Happy Fall! I’m looking forward to being with Janice soon as we both present workshops at the SCBWI Southern Breeze Fall Conference, Writing and Illustrating for Kids, Oct. 12 in Birmingham, AL. (If you’re going, you’ll have to choose… they’re both in the first session.) Janice’s is called, “It’s Showtime – Show Don’t Tell,” and mine is “Poetry Tips for Prose Writers.”
Here’s an appetizer for my session, which will include examples from various books and genres, including children’s books. Today, let’s spend a few moments with a book for adults. Ten years ago it launched the career of a beloved New York Times bestselling author.
This summer, I heard Khaled Hosseini in a television interview discussing his new novel, And the Mountains Echoed. (The title, by the way, was inspired by the ending line of William Blake’s “The Nurse’s Song” from his Songs of Innocence. Click here for a Huffington Post piece with more on the title and the novel.) In the TV interview, Hosseini discussed how poetry infused his daily life growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan. It struck me that this is not the experience of most children in the U.S., alas. I thought it would be interesting to read The Kite Runner with an eye for how this poetry-steeped sensibility might show up in his first novel. (This book was also made into a film in 2007.)
The Kite Runner was, for me, difficult to read because it portrays brutalities of life in Afghanistan over three decades, and personal violence suffered by its main characters. I kept turning pages, though; Hosseini made me thirsty to discover redemption. The story’s narrator, Amir, wrestles with loyalties of family and friendship and with his own weaknesses, particularly in his relationship with his childhood servant, Hassan. Amir is haunted well into adulthood by choices he made when young, long after his parting from Hassan.
Where does poetry come in?
On a direct level, the author mentions the classic poets he grew up with - Rumi, Hafez and Omar Khayyám. A time or two, he refers specifically to the classic Persian poetic form, the ghazal.
On a structural level, the novel opens and closes with scenes that are related, and have to do with the sport of running kites. (No spoilers in case this book is on your nightstand.) The kite imagery only appears now and again in the novel, but in my mind I can imagine those kites floating above the harsh realities of the story, and the sometimes fragile connection between two characters, thin as a string, which also cuts the hands which hold it.
For strong, poetic imagery, how about these sentences inside the book’s opening paragraph:
I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.I would argue that the alliteration, those similar beginning sounds of words, helps pack a subconscious punch here for the reader: crouching, crumbling, creek. And the personification of the past as it “claws” its way out–just a strong verb choice, after all–makes it an immediate powerful player in the story.
Here are more examples of personification with verb choices, and an ending simile, in a descriptive paragraph from the first part of the book:
We sat against the low cemetery wall under the shade thrown by the pomegranate tree. In another month or two, crops of scorched yellow weeds would blanket the hillside, but that year the spring showers had lasted longer than usual, nudging their way into early summer, and the grass was still green, peppered with tangles of wildflowers. Below us, Wazir Akbar Khan’s white-walled, flat-topped houses gleamed in the sunshine, the laundry hanging on clotheslines in their yards stirred by the breeze to dance like butterflies.Such heavy, concentrated description would become tiresome to read in a long novel, I think, if injected into each paragraph. But passages such as this one anchor the reader in time and place, offer a breather between a faster pace of dialogue and action.
Here’s another excerpt, narrated by a character named Rahim Khan this time, from the middle of the novel. Notice how the choices of images and even the sounds of the words (such as “rutted dirt road”) dictate more than the setting – they establish mood:
But I remember it was a scorching summer day and I was driving up a rutted dirt road, nothing on either side but sunbaked bushes, gnarled, spiny tree trunks, and dried grass like pale straw. I passed a dead donkey rotting on the side of the road. And then I turned a corner and, right in the middle of that barren land, I saw a cluster of mud houses, beyond them nothing but broad sky and mountains like jagged teeth.Consider the effect of those short, choppy words with hard syllables - all the d’s and k’s. The last sentence invites us to stretch out into softer sounds just for a moment, with words like “barren” and “beyond” and “sky” and “mountains” – then we’re jerked back into tension with the ominous image of “jagged teeth.” (And notice that rhythm there: MOUN-tains like JAG-ged TEETH – jagged itself).
One final image to leave you with, though I’ll take out the character’s name so as not to ruin the story.
[Character’s] silence wasn’t the self-imposed silence of those with convictions, of protestors who seek to speak their cause by not speaking at all. It was the silence of one who has taken cover in a dark place, curled up all the edges and tucked them under.Quite effective, don’t you think? Of course, poetic language in and of itself won’t carry a novel. Hosseini describes that he rewrites each book several times, and the rewrites reveal “depth of character and subtexts of stories.”
But an ear which has been attuned to poetry from a young age seems to contribute to storytelling possessing an undeniable richness.
To learn more about Hosseini and his work, check out his website, particularly his short videos about writing. Perhaps one of your own works in progress could be enlivened with an occasional infusion of poetry!
Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012), THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL (2013) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at http://artsyletters.com.