Cheryl Snell is a poet and literary fiction writer, author of seven poetry collections, a book of short stories, and two novels. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, had work chosen for inclusion in the Sundress Best of the Net Anthology, and, in collaboration with her sister Janet, won the Lopside Press chapbook competition for Prisoner’s Dilemma, a collection of art and poetry on game theory. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Cheryl keeps two blogs, one devoted to poetry and her sister’s art at http://www.snellsisters.blogspot.com
; the other an author’s blog for her debut novel at http://www.shivasarms.blogspot.com
. The novel, Shiva’s Arms (The Writer’s Lair Books) explores the relationship between an American woman and her Hindu Brahmin in-laws.
“When I first met my new family, this passage from Wonderland’s Alice popped into my head-- “What if I should fall right through the center of the earth…oh, and come out the other side, where people walk upside down?” I knew the basics—don’t touch the men, no shoes in the house, have a fry pan uncontaminated by meat handy. But there were an overwhelming number of ambiguities to sift through, from the comic head-shaking that looked like No but meant Yes, to the serious conflict between freedom and family.
I had been pulled into samsara, the important householder stage. The word conjured up images of drowning in the domestic sea, and I had read many novels by Indians—Narayan, Desai, Mukerjee—who touched on its complications. I began to imagine my own project, a new novel built on the swirl of relationships around me. Always drawn to the stories with characters belonging to two cultures, I wanted to know which part of a divided self goes and which part stays.
To pit a fictional family with the weight of ancient traditions behind them against the quintessential unsuitable bride would help me to delve into an immigrant’s liminal state, from both points of view. Thresholds are so alive, with the way dualities merge, overlap and intrude on one another, I knew the intersection of cultures would afford me ample imagery. As a poet, I appreciated that.
Writing poetry transcends the personal, for me, whereas fiction relies on empathy. For both forms, I start with an image, a phrase, or an idea. Both forms distill language and meaning--in a poem every word counts, sound and syllable. In fiction, the sentences must advance plot or reveal character. With a novel, revisions are more rigorous, more of a juggle. With so much to take into consideration---characters, scenes, and points of view—it seems counter-intuitive that a novel is more forgiving. But I find that its sprawl makes it more tolerant. “In the novel or short story you get the journey. In a poem you get the arrival,” May Sarton once wrote.
That’s not to say that it’s an orderly progression. When characters run amok, and suddenly have their own plans, it’s hard to force them back into the author’s. Mary Lee Settle advised that empathy without identity is one way to keep control of a character, but it's difficult to maintain that distance. Transformation, the way the characters change, what conclusion the narrator comes to, are born out of writing one’s way into the piece again and again, trying on different plots, tone, voice. I feel my way.
Sometimes, when all is said and done, a character has more to say. My new novel, Rescuing Ranu, follows Nela from Shiva’s Arms, back to India. The woman who has spent her life resisting samsara finds meaning by rescuing a little girl from child marriage, at great personal cost to herself. I imagine I can hear my new characters talking together in my poem “Veranda.”
Above sounds of a sunset world
whoops of children rise. We lean
against verdigris, watch the streetlight evolve
like some star buzzing blue to white,
then a steady nostalgic amber.
lamplighters lit my village gaslights with a hook;
old men rocking on verandas nodded off
The widow in white climbs our hill, secrets
folded in her apron. She naps here
like your auntie, one eye open to the world,
sandals dangling off her toes.
The man next door pedals his bicycle so slow,
we worry for his balance. He waves to us
like laundry on a line, half-hearted surrender.
the veranda became a sleeping-porch on hot nights;
a place for cricket games during monsoon
Houses tuck themselves in. Lamps flicker on,
rising story by story. Silence blooms, holding
its breath. I sweep the pots of flag-striped flowers
from our porch, crockery from the table.
You need more room in this place.
I will make room for you.
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