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Profsplaining, or, The Internet IS a Classroom, Whinypants!

By Maria Bustillos

“The Internet is not a classroom,” pop-culture scholars Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner write in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For those of us who spend our days in a positive orgy of learning things there, this statement is, well… false, to begin with.

The gist of Klein and Warner’s argument is that online, and in magazines, pop-culture critics do not sufficiently credit the work of “experts,” by whom they mean pop-culture scholars like themselves. “That write-up you’re planning on antiheroes, reality-television history, or the networks’ exploitation of black audiences? It has a scholarly antecedent just waiting to expand your knowledge of the subject.” Whether a critic and his readers have the faintest desire for their knowledge to be “expanded” is immaterial; evidently, critics should hie themselves along to JSTOR before setting paw to keyboard, just in case some academic may have gotten there first.

Furious subtweeting predictably followed, with one popular critic silkily observing of “pop culture academics” that “[t]hey usually can’t write & are extremely stubborn about edits,” and Klein firing back on Twitter: “Just do your research before you publish, whinypants” [since deleted].

It’s surprising to find that there is still some vestige of the old gatekeeper mentality among our academics. The once-common tendency of academics to talk down to the rest of us plebs is clearly on the wane, though. And a very good thing, too. Marshall McLuhan’s promises of the early nineteen-sixties are come to pass, and we enjoy a fantastically rich, heady cross-cultural ferment across the sciences as well as the humanities, owing in part to the magic of the Internet and in part to the slow but steady opening up of academic minds. The Internet is itself the “Gutenberg Galaxy”—the “mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight” that McLuhan so uncannily predicted; students, readers, hobbyists, stans and scholars, all sorts of interested parties are free, now, to roll their own blend of ideas and observations. All are free to participate. We take this for granted, but in fact the sheer wealth of it is exhilarating.

It’s plumb loco to be drawing up battle lines between popular and academic criticism right now, when so many academics and ex-academics are writing top-notch popular criticism (e.g., just off the top of my head, Ian Bogost, Aaron Bady, Lili Loofbourow, Freddie deBoer, Jacqui Shine and Clay Shirky). I asked Evan Kindley — a visiting assistant professor of English at Claremont McKenna College, editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and gifted popular critic — what he thought about this Chron piece, and he replied, “Where I depart from Warner and Klein is their apparent assumption that journalists have an obligation to consult academics, as opposed to the claim that consulting academics is a good idea. […] Journalism and scholarship are just totally different animals; the two can be mated with interesting results, but they’re not doing each other any harm if they keep to their own ecosystems.”

Are the two ecosystems really so far apart? Perhaps these academics’ anxiety owes more to the fact that the gate opened all by itself. Over the last century, academic and popular culture have grown closer and closer together, as evidenced, indeed, by the very existence of pop-culture scholarship. There was a time when the undergraduate study of English ended at Milton; when the serious study of English required serious “expertise.” Not anymore, whinypants!

Let’s be clear: popular critics aren’t here to “teach.” But it’s also possible the best professors aren’t here to “teach” either, but instead to participate in a broader discourse. Sadly, there is a real cost to that for public intellectuals today. “If scholars want to be part of [popular] conversations, they can be,” Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. He continued:

Many of them — us — are. But for a lot of us, the price we paid for it was not getting academic jobs! Scholars who spend their lives writing for JSTOR and other pay-walled gardens get tenure as the reward for making their work inaccessible to everyone else — because, literally, publishing in inaccessible peer-reviewed journals “counts,” while publishing for the public doesn’t — and that’s fine; that’s a choice. But it seems strange to complain that they don’t get to have their cake and eat it too. Those barriers are real, and they go both ways.

We can only lament that the academy doesn’t appear to recognize the groundbreaking and vital importance of this perspective. If the humanities are in decline, that may partly be due to the brand of fusty, square condescension to the public put on display by Klein and Warner. Charged with this on Twitter, Klein protested that professors engage with the broader culture through their contact with students. But it’s quite clear that that contact goes in one direction only:

The first time students see Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film, Breathless, they often assume his jump cuts are sloppy editing mistakes, rather than a conscious strategy on the part of the director to subvert the polished style of the 1950s French “Cinema of Quality.” In the classroom that is called a “teachable moment.” Mistakes and misunderstandings offer professors platforms for engaging students in productive but also corrective discussions.

The future is not in the “corrective,” but in the inclusive.

Early works on popular culture written by public intellectuals, like Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957) and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), have aged poorly for this very reason. Valuable as they were at the time for helping to bring the real concerns of American popular culture to the forefront, they were written from a self-congratulatory perch high above the common herd. In order to participate in a meaningful critique of popular culture you cannot hold yourself above it. That is why the Internet is, in fact, a classroom.

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Into a Memory

By Robert Kingett

When I was little, I did not wander as a cloud. I floated on one.

I have to admit, when the assignment was given to me, a blind college student, to write about a poem I did not think I would find one that would capture my interest or my memory. For days, my ears would burn the table of contents of my textbook as my fingers struck down page numbers in a hopeless search to find something that I could connect with, for something that I could write about and have it be genuine. I was lost and my hopes for finding a poem that would even hold my interest long enough to allow me to write about it seemed to be an impossible reach. I was a bibliophile at heart, but I did not like writing about poetry. I enjoyed reading it, but writing about it was a different kind of circle of hell. On my fifth haphazard hunt through the table of contents, my ears caught something that I had not noticed, and I was instantly drawn because it sounded familiar: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth. I reflected on its familiarity, sensing that it would be significant to my life in some way. I wanted to explore the kind of emotional journey that this poem would take me through, and so I did. After listening to the first line, I was instantly transported to a memory that I did not even know I had.

