etched in steel(e) Dr. Suzanne M. Steele — editor analyst writer researcher

MonthOctober 2019

War Video Installations

Two of my installations currently on view
at the Penticton Art Gallery until Nov. 11
composite photo ©Ron Marsh 2019

Here’s a nice article on my most recent doings! Thank you curator Paul Crawford, what an honour to share billing with Mary Riter Hamilton, one of my war artist heroes. She was neglected in her lifetime and I’m so glad Paul is bringing her home to us all.

On Metaphor & Narrative

photo of Ocean Vuong copyright Ocean Vuong/Literary Hub

How I love this article by Ocean Vuong for its insight into a different way of writing, especially handling narratives and literary techniques such as metaphor, and in the writing of On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous. I suppose I am grateful for Vuong’s voice at this moment because with the opera I am writing I feel pressured to write a classical dramatic arc with a main protagonist (Riel, of course), someone who DOES SOMETHING! In this much-anticipated work on Riel, I feel especially pressured to write something political/historical rather than the multi-layered work I have written to date, one with multiple persons, choruses, narrator, all working in an ensemble to create a whole. Thus it is fascinating to read Vuong’s literary provenance— that they are a poet does not surprise me.

In the article, Vuong (a McArthur Genius Award winner) writes: “In Western narratology, the plot is the dominant mode to which all characters are subordinate. But I wanted a novel to hold these characters thoroughly and, most importantly, on their own terms, free from a system of governance, even one of my own making. I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.” Vuong cites

I love their commentary on the use of the metaphor from the point of view of non-Western literature. So often, it seems, we are warned not to write in clichés, nor to write in a style that is too metaphor-heavy. But Vuong comments that metaphor is ‘an alternate speech act’, and that ‘metaphor in the mouths of survivors became a way to innovate around pain’.” Oh how interesting, metaphor being a time-honoured building block of poetry empowers rather victimises the one who has experienced trauma; it is not a sidestep, nor a blocking.

What I am particularly intrigued with is how Vuong cites his use of Kishōtenketsu, a Chinese/Korean/Japanese literary form (Ki – Introduction; Shō – Development; Ten – Twist; and Ketsu – Conclusion). In this way they felt able to describe violence but not privilege it: ‘”It was important to me, at least in this book, that violence remain independent from any character’s self-worth, rendering it inert, terrible, and felt—but not a means of “development.” Through Kishōtenketsu, violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax.’

Now if I understand correctly, the Ten, or the twist, is a contrast rather than a climax in a ‘typical’ Western narrative arc. In some cases, the Ten is a cautionary tale within a tale (I’m just beginning research on the form so forgive me if I don’t have it correct!). Interestingly, Kishōtenketsu is used in gaming narratives (google the term in Google Scholar for a wide body of analyses), and given the relative youth of Vuong I could see how this might be a natural narrative ecology. The author offers this statement on why they used this form: ‘I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.’ I like this very much in the context of my current work that focuses on the multi-cultural peoples—the composers and conductors may feel daunted as they juggle the forces on stage, but somehow, to me, it just feels right.