Tag Archives: readers

Bone and Bread: Eating Disorders & Making Use of Life in Fiction

*caveat – I do quite a bit of thinking out loud in this post and don’t arrive anywhere elegant*

Out for dinner recently the table got to discussing the merits of fiction and nonfiction. I was (surprise) defending fiction for its imaginative invitation to empathy; my companion argued all fiction was telling the same story and that nonfiction did far better to educate. Our two friends weighed in on both sides.  We started talking about Annabel by Kathleen Winter and the misrepresentation of intersexed people and their experiences. I suggested, naively, ‘but surely the character is meant to be a metaphor,’ to which my companion noted that surely individual lives ought not be used for literary purpose. The conversation moved elsewhere. I haven’t stopped thinking about the question.

It’s certainly a question I’ve considered in memoir and biography: what are the ethics of using  the living in stories and in fiction? Of course in the case of Annabel, or the broader question we were discussing, it’s not a particular or ‘true’ individual being used for literary purpose, so much as an identity being used. In the case of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread it’s not an identity, but an illness: anorexia.

The novel follows two orphaned sisters Sadhana and Beena as they grow up in Montreal. Sadhana’s experience with an eating disorder shapes the sisters’ relationship as much as their loss of parents. Except the part I’m trying to figure out is the eating disorder functions both as a plot and character device, but also with thematic intent: what are we starving ourselves of when we live alone? (how) does art demand the diminishment of the self? how do we respond to circumstances beyond our control? The illness is misrepresented, even as it ‘gets right’ some aspects of the disease. But does it matter what it gets right (or not) about the real life illness? It’s not meant to be an educational, nonfiction exploration of the experience of an eating disorder; it’s meant to be an exploration of sibling love, control, secrecy and the limits of care. And it uses an eating disorder as a means to explore those questions. Perhaps the better question isn’t whether such representation and use should be allowed, but questions about how effectively and to what end.

As someone who experienced an eating disorder do I get to weigh in (ha) on these questions differently? (probably not) We should question how identities and experiences are being represented in fiction. These are not neutral activities; these representations shape how we understand and interact with others and our world. Where I think I come down is that the responsibility isn’t on the novel to get it right, so much as it is on us as readers to get the reading right. We need to read attuned to the fabrication, manipulation and use that character, plot and setting are being put. We need to be prompted to read a description of an eating disordered behaviour and ask ourselves (or others! or research!) whether such a behaviour might be ‘true,’ and if so, what does that mean to us? and if not, what does that mean to us (and the novel)?

There are many, many terrible novels that are terrible because they get so much of representing life, people and their experiences so incredibly wrongBone and Bread is not one of these novels. (I suppose I should actually comment on this book!). [The novel has strong and evocative description, a Can Lit insistence on its importance and Literary Merit (and this insistence has paid off: it is a contender for Canada Reads 2016!), a compelling family-drama plot. Its characters are a bit shallow and surprising in their actions. The Can Lit insistence is grating for the first forty page until you accept what’s happening to you and move on. Or perhaps the author relaxes and eases up on the similes (questions for another day).]

So yeah. I haven’t cracked this one. The novel I’ve figured out. Not so much these questions of the liberty afforded in fiction, the responsibility of readers and the literary consequences of misusing that freedom to invent, misrepresent or attempt to capture accurately. Good thing I have a book club tomorrow with my former students to figure this one out. Or you could tell me. Let me know your thoughts (as always).

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction

A Tale for the Time Being: You Probably Haven’t Heard Of This Book; Here’s Why You Should Read It

maxresdefaultOr maybe you have heard of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. After all, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hyped in all of the right places. All the same it slipped through my Canlit net, and seems to have for all those I’ve talked about the book with as I’ve been reading it, and so I’ll assume you haven’t heard of it either (you’re my made-up audience, so I may as well, right?).

This idea of the reader-audience and how readers make novels mean something by reading them is one of the (many) preoccupations of this fantastically rich and layered story. At one point our protagonist-cum-author notes “Surely a reader wasn’t capable of this bizarre kind of conjuration, pulling words from the void? But apparently she had done just that, or else she was crazy. Or else… Together we’ll make magic… Who had conjured whom?” (392). The role of reader in the novel is complex: with two threaded narratives – that of Ruth, an author living on an island in British Columbia who finds a diary washed up on the beach and that of the diarist, Nao, an American-Japanese schoolgirl – that both reflect, influence and respond to one another, one of the questions the novel asks is how readers determine and impact the meaning and influence of a story. Within the novel itself this question is explored in the relationship between Ruth and Nao, but the novel expands this question with metafictional play and probity to include this reader, too. So you ought to read it because the novel presupposes its existence depends on your reading it.

You ought to read it because the philosophical questions it explores like the nature of time and quantum mechanics; the role of animals in the interconnected web of being; restitution, responsibility and war; the relationship of class and identity (and bullying); the purpose of art and art-making; – are those questions that make both for great dissertations and for great discussions (and I know you have a thesis you want to write or a book club to attend [*cough* this was a book club choice for the book club I attend]). These questions look esoteric when I write them down, and there are moments of the novel – like reading the Appendixes on Schrodinger’s Cat – that stray in that direction, but the overwhelming feeling this novel evoked for me was exhilaration: it’s simply thrilling to see a masterful exploration of questions of time, identity and the nature of meaning in life through grounded (if somewhat fantastical) story.

And you ought to read it because I say so. Okay, not that. But because it’s beautiful.  Layered with complexity and richness, yet not so dense as to be inaccessible or off-putting. And you see it and think 400 pages, really? And I say, consider the time it takes to read. No really, consider “time” and “takes”: what does it mean to “take time”? Once you’re asking that question you may as well be reading the novel because in reading you find time, time-taking, time-making – well, you might have a different feeling on the other side (which assumes you ever leave a novel once you’ve read it… another question for another time being).

1 Comment

Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner