I feel envious of writers who can compose phenomenal figurative language. I love to weave words, but to adorn them in layers of meaning is such hard work. Like William Goldberg when he writes: “The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid nearer and nearer the sill of the world” in Lord of the Fliesi. Will I ever be able to write like that? I wonder.
So, I dove into reading Alexi Sherman’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for this study expecting to come out feeling a little more like I want to throw in the towel and take up physics. You know, for something a bit less taxing.
I got so caught up in this unexpectedly moving book that I forgot to look for signs of ingenious figurative language. When I finished, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to write an entire piece on it – there wasn’t enough. But it’s all there. Alexi absolutely litters his book with metaphors, similes and imagery. He just does it so subtly that I barely noticed. I should have known, really; Alexi leaves a hyperbolic hint right there in the title: the Absolutely True Diary…the word ‘absolute’ is an absolute (much like the word ‘true’, come to think of it), but do we really believe that this tale is wholly authentic, purely truthful? I think not.
For someone who has such envy for luscious expression, why do I find Alexi’s style
Kristen Pettit, an editor at HarperCollins, might have the answer. She says: “I think YA authors are freer to take you on a ride instead of constructing overwrought sentences and
impressing you with their skill”. Showing off seems to have fallen out of fashion. What a relief! Perhaps, to keep up with shortening attention spans, YA writers must fly through their stories, leaving out the flowery literary tricks.
Metaphors can be meaty and robust without fanfare. The truly clever writer can do it with just one word. To tell us that his protagonist Junior’s friends on the rez think he’s a traitor for leaving, they call him an ‘apple’. Red on the outside, white on the inside. One simple word, but doesn’t it hit you like a fist to the gut?
My words aren’t as luscious as William Goldberg’s. But if short and punchy is the fashion for younger readers, I can learn to do that. If I can recognise great metaphors, surely I can write them.
“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” Junior doesn’t need to say: “drawing saves me from feeling depressed”; his metaphor does that for him. But it’s not just a great metaphor; it’s an appropriate metaphor. In Spokane culture, water represents many things, including life and death. Those are tiny little lifeboats on a river representing life, representing death. Phenomenal. He’s weaving meaning within meaning. It’s not over the top; it’s not overly impressive. It’s subtle but powerful. I think it’s glorious.
More importantly, I now think it’s absolutely doable.