For Women’s History Month, I originally planned to list works by women I want to read this month. I intended to point out that the reason I’ve been focusing on reading more women writers,1 as I discussed in my post about Reading Women Month, is that women writers lack representation.2 However, I thought this might be an opportunity to discuss how reading more women actually benefits us, given how women’s representation and issues have come to the forefront over the last year (#metoo and #TimesUp movements, to name two). Reading gives us the chance to self-educate, to learn more about issues that affect us as well as access experiences that aren’t ours. Reading a good book highlights problems women face, such as the wage gap by discussing its roots or revealing the true cost of all that unpaid labor women perform (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal, trans. Saskia Vogel).3 Reading more written by women lets us discover the unsung women who made important contributions to this world, such as the black female mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race (Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly). And being informed about women’s contributions to society as well their issues often empowers action. Which takes me full circle to Women’s History Month. One book I intend to read, Woman in the Nineteenth Century,4 inspired the women who went off do something about suffrage in the United States. While another nonfiction work focuses on a funny woman (Bossypants by Tina Fey) succeeding in a field notoriously hostile to women, others are works of fiction I’ve heard good things about and wanted to read—books that in their own way that will expose to me women’s voices. In addition, my daily reading involves targeted online zines (eg, Everyday Feminism) that keeps me current with the latest issues women face, certainly something I’ll continue to do this month.5 Regardless of the format, I intend to keep reading women throughout the year, because we deserve to be heard and celebrated.
We also should work on reading inclusively, because more belongs on our shelves than works written by white, straight cisgendered individuals. ↩
Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.
While writing my last post on books that linger on the to-read pile, I briefly mentioned the narrative hook, as it helped explain what I meant by being hooked into a story. At the time, I recalled several great openings to stories, ones that I subsequently read and enjoyed. But looking at these lines from a writer’s perspective now, I wondered what specifically makes such lines so intriguing that a reader simply must read the rest of the story. Any quick survey of novels and stories shows that authors use various approaches to create a hook: compelling/quirky characters, dramatic situations, unusual settings, weather, memories, recounting advice, humor, and so forth. But regardless of the tactic used, these storytelling hooks pique the readers’ interest by presenting them with a scenario that raises questions, the kind that can only be answered by reading further. In the following, I’ve provided three examples of stories that illustrate how writers use their opening lines to land their reader’s attention.
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”—Beloved, Toni Morrison
Morrison elects to drop us straight into the middle of Beloved’s events to ensure that readers, much like Paul D, don’t know why 124 happens to be such an unhappy place when they first encounter it. The sequence of story events has a role in constructing the hook, because the story’s impact hinges on how the reader gains information. In a novel like this one, beginning in media res allows readers to experience Paul D’s shock of discovery as well as introduces uncertainty about how events will unfold once this truth is divulged. Therefore, this hook needs to hint at the terrible disclosure to come without revealing much about it or its consequences, a tactic that also generates a mystery. Morrison’s uses a surprising metaphor (ie, surprising insofar as we normally don’t think of homes as spiteful or babies as being venomous) to signal the lingering malevolence of the as-yet undisclosed past, which suggests the house is haunted—perhaps literally—by the deceased child, Beloved.1 These lines, therefore, raise questions about what created this discord (Why is 124 spiteful? What happened there?) as well as build anticipation for that discovery.
The Lovely Bones
“Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf….The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, “Don’t worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.”
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”—The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones is a curious case when it comes to the narrative hook, because the first lines of the novel aren’t in the first chapter: they occur in the prefatory paragraph preceding this chapter. While the goal of the preface is to provide readers with readers background material that somehow informs the story and is technically not part of the story’s action, it’s the text that the reader sees first, meaning that preface also needs to capture the reader’s attention. However, I’d argue that the first chapter also needs a hook, because that’s where the story begins—a critical consideration since readers may overlook or skip the preface.2 For this reason, I’ll discuss how both The Lovely Bones’ preface and first lines from chapter one work as hooks.
Sebold’s preface, which recounts a memory, represents an instance in which the entire paragraph serves as the hook. While this memory initially appears to focus on an ordinary father—daughter bonding moment, its true significance emerges when Susie interrupts their play to express her concern for the penguin in the globe. Her father comforts her, but in doing so he describes the penguin’s “nice life” as a trap. It’s subtle, but the association of perfection with a trap is unexpected and unpleasant (traps aren’t reassuring), one that makes readers wonder how this idea will affect these characters going forward.3 Here, the reader asks: How can a perfect world act as a trap? How does this apply to these characters?
In contrast to Beloved’s opening lines that intrigue readers by hinting at a tragedy, The Lovely Bones’s first chapter begins by revealing its traumatic inciting event.4 An older Susie introduces herself directly to the reader and then stuns them with her dramatic announcement. The name-based joke juxtaposed with her murder defies conversational norms and unsettles the reader. Naturally, the reader asks has questions: Why was she murdered? Who killed her? It’s the question of what will happen next that matters most to The Lovely Bones, as it focuses on the aftermath of Susie’s murder for her family and herself in “her heaven”.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”—Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
What makes the opening line of Rebecca so interesting is how much it accomplishes in a brief sentence. In a few words, the reader knows this place holds powerful associations for the unidentified narrator and suggests a possible loss—the narrator only dreams of going there. And we already have questions: what kind of place is Manderley? Why is it so important to the narrator? Why does this person recurrently dream about it? du Maurier’s first chapter, utilizing the combination of a mysterious setting and dream sequence, builds on this first line to suggest a tragedy. Since Rebecca begins in the aftermath of some unknown, ominous event, it’s important that the hook (as was the case with Beloved) suggest more than it reveals—particularly since the remainder of the novel (starting midway through chapter two) reveals, via extended flashback, the events that led to this calamity.
Building a good hook often involves introducing the element of surprise. Writers need to catch the reader off guard by presenting a situation that somehow doesn’t behave normally, whether it’s a spiteful house or the penguin “trapped in the world”, there should be something (or someone) that sidesteps ordinary expectations. Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.
Beloved, we discover late in the novel once had a proper name, but it’s neither used nor revealed in the novel. ↩
Using a preface, therefore, provides a writer with two opportunities to hook or lose the reader’s attention. ↩
Initially, I wondered if Jack, Susie’s father, felt trapped him by his own lovely life but that specific desperation proved to be another character’s problem, which means the preface also introduces some narrative misdirection to keep the reader guessing. ↩
Inciting events represent actions or decision that sets the story in motion (here, Susie’s murder). The sequence of events may be linear or flashback to how events led to inciting incident, as is the case here. Susie’s murder also represents the uses of an external force as the initial driver of the plot. ↩
Along with a tendency to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, working as a professional editor means that I tend to find errors in texts even when I’m off duty.[*] However, there are moments when discovering instances of inaccuracy places me in the position of a sleuth. When I’m reading fiction or poetry, I sometimes find what initially looks likes an overlooked error (eg, missing spaces, unusual line breaks, nonstandard spelling) that forms a pattern. And patterns in writing signal intent on the writer’s part.
This excerpt of Jorie Graham’s poem, “The Errancy”, demonstrates how unconventional line breaks create a halting rhythm when reading the poem.
So, why deliberately add what reads superficially as a mistake? Ignoring writers with idiosyncratic preferences,[†] violating the conventions of written language—more properly called its orthography[‡]—usually isn’t done to make proofreaders, betas, and grammar pickers twitch. Rather, it represents an artistic approach to drawing the readers’ attention to the text. Considering orthography encompasses spelling, punctuation, emphasis, and so forth, writers can play with written form in numerous ways. While I cannot document all these approaches, I’ll provide several examples where writers ignore conventional usages from the aforementioned categories as well as explain why they did so.
Nonstandard Spelling and Punctuation
Of course, nonstandard spelling and punctuation are the two categories where we’re most likely to assume the author introduced a typo versus deliberately chose incorrect usage. I certainly thought this was the case when I noticed the first instance where quotation marks that usually denote dialogue were absent in The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey’s novel is based on the Russian folktale, Sneugurochka. In this tale, a childless couple build a child from snow that magically transforms into a real child. Ivey’s novel differs from the source material in that the story points to two possible origins for Faina, one magical and one more mundane. Once I realized that the “error” in Ivey’s novel recurred only when the dialogue involved Faina, I correctly suspected that Ivey eliminated the quotation marks to subtly call our attention to the uncertainty surrounding Faina’s true nature.
However, unconventional orthography isn’t always so subtle as absent punctuation. Perhaps the most recognizable—and potentially controversial—form of unconventional orthography occurs when a writer decides to reproduce dialect by spelling by how the word sounds (also called pronunciation respelling). As Jennifer Sommer observes, dialect adds a level of authenticity.[§] Used respectfully, it can identify where a character is from or help establish the setting (eg, “y’all” suggests the southern United States). In contrast, other uses of nonstandard spelling can be thought provoking. Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison spells words such as “whitelady”, “coloredfolk”, and “blackman” without a space between the person(s) and their race. Beloved focuses on the pervasive damage slavery inflicted on former black slaves and how it destroys their sense of personhood. With the mere deletion of a space, Morrison points out how (even today) we view people through the lens of racial identity versus their individuality.
Emphasis (eg, bold, italics, underline, small caps, capitalization) in written language serves the purpose of drawing attention to the text, and it’s strikingly similar to the goal writers have when they use emphasis unconventionally. However, the quintessential difference lies in why emphasis is being employed. Traditional use of emphasis works something like a helpful signpost as we travel through a text. All capital letters appear when we read headlines or warnings, boldface titles mark the start of a new section, a capital letter starts a sentence, italics let us know that phrase isn’t misspelled but comes from another language, and so forth. They point to transitions and notify us when we need to observe something more carefully.
Unconventional usage of emphasis, however, asks the readers to pay attention to the text’s content. Conventionally, the pronoun “I” is always capitalized. E. E. Cummings chose to forgo this formality in his poem, “i like my body when it’s with your”, a tactic that immerses the reader into an intimate environment where a lover engages in pillow talk. While there are moments when unconventional emphasis points to a transition, such instances tend to make us focus more carefully on the text. Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) contains a chunk of italicized text that interrupts the narrative of that section’s primary narrator (Mr. Cheong) and switches to another character’s dream (his wife, Yeong-hye). But italics signal more than this transition.[††]Yeong-hye, as I noted elsewhere, is nearly unknowable character in a story about her mental illness, partly because she does not serve as one of the primary narrators. This passage and other, increasingly shorter disjointed statements (also italicized) provide a nebulous insight into her deteriorating mental state, but the reader never finds a definitive reason as to why her sanity falters.
Providing an overarching reason as to why writers decide to ignore conventional orthography is difficult because these decisions serve multiple purposes, whether the writer asks the reader to lean in and hear how people speak or whether they challenge us to think about race and mental health. What these examples have in common, though, is that authors use these techniques to stimulate their readers’ curiosity. The result is that the reader becomes an active participant in their reading, following the clues that inform the text. As such, discarding conventions such as these provides writers with another means by which they engage their readers.
[*] Consider it an occupational hazard that makes reading menus rather unpleasant.
[‡] Colloquially speaking, we’d call this grammar. But since we’re looking at general rules for how language appears on the page, I’m going to stick with the fustier term.
[§] Sommer’s article focuses mostly on objections to dialect, but there are examples illustrating sensitive uses of dialect.
[**] On the topic of how emphasis conveys speech, I considered mentioning that all caps is the visual equivalent of shouting, but it’s become quite common in the post-Internet era. Arguably, using all caps to depict shouting could be considered common enough to be a convention.
