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Helen Moffett

@ Books LIVE

Stuff that authors (AND editors) need to know: 3

Zoo City coverI recently finished editing Lauren Beukes’s second novel Zoo City (to be published in a few months by Jacana and Angry Robot), and as always, learned and relearned a lot in the process. This, plus the fact that I’ve recently assessed several unpublished first-novel manuscripts, has meant yet more brooding on the business of writing and editing fiction.

It was amazing to be reminded just how intense editing fiction can (and should) be. It involves total absorption in someone else’s world. There is no coming up for air, no pausing for a chat, a glass of wine with friends (something utterly necessary to the academic editing ultra-marathon). It’s not a bad analogy: academic editing is like one of those hundred-mile marathons where you proceed at a steady trot, stopping off each night for a hot bath and a bowl of pasta — and fresh socks. The scenery changes day by day, the terrain differs mightily (especially if you’re editing something with multiple authors — some days you’re striding across gentle meadows, some days you’re stumbling over sharp rocks and picking thorns out your legs).

Editing an 80-000 word novel is more like a race over a shorter distance — ten or twenty kays round a track. You can grab a wet towel or water from someone on the sidelines, but you cannot stop to shoot the breeze or wash the dishes. You’re in the same environment the whole time, and that environment is all you can think of.

During my spell in Zoo City, I got total tunnel vision. I found it incredibly difficult to respond to phone-calls, emails, demands from the outside world. I often didn’t even hear the phone ringing, or found myself hitting “reject incoming call” without even thinking. This may be a personal failing or just the way my concentration works.

The crux is that there is a gap between the real world and the world on the page. It’s a given that the real world is more important, but if the world on the page is to work, it requires total immersion. On the last day of editing ZC, a friend rang for help with a CV. We kept arguing about how long they’d been in a certain job, until I realised I was working from a March 2011 calendar — which is when Lauren’s novel is set. It was quite a shock to remember it was still 2010.

So then, a round-up of some thoughts on editing and writing fiction.

When editing fiction, it is your responsibility to enter the writer’s world and head. You may NOT redecorate to your taste. (Neither Lauren’s Moxyland nor Zoo City are H-rated, the latter most especially not. At times, my eyes were watering from the effort not to squeeze them shut, but it was not my job to PG-rate the text.) You are, however, allowed to point out that the back stairs go nowhere, there is no supporting wall holding up the second storey, the characters curl up in front of the cozy fireplace, but no chimney emerges from the roof. In which case, the author must fix the problem, not you. You can prompt, nudge, encourage or suggest: but you may not wheel in your own bricks and cement and start putting in a load-bearing wall.

Immediate sort-of exception to this rule: if your author is experienced, you’re in tune with each other, and they trust you, you can be quite directive about how to tackle gaps. This consists of literally papering the cracks to which your author needs to take a trowel and plaster: you’ll write something like “This transition is too abrupt. How does Thando go from cracking beers in Ellen’s kitchen to falling down the manhole? Can you have him weaving his way drunkenly down the street, back-chatting the local prostitutes while the long-suffering Ellen watches from her front gate?” If your author is gifted, she’ll take the idea of a transition and run with it, so that a drunken Thando might spin round to blow kisses at a passing beauty and take a tumble in the process. Or start walking backwards, waving at Ellen, ignoring her warning shouts. Or… you get the picture.

This, of course, isn’t line-editing — the business of taking a manuscript and running it through the grammar, spell and consistency check machine. There are lots of different words for this editing approach in the industry — some call it manuscript development, some development editing, some copy-editing. All I know is that it’s what I do.

Some years ago Michael Titlestad took issue with the way some local first-time writers were being edited. I certainly don’t agree with everything he said (his piece was suggestive of the diffused light found in ivory towers), but one thing he wrote is worth tattooing on all publishers and authors’ foreheads:

…before copyediting and proofreading, writers need … to labour over revisions. They need to fashion the best and most compelling narrative they can. The best literary editors guide authors, especially new authors, down this path of frustration and travail.

