Examples of Excellence: Laurie Halse Anderson on POV and Focus

Examples of Excellence is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that delves into the work of artists who demonstrate excellence in their craft.

speak

Speak

By Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was named to the ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults in 2000. It was also banned in schools and libraries across America, eventually becoming the 60th most banned and challenged book of that decade [1].

Speak is the story of Melinda, a high school freshman struggling with the fallout of calling the police during a summer party. She becomes a pariah at school, loses her best friend, and retreats into herself as she tries to figure out how to survive in this new environment.

This book is a particularly strong example of using a first-person point of view to create intimacy and authenticity, and of using a character’s attention to unpack their internal life. This post will focus on both, showing how Anderson uses POV to control the narrator and the reader’s focus as she reveals a layered and sensitive story.

Melinda first introduces her world on her way to school:

The school bus wheezes to my corner. The door opens and I step up. I am the first pickup of the day. The driver pulls away from the curb while I stand in the aisle. Where to sit? I’ve never been a backseat wastecase. If I sit in the middle, a stranger could sit next to me. If I sit in the front, it will make me look like a little kid, but I figure it’s the best chance I have to make eye contact with one of my friends, if any of them have decided to talk to me yet.

– p. 3

In this moment, we scan the bus’s seats and run through the options alongside Melinda. We get an introduction to her frank voice and her more introspective decision-making process. We also get a first hint of the novel’s conflict, dumped in our laps when we least expect it: the confession is off-handed but honest, and we begin to form a picture of Melinda’s personality and world.

Shortly after, we meet Rachel Bruin, one of the most important people in Melinda’s life:

The kids behind me laugh so loud I know they’re laughing about me. I can’t help myself. I turn around. It’s Rachel, surrounded by a bunch of kids wearing clothes that most definitely did not come from the EastSide Mall. Rachel Bruin, my ex-best friend. She stares at something above my left ear. Words climb up my throat. This was the girl who suffered through Brownies with me, who taught me how to swim, who understood about my parents, who didn’t make fun of my bedroom. If there is anyone in the entire galaxy I am dying to tell what really happened, it’s Rachel. My throat burns.

Her eyes meet mine for a second. “I hate you,” she mouths silently. She turns her back to me and laughs with her friends. I bite my lip. I am not going to think about it.

– p. 4-5

Here, Anderson does several key things. Specific, realistic details indicate the length and closeness of the girls’ relationship. We also begin to see the hurdles Melinda faces in daily life, including economic disparities and possible conflicts at home. Most importantly, we see how Melinda’s initial impulse to speak is quickly tamped down. We watch her attempt to reach out and instead, after being brushed back, sink into herself.

As the book progresses, Melinda continues to make confessions to the reader. Anderson is a master at using Melinda’s attention to convey her thoughts and emotions, as when Melinda goes to the mall to avoid school and notices the birds trapped inside:

No one knows how they got in, but they live in the mall and sing pretty. I lie on the bench and watch the birds weave through the warm air until the sun burns so bright I’m afraid it will make holes in my eyeballs.

– p. 99

In addition to opening up questions about the line between captivity and freedom, this moment touches on the small sadnesses we encounter every day without realizing it. Melinda, too, is a girl running through the motions of being “fine” without ever truly feeling that way. These moments of reflection often spark more direct confessions:

I should probably tell someone, just tell someone. Get it over with. Let it out, blurt it out.

I want to be in fifth grade again. Now that is a deep dark secret, almost as big as the other one. Fifth grade was easy—old enough to play outside without Mom, too young to go off the block. The perfect leash length.

– p. 99

Through these moments, we’re able to get inside Melinda’s head. Her confessions feel familiar, since many of them capture similar feelings and secrets we all hold. They also feel extremely intimate, showing the jumps and pauses in her mind and letting us linger on something only as long as she does.

In one final moment, we again see Anderson’s expert use of focus:

He tilted my face up to his. He kissed me, man kiss, hard sweet and deep. Nearly knocked me off my feet, that kiss. And I thought for just a minute there that I had a boyfriend, I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me. He kissed me again. His teeth ground hard against my lips. It was hard to breathe.

– p. 135

Moment by moment, we follow Melindas exhilaration as it begins to soar and then dive into something much more like fear.

There is so much more to say about Speak. It’s a wrenching and compelling story—and, for writers, a master class in technique and first-person point of view.

Its place as both a classic and a highly vilified text makes it a particularly poignant read for 2017. Though her book speaks powerfully for itself, Anderson also pushed back against its censors, writing, “[C]ensoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them” (Speak, afterword).

In Speak, Anderson captures the voice of a teenage girl who wishes she didn’t care, but does—who is funny but fractured, strong but struggling, raw on the page but hiding behind a mask around everyone she encounters. Through guiding the reader’s focus and letting us in to Melinda’s mind and world, Anderson paints an intimate, believable portrait of a girl just trying to get things right.