[††] Eowyn Ivey uses italics to offset correspondence (ie, note a narrative transition) in The Snow Child, but this strikes me as an unnecessary flourish as the use of letter formatting adequately conveys this information.
We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.
This past weekend, I went to the Baltimore Book Festival for the first time. Greeted by unseasonably warm weather, throngs of readers strolled among tents featuring authors talking about their works. I attended lectures on editing bon mots,[*] social justice, monsters in modern horror, and food in science fiction. I bought and discussed books whose titles I just learned that day. Being an avid reader, I loved having the opportunity to delve into new topics and books I didn’t know existed. Perhaps the only book-related topic I didn’t hear mentioned was how we find the books we choose to read when we don’t have a handy festival to suggest interesting titles. We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.
Polling the Readers
I’ll admit that this topic that occurred to me well before I sauntered forth to bake in the Baltimorean sunshine amongst the bookish. Perhaps a week or two earlier, I’d been looking over lists of books I read or intended to read and came to the realization that many recommendations came from Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, WordPress, and even (on occasion) Facebook.[†] Being curious, I conducted a small poll on Twitter to find out whether any other readers saw their reading lists expand courtesy of social media. Slightly over half of my respondents agreed that social media helped grow their reading lists, with contemporary fiction writer and blogger Nastasya Parker observing that these recommendations made her reading “even more rewarding”. Novelist Anne Charnock (Dreams Before the Start of Time) concurred, stating that “Twitter is good for book recommendations—from a bunch of people whose recs are pretty reliable”. The remaining individuals divided into those who felt social media hadn’t increased the length of their reading lists (slightly over 25%) and those who were unsure. Arguably, these results could depend on how those individuals use social media. Not everyone goes to Twitter and asks, “Read a good book lately?” or finds people whose reading habits resonate with their own.
I certainly hadn’t expected better to-be read book lists to be part of the bargain when I’d joined some social media outlets.[‡] However, my first Twitter chat revealed the power of the social reading community. When several like-minded individuals gather to talk about books, there’s a good chance for discovering new titles to read. In this case, the July 2016 #women_writers chat focused on reading women in translation, and, as I noted in a different post, I discovered a gap in my reading. It wasn’t long before several books were proposed to remedy that problem. I could (and did) find articles suggesting books to read for #WITmonth (like this one), but receiving multiple recommendations for certain books or authors from this group really identified worthy titles.[§] And I’ve had similar experiences with Instagram (The Reading Women come to mind) and my Goodread reading groups, to name a few.
So, spending more time on social media perversely improved my offline reading. Of course, it’s not the only place to find captivating books to read. There’s reviews (in print and online), best-seller lists, and so forth. There’s even the simple expedient of walking into the local library or bookshop and checking out what’s on display. Social media, however, makes it easier to connect with people who share your reading tastes and make reliable recommendations. Reading tends to be a solitary pursuit, but looking for new books to read needn’t be lonesome.
Has social media improved your reading list? Let me know and share your suggestions for a good read!
[†] I also created an imaginary click-bait link: “How Twitter Improved My Reading Life!” (In my head, titles like this seem to read by an old-timey news broadcaster). Naturally, should this article have existed, it would have parodied articles devoted to improving one’s romantic/sex life.
[‡] Except Goodreads. Because that’s rather the whole point, isn’t it?
[§] Two different Goodreads groups recommended works by Han Kang (either The Vegetarian or Human Acts), as did Twitter chats and various Instagram posters. Both books were compelling, challenging reads.
The hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.
In the previous post, I discussed how hobbies in fiction help develop characters, something which can set up expectations of character behavior as well as lend itself to exploring a work’s thematic elements. In part II, I look at how hobbies influence setting and plot.