The point is that the editor or the publisher often needs to return a novel – especially a first novel – to its author for rewriting. Substantive rewriting. With copious instructions and a map of the way. And you hold their hand and chivvy them and cheerlead them while they do this. Then you make them do it again. And again. And sometimes yet again. Only then do you start line-editing. Zoo City travelled the cyberwaves between Lauren and myself umpteen times before we were both satisfied. It was already a gem, but we were determined to polish every single facet.

The problem comes when you return something that needs a lot of work to a gifted but inexperienced author. (This was NOT the case with Lauren, who picked up every useful suggestion and responded with flair and speed. She also knows by now exactly when to ignore me.) For a newbie, instructions like “rewrite” or “promising, but needs work” or “cut substantially” are hopelessly vague. I’ve seen second attempts that are worse than the raw but feisty originals: rewrites are often longer than the original (usually an indicator that you’re going in the wrong direction), dialogue has become more formal, the text has been padded with yet more adverbs, adjectives and metaphors, and the latter have been lovingly polished while the pace languishes.

So for everyone in this position, this is what every (good) fiction editor wants their author to know:

1. Ditch the notion that every word you write is precious. Those lines of type marching across your screen? Raw material only (yes, this is a business where you put in months of labour just to create the raw material). Don’t even think of confusing this with the finished product. What you have at this point is a block of wood or marble from which you are going to sculpt something fine and rare. Now start chiseling.

2. Same goes for even the most brilliant, original and creative metaphors and images. If they distract from the action taking place in the sentence, toss them. Don’t expect your reader to stop in the middle of a car-chase to admire the scenery.

3. Your fictional world has to obey much stricter rules of internal logic and consistency than the real world (aka the Mike Nicol rule, aka the John Lanchester rule). In real life, the unimaginable happens all the time, wildly improbable coincidences occur daily, and characters are much larger than life. This is seldom tolerated in fiction.

4. Corollary to the above: if you are taking real life and turning it into fiction, you will probably have to tone real life right down. However, don’t ever mess with the facts. Readers get very beady-eyed about this. For instance, don’t set your novel in autumn and then have a character listening to the call of a bird that sings only in spring.

5. Numbers 3 and 4 apply especially strictly if you are writing magic realism/sci-fi/fantasy. Your fantastical world has to follow its own internal rules as rigidly as tramlines. If you establish that your heroine is a mind-reader in Chapter 1, do not have her gazing at her lover, wondering what he’s thinking, in Chapter 9. Or if you do, you need to create a water-tight exemption to your rule first. Which can look clumsy.

6. Another way that fiction differs from real life: there should be some measure of closure. Wrap up the loose plot threads — not all of them, especially not if you have a series in mind. But you want to avoid too many questions trailing in the reader’s mind.

7. Beware of purple prose, of dense lyrical passages, no matter how exquisite. Modern readers want to know what happens next — the era of lingering for two pages on the cry of the peacock in the Moghul gardens at dusk has passed. (Personally, I think this is a pity, but only the famous are permitted this luxury these days.) Rather sprinkle aesthetic sugar throughout with a restrained and even hand.

8. Readers enjoy characters with whom they can identify. Your hero or heroine should be sympathetic. Failing that, they should be compelling. A few very good writers can get away with creating a central narrative character who is repulsive or alienating, but it might not be wise to assume you are one of them.

Circling back to the editor/author relationship, it is essential that you actually have such a thing. Some publishers (none that I know of in this country, thank goodness) believe that there should be no contact between author and editor, much less dialogue and debate. You don’t have to like each other, but mutual respect is essential. There has to be a certain chemistry. This is what makes the total greater than the sum of the parts. (Over on his Facebook page, Louis Greenberg says: “Editors are shinks with a lower hourly rate.” Yes indeedy.)

A final insider PS via Elinor Sisulu (who recently chaired the judges’ panel for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize): When there are very, very strong contenders for a literary prize, and the books vying for the prize are truly equally brilliant, guess what one of the deciding factors is? How well the book has been edited. (How can you tell? A good novel that’s also been beautifully edited reads effortlessly, with no “fat” or excess verbiage, no typos or silly and sloppy mistakes, no unevenness, and an overall sense of polish, flow and clarity.)

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    March 18th, 2010 @09:32 #
     
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    On a side note, I read a certain brilliant editor's brilliant short story in the new Wordsetc last night. You put Agatha Christie to shame.

