This month, 5writers.com is delighted to welcome back Emilia Fuentes Grant, one of our founding writers that has agreed to guest blog on the site today.
Emilia is a multimedia writer who wrote the lyrics for the Emmy winning video Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage video. She loved books only slight more than movies. She teaches writing part-time when she isn’t writing for print and video. Most of all, she enjoyed collaborating with other artists. She is currently working on her first novel. To see more of her writing, check out efgrant.com
What’s Not on the Page: Finding Yourself in Fiction by Emilia Fuentes Grant
In my third semester of graduate school, I struggled to understand just what I was doing there. I knew I loved writing. I knew I loved reading and stories even more. But I come from a hardworking family—a family of teachers and coaches and policemen and factory workers. Everyone makes something for a specific purpose or reason. No one creates just for the sake of creating and calls that “a job”. What gave me the right? Maybe I’d get lucky. Then every day would be a bohemian pseudo-communist vacation. Or, I’d end up destitute, begging loans from those hardworking, more practical relatives. This frightened me and worried me and left me constantly wondering: what the hell am I doing here?
So, under the weight of this colossal doubt, I skulked into a fiction seminar by Pinckney Benedict. I don’t remember the title or the primary topic of the lecture. I remember two of the texts: Devil in a Blue Dress and The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, both beautiful, hard-hitting, savory pieces of literature, but the thing that I remember best, indeed, that I will never forget, is an idea Pinckney called The Allegory of Self.
The Allegory of Self is the writer’s unintentional inclusion of herself in the work. It is the expression of deepest emotion and most guarded inner truth within a work of fiction. “We all do it,” Pinckney said, waving a hand about the room. “You can’t NOT do it. It’s simply a question of where and how it manifests.”
This idea stuck in my brain like chewing gum in the sole of a shoe; I could not dislodge it. I began to search for the Allegory of Self in my own work, and low and behold, found it. This discovery led to a pretty major break-through for me both professionally and personally, but we’ll come back to that. First, lets talk about the Allegory of Self in the work of other, more successful writers.
Stieg Larson’s Girl With a Dragon Tattoo sold more than 20 million copies in 41 countries in the spring of 2010, and he was the second bestselling author in the world in 2008 (stieglarsson.com). There have been two movie adaptations of his first book, also released worldwide. I first encountered Larsson’s work in a little indie theater around the corner from my house. 20 minutes into the film, I walked out. Violent rape and the repeated abuse of women just isn’t my thing. I wasn’t prepared for Larsson’s stark depictions of these atrocities. To be frank: I couldn’t understand what kind of sick fuck would want to recreate such horrifying scenes; victimizing actresses to a point beyond artistic justification, requiring actors to embody men without humanity.
When I got over the initial shock (I had nightmares for a week), I started researching. Anything that powerful deserved a second look. I found that the film was an adaptation of a book, the first in a trilogy, and it’s original title: Men Who Hate Women. Ah, yes. That made sense. I learned that the writer, Larsson, was a well-known Swedish journalist and activist, famous for his work against neo-Nazism. He died before the books were published, in 2004 (stieglarsson.com, 2007).
Okay, he was anti-Nazi and something of a hero among his peers. Where does a guy like that, a gentle, chain-smoking Swedish liberal, get off writing Men Who Hate Women? In my searching, I came across an article in the Daily Mail by a close friend of Larsson’s. The friend recounts a painful memory, a story Larsson told him in confidence many years prior.
“I have always avoided writing about what happened that day, but it is unavoidable in this context. It affected Stieg so deeply that it became a somber leitmotif running through his books.
On that day, 15-year-old Stieg watched three friends rape a girl, also called Lisbeth, who was the same age as him and someone he knew. Her screams were heartrending, but he didn’t intervene. His loyalty to his friends was too strong. He was too young, too insecure. It was inevitable that he would realize afterwards that he could have acted and possibly prevented the rape.
Haunted by feelings of guilt, he contacted the girl a few days later. When he begged her to forgive him for his cowardice and passivity, she told him bitterly that she could not accept his explanations. ‘I shall never forgive you,’ she said.”
This story was hair raising, chilling, and after reading it, I had to read Larsson’s book. (Baski, 2010)
I’ll be honest: Larsson’s writing is mediocre at best. He was definitely a journalist before he was a fiction writer. What I consider an engaging, evocative central story is bogged down in many unnecessary characters and convoluted exposition throughout. The discerning reader will find nothing amiss in skipping, altogether, about 100 pages of the book. But the allegory of self is fascinating. The main character, Lisbeth Salander, is a force of nature. Deeply scarred from a lifetime of abuse, she is victim and attacker, unholy savior, criminal detective and aggressive protector.
Salander is super-human, better than any woman ever could be, and this is my principle criticism of the book. Lisbeth Salander is an unfair, unrealistic depiction of a woman. It’s wrong to imply that any person, male or female, could be so strong, so resilient, in the face of life-long sexual abuse. Yet, I find it hard to fault Larsson for creating her. I think he wrote the woman he needed, the avenging angel he could not be all those years ago. A girl who’d been so brutalized and yet found her way back to strength. What’s more, she found a way to save others—to save him.
The parallels between Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander, and Mikael Blomkvist (the male protagonist) are many, too many to outline in this post. Essentially, Larsson poured his feelings of anger, vulnerability, guilt, and powerlessness into a trilogy of books. A harrowing memory from his youth—a single night that he could never forget—inspired a busy, successful activist and journalist to write hundreds of pages of fiction absolutely brimming with Allegory of Self.
Stephen King addresses the idea another way. In the following quote, King is referring to the Horror genre, but I think the concept applies to all fiction.
“We were told as school-children that if you looked at an eclipse of the sun dead-on the corona or the edge of the sun could blind you; but we were told to turn our backs to it, take a piece of paper and poke a hole through it with a needle, and hold another bright piece of cardboard and then focus, and that you could see it with your back turned to it, and that you could view something that would put your eyes out if you looked at it directly, obliquely.” (King, 2007)
What is written on the page is a mere shadow of reality. It’s a way to see and understand the otherwise blinding, incomprehensible truth looming around us. When we write fiction, we create our own manageable worlds populated by people who never really exist and are the combination of many souls. People like Lisbeth Salander, who inspire and reassure us, the weak and cowardly average people. In those worlds and characters we see our selves. They are mere shadows of truth we can hardly bear, or maybe have yet to realize.
In my own writing, when I began searching for the meaning beyond what I had written on the page, I also found the answer to my question, what the hell am I doing here?
I am telling the truth about this life, as honestly as possible, in any way I can. I am holding up the paper, capturing a shadow, so that I might see the blinding reality beyond me. To experience it and comprehend it, for myself and anyone else who struggles to understand.
stieglarsson.com, the Man behind Lisbeth Salander. Unknown, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2013.
Baski, Kurdo. “How a Brutal Rape and a Lifelong Burden of Guilt Fuelled Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Writer Stieg Larsson.” Mail Online. The Daily Mail, 2 Aug. 2010. Web. 06 Oct. 2013.
Martin. “EXCLUSIVE: The Lost Stephen King Interview (part 1).” Movie Reviews, Cult TV, Games & Comics Reviewed, Discussed & Appreciated. Den of Geek, 1 Nov. 2007. Web. 06 Oct. 2013.