Setting and Hobbies: Everything in Its Place and Time
Because characterization is the most obvious effect a character’s hobby has, it’s perhaps less intuitive that character hobbies make demands of the setting. Hobbies, however, must be conducted somewhere and that’s where setting comes in. Some hobbies, being rather portable (reading), can occur wherever it suits the writer, while others dictate the setting where they occur (surfing). Writers, therefore, can use hobbies as a reason to place characters into a specific setting where they wish the scene/story to occur. Travel for pleasure[*] happens to be a rather effective hobby that allows writers to introduce their characters to new people, places and experiences. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows regularly falls in love with new means of transport (whether its rowboats or motor cars) that let him travel and adventure. While Toad’s hobbies often reveal his impulsiveness and reckless side, one of the book’s notable adventures begin when Toad’s enthusiasm for the latest vehicle spurs him to gather his friends to travel and seek excitement. Similarly, hobbies can signal the story’s timeline. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the presence of Garbage Pail Kids collectible trading cards reveal Tracey’s subversive edge and her tendency towards divisiveness as well as places the timeline in the mid-1980s.
Setting the Plot: Hobbies, World-Building and Plot in the Harry Potter Series
Given the greater burdens that exist for establishing settings in fictional genres that involve world-building,[‡] character hobbies can be a useful means for conveying information about these settings. Fantasy novels, for example, typically involve intense world-building since they diverge from strictly realistic settings. J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter series in a hidden magical realm that exists alongside the real world. Although a portion of her setting existed, the magical areas of the world did not. Therefore, she needed to create the parameters for these magical places, their inhabitants, their society, how these realms and their elements interact (eg, magic makes electrical items malfunction), and so forth. Newcomer Harry Potter acts as the reader’s stand-in for these discoveries in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.[§] Rowling uses a common childhood hobby to allow for comparisons between the magical and nonmagical settings to illustrate how the former operates (in its role of world-building) as well as cleverly introduces a mean of revealing information that forwards her novel’s plot significantly.
The Famous Witch and Wizard Cards: Hobbies as an Approach to Establishing Setting
Much like Smith, Rowling employs trading cards in her story—but with the expected magical twist. While traveling to wizarding school, Harry purchases the unfamiliar foodstuff of the magical world. Among his sweets are Chocolate Frogs, which come with the Famous Witches and Wizards (FWW) cards. In the real world, trading cards that feature real people often provide an image of the person and some relevant information about the individual (eg, baseball cards indicate the player’s position and stats). The FWW cards Harry receives mirror such cards in that they include a picture of the witch or wizard accompanied by a biography that lists their claim to fame and other interesting trivia such as their hobbies.[**] What makes them different is that the cards are enchanted, with the images moving like living people (Rowling 101–3). In addition to allowing readers to see how trading cards differ between these realms, these cards also prepare the readers and Harry for how other pictorial representations behave in the magical world (eg, portraits that he encounters speak to people and travel from frame to frame). Its role in helping establish expectations for this magical setting, then, even supersedes that of delivering (or confirming with some details) biographical information about school headmaster and major character Albus Dumbledore—the subject of Harry’s first FWW card.
Setting to Plotting
Rowling’s ingenuity is not limited to creating comparisons between the world Harry knows and the one he’s joined. In contrast to Smith’s Garbage Pail Kids, the presence of the magical trading cards reveal little about the children collecting them (as I noted above, we learn more about Dumbledore here). However, Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. During his first weeks at school, Harry and his friends (Ron and Hermione Granger) become aware that some important item recently arrived at the school for safekeeping and that there had been attempts to steal it. Having learned through unintended admission that the hidden object involved both Albus Dumbledore and another wizard named Nicolas Flamel (a name Harry is certain that he read previously), the children begin researching Flamel in hopes of finding more information about the object and why it is being hidden. Shortly after the Christmas holidays end, Neville Longbottom gives Harry one of the FWW cards for his collection. It’s the Dumbledore card, which mentions his alchemical work with Flamel—hence the reason Flamel’s name seemed familiar to Harry. With this insight, Hermione locates the necessary details about Flamel, which in turn reveals that the Philosopher’s Stone is the item hidden at the school (102–103, 218–220). Discovering that the mystery item is the Philosopher’s Stone (as well as why someone would steal it) is a major plot point here, and it’s Harry’s modest hobby of collecting FWW cards that allows the children to make this leap.
