WE LEARNED TO PRONOUNCE PROKOFIEV | Kathy Fish.
⇒It isn’t often that I write about creative nonfiction, but I think this is something I want to explore more often on Fiction_Feed (despite the obvious contradiction in the website’s name, yeah). I’m certainly less experienced with CNF than I am with fiction, and this goes even more for that fascinating little niche called flash memoir. Noted flash fiction writer Kathy Fish (I first discovered her work through her gorgeous collection Wild Life from Matter Press) is clearly adept at this form, and that’s probably because the tools of great flash apply equally to great narrative nonfiction.
I assume. That’s certainly the case in “We Learned to Pronounce Prokofiev,” Ms. Fish’s entry in the new Change Seven Magazine (which seems to publish a little of everything, form-wise).
Basically, this piece is a portrait of a parochial school’s music teacher from the admiring perspective of one of her students (writing as an adult). Even though this is CNF, and it’s probably okay to refer to the speaker as the author, I’m a habitual fiction writer and I compulsively distinguish between the person writing on the page and the person speaking from the page, so I’m going to refer to our speaker here as the speaker, not “the author” (though the author she might be).
So, the speaker and her peers are in this (presumably) Catholic school in an old stone building, surrounded by snoring nuns and general stuffiness, and in comes this beautiful non-nun by the name of Mrs. London. She teaches them about Peter and the Wolf and Prokofiev and musical instruments and so on. For our narrator, infatuation ensues. Consider how Mrs. London is portrayed in this piece:
Mrs. London had honey-colored hair, all poofed up and falling over her shoulders. She wore short dresses and make-up. …
…I loved her frosted lipstick smile. She put records on for us to listen to.
…She held us spellbound….
That’s pretty much it, detail-wise, but that’s really all we need to glamorize Mrs. London against the general austerity of the 5th grade classroom in general. This is flash, so there isn’t room nor need for any more detail of this music teacher. Each detail is resonant and simply stated in the language of a child. (Side note: love how this adult narration uses lots of simple sentences and a younger diction to maintain the child’s tone and POV throughout; this gives the story a very young and innocent surface texture despite the really complex literary stuff going on behind the scenes, which I will discuss once I close these parentheses and get into the next paragraph).
I’m going to get all high-falootin’ for a moment and use the term metonym: Mrs. London is a metonym for the world beyond the cloistered existence of the story’s fifth-grade speaker. What’s interesting, we learn at the very beginning of the piece, is that this kid does not mind the morning prayers or the religiosity or the general pall of cobwebbed dogma over her school days; it’s familiar, it’s all she knows. As she explains in the first paragraph:
Before Mrs. London, music class had always been just singing songs from the songbook, like “Faith of Our Fathers” and “The Battle Hymn of The Republic.” I never minded. It felt like recess.
So Mrs. London’s appearance fulfill’s the old adage about plots, that a story is either when someone goes on a trip or a stranger comes to town (this piece being about the latter). Really, Mrs. London’s appearance, her introduction of a broader musical palette and Peter and the Wolf and all that good stuff is (the narrator doesn’t know, at the time) the moment of a loss of innocence. Finally introduced to a world so much bigger and more musical and colorful than the bleak private school she knew, she will likely struggle to be happy in her school environment from that day forward. Ah, growing up.