Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Successful Novel

I had never heard of Tonga until one of my school friends ended up going there for the Peace Corps. Even then, I didn't learn much beyond the bits and pieces that filtered back from his remote location – like "South Pacific paradise" and "he might marry a Tongan woman and stay" – snippets that evoked exotic images of coconut palms, languid beaches, and our buddy gone native.

He didn't end up staying, but I ended up with a sense of mystique about the place. That only deepened -- though maybe in a different way -- when I heard reports of a rare and gruesome murder within Peace Corps ranks in Tonga at around that same time.

I'm not sure whether my friend was in Tonga at the time of the murder, but Jan Worth was there, and close enough to those involved to be deeply affected. Her resulting autobiographical novel Night Blind gives a remarkable account of Peace Corps life in Tonga in the late 1970s. As happened in real life, in this fictional account the lead character's coming of age gets complicated when a horrible murder shocks her Tongan island community and leaves her reeling.

Night Blind is a rare find: a literary novel that's also a page turner. Crafted with scathing honesty, it is in turns funny, touching, shocking, entertaining, and deeply compelling.

Jan is a gifted storyteller, one of those writers so facile with words that she makes a novelist's work look easy. In reality, though, it's not so easy, and when Jan came last week to Finlandia University to present a Writer's Journey seminar, she delivered that message in person.

On the way to publishing Night Blind, she said, she slogged through multiple drafts, many years, an agent or two, and 40 rejections. "I turned into an old woman, writing this novel about a young woman," she told us.

Especially after reading the book and seeing how good it is, this was a potent reminder for me of how random success as a writer -- and especially success as a novelist -- can be. (I've even heard publishing professionals cite studies that demonstrate this.) Rejections notwithstanding, once Jan decided to take charge of publishing her novel by going through iUniverse, the book went on to become a finalist for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year Award in Literary Fiction.

iUniverse is one of the newer web-based publishing options that provides editorial, printing, and on-line sales support for self-publishing. The process is more financially risky for authors but provides a lot more control. Jan reported that, by using iUniverse, she has sold more copies of her novel than many colleagues who've published through university presses.

I was sold on the book by seeing her in person. Her engaging wit had us chuckling in the chapel; given the surroundings, some of us were attempting to respectfully stifle guffaws but Jan still had us laughing out loud. Here, for instance, is part of what she read from her novel:

When [the Peace Corps' Tonga] Group 17 first heard the [Tongan] language spoken – in late August, in the California Hotel in San Francisco during staging – titters erupted when Pulu, who met us there, announced with a straight face, "Volunteers, the word for beautiful is faka'ofa'ofa." The word for respect -- a key concept in the soberly formal culture – was faka'apa'apa. Doing things the Tongan way was fakatonga. Even the word murder, which we learned first as merely a curiosity, never dreaming of its hard attack into our lives, was fakapo -- literally, of the dark. Pulu had no particular explanation. He swore it had no connection with, well, that English word, which out of Tongan courtesy he would not say. Faka was just a linguistic quirk, a coincidence. No wonder everybody got horny. I especially enjoyed hearing it come from the mouths of the pious American do-gooders – our trainer Liz, for example, or Evelyn Henry, the sanctimonious country director. If they wanted to communicate, they had to force their lips and tongues to form the "F" word. Even to say please required fakamolemole.

For me, in 1976, it felt right, fuck being a totemic word in my personal lexicon. For me as a preacher's daughter, swearing carried particular power.... So I was greatly amused when, in the fall of 1976 for hours every morning, I was repeating one word after another that sounded like fuck. The weather was faka'ofa'ofa. The discussions were fakafiefia, enjoyable, and when I began to get better at it, I tried to fakakata, or make people laugh.

Jan's humor, depth of insight, full-bodied engagement with the world, and love of language emanate not just from her novel but also from her poems and other writings. You can sample her poetry at her website, and read the first two chapters of her novel online. You can also buy Night Blind locally at North Wind Books, or online at iUniverse. I recommend it!

Thanks once more to Karen Johnson of Finlandia University for these photos of Jan Worth at the Writer's Journey seminar.


Jan Worth-Nelson said...

Katie, I really appreciate this entry. Thanks so much for posting it.

Mary Lou White said...

Fascinating story and sounds like it is written with depth and humor. I'll check it out! Thanks Katie!

JoAnne Bennett said...

Interesting post Katie. Since someday I am going to write a book, I found the part you shared about 40 rejections with obviously such an intriguing story line made a strong point for us as writers...never give up on your convictions. I've heard a lot of positive about self-publishing, so thank you for sharing some info. about iUniverse.