Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Ensorcelment By Story: Susan Fletcher on Shadow Spinner

Hardcover edition, Shadow Spinner
 I first heard Susan Fletcher speak about her writing journey with Shadow Spinner when she was an alumna guest speaker at VCFA and I was still relatively new on the faculty. At first I was skeptical. Sure. Another white writer romanticizes the Middle East--what's new about that? But as I heard Susan speak, I became more and more convinced that she was about to make me shift how I thought about the telling of story across cultures. Here was a writer, I could see, who had done the work and done it with humility, serving the story and not herself. I was moved, and that was something I hadn't expected. I'm happy to say that Susan is now a friend and colleague on the faculty at VCFA.

It's my great delight to open 2012 with this interview. Welcome, Susan Fletcher.

[Uma] What were the delights and dangers for you of daring to place this coral reef of a story on the page?

[Susan] When I remember what it was like to write Shadow Spinner, I can’t help but think of the character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m not saying that aliens took over my mind – exactly – but I definitely felt in the grip of an obsession. It started when I was still drafting Sign of the Dove, and entire paragraphs of Shadow Spinner sprang full-blown into my head. I would minimize the page I was working on, take down the words I was hearing, then go back to Sign of the Dove. The obsession kept hold of me throughout the year and a half it took me to write Shadow Spinner and didn’t release me even after I finished. So I wrote a speech about Shahrazad and the importance of stories. I sketched out a sequel. I took a class in storytelling. It became annoying after a while. I couldn’t wait for the obsession to let go, so I could move wholeheartedly into my next project. Confession: Now I’m longing to be ensorcelled like that again.

I did worry about the fact that I was writing outside my culture. I read a lot of books, took a class, and asked for feedback from an Iranian friend and an Arabic woman who had worked for a princess in a royal harem.  Also, I had the stunning good fortune of meeting the sister-in-law of renowned Persian scholar Abbas Milani, who is now Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford. Abbas was generous way beyond anything I expected or deserved. He vetted the manuscript for accuracy – twice – and recommended more books for me to study.  He read Shadow Spinner as if it were an emergent poem, directing my ear to the faint ringing chimes of local metaphors and suggesting that they might resound throughout the whole.

[Uma--aside] And they do, they do! Watch this blog for an interview with Taraneh Matloob, whose research led her to Susan's work and who, like me, was taken with the loving care that Susan exercised in her research and her literary choices.

[Susan] Another thing that gave me the courage to write this book is that the 1001 Nights, on which Shadow Spinner is based, is such a cultural mélange.  Some scholars claim that the tales originated in India; many others believe that they originated in a lost, pre-Islamic Persian book of fairy tales called Hazar Afsaneh, or “Thousand Stories.” From Persia, the collection moved to the Arabic world, morphing into new cultural articulations and accumulating new tales.  The various translations we have today include stories from ancient Mesopotamia and India, early medieval Persia and Iraq, and Egypt of the late Middle Ages.  A couple of the most famous tales have no known precedents before Antoine Galland translated the Nights into French around 1704. So the 1001 Nights is imbued with the perspectives and contributions of many different cultures over more than a thousand years.  Moreover, it is a story about a woman who tells stories from many different cultures.  In a way, those of us who have retold or re-interpreted parts of the Nights (including  Robert Louis Stevenson,  Jorge Luis Borges, and John Barth, among many others) are simply adding another layer to these many-layered tales…and carrying on the tradition of Shahrazad.

[Uma] In juxtaposing the tale of young Marjan with the story of Shahrazad, you open it up to the world--there is a world of young girls in the kingdom, anxiously waiting to see if the Sultan will like each night's story, and spare its teller's life, and thus possibly their own. By implication, and by giving agency to a young girl who has herself been deeply wounded in body and spirit, you offer hope to all young girls everywhere. It was a transcendent moment in the book for me when I arrived at that understanding and yet it came very simply and naturally; it came from within the story. What was the line you had to walk between story and message, and how did you manage to stay true to story?

[Susan] I usually have no idea what the themes of my books are going to be until I’ve worked my way through to a story that seems to hold together.  Then I ask myself, “What is this book trying to say?” With Shadow Spinner, I knew that “Stories can save your life,” would be one of the themes.  But the idea of giving agency to a girl who’s been deeply wounded came through working out the story. 

I thought about the world of Shahrazad, in which the king takes a new girl as his wife every night and kills her the next day.  I thought about the mothers of girls inside the city and wondered what desperate measures they might take in order to protect their daughters.  I thought about Shahrazad’s having to come up with a new story each night for nearly three years. What if she got storyteller’s block?   What if she forgot which stories she’d already told? 

As a writer, I’m always more interested in story situations in which a child is the primary actor.  So I imagined a girl who begins collecting stories out of admiration for Shahrazad, whom she idolizes for having saved the lives of so many girls in the city.  And I imagined that the girl’s mother does what she feels she has to in order to protect her daughter.

[Uma] Would you like to say something about the process of having this book translated into Farsi and published in Iran?

[Susan] The first I knew about the Farsi translation was when Abbas Milani called to tell me about it.  The Persian translator knew how to contact Abbas – but not me. The translator, Hossein Ebrahimi (penname: Elvand), invited me to a conference in Iran, but for various complicated reasons, I was unable to attend. I was thrilled to learn later that Shadow Spinner was popular with children in Iran. And eventually I went to Iran to research my other Persian novel, Alphabet of Dreams.

Over the years, Elvand and I became friends. He was an extraordinary man. Both Elvand and Abbas vetted Alphabet of Dreams.  Elvand and I corresponded by email as he translated Alphabet of Dreams into Farsi.  I’ve written about Elvand in The Horn Book Magazine, March/April, 2009.

More on Shadow Spinner before the end of the week. Look for an interview with Taraneh Matloob, writer of a children's book in Farsi, and currently a doctoral student in children's literature at Oakland University in Michigan.

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