Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leaving the comfort zone.

This is a 'writing' blog, whose 'direction', if you will, remains tied to the contingencies of life, external and internal, insofar as they affect what I am currently writing or planning to write. And life, external and internal, has a way of...well, being just the foggy kind of mess that I talked about in the previous blog. You come to a juncture in the path that you hadn't anticipated from a few steps back. So, are you gonna go this way or that? Or maybe none of these two, but one of the other possibles forking off from here?

Well, in life per se, there aren't usually just two possibilities at any given step, but usually a gazillion. Literally. Whatever a 'gazillion' is. I still don't know, but it's some ├╝berultramegagiga+ kind of number. Big, that is. Very.

Being of limited capacity we usually don't see most of the alternatives, but just those we're able to pay attention to; things being as and what they are. This goes, as I've said twice before already, for external and internal matters—even though often it is hard to tell the two apart, because they are so intimately connected. And in this instance they definitely are, because I can trace a chain of external causes to an internal process that ultimately led to where I am now with regards to these things I'll mention in a moment. It's a fascinating process, doing this 'tracing back' thing, and you should try it; not just sometimes, but often. Many riddles will resolve themselves, at least partially.

Anyway, we're talking about tears and comfort zones, so let's go there.

Years ago my family lived in the US. In Atlanta, to be specific, for over three years. During that time we got around a bit, inter alia visiting the Cherokee reservation in western NC. Unavoidably this led to some digging into their past on my behalf, which of course led to the history of the forced resettlement of the Eastern Indian tribes and that event known as The Trail of Tears.

I wish I could say it was an unusually brutal event—but the truth is that, within the context of not only the settlement of the Americas by Europeans but basically human settlement of any region occupied by any other humans than the invaders, such events are not only commonplace but the order-of-the-day; and they will remain that way. To speak of 'brutality' in the context of the interactions between human societies is to utter a platitude. We may be dismayed that this is so and try to imagine a world in which it might be different, but it ain't gonna happen. Period.

Still, having said all that, let me be clear about it, it was brutal, nasty, cynical, riddled with lies and false promises and a total lack of care for those who stood in the way of living space and riches. It doesn't matter that these people themselves were no bucolic angels, but fought endless bloody tribal skirmishes with their neighbors. Nor does it matter that their customs were by no means devoid of significant elements of what we, from our points of view, would rightly consider with...well, let's call it 'disapproval'. It's even possible that from some points of view—especially the Christian one—they qualified as 'uncivilized' and 'heathens'. But all of these are value judgments that should never be used to justify ill treatment of those who differ from ourselves. However, they are used. Copiously and pervasively so; mainly because it's so easy to contrive some—any, really; no matter how stupid and purely self-serving—framework that makes someone else into something less than human; or if not that, into someone who requires our corrective attention—whatever kind of 'correction' that may be.

I didn't pursue the matter while living in the US, but later came back to it—for reasons now lost even to me—when back in NZ, and did a lot more research on it, plus figured out a basic story that might allow me to make it into a screenplay. Then I put it away into a bunch of files and folders, together with my materials on other 'Western' themes, like the Wyatt Earp story, which I'd like to revisit one of these days as well, because it needs to; I just don't have quite the 'angle' I want for it yet. Reason why I put these things away was that, at least as far as the Cherokee story was concerned, what I had wasn't enough. I don't mean 'not enough material' for there's heaps of that. But you've got to have something to say, or else your fiction is just so much vapid stuff happening, no matter how interesting. It's got to be about something. And it doesn't matter if the 'about' is hidden underneath layers of action, diversions, distractions and other apparent and more overtly displayed 'abouts'. As long as it's there—and only the story-teller can sense if it really is—it will provide the motivation, the dynamic, the spine and, ultimately the characters you'll create; or, maybe it is more true that with the 'about', the characters tend to create themselves. Crappy fiction—novel, play, movie—tends to consist of lots of overtly visible stuff that looks weighty and deep and meaningful and everybody goes 'ohh' and 'ahh'. But the way I see it, whatever something critics or reviewers pick up on, it probably isn't 'it'. A bit like the Tao:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
'Essential' content is too sublime to be pinned down by analysis. Hence we often, and despite apparent satisfactory analysis of a story, told in any medium, still remain with a sense of dissatisfaction and a void lurking somewhere beyond our reach. Heed that sense, for it is more reliable than any 'analysis', no matter how apparently 'deep'.

