Maree Miller

Writer of Historical Fiction

Category: Writing (page 1 of 2)

Hongapore: Why Law Professors are the Best World-Builders

The worst part about law school was definitely the exams. But this was also one of the quirkiest things.

I don’t know about other countries but in Australia it’s a running joke among law professors to write exams with funny characters and cute pop culture references. I once sat a Lord of the Rings themed tort law exam, for example.

….Yes, well, law is rather dry and those embroiled in it must find humour any way they can….

One of the more memorable exams I sat was for private international law. This area of law deals with the complexities arising when, say, a German man marries and Italian woman in a Greek Orthodox Church in Egypt, and the children grow up in Canada but then the whole family migrates to New Zealand before retiring to the holiday home in Indonesia. Oh, and they drafted up their wills in France but using the Russian language just to make things super tricky. What we’re concerned with here is which legal system has jurisdiction when something goes wrong, and in which countries will your marriage/divorce/wills/children’s citizenships/retirement pensions be valid.

When D-Day came I went into the exam room. At the appointed hour I opened the first page of the paper and began reading. Chuckles soon murmured from the desks around me. We students were expecting that small piece of humour owed to us after all those long nights of study, and we weren’t disappointed.

Instead of using real countries in our exam, the professor had created fictional nations. And he did a darn good job of it. One fictional country in particular stands out for me, and that is the nation of Hongapore.

We had 30 minutes of reading time for three exam questions – that’s just 10 minutes to read about Hongapore. Those scarce pages of prose about Hongapore included:

  • Who the characters were, their relevant back story, and what they wanted (e.g. a married couple seeking divorce)
  • Just enough information about Hongapore and its legal system so that we could answer the question
  • Red herrings, to test our resolve
  • Some superfluous details about Hongapore (let’s call them fictional flourishes), just for funsies

I get the feeling my professor could have written on and on about Hongapore, but with his umpteen years of experience at writing exam papers, he knew exactly how much information to give and withhold, and exactly how many words he had to do it in. Now that’s some professional word budgeting.

Wordplay is my game of choice, and so the name Hongapore stuck with me. I got home and my husband asked how the exam went. And I was like ‘oh it was fine, but now I really want to go to Hongapore.’

A few months later, a messed up flight connection in South East Asia actually meant that I did go to Hongapore. Or at least, I got pretty close. I managed to visit both Hong Kong and Singapore on the same trip, and so to me, this was the equivalent of Hongapore, right? I mean, this was the closest I was ever going to get to the fictional wonderland, dungeon of hell, or utopia (I still wasn’t sure which) that is Hongapore.

I loved both Hong Kong and Singapore. But flicking through my photographs of dried squid and orchid blooms on the plane ride home, I realised something that I hadn’t actually gone to Hongapore. I wondered indeed if I was ever supposed to go there in the first place.

Hong Kong FoodSingapore Orchids

The nation of Hongapore has since been elevated to the mythical compartment inside my mind, where it resides along countless unanswered questions. Is it properly spelled Hongapura? Can I get Cantonese street food there? Does it rain every afternoon at 3pm? Do Hongapureans march in the street facing north toward a foreign government, pleading for their own democracy? Or do they kowtow to an ancient royal family?

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

That’s just one of Stephen King’s genius quotes. After meditating on this for a while, I’ve decided I’m glad that I never got to read for more than 10 minutes about Hongapore. And I’m really glad I’ll never get to visit. Hongapore isn’t a place I should learn about. It’s a place I should imagine.

All writers need to indulge this sometimes: pare back the details and let our readers imagine. If my law professor with no novel writing experience can master it, I’m sure the rest of us can at least give it a go.

So what do I imagine Hongapore to be like? In my mind it’s a place with remnant, mountainous rainforest where wild tigers run free, geckos suction themselves to tiled walls, and ferns and lilies grow out of skyscrapers. It’s a place that escaped the opium wars, European colonialism and the world wards. It’s a place where everyone still speaks Malay and Cantonese in public, instead of just English. Children go to school, but maybe not in tartan uniforms, and they buy chilli crab dumplings on the side of the road on their way home. There’s a particular variety of Orchid that’s native to Hongapore, and I’m pretty sure that it’s red.

