I Need Your Help with Something Small

Hey Dear Reader,

I’ve been working on a project for a while now and, now that the novel is finished, I’m getting my marketing in order.

I’ve written a novel that sets all the visceral cruelty and sensuality of the vampire myth in the pastoral setting of the Amish landscape.

My first round of cover designs have come back, and I’d love your take on these covers.

My question is simple: which one of these books would you add to your cart? Leave a comment below!

If you read in the genre or have any graphic design background, I’d love to hear any further suggestions you have as well.

As I said, this is the first round of drafts, so I have a few revisions to get things right, and your help is going to go a long way.

Thank you!

Listen to an award-winning “dark, twisty” short story

As a writer of novels, I’ve decided recently to stretch myself and further hone my craft through writing short stories. I stumbled on a short story competition hosted by Bibliophone, where the winners would be chosen for narration by a professional narrator. The challenge was to tell a punchy, compelling short story in 1,000 words or less. I sat down with an idea and whittled away at it, then submitted it. Guess what? Yeah, gotta say I love the results. Rebecca Roberts did an insanely good job at bringing the voice of this dark little tale to life. Check it out below

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A conversation between a pregnant woman and her husband evolves into something more sinister as the eggs sputter in the skillet.

The Runner: A Short Story of the Rio Olympics 2016

“Are you willing to pay what that dream costs? You know what it costs? Huh?” He slapped Carlito’s hand on the table.

 

The city of Rio de Janeiro was an ant’s nest, kicked over and lit on fire. At least that was what Carlito Yaozu Chen thought as his school bus waited for the mob of protestors to clear out of the narrow street. They pumped signs in the air with slogans like, “They tore down my house to pave your track,” and, “Don’t close your eyes to the real Rio.” He knew where they had come from.

“Stupid beggars,” Vitor said, returning to his phone to slash another zombie. “Go back to Autodromo!” The rest of the boys around him laughed.

Enrique cracked the window to throw the rind of a guava at them. It tipped the window frame and fluttered down beside the bus.

Carlito had heard there was no more Vila Autodromo. His father told him so because he had been there with the construction crew when they tore it down. Many of these protestors, mothers with babies in their slings, children with no shoes, old men and young men, had spilled out of the new housing projects and favelas they had crammed themselves into when the bulldozers forced them from their homes. An “urban revitalization project” it was called on the billboards. “The Renaissance of Rio,” his father said over five-spice squid fried golden and crispy.

“Fodam,” Carlito said in his husky voice from the seat behind Enrique.

The boys twisted to look at him with gaping mouths. “What did you say?” Vitor asked.

“Fodam,” Carlito repeated, though a little quieter. He made sure to point a chubby finger outside to direct the insult. “If they cannot move up, then they should move out.”

Vitor’s open mouth exploded with laughter. “Fodam!” he yelled, the rest of the boys joining in the obscene chant.

Carlito’s head fizzed with pride. Though his family had lived in Rio for two years, he was still the new boy at his upper middle-class school and wanted badly to fit in. With one unmentionable word, he had risen to become comrades with the most popular kids in class.

“Fodam,” he had heard his dad say to his mom the night before as Isabel, their maid, was cleaning up the table. “If they cannot move up, then they should move out. That is what I did. From my father’s broken down pasteleria in Liberdade to a five star Chinese restaurant, and now we live here in Humaitá, just spitting distance from Copacabana.” He had sold the restaurant and used the money, and some that he’d borrowed, to start his own construction team. They were small, but had gotten many contracts with the city’s building projects leading up to the 2016 Olympics. Of course, his father had never driven the machines, only given the orders, signed the contracts, and kept the books. He was a hard-working man, but his fingernails were always clean.

That is why he did not approve when he saw Carlito run. The boy had been eight years old when he first watched Usain Bolt streak ahead of a pack of racers to snatch the gold medal at the London Olympics. The dark-skinned man’s legs whirled like the machinery of a steam train, but his joy was free like a bird. When he blazed over the finish line, he crossed himself and pointed to the sky. They covered him with the green, black, and yellow flag of Jamaica. His teammates rushed to his side to celebrate, and cameras sparkled around the stadium as though it was the whole universe.

“What do you think?” his older sister, Maria Mei, asked him.

