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Last word: Nadia Bozak on writing intuitively

I had to put aside the baggage of intertextual analysis in order to write intuitively, writes Nadia Bozak

Nadia Bozak

Nadia Bozak (photo: Dawn Johnston)

When I was doing my Ph.D., I thought a lot about “intertextuality,” particularly in terms of postmodernism and reader response theory. I became extremely self-conscious of how my race, gender, language, and economic status shaped the cultural texts I encountered each day. Moreover, how did these dimensions of my subjectivity shape the texts I myself was writing? As a fiction writer the result of this ongoing self-analysis was paralysis: everything I wrote was careful, cold, and incomprehensible, trapped under the ice of my incisive scrutiny.

After completing my Ph.D., it took many years and a lot of work to again write intuitively, to tell immersive stories that people could understand and relate to. Essays by Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King helped me truly appreciate the basic tenet of “show don’t tell,” and to therefore recognize that my challenge as a writer was to get the reader to experience the “big ideas” I am grappling with (such as ecological ruin) rather than telling him/her what is really going on beneath the surface of the tense, violent, and rather dark adventure tales I write.

The scholar in me persists, however, and leaves me ever aware of how necessarily “intertextual” literature is: an ongoing dialogue among texts, and the texts within texts, which spans time and space, language and culture. Texts (books, fine art, music, movies, etc.) are, in other words, never discrete; they come embedded with all the texts the author has ever encountered. It’s just that some authors are more aware of this than others.

I write consciously in the intertextual shadows of everything I have ever read, heard, seen, or experienced. But I try not to let that bother me too much, or to analyze it too deeply. The impact of Cormac McCarthy, for example, is one I can’t shake.

I read Blood Meridian almost 15 years ago and was left as stunned by the spare, muscular writing as I was by the brute violence it described. My boyfriend at the time, a fellow McCarthy-head, was Ojibwe and, as we read our way through McCarthy’s oeuvre, I questioned how the two of us fit into this mostly white, heavy-handedly Judeo-Christian and ultra male-dominated universe. The result of this inquiry was Orphan Love, a border-crossing story (written before I got too bogged down in my Ph.D.) about a pair of interracial adolescents who are, like Blood Meridian’s “the kid,” runaway orphans given to feats of violence. But the narrator, being a girl, is the kind of character McCarthy would never include in the novels I revered and from which I felt so disenfranchised.

The books in my Border Trilogy (as opposed to McCarthy’s trilogy of the same name) directly and very consciously mirror the gender alienation I experience when I read writers like McCarthy or J.M. Coetzee, whose Disgrace had an influence on my new novel, El Niño (which also features guard dogs, university professors, disputed territory,­ and botched interracial encounters). Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, meanwhile, is the source text for my trilogy’s third book, english.motion, a dystopian journey into the dark side of ESL teaching that I am now writing.

When you have the right tools, critically analyzing cultural texts can be really fun. Like a mechanic, I love to take apart a book or movie and put it back together in a manner such that no one will ever look at it the same way again. By writing fiction about fiction (instead of essays) I can take this practice to a higher, almost unconscious level. Yes, I continue to grapple with and riff on such things as the way my source texts (mis)represent the non-European “other,” the biophysical environment, and women (often through absence), but I do so with my reader as an accomplice. Now I have trust in my reader, something I had to relearn after my Ph.D. The more I write fiction, the more confidence I have to step back, relax, and give readers room to connect with the universe they want to take part in shaping – that’s the whole reason they picked up a novel in the first place.

My studies taught me to write like I read: with a keen awareness of my race, my class, my gender, my historical context. But while thinking too much about these things inhibited my creative instincts for years, I will never take such dimensions for granted, in myself or in my reader. One of the principal through-lines of my work is “difference”; the intercultural encounters that undergird much of McCarthy, Coetzee, and Conrad are reimagined in my own novels, but from a white female perspective. Perhaps, though, more than the intertextual shadows these three writers have cast over me, their influence has to do with the might of their actual craft. The way they so seamlessly balance intellect and intuition, the cerebral and the sensorial, is, for the writer in me, the true legacy of their words and, thus, their worlds.

Nadia Bozak has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Toronto. El Niño, the second book in Bozak’s Border Trilogy, is published by House of Anansi Press.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue