What Can We Steal From Allegra Hyde’s “Coming to the Table”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Coming to the Table,” creative nonfiction
Author: Allegra Hyde
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment.  You can find the piece here.

Bonuses: Try not to be jealous; here‘s a short piece Ms. Hyde placed in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyHere is a brief interview Ms. Hyde gave to introduce herself as an editor for Hayden’s Ferry ReviewHere is a short story she published in Superstition Review.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Beginnings

Discussion:
Ms. Hyde describes what must have been a fascinating time in her life.  She was a first-year teacher in Eleuthera, “a skinny Bahamian out-island that dangles like a fishhook towards the Caribbean.”  And she didn’t know how to cook.  Her students at The Island School were very privileged, indded.  Not only were they matriculating in what must be a breathtakingly beautiful place, but they were children of parents with means.  One day, she and her students decide to cook a community meal sourced entirely from Eleutheran food.  There were a couple hitches along the way–not the least of which was Ms. Hyde’s lack of confidence in her cooking ability–but students and staff alike enjoyed cassava-banana bread, fruit salad and pumpkin soup that contained just a hint of coconut.

I am sad to admit that I did not know about Eleuthera before reading the piece.  I am well aware of where The Bahamas are located, but I hadn’t realized to which island Ms. Hyde was referring.  Here’s the map extract from Wikipedia to orient us:

eleuthera I think it’s pretty clear that Ms. Hyde’s first movement in the piece is an extremely important one.  What’s her entry point into the story?  A brief paragraph set apart from the rest of the narrative by

 

 

double spaces:

This is the situation: I am a first year teacher. I am a first year teacher at a remote environmental leadership school on the southern tip of Eleuthera, a skinny Bahamian out-island that dangles like a fishhook towards the Caribbean. I do not know how to cook.

What does Ms. Hyde gain by opening her story thus?  She could easily have started off with a variation of her second paragraph:

Arriving at The Island School in 2010, I knew there would be challenges. Sunburns. The occasional jellyfish sting. Dormitory duty. But this all seemed like background noise given the opportunity I had to help students re-examine their relationship with the environment, to use the school’s own operations – which showcased methods of green living from solar hot water to biodiesel vans – as a model for inspiring a more sustainable future.

So why begin with that example of extreme narrative intrusion?

  • It’s a great icebreaker and introduction.  Ms. Hyde is not yet a big-time author whose accomplishments are known to the vast majority of readers.  (This state could easily change, of course!)  This first paragraph tells us all we need to know about Ms. Hyde to enjoy the story and does so very efficiently.
  • The first paragraph is very inviting; the diction makes us feel as though Ms. Hyde is standing before us at a cocktail party, telling us an interesting and heartwarming tale.
  • The complication is introduced immediately: the author claims she can’t cook…this is a story about how she took on the responsibility of coordinating and cooking a big meal.
  • The setting is introduced very quickly and we’re transported to a place we’ve likely never been.

So why not begin in such a manner?  Ms. Hyde seems to enjoy these “buttons,” these interjections that are given their own paragraphs.  She employs the technique a few times through the course of the piece, including:

  • “I never guessed that my culinary limitations would be a hurdle. I was a teacher, not a chef.”
  • “It was against this backdrop that the campaign for One Local Meal began.”

While many of these interjections could simply be appended to the paragraphs that precede them, Ms. Hyde amps up the humor and reinforces the strength of her thought in these places.  Most of all, it’s important to remember that we have a narrator for a reason.  (Even when we’re writing about ourselves in the first person.)  It’s the narrator’s job to keep the story humming and to contrive sentences in words in such a manner that we pay attention and understand.

I must say that I found one of Ms. Hyde’s choices very interesting.  Her students themselves are not named or described outside of simple markers: “a glossy-haired girl.”  When the author introduces local farmers and experts in Eleutheran flora, she gives them names and backstories.  Now, Ms. Hyde could simply be protecting the identities of her students.  That would be just fine by me.  But I like to think that these choices help the reader understand what and who are most important; sure, the students are learning and enjoying a great meal.  The “lower-class” characters, however, are much more interesting in the context of this piece.  I loved meeting Monica Miller, a local farmer and Elidieu Joseph, an immigrant stonemason who knows best how to put wild Eleutheran plants on the plate.

The point is that we need to understand that we can’t inject every bit of knowledge we would like about the world we’re creating.  Instead, we must tell the reader what they need to know in order to enjoy the greatest emotional impact.

What Should We Steal?

  • Empower your narrator to do its job.  It can be hard to decide where to begin a piece and where to put our sentences so that they have maximum effect…but that’s why you have a narrator.
  • Offer more and deeper descriptions of the characters who are most important to the narrative.  I’m finishing up a Young Adult novel (hopefully).  I can’t devote pages of backstory to EVERY character…I need to tell the reader what they need to know about each of my creations.

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