Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

The Creative Life on the Page (Five Books)

Because I forgot my key one day, I had to wait in the neighbourhood library for Mister BIP to finish work, before I could go home. I suppose I could have waited in the subway station. But it was only a 20-minute walk. Of course I walked: wouldn’t you?

Marshall Triangular RoadOne of the books I brought home with me (because I couldn’t browse for more than an hour without finding new friends) was Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road (2009), an adaptation of a lecture series delivered at Harvard in 2015.

The theme was “Bodies of Water”, the specific rivers, seas and oceans and their impact on black history and culture throughout the Amercias, with her work divided into: “Homage to Mr. Hughes”, “I’ve Known Rivers: The James River”, “I’ve Known Seas: The Caribbean Sea (Barbadows, Grenada 1962)” and “I’ve Known Ocean: The Atlantic”.

It’s a slim volume, which begins with her memories of travelling with Langston Hughes when she was a young writer. “I had read The Big Sea as a teenager and had privately vowed, even back then, to follow the example of its author. Not only would I become a writer, but a travelin’ woman as well.”

In some cases, her memories are very specific, as with those of her neighbourhood library. “Best of all for me, 501 Hancock was only a short distance from a local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. A necessary home away from home. It was there, come age twelve, that I summoned up the courage one day to ask the white librarian for a list of books by colored writers.”

In other cases, she is musing on a broader scale: “After all, my life, as I saw it, was a thing divided in three…Brooklyn…Caribbean and its conga line of islands…colossus of ancestral Africa

Throughout, she is considering her life as a writer. “Writing fiction: a wonderfully conscious and unconscious act.”

Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye landed on my stack thanks to Sharlene at RealLifeReading, who regularly tempts me with her bookish explorations.

With his first comic having been published in 1954 in Singapore, Charlie Chan Hock Chye has spent a lifetime illustrating and telling stories, and Sonny Liew (also an artist and illustrator, who was born in Malaysia) assembles a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the achievements of his artistic life.

The book is arranged chronologically, divided into chapters which correspond to specific years and swaths of time which were significant in his personal and professional experience.

Considering more than five decades of work, there is a broad variety of styles and stories herein.

It contains rich and beautiful reproductions of oil paintings (for instance, one he painted from a photograph of his mother in 1983, which is placed near the beginning of the volume, to fit with the age she is in the photograph/painting, rather the age she was at the time of painting).

Charlie Chan Hock ChyeBut it also contains unfinished excerpts from his sketchbooks (the spread from the years 1956-60, including the Rex and Cathay cinemas along with a nightsoil collector and an old woman playing cards is exceptionally varied and it hints of many stories therein).

It must have been very difficult to select representational published works (not only based upon the volume of material but given potential copyright complications), but the reader gains a sense of the artist’s nearly incredible diversity of content and style.

From sedate black-and-white line-drawings to playful colourful animal cartoons, many works are reproduced only in part; even if readers aren’t partial to a particular publication or style, in just a couple of pages, something different is presented. (I read this over a month’s time, and even the pieces which I found less immediately accessible were enjoyable in this manner.)

Sometimes works are depicted in their original format (as with the Roachman covers) or in mock-ups. Sometimes unpublished works are also included (particularly works which one imagines could have been difficult or risky to publish for political reasons).

These comics seem far removed from my experience of the world, in terms of either time or space. I haven’t been taught anything about the history of Singapore and was concerned that might detract from my enjoyment of this collection.

But the supporting materials are clear and concise; readers with no familiarity with the region will be readily able to follow the artist’s political strips, using the editor’s footnotes in conjunction with more extensive endnotes, when more context could be helpful.

Those talking animals are (perhaps unsurprisingly) representations of key historical figures, and knowledge of this significantly adds to the experience of sampling Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s work. Conflicts and resolutions are even more satisfying when one understands the scope of the story.

But even so, the aspect of the collection that I most enjoyed was following the portrait of the artist’s creative work and career, the balance of fortune and trial that he experienced in pursuit of his passion.