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  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    March 18th, 2010 @10:02 #
     
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    i love reading about this process from an editors perspective. so interesting.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    March 18th, 2010 @10:32 #
     
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    Great article, Helen. I'm just sticking my head in to mention that I wrote 'shinks' instead of 'shrinks' on my Facebook status. That's the problem with fb statusses - they're first drafts without an edit button.

    And also to say a word or two about Michael Titlestad. He is my PhD supervisor, my boss on English Studies in Africa, and recently, a behind-the-scenes collaborator: he has edited a new collection of short stories by David Medalie (I hope they don't mind if I say so) which I am now proofing. I hope to work with him some more: he is the least ivory-towered academic you could ever imagine. As David says in his acknowledgements, Michael is "the kind of editor every writer dreams of: generous yet exacting, precise without being dogmatic". Michael knows the rules intimately, then goes on to help his writers flaunt them: not by ignoring them, but by challenging and modifying them. It's that balance between precision and flexibility that is so refreshing to a creative writer. Honestly, he's even allowing me to have fun with my PhD, and I'm already into its third year.

    Michael is also very deeply involved in non-academic, non-ivory-tower endeavours; he's behind the scenes of a lot of local fiction, putting his money where his mouth is; his skills where his opinions are.

    Incidentally, David Medalie supervised my MA. Michael calls him a modernist. Though Helen says that readers want to know what happens next, David's deliciously old-fashioned prose ethos shows that we don't necessarily have to know what happens next *fast*. In the midst of entertaining gambols and thrillers and my own horror-writing, I find myself thinking while I read David's work - thinking about my life and my motivations. Modern readers are deprived of that gentle - and deep - encouragement to insight if we tacitly shame and quash writing that doesn't fit the current trends.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    March 18th, 2010 @12:32 #
     
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    Great piece, Helen!

    And just as an aside, don't worry, this article contains no Zoo City spoilers. All the examples Helen gives above are entirely fabricated.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 18th, 2010 @15:45 #
     
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    @ Paige, thanks -- I sometimes feel I'm saying the same thing over and over, so glad to know this was useful.

    @ Louis-shink, David Medalie was my FAVOURITE colleague many moons ago at UCT, and a wonderful proponent of the "slow writing" approach. The sad thing is that if he tried to get his fiction published now for the first time, I can't help wondering if he would ever get his foot in the door. David Philip's New Africa South imprint was an amazing platform for writers like him and Vladislavic, one that enabled them to gain traction in the local writing scene. David M also has the "luxury" (if you can call juggling teaching, marking, research and writing a luxury) of an academic salary -- something that has enabled quite a few notable SA writers to experiment, to insist on fidelity to the voices in the head, without anxiety about marketing or sales.

    I don't know Michael personally, although I do know him by repute as a superb editor and an engaged academic, as you note. I don't consider him an ivory tower academic, but I thought that particular piece of his was a tad idealistic (I can't link the original, thanks to The Times's nasty case link rot), esp regarding the rude realities of time and money. He was bang on the money about Kraak's book, but less so with Room 207.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    March 18th, 2010 @16:19 #
     
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    Possibly true what you say, Helen, about the saleability of David's work, but uncritical repetition of the phrase 'stories don't sell', until it becomes rote wisdom is counterproductive. (I don't accuse you of being uncritical, only booksellers and hence publishers and readers - in that order.) Michael makes a very sound argument, in his Afterword to David's book, for the very applicability of the form to unresolved South African life in its constant state of suspension. Buy David's book - The Mistress's Dog - everyone, and read it.

    In the end, Michael Titlestad was on the panel of judges who awarded Room 207 the 2007 UJ best first book prize. And I should know, as my book was the losing shortlistee with Kraak's.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 18th, 2010 @16:28 #
     
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    Louis, do you mean "short stories don't sell"? The way Home Away is being presented and marketed is going to disprove that old chestnut -- yay. I think it's going to be huge!

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    March 18th, 2010 @16:33 #
     
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    Quite so. (I was just very naughty and read the first pages of *all* the stories in Home Away. It is *such* a brilliant collection.)