You may disagree with my description. But I’m the reader, and so my Hongapore will always be mine to create. You are free to create your own.

The Omniscient Jorge Amado

While plotting and planning for my next WIP I’ve taken some time to meditate on story voice, and in particular, story point of view. Coincidentally I’ve also been indulging in some classic Brazilian literature – which is something I got into while researching my last novel, also set in Brazil.

And so while the debate goes on in my head over the merits of using a first person or third person, the reading part of my brain has been frolicking in a completely different type of point of view: the omniscient narrator.

Ask any serious writer, and they’ll tell you the omniscient narrator died out with the Dickens era. As readers and writers in the English literary tradition, who can blame us for believing this? As far as we’re concerned, omniscient narration did cark it back in the C19th.

Except what if it didn’t?

For those who are unsure what the omniscient narrator is, it’s basically novels written from the perspective of a God-like character who knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. In true omniscient narration, the author may even have little side notes where s/he addresses the reader directly. This is often done by addressing the audience as ‘reader,’ or ‘dear reader.’

I love reading Jorge Amado. There, I’ve said it.

Born in north-eastern Brazil in 1912 and passing away in 2001, Amado was considered a Nobel Prize candidate. His plethora of novels explore the political and social issues of a modernising Brazil.

For an outsider it’s difficult to appreciate the impact of Amado on Brazil’s national psyche. Sometime around the middle of his career, Amado turned his focus to more sensual story-lines, creating a slew of sexually aware female protagonists who have persisted as national icons in Brazil today.

Sourced from: BBC News

Jorge Amado Sourced from: BBC News

 

At the same time, Amado tread a difficult tightrope with the topics he wrote about and his works are subject to extensive criticism, both good and bad. But let’s not forget that Amado existed in a time and place which was the consequence of hundreds of years of European colonisation, African slavery, suppression of indigenous persons, and inter-ethnic sexual power play. Furthermore, Amado usually set his tales in the north of Brazil, which has historically been a bit of a wild-west in terms of law and order and social progress.

It’s suffice to say that Amado was a contemporary of the infamous Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, whose controversial works detail Brazil’s history of race relations. Freyre had some pretty shocking things to say, alluding to the systematic rape of Afro-Brazilian women by white Brazilians as a something of a young man’s rite of passage. His works also perpetuated the old C19th Brazilian saying, which to a certain extent lives on in modern day Brazil:

A black woman in the kitchen, a mulata [mixed] in the bed and a white girl in the altar.

Now, if you were Jorge Amado, and you had a passion for writing about the society in which you existed, and you wanted to bring to the forefront some of these issues like class, sex and race relations, and you also wanted to write a novel that people wanted to read, and could enjoy, and which would also make them think critically about their own society, how would you go about writing your novel? What sort of characters would you include? Whose point of view should the story be told from?

Amado was a master of the omniscient narrator style. But none of this stuffy prim and proper Dickens-style narration for Jorge Amado.

Amado took this worn out traditional style and breathed fresh air into it, conquering that difficult challenge faced by author wanting to write so many things at once.

Sourced from Wikipedia

Dona Flor the Film. Sourced from Wikipedia

As an example in the beginning of his novel Tieta, Amado addresses us: ‘Reader, I’m telling you straight; I take no responsibility for the truth of the story related here.’ The novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands actually begins with a letter ‘written’ by the main character Flor to the writer himself, and the book’s pages include the occasional Brazilian recipe. In Tieta, Amado uses his sequences of God-like narration to explain the syncretic religious forces at work on his character’s lives.

Omniscient narration allowed Amado to a few things:

  • Invite the reader into the head of a large cast of characters, including both heroes and villains

  • Create incredible sub-text by making the reader aware of plot points which the characters are unaware of

  • Present hard-hitting topics through the medium of humour

Head-hopping between several characters is frowned upon in today’s publishing industry. But much like Dickens, Amado was a master at character development and pulled this off. This allows the reader into everyone’s thoughts: the prostitute, the rapist, the shrewd old Catholic widow, the young attractive and horny Catholic widow, the pimp, the murderer, the doctor performing the illegal abortion, the priest, and the corrupt politician. Amado gives these characters backgrounds and motivations, and always at the very least a slither of their own agency. He does not apologise for any characters’ actions, and while the reader may not agree with some of the awful acts perpetrated (many Amado novels feature sexual and other forms of assault), they can at least get an insight into why certain things happened. In the end, many of Amado’s more slimy characters do get their just desserts.

