Tue 19 Aug 2014
by Sarah Crysl Akhtar
I thought I was writing a simple, direct piece of flash–protagonist has problem, and resolves it.
Found myself wrestling with one of the Big Questions–what does it really mean to be human?
And how do you express the capacity for complex thought when your characters have only a limited vocabulary?
More than with any other story I’ve written, for New Song (Every Day Fiction, 3/15/14) I had to look out at the world from my protagonist’s eyes, and try to understand how she’d express her own feelings to herself. A first-person story is either an interior monologue or an intimacy between the narrator and the implied listener. But how can a primitive character speak convincingly to us, through eons not only of time, but of transformation into what we’ve ourselves become?
I had to bring the reader into my heroine’s sensory world; write a powerfully visual story without much description; express intense emotions without elaboration. And I couldn’t impose on her the horrors of “primitive-speak”–think of every silly movie you’ve ever seen, where characters never, ever use contractions, and even three-word conversations sound like epic proclamations
If characters can be expected to use colloquial speech among themselves, we should resist the temptation to “translate” that into something that screams “not our English [or whatever language we're writing in]). Credit your readers with enough intelligence to figure that out, once you’ve set the scene for them.
Is recognition of the power of language–as thought or out loud–something that distinguishes us from other sentient creatures?
My protagonist uses her unspoken words as if she believes they might have almost magical properties:
Suddenly I hated Old Ma. I wanted to smash her.
But I was clever even in that moment. I stopped
my hand and sang my anger inside my head where
nobody else heard it.
Later, as she hunts desperately for her child:
I made a song to my baby inside my head. Where
are you? Don’t you feel me searching for you?
My character doesn’t just see–like all of us, she perceives in accordance with the priorities of her world:
That night the moon showed its whole face, eating
up the dark.
From the response of first readers during the editorial process, it seems I succeeded in what I hoped to do. One editorial commenter called it a “[v]ery visceral piece.” And it’s one of the very few of my stories accepted without a rewrite request.
My protagonist struggled to make sense of her place in a vast and largely unknowable universe. Perhaps the characters we write help us to do the same for ourselves.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.