Carlito couldn’t think. He could only see and dream and be, so the next day at lunch, instead of scratching out answers to extra math problems his father had sent to school with him, he walked to the football field and set down his bag. The other kids, native Brazilians with skin the color of cooling magma and the Amarelos, or “Yellows”, all classmates who’d never picked him for any sport, stopped their games long enough to watch him pace over to the goal line. Had he been given his father’s lean body, he may not have drawn any attention. Except for his flat fleet, though, Carlito inherited everything from his mother, a Brazilian who had been the lavandera for the restaurant’s tablecloths when his father met her. She was a hopeful woman with round eyes, round curls, and a round belly. Even she, however, laughed from the kitchen window as she watched Carlito huff up and down the street later that afternoon. He’d heard her.

Showered and still breathing heavy and dripping with sweat, he sat at the kitchen table that night. His father’s thin eyes appraised him, unamused. The muscle in his jaw flexed as he chewed quietly, and Carlito glanced from his mother, still giggling, to his sister. His mother rubbed his head, sweat spraying from his hair. “You’re a dreamer, just like my Papa,” she said.

“Why are you so sweaty? Are you a dog panting over there?” his father asked.

“I am running,” Carlito said. “I am a runner.”

“You’ve never run before,” his father said.

“But I want to now.”

“Why? Why all of a sudden?”

“Because I saw Usain Bolt last night.”

“What is that? A rock and roll band?”

“No, Papai. He’s Jamaican. He won the Olympics, and I saw it!”

His father scowled. “I saw a man put his head in the mouth of a crocodile,” his father said, “but I’m not a fool.”

That night, Carlito went to sleep listening to a stray cat moan outside, repeating to himself, “Mark. Set. Go.” The next morning, and for the months after, he woke and jogged in place as he brushed his teeth, his thick feet slapping against the bathroom tiles. At lunch, he crossed himself, then bent over the patched dirt and grass of the football field and tried not to fall on his face. The skin of his forearm folded past the back of his wrist as he began to quiver. He raised his large buttocks, tilting sideways until he put a foot out and caught himself. “Go!” he shouted in his husky voice. It echoed between the snickers of his classmates while he stumbled over himself to the goal line and back. He counted every step, as he always did. Fifteen was enough. After that, his head started swimming and his legs caught fire inside.

Carlito saved his allowance and bought a new pair of running shoes, Pumas like Bolt’s. He learned the Jamaican national anthem. He chased the neighborhood cats when they crept into his small yard. He ran from his house to the pasteleria on the corner and rewarded himself with a quindim, a ball of egg yolk, coconut, and sugar, to replenish the calories he’d burned. He had earned it. Somehow, he never lost any weight. The doctor said he had a thyroid problem. A year later, he said, “Also asthma.” They gave him an inhaler the color of a robin’s egg.

He told Maria he didn’t care. He would try out for the school track team the next day. He did, but when spots of light pattered down on his vision like raindrops on the windshield of his family’s Mercedes, he stopped. The rest of the boys left him three meters from the starting line, doubled over, his head pounding and lungs heaving.

“I have humored this ridiculous fantasy long enough,” his father declared over wontons one night. “No more running. You’re making a joke out of yourself.”

“No Papai. I want to run,” he pleaded.

“For what?”

“For the freedom of it. For the wind in my hair and the roar of the crowd.” He waved his hands with the words.

His mother bounced quietly in her seat, the smile on her lips almost tearing into laughter.

“Don’t be so thick-skulled,” his father said sternly. “Look at our house, Carlito. We even have a maid,” he motioned to the kitchen where Isabel was washing dishes. “I didn’t work this hard so that you could piss it all away on a daydream. Besides, you have to buy freedom. You heard the doctor, didn’t you? Are you willing to pay what that dream costs? You know what it costs? Huh?” He slapped Carlito’s hand on the table. “Listen to me, son. It costs your life. Let other people run around. You work with this,” he leaned across the table and tapped him hard on the temple.

After that, he made Carlito spend his afternoons sitting with him at the dining table, eating steamed stuffed buns and going over the columns of the restaurant’s yellow ledger. Then, they moved from Liberdade to Humaitá in Rio. That was when Carlito first saw the favelas, small brick homes that grew out of the sides of the hills, climbing one on top of the other until they stood five storeys high and looked like a strong wind could knock them over. That’s where the people lived who had nowhere else to go. His father told him about them.

