by Britta Jensen
One of my family’s most memorable Christmases was spent in Thailand. We’d been living in Japan for eight years at that point and most of my formative years had been spent in Asia. My father was frequently away on military assignments that took him to Southeast Asia and beyond. After over a decade of hearing his “sea stories” about Thailand, my parents scrimped and saved to take us there. Accustomed to Yokosuka’s cold Christmases, it took a few days for us to adjust to Bangkok’s humidity, mosquitoes and a poverty that wrenched my heart. When we took the water taxi over the Chao Phraya River, I watched children living in riverside shacks dipping bowls into the ashy water, some watching us with wan faces, while others smiled and waved.
The day before Christmas we took the midnight bus north to Chang Mai to escape from the heat of Bangkok. I loved hiking amongst the hillside temples and learning about the Karan and Hmong hilltribes. I watched women walk long distances with their children strapped to their backs peddling various wares and embroidered items.
The scent of curry and roasted chicken wafted over us when we walked through the night markets where I learned how to bargain and avert my eyes so that the more boisterous hawkers wouldn’t follow me when I passed their booths. Kun Joe, our guide taught me there was an indifference I was expected to have in order to garner a good deal. The idea of bargaining didn’t sit well with me. Though I was not “well-off” in my young adult eyes, I could clearly see a deep economic disparity between the way most lived here and how we lived in our small house in Japan. Yet, I quickly realized that the vendors expected me to enthusiastically bargain. Many clearly enjoyed the act of defending the value of their spices, fabrics and produce.
My father was particularly good at driving hard bargains that the vendors passionately joined in. He taught me the technique of “walking away” if you felt that the bargaining wasn’t going well, but to always do so with kindness, a kapunka or thank you. The eager seller would pursue or reluctantly agree whereas the ultimate negotiator would say “no deal.”
“The key,” my father said, “is to not actually want what you’re bargaining for too much. If you’re dead set on it, they can see it in your eyes and then you’ve lost the ability to bargain.”
On Christmas Eve, as we made our way through another sumptuous night market filled with delicious fruits, spices (my mum’s weakness), silks (my weakness), musicians played guitars on the outskirts where a group of Karan women stood in a cluster selling silver bracelets that were a steep bargain. They all had infants strapped to their backs that snoozed gracefully. I loved the black and pink detailed geometric embroidery on the women’s tunics and boots. I approached carefully, not eager to get pulled into another bargaining cycle. Our guide, Kun Joe followed, having already pegged me as a timid one. I looked at each of the pieces of jewelry carefully. I had been saving for one, small, nice thing to remember my trip by, but not take up the limited space of my small shared bedroom.
Kun Joe took the bracelet I held. “Very low quality. Wait for our trip to silver factory tomorrow.”
“Okay.” I said, reluctantly putting the bracelet back. I liked the elephants and dots that lined the rim of the bracelet.
“It turn green on your arm after a few day. Not good,” Kun Joe whispered, retying the leather strap holding his long hair back in a ponytail. There was no malice in his lean face.
The rest of my family followed and I saw a flicker of recognition pass through Mum’s face when she saw the Karan women’s babies and how the crowd passed the women by. It was Christmas Eve, her face seemed to say. It didn’t look like anyone was interested in their wares.
Mum lifted up one of the silver bracelets with elephants on it and put it on my wrist. She took another and placed it on my sister’s arm. There was a determination about my Mom as she looked at each of the babies among the four Karan women.
“Madame Jensen, it not good quality. It turn green in few day,” Kun Joe said softly.
“I know, Kun Joe. But, these women have so little and I have so much. I can’t see them with their babies out here and not buy something. I want my daughters to remember that everyone has worth, even if this bracelet turns green after wearing it a few times. Every time my daughters look at these bracelets they will remember a time when a person was more important than money. These women are quality, even if their wares aren’t, by the world’s standards.”
A quiet hush settled over the six of us as the money was exchanged and I purchased my own bracelet, which I still own. When I open my small jewelry box I see the elephants and dots adorning the rim of the silver bracelet. It hasn’t yet turned green. Everytime I look at that bracelet I remember what is at the heart, the core of who my mother is and the lesson she taught me that Christmas Eve in Chiang Mai.
As an author I’m constantly searching for the core of who my characters are, what motivates them and what they’re seeking. In this month of NaNoWriMo it can feel like we as writers are unleashed on these green, jungle-like, still forming manuscripts and it is a daunting task. Having written five books I now see a crucial process emerging where I must write until I find the central kernels upon which my characters operate. Is it unabashed kindness, like my Mum? Are they running from a love affair gone terribly wrong in the midst of civil war? Or, is it something simpler and more germane to the circumstances in which they are living?
When I’m writing non-fiction, I’m seeking out the central narrative. What central stories will I craft my chapters around? How will the narrative pivot with these stories?
Stories are naturally unwieldy things we’re seeking while drafting for a way forward, a central pathway in the midst of a myriad of dirt trails through the forest. However, in revision I must get to the essence of what the reader needs and what needs trimming away. In order to not drive myself mad I must first allow the messiness of drafting to occur, without revision, before embarking on the process of editing my prose.
When first revising, often new writers make the mistake of attacking at the sentence level and get mired in granularity prematurely. Instead, first seek out the heart of what you’re writing. This can happen in both the drafting and revising stage. Leave paragraph transitions, clever dialogue, turns of phrase and precise imagery for when you know your heart, your structure, your point of view and the vantage points at which your narrator is going to tell the story and invite the reader in.
I love NaNoWriMo because it feels a lot like being in an exciting and lively night market in Chiang Mai with all those wares to choose from, all those vendors (or characters) to bargain with, all those ideas brimming and waiting to come to life. But, all that choice can also be daunting. Before I sit down to write I often find myself stirring (which is why I often have to go walking first thing in the morning to drive the nerves out). Movement precipitates thought. I’ll look at what I’ve written in my journal the night before and then let the keyboard or pen move. (When it’s a particularly hard day, I turn to my typewriter).
So much of what I’ve written never makes it past the cutting board and that’s okay. Once I’ve discovered the soul of my characters, and cry with them over their sorrows and joys, I know exactly where we’re going. I let that exploration guide what comes next, trusting that the night market of ideas brimming inside me will eventually find their ideal reader.