Posted by: Melany | August 24, 2009

Getting inspiration from other literary journalism pieces

I have recently discovered the news website The Punch. It is like a text-version of The 7pm Project. Among other things, it discusses themes that are in the news, usually in a humorous way. I find its selection of fresh, witty articles to be refreshing. The pieces are often extended and provide an in-depth look at all things ranging from an article saying that the Miss Universe contest is full of objectified stereotypes to an article asking what we know about the Emissions Trading Scheme.

I found a link on this website to a collection of stories about surviving the recession. I found one story in particulary that caught my attention. This story is about the experience of a single mother of three who, even though she has a post-graduate degree, went to a soup kitchen to feed her family. This was a very personal story that mainly focused on the experience of the writer, however she also weaved information about the recession through the story.

This is more of a diary-entry than literary journalism, but I think it is good to reflect on how writers can use their own personal experiences to inspire their writing. The writer uses a rhythm in her writing to more the story forward. She excellently includes the feelings and experiences of her children by writing of their comments or a glare from her nine year old daughter.

What is literary journalism?

I have continued to search for what Literary Journalism means to different writers. I found a blog page called Finding Your Voice created by a literary journalist, Sonja. She describes literary journalims in a very succinct way.

LJ is in brief a journalistic text that reads like a novel. It seems to be an oxymoron but it is not. Literary journalism is firstly journalism. That means that the author needs to apporach its topic as any journalist would. The key difference is how he then writes about this topic. A literary journalist would also use literary or narrative techniques that would make the story similar to a novel or a short story. It would still be journalism, though. Every single sentence, every single word must be true, just like it should be in ordinary, traditional journalism. No scene can be made up, no dialogue invented. The literariness comes from the techniques not from fictionalized events.

The writer further recommends an article by an American journalist named Anne Hull. It is the second article in the three part series about immigrants in the United States.

 

”]Delia shows her sister Ceci how to use a knife to take apart a sharp crab. “Their own people won’t do the work, so we must do it,” Delia said, explaining why the United States imports Mexican women to process crabs. [Photo: JOSHUA DAUTOFF]“It would burn into the shine of their dark hair, inhabit their sheets and seep into their dreams.”

 

This sentence refers to the smell of the crabs that the Mexican immigrants work with day in and day out. However, the concept of inhabiting their sheets and seeping into their dreams also ties in with the impact that such draining work has on their lives. The work is exhausting and damaging to their bodies, however it is necessary to live and provide for their families. This is a strong way to start the story.

The writer uses a lot of descriptive language and then isolates the key point and structures it as a form of commentary. Reminding the reader of what they need to understand from the last paragraph.

 As the story progresses, additional characters are introduced.

“In 1929, Mary earned 5 cents for every pound of meat she picked. Almost 70 years later, in 1998, Daniels Seafood paid her $1.70 a pound. She was 84 years old.

“White women generally did not pick crabs. When an outsider would ask why, the question hung in the air as if it were an unsolvable mystery.

“”I don’t know why to save my life, I surely don’t,” Mary Tillett said.”

This information about the lives of the women who work there provides insight into the world of this factory. Migrants do this work because it is something that white men refuse to do. However, for the workers it is a means of creating their own money and forging their own future. I found this to be an interesting commentary on the polar opposite ideals of different groups of people. It reminds me of the old saying, “One man’s trash in another man’s treasure.”

This article has utilised a number of different voices: straight-forward reporting, colourful description of scenes, conversational anecdotes and a reflective voice discussing the lives of the women from the view of an outsider looking in. With the following quote we can see elements of straight-forward reporting.

 “But whites still ruled the local fishing economy, before and after the Civil War.”

 This straight forward fact is woven together with the anecdotes of the characters involved in the story. Combining the various elements make for a more interesting story to read. The writer can express the story of this area and this workshop, but tell it with the humanity of the people who work there.

“The women spent their days covered in brine and shell. Hemmed in by the water, cut off from major roads and commercial areas, black women at midcentury had few employment choices.

“At least crab picking offered freedom from standing over an ironing board in a white woman’s house.”

The following excerpt is very powerful. The writer has researched this industry and seemingly aims to make audiences think about the reality. This is something that most people would probably be oblivious to and I think the well-crafted writing makes it more appealing for audiences to learn by reading this article than researching dry non-fiction books.

 “The gray building with white trim sat at the edge of Roanoke Sound, just off the Nags Head Causeway. Nothing about the place looked cutthroat.

“But it was here, beneath the hand-painted sign that swung in the wind and read “Daniels Crab House,” that the whole global marketplace came tumbling together.

“The Mexicans had created a grueling standard for themselves. If they didn’t work fast enough, they could be returned to the border.

“The local black women who’d given half their lives to Daniels Seafood wondered whether they’d be replaced by the newcomers.

“And somewhere, someone in New York or Philadelphia was ordering an $8 crab cake, oblivious to the lives behind it.”

. . .

The writer has divided the article into sections. The last section has ended and the reader is now brought forward to the first day of work for Delia and Ceci. The harsh reality is expressed:

“The crabs kept coming. As soon as the pickers finished one pile, another pile was shoveled on.

