Emotional truth versus realism

A Poem from The Crossover

The existence of the novel-in-verse YA genre strikes me as so unlikely. Who would have thought such a specific form could exist let alone be appealing and keep winning a lot of Newberry Awards? Speaking as an ex-poet, I love how a novel-in-verse can give poetry a cohesive story and, in doing so, makes poetry feel so much more relevant and enjoyable. It also can strip away unnecessary description and maneuvering from fiction, streamlining the voice in this very powerful way. Inside Out and Back Again, Brown Girl Dreaming, Out of the Dust, and Crank are a few great novels-in-verse  I’ve enjoyed. So during a recent trip to the library, while lugging bags around containing honestly 50 pounds of graphic novels for my son, I spied The Crossover and gladly checked it out. Told in free verse, The Crossover won the Newberry Award in 2015. It’s a story of twins, Josh and Jordan, talented in basketball, and about their relationship to each other and to their father.   

The most powerful poem of The Crossover for me is “Questions.” Josh’s dad is in the hospital, Josh is angry, he’s just sat beside his father, and after the two of them stare at each other for 10 minutes in silence, the dad suggests they take turns asking questions but not answering them. While I can imagine characters thinking these questions, I can’t imagine characters speaking most of these questions out loud, and I wondered for a while whether the non-realism effects the powerfulness of the interchange. In the end I decided so what if this dialogue would never happen in reality: these words capture the emotional truth of the relationship and the situation so well that I don’t think extreme realism matters here.

This idea of capturing emotional truth rather than reality reminds me of several passages from Tom Bissell’s great essay about Warner Herzog, “The Secret Mainstream.” Herzog occasionally scripts dialogue or action for his documentary subjects who, at least in the examples Bissell cites, don’t seem to mind as the scripted parts get at the emotional truth of these people maybe better than their actual life does. Here’s one example as described by Bissell: In Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Herzog’s astonishing documentary about the escape and survival of a German-American pilot named Dieter Dengler from a Pathet Lao prison camp in 1966, Herzog shows us Dengler entering his San Francisco home, whereupon he opens and closes the front door several times before entering. “Most people,” Dengler explains, “don’t realize how important it is, and the privilege that we have, to be able to open and close the door. That’s the habit I got into, and so be it.” Dengler did not actually have this habit. In fact, it was Herzog’s idea. While it embodied a real feeling Dengler had, it was not a real activity. Assigning to Dengler an activity he did not engage in is what Herzog has called “the ecstatic truth,” wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication.”

Anyhow, here is the passage from The Crossover that I loved.


Have you been practicing your free throws?
Why didn’t you go to the doctor when Mom asked you?

When is the game?
Why didn’t you ever take us fishing?

Does your brother still have a girlfriend?
Are you going to die? 

Do you really want to know?
Why couldn’t I save you? 

Don’t you see that you did?
Do you remember I kept pumping and breathing? 

Aren’t I alive?
. . . ? 

Did y’all arrest Uncle Bob’s turkey? It was just criminal what he did to that bird, wasn’t it?You think this is funny? 

How’s your brother?
Is our family falling apart? 

You still think I should write a book?
What does that have to do with anything? 

What if I call it “Basketball Rules”?
Are you going to die? 

Do you know I love you, son?
Don’t you know the big game’s tomorrow? 

Is it true Mom is letting you play?
You think I shouldn’t play? 

What do you think, Filthy?
What about Jordan? 

Does he want to play?
Don’t you know he won’t as long as you’re in here? 

Don’t you know I know that?
So, why don’t you come home? 

Can’t you see I can’t?
Why not? 

Don’t you know it’s complicated, Filthy?
Why can’t you call me by my real name? 

Josh, do you know what a heart attack is?
Don’t you remember I was there? 

Don’t you see I need to be here so they can fix the damage that’s been done to my heart?
Who’s gonna fix the damage that’s been done to mine?

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