These days I’ve been having trouble with the crime novel I’m writing. Nothing to do with the story. After seven drafts I’m familiar enough with it. Nor does it have to do with my decision to change from third to first person narrative.
Writing the early drafts of this novel in the third person got me into the characters. Although first person restricts me from writing what they are thinking, I know their thoughts and emotions and can portray them in other ways, either through dialogue or actions.
For a long time, I resisted going with first person, not for the text-book reasons that it is a limiting point of view, but rather because I didn’t feel ready for the intimacy which first person writing requires. Write the kinds of books you love to read is advice I’ve often read.
I’ve always had a preference for first person novels: The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence), The Thin man (Dashiell Hammett), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Postman Always Rings Twice (James. M. Cain), The Wonder Spot (Melissa Bank), The Reader (Bernhard Schlink), Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal (Lydie Salvayre) and hundreds more.
No, my problem was/is how to express artfully what I want to say. For example, there is a scene in my novel where my protagonist is confronted with the power of forgiveness. I was blocked. I didn’t know how to put down in words what was in my head. Until I had a sleep over at my sister’s last week.
She is preparing a three-month trip to Africa and amidst her pile of books I picked up A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. This is not a novel but a South African woman’s argument for reconciliation regarding Apartheid.
As I got to her chapter titled “I Have No Hatred in My Heart” she was expressing what I wanted my character to express. And expressing it clearly and honestly. Here’s an example of her moral intelligence that she is known for: “Forgiveness does not overlook the deed. It rises above it. This is what it means to be human because it says I cannot and will not return to the evil you inflicted on me. And that is the victim’s triumph.”
And that is the victim’s triumph.
It is reassuring, for me, to encounter a great thinker and a brilliant writer (Gobodo-Madikizela is a clinical psychologist and served with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the Human Rights Violations Committee of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission) who I am able to connect with and use as model for my own expression. These connections feed my confidence. And that is the writer’s triumph.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s message is not an easy one. “The challenge I think is how to define morally reasonable grounds on which to grant perpetrators mercy and allow them to go free. These should include evidence of remorseful regret and a commitment to efforts aimed at ensuring that South Africans never fight one another again in war. People who fail to see the senselessness of the bloodshed of the apartheid regime, who dishonor the dead, who haven’t learned to grieve for the violent loss of so many innocent lives, should be watched closely. Mercy should be granted cautiously. And yet society must embrace those who like Eugene de Kock, see and even lead on the road of shared humanity ahead. Our capacity for such empathy is a profound gift in this brutal world we have created for one another as people of different races, creeds, and political persuasions.”
Eugene de Koch was the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads under apartheid.