Hobbies and Fiction
Rowling frequently and often playfully employed hobbies throughout her Harry Potter series, using them to reveal facts about characters, forward plot and even provide opportunities for her fictional adolescents to change settings (Quidditich, for one, gets them outside the castle). Writers such as Rowling, of course, rarely add details about characters to provide a laundry list of biographical data, something which most readers would likely find dull. Instead, she provides hobbies with specific goals: showing Molly Weasley’s kindliness when she knits Harry a sweater for the holidays or revealing Hagrid’s pet hobby of raising dangerous critters, something which informs the plot in a few places (in this book and others). Including character hobbies is among the important decisions a writer makes when developing a character, one that stretches beyond the role of characterization. Therefore, the hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.
[*] Travel for personal enjoyment allows many fictional detectives to leave their normal environment and discover mysteries in the wild, as it were. It’s also a matter of practicality in detective series: mysteries always started at the detective’s office or set in an amateur detective’s hometown can become formulaic.
[‡] Genres most identified with world-building are science-fiction/speculative and fantasy fiction, both of which constructing new worlds. I’d argue historical fiction also belongs here, as world-building in this genre takes the form of reconstructing the world of the past.
[§] However much it annoys me that the American title differs from the British one, it’s the title of my copy and therefore the one I must use for the citation:
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.
[**] Hobbies within hobbies! Of note, the FWW cards play a role in characterization here, although it’s not the scene’s focus.
Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements.
Sufficiently realistic characters are part of fiction’s great juggling act—its need to appear plausible enough for readers to suspend their disbelief and engage with the story and its emotional truths. When writers develop their characters, they provide them with relationships (friends, family, lovers, etc), careers, backstories, hobbies, and so forth to achieve this verisimilitude. Of these items, I find how writers use hobbies in their stories fascinating because hobbies can serve many purposes besides filling out a character’s biography sheet. For example, hobbies[*] (to paraphrase what I’ve said elsewhere) often serve as a shorthand form of characterization because they can reveal aspects of the character’s personality through their interests. Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements. In this first of two parts discussing the role of hobbies is fiction, I’ll take a look at the clever ways in which writers use hobbies to develop characters and explore theme. Part II will look at the roles hobbies have in establishing the setting and forwarding plot.
Rounding out Characters
As I’ve implied, the primary role hobbies play in fiction involves characterization. The degree to which they inform the text about the character, however, varies. Providing biographical details is an excellent way to flesh out relatively minor characters. Sylvia Keene, a young woman discussed in Agatha Christie’s short story “The Herb of Death”, played tennis. This detail is mentioned as part of a brief “verbal portrait” provided by characters (Arthur and Dolly Bantry) who are discussing the circumstances of her death. Arthur observes she played tennis gracefully, which (along with youth and good looks) was part of her charm. In this regard, tennis reveals Sylvia’s characteristic grace but tells us little else about her. Similarly, a hobby might confirm or provide additional evidence of a character’s known interests. Librarian Polly Duncan, love interest to James Qwilleran (the main human character) from The Cat Who series, is an avid reader, a detail that merely confirms the bookishness her career choice suggested.
Characterization and Themes
However, hobbies frequently provide readers with greater insights into the character’s personality and their behavior. Some hobbies tend to be associated with certain types of behavior or personality types. Angling, for example, is associated with quietness because it’s alleged that fish avoid noisy spots. Hobby stereotypes also exist: stamp collectors traditionally are thought of as reclusive and nerdy. Since these expectations exist, writers can use them to signal the character has certain traits or tendencies.[†] In The Lovely Bones,[‡] author Alice Sebold initially presents Jack Salmon as a father dealing his daughter Susie’s disappearance/murder. When Sebold introduces his hobby, readers gain insights into Jack’s personality and the family’s dynamics as she explore the novel’s themes.
A few weeks after Susie’s death, Jack enters his den to clean it up as part of an effort “to move forward” (45). As Susie (the narrator) explains, Jack’s den is where he either reads or builds miniature ships in bottle after work, with Susie often acting as his assistant. Sebold’s choice of hobby hints at traits Jack possesses. Since building these bottles requires painstaking effort, we’d expect anyone who attempting this hobby to be patient and meticulous. Susie confirms this impression by noting he “he counted numbers—due diligence” for an insurance company (45). Based on this description of Jack (reading, ship building, number crunching), readers might expect him to be typically quiet and mild mannered.
Susie also informs readers that Jack learned how to build these ship from his father, but she was the only other person in his own household who shares his love of these ships. Jack makes several failed attempts to entice his other children into building ships with him, demonstrating how important sharing this hobby is to him. Jack’s success with Susie also lets Sebold show readers that Susie shares some of her father’s qualities. As an amateur photographer who dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer, she possesses that same careful patience—whether it’s holding the bottle while waiting for the ship sails to rise or catching the right moment to snap a photo. Obviously, this activity represents a bonding experience, one which likely held greater significance for Jack given that no one else wanted to spend time working on these boats with him. In some ways, losing Susie means Jack loses someone who understands this side of him.
Jack’s mission to clear away his treasured ships—now painful reminders of Susie—takes a violent turn as he begins throwing and crashing them against the walls. The symbolism here is evident: the bottles are as shattered as Jack’s world. Sebold, of course, could have chosen to have Jack break anything to demonstrate his emotional turbulence. Destroying his treasured ships, items so closely associated with his murdered daughter, is a more poignant choice: nothing else but his tremendous grief could have prompted Jack to ruin them—or arguably provoked such violence from him. As loss and grief are among the novel’s central themes, Sebold’s inclusion of this scene is brilliant because it lets us see how Jack’s emotional landscape altered in response to Susie’s murder. His reaction to her loss, his grieving, involves fury that she was taken suddenly and violently. It also prepares readers for a future occasion when Jack’s grief and anger erupt again, this time with greater ramifications.
Having shown Jack’s emotional state and prepared readers for other instances what otherwise would have been out-of-character behavior, Sebold could have abandoned further mentions of ships, letting them remain casualties of Jack’s grief. Instead, she revisits Jack’s hobby one last time to beautifully illustrate Jack’s progression through the stages of mourning. Years later, Jack learns his other daughter is expecting a child and dreams of teaching another child to share his love of these ships, even as he knows that doing so will always remind him of his lost child. While Jack will never stop missing Susie, he has accepted her death and is now truly moving forward as best he can. In this moment, we see all the novel’s themes—loss, grief, and love and acceptance—tangled in Jack’s humble hopes for the future.
Sebold’s thoughtful use of Jack’s hobby shows some (though not all) of the more complex ways a hobby can influence a story through characterization: it suggests his personality (supported by career choices and other pastimes), show us how his hobby connects him or distances from family, reveals how grief changes him, and how acceptance reconnects him to himself. In part II of “Fiction and the Versatile Hobby”, I’ll examine the roles, both small and great, hobbies play when we consider story settings and plot.
[*] Countless activities can be considered hobbies, ranging from sports to collecting. There are crossovers between hobbies and professions (an amateur painter versus the professional), with some people occasionally even supplementing their primary income with earnings from such pursuits and others managing to translate a hobby into a career (the home cook turned professional). However fine these distinctions may be, generally the hobby is the one that earns less, is conducted only in one’s spare time, and would not be considered as an occupation by its practitioner.
“I got dressed to begin another day. Over and over, we begin again.”
