Narrative Drama in Mary Karr’s Cherry and Garrett Hongo’s Volcano
In looking back on one’s earlier self, the writer of memoir might also ask a version of the type of questions actors ask: What was my motivation? What did I want? How were my actions designed to get me what I want? These questions of course are similar to the basis of story: What is the protagonist’s goal? What does the protagonist want? What does the protagonist do to get what she wants?
In considering these questions, I often tell my students to think about acting: If you are an actor, you cannot act a situation. Nor can you act a general desire, such as a desire for love. Such a general desire can only be acted on if there is a more specific goal—for instance, to walk across the bar and talk to a particular woman; to arrange for two dates a week on Match.com.
In any given scene in a memoir or in any section of narrative, then, it is helpful to ask: What was the goal of my past self in this scene or in this particular time period? What actions did I take to achieve this goal?
If the writer isn’t clear about the motives of the younger self, her goals and desires, then she can’t tell a story about the younger self.
Inevitably, in the pursuit of a goal, a character faces both external and internal hurdles or barriers. Recall, for instance, when Macbeth ultimately decides to murder Duncan. Macbeth struggles between two opposing desires: one is to be loyal to his king; the other is Macbeth’s desire to replace his king.
Now there are times when a character reaches a level of lucidity and admits this irreconcilability, yet understands that he must choose one direction. By the end of Macbeth, Macbeth achieves a certain stature because he finally admits the path he has chosen, and he takes it to its conclusion, despite the consequences. But Macbeth is a tragedy, and in his persistence Macbeth becomes a tragic hero. In real life, most of us continue to try to lie about our irreconcilable desires. Or else events and consequences force us to confront our lie.
Thus in analyzing the story of her past, the writer can start by looking for the lies she sees the younger self telling herself.
In order to understand how these principles work, let us look at the following scene from Mary Karr’s memoir, Cherry:
What I wanted formed in my head for a good instant before I said it: “I want titties, goddamn it, Daddy. Not some bra.”
His eyes widened slow at what I’d dared to say. “You want titties?” He threw back his head and hooted with laughter, howling up at the dusty light fixture.
I hurled a handful of pecan husks into the bowl and stood up. Mother came in wearing a nightgown and rubbing lotion into her hands. “What is it?” she said. Her head was wrapped in a towel like a swami.
I tore into my room and power-slammed the door into its molding. The window glass shivered. I hurled myself down on the lavender-flowered spread. Part of me knew I’d crossed the border into some country where he didn’t—or wouldn’t—tread.
I instinctively knew the rules laid down for girls’ comportment, but I wasn’t yet resigned to them, for to place my head into that yoke was to part with too much freedom. One day I sat on my porch sucking the long ears of my Bugs Bunny popsicle into a syrupless white dunce cap when a herd of boys my age on bikes pedaled into view. They were shirtless, sailing down the street in careless whooshing speed.
One blond boy named Corey was somebody’s cousin down from Houston for the summer. He was slim and brown and expressionless in a way that let me manufacture complex thoughts for him. (Was it Chekhov or Tolstoy who complained about what deep personalities we can manufacture behind “some little scrap of face”?) His surfer cut hung in a bright wing across his forehead. He stood stock still in his pedals for the entire strip of road past my house like the figurehead on a ship’s prow, and his thoughtless beauty dragged from me the faint tug of something like desire. His body was thin-muscled as a grey-hound’s. Maybe his hurtling motion made enough wind to cool him off, but he didn’t look to suffer from the heat I felt so squandered in.
This wasn’t desire as it would become. Not yet. The cool fire circled more in my abdomen than between my legs, and it was vague and smoke gray. I pictured no boy yet—not even John Cleary—gathering me into his arms. Despite what Nabokov’s Humbert wanted to think, I’ve never met a girl as young as I was then who craved a bona fide boning. But glowing nonspecifically from my solar plexus was this forceful light. I wanted John Cleary or Corey or some other boy to see that light, to admire it, not to feed off it for his own hungers. When I closed my eyes at night, I did not manufacture naked bodies entwined. Mostly I didn’t even venture into kissing. Rather my fantasies at that time were all in the courtly mode. I pictured John Cleary/Corey taking my hand for the couples’ skate at the rink, how we’d cut a slow circle together in a spotlight, with his gaze inventing me in the stares of those we passed.
But the boys’ bicycle pack also sent a stab of envy through me. If I couldn’t yet capture John Cleary with my feminine wiles, then surely I deserved to enjoy the physical abandon he got, liberties I instinctively knew were vanishing. (I know, I know. Psychoanalytic theory would label this pecker envy and seek to smack me on the nose for it. To that I’d say, o please. Of actual johnsons I had little awareness. What I coveted was privilege.)
In this passage, Karr’s younger self tries to lie about an irreconcilable dilemma. On the one hand, she is aware that the rules of comportment are different for girls than boys and that breaking these rules may bring various negative consequences. On the other hand, she wants the freedom to act like a boy. As people often do, she tries to ignore or evade the terms of this dilemma. (Whether, as a girl, she should have to confront this dilemma is clearly a different question.)
As this scene unfolds, Karr’s younger self attempts to take and achieve the same freedom, the same privileges that the boys have. Thus, she takes an action to achieve her goal.
That’s how right before sixth grade I came to peel off my T-shirt, mount my pink-striped Schwinn, and set off down the oyster shell of Taylor Avenue wearing only red shorts.
By the time I reached the first porch where a line of ladies in their rockers were sipping iced tea, it was clear I’d made a terrible mistake. Their eyes widened, and their heads turned rigidly to one another and back at me as if on poles. After I rounded the corner, I felt their stares slide off my back. A different kid would have gone hauling butt back to her garage. She would have stayed inside till some car wreck or church supper had drawn the local talk from her escapade. But I was not bred to reversals. I only had to make it one loop around the block to finish.
Karr’s younger self persists in that action—she continues to ride around the block—even when it’s clear her action has led to results she neither expected nor desired. The assessment of her character and her action comes from the older present narrating self looking back on her younger self.
In the end, Karr’s younger self suffers embarrassment for taking this action. This is a clear case of that other principle I often invoke: When we take a specific action, we intend and believe that this action will achieve a certain result. In normal, everyday routines, our expectations about our actions are generally met. But in story or in trying to achieve something we struggle for, the results or consequences of our actions are often not as we expected. Other people—and often we ourselves—react in ways we did not predict or foresee. And this is indeed what happens to the young Mary Karr.
All of this is a way of saying that in these few short pages, Karr tells a story. Her protagonist takes up a desire, a goal. In confronting this desire, she faces an irreconcilable dilemma. Being the age that she is and given her character, she denies this irreconcilable dilemma. She believes she can act like a boy, and she does so. After she acts, the world reacts in ways that tell her she cannot act like a boy; the world humiliates her. She fails to achieve her goal—and yet she clearly sets herself on a course of independence that will serve her in the future. And the story ends.
Garrett Hongo’s Volcano contains a section that I often use to demonstrate the construction of a narrative structure in memoir.
Hongo’s narrative starts with the section “Terrible Angel,” which opens with a description of his MFA workshop and his visiting instructor, C. K. Williams. Teachers often function as the threshold guardians who appear in myth; they are there to test the protagonist and see if the protagonist is worthy of moving on in his hero’s journey. In Hongo’s description, Williams is viewed as a formidable presence and a harsh taskmaster. He comes “swaddled in prestige” from his acclaimed work; he’s won a Guggenheim. He requires the students to write a poem a week (“Outside of class, everyone grumbled. How was decent poetry to be written on demand?”).* Beyond this, he holds the students to the highest standards: “Our tall instructor would have at us, bashing, castigating, lecturing us on our mental laziness, on our lack of ambition.” He reads to them from Rilke, Tadeusz Rozewicz. The class holds him in awe.
Hongo’s younger self deemed not only the work of his fellow students but also his own as meriting Williams’s severe critiques:
Class was a torture. People had a hard time speaking up. When they did, they praised shit, so far as I could tell. They wrote shit.
I wrote shit too. I didn’t trust anybody. Poetry?—I said to myself. Not with these people. Looking across the seminar room to a scowling man with dark curly hair tight against his head, I felt afraid and intimidated.
Here a perceptive reader will sense that this assessment of the younger past self and his motivations is voiced not by the younger self but the present narrating self. This becomes even clearer as the section moves on, as the present narrating self articulates the vulnerabilities that the younger self was afraid to confront:
I defended. Against him, against the workshop, against whites, against my own inspiration. I brought in poem after poem—my poem per week—dramatic monologues impossible to critique. . . . I wrote lousy. I wrote to be lousy. I was afraid to let the workshop and this Turk of a teacher know what it was I cared about, what it was I worried I could not bring myself to be dedicated to.
