22 September 2008

Why Another "Handful of Dust"?

As I was developing, discovering, living, and writing my novel, I went through several working titles. "Renew the Ghost Dance" (trite). "The Ghost Dance Sutra" (pretentious). "The Blah, Blah Chronicles" (brilliant, but no).

Eventually, an account I read in Mooney's The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 began to become a central symbol for the book I was writing, which led to the final title of A Handful of Dust. This was an act performed by a doomed man in the moments before the massacre of Wounded Knee. As I describe it in the novel:

"The light of early morning brought no relief from the bitter cold of late December as the pneumonia-stricken Lakota leader [Bigfoot] and his followers were assembled by the troops. An order for a surrender of weapons resulted in a handful of hunting rifles. The Bluecoats were unsatisfied and began ransacking the tents; taking axes, knives and even tent stakes. Following this, they began pulling blankets from the people themselves, searching without a shred of discretion. At this newest insult and haughty lawlessness, the medicine man Yellow Bird performed an act of profound poetry. In the face of absolute hopelessness, treachery and impending slaughter, he danced a few steps of the outlawed Ghost Dance and began singing one of the holy songs -- he then took up a hanful of dust and threw it into the air. A handful of dust in defiance against not only this insolence, these blood-thirsty cowards, those looming Hotchiss guns; but also against the generations of greed, hypocrisy and stupidity; the lies, thefts and murders; the genocide, enslavement and subjugation.
"A handful of dust to sting the eyes of hatred."

And then later:

"Against certain death, in the face of the complete destruction of his people and everything that he knew was sacred and good, Yellow Bird danced. And in complete defiance of the reality of those guns, to scoop up a handful of dust and throw it into the air. ... It is merely a handful of dust, and yet we must remember that this is how the world began."

Yellow Bird's final act became the central metaphor for the primary message of the novel, so I then knew which title was the only one to use. A couple years later (it took me ten years to go from the initial idea for the book to hammering out the last page), I was shocked to come across a small paperback in a used book store: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh.

I was floored, stunned, and distraught with the thought that I might need to change my title. Not for legal reasons (you can't copyright a title), but for personal ones: I needed my book to be singular. I haven't read Waugh's book, though a friend has told me that it's one of his favorites, but flipping through it, I got the sense that it's yet another look into the tragic lives of obsenely wealthy British people. Something Robin Leech might narrate. I'm sure that Waugh means to condemn this lifestyle, but I'm not sure that these types of books ever achieve their intent. I suspect that most readers get caught up in the fancy estates and extravagant clothes and exorbitant dinner parties, and entirely miss the underlying social message. (To me, Titanic was a poorly-acted story about the injustice of the rich placing more value on their lives than those of the poor; but to the vast majority, it was a tragic love story. ... I couldn't wait for the damn boat to sink ... but that's a whole other can of worms -- who says that? "a whole other can of worms"? I'm not even sure if that's the right expression, not being a fishing person).

(Here's a dirty, little secret for you: I don't give a damn about the troubles of the extremely rich and their constant strife with being torn between love and class propriety. The vast majority of the world's people have real troubles, caused mostly by the aristocrats and oligarchs who are enshrined in so much literature and film.)

Waugh takes his title from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land:

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

So what to do? Change what I knew was the true title of my novel, or share the name with another book? I finally decided (after much grief and soul-searching) to keep it, and here's why:

Nothing against Waugh; in fact, I'm sure he's a much better novelist than I am, but I believe that my use of this particular title has more meaning than his. I can't prove this, or even wish to argue it -- it's just something I feel. I'd choose Yellow Bird over Eliot as a guiding inspiration any day. Nothing against Eliot (although I am a better poet than he; except for "Four Quartets" and "Prufrock.")

[You can read sample chapters of my A Handful of Dust here.
And you can read in interesting review of Waugh's book here.]

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