“Never go in there,” he said. “It is a place with no future. They will take you in there, and we will never see you again.” Every week it seemed like a new massacre was reported in the newspapers. Drug gangs ruled the favelas, and gunshots seemed to count the hours of the day. Words like “Apartheid” were graffitied across the wall that separated them from the sight of the highway, but Carlito was glad for the wall. On that wall were also plastered the posters. “Welcome to Rio. 2016 Olympics.”

“Can we go, Papai?” he asked the day he noticed the first one.

“Of course not,” the man said. “Don’t waste my time with games, Carlito. Watch it on TV after your homework.”

His new school had been much nicer than his last. There were boys and girls from all over the world. Vitor was from Portugal. Zack was American. Gabrielle was an Amarelo like himself. Ever since he’d cursed at the protestors in the bus, they’d let him sit with them at lunch and invited him to play videogames at their houses, even though they still called him “fatso”.

He didn’t run at his new school, remembering the laughter he’d left behind at his old one. Instead, when he felt like it, he got off the bus a block before his house and ran home, careful to stop in his front yard for fifteen minutes in case his father was there and might catch him panting and wheezing in the doorway. After the pounding in his chest and the burning in his cheeks had stopped, he went in, took a cold shower, kissed his mother, and sat down at the dining table to wait for his dad.

His mother knew his secret. She asked his father one night when they thought he was asleep, “What is the harm? Why not let him dream, Feng?”

“He’s a fat boy with duck feet,” his father had said. “He runs from one pasteleria to another. He thinks he can just decide to be a runner and he becomes one? No skill? No training? No discipline? It’s an illusion, and it’s a waste of time when he could be doing something useful. Don’t encourage him, Marta. You’re filling his head with straw when what he really needs is a mind for money.”

What his father had said stung him, but Carlito still didn’t forget about the Olympics. He started saving up his allowance, and even sold a few of his dad’s old trinkets from China. By the month before the games started, he was one hundred short for a ticket. It made him feel guilty, but he crept into his parent’s room one Friday afternoon and unscrewed the lid of their money jar in the closet. Taking out the worn and wrinkled bills, he whispered a promise to pay them back.

Every night after that, he pulled the ticket out of the running shoe he kept it in and held it up to the lamplight, reading the stadium location: Maracanã; event name: Men’s 100 Meter; and stadium section: 107. Then he tucked it back, slid his shoe into the box, and shoved the box under his bed.

“Don’t move my shoe box, okay Bea?” he told their new maid to make sure no one found out. “If you do, I’ll tell my parents you stole money from them and they’ll fire you.” The tired woman flinched for a moment, then nudged past him on her way to clean the bathroom.

On the night before the race, Carlito told his mother that Enrique had asked if he could spend the night. He saw the pitying look on her face, with her round chin rolling up under her lip. She nodded and kissed his forehead, mussing his hair. “Be good, okay?”

He wore his running shoes to school that day, the ticket still stuffed into the front. In class, he slid his toes back and forth over it, slick as a popscicle. He imagined himself standing, screaming “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” with the crowd. Bolt flexed his biceps at the boy, and Carlito flexed his back. Then the bell rang. Carlito’s eyes widened. He clapped his pencil case shut and piled it with his notebook into his bag.

He’d planned his route already. He walked to the bus stop, took the 548 to São Conrado, sitting next to a homeless man with a Bart Simpson t-shirt who eyed him while he sipped a can of Guarana. There he found the bus to Barra and walked over a bridge to board the 301, which wound across the slope of Corcovado, the hunchbacked mountain at the center of the city. To his right, at the top of the mountain, Cristo Redentor held wide open arms to Rio.

“Where are you going?” a nun in a grey habit asked him as he tried to hide himself in the corner between the seat and the door of the bus. Her eyes were cloudy with cataracts.

“To the race,” he answered her in his husky voice.

“Alone?” she asked.

“No,” Carlito said, “with my father.” He pointed to a mustachioed man at the front who was still paying the driver.

“Oh, I see,” the nun said.

Carlito doubted that.

Still, when they began down the hill towards the city, she looked out the window and smiled kindly back at the pale white statue of Christ.

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The bus took a corner, and Carlito caught sight of the stadium across the chaotic jumble of a favela that ran down the rest of the slope. It was at that moment that the bus gave one last sputtering cough and died.

“Porre,” the driver yelled, slamming his hands on the wheel and standing up to leave it. The passengers looked at each other for an explanation. A few followed the driver outside and began a conference with him, which turned into a yelling match. Carlito decided he would be better off walking than waiting. The sun was already setting behind the hills to the west.

He tried not to look at the nun, but caught her eye anyway and saw her head swiveling back and forth between him and the man he’d said was his father, now asleep over his folded arms. Her mouth gaped open, and she reached for Carlito, but he tugged away and slid through the door into the pink sunlight before her fingers could close around his sleeve. The nun started up after him, tottering in the aisle of the bus, but by then Carlito had run across the road. He made it onto the sidewalk just dodging a blue truck hauling papayas. The driver blared his horn and skidded. A papaya tumbled over the rail and split open on the ground.

“Vai tomar no cu,” the man yelled at Carlito as it rolled past, which was something his father had said once before his mother slapped him and stopped speaking to him for three days. Carlito stood, heart pumping, a stream of sweat tickling down the base of his spine. He looked at the papaya and took it as good luck. That could have been him. He picked up the half that wasn’t as badly bruised and started to chew on it. Then he noticed the crowd at the front of the bus looking at him. The nun was gesturing wildly from inside. Clutching the papaya to his chest, he clambered through a crack in the wall of the favela.

Inside, he looked up at the jutting corners above him where laundry whipped in the breeze. Hip hop came from an open window, and three boys chased a football across a small pathway from one alley to another. A man in a butcher shop to his left leaned over a bloody counter of dead chickens as he stared, a squadron of flies landing on the chickens like they were aircraft carriers on a red sea.

Carlito gulped. He wanted to climb back through the wall, but could hear the scuff of shoes and voices of the men from the bus approaching. If they found him, he would miss the race. They would take him to the police, and the police would bring him home. He didn’t know what his dad might do. He thought of the disappointment and betrayal that would be written on his face between the bold strokes of anger. Better to get away and sneak back home after the race, or even wait outside school for it to open in the morning and tell them he’d had a great time with his new friends.

He willed his feet into motion and brought the papaya to his mouth as his mind recoiled from the idea that he may never make it to the stadium. He was careful to stay on the far side of the street from any shops or people, his eyes buried in the fruit. It was syrupy sweet and mature. One of the black seeds from the center crunched between his teeth, and he hurried along, afraid that the noise had drawn the attention of the drug gangs.

Carlito was passing on the other side of a cellphone shop when a grey blur bolted out of a doorway. He turned, tingles of fear pricking their way through his body, to see a cat streaking past with a fried fish in its mouth. A little girl came running after it.

“Come back!” she shouted, but her voice was strange. Her brown curls and pink dress bobbed in the wind as her slippers slapped against the street. The cat paused at a drainpipe. It looked back at her, then began to climb. The girl threw up her hands and stomped her foot, shouting “Porra!” at the cat, which disappeared over the rooftop.

Carlito passed her, wanting to so badly get to the stadium and find his seat, to bask in the safety of the halogen lights they would surely be turning on by now, but he heard her whimper and turned to see the tears streaming over her cheeks. She looked at him with large, brown eyes and wiped her nose. “What do you want?” she asked him in that strange way, as though her words were bubbles and her lips couldn’t close around them without popping them. When she motioned with her hands also, he realized she was deaf.

Carlito glanced at his papaya. She noticed it too. He considered giving it to her, but he was hungry. He looked at her, then the papaya, then he turned and walked down the street, licking the sweet juice off the back of his hand and sucking on his fingers. He imagined the grey cat must be doing the same on the roof overhead, but he saw the cat when he came to the bottom of the hill. It still had the fish dangling from its mouth. The fish’s dirty tail dragged on the ground, a crispy, wide eye looking at Carlito for rescue. It was beyond help, he knew. Large flakes of salt clung to its dried scales. Both its top and bottom fin were burnt from the grill. It probably tasted delicious, and Carlito didn’t blame the cat for taking it. Even after finishing the papaya, he was still hungry. In all his plotting, he’d forgotten to plot a snack. If he spent the money wadded up in his pocket, he might not have enough for a ride home.

“Share?” he asked the cat.

Its slitted green eyes glared at him.