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  • <a href="http://ingridandersen.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    March 18th, 2010 @17:46 #
     
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    Helen, thank you for painting us a Goya-like, detailed picture of your editing space of mind - this partnership with the author really is a submersive experience. I really like the building metaphor.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    March 18th, 2010 @22:40 #
     
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    Another excellent addition to the "Stuff that Authors Need to Know" series. I'm paying close attention and taking notes. I hope to make my editor's life (even?) easier with Trinity III.

    @ Louis - I'm really looking forward to that David Medalie collection. Lucky, lucky you to be editing it!

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    March 19th, 2010 @09:54 #
     
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    @Louis - I'm keen too, to get me a copy of the Medalie collection, the title piece was in a recent New Contrast, I think? Any idea of the who's & when's of publication?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 19th, 2010 @10:12 #
     
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    Louis, you're editing David Medalie's collection? *faints with envy*

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    March 19th, 2010 @10:19 #
     
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    Oh no, not editing - Michael Titlestad edited it - I just proofed it.
    @moi, it's The Mistress's Dog, Picador Africa, coming out in May.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    March 19th, 2010 @11:21 #
     
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    Great article Helen - I miss being here! But know that if I dare wander in I won't find my way out quickly enough (to finish some editing and proofreading jobs!). I've just been talking to someone about editing, what the process feels like - and the best word I could come up with was 'intimate'. You don't get much closer to someone than through their words.

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  • Estelle
    Estelle
    March 19th, 2010 @11:23 #
     
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    Hear, hear. I agree wholeheartedly that the 'development editing' stage is often skipped, at great detriment to the published work. Publishers rarely put that into the budget, which is always too tight (along with The Production Schedule), and the author generally can't do it alone, so we end up with 'a thin book hidden in a fat book' (as James Currey once put it). So, here's to paring down to delicious, lean books.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 19th, 2010 @11:51 #
     
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    Okay, let me try:

    Seamus watched the dewdrop slide down the leaf. A glowing nimbus of water magnifying each of the veins on the surface of the turgid cushion of plant. First it magnified one vein, then the next. Then the next. And then one more. In the distance a plestioaltosaur flapped through the wintry clouds of sulphur, revelling in the absence of gravity on planet Scrock. Flying like a dandelion seed through the golden spring storms of Keratan.

    Seamus turned his attention back to the dewdrop as it slid off the leaf and splashed onto the ground, then wiped the sweat off his brow and stood to shut the door on the muggy heat that poured over his jungle hut like wasabi over tofu. Suddenly, he heard a knock on the door. Unbidden, another dewdrop began it's path down the surface of the leaf, while the plestioaltosaur settled on a branch beside the hut and launched into its mating song.

    Bolts rattled in the door, and Seamus swung it open, casting a beam of light over the aged contents of his 17th century French villa. A man in body hugging white suit, with a fedora covering his glistening locks, stood on the porch. It was Michael Jackson.

    "Eheee...." Jackson said gently.

    Seamus spun on his feet and.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    March 19th, 2010 @13:44 #
     
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    Okay, now I'm going to edit Sven's submission, Margie Orford-style. "Seamus heard a knock at the door. It was Michael Jackson."

    Hmmm ... not sure which version I prefer :-)

    Here's the same story, a la chick-lit. (Seamus is now a girl)

    Seamus watched the dewdrop glistening on the leaf. It reminded her of the super-gorgeous diamond engagement ring she'd seen in Harry Winston just last week. If only Michael would propose. She totally couldn't wait to show her best friend Keratan that magnificent rock.

    A plestioaltosaur flew overhead, but Seamus hardly noticed. Pletioaltosaurs were SO last year. She wiped away a bead of sweat that trickled down between her implants. It reminded her of how long it had been since she'd last been to the gym. Her bum was getting huge. That was probably why Michael didn't love her any more.

    There was a knock at the door. Seamus sashayed across the hall to answering it, teetering slightly on her knock-em-dead Christian Louboutin heels. She scrabbled at the bolts, taking care not to break one of her acrylic nail extensions.

    It was Michael!

    "Oh, my God!" gasped Seamus....

