It’s probably a little out of character for me that I rarely attend authorial events. I’m not sure why I buy plane tickets and concert tickets but never buy speaker tickets, but there it is. And I’m discovering that it’s an unfortunate habit, because this winter I have twice been the grateful recipient of speaker tickets from thoughtful friends.
A few months ago, a friend called me up with a spare ticket to An Evening with David Sedaris. I didn’t know how I felt about David Sedaris because I’ve never read any of his books. But I did know that any evening out with this particular friend was sure to be fun, and anyway, the titles of Sedaris’ books are always clever. So I went.
We took Uber or Lyft or one of those car services that I’ve never used before and the driver dropped us off right in front of Benaroya Hall. We finished up our cocktails just in time to take our seats in a much more expensive section of the hall than I personally would have spent money on.
Sedaris had a quizzical, diffident speaking style that almost disguised how crass and bitingly funny his observations are. He read a couple of short stories/essays that meandered through lengthy detours the way my own conversations do – except that no one wanted to interrupt him before he came back around to his point. I had many out loud laughs and even more wry snorts and smirks before heading home to spend the next couple of days trying to figure out how those NPR types manage to hold the listener’s attention through their circuitous tales.
Last week Seattle Arts and Lectures hosted Geraldine Brooks at McCaw Hall. I am a huge fan (really huge) of Geraldine Brooks, whose kind words to me at Iceland Writers Retreat often guide me to my desk when I’m ready to write myself off as a writer, so this was one author event I would have scrounged up ticket money for. Before I figured out how to do it, a friend I had turned on to Brooks messaged me on Facebook announcing that she had our tickets and where should we meet for dinner?
At dinner I met my friend’s mother, who is an editor, and the three of us geeked out about grammar until it was time to go. Once again, my friend had paid for better seats than I would have, so we got to sit very close to the stage.
When Brooks took the stage, she commented on that writer’s rite of passage, giving readings at bookstores where, if you’re lucky, there are five people and a dog in the audience. She called the nearly full theater at McCaw Hall both gratifying and terrifying. But she spoke with the same down to earth confidence that I remembered from her workshops at Iceland Writers Retreat.
(The size of the audience struck me, too, with just how special that experience was. Instead of Brooks on stage, it was Geraldine in a classroom and similarly talented writers at the dinner table all speaking as colleagues.)
But even as an audience member, it was inspiring to hear Brooks speak about her history as a writer and her faith in fiction as a tool for changing the world. She told some of the same stories I heard at the retreat, but with different details, and of course there was new information, too.
One of my favorite moments came after the talk, when the moderator asked her to identify the unifying theme of her work. I had a ready answer on her behalf; what fascinates me in her all her stories, is the way that humans constantly strive to create a monoculture when civilization can only progress under conditions of diversity. Likewise, personal growth only comes when cherished beliefs are challenged.
But Brooks had a different answer. She said,
I’m interested in the people who stand aside from the tide of hate, people who are resistant to the virus that makes us demonize The Other.
In one of my workshops at Iceland Writers Retreat, author James Scudamore said fiction asks questions rather than answers them. A good writer has the insight to make us examine the world, but doesn’t necessarily have the answers to the questions they raise.
Brooks often asks those questions in the voices of those history tries to silence. Even when her protagonists are male, her stories make a point of presenting what events would have looked like through the eyes of women and slaves. Often in fiction this results in taking creative license with historical facts, but Brooks’ background as a journalist in war-torn areas makes her uniquely able to capture both external limitations and internal attitudes of the powerless. (She talks about reading historical court documents to capture the voices of people who were unable to document their own experiences.)
That real world experience makes me feel like accepting answers from Brooks when I would only accept questions from other writers. So I will pass on one more of her answers. In reference to her nonfiction book Nine Parts of Desire, she said the situation for women in the Middle East has only gotten worse instead of improving since the book was written. Here is her advice.
Non-Muslims wagging their feminist fingers won’t accomplish anything. We need to support Muslim women here in this country. Muslim women can reach into those communities.