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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Helen Keller and the Man Who Tasted Like Night

TODAY, reading Rosie Sultan’s debut novel Helen Keller in Love, I thought about the scene in Black Beauty when the barn catches on fire and Black Beauty’s groom covers the horse’s eyes with a scarf and leads him outside to safety.  Black Beauty’s shrill whinny pierces the darkness and gives his stable mate Ginger, still trapped inside the burning barn, the courage to run through the flames. 

In the opening chapter of Helen Keller in Love, Helen is waiting to elope with her secretary Peter.  “I wait under a night sky pocked with stars I cannot see.  I lean forward on the porch … the air vibrates against my skin … I cannot account for my behavior.” 

Like horses, humans fear what we do not know, but Helen Keller is not referring to fearful behavior.  Living in darkness has not made her afraid; it has made her lonely.  She isn’t running away from danger –she is running towards life.  Outrage fuels her political activism, but it is desire and loneliness that fuels this illicit love affair with Peter.

“I’ve never told this story… I was tired of being perfect Helen Keller... Last summer I met a man who awoke all sorts of demons mad cravings in me.  A man who tasted like night.”

Our behavior tells us a lot about ourselves.  If you’re an intuitive writer like Rosie Sultan, behavior also tells you a lot about your characters.  
Andre Dubus at Lighthouse
Writers Event, Denver Feb 2012

Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, reminds his students that “Characters drive the story because the details of a story are influenced by the people in it.  Write with character, not about character. Use concrete, specific sensory details.” 

Helen spells into Peter’s hand, “I live in a tangible white dark.  My blind world is not shot through with blue, sultry green, or shouting red.  But neither is my world black. It is not a casket; it does not close over me like death.  No, my world is more a deep fog, rough to the fingers, the color of flesh.”

Ironically it is ultimately love, more than blindness or muteness or deafness, which inspires fear in Helen.  Not a fear of physical danger, but a fear that rattles the foundation of all she thinks to be true about her life.  

Tossing aside the blinders placed on her life by her overprotective "miracle working" caretaker, for the first time, Helen Keller touches her own desire. “I’d never felt so alive—or afraid.” 

Andre Dubus has a formula for his fiction that goes like this: CSSD > CT = STB. Concrete, specific sensory details, followed by characters in trouble, equals story, truth, and beauty.

"The night gets cooler around me, and the silence deeper.  One hour, two, then four hours pass.  Yet I know he will come... The longer I wait here the more the woods give off a vicious scent as morning breaks..."

Story. Truth. Beauty.  I have no doubt that Andres Dubus III will soon be a fan of Rosie Sultan’s writing, if he isn’t already. 

NOTE:  Want more?  Read "Helen Keller's SecretLove Life" in Huffington Post.  Want more tips from Andre Dubus Lighthouse Writers appearance?  Please leave a comment.