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    March 19th, 2010 @14:01 #
     
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    Horror:

    The dewdrop spatters into Shaun's eye. [Seamus is too hard to pronounce and you can't have a name ending in an 's'. 'Seamus's' is a real deal-breaker.]

    Holy fuck. It's blood.

    The plestioaltosaur has Jane in its jagged beak. He can see the lumps of flesh sliding down its matted crop.

    No! He throws up over the floor of the hut. It looks like wasabi tofu as it begins to float up off the floor, but he hasn't got time to think of last night's dinner. Jane's still alive; he can hear her gurgling. He's got to try. Something.

    He races to the door, but it's blocked. There's someone on the other side.

    "Eheee ... eheee ... eheee"

    My Christ, what the hell is it?

    I have to get out of here!

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    March 19th, 2010 @14:10 #
     
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    And then he just buggers off and leaves Jane to her fate? Nice, Louis. Very feminist of you...

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    March 19th, 2010 @14:12 #
     
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    Jane's a tough girl; she can look after herself. Shaun has other issues to deal with.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    March 19th, 2010 @14:16 #
     
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    Like Michael Jackson back from the dead? Oo-er!

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 19th, 2010 @14:19 #
     
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    You lot are an utter joy and delight, really you are. Louis gets points for remembering the new laws of the fictional planet Keratan, even if his image of regurgitated dinner floating off the floor is utterly GROSS.

    Sven, you're simply too good for this game. Let me see if I can dream up the ULTIMATE How Not To Write riff:

    Seamus [footnote: The quasi-racist referencing of a character designated as Irish is a popular indicator of identity discourse. See Wat Alotoftosh, "Paddy Jokes: subliminal hatred, the new empire and the discontents of late-capitalism in early 21st century Europe", The Journal of Dead Trees, Vol VII, No 4, pp 147-236], in the alienating position of passive observer, witnessed a metereological event suggestive of romanticism in surrounds clearly evocative of a return to the primeval Garden [footnote: However, it is clear that the author posits a secularist rather than a religious framework in alluding to a jungle dystopia.......... etc]

    Good, eh?

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    March 19th, 2010 @14:31 #
     
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    Lol @ Wot Alotoftosh and The Journal of Dead Trees. Sounds like your 12-step programme is working, Helen!

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 19th, 2010 @14:53 #
     
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    This is good stuff, thanks Louis and Fiona. Helen, just for the record, Seamus is Chinese.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 19th, 2010 @15:23 #
     
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    Aha! I can add a footnote on Orientalism!

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 20th, 2010 @09:42 #
     
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    What do you mean Seamus is Chinese?

    What is Chinese? Have you thought of how his institutional situatedness leads to a construction of his identity merely as chimera of several 'Chinese-nesses' at once interlaced and shimmeringly multivalent, on the one hand, and an almost always deconstruction into separate mono-valent but temporal insistencies (dependent on context, naturally) on the other hand? [See for instance Allen Chun, "Fuck Chineseness: On the ambiguities of ethnicity as culture as identity", Boundary 2, 23(2), 1996, pp.111-138] http://www.jstor.org/pss/303809

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 20th, 2010 @14:53 #
     
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    Rustum, you are a genuis. I retire from the field, curtseying before the master. How on earth did you find a JSTOR with that title? *visions of you googling fiendishly all night long*

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 20th, 2010 @15:36 #
     
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    LOL. Cultural studies was one of my, erm, 'research areas' and that essay was on my reading list - it's probably still in my filing cabinet. I just thought to add a touch of authenticity to the pastiche. (hope people got that it was pastiche) I also stole that for "Fuck Colouredness".

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 21st, 2010 @12:31 #
     
  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    March 23rd, 2010 @09:35 #
     
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    Thank you for this. (And as a long time lurker of book.co.za, I registered just so I could thank you on this thread.)

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 23rd, 2010 @10:00 #
     
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    Yay! Thanks, Tiah, you've made my day, and Ben-E's too, I suspect. Love your blog, esp the funny surfing bits.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    March 23rd, 2010 @10:30 #
     
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    Thank you. I admire Ben's work on this site. It is so useful!

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    March 23rd, 2010 @10:43 #
     
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    Congrats on graduating from Lurker to Hanger-About, Tiah.

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