The heart of the home truly is the kitchen for the young protagonist of Banana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen (translated by Megan Backus). University student Mikage Sakurai loves kitchens, which become her refuge when the death of her grandmother making her an orphan twice over.[*] Stunned by her utter solitude (“It’s total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos.”), she only can sleep next to the humming refrigerator. Other obligations also press on her. While her grandmother left her money,[†] she nonetheless must downsize her apartment to stretch her funds. Still grief-stricken, the thought of moving and house hunting paralyzes her. Fortunately, Mikage also inherits her grandmother’s friendship with Yuichi Tanabe. Yuichi, a younger university student, works part-time at the floral shop her grandmother frequented. He and his mother, Eriko, offer a much needed respite by opening their home to Mikage, complete with a beautiful kitchen (“It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight”).
Grief, Connection, and Magic
Yoshimoto’s novel (as well as its novella companion “Moonlight Shadow”)[‡] contemplates grief and loneliness with a delicate touch. While these emotions predominate, they are offset by moments of joy and connection. Yoshimoto uses light and dark imagery symbolically to reinforce these feelings: in the novel’s second half, “the telephone was glowing” in Yuichi’s mind whereas Mikage felt the line to Yuichi was submerged in deep, dark water, respectively suggesting his need for her companionship and her recognition of his grief. Part of the novel’s charm in negotiating such difficult topics involves its subtle use of magical realism that confers an almost fairy-tale quality to the story. Yuichi appears at just the right moment to offer Mikage a place to live while she sorts out her affairs. Both young people share a remarkable dream that takes place in the grandmother’s now empty kitchen, in which Yuichi implores Mikage to stay at his family’s apartment. Mikage even intuits which hotel room belongs to Yuichi before scaling the wall to deliver him katsudon. (This latter example also represents a brilliant gender role reversal, as Mikage plays—albeit comically—the traditionally male role of rescuer for a distressed Yuichi.)
However magical her delivery may be, Yoshimoto does not shield her characters from pain. Eriko explains hers (and the novel’s) philosophy to Mikage: we must experience “true despair” to understand joy. Mikage also comes to accept that, even when we are with others, we are always alone. While she despairs that we’re “always defeated”, this knowledge lets her live more fully. Grief, therefore, is transformative in Kitchen. Having discovered a passion for cooking while living with the Tanabes, Mikage leaves university and successfully embarks on a cooking career despite her limited qualifications. Eriko’s own experience of grief literally changes her. Watching his wife slowly succumb to cancer forced Eriko to understand that “the world didn’t exist for [his] benefit”.[§] Becoming aware that he disliked being a man and realizing he would never love again, Eriko transitioned to a woman and opened a gay nightclub,[**] thereby straddling roles of provider and nurturer. Her story essentially serves as a loose guide for Mikage who also bridges these roles: cooking is her profession but it is one that nurtures.
The kitchen, of course, serves as an extended metaphor throughout this novel, representing that which sustains people through terrible loss, both in terms of sustenance (food, nourishment) and refuge. Kitchen creates this space as a haven for healing and connection, perhaps even new beginnings. And it’s this uplifting spirit that makes Kitchen a story that satisfies indeed.
[*] Mikage’s grandparents raised her after her parents died. Her grandfather subsequently died while she was in junior high school. Hence, she’s doubly orphaned by losing two sets of guardians.
[†] Discovering an orphaned character who isn’t destitute is a pleasure.
[‡] “Moonlight Shadow” (also translated by Megan Backus) typically accompanies Kitchen. My focus here is on the larger work.
[§] My pronoun usage mirrors that of the novel, using female for post-transition and male pronouns for pre-transition Eriko (formerly called Yugi).
[**] It’s worth observing that most characters seem to respect Eriko’s gender identity, even though it’s mentioned on occasion that Eriko is “really a man”. Given that Eriko’s fate is common for transgender women, a content warning is appropriate.