What I cared about was the inner city, about my teenage life brooding on the social complexities of my integrated high school—unusual in that it was a third white, and a third black, and a third Japanese American.
The protagonist’s goal here is clear: he must succeed in the eyes of his very critical teacher. At the same time, he lies to himself about his irreconcilable conflict: his instructor is demanding more from him than is reasonable. What that is the younger Hongo doesn’t quite know, but some part of him knows he is lying to himself and holding back in his poetry. He knows poetry requires vulnerable honesty, but he can’t bring himself to be vulnerable before this imposing white teacher and the mostly white workshop participants. Note how the younger Hongo uses his awareness of his racial Otherness to excuse himself from what is required to achieve his goal; of course, he is racially isolated in the workshop, but that’s not the ultimate reason he’s holding back. Instead, he wants to keep his own past, its pain and complexity at a distance. (Note: this is an instance where the past self uses his racial identity to avoid rather than reveal the truth.)
A little later, the section wanders from the workshop into a flashback from Hongo’s teenage years; ultimately, this leads to a section that contextualizes Hongo’s experience in high school in terms of class, ethnicity, and race. In the next section, “Fraternity,” he tells the story of an ill-fated romance between Hongo’s teenage self and his classmate Regina, who’s Portuguese American.
Both Hongo and Regina sense that their relationship challenges the existing racial, ethnic, and cultural norms of their high school. They can’t go to the Japanese American dances, and they can’t go to the white dances. Instead, they go to the Chicano dances, where the young Hongo and Regina dress the part, helped by Hongo’s Chicano friend: “Pacheco . . . advised me to grow a mustache and let my black hair go long in the back, to slick it down with pomade and to fluff it up front, then seal it all in hair spray. I bought brown Pendletons and blue navy-surplus bell-bottoms. I bought hard, steel-toed shoes.”
For a few months, Hongo and Regina are able to pass through their racially demarcated high school without incident. Then Regina is accosted by a white football player, who grabs her arm so violently, it breaks. It’s not quite clear whether this action is racially motivated, but it is implied by what happens next. After a Japanese American boy taunts Hongo with the news of what has happened to Regina, Hongo rushes to her house. But on the way, he is set upon by a troop of Japanese American boys who beat him up for dating outside his group. Here the present narrating self provides an intricate historical, political, and psychological reading of this incident that the younger past self did not yet understand. To make sense of his story, Hongo must resort to the reflexive voice:
A kid from Hawai’i, I’d undergone no real initiation in shame or social victimization yet and maintained an arrogant season out of bounds, imagining I was exempt. It was humiliating to have been sent to Camp. The Japanese American community understood their public disgrace and lived modestly, with deep prohibitions. I was acting outside of this history. I could cross boundaries, I thought. But I was not yet initiated into the knowledge that we Japanese were not like anyone else, that we lived in a community of violent shame. I paid for my naïveté with a bashing I still feel today, with cuts that healed with scars I can still run my fingers along.
Afterward, these two incidents of violence create a space between the younger Hongo and Regina that cannot be mended or breached.
In the next section, “The Legend,” Hongo turns back to his MFA workshop, and his younger self’s struggle with poetry and with his instructor Williams. In this section, the narration moves quickly through the term: “For seven weeks, I’d brought in my defenses against my own needs. I’d composed well-wrought studies in the rhetoric of cool, in the sophistry of jive.” The writing then goes over in detail two poems Hongo submits to the workshop, one a monologue of William Holden’s character as the floating corpse at the end of Sunset Boulevard, and one a monologue based on Kurosawa’s interpretation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood. C. K. Williams reacts to both poems with cutting dismissive remarks (“What next? Two Gentleman of Osaka?”).
The following week is difficult because the younger self senses he has run “out of fakes and verbal juking, exhausted [his] repertoire of rhetorical feints and darts.” At this point, all the younger Hongo feels he can resort to is his own “experience.” He writes and submits a poem that’s quite different from the ones he’s been producing, a poem about an encounter between a young white woman weeping on a Los Angeles city bus and a young black man who tries to comfort her.
