If there's one domestic device I despise, it's the vacuum cleaner. The way it forces me to arch my back, the horrid howl and the greed with which it collects lost jewellery – I try to avoid it at any occasion. But today I had to, for the first time since I've moved to Britain. Even twice, because all my fingers seemed to have turned to thumbs overnight.
“A well-organised life is a great achievement,” my mother used to say. I do believe her, though I'm not the type of woman that likes to spend her time on housekeeping. I just can't get my head around the futility of cleaning. It always seems like such a waste of time, effort and talent to wipe bread crumbs from the kitchen sink, when you know they'll be back within a couple of hours: I could be reading and writing!
This morning I dropped my Elvis-glass in the kitchen. From amidst the splinters, his young face stared at me and I could swear he suddenly had this melancholic look about him. It was a twopence tumbler, really, but I loved it for its cheapability and when I moved to Britain I shipped it with the greatest care. Now this cheesy symbol of my student's life lay shattered in my new kitchen. I cried a little. But that was not enough to lull the ghost of an aborted symbol. As soon as I put the hated vacuum cleaner – filled with Elvis-splinters – back in the corner, my cupboard shook until a plate slipped out.
Until that moment I had not realised that the shattered glass was just as figurative as it had been before I dropped it. I had left my home country, my friends and family. Did I really believe I could hold on to the life-style this glass represented? Oh no! Of course I had left that too behind in Holland. The last traces of my former life just had to make way for something new: something British. But still something cheap, I'm afraid.
This is the sort of event that inspires me to write. While I was doing the necessary bit of cleaning, tatters of thought shaped themselves into a story. Narratives always present themselves when I'm not in the opportunity to jot them down (cleaning, jogging, falling asleep, socializing). Inspiration is quite similar to star-gazing, really: most stars you can only see from the corner of your eye. (We've got several sorts of receptor cells. The centre of the retina is dominated by cones, the ones that enable us to see colours. The rods only tell us whether there is light or not, and their threshold for passing this information to the brain happens to be a lot lower than the threshold for the cones. Therefore, the sky seems much starrier when we're not focussing on it.) The best stories I've written are recycled thoughts, processed elements of my daily life. As personal as autobiography, but without the boring bits. For a good piece of fiction, self-revelation is required. In fact, collecting splinters from a broken glass inspired me to write the tale of the bold bachelorette, the opening scene of my latest novel, Chicklitter.
Even though she was in great debt because of the leaded light she smashed, the bold bachelorette still sang along with Edith Piaf and meant every word of it.
“Non, je ne regrette rien, rien de rien!” Her voice was clear and great of volume, and made her bosom rise with every phrase. Art is alive, she thought, and it slowly dies if we don't feed it with admiration. It's a shame to save my voice for St. Matthew's Passion. What use is it to know I can sing, when nobody ever enjoys it? And how can we say a picture is beautiful, when it is locked away in a vault? Art should be a part of our daily life and each work should receive its deserved adoration, just like we deserve dinner every day.
And she did adore the leaded light, indeed, that night - before she threw a vodka bottle through it.
You may have noticed that I'm fond of poetic figures of speech. Rhythm is one of these; I read my writings aloud until it sounds perfect. Of course I'm not alone in that; I don't know if you do it too, but if you don't, I can only advise you to give it a try.
Anyhow, I hope my preference for alliteration and assonance is more characteristic for my work. When I manage to introduce some rhyme to a text, I feel like the chunk of communication turns into proper literature. And I like to believe not every author aims for this. (Which is why in Chicklitter I refer to my main character as the bold bachelorette rather than actually naming her.) Another poetic feature of my work is the unusually large amount of awkward imagery. I can hardly ever stop myself from thinking up mad metaphors, and though I strike out most of them to make my text readable, I'm afraid they're still quite prominent. For example, when the bold bachelorette has broken into a church to get drunk with her under age lover, she climbs the pulpit and starts speaking in a preachy tone:
“Don't you just love the Catholics? Yes, they are religious pigs, like the Muslims and the Jews and all the rest of them, but at least they've got good taste. Just look at this woodwork, it's carved so elegantly! Every functional bit is covered in decorations: every inch of it just breathes beauty! And awe... Behold that lovely lovely leaded light! The colours of the stained glass are so... amazing! Look at that cloak Maria's wearing: with the street lights behind it, it gleams like Negro skin in a bright green spotlight!”
The bold bachelorette is far from perfect: she's a burglar and a blasphemer, a racist and a pederast and like I announced in the first sentence, she's will break the beloved leading light. This too marks my work. I emphasize all flaws in my main character, without estranging the reader from her. When eventually the main character does show one good quality, it will be so much more important, thanks to the contrast. The heroine of Chicklitter eventually takes full accountability for the damage she did:
“Alas, I should have known better,” the bold bachelorette moaned to the police officer. “I should never have started dating someone five years younger than me. I should have picked someone my own age, who would have taken me to a club, like ordinary people. But instead I had to break into a church and get pissed in both the British and the American sense, which is not a good cocktail, if you know what I mean.”
And this brings me to the last aspect of my voice as an author, dear Andrada, an aspect that actually counts for you as much as it does for me. In the last line of the novel I emphasize the difference between the meaning of one word (pissed) in British and in American. This is the result of my external approach of the English language. Because English is not our primary language, we have to go looking for words all the time, we're in the constant habit of paying extra attention to our word choice, whereas natives can go lazy and pick the first word that comes to mind automatically. For example, If I call the shattered glass splinters instead of pieces, and if I say someone looks forlorn rather than miserable, that's because these words have their origin in Dutch, my mother tongue. I deliberately choose these words over others because they are closer to me. But I do not wish to erase the distance: I treasure it! Writing in a second language stimulates our awareness, sensitivity and creativity – which shows in our texts through the well-considered choice of words.
To recap: my stories are based on my own experiences – and they usually present themselves when it's least convenient. For turning my prose into literature I rely on poetic figures of speech, such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and assonance. My metaphors are often disturbing, as are my main characters. I've got a taste for anti-heroes, though nobody's completely imperfect (twisted as it may sound, to excel in taboos is still a form of excellence). And last but not least, I think the fact that English is not my mother tongue will always show in my writing.
Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts on your voice as a writer. Do you think, for example, that you've got a different voice in Romanian than in English?