Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Roman a Clef and the Brute

"Newton, Iowa it was..."

Newton, Iowa it was...
I love that. It's my favorite line from "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac by far and for reason. I love it because Newton, Iowa - don't you know - is my hometown. I was born there and grew up there. I spent a couple of decades of my existence in that small midwestern industrial community and felt it was an absolutely lovely place in which to be born and raised.

Newton born; Newton bred; when we die, we'll be Newton dead.

I still take a lot of pride in coming from those solid humble roots that seem to ground me even now in a certain earthy prairie populism. That Kerouac mentioned Newton in his most famous novel is absolutely thrilling to me. Even more thrilling is the knowledge that "On the Road" is one of those books classified rightly as a Roman a Clef. (French for 'novel with a key')

The home where I was born...
What that means in non-Franckish terms is that it is fiction based largely on reality. The characters are thinly veiled versions of real people. A little idealized perhaps - or maybe more than a little - but the stories more or less truly happened. That means that Jack Kerouac (Sal Paradise) more than likely really did get stopped for speeding in Newton, Iowa way back when with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarity). I have read that section of the book so many, many times in my life and know exactly where his car came to a rest. I have sat on the curb in that part of town trying to soak in the dharmic zeitgeist of the past. I thought it was pretty darned cool that someone for whom I have such glowing respect as a writer was actually physically in my little hometown. Wow... even now... wow...

[Oddly: Kerouac was not the only literary Jack to spend time in Newton. Jack London - he of "White Fang" and "Call of the Wild" fame - also spent some time there. In fact, he wrote a book of ranting socio-political essays in Newton and proudly proclaimed so in the front of the book! But I digress...]

I love the simple lyricism of Kerouac's line as well. It is one of those sentences seemingly written in reverse. Almost like Yoda-speak. It just flows right for me and helped me to think about the lyricism of my own writing in terms that I could understand. It wasn't a crass "While driving through Newton, Iowa I was stopped for speeding..." Nope. "Newton, Iowa it was..."

While I loved the jazz poetics of his words, Kerouac's books always appealed to me for the Roman a Clef aspect as well. I dug that. I once had a writing teacher in college who wouldn't let me write a story set in New York City because I had never been there. He felt it disingenuine as an artist to tell a story without that context of reality. I didn't truly understand that until much later, but realize at a deep level - he was right.

I have tried to infuse that same ethic into "The Missionary and the Brute". Some people have asked me if the characters are based on real people I have met there. There is no easy answer for that. Yes and no is the right one, but not enough.

The settings and characters of my novel are based - somewhat - on real people, or more accurately composites of people and places I have encountered on my travels through Tanzania. Because he is the main character, people sometimes assume that the Missionary Jadwin Ross is based in part on me. Aside from the truth that I believe all characters have a bit of their soul taken from their authors - Jadwin is not me. But he does contain elements of many missionaries that I have encountered. That being said, I have never met one arrested for - or even remotely connected with - any murder or depravity of the type in "The Missionary and the Brute". That is all concoction from whole cloth.

No, Jadwin is definitely not me.

None of the characters in fact have a real-life equivalent. Rev. Kweka in the story has some elements of many Tanzanian preachers (and non-preachers) in him. So too do the American travelers. The closest any single character comes to having a direct equivalent is the Pigtail Girl that Ross meets in the airport. The dialogue he has with her was derived from one overheard on one of my trips. But that being said, even she veers down a far different path later on in the story. Literally.

Some of the singular events are indeed Roman a Clef'ed from my own experiences. I do know what it's like to be arrested in Tanzania. Not fun. In my case, I was taken in and interrogated for drug smuggling because I had brought various medical supplies for Doctor Julius at the Nkoraranga Hospital on Mt. Meru. My own experience colored the more harrowing one of Ross being beaten and arrested for murder in the novel.

The story is ultimately just that. A story. Hopefully it is one rich with the nuance of accurately realized characters. It is not truth. It is not reality. There are no ghosts of real people to be sought or seen. Only myth and fiction.

Kintori, Tanzania it was...

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