“Okay,” Carlito said.

The cat turned its back, whipping the fishtail across a gutter opening, and walked away.

Carlito trodded on. The sunset had faded from the pink and orange clouds, leaving them dull and concrete grey. He caught sight of the stadium again, a silver moon in the chaotic clump of yellow stars that burned from the small shops and condos and fragments of favelas around it. A train streaked in from the east, a meteor coming to rest on the top of the moon.

Thirty minutes later, his feet were aching, his thighs burning, his stomach grumbling, his head swooning, and he had to pee. He wanted to sit down, but he was a long way from the stadium still. He could hear the shallow thump of music, though, and the low drone of an announcer’s voice.

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Sound carried well up the hill. It drew the residents of the favela out of their homes like a cookie draws ants from a nest. He passed a family sitting in their doorway looking down at the lights and a table of men drinking over a game of truco. He made sure to stay in the shadows while people strolled down the hill past him and scooters fluttered by in neutral. Another two blocks and he couldn’t hold it any more. He found an alley and listened to a couple arguing while he peed in their flowerpot outside.

When he crept out of the alley, Christ was glowing white against the darkening sky behind him, lit by spotlights at his feet. I saw that, he imagined the statue saying. His mother was religious and was always reminding him that Jesus and the Virgin Mary saw everything he did. His father still made offerings to his ancestors. Carlito didn’t know what to believe, but he blushed anyway and turned his back from that embrace and continued to make his way towards the stadium.

At the bottom of the hill, he stopped and rubbed his throbbing knees while everyone else around him crossed at the intersection. His chest was feeling tight, so he reached into his bag for his inhaler, only it wasn’t there. He wiggled his hand through the folds of the extra shirt, the Jamaican flag he’d bought from a roadside vendor, between the plastic covers of his books and the cold tin of his pencil case. Panic crept up on him and said “Boo” in his ear. He put a hand to his chest, forced himself to breath. His throat was a broken squeeze toy, a high, airy whistle squeaking from his mouth. He closed his eyes and imagined himself walking into the stadium, flooded with light, and finding a seat.

“One zero seven,” Carlito said. He would sit in it, rest, relax, and watch Bolt stamp his footprints across history once again. Maybe he would buy a chicken coxinha. No, he thought as he smelled the pastéis deep-frying in a stand to his right. He would eat now. He pulled the ball of money out of his pocket and counted it, did the math in his head. He didn’t have enough for meat.

“One pastéis, please. Cheese,” he said.

The woman looked at him curiously while she reached into the warmer and pulled the crisp pastry out, sliding it into a brown paper bag and handing it to Carlito. He traded bills with her for clinking coins and turned to the street again when he noticed the little girl in the pink dress standing behind a man on the other side. They stood by a yellow streetlamp under a tangle of electric wires that hummed so loudly Carlito could hear them from where he stood. A bicycle was leaning on the man’s hip as he talked with a cigarette vendor. The girl didn’t notice Carlito, but was looking at the grey cat instead, still dragging the uneaten fish across the street.

He must have very strong jaws, Carlito thought. Then he wondered if it was even a boy cat.

The girl in the pink dress didn’t care about that. She left the back wheel of the bike and raced into the road to catch the cat. It hissed and darted back, dropping the fish in a trail of pieces and disappearing between Carlito’s legs as he held the pastéis frozen in front of his open mouth. The girl beamed a triumphant gap-toothed smile and knelt down to pick up the pieces of the fish when Carlito heard blaring samba music and saw the nose of the blue papaya truck swing into the intersection on their left.

Folded up in the shadow of the wires on the road, Carlito knew the girl was invisible. He shouted at her, but she couldn’t hear him. People turned to see what the boy with the pastéis was yelling about, but the papaya truck didn’t even have its headlights on, so no one noticed the girl.

Carlito was too far away. He watched helplessly from the sidewalk. Then a gunshot up the hill drew everyone’s attention off of him. The drug gangs, Carlito thought, I have to get out of here. He couldn’t look away, though.

He knew he was too slow and too far. He was already out of breath. He was not a runner, but without meaning to, Carlito swiped the pastéis from his head to his chest, then his left to right shoulder, leaving oil and flakes of the crust on his shirt and chin. “Go,” he said to himself. “Go,” huffing into the street.

He was only a fat boy pretending. It was stupid to think that he could just lace up his shoes and call himself Usain Bolt. In all the jogging and fumbling around he had ever done, he’d never felt the wind on his face, only the heat from his wheezing chest.

“Go!” he tried to scream, whether to himself or the girl, he didn’t know, but a crocodile’s jaw clamped shut around his lungs.

He’d never even finished a race.

He stumbled, feeling the last puff of air escape from his nostrils, and reached for the ground. He glanced up as he fell and saw the eyes of the girl staring at him from the shadow. She had the pieces of the fish folded in her hands.

What had been more pathetic? His breasts jiggling like his mother’s when he stomped across the football field or the fact that he’d thought anything would come of it?

The driver sang loudly behind the wheel. Carlito swung his foot under him and braced his belly against it. It drove a croak out of his mouth before he shoved off that back foot and lunged for the girl. One more step.

He remembered what his dad had said. You have to buy a dream.

His chest was an empty cavity, his lungs folded up into his spine like two sheets of his father’s yellow ledger.

You have to earn it with your life.

Eyes bulging, the wind whistled in his ears, and his tongue went dry. He reached for her. She had started up from her crouch, twisting away from him.

You have to pay for it with blood and sweat, and what was in his blood? Coconut milk.

The engine roared deafeningly. Someone shouted. He heard screeching, but felt the molecules on his left side compressing as the grill of the truck flickered golden in the lamplight. Air scraped the back of his throat. A tear leaked out the corner of his eye, cooling in the wind that rushed over his pulsing temple. He slammed into the girl’s back and knocked her past the truck’s blackened headlight.

Carlito smelled diesel. He felt his shoulder crack against the grill and a thousand fireworks go off inside his small, round body. The street spun. Then he was staring up at the sky among the sweet, musky papayas, stars faded by the glow of the living city. Somewhere in the distance, a hushed roar escaped the stadium, and on the hill above, Cristo Redentor held open his arms.

 

Hawthorne, Feminism, and the Malleability of Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter

The novel seems intent to make a point about how flawed people are at making meaning from life’s events, people’s interactions, and even the symbols we make of each other.

The Letter Kills. The Letter Heals.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an discussion on the how the meaning of a symbol changes over time and context. Hawthorne takes a microscopic view of symbolism by selecting only one symbol to study here: the letter “A”. What could it mean in all its various interpretations?

The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter

It starts as an innocuous letter, the first of the alphabet, simply a block to build a word with. But the people of Boston ascribe a heavy symbolic weight to it and inscribe it on Hester Prynne’s chest. To them it means danger, shame, and chastisement. To her, however, who has experienced the full weight of her punishment already, there is no danger. To her it means remorse, loneliness, and (ironically) misjudgment. The people of Boston believe they see the letter clearly for what it is and that it belongs perfectly on Hester’s breast, but they have read her wrong. She is not a wanton woman destined to destroy their community. She’s a woman caught between her will and the place she’s been put in by society.

Hester, herself, in fact, becomes a symbol for the community. She begins as a cautionary tale and allegory that preachers can simply allude to in a service in order to chase fear into the hearts of their hearers. Over time, though, the residents of Boston learn to read the symbol of this woman. In the context of the scaffold where she was sentenced, she was the picture of shame. By their deathbeds and in their moments of suffering when she pulls a blanket up around their necks on cold nights, she changes to become an almost divine messenger of mercy. How could a symbol have such radically different readings? Even the “A” on her chest, which was emblazoned there as an everlasting reminder of her perfidy becomes an adornment that marks her as a wounded healer, suffering with those who suffer and sharing the humanity of those who seek (and fail) at being divine. People begin to admire the A as they admire Hester. It comes to mean “A” for Abel, and in it they read that Hester suffers as a martyr with a “woman’s strength”.

To Hester, however, the symbol never loses its weight. What’s more, she has another symbol to contend with: that of her daughter, Pearl. Throughout the novel she wonders as to the meaning of Pearl’s existence. Is she a punishment? Is she just the fruit of her sin? Does Esther have responsibilities to her as a mother to correct and refine her to fit into the role of womanhood in society? Or is the meaning of this symbol beyond her control?

What is a woman?

