Thursday, September 30, 2010

Are you listening?

Elizabeth Zelvin

I spent the summer writing my first historical novel. My protagonist is Diego, the young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s voyages who made his first appearance in “The Green Cross” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (August 2010). I did minimal research for the story, but when I decided to write more about Diego, I started to do my homework, and I learned a lot about Columbus and what radical historian Kirkpatrick Sale called “the conquest of Paradise.”

As a shrink (my other “hat”), I’m very aware of the importance of listening, not only in therapy but in all kinds of relationships. Something I came across in my research on Columbus’s voyages struck me as a perfect example of inability to listen.

The primary sources, ie the excerpts from Columbus’s own log book that have been preserved, the biography of his life written by his son, and other contemporary accounts of the European discovery of what he thought by the Indies all agree that the discoverers, who were eager to convert the indigenous Taino to Christianity, were certain, even after prolonged contact, that the Taino had no religion of their own.

Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Columbus in 1942, tells us that on the second voyage, when settlements meant to be permanent were founded on the island of Hispaniola, “It was not until September 21, 1496, that the first Indian was baptized in Hispaniola by Fray Ramon Pane.” That’s four years after first contact between the Christians and the Taino. Elsewhere, Morison says that Fray Pane “is remembered for having compiled the first collection of Indian folklore.”

Morison doesn’t interpret the juxtaposition of these two statements. But to me, it’s a no-brainer what must have happened. When the Taino told him what he took to be charming folk tales, they were trying to tell him all about their religion. But he wasn’t listening.

In the world of mystery and romantic suspense, the epitome of the character who doesn’t listen is the woman—it’s almost always a woman—who mystery aficionados dub TSTL: “too stupid to live.” (We’ll get to men who don’t listen soon; they’re found in abundance in real life.) She’s the gal who goes down into the dark cellar without a flashlight or cell phone when she’s been told there’s a killer on the loose and she finds the door of the deserted house unlocked. One of my favorite authors, Ariana Franklin, disappointed me in the fourth book in her Mistress of the Art of Death series by having her highly intelligent protagonist, Adelia, manage not to listen over a period of months as every person that she trusts tells her over and over that there’s ample evidence that someone is stalking her and her life is in danger. Of course, the book’s climax is a confrontation with the murderer (whom I guessed way earlier in the book, having experience with Franklin’s plotting methods), in which she narrowly escapes being killed. TSTL, and unworthy of this particular heroine.

The quintessential man who doesn’t listen, I’m afraid, is far worse than the TSTL heroine. He’s the date rapist or the marital rapist. There’s a popular expression that says it all: “What part of no don’t you understand?”


Sandra Parshall said...

A character who doesn't listen can be very useful in fiction, but it shouldn't be the protagonist. As you say, that destroys the reader's respect for her/him. The modern reader, anyway. In lots of old melodramas, the TSTL heroine was a staple. I'm glad that sort of thing is out of fashion.

Patty said...

TSTL will often throw me completely out of the story, and it did even when I was reading gothics as a teenager!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Congrats on "The Green Cross" publication in EQMM ~ and for writing your first historical novel.
Loved this post, Liz!