February 26, 2013

The Writing Life

After months of indecision, I have finally settled on my next writing project. It will be a continuation of the approach I used in Requiem for Ahab, which was a sequel to Moby Dick built around a couple of sentences that refer to Ahab's wife and son. I always had in mind a second story using Heart of Darkness as a springboard, this time a prequel set in the Berlin Conference of 1885. I know what you're thinking. Wow! The Berlin Conference of 1885. Talk about your pulse-pounding thriller!

This idea of taking classic works of literature that no one reads any more and writing tales based on mere scraps on information buried inside those texts may not be the best way you build a huge readership, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and the writer writes what the writer wants to write.

Writing about the past, one soon discovers, is writing about the present. Requiem for Ahab was set mostly in the 1860s. While most folks would say the Civil War was the single most significant event of that period, you could argue that the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania and the rapid decline and fall of a once-thriving whaling industry were equally significant.

Fast-forward 150 years and we find ourselves on the edge of a similar moment, this time involving the decline and eventual disappearance of an oil-based economy, to be replaced by ... what? No one can say, partly because few have fully processed the idea that our oil economy is on the way out and like many of the whalers of old, we don't think it will really happen.

The Berlin Congress of 1885 was convened at a time when an entire continent's worth of natural resources was there for the taking. Concerned that competition for ivory and gold and other mineral wealth could spark confrontations that might bubble over into war, the great powers, under the leadership of Germany's Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, sat down to lay out the rules for competing in Africa.

What you got was a roomful of white males deciding the fate of an entire continent. You begin to see what I mean when I say writing about the past is writing about the present. Take a look at the leading figures who will dominate the air waves as we decide the fate of the sequester. Well, you get the idea.

Just as the Africans were thoroughly excluded from the debates on divvying up their home lands, so too will most of us not have a voice in the room as the fate of the federal budget is decided. Okay, so it isn't quite that bad. Women and minorities have made significant gains during the last 100 years. And democracy does give us a voice in the room, sort of. But at the end of the day, it still comes down to a handful of people, mostly males, mostly white, who will ultimately sort it all out.

The final declaration of the Berlin Conference was a rationale for exploiting the resources of a continent under the guise of saving the Africans from slavery, a piece of rhetorical sleight of hand that conveniently ignored the fact that Africans might not want to aid and abet in the despoliation of their continent.  There were voices raised in objection to the exclusion of Africans from the proceedings. There was the usual confluence of religion and politics, each washing the other hand to get what they wanted.  In the midst of all this, I hope to weave a tale of love and idealism and just perhaps a hint of the darkness to come.

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