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  • Empathy and Sympathy in North Carolina

    Kasey Thornton’s debut novel Lord The One You Love is Sick takes place in a fictional southern small town called Bethany. That name, and the title of the book, are references to the Biblical story of Lazarus’ resurrection. At one point, the shortest verse in the Bible — also from the story of Lazarus — is referenced by a pastor recruiting for a grief counseling group as, “He wept.” And there is much going on in Bethany to draw tears: addiction, domestic and child abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, suicide. Whether there is new life after the tribulations is left for the book’s ending.

    Each character’s predicament intersects with that of several others. A lonely young man sequestered in his mother’s basement renews a grade school friendship when a woman leaves her abusive husband. Another man has a mental breakdown. As the cloud lifts in treatment at the psych ward, he remembers that the nurse is married to the troubled car mechanic in town, and promisees to look in on her and their children.

    These are not problems unique to small towns or the south, but Thornton is from North Carolina and fills these stories with details unique to her experience. Wealthy outsiders from the north or big cities are both a source of income and resentful amusement for the locals.

    Early in the book, a local talks with her date about her deceased husband, “things used to hurt” him, “he didn’t like watching the news or reading too many books. He had an empathy problem.” Her date, the husband’s would-be replacement, latches on to a break in logic rather than the emotion in her story, and proceeds to define empathy and sympathy for her:

    Sympathy means you understand what people go through and you feel bad for their misery. Empathy means you put yourself in the shoes of another person.

    Never mind that dictionary definitions differ on these terms, the man has just confessed that he is autistic, so the ironic turn toward mansplaining and away from exhibiting either empathy or sympathy is the point. It is also telling that this man is the only significant character in LTOYLIS from out-of-town. Thornton is concerned with how small towns in the South process grief, what is talked about and what goes unspoken. Outsiders have different ways of avoiding pain.

    Sympathy and empathy are important parts of a writer’s toolkit. Thornton puts herself in the shoes of these characters because she has experience with much of what she puts them through.

    Lord The One You Love Is Sick came to me through The Nervous Breakdown book club (the book’s inclusion of a nervous breakdown is coincidence, not the club’s literal theme). In an accompanying podcast interview with Brad Listi, Thornton discusses personal experiences that parallel those of characters in the book, including a childhood as a free-range urchin, experiences with the mental health system, alcohol addiction and chronic pain.

    Every writer must empathize with their characters’ lives. A reader’s ability to feel sympathy for characters’ misery (or joy) depends on the writer’s ability to do so. Thornton’s ability to get inside the heads of so many characters awed me in this debut. As I turn away from a season of nonfiction election anxiety blogging back to my own novel, Thornton’s debut is inspiring me to explore the interior lives of my characters in new ways, and to consider more deeply the ways their experiences and emotions mirror situations I’ve lived through.


    You can support writing like this by buying Lord The One You Love Is Sick by Kasey Thornton on Bookshop.org through this affiliate link.

  • Empathy and Sympathy in North Carolina

    Kasey Thornton’s debut novel Lord The One You Love is Sick takes place in a fictional southern small town called Bethany. That name, and the title of the book, are references to the Biblical story of Lazarus’ resurrection. At one point, the shortest verse in the Bible — also from the story of Lazarus — is referenced by a pastor recruiting for a grief counseling group as, “He wept.” And there is much going on in Bethany to draw tears: addiction, domestic and child abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, suicide. Whether there is new life after the tribulations is left for the book’s ending.

    Each character’s predicament intersects with that of several others. A lonely young man sequestered in his mother’s basement renews a grade school friendship when a woman leaves her abusive husband. Another man has a mental breakdown. As the cloud lifts in treatment at the psych ward, he remembers that the nurse is married to the troubled car mechanic in town, and promisees to look in on her and their children.

    These are not problems unique to small towns or the south, but Thornton is from North Carolina and fills these stories with details unique to her experience. Wealthy outsiders from the north or big cities are both a source of income and resentful amusement for the locals.

    Early in the book, a local talks with her date about her deceased husband, “things used to hurt” him, “he didn’t like watching the news or reading too many books. He had an empathy problem.” Her date, the husband’s would-be replacement, latches on to a break in logic rather than the emotion in her story, and proceeds to define empathy and sympathy for her:

    Sympathy means you understand what people go through and you feel bad for their misery. Empathy means you put yourself in the shoes of another person.

    Never mind that dictionary definitions differ on these terms, the man has just confessed that he is autistic, so the ironic turn toward mansplaining and away from exhibiting either empathy or sympathy is the point. It is also telling that this man is the only significant character in LTOYLIS from out-of-town. Thornton is concerned with how small towns in the South process grief, what is talked about and what goes unspoken. Outsiders have different ways of avoiding pain.