Narrative structures often make use of three attempts. If the protagonist fails after three attempts, the reader assumes that the protagonist will continue to fail. Hongo the writer sets up this third poetic attempt as the final battle, partly by describing the feelings of the younger self this way: “I was filled with anticipation and resolve. I told myself that if Williams trashed this one, if he messed with me this time, why, I’d kill him.” Clearly, we are in the third act, the decisive struggle.
But note: The younger self has been handing in poems to the workshop for weeks. It is through focusing on these last three attempts that Hongo the writer shapes this section as a narrative, as the third act of the younger self’s experience with Williams and the workshop.
When the poem is presented to the workshop, Hongo the writer slows the narrative down so it takes place moment by moment (the final battle, because it’s crucial, often requires a more precise and detailed temporal focus). Classmates dismiss the poem. “Ohhhh, this is so sentimental,” says one. Another observes, “I can’t believe this . . . A black guy and a white girl? Where did you come up with this story—The Naked City?” “The Twilight Zone,” someone else adds. There’s a paragraph-long description of the class’s awkward postures and their nervous anticipation of how Williams will react.
When Williams says, “You’re all wrong,” the class is of course surprised, and the writing draws the moment out, slows the pace of the narrative (this also forces the reader to wait in anticipation for Williams’s reaction; delay can be used to increase narrative tension): “He pointed to my pages and tapped at them with a fore-finger. Things were so silent, we could hear the pad of his digit against the barely flapping stack of Xerox bond.”
Against the class’s comments and expectations, Williams pronounces that the poem is “the real thing,” and he wonders why the younger Hongo has been wasting his time with “all that other shit.” In that moment, Williams as the threshold guardian transforms from a negative, harsh figure to, almost comically, someone who gazes at the younger Hongo with “large lemur-like eyes . . . the kindest eyes [he’d] ever seen.”
The poem is, of course, a metaphor for the younger Hongo’s relationship with Regina and the racial barriers they faced, and we read Hongo’s experience in the workshop in light of the tragic ending of their relationship. At the same time, what happened to the younger Hongo, the savage beating by members of his own tribe, while indirectly a result of his actions, came about not directly because of his actions but more from his ignorance of the unspoken rules of the ethnic community that he was both a part of and a newcomer to—that is, he did not know the severity of the taboo he was breaking or the racial and historical origins of that taboo. The narrative about the workshop provides an arena where the younger Hongo takes definite actions to determine his fate, where he acts more like a protagonist. That is, I think, one of the reasons Hongo employs the framework of his workshop experience and its narrative in his presentation of this teenage interracial relationship.
In my classes, I present this section of Volcano to teach how, in memoir, narrative structure can be discovered and constructed. But I also use it to demonstrate how the technical blocks in a person’s writing can stem from, or cover over, a psychological block. The older present narrating self here knows what happened to the younger Hongo—he became a poet (the poem from the workshop is in his first book); he succeeded in his quest—so that the older present self looks back at the younger self knowing his fate and how he reached that fate. In the process, he’s able to articulate a principle of his own artistry and the artistry Williams was trying to teach him; this is a principle that the younger Hongo only embraced when he finally became honest with himself and began to own his particular experiences in the racially charged environment of Los Angeles:
A long and difficult way, years long, had suddenly ended with that moment; with those words, Williams had fixed and inscribed a standard to my ambition, giving me a charge that, from that point on, became the center of my resolve. He’d recognized the poetry within me, telling me what my poetry was. . . . He would accept none of the false words I had been typing and handing in each week. From me, he held out for a truth—that there is a world of feeling and specificities among the vast and monolithic Other of race in America. When I gave it, he gave back. It was a blessing.
Note here Hongo’s emphasis on “feeling and specificities,” a phrase Hilton Als would probably approve of. Racism and racial hierarchies generalize, and one danger for writers of color is to assert and write only in oppositional generalities. In contrast, “feeling” is experiential and particular—both to an individual and to a particular time and place. History is not solely events of significance, nor does it involve only the political. Hongo’s writings are acutely attentive to a history of “feeling,” which is perhaps rightly more the provenance of poets and creative writers than of historians.
* The students here who object to writing a poem a week do not understand the nature of the creative process. Feeling inspired does not necessarily lead to a good poem, nor does feeling uninspired cause a lousy poem. As William Stafford has told us, the key to writer’s block is to lower your standards. Just accept what comes. Creativity arises from a willingness to experiment and to fail, not from a pressure to succeed.