Tuesday, April 12, 2016

One Thousand Words for Kishotenketsu

                Kishotenketsu is technically a form of storytelling as opposed to a genre in itself.  Developed in East Asian societies, the process involves a story progressing through four stages:  Ki, in which characters and settings are introduced; sho, in which the plot develops but no radical changes occur; ten, a “twist” often involving a radical departure from the original setting or a transition to a previously unexplored topic; and ketsu, a conclusion tying the original plot to the twist and resolving the story.

                In most respects, this story form isn’t utterly alien to western readers.  There are a couple of points of departure, however, that can be a little bit disorienting.  The first is the radical potential of the ten.  Done clumsily, or even in many cases when done correctly, the ten presents itself as a complete non-sequitur, a “WTF?” moment that disrupts the linear progression of the plot which western readers are accustomed to.  It’s hard to do well, but the payoff is potentially immense; think in terms of the perspective shift that occurs at the halfway point of Gone Girl.  Cathy Bryant’s “Maverick”, which I examine here, is an example of kishotenketsu in which the ten is of paramount importance.

                The second point of departure lies not in what’s present, but in what’s absent.  Specifically:  it is theoretically possible to execute a story in the kishotenketsu form without conflict of any kind.  When they asked for stories for One Thousand Words for War, editors Hope Erica Schultz and Madeline Smoot challenged contributors to consider integrating kishotenketsu traditions into their stories, including, potentially, crafting a war story without war in it.

                As with most challenges in my life, I took one look and ran screaming in the other direction.  At this stage in my development as a writer, I have no metric by which to evaluate my work except for Number Of Creative Stabbings; any story I’d craft without conflict would be as useless as the proverbial tits on a boar hog.  And yet, several of the anthology’s authors did manage the trick, and with considerable élan and emotional impact.

                This, however, presents me with a problem as a reviewer.  Kishotenketsu is in many cases almost all plot, and highly twist-dependent.  To describe such a story is, to a considerable extent, to spoil it.  I will, therefore, confine myself to saying that I admired:

·         “Unexpected Guests”, in which Laura A. Ring draws upon her considerable experience as a professional ethnographer to create a tale of a Pakistani village legendary for its hospitality, and a trio of visitors who have good reason to wear burkas.  Her experience with the culture she’s describing is evident in the details; her voice is original and striking.

·         “Eighteen Roses”, in which Ameria Lewis portrays a teenage friendship dramatically transformed by technology.  This one isn’t subtle, but sometimes subtlety isn’t what you want in a story.  The twist is emotionally resonant and the relationship between the girls feels inauthentic and authentic by turns—which is, in this case, a compliment.   The cardinal rule of anthologies is that every story should be someone’s favorite, and I have no doubt that this story will be the favorite of many young female readers.

·         “Strands of Grass,” concerning a fantasy kingdom with a distinct flavor of medieval Japan, and a girl general’s recollection of her father’s lessons.  Renee Whittington’s previous published work has been exclusively poetry, and she writes here with a poet’s sensibility—every word precisely selected for maximum impact, and with attention to the music of language.  A grassy plateau is “a cake fallen on one side”; the unbound hair of funeral attendees “tangles about us in a flurry, as wild as grief can be.”  This story, perhaps more than any other in the anthology, demonstrates the tonal variety that kishotenketsu can offer—here, the ten is comparatively unimportant, and the plot mechanics are entirely secondary to the lyrical beauty of the language.

·         “Another Sunset,” less a short story than a series of snapshots, from prolific author Anne E. Johnson.  Johnson uses kishotenketsu to celebrate the virtue of stillness, the choice to observe rather than to act.  Johnson’s skills as a writer compliment her theme; her great gift lies in the portrayal of visual imagery, and her prose is vivid and descriptive, whether applied to a sunset or to other, less common phenomena.

Not everyone can write kishotenketsu, but everybody ought to know about it.  I feel fortunate to share an anthology with writers as adaptive, as creative, and as distinctively skilled as these.

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