Of course it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to consider this outside of the context of the immense changes his country endured during his lifetime, but one of my favourite segments depicts his process during his seventh decade, culminating in a sheet of panels which focus on the tools of his trade (which have remained consistent throughout).

So readers with a familiarity with Singaporean history might appreciate the refresher herein, and readers lacking that experience might be inspired to delve more deeply following this introduction, but even readers with no interest in political history could find the artist’s personal story rewarding.

This is a work which rewards readers on many levels. (Thanks, Sharlene!)

Vandermeer WonderbookEarlier this year, I explored Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals, which have been on my shelves for more than a dozen years. She, too, was interested in the lives of other creatives.

In specific terms: “I loved Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone. Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring? Maybe. I do not know.” (1944)

And, more generally: “But the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf – – – would it not be a series of rapid ascents and probing descents into shades and meanings – into more people, ideas and conceptions? Would it not be in color, rather than black-and-white, or more gray? I think it would. And thus, I not being them, could try to be more like them: to listen, observe, and feel, and try to live most fully.” (1944)

Now I am reading Mazo de La Roche’s Ringing the Changes, her autobiography. inspired by my reading of the Jalna books. It reads like a novel, heavily romanticized and descriptive. Perhaps for that reason, I am enjoying it every bit as much as the Jalna books themselves.

Alongside, many other volumes concerning the writing life have been making an appearance in my stacks. My favourite so far, this year, has been Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook.

Glossy-paged and sumptuously illustrated, it’s not only attractive but contains more than three hundred over-sized pages of material. Some interviews and essays are contributed by established authors (from Ursula K. LeGuin to Karen Joy Fowler) and some from the works of other writers less widely known (but well-established in the SFF and speculative fiction communities), but the core of the volume revolves around the development of one of Vandermeer’s own novels.

Because I’m not familiar with his novel Finch, I steered clear of these segments to avoid spoilers, but I still appreciated the infographics and commentary about the process. And there is plenty of content revolving around other materials (e.g. classic works, fresh content printed herein, exercises, art): one need not be familiar with either Vandermeer or SFF to enjoy this volume.

The only creative folks who might not find something of interest here, whether experienced or emerging, are those seeking primarily specific and granular pragmatic advice.

The variety of colours, fonts, and artistic styles maintains a reader’s interest throughout, and the overall effect is one of delight. Very inspiring!

Would anything in your stack make a useful addition to these volumes? Care to share a favourite?

Which of these have you enjoyed the most, or which do you find most appealing?

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6 comments to The Creative Life on the Page (Five Books)

  • Isnt it so sad that she had to summon up courage to ask for books by black authors – it means they were not visible on the shelves

    • And, yet, to go from that state of uncertainty and fearfulness to be on tour with Langston Hughes: what an amazing experience that must have been for her! I’ve only read one of her novels, but I’d like to read more.

  • It never ceases to amaze me how varied your reading is! It’s so interesting to read about.
    Triangular Road interests me, as does Ringing the Changes – I’d like to hear more about that one. And I’m completely tempted by the cover of Wonderbook!

    • I’ll have more to say about Ringing the Changes for sure, as I read on in the Jalna books. It’s such a conversational biography. Which fits because one of reasons I’m keen to explore Mazo de la Roche is because I “met” her as a young woman on the pages of another conversational biography, Dorothy Livesay’s Journey With My Selves (she loved trees just as LMM’s girls did – you’d’ve spotted the connection straight away too, although I haven’t been able to determine yet if MdlR read LMM too). Always happy to add to your TBR!

  • I’d heard about The Wonderbook book somewhere but had forgotten about it completely. Now it is on my library list. I suppose I should make sure I read Finch first? or is it fine to not read it especially if I am not worried about spoilers?

    • I’ve not read Finch and, in fact, am still stuck halfway into Annihilation (I shouldn’t’ve been reading it in the middle of the night – it’s creepy). I’m sure for those readers who *have* read it, they’d get even more out of it, but it’s quite satisfying even so.

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