[1] http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009

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Examples of Excellence: Amélie Sarn on Love, Hate, & Longing

Examples of Excellence is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that delves into the work of artists who demonstrate excellence in their craft.

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I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
By Amélie Sarn

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

I didn’t intend to write about this book. Honestly, I don’t feel qualified to write about this book.

But it won’t let me go.

“These young girls came here expecting hospitality and warmth, and here we are giving them morality lessons. . . I know that each one of us has to find her own path, and that it shouldn’t keep us from laughing, singing, and dancing together.”

– p. 101

At a time when everyone seems to feel that their beliefs—that their very way of life—is under attack, the sisters in this story show that different ways of life can coexist in harmony. Or they can collide in terrible tragedy.

It’s our choice.

Sohane: “You know how I hate seeing girls exposing themselves on billboards and in magazines. I don’t want to be like them. That’s not what it means to be a woman. I need to be respected.”

Djelila: “I want to be respected too . . . Without having to disappear or hide my face.”

– p. 57

Djelila and Sohane are two sisters of Algerian descent growing up in France. They live with their parents in a largely Muslim community, where not everyone agrees what it means to be Muslim or what it means to be French.

Together, Sohane and Djelila beautifully demonstrate the multiplicity of narratives that inform feminism. And their differences highlight the importance of a feminism that does not demand uniformity. A feminism that respects equally the choice to wear a head scarf and to dye your hair. The choice to conceal and to reveal.

Because it’s the choice that matters.

Djelila: “I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don’t want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself.”

– p. 131

Sohane: “I just want to be me. I don’t want to be ashamed of being Muslim and of practicing my religion. I’d like people to accept that. I don’t intend to harm anyone.”

– p. 86

Djelila and Sohane want the same things. They want to live freely and without fear. And without anyone else feeling fearful of them.

But their communities—their Muslim neighborhood, their secular school, their Algerian relatives, their French teachers—force them to choose one side or the other. Force them to fit into narrow boxes. Force them, really, to have no choice at all.

And the results are devastating.

Most journalists talk about what they do not know, about matters they don’t take the trouble to understand. They adopt the clichés that suit them—take one aspect of an issue until it becomes a caricature. . . I can’t say that this isn’t reality. But it’s only one reality among many.

– p. 55

This heartbreaking book shows us why diverse stories matter, in journalism and in fiction. Why we need many narratives. Why we need to weave a tapestry, not consign ourselves to a single thread. A thread that so often trips us up.

Amélie Sarn takes care to avoid stereotypes and clichés in telling this story. Despite the conflicts in Sohane and Djelila’s wider communities, Sarn paints their family’s apartment as a warm sanctuary. She paints their mother and father as supportive, loving parents who fight for the right of one daughter to play basketball and the other to wear a head scarf.

Clearly, this story touched me. I want everyone to read it. Not because I think it’s perfect. But because I want to discuss it. I want to hear what you think of it. Yes, I feel it brings nuance and complexity to an all-too-often simplified subject. And I want that nuance to be shared. But I also want to know what this book misses.

I want to see what other threads we can add to this tapestry.

[W]e dreamt of a life that we would build, a life in which no one would step on our feet, in which we would walk with our heads raised. The world had better watch out!

– p. 62

In a political climate fueled by fear, this book is a reminder that the world is wide enough for all of us. There’s no need to feel that your way of life is in jeopardy just because someone else chooses to live a different life. There’s no need to believe that opening the door to many diverse narratives closes the door on your singular story. There’s no need to fear those who are different from you. Or to make them fear you.

The world was wide enough for Sohane and Djelila.
And, I promise, the world is wide enough for you and me.

Notes:

The author, Amélie Sarn, is French, but as far as I could determine, she is not Muslim or of Algerian descent. She mentions in the acknowledgments that she sought guidance from those in the Muslim community. As someone who is not French, Algerian, or Muslim myself, I cannot fully comment on the accuracy or sensitivity of the representation in this book. It appears well researched, but I welcome and encourage other responses, especially from those who are members of the depicted cultures.

To start the discussion, here are two other perspectives on this book:
Review by Sarah Hannah Gómez
Review by Ruzaika Rifaideen

This book was originally published in French. I read the English translation by Y. Maudet. If you’ve never read French prose before, you might be surprised by how spare it is, but I urge you not to mistake this book’s brevity for a lack of depth. On the contrary, its short passages delve so deeply into the subject matter and its simple descriptions are so raw that reading this book is like trying to hold a burning coal in your bare hands. Yes, it’s that intense and packed with heat.

I use the expression “the world is wide enough” with all due respect and acknowledgement to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics in the song “The World Was Wide Enough” from the musical Hamilton. Miranda wrote that line based on a quote from Aaron Burr, who in turn lifted the phrasing from Laurence Stern’s novel Tristram Shandy. For more on the history behind this line, see the Genius annotation of Miranda’s song.

Please be advised that this book contains a scene of graphic violence against a young woman.

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