave you feeling refreshed and give you a new perspective on things. My notebook is full of ideas – single sentences, most of them, but things which will add a richness to my story when I expand on them. I’ve not been writing, but I’ve not been idle either.

A break, though, is good only if it’s limited. I’ve been known to put down my pen and not pick it up again for months. Sure, I had an excuse last time this happened in that I’d just given birth, but I shouldn’t have waited till my youngest was nine months old before I started writing again. The break was far too long and it took me a while to get back into the swing of the story. For me, I think a week is about right. It would be far too easy to let this hiatus drag on and not get any writing done, but then that would be detrimental to the desired outcome – namely, a finished manuscript.

As such, starting tomorrow I’m going to start writing again. It would be today, but it’s a public holiday in my part of the world and the day is full of family-related things. I may get a chance after the kids go to bed, but then again I may not. We’ll see how it goes. Tomorrow, though, I have no excuse, and I have plenty of ideas thanks to my break. I’m making a promise to myself … hopefully I’ll keep it.

What are your thoughts on taking a break? Are you a “write at all costs” sort of person, or do you think that the occasional period of time off can be beneficial? I know where I stand, but I also know that different things work for different people. So, let me know what works for you and who knows, I might find something that’s better for me too.  :)

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Book review: Alison Wonderland, by Helen Smith

Alison Wonderland, by Helen Smith

This is a review of the book Alison Wonderland, by Helen Smith.

The novel follows the adventures of Alison Temple, a twenty-something Londoner who joins the detective agency she hired to find out if her husband was cheating on her. (He was.) Tasked with finding out about a secret project near Weymouth, she finds herself involved in a complicated mix of genetic engineering, the magical properties of abandoned babies, and mistaken identity.

While an enjoyable read, the book could have, I felt, been better. Alison’s sections were narrated in first person, so when the POV changed to a different character (eg, the intriguingly-named Ella Fitzgerald, head of the detective agency; her brother Clive; or Mr Bird or Mr Flowers, who were trying to hide the experimentation Alison was investigating) and switched to third person, it was a bit distracting. I felt that if Alison was in first person, then it should have been all her story – and if we were going to use the POVs of other characters then maybe it should all have been in third.

Having said that, the characters were second to none. Alison, her somewhat flaky friend Taron, lovesick neighbour Jeff, Ella, Clive, even the farmer they caught on the hillside with the shig – they were all well developed and with clear motivations. I admit I didn’t necessarily relate to Alison or Taron, possibly because of the casual drug culture they adhered to. Equally, I couldn’t understand how Alison could suddenly be looking after an abandoned baby with no one asking questions about how she got it or where it came from. However, I was willing to overlook that in the interests of poetic licence – it is, after all, a work of fiction.

I was also amused by the tizzy that Messrs Bird and Flowers got themselves into over Alison’s investigations, when really she didn’t have a clue what they were up to. Stealing what they thought was her address book and roughing up someone else’s friends was a nice touch, as was Jeff and his role in the whole affair. Overall, though, it felt like the book promised more than it delivered. There were amusing parts, but as a narrative it felt a little confused and disjointed.

I did enjoy Alison Wonderland. It was fun, lively and entertaining, and the mental image left from Alison and Taron’s visit to the fertility site on the hillside will stay in my mind for a long time. For a debut novel, it ticked a lot of the boxes and certainly made for a good afternoon’s reading. I just felt that it could have been better.

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Alison Wonderland, by Helen Smith
Published by Amazon Encore
201 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook or paperback

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Guess what? I’ve been published!!

In a real book that you can buy and everything!  How exciting is that?

As you can tell, I’m rather stoked by this. It’s all of six months since I decided to really start taking this writing malarkey seriously, and so far I’ve submitted a grand total of one story to be published. This makes my success rate 100%, which is rather unusual in writing circles. Don’t worry, I’m not under any illusions whatsoever about maintaining this rate, but I might as well enjoy it while I can, right?

100 RPM

The book is a collection of flash fiction, all inspired by music, and it’s called 100 RPM. It’s the brainchild of Caroline Smailes, and features one hundred stories (all 100 words long) inspired by music. Intrigued? I was, which was why I submitted a (somewhat gruesome) story. My contribution was inspired by DOA by the Foo Fighters, which was chosen because (a) they’re one of the only bands I listen to who are known worldwide, and (b) it’s one of those songs that just sticks in my mind whether I want it to or not, so it seemed a logical choice.

All proceeds from the book go to the UK charity One in Four, which raises money to help victims of sexual violence. On top of that, the book is CHEAP – but only for the first week of release. It came out on Thursday so you’ve got till this Thursday to get it at the discounted price, which is 99p (UK) or $1.55 (US). After that the price will rise (though not by a huge amount), which means more cash per book to One in Four, but possibly less sales because it’s dearer.

So, please go out and buy the book. This isn’t to line my pockets because I make absolutely nothing from it (I bought the book myself, even though as a contributing author I could have had a free copy), but to help out a very worthy charity – and read some great stories in the meantime! If you could leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads (or both) that would be awesome too, as we’d like as many people to find out about this as possible. Other ways you could help are tweeting using the hashtag #100RPM or liking the Facebook page.

Besides, you’re curious as to whether I can actually write, aren’t you? :)

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For more information about 100 RPM, please check out Caroline Smailes’ blog entry from last week.

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Book excerpt: From Dunes to Dior, by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

From Dunes to Dior, by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

Today we have an excerpt from a memoir by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, about her time as a South Asian American woman living in Qatar. Mohanalakshmi is a writer, scholar and mother who has written a number of successful books about her life and experiences and, as you’ll see from this excerpt, does that exceptionally well. If your appetite is not whetted simply by that, you can check out the trailer for the book here. Take it away, Mohanalakshmi!

