Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Interesting Critique

Last night was my writers group meet-up.  I've been with this group for a couple of months now so I'm pretty comfortable with it. But, like all meet-ups, people come and go all the time.  We meet every other Tuesday and last time we met there was a new writer with us.  She listened to the reviews being given, but didn't comment much since she was new.  A chapter of my book was being reviewed.  My main character's father is an immigrant, and when he came to the US thirty years ago, he wanted to be truly "American" so he changed his last name to Jones. That's an important part of my character's identity as well.  After the meet-up ended, this lady asked me if I ought to re-think the man changing his name because names are so important.

Okay..  I did.  And I didn't change it because a) I know people who did something similar (so it's realistic) and b) it's an important part of the story.

Last night I offered one of my short stories. It is set in Kenya and involves a missionary reaching out to a young Kenyan girl, helping her see hope for the future when there was none for the girl before.  After the others had given their comments, this woman said, "I have to say I have a hard time critiquing this.  So much damage was done by the missionaries in Africa, using religion to justify slavery, and history shows how the continent was just raped, etc."  She went on in this vein for a while.  She was sincere, and trying to be helpful but said, "I want to encourage other writers, but I don't think I can be encouraging of this because of my views."

I replied, "I understand there's a body of thought that supports your view.  Whether or not I agree with it doesn't matter.  If you have anything constructive to critique about the writing, I'd be blessed to have those comments if you'll take the time to read them."

I've been thinking about this though.  There have been other stories I've read that are a genre I don't care for, but I focused on the writing.  I never told the writer that I thought the ideas underpinning their writing weren't worth considering.

Part of me thinks that anything I write will offend this woman.  Oh well. However, I'm interested in what YOU think about
a) my story
b) this viewpoint

Should I do something different?

 M’Bote began each day with a search for meaning.  Before the sun rose above the horizon, in the false-light of early dawn, she climbed a small rise of land to look around the landscape and consider her day.  Just as there was a monotony to the landscape, there was a sameness to her day. Still, the sameness  was comforting.  Knowing what was coming allowed her to go through the motions without concentration.  Not having to concentrate on her tasks left her mind free her to engage in endless searching for a way to change her future.  So far, she had not been able to see a different path.
As the dawn began to break this day, she murmured the little song that the missionaries had taught her in grade school, reflecting on a God who loved everyone. 
Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

“Even the men who take the boys to fight?” a girl had asked.  “Even them,” the white missionary woman had answered.  M’Bote remembered that young woman.  Her hair was the color of spun straw and her eyes the color of sky.  “Kim-ba-lee,” she had told them to call her.  M’Bote mouthed those syllables now, still foreign to her pattern of speech. 
As part of the schooling, Kim-ba-lee had taught M’Bote about caring for people, their illnesses and their broken hearts.  M’Bote had loved learning how different medicines helped people’s coughs, and itches and even more serious diseases.  But when the soldiers took M’Bote’s father, school had ended for her.  She wondered where the missionary was now.  She wondered whether the missionary wondered what had happened to M’Bote.  “Does she miss me?” M’Bote asked herself.
The bleating of the she-goat wanting to be milked broke her reverie.  She turned to go back to the fenced area that protected the goats, winding her way through the thorny plants that covered the terrain.  It wouldn’t do to be caught by one on her bare skin.  The missionaries and their medicines were many kilometers away, and any wound could become very bad, very fast.  As she approached the goat, M’Bote heard her mother call, “Leave the goat!  Your brother will take care of it. You must come to be washed so you will be ready.”
“Ready for what?”  M’Bote asked.
“For your husband to come,” her mother replied.
“I do not want a husband,” M’Bote responded.
“You are foolish.  You need a husband.  If you do not have one you will have no one to take care of you and you will be alone.  Now come get ready.”
After the goat was milked and the morning milk drunk, there was a call from the space outside their hut. 
“I see you,” called a male voice. 
M’Bote’s mother answered, “We see you also.  Please come.” 
M’Bote hung back as a tall man entered the hut.  He was not too old.  He had only the wrinkles of working in the sun, but not of age.  He spoke with M’Bote’s mother and as he smiled showed strong teeth.
Her mother called her over.  “This worthless girl is M’Bote.  I have told you about her.”  M’Bote looked at the floor. 
The man said, “Oh no, this is not a worthless girl.  She is worth very much!  She is costing me two goats and three chickens!” His laughter boomed out.  M’Bote was astonished.  That was an unheard of price for a girl from a poor family.  She risked a glance up at the man.  He was smiling and looking straight into her eyes!  She looked down again, confused.
“Get your things,” her mother said.
M’Bote and the man walked until the sun was straight overhead.  Neither spoke.  When they got to a place where there was a tree, the man sat down under it. 
“We will rest here until the sun is lower,” he said. 
She sat, saying nothing. 
“Do you speak?” the man asked. 
“Yes,” she responded.
“Tell me something about you.” 
“What do you want to know?” she said. 
“Tell me something that you are curious about.”  M’Bote thought for a few minutes.  No one had ever asked her a question like that.
“I wonder . . .” she trailed off. 
“Yes?” he demanded. 
“I wonder whether the missionary Kim-ba-lee ever thinks of me,” M’Bote finished in a quiet voice.
The man’s laughter caught M’Bote by surprise.  It rang out with an infectious joy. M’Bote began laughing with him, unsure of why she did so.  When his mirth calmed he said, “Young girl, that missionary is why I have just paid two goats and three chickens for you!” 
M’Bote’s eyes widened as her eyebrows etched perfect dark arches above them.
“Miss Kimberly remembers you.  She remembers that you have a very good mind.  She remembers that you have very clever hands.  She remembers that you have no father to care for your family.  She remembers that you want to be a nurse.”  The man paused for a breath.  “Miss Kimberly wants you to come to live in Nairobi and study to be a nurse.” 
M’Bote was confused.  “You are not buying me for a wife?” she asked, suddenly ashamed that she was not what he wanted after all. 
“No child, my wife would not want me to buy another wife.  She is a Christian and I am a Christian and we have only one wife for each husband,” he said.  “I am taking you to Miss Kimberly.  Would you like to go there and help work in her clinic?” 
M’Bote’s heart began dancing.  The man saw it reflected in her eyes and laughed again. 
“But my mother believes I am going to get a husband!” the girl suddenly remembered. 
The man looked a little bit troubled, “We let her believe what she wants to believe.  I told her that you would be taken care of, and that was enough for her to let you go.  Come now, we must resume our journey.”
The next few days were a wonderful homecoming for M’Bote at the mission clinic in Nairobi.  Miss Kimberly immediately put her in charge of assessing the young children who came for health care.  Some were very sick.  One morning M’Bote saw a baby who had died, but whose young mother would not or could not let him go.  With compassion, M’Bote went to sit with the young woman. 
“May I see your beautiful child?” M’Bote asked.  Wordlessly, the young girl pulled back the scarf that covered the baby’s face. Even in death the baby was exquisitely formed, a miracle.  M’Bote held out her arms, and the young mother placed the baby in them. M’Bote sang a soft song over the baby and handed him back.  The girl began crying. 
“Sh-h-h-,” soothed M’Bote as she rocked the girl back and forth.  After a few minutes, the young mother allowed Miss Kimberly to come and take the baby away to prepare him for burial.
Later that afternoon, Miss Kimberly sat with M’Bote to take a little break.  M’Bote noticed that Miss Kimberly’s hair was not so blonde as before, and her eyes were not so merry.  “This is hard work, M’Bote,” Miss Kimberly confessed,
“But why…” M’Bote began, but stopped. 
“Go on,” Miss Kimberly encouraged her.  
“Then why, Miss Kimberly, do you come here to help us?”  Miss Kimberly began to speak again of this God who loves everyone, rich or poor, African or not.  M’Bote listened carefully, waiting to hear the exceptions, the things that would apply to her and exclude her from this big love.  Miss Kimberly asked, “Do you understand, M’Bote?” 
“I understand your words, Miss Kimberly, but I do not understand a love this big,” M’Bote responded. “This is such a big love, I cannot understand how many goats and cattle and chickens it takes to equal this love.”
Miss Kimberly smiled, “That is just the thing, M’Bote. There were never enough goats or cattle or chickens that could do it.”  M’Bote marveled at such a love.
Soon it was time to begin the evening clinic. M’Bote handed out colored slips of paper to the mothers that indicated in which order their children would be seen.  As she worked her mind started its wandering again.  She reflected on a worthless girl from a poor family being worth two goats and three chickens.  If this was part of the big love, it was very big indeed.
Suddenly, M’Bote stopped what she was doing and asked another girl to stand in for her.  She went outside the clinic compound and walked among the people waiting for the evening clinic, searching for a particular face.  Finally, in a dark corner, she found the young mother whose arms were empty, whose breasts ached with milk that her baby would never drink.  M’Bote sat down with her, and began to tell the young woman about such a big love.


The Bug said...

I remember this story - I LOVED this story. You know, not everything that missionaries did was bad for the people - and this story shows the kind of hope that the people in that particular moment needed.

It seems like this other lady might have trouble critiquing any but just a handful of stories if she' unable to look beyond her OWN stories...

P.S. Thank you SO MUCH for the card! It was such a nice surprise, and is really cute. I hope you've gotten your flat tire fixed by now!

Chocolate Covered Daydreams said...

You, my friend, are a writer. I've learned that there will be those people who will critique just to critique because it gives them the power and control. Don't allow every person to sway you into doubting or even second guessing your writing.

I hesitate to join critique groups for the very reason you've mentioned here.