In turns of subtext – well, when you read a Jorge Amado novel you know who’s sleeping with who, who desires who, who’s trying to seduce the priest behind the alter, and who’s been reading (and perhaps responding to) other people’s mail. Oftentimes when two Amado characters are talking, you as the reader understand so much more than what is being said via dialogue. Still you want to keep on reading for the pure joy of being there when so-and-so finds out what’s been going on.

A master satirist, Amado was also able to make some of the more extreme inequality issues facing Brazil palatable to the reader. I admire Amado’s commitment to portraying his nation, warts and all. I also understand that nobody wants to read novel after novel filled with nothing but doom and gloom. Amado reached a nice balance between the reader think, and making them laugh.

Another reason why I love reading Amado is that he almost always cures my writers’ block. Amado famously wrote with a typewriter and did minimal revision. His novels therefore run on the long side, and I get the impression that had they been published as English-edition originals, they would’ve been slashed and burnet back by a keen-eyed editor. But sometimes it’s refreshing to read a piece which hasn’t been edited to within an inch of its life.

And so reading Jorge Amado has not only taught me a lot about Brazilian culture and history, but it’s also opened me up to some new perspectives, both as a reader and writer, and it’s encouraged my hovering fingers to get back over that keyboard.

What more can a writer ask for?

 

Read Tieta                                              Read Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Tieta                          Dona Flor

The Heart of Borneo

This blog’s been a little quiet for a couple of weeks as I’m currently travelling in Malaysian Borneo. The internet here is even worse than my connection back home (something I never thought possible!).

DSCN3180

View from our balcony in Sepilok, Sabah

A couple of weeks ago my wonderful editor Sione asked me to guest post on her blog, discussing what success as a writer means to me. Taking part in Sione’s blog series made me think back to why I began writing in the first place.

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Elephants on Kinabatangan River, Sabah

But this trip has brought me back to thinking about what it means to experience another culture and place. It’s also reaffirmed my desire to merge these experiences with literature.

Borneo is wonderful – waking up to the sounds of Gibbons and Hornbills in the morning, watching the jungles of Sabah and Sarawak come alive insects and birds I never thought possible.

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Crocodile on Kinabatangan River, Sabah

They say Borneo has more biodiversity than any other ecological hotspot and it shows. We’ve been blessed on this trip to see wild Elephants, Orang-utans, Gibbons, Crocodiles, Proboscis Monkeys, Macaques, Silver Leaf Monkeys, Pit Vipers, frogs, flying beetles the size of my palm, moths the size of both my hands outstretched, and bats in their millions (quite literally – it was truly amazing)

I enriched the experiences of this trip by reading Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo while I made my way through Sarawak. In this autobiographical account of two Englishmen’s search for the Borneo Rhinoceros, O’Hanlon is accompanied by local guides and experiences various indigenous cultures native to Sarawak.

As a perfect reminder of how the environment dictates culture, O’Hanlon recounts the different stages of dawn in the jungle:

I got up and crept out for a swim. The dawn was not fully visible. It was the time of day the Iban call Empliau bebungi, “the calling of the gibbons,” well after Dini ari dalam, “dawn deep down,” and just before Tampak tanah, “to see the ground.”

Such descriptions in the West would be superfluous, as we have alarm clocks and wristwatches, and don’t need to know which species of wild animals are active during certain house of the day.

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Inside replica Iban longhouse, Sarawak Cultural Village

But to describe different stages of the day like this is common amongst traditional societies, and it is easy to see why. These descriptions serve the practical use of not only telling the time, but also conveying important information about the surrounding environment.

And while I do love my wristwatch, something inside me longs for the poetry for this other, similarly practical method of telling the time.

 

Read Into the Heart of Borneo

Into the Heart of Borneo (2)

 

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