ME AND BIRDIE | Alina Stefanescu
⇒Read the story in Broad! (Summer 2015 – “Sci-Fi and the Speculative”)
The story is on page 16 of the downloadable PDF.
For a long time now, one of the more commonly dispensed pieces of advice for writers of all persuasions has been to Read Beyond the Cannon–all those Dead (or at least very old) White Males who’ve dominated literature in the West for hundreds of years. It’s important to read the works of underrepresented writers for more reasons than simple political correctness. Diversifying beyond the upper-class straight white male cisgender able-bodied whatever whatever of mainstream Western literature isn’t only about supporting the work of those who fall outside this socially privileged category, though that’s a perfectly good reason to read marginalized authors.
Here’s the thing: if all you read are Dead White Men, you’re probably going to write like a Dead White Man.
I’m not saying anything too controversial by suggesting that the more diverse one’s library becomes, the more interesting one’s writing (and for that matter, worldview) will be as well.
Which is advice I myself should heed: my bookshelves are looking a little pale and crotchety these days.
This brings me to BROAD!, a zine that celebrates and features the works of women, transgender, and gender-queer writers.
As long as I’m waxing pluralistic, I want to point out that there are two essential rewards for writers who frequently cross social boundaries in choosing what to read: the first is worldview (the world as seen by a blind person, a transgender person, a person in the developing world, a child, an elderly person, and so on…). Yeah, yeah, we all know about that. But from a pure craft standpoint, diverse reading helps to instill a unique voice.
I’m not just talking about colloquialisms and dialect, either. I’m talking about learning from those whose brains sequence language and select words in a totally different way, and picking up on these new patterns of speech and playing around with these structures in one’s own writing. Let’s face it: if your sentences constantly evoke Henry James, you need to read some different writers.
Now that I’ve echoed (in my white-hetero-cisgender-able-bodied way) the teachings of my sophomore year seminar, Check Your Privilege 101, let’s get into today’s story: “Me and Birdie.”
The story has a lot to offer, and I want to begin by looking at some of its astonishing, quirky language:
I thanked him from the bottom tundra of my heart.
I thanked him from the hippo-most layer of my spirit.
I thanked him from the tinder-bough strata of my solar sphere for stopping by.
The short story is teeming with far-out language that gives us a vivid sense of our narrator’s playful/brilliant/imaginative personality. This is going way beyond simply avoiding “received language” (common phrases, cliches). This is a complete defamiliarization of everyday discourse.
Going with the assumption that you already read this piece, I won’t summarize much more than the basic premise: our protagonist/narrator (whose personality and atypical lifestyle are well delineated, but whose more basic characteristics like name, age, and even gender, are not) is given a birdie as a gift to go with her racket (I’m just going to call her a her for the sake of convenience). She is given a birdie, a simple plastic birdie, and she shows more than a little infatuation with it–giving it baths, venerating it through her narration, receiving coded “communications” from it, and so on.
Yeah, our narrator is receiving mathematical communiques from a badminton birdie. She is also deeply concerned with/unclear about when Bastille Day takes place. We don’t know why.
Although there is no specific conflict in this story–no one has kidnapped the badminton birdie, no one is in imminent peril–there is an overarching conflict here between the narrator’s interior and exterior experiences. Much of this story comes across in very concrete, physical-world language. Her neighbor Dean is a real person, as is his (deeply loathed) wife, yet their dialogue never comes through in direct quotes. Everything is filtered through the narrator’s POV and comes across as stuff like this:
Then Dean’s wife, Topsy, waved from the car and told Dean yabba yabba late dabba party doo.
The narrator is obviously very closed-in, savant-like even (too much of a stretch to call her autistic, but we get that vibe) and the language and off-kilter tropes she uses fit this persona incredibly well.
What’s most interesting and captivating is how this piece takes something as mundane as a plastic birdie and makes it the center of a high-stakes narrative. I’m reminded of William Carlos Williams’ second most famous poem:
upon a red
glazed with rain
beside the white
Reason #182 for why fiction matters:
It refocuses and recontextualizes the familiar. The red wheel barrow glazed with rain water is all-important here, just like our narrator’s plastic birdie. These things are of crucial importance because the story says so–because our guiding narrative demonstrates this through plot and characterization. The term “epic” usually refers to scale–explosions and armies and life and death. But writers shouldn’t focus on scale so much as power. A mature reader or writer understands that a high-stakes conflict exists wherever we look, provided an author is using just the right balance of craft elements to convey the urgency and importance of a particular situation–no matter how mundane it first appears.
And for everyone else, I suppose, there will always be another end-of-the-world Michael Bay film.