This week we’re doing Amal El-Mohtar’s And Their Lips Rang with the Sun. This story is gorgeous, and if you google around the internets you’ll see I’m not the only one who thinks so. El-Mohtar does a lot of work with poetry and it shows in her prose – it’s always lush and evocative. In this story she’s basically showing off with a giant, “Hey, look what I can do.”
For this trip through the Craft Crucible, I want to dig into her choices if imagery and where those choices get deployed. We have the frame story and the story-story, and the narrative treats them differently. The frame story is in an aggressive second person while the story-story is a more traditional third. But that’s not the only difference; the imagery for the frame story is food centric, with spicy tea taking the lead and threading through all the frame-intrusions. The other half uses celestial imagery – it’s all sun and moon focused.
Had cinnamon been ground and rubbed into their skin, they could not have been more brown, more fragrant, more beloved of the wine-bright sky.
This line from the first paragraph of the story does a superb job of setting up the two sets of imagery. We’re in the frame story, though it’s too soon for the reader to know that yet, but we’re talking about the sun girls who will take center stage once we move out of the frame. And we see both sets if imagery, the cinnamon and wine for the frame, the sky for the nested tale. Imagery is something readers are rarely conscious of while they’re reading, so it’s easy to get sloppy in how it’s deployed. Done well, like it is here, it builds and gives a subtle structure that guides the reader’s experience through the story.
Have you ever tasted a fig? A pomegranate? You have not until you have tried your teeth against ours. Come into my house; sit down, friend, eat; let this old woman pour you a tea sweet as the sight of our Sun-girls while I tell you about them.
Food imagery as it pertains to describing women is a loaded subject and one that I am fairly confident El-Mohtar is aware of. Even if I didn’t know more about her than this story, she dodges most of the pitfalls by justifying the use of the food imagery in this case; it’s relevant because these women play a direct part in the presence of the food. Their task causes the weather that produces the crops, and so the relationship is one of mutual reinforcement. The story then takes the payoff from that work when, after using cinnamon, wine, figs, and pomegranates to give us a picture rife with associations of the women, we then describe the tea by referencing them. So the women cause the food in the story, the food describes the women to the readers, and then the women serve as a referent as we get back to the food. It’s a tidy cycle and you can see it starting to pay off in the first five paragraphs.
I like the use of the tea through the story here not just because it closes the loop on the women-food imagery, but because it provides a piece of business that pulls the reader through the frame. We’re being addressed directly even though it’s very clear by the end of the story that the “you” being addressed is not me. But are you going to explain to an old lady pressing spicy tea on you that you’re not whoever it is she thinks you are? I’m not.
Dear friend, console yourself; you are in a civilised country, among the learned and the wise. Drink your tea.
I especially like this use here, because the space between the frame and the nested story has collapsed. El-Mohtar is pausing a moment to dispel probable reader assumptions, i.e. that this exotic, numinous society shaped by a sun cult is abusive and barbaric. We need this not just because the story is pitched to a western audiences likely to make assumptions about societies patterned after Middle Eastern ones, but to collapse the spectrum of possibilities for the consequences of Lam’s dereliction of duty. If we’re expected her to be abused and tortured, it’ll undermine the genuine heartbreak of her isolation and estrangement from her companions. So here we gently pick on the reader a bit, get all that leg work done, and just to keep things from getting confusing, reference the tea to remind you that we’ve stepped back into the frame for a moment.
She taught dancing to the common folk, and grew to be a garrulous old woman among them, known for accosting strangers in the square and plying them with more spicy tea than their bladders can comfortably hold.
And this is where the tea imagery really starts to pay off, because it’s what we’re given as our first solid clue about the identity of the narrator. This is the first place where the story begins to acknowledge that the Lam of the nested tale and the Mal of the frame story (see what she did there?) are the same person. The tea doesn’t just navigate is through the weak places in the narrative where the frame interrupts, but it ties them together for the reader.
I’ll leave digging into the celestial imagery as an exercise to the reader. Feel free to share your results!
Next week: Is my sister’s birthday. I’m going to be out of town and take the week off.
After that: A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica by Catherynne M. Valente
Followed by: Ghosts of New York by Jennifer Pelland.