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Best novel for your Mazatlán vacation (maybe)

Well, at least it’s a contender: About half of my novel, Bonobo!, takes place in a fictionalized version of Mazatlán. While the book turned into something broader, I began it as a way to share my knowledge about Mazatlán, where I performed ethnographic research on everyday life over a span of several years in the 1990s.

Or, if you find a plot unnecessary and prefer to cut to the chase (although actually there’s no chase), try my nonfiction work: Moral Compromises in Mazatlán.

Or read both! They’re quite affordable. At least something about your Spring Break in Mexico could be redeeming.

Condoms in, condoms out

From early on, I knew that my novel would include various – okay numerous – scenes of sex. But I thought about Bonobo! for several years, wrote large chunks, and plotted the whole shebang with hardly a prophylactic. Nonetheless, the text eventually ended up with almost fifty mentions of condoms. What changed?

Writing Bonobo! was my work when I wasn’t performing other jobs: college professor, editor, or researcher-for-hire. For example, while living in Uganda, I convinced a public-health organization to fund research on HIV-prevention from a novel perspective. As a pilot project, they contracted me to conduct a systematic review of research explaining patterns of condom-use in five African countries. So on the one hand I was writing a novel that included orgies and a lot of impromptu sex, while on the other I was focused on how to encourage people to use condoms.

On yet another hand, I couldn’t help but notice that young Ugandans seemed to pay much, much more attention to popular music than to public-health campaigns. What would be really effective, I hypothesized, is if rappers and dancehall artists were to drape condom packages on the gold chains around their necks or to brag about how many condoms they used per day (per capita?). It shouldn’t be some pasteurized, foreign-funded All-Star sing-along but a seemingly autochthonous amalgam of nastiness and prudence.

No one would confuse my philosophical bildungsroman for a literary rap video, but I knew that I had to put my novel where my mouth was. In time, condoms came to have a metaphorical role in the story as well. But it started from research and the desire to contribute what little I could to condoms’ cachet.

Orlando reactions: Where is the love?

After a gunman shot at the back of my head from a few feet away and, amazingly, missed, I thought a lot about what would have happened if I’d been killed. I never imagined that people would skip past the tragedy of my death to debate the shooter’s motives and access to guns. Continue reading

Another “Bonobo”?!

BonoboFilmSoon after I published my novel, Bonobo!, I searched for the title on Amazon to see what came up. To my surprise, I found a film titled Bonobo (no exclamation point), which had been released recently, too. Clearly, this idea’s time had arrived.

So I watched it. Continue reading

Could your back infection be metaphorical?

A Hologram for the King isn’t an especially good or bad film. Perhaps the most interesting aspect, for me, was the main character’s back infection. Having these while living overseas has become almost a hobby for me. So, as soon as the giant lump on Tom Hanks’ character’s (THC’s) back was revealed – while he was in Saudi Arabia, no less – I stopped scrolling through my Facebook feed and practically watched with attention.

Well, THC goes to the doctor, and she tells him, in so many words: we need to see whether this is the kind of back infection that Tracy gets or whether it’s metaphorical. The rest of the film made clear the differences between the two. To save you some money, here’s a synopsis: Continue reading

Graphing a plot

Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work! – a two-day read for me – has something useful for writers aside from its inspirational self-help advice. The section titled, “Structure is Everything,” includes nine different descriptions or graphs of story structures. They range from abstract models to Kurt Vonnegut’s graphs of three specific stories.

While I’m loathe to blindly follow a formula, it is useful to compare the narrative I’m writing to successful ones and to consider revisions as a result. Luckily, Kafka didn’t follow a standard, fairy tale approach in writing “Metamorphosis,” as Vonnegut’s hilarious (to me) graph makes clear.

Show my work?

For me, one of the oddities of producing a book is that getting it published and read causes at least as much anxiety as writing it does. As part of my continuing effort to figure out how to build a “platform,” I’ve started reading Show Your Work!, by Austin Kleon.

It’s short, so in one day I’ve read about 40 percent of it. That’s far enough to see that the title means that we should show our working selves – sharing aspects of our process in the hope of accruing not only followers but inspiration from others. Then, presumably, we’ll be able to ‘show our (finished) work’ to more people and with greater success.

Generally I like the gist of Kleon’s advice. One of my delights as an ethnographer was summarizing my research to the people whose lives I was trying to understand and hearing new complexities from them – likewise with professors and then colleagues. I’m not sure that I built much of a platform, but others’ ideas have strengthened my work.

Nonetheless, one of these days, I’ll write a caveat to this idea, based on my experience with writers’ groups. I might rewrite Kleon’s title as Show Your Work (but not to trolls).