    Sympathy and empathy are important parts of a writer’s toolkit. Thornton puts herself in the shoes of these characters because she has experience with much of what she puts them through.

    Lord The One You Love Is Sick came to me through The Nervous Breakdown book club (the book’s inclusion of a nervous breakdown is coincidence, not the club’s literal theme). In an accompanying podcast interview with Brad Listi, Thornton discusses personal experiences that parallel those of characters in the book, including a childhood as a free-range urchin, experiences with the mental health system, alcohol addiction and chronic pain.

    Every writer must empathize with their characters’ lives. A reader’s ability to feel sympathy for characters’ misery (or joy) depends on the writer’s ability to do so. Thornton’s ability to get inside the heads of so many characters awed me in this debut. As I turn away from a season of nonfiction election anxiety blogging back to my own novel, Thornton’s debut is inspiring me to explore the interior lives of my characters in new ways, and to consider more deeply the ways their experiences and emotions mirror situations I’ve lived through.


    You can support writing like this by buying Lord The One You Love Is Sick by Kasey Thornton on Bookshop.org through this affiliate link.

  • 12 Days: Viaje

    In this month of skeletons and zombies and pumpkin spice (link), it felt appropriate to watch Paz Fábrega’s minute Costa Rican romance Viaje from 2015 begin at a costume party. It was this month’s pick for Las Kikas Cine Club.

    As Viaje begins, a lonely young man in a bear costume hits on a woman on the stairs at a house party. It’s not clear what her costume is, or if she’s wearing a costume at all. She rejects his advance, but a few minutes later returns and corners the bear in the bathroom. They kiss and leave the party together. A drunken romance begins.

    Pedro (Fernando Bolaños) is the bear and Luciana (Kattia González) is the “girl” — spoiler alert — it turns out the young woman’s costume is of herself wearing what she would have worn in kindergarten. Nobody gets it without her explanation, which she finally gives to a stranger at the end of the film. So, is this a tale of goldilocks and the bear? Red riding hood and the wolf?

    Leaving the party, the two flirt in the back of a cab. The conversation turns to a rejection of monogamy and the construction of an imagined life together with queer polyamorous couples taking care of their children on the weekends so that they can still go out with other people, or each other. The cab driver interjects, calls this attitude selfish, and suggests that when Luciana has her first child her mothering instincts will kick in.

    In the morning, Pedro has to leave for work. He is a graduate student in forest research and needs to travel to a remote forest outpost. He invites Luciana along. She can take a bus back into town after the first leg of the trip. And the journey of the title begins.

    Before leaving, Pedro brings a pet fish in a plastic bag to be taken care of by a friend at a local aquarium shop. The fish in a bag was a nice callback to the theme of entrapment embodied by a goldfish in last month’s Las Kikas film pick, Pelo Malo. In the next scene, the two are talking about condoms. Pedro doesn’t like to be wrapped in plastic any more than the fish does. Is this Pedro turning in to an animal? Is Luciana in danger? Is the child predicted in the taxi about to be conceived. Or is this more of the flirtatious sexual exploration that started in the taxi earlier?

    Soon the two are in the jungle, brushing their hands over a bed of plants that contract when touched. As the two disrobe in their tent and later at a swimming hole the story risks becoming a tale of Adam and Eve among the wonders of the Garden of Eden. Though it is unclear what the forbidden fruit is, or if there is an impending fall for indulging in this spontaneous journey. Will the two turn into animals? Will real animals come for them?

    This is not that kind of story. The viaje is as much an internal one for Luciana as it is geographic. Luciana might want to rewind her life and play the part of a little girl, but we learn that a major change in her life will begin soon. She has a boyfriend on the other side of the globe that she hasn’t seen in a year. She is about to fly away to be with him. Following Pedro deeper into the jungle is not compatible with these plans. Our lovers must live in the moment.

    Viaje is shot in a beautiful black and white that brings contrasts forward. The jungles of Costa Rica and the bodies of Pedro and Luciana might have been overwhelmed and lost in lush green if presented in color. The dialogue is sparse. Much is unsaid, revealed only through the movements of actors Bolaños and González.

  • 40 Days: Pelo Malo

    Venezuelan filmmaker Mariana Rondón’s Pelo Malo (2013) follows Junior and his mother Marta in a rough Caracas housing project. His father was lost to gun violence in the recent past — the presence of Junior’s newborn brother suggests his father died six to nine months ago. They hear gunfire echoing routinely at night. The film suggests that his father, like most of the young men in the film, had been pulled into gang battles. Junior and his mother each deal with the trauma of loss differently.