Hester Prynne and Pearl
Hester Prynne and Pearl

This takes us to the symbol that has the broadest application and what makes this novel so timely for readers in this era. It doesn’t take much to realize that Hester, herself, is struggling with the symbol of womanhood. Hawthorne seems to use the scarlet “A” as a surrogate to discuss the symbol of womanhood that is stitched onto a woman’s chest when she tries to be anything but the symbolic “woman” in a patriarchal society.

Hester’s daughter, Pearl, is obsessed with the letter, asking her mother questions about its meaning and what it portends. She asks her in one scene, “Will not it come of its own accord when I am a woman grown?” (pg. 103). By this, Hawthorne, through Pearl, asks if womanhood does not blossom with a mark of shame and chastisement for violations of propriety.

Hester meditates on that condition herself at another point.

“Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled.” (Pg. 93).

It troubled her so much that she next contemplates whether it wouldn’t be better to just kill Pearl to save her from the hardship of growing up a woman in that Puritanical society or not.

In Puritanical Boston, the words “man” and “woman” have fixed symbolic values and anything that does not fit within their definitions, any woman that begs to be reinterpreted, is driven from the fold. This is where Hester finds her freedom, however, outside the context of that patriarchal structure. Almost by accident, she discovers the forest outside the perimeter of their town. It is wild, primeval, and unstratified. In the forest, there are no symbols, so symbols have no meaning. One simply is, irrelative to their symbolic value in society and the expectations that it carries. It’s because of this freedom to exist undefined that Hester is able to confront the villain of this story as an equal and to provide her own strength to the frail husk of the man that she loves.

Most travelers take their symbolic understanding of the world into the forest with them, trying to understand its fathomless mysteries by their structured hierarchy of knowledge and moral standards. Then there are those who lose their “town” identity when they step outside the limits of the gate. Hester is one of those. She walks back and forth between the woman free to define herself in the forest and the woman burdened by society’s definition of her in the town whenever she crosses that threshold. Pearl, however, is the same in both domains. She is only the child of the forest. Because of this, she’s unfit for the life of civilized men and women. She sets people back on their heels, but she’s not punished because she has not stepped into womanhood yet.

So, does Hawthorne provide Hester a chance to reinterpret symbolic womanhood? To us, he does. He says that:

 “The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!”

In essence, this means that women must be able to reveal the meaning of their own nature to society, each person giving meaning to themselves rather than having meaning placed there by tradition. Unlucky for Hester, she lived in a time where she was merely “a prophetess”, heralding that time. Her life called for women to begin a re-evaluation of the place they held and the expectations held of them in society.

Even though Hester doesn’t blatantly overthrow notions of what a woman is to her neighbors, Hawthorne does spend a good deal of time on Hester’s strength. In fact, he crushes the man in this tale under the weight of his presumed holiness, which situates him at the apex of the patriarchal structure.

Hester, on the other hand, grows stronger from her being cast out of this world to fend for herself. He says,

“The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” (p. 112)

Meaning is a negotiation

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Though Hawthorne speaks to us as readers of this dare to rethink the meaning of “woman” in society, the novel seems intent to make a point about how flawed people are at making meaning from life’s events, people’s interactions, and even the symbols we make of each other.

In a key scene, the “guilty” parties in this novel see a meteor shoot overhead and make out from its trail the shape of an “A”. For them, it is God’s illumination of their guilt, trumpeting it before the earth. But in town, the governor has just died. Learning of this the next morning, the rest of the townsfolk interpret the symbol to be a sign from God confirming that the governor has become an angel.

The narrator says,

“Oftener, however, its credibility rested on the faith of some lonely eye-witness, who beheld the wonder through the coloured, magnifying, and distorted medium of his imagination, and shaped it more distinctly in his after- thought. It was, indeed, a majestic idea that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven. A scroll so wide might not be deemed too expensive for Providence to write a people’s doom upon. The belief was a favourite one with our forefathers, as betokening that their infant commonwealth was under a celestial guardianship of peculiar intimacy and strictness…But what shall we say, when an individual discovers a revelation addressed to himself alone, on the same vast sheet of record. In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate.” (p. 87)

The point Hawthorne makes here is confusing, as it is clearly a device he’s used to amplify the sense of doom that his main characters feel. It confirms the guilt that they feel so strongly. Still, the narrator states that we each read meaning into our lives as we experience them, often more clearly when we look back on a moment. To us, the whole universe is a parchment that was laid out for the worth of our lives to be spelled out on. But the fact of the matter is that we’re often wrong about how we interpret these “signs”. They may be signs from Providence or signs from people, but we cannot state with absolute certainty what a sign means. To do so is foolishness, as we see in the novel, and it leads to pain and conflict with those who don’t interpret the sign in the same way.

