Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ken's "The City of Brass' in Spring 2014 issue of Parabola Magazine.

My retelling of 'The City of Brass' was featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Parabola Magazine. When I first heard about the theme of the issue, wisdom, many stories from epics and great books, both East and West, came to mind. A tale from the Bible or the Mahabharata? Something from Rumi's Masnavi or the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi? Irish, Mandinka, Chinese... So many world traditions to choose from! I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but finally a personal quirk won out: I have a love of twists. I chose to retell 'The City of Brass' not so much to be shocking as to be unpredictable. 

What intrigued me about 'The City of Brass' is the presentation of wisdom, or the attainment of it, as a bad thing. Few people, even the most virulent anti-intellectuals among us, disdain wisdom. But in the frame story as I present it, Scheherazade, though a captive to and a victim of her husband's mental illness - she has lived in terror for five hundred and sixty-five nights - is able to use her only protection, her stories, as a weapon. She yearns for freedom, which she perceives as blue, the color of sky. In her anger and resentment, she plots a kind of revenge, the revealing of a wisdom "pure and unbearable."

The form of the Thousand Nights and a Night, stories-within-stories (within-stories-within-stories...), has long been intriguing to me. It changed my way of reading, may way of writing, even my way of experiencing life. Compressing the stories-within-stories in 'The City of Brass' into a short-story length suitable for a magazine exacerbated its dreamlike qualities, I think, to great effect (at one point Scheherazade tells the story of Musa telling the story of an ifrit of the jinn telling the story of his war against Solomon). 

In Scheherazade's story, Musa, the protagonist, returns from his journeys with riches and marvelous gifts. He has witnessed wonders, but rather than enjoy the fruits of his labor and be celebrated at a feast, he wants nothing of fame or worldly possessions. He is tired, disillusioned and cynical. He has attained wisdom: Even the greatest kings are now food for worms, their empires crumbled to dust. 

There is a spider crouching on the shoulder of each of us, waiting for its moment, and that spider is death. Death is the clearest truth. That is the wisdom that Scheherazade shares with her husband.

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