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I AM MUHANNA

“That’s really long.”

This, the standard response to seeing the enormity of my name in print, was universal and startlingly unoriginal, whether from the checkout counter clerk or the substitute teacher. Really, I always wanted to reply, I find yours short and insipid.

My maiden name, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, always ensured I stood out while growing up in predominately white suburban neighborhoods across the United States, announcing I was different even before I materialized in the body, with brown skin, black hair and dark eyes confirming me as child of immigrant Indian parents rather than hippies turned yuppies. Many of the years during middle school and high school were spent in a small city in North Florida where I was rare, strange, special, and unique. This was the 1980s, a decade before Americans were aware it was chic to be interested in cultures besides their own.

I mistakenly thought of going to college in North Carolina, as a cultural relocation to the north. A few weeks into the semester, I was like a fly in a glass of milk and most people had about as much interest in my Indianess as they did in the northern practice of calling Coke“pop.” Yet even here, there remains a gap between my name and who I really am — sort of like the vast gap between the substance of grey matter in our craniums and the miraculous marvels of
modern history lurking within that dark tissue.

From rare, exotic, different, I have become an anomaly: the monkey that, given enough time, and left alone with a typewriter, produced the works of the great Shakespeare — in other words a dubious, purported genius among my species.

Here in the middle, between Europe and Asia, my name advertises that I come from India, a country that supplies roughly 50% of the migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf.

The number one export in the Indian state of Kerala, the one that neighbors mine, is the young Keralite male, aged 25-45, capable of fulfilling any number of the low skilled jobs the affluent societies of the Gulf have not performed for themselves in decades. The sub-continentals — Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans — are the drivers, maids, cooks, nannies and construction workers.

Yet, every day I go to work in this intensely class and racially conscious society to an office, sit behind a desk, wear a suit, and type at a computer. The Indian woman striding in high heels, the non-white foreigner who isn’t cowed with her head down, body enveloped in a fading house dress, waiting for madam to decide on a purchase so she can take the shopping bags.

Perhaps the most comical reactions to my name began when I moved from the expatriate heavy Education City to the national university, Qatar University. It was during my three years there that I discovered Mohana sounded very much like Muhanna, a very common and popular man’s name in the GCC.

“You are Doctor Muhanna?” was the common refrain when I showed up for meetings, in the aforementioned suit and heels, usually the only woman in a room full of men in traditional thobe. “I am,” I learned to say with a rueful smile.

The most dramatic reactions were when I was pregnant and working, up until the eighth month of my pregnancy. During this time I wore the traditional abaya of women of the GCC as a way to minimize my morning routine and also draw attention away from my dual purpose as an incubator of life and professional woman. The female body in Qatar is like the attitude many people have toward young children, only here the sentiment seems to be breasts, hips, and legs are better if unseen or heard. As senior manager of a growing start up, I must tell you that modest maternity wear was always the furthest thing from my mind. So I developed a collection of abayas, five in total by the day of delivery, which I wore for nearly six months. The reactions to the sight of a pregnant woman, wearing an abaya, clearly not Qatari, and showing up for a meeting scheduled for Dr. Muhanna, were probably some of the funniest moments of my life.

“I didn’t want to tell you this,” Rima, my very first Arabic tutor, said sighing, “but your name does not have a good meaning.”

“MoHUnA,” she said pulling at the edges of her headscarf and lining up the sides of laminated note cards, “means dejected or one who is disappointed.” She waited a moment before looking up at me, the curved rims of her eyeglass lenses framing soft brown eyes.

“My name is Mohanalakshmi,” I responded, “and it means beautiful goddess of wealth.”

But the Bagavagita is not part of “the Book,” nor Hindus people of “the Book,” like Muslim, Christians, or even that vilified enemy, the Jews. And this is perhaps why it was news to my tutor that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth in Hindu tradition, could never have been anything other than parental blessing upon a child.

Those people of that polytheistic religion, monotheistic Muslims might say, if they stop a moment to think about their servants, who comprise an invisible class of workers. These men and women are trapped somewhere between adulthood and adolescence because they are forever regarded as “girls” and “boys.” Unlike me, with my western education, they are drivers, messengers, tea bringers, and carriers of shopping bags, never to be more, often treated as less.

All my life I have been a counter culture character, running counter to the main story, without ever intentionally trying. And here, only three hours by plane from my birthplace, I find that I’m more unique than ever.

“She keeps good company,” my college professor said the night before my wedding to assembled friends and family. “Of one name women the world over: Elizabeth, Madonna, Mohana.”

—————–

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was good in many ways since that is where she met her husband, had a baby, and made the transition from writing as a hobby to her full time gig. She has published three e-books this year including Mommy But Still Me, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies, and Coloured and Other Stories.  Since she joined the e-book revolution, she dreams in plotlines.

Her work has also been published in AudioFile Magazine, Explore Qatar, Woman Today, The Woman, Writers and Artists Yearbook, QatarClick, and Qatar Explorer. She has been a guest on Expat Radio, and was the host for two seasons of the Cover to Cover book show on Qatar Foundation Radio. She was the Associate Editor of Vox, a fashion and lifestyle magazine.

From Dunes to Dior is available as a ebook from Amazon.com, and more information can be found at www.mohanalakshmi.com or by following Mohanalakshmi on Twitter at @moha_doha. If you are interested in reviewing the book, please contact the author at Mohanalakshmi[at]hotmail[dot]com.

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