Hawthorne’s remedy isn’t only to treat our perception, though, because the final words of the novel are an exhortation to “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” (pg. 144). It’s not just people’s responsibility to leave room for interpretation of a symbol, but for us to be truthful with each other so that our meaning may be clear. You might say, “Just go live in the forest where there are no symbols,” or, “Let’s just be who we are without any need for assigning meaning to things.” That’s no way to build society, though. A community can’t function without symbols. Symbolism is inherent to the human experience. You don’t find symbolism in the forest because there are no people there, no other consciousness to make messages and send them to us, to interpret our own. Symbolism is how we transfer the truth we have experienced to another person.

Hawthorne tells us that both sides of this symbolic exchange are responsible to make a better world. If people are bigoted or presume to know the whole story, then be true with them. They may have already made up their minds as to what an African American man or a woman or a Syrian refugee is. If you know there’s more to the story than that, then it’s your responsibilty to tell them. Don’t be so concerned with putting on a perfect face so you can garner more followers on Instagram. Be true with people, even if it means they see the worst of you. This will lead to conflict because it forces people to redefine the meaning of their symbols. Those in power don’t want to let those meanings change because the symbols that are established are what’s keeping them rich, comfortable, and in control.

Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström's The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter

As Hawthorne shows us, we need to be open to reconsidering the meanings we have given to the symbols, signs, and definitions of our world and those that live in it. Meaning is a continual renegotiation between senders and receivers. The sender may modify their message. The receiver may choose to look at it from a different perspective. Being willing to be a part of that process puts everyone at the table, lifts everyone’s quality of life, and helps us to shape a better world than the one we’re living in right now.

Of course, I could just be misunderstanding this whole thing.

A Few Do’s and Don’t’s of Author Self Promotion

Excellent advice from a reviewer/blogger on how authors can avoid being “that guy” on the internet.

the Little Red Reviewer

There was a neat panel at this year’s PenguiCon about author self promotion. I didn’t make it to the panel, but I wanted to, and I bet a lot of what I bring up in this blog post was mentioned there. Or at least I hope it was.

As a blogger, I’m on the receiving end of all that author self promotion. What authors put out there tends to end up in my inbox and in my twitter feed, and allows me to make a snap decision on if I’m going to give them 5 seconds, or a week of my life to read and then write an in depth review of their novel.

I’ve been blogging since mid 2010, and on twitter for about five years. I’ve seen plenty of author promotion – some of it effective, and some of it terrible.   Us blogger types can be harsher than…

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Hindsight, “a high-stakes suspense novel”, is Free Again!

Fracture, my second novel, has just been released into the wild. To celebrate, I’m giving away my first novel, Hindsight, for free!

Kirkus Reviews has called Hindsight, “a high-stakes suspense novel with a breakneck pace and a strong voice.” Other reviewers say the same:

“The author has taken care with his characters to give them good backstories and then continue to develop them throughout the novel. They are humourous and unerringly human, full of all the quirks and flaws that make a great character.” – Cate’s Book Nut Hut

“What follows is a staccato beat of furious double-crosses, stunning revelations and gritty action.” John Ling, author of The Blasphemer

“I ended up binge reading it in 2 days because I had to know how it ended.” -Josiah M. (Amazon 5 star review)

“It has a taste of the inner turmoil and reflection of a Dostoevsky novel mixed with a fast paced and action packed narrative with an attention to detail. I was scheduled to go to the biggest beach party in the world and almost missed it because I couldn’t put this book down.” -Seth (Amazon 5 star review)

“Gripping and ‘can’t put it down for a second’, Hindsight is the book for you!” – Diane (Amazon 5 star review)

“One of the best thrillers in a long time.” -Shadow (Amazon 5 star review)

Fracture is the second in the series, so, if you haven’t read Hindsight yet, be sure to pick that up before cracking open Fracture. This giveaway will run from June 4-6. Be sure to leave me a note, a comment, or a review to let me know what you think!