“”I’m so tired and sore,” Delia said to her sister, in Spanish. The floor was littered with shells, claws and orange paste. Bits of shell and meat clung to their cheeks and forearms.”

This is followed by what the writer has noticed is the response to the hard day’s work:

“Delia tried to exude excitement. She had watched her mother do the same thing the previous season. Act thrilled by the prospect of the American dollar. Be hungry. Be unstoppable.”

This quote has two levels. The first is that Delia needs the money and that is why she is working so hard to get it. The second is that she must pretend to enjoy her work in order for the work to continue. This would be a conflicting situation to be in. On the one hand you’re exhausted and your body is cut up making you look like you have just drugged yourself through a warzone. On the other hand, you must appear grateful for the opportunity to work and to receive your own money.

(I know that the writer has been successful because she has made me think about the situation.)

The article is divided again and the writer discusses the impact that this life has on families:

“The crab houses were stealing the mothers away from their children, yet the children were wearing new shoes because of the crab money.”

Furthermore, it discusses the political agenda surrounding industries such as the Crab House and their need for migrants to successfully obtain visas:

“But not even an inquiry from U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ office in Washington could fix things.

“According to an aide in Helms’ office, the women from Palomas were denied visas because they didn’t show enough proof of their permanent ties to Mexico.”

The story continues like this for a while. It discusses the daily lives of the women and their hatred of the trailers that they live in. It then discusses the trap of payday. With each new payday, the women yearn for another.

About three quarters of the way through the story, the writer begins to place emphasis on the injustice of the situation, abandoning the niceties of anecdotes.

“One North Carolina crab house owner was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for taking 50 percent of his workers’ paychecks for rent. Another owner kept his workers’ passports and visas under lock and key, holding them hostage.

“Cheating the Mexican women out of overtime pay was common. Most were unfamiliar with the time-and-a-half formula used to figure overtime pay.

“Despite the rip-offs and the captive nature of their employment, the Mexican women still begged and bribed their way into jobs in the crab houses.

“But it meant they placed their lives at the mercy of whoever had bought the rights to their work.”

However, as a reader I feel prepared for this as hints that this would happen have been dropped along the way. Anyone who has continued to read to this point is presumably interesting in finding out more information and is probably unsettled by this information.

Interestingly, Anne Hull also writes of the lives of the people who own the Crab House, rather than painting them as monsters.

“Mickey Daniels Jr. rose before dawn six days a week, ventured out in his boat alone, diverted from his duties neither by hurricanes nor 102-degree fevers. His sober ways set him apart from other fishermen who celebrated the week with a suitcase of beer down at the dock.”

“”Around here, you work till you drop,” Mickey Junior said.

“With his tousled hair and faded blue jeans, Mickey Junior looked like a 50-year-old lifeguard. He considered sunglasses an affectation, so his pale blue eyes were constantly red.”

The story also discusses globalisation and how it has almost forced this style of labour to be utilised:

“Our government allows foreign crab meat to come in and be sold way cheaper for what we can sell ours,” Mickey Junior said. “And we’re supposed to compete with the foreign crab house that pays their workers 20 cents a pound, with no inspections, no Social Security, no workman’s comp. That’s not fair competition.”

The rhythm develops with the reporting of facts and is slowed when the writing turns back to a narrative style.

“In late July, Roanoke Island was a summer postcard. Crape myrtles wept their blossoms on smooth bicycle paths. Tourists descended, rubbing their wet hair with white motel towels on the dunes.”

The article ends in an amusing way. It illustrates how these women have changed; they are a new generation of workers. They have their dreams and more compelled to chase after them, rather than being told what to do:

“The next Sunday, Mickey Daniels Jr. found himself ankle-deep in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean.

“When their mothers had worked for Daniels Seafood — Ana Rosa’s mother, and Delia and Ceci’s mother — they never saw the open water, though it was less than 2 miles from the crab house. They worked all day and washed out their clothes at night. In the trailer, they hung photos of their children above their beds. One tore pages from a catalog and taped up pictures of microwaves and washing machines.

“”But these new ones,” Mickey Junior said, shaking his head in frustration.

“”This batch seems more American.””

 

Roanoke Star

Roanoke Star

. . .

Overall, I have noticed a variety of narrative devices that Anne Hull has utilised to create her story. The elements of character, time and space harmonise. The characters lead the story as it is their lives that make it interesting and allow the audience to empathise with the situation. However, the story would not work without the time and space. Modern day demands of society have forced people to work and people must go where the work is. The story revolves around this Crab House. The crab house represents all of those factories and institutions that drew people in to earn enough to feed, shelter and clothe themselves and their families.

Anne Hull’s writing has a definite sense of rhythm and layered story-telling. The story is divided into sections and discusses the day to day activities of the characters as well as factual reporting on the need for money and the realities surrounding this industry.

This story is successful because of the combination of all of these elements. There is life, colour and spirit that exudes from these women, especially considering their circumstance. I believe that Anne Hull has been successful in encouraging readers to think about how other people live and how everything comes at a price. She made me think.

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