Monday, October 1, 2012

My First Time: Deni Y. Béchard

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Deni Y. Béchard, author of Vandal Love (a novel that won the Commonwealth Writers Prize) and Cures for Hunger (a memoir about growing up the son of a French Canadian bank robber).  Béchard was born in British Columbia to French Canadian and American parents and grew up in both Canada and the United States. On four occasions, he has been a recipient of Canada Council and Québec Arts Council Grants, and he has been a fellow at MacDowell, Jentel, the Edward Albee Foundation, Ledig House, the Anderson Center and Vermont Studio Center, among others. His articles, stories and translations have appeared in a number of magazines and newspapers, among them National Post, Maisonneuve, Le Devoir, Harvard Review and Harvard Divinity Bulletin.  He has done freelance reporting from Northern Iraq as well as from Afghanistan.  He is currently working on Empty Hands, Open Arms, a book about grassroots conservation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

My First Plagiarism

When it comes to firsts, I’m amnesiac.  I can’t recall my first reading or review any more than I can my first kiss.  I like to travel light, so a memory has to be momentous if I’m willing to fit it into my baggage.  Largely, I’m a creature of the present, but with an appetite for the future.  First kiss, reading or review, I probably gave it a go, thinking, “There’s going to be better.”

And yet, when I try to recall falling in love with books, it bothers me that I’m stumped.  Already as a five-year-old, I was obsessed with reading, convinced that I’d someday write books myself, and occasionally, now, more than thirty years later, I wish there’d been a more dramatic moment, a revelation or personal discovery that set me on this path.  Instead, as I recall it, I woke up and went looking for books, the way a young Australian Kelpie might begin herding sheep.  That said, two books stand out in my mind, each with its own moment of revelation.  The first is Tison and Taylor’s Barbapapa, the second Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and like most writers with the books that inspired them, I tried my hand at imitating both.

I was, at most, six when I committed my first act of plagiarism.  I had a French copy of Barbapapa, signed out from the school library, and I brought it home, fascinated by the pink, pear-shaped creature who, finding himself in the world of humans, often used magic to change his form so as to better fit in.  Barbe à papa literally means “Papa’s beard,” and usually refers to cotton candy, though I didn’t know this then.  The friendly, otherworldly misfit, malleable though he might be, had captured my imagination. I took some papers, stapled them together, and set about copying the book word for word.  Though I had little interest in drawing, I did my best to imitate the images, giving myself some leeway since I was dealing with a shape-shifter.

When I offered the finished product to my mother, she took it into her hands and laughed, not with the joy of receiving a gift, but with amusement, as if I’d done something foolish.

“You shouldn’t copy books,” she said.  “You should make them yourself.”

What did she mean?  Hadn’t I just done that?  Seeing my confusion, she explained that I had to do it all: make up characters, pick what would happen in the beginning, then figure out how it would all come to an end.

The feeling of revelation, as I recall it, was stillness, the air swept up from the room, gravity gone lazy, as if the planet dropped a little faster through space, the way an elevator floor seems to soften beneath our feet on the descent.  All of my awareness had drawn into my brain for an act of sudden restructuring.  My forehead felt as wide as a window, curtains blowing in.  And then came the thought, “I can do that?” its question mark fading.

No permission had ever so set me adrift in the realms of possibility.  Not long afterward I wrote my first story, the subject of which I don’t recall, only my disappointment that so much of it was taken up with opening and closing doors, or riding in cars so that characters could meet.

The second book, a little more than a decade later, was Absalom, Absalom!, and it also dealt with a shape-shifter: Thomas Sutpen, a man who appears mysteriously in Jefferson, Mississippi, his ambitions soon to threaten the social order of Faulkner’s invented Yoknapatawpha County.  His arrival could hardly be more memorable: “Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color…”  Though I read The Sound and the Fury first, shouting at Faulkner in my head, “You’re not allowed to do this!” it wasn’t until I searched out more of his books and got my hands on Absalom, Absalom! that the revelation hit, the long, incantatory sentences rumbling through me, their words ricocheting in my head.  The moment wasn’t unlike that which I’d had hearing my mother.  “I am allowed to do this,” I told myself.  All of the rules had again been broken, and this time I gave myself the permission to explore form and language, to conceive of character within the broad sweep of history.  Even now, when I find my thinking around writing becoming limited, I reread Faulkner if only to see my preconceptions demolished, to remind myself of the scope of freedom.

That said, I should address the question I began with—that of my love for the present—and explain it in light of my having written a memoir and a fairly historical novel.  While the events in the books felt momentous enough to deserve study, this was far from my motivation.  Rather, from Faulkner, I learned to see an individual’s memories rooting into history’s dark strata.  The metaphor is imperfect, but sometimes I picture an arboreal Time: our present infinitely falling away like leaves to the rank accumulation of gravity, its loam and denser soils, even as we reach into an airy, unmanifest future.  Both realms, though rich in potential, nourish us very differently.  Faulkner exposed—at times subtly, at others brutally—the tension of our lives between these two temporalities, the tenuous present often unable to bridge the gap, to find sustenance in both the future and the past.  If he deepened my love of narrative, it was because I was riveted by his characters’ struggles to find their shapes in a changing world, because, in reconciling our past and our potential, every tool is required, every audacity.  He wasn’t offering a permission but an imperative, as if to say that only by creating new narratives to bridge the ever-widening gap in which we live, can we keep ourselves whole.

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