Grinding the Axe

In Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, the narrator Larry Morgan describes the pain in his past, writing the final chapters of his book in tears:

Yet now, having held in grief and resentment, and evaded thinking too much about the episode that changed my life with the finality of an axe, here I am exalted by having made use of it, by having spilled my guts in public.  We are strange creatures, and writers are stranger creatures than most.

We write what we know, and sometimes what we know is painful- perhaps not as acutely as an axe falling, but more chronically, like a corrosive acid.  When writing about and making use of the pain, it’s important not to let self-pity take charge.  There are several themes in Fourth World, motifs intertwined like strands of DNA.  One of these, I imagine, is almost a universal feeling:  that of not belonging, of always looking in from the outside, no matter what one accomplishes in life.  In my case, that came from moving back and forth, as a child, between countries with different dominant languages and cultures, histories and aspirations.  One country (Malaysia) had the history of being the colony of another (the UK, where the British held- and still hold- strong prejudices regarding their former colonial subjects).  Feeling like an outsider in London was- and is, for Indians, Bangladeshis, etc.- not imaginary.  And, believe it or not, California in the mid-1960s was not a friendly place for Asian kids either- especially those who kept their original names.  Even with English as my first language, a vaguely British accent was a source of humor.

Despite objective evidence to the contrary, immigrants are often told that they are being too sensitive; reassured that the prejudice they see every day is not really there; reminded that after years of living in this country, they have reaped the benefits.  But do they truly belong?  I’m grateful to live in the US and feel much more fortunate than the vast majority, but still sympathize (which literally means to suffer with) today’s immigrants, especially in the current hostile climate.

In my novel Fourth World, Benn Marr has it much worse:  he comes from an Earth colony on Mars!  Here’s his conversation with Lora:

Benn snorted.  “You know, I do try awfully hard to keep the weird behavior to myself.”

Lora spotted a segue opportunity.  “Actually, you might rephrase that:  trying so hard to keep to yourself is your weird behavior.”  Lora took a deep breath- it was as good a time as any to say it.  “This has been bothering me since Highland City.  Benn:  you are, without  doubt, an extremely difficult person to read.”

Benn, who had a history of stumbling badly where Lora was concerned, thought she was still teasing.  “You mean difficult to read, as in a boring novel?  I’ll try to spice up my plot.”  She met his grin with a blank look.

“Difficult because I’m written in a foreign language?” he tried again.

“Come on, Benn.”  Lora rolled her eyes.  “Not a foreign language.  But you do act like a foreigner.  I always get the feeling that you’re holding back, standing apart and watching, as though you don’t belong.”

“That’s because I don’t belong.  And you do?  I admit, you fit in much better than I do, what with having social skills and all.  I’ll be forever an outsider, Lora:  the colonial subject visiting the imperial capital, tolerated only as long as I have something to contribute.  Otherwise it’s ‘Back to the colony, boy, your permit’s been canceled.’”

“You don’t need to feel that way, Benn.  You see yourself as more of an outsider than others do.”

“Do you really suppose these folks consider us Martians their equals?  Back to the original subject, do you think Torch Halsey thinks of us as neighbors or alien freaks?”

“Halsey’s not a valid example; to him, everyone is a potential terrorist!”



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