    Samantha Castillo and Samuel Lange Zambrano (background) in Pelo Malo

    The boy — played by Samuel Lange Zambrano — is only referred to as Junior, which traps him in a constant relationship with the missing “Senior.” Junior does much to take on the role his father might have. He takes care of his mother when she’s hungover and feeds his baby brother. But mostly, Junior retreats in to his own interests rather than running with the boys who play basketball, the boys following his father towards gangs and death. He is interested in music and dancing and most of all, having straight hair like his mother and like photos of pop singers — his hair is kinky like his dead father’s and that of his abuela. Is he trying to be feminine, or is he trying to escape turning from Junior into Senior?

    Marta — played by Samantha Castillo — copes by becoming tougher, more stereotypically masculine. When the film opens, she is working as a housecleaner, but she wants to be a security guard. “What if I get shot?” she asks at a job interview. This confuses the interviewer. He’s hiring for a cleaner, not a security guard, so she leaves. The only way she can get on the security force is not through dedication and toughness, but by sleeping with the man in charge, named only as el jefe. But even in submitting to el jefe, Marta is being manipulative against Junior. Earlier, Marta expressed fear to the family doctor that Junior was becoming gay. The family doctor suggested Junior needed a male role model, needed to see positive examples of heteronormativity. So, she stages the tryst with el jefe in their apartment, in front of Junior. But this twisted example of heteronormativity where sex is the ticket to a good job, where the man does not care and bring home support but rather takes away dignity, only traumatizes Junior further. A final insult is the el jefe’s gift. His only contribution of value to the household is a goldfish trapped in a plastic bag, later seen trapped in an equally tiny pitcher of water. It’s as though the boss is saying, “here is a reminder that you’re in a cage and can’t escape.” Eventually, the kid frees the goldfish from its torture by dumping him out the window. The goldfish in its brief flight might be the only character with something resembling release in the film.

    In his quest for straight hair and music and dance, Junior finds an ally in his abuela, but she too is using him. Having lost her son, she is worried about having no one to take care of her in old age. If she takes care of Junior and lets him sing and dance, she might earn his devotion. It’s an investment (earlier we see that she keeps books on Junior-related expenses to bill Marta for). The newborn will grow up to take care of Marta, she reasons, “one for you, one for me.” But abuela scares Junior off. The outfit she lovingly crafts for him is too feminine. “I’m not a girl!” he shouts. It is a perfect replica of the outfit singer Henry Stephen wears when he performs the song she teaches Junior, the song that runs through much of the film and through Junior’s mind:

    The song is a catchy and has strange images: lemons, a lemon tree, a brunette, the reactions of an Englishman (yeah yeah yeah) and a Frenchman (ooh la la). Here is Google’s translation of the lyrics. I’m sure a native Spanish speaker would hear plenty of innuendo. Surely mi limon is a blond with “good hair” in contrast with the dark-haired morena in the lyrics. A rough Google translation of the lyrics gives us “lemons to drink / lemons to suck on.” Junior shouldn’t have to have his queerness deprogrammed, but if he’s going to be exposed to heterosexual modes of being, pop song lyrics are a safer parenting technique than the route Marta took.

    But look again at Henry Stephen in that video. what are we to make of his pelo malo, which runs counter to Junior’s belief that singers have straight hair. Nelly Ramos, who plays Junior’s abuela, was a contemporary of Stephen in the ‘70s Venezuelan pop scene. Perhaps she’s trying to teach Junior that kinky hair is pelo bueno, but Junior doesn’t have the chance to finish his transformation into Stephen.

    How does a story of poverty in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez tie in to my thoughts about the election and this moment in time? Venezuela is a favorite foil for Trump and Fox News. Democrats want to turn the U.S. into Venezuela, Fox pundits are fond of saying. But it is Trump who is bringing us closer to authoritarianism, acting like a dictator. He has repeatedly declined to acknowledge the possibility of a transfer of power and has disparaged the democratic process. Life under Trump’s regime looks more and more like a scene from Pelo Malo every day. Our failed approach to the pandemic and to diplomacy means we too are isolated from our English (yeah yeah yeah) and French (ooh la la) allies. The film’s final shot has Junior in school stone-faced while his classmates all chant an anthem about revolution, combat, and struggle instead of a joyful song about a lemon tree, and I thought of Trump’s recent pledge to impose “patriotic curriculum” on our schools. I’m hopeful we find a better resolution in 40 days than Junior or his goldfish.

    Pelo Malo’ was the latest pick for Las Kikas Cine Club. Join us next month to discuss Paz Fábrega’s ‘Viaje’ from 2015.

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