On Carson McCullers, Hokkaido and Fictional Voice

“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.”

— Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding.

 

“Miss Amelia was rich. In addition to the store she operated a still three miles back in the swamp, and ran out the best liquor in the county. She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed.”

— Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

In 1997 and 1998 I lived for a while in Kushiro, a small port and mining town on the south-east coast of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Desperate for something to read I would scour the one small shelf of English language books in the local bookshop or pace the English language section of Kushiro Public University’s library, and this is how I got to know Carson McCullers and made the acquaintance of two of my favourite fictional characters, Miss Amelia of the Sad Café and Frankie, or as she later prefers to be known, F. Jasmine.

 

One of the English professors had a soft spot for McCullers, which is why her fiction was extremely well represented in the library’s American literature section. I’m eternally grateful. I had heard her name before but read none of her novels, and that winter worked my way pretty much through everything she wrote. That was also the winter I started writing fiction. I had written a few stories several years previously, but considered myself pretty much exclusively a poet. Yet suddenly, surrounded by unfamiliar grammar, I found myself composing narrative sentences, which built together rapidly and became small worlds. Most of it was crap, but it kept coming, and I understood there was no turning back. I had crossed the genre divide. I was hearing voices.

 

What I love about McCullers’ fiction is its ability to survey the horrific and the hilarious equally coolly, and the quiet, eccentric authority of its voice. Perversely, I will also always associate it with wintry Kushiro, Southern heat rising in my head as the city’s sidewalks transform into luge tracks. Weird British dialogue forming there, too.

 

Currently it’s spring in Vancouver (well, sort of). I’m reading, and enjoying Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and Helen Simpson’s In-Flight Entertainment (both short story collections).

 

Check out more fiction musings at The Devil’s Engine, on Biblioasis’s blog site. Also see my guest editor blogs this week at the National Post’s Afterword.

 

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