2013-07-22

Fiction from the last two Sunstone issues

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March 2013

Suffrage: A Play by Jenifer Nii
Sometimes it's difficult to read a play and see how successful it will be onstage. (Which may explain why I never made an attempt to do theater professionally.) So let's start my noting the volume of positive reviews this play has received: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Here's a fun historical fact for you: At one point, Congress proposed a law giving Utah women the vote, assuming that would destroy polygamy. The bill's author was shocked and confused by how enthusiastically Utah's congressional contingent supported the bill, and thus immediately abandoned it.

That fact doesn't show up in Suffrage, but it's a good example of how complicated the relationship between polygamy and suffrage was in those days. The play has only two on-stage characters, sister wives Frances and Ruth, and follows them through a good many years, including the Edmunds-Tucker Act, the Manifesto, etc. Stuff you'll know if you have the historical basics in your mind and plenty of stuff you'll only know if you've done as much research as Nii did.

The reason I started with the links to the reviews is because I found the structure of the play a bit boring. Starting with much interaction between the two character and moving to them engaging with invisible character while a spotlight dancing back and forth between them. Although the characters felt honest enough, the artificiality of the staging struck me as, potentially, horrendously boring. So I'm glad to hear that wasn't the case. Get the right director and dramaturg and actors and just about anything can make for riveting theater, though. A good actor is a powerful force. And a good reason not to judge a play based on what you see on paper. Without the alchemy of the stage, it's not a play. Without a view through a proscenium, it's just a rough draft.

So I'm glad the performances were successful. It's a fascinating and undertold bit of history. Just, it would seem, been waiting for the right actors to act the right words.

Singer and Saint: An Interview with Jeevan Sidhu by James Goldberg
I had a deal with James that I would tear his book apart for its failures and he would tear mine apart for its failures. The problem was, I really liked his book. So deal off. (I'm planning on reading it aloud to my kids after we finish Mrs Frankweiler; maybe a second, slower read will reveal its grotesqueries.) So maybe I'll work on this one instead. But before I get into it, a letter published in the subsequent issue:


I too wish Jeevan were a real version, but I wasn't fooled. I'm up with James's shenanigans. In part because I've read similar works he's penned and in part because I enjoy writing this sort of thing myself. Nonnonfiction is a lovely thing to write---you get the advantages of truth and the freedom of fiction. And, if you're smart about it, you use a setting that you know more about than the average duck, letting you get away with more without disrupting the suspension of disbelief. I know very little about the current Indian poetry scene and only slightly more about Bollywood musicals, so without research I can't really critique the accuracy of Jeevan's world. And as the letter above suggests, he's such a real-seeming character that Jeevan himself is hard to critique as well. He feels real---isn't that all we want from a character? To believe in their reality for the duration of the story?

I'm getting further and further away from an actual review of this story, but it's because I love this artform so much. I once conducted a couple hundred hours of fictional interviews for a book project called The New Male Standard of Masculinity. (The interviews remain in handwritten form filling several notebooks and I never did write the book. So it goes.) My point is, it's an enormously fun exercise and I don't understand why we don't do more of it. Could make for a pretty cool anthology. I wonder if James would be interested in editing one . . . .

Anyway, back to Jeevan Sidhu. I think what I liked most about this piece is how James uses the character of an artist coming from a tradition quite alien to my own and exploring how Mormonism can fit into his milieu. This workshopping of both religion and art strikes me as a useful exercise. Both religion and art should have the capacity to reach beyond a single culture. Sure, they'll be transformed as they enter that new cultural space, but the human/spiritual essence will remain if the---let's stick with religion---has truth and value. Since Mormons are constantly arguing that the faith is greater than just Utah culture, it's useful to see how someone in other culture sees and feels and understands and lives and creates within its doctrines and principles. Jeevan offers that sort of window. That he's a smart and articulate poet certainly helps. That he quotes poetry certainly doesn't hurt.

In the end, I suppose you could say that Jeevan exists solely for James to explore these questions important to him as a modern, cosmopolitan Mormon. But like all great characters, Jeevan has much more depth than can be expressed through a simple high-school essay on theme. When he laughs, it's the laugh of a real person. And, fictional or not, we need real people---not constructs who exist merely to promote a viewpoint---as companions as we explore our bright and growing world.


June 2013

Expiation by Richard Dutcher
In many ways this story is an utter cliche. It's a found document. It's the gay Mormon artist who can't find happiness. It's blood atonement. In other words, given the public image Dutcher has been working very hard to develop, it's exactly the sort of story you would expect him to write.

But all that said, it's pretty good. It didn't really read as a cliche. Largely that's because it's quite well written on the sentence level (never mind, for a moment, that such lovely writing is rather out of character for this found document)---beautiful sentences can cover a variety of ills. But it's also because even with the inclusion of blood atonement, the pov's journey of ignorance to having a gay friend reflects a pretty common journey over the last decade as many (most?) American Mormons have learned that it's not that they don't know any gay Mormons, it's that they did not know they knew any gay Mormons.

The story's a bit ambiguous in whether the pov ends up accepting his friend or not, but it's not at all ambiguous in its description of the Church as an institution designed to condemn rather than forgive. I imagine Dutcher means that quite sincerely but the author is dead and so you the reader are free to interpret this as ironic or as a warning, if you prefer. The story can handle a variety of interpretations.

Honorable mentions

Though not fiction, I want to briefly mention two essays from this truly excellent issue:

"A Modern Conceit: The Separation of Religion and Politics" by Frances Lee Menlove: Some of the best writing on Mormons and peace I've ever read. And memorize this from J. Reuben Clark: "What has our apostasy from peace cost us?"

"On Gratitude" by Stephen Carter: That gratitude to God should result in a lifestyle rather than a thank-you note should not be a radical notion, but I sure hope Stephen's was the last talk in his sacrament meeting. I wouldn't want to follow this reimagining of how to be grateful.

"Scripture Notes: Unearthing Abinadi’s Genealogy" by Roger Terry: Though speculative, this is some killer reasoning behind Abinidi's history. I give it high odds on being correct.

"Arriving Where I Started: Disassembling and Reassembling a Testimony" by Boyd J. Petersen: If the Ensign were really interested in reaching a broader audience, they should have published this essay. I really, really wish they had.

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