Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Hummingbird at the Center

I've been doing NaNoWriMo this month (if you don't know what that is, check it out -- it's like the literary equivalent of a marathon, held all over the world every November) and it's been taking up a lot of my time.  But it has also forced me to confront the problems inherent in novel writing -- and in writing my novel in particular -- that you only see when you are into the work itself.  

Anyone who has looked through the reviews on this site probably has some idea of what those problems are.  Non-human characters, point-of-view, how far we can extend fiction (and more importantly, our empathic imagination) out from the human center of consciousness and still tell something recognizable as a story, something that human readers will be interested in.

In October I tried a little experiment over at our sister blog, Birdland West -- I published a short piece of fiction, more of a sketch than a story, that attempted to do some of the things that attempt to do some of things that I'm interested in.  In a very small way.  Let me share just a piece to show you what I mean:

"The hummingbird hung motionless, except for its furious wings, above the feeder.  The red plastic -- a human would have called it red -- glowed like a beacon in the bird's vision, reflecting parts of the spectrum no mammal could see.  Light glinted off the bird's feathers which broke it apart like millions of tiny prisms, throwing flashes of green and red.  (Again, green and red as humans would see them -- with their primate color vision, recently recovered in evolutionary time, and so limited as compared to the bird's).  The hummingbird poised above the feeder.

"Almost no one noticed.  The writer -- who lived in the house attached to the yard where the feeder hung -- was uncommonly aware of the sounds of the bird's presence -- the high pitched, fast sound, like a telegraph key -- but the weather was growing cold and the doors and windows of his house were shut.  Besides, he was preoccupied with work (or with the distractions that kept him from working).  And he was thinking about a young woman he had recently become interested in and what seemed like the impossibility that she could be interested in (old, fat, unsuccessful) him.  He didn't hear the hummingbird's approach or sense it hovering over the feeder in the bush at the front of the yard."

Now, not focusing on quality for a second, but just on what it attempts, the idea of this piece was just to capture a moment in a neighborhood, with the hummingbird as the focal point.  It clearly has an omniscient viewpoint, it's totally outside the consciousness of all the characters, but it has access to all of them.  It also tries, at least I intended to try, to put the "non-human" world on equal footing with the "human" -- or even better to erase some of the artificial boundary we draw between the two.  The humming bird and (if you read the whole piece) the dogs and birds and squirrel are not treated, I hope, as background for the humans, who as usual are preoccupied with their own lives and barely see.  That's the problem with being in the third person limited -- the "inside" pov -- it traps us in human perspective, in human concerns -- and unless we write about characters who are uncommonly aware of the natural world, of the greater context, much of it is lost.  And even if our characters are hyper-aware (try talking to me sometime in a yard full of birds) we're still getting the human pov -- the hummingbird as seen by a person, not as a thing into itself, a center of action and awareness no less important than the human.  That's the same as colonial writers -- say Joseph Conrad -- who despite their great talent and insight into human begins, could never quite get out the white European perspective, and who therefore couldn't represent Africans or other colonized people as subjects in their own right.  Even when they are viewed sympathetically, they are viewed as objects of someone else's consciousness.  The truly revolutionary power of novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin (despite the fact that it has been a flashpoint in arguments about representation almost since it was published) was not it's overt polemic against slavery, but that for the first time African American slaves were presented as real, feeling characters with interior lives -- as subjects of their own experience.  It was that radical shift that made it impossible for many white American to ignore, and changed forever the way they thought about slavery.  

I'm not saying that my little hummingbird has the world-shifting power of Stowe's characters.  I haven't accomplished that yet.  But this is one of my deepest goals as a writer.  To de-center fiction, perhaps just slightly, from the fixed human pov.  To shift the focus even for moments away from our human concerns. To set them in broader contexts -- ecological, evolutionary, cosmological.

As the poet Mary Oliver says, "Meanwhile, the world goes on."


Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.