A week ago or so something came up that re-triggered my interest in the matter. A nudge here and a nudge there from quarters that basically had nothing to do with the whole matter. For those interested in riddles, if you read my last few blogs, you'll find there a hint to the answer. Disconnected things flowing together, combining forces to generate a torrent of associations and ultimately leading to this point.

So, here we are, and it's time to move out of 'comfort zone' territory. Every story-teller should do that sometime. For, let's face it, the imagined universe of Tethys is 'comfortable'. Whatever exists there is made up, even the constraints that have been imposed from Keaen to Tethys. Going back into history, with all the pitfalls that entails—in particular the associated search/research for what constitutes 'historical fact' and what doesn't—is a different story. I also have the outline for a time-travel story to the Amarna period of ancient Egypt, but that's comparatively easy, since just about all 'historical fact' is conjecture in that context. The same is not true the past of about less than two-hundred years ago. Or, I should not, not as true.

There's also an argument that 'proper research', which evidences what nowadays is often referred to as 'respect for the culture', should include not only visits and interviews with people who are the descendants of those one writes about, but in fact ask for their permission and/or blessing to even write the story. Clearly, I cannot do this, since I have neither the time nor the funds for an extended visit to the southeastern US and Oklahoma; much as I'd love to do it. Also, there is another factor, which has to do with the 'ownership', if you will, of history. Way I see it, the history of mankind belongs to everybody and Microsoftesque notions of 'copyrighting' material, unless it relates to particular and specific symbols, is ludicrous, though it's becoming pervasive all over the world.

What is required though, is respect. Not the fawning kind, that sees no flaws in the victims, but respect for the right of certain ways of life to exist. Yet, at the same time, one also has to understand that 'change' is the one constant of human individual and social existence at all scales. And change can be tragic, when seen from the points of view of cultures. For all cultures will die, large and small, from the scope of empires to that of tribal domains. If history teaches us anything, it surely must be that. And it must also be that, human nature being what it is, such change will be driven my motivations that are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past; and it will be accompanied by inevitable conflict and the associated suffering, mostly of innocents. By and large, people are not—and will not be—ready, at a scale that matters, to execute change in other ways. Brutality, no matter how well-concealed under a multitude of euphemisms, some of them deceptively benign but no less oppressive, will be an unavoidable and dominating presence.

This is the nature and color of the background against which the drama of the settlement of the American continent by Europeans played out. A part of the drama was the destruction of other cultures, as tends to be the way of things; and a part of that process in turn was the 'resettlement', as the euphemism goes, of American Indians to places where they weren't in the way of the newcomers. Said 'resettlement' basically took on the form of driving humans like cattle across the landscape with, by and large, little or no concern for their welfare. The whole affair was about as despicable as these things can get.

The process of Eastern Indian 'resettlement' (imagine me always using that word in scare-quotes, because it belongs there) best publicized is that inflicted on the Cherokee, for whom the 'Trail Of Tears' is an essential element of their folklore, self-image and self-understanding. This much was clear after even the briefest visit to the NC reservation. Originally I was going to make this a Cherokee-oriented story, because it's maybe the best known and because the tribal politics surrounding it, before and after, provides a cornucopia of story material; with power-struggles, lots of intrigue, internecine struggle and ultimately outright murder. How can anybody resist?

Well, I decided that I can. On my perambulations through the history of these 'resettlements' I discovered something I hadn't known before, namely that the Cherokee weren't actually the first to be resettled and that the Trail of Tears was first walked by the Choctaw, a group more numerous than the Cherokee, who were herded from their homelands in Mississippi and Louisiana to Oklahoma about eight years before the Cherokee. The Choctaw, for a number of reasons I'll probably blog about in due course and when I know more, are a potentially much more interesting group of American Indians, whom I've never really heard much about, but intend to spend some time researching before writing down a single word of this story.

So, I've got to do some serious reading. There is good web-based material (like texts of dishonored 'treaties') plus a number of books that will probably require interpolation, as all historical materials do, but it should be fun.

It'll also be something new, trying out something more of a 'historical novel' than my usual 'imaginative fiction'.

More on the themes and whatever develops as we go further along that path.

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