It is late at night, and I am six. I remember feeling the Braille calendar poised in my lap, my finger tracing the soft indentations of the moons among the days. A sound erupts from the living room and I look up, my ears picking up every shift of the air just a few rooms from me. Shouting soon breaks out as if I am in a pep rally. It grows louder and more obscene with each passing word. My mother has made her appearance on stage yet again, and I start to sob. I am guessing that Grandma and Grandpa are out in the fray as well, but I do not want to be in here all alone. The shouting reaches a volume that I do not even know exists, and my fright and anger mesh into one emotion as the stupidity of the situation finally reaches me.

As my mother and her husband continue screaming at each other, mixing in sounds of smacking and hitting, Grandma comes into the room. I know it is her because I can smell the peach scented perfume. It is as if the smell alone is a blanket, about to wrap me up. My bedroom door softly clicks shut, and tender shoes thud over to me. She takes my small hand in hers.

“Are you ready for bed?” she asks me. I smile and nod while  trying to hide my anger at my mother. “Well, I’m sorry. I do not have a story for you tonight. All I have is this book of poems your grandfather gave to me.” I groan at the mention of poetry. Even at that young age, I much rather prefer it when she read me something GOOD such as Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys. I do not want to stay here any longer; however, I like it when Grandma reads to me.

Outside of my bubble of safety, my mother starts to cry as grandpa yells at her about how stupid she is acting. I hear pages slowly open. Grandma leans over to read and instantly I am taken to the place of golden daffodils, leaving the screaming behind me.

I wandered lonely as a cloud,

that floats on high o’er vales and hills,

when all at once I saw a crowd,

a host, of golden daffodils.

I am soon floating on that cloud looking at dancing yellow flowers. As Grandma continues to read the poem to me, I feel a sense of peace. I am flying, and the newly developed sounds of clashing in the kitchen are merely a faint whisper. I am swept away by Grandma’s reading. We are both wandering as clouds, but neither of us is lonely. I listen with eagerness as Wordsworth’s words allows me to ignore the smashing sounds in the next room.

When she finishes the poem, she tucks me in and kisses me goodnight. She tells me she loves me and then leaves the room. I drift on my own cloud of safety, finally able to feel calm and happy enough to go to sleep. I am comfortable and soon floating on my own cloud, across vales and hills far from the treachery of the world. I am safe.

That was when I was six. That memory of Grandma sprang to mind when I first listened to the poem. I reread the poem after that, repeatedly, making it my ‘comfort poem.’ While I was reading the poem at that young age, I had a literal visual interpretation of it that seemed logical and obvious to me: the speaker was looking down at golden flowers swaying in the wind. I believed it so strongly that I vividly imagined this, picturing the golden tendrils swaying gently in the breeze, and some shadow sitting up high on a pink cloud looking down at this dancing show. For a long time, that is how I interpreted the poem. I do not know where my interpretation changed, but it did.

I presume that it changed just after my grandmother died and I had no way of escaping the abuse and domestic violence I had to endure. I would always wish that Grandma would come softly into my room, click my door shut and take me with her on a cloud high above the bad things in my life. With the passing of years, I never saw or heard the poem again.

Now, when I heard the poem again, I was instantly six again, feeling a sense of love. I replayed the poem, wearing out the skip back button on my CD player in order to keep hold of the memory that this poem helped to bring back from the dead. I loved this rare opportunity to smell Grandma’s peach scented perfume again. I loved the chance to hear her powerful delicately articulate voice read me a poem to take away all the bad things in my life. Listening to the poem now, I soon realized that I had a different interpretation. Perhaps this interpretation came from her death when I was seven. I believe that the loss of my grandmother, physically and mentally, has helped me to make this interpretation once I reclaimed her in my memory after so long of an absence. This poem helped me regain a memory that I did not even know existed within me.

The speaker talks about how he is happy to watch “golden daffodils” dance. My grandmother was always like that, happy to see, create, and experience pure happiness. This poem, I believe, is what my grandmother sees and saw. Because of this realization about my grandmother, I no longer have the same image when I listen to the poem. I picture someone looking down on people, but not just any people, I picture someone looking down on me, and a few other people, some wealthy, some poor, some old, some young, some black, some white, some Asian, and some of everything. All of us are dancing with an airy display for our spectator, twirling and giggling as we choreograph a perfect rhythm. I no longer picture the shadow on top of the cloud as having no face or figure. It now has a form and a shape to it. It is someone I know. I picture the wrinkly old woman looking down at us softly smiling. She is comfortable on the pink cloud, basking in her glory and her peace. I am sure, if we were closer, we would smell the peach scented perfume. I picture the old woman slowly bringing her wrinkled hands together, clapping and shedding silent tears as she watches the spectacle. I would like to think that she would be smiling at this point, glad to finally have the opportunity to watch the best show in the world – the show of a host of golden daffodils tossing our heads up in a sprightly dance.

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The Promised (Disney)land

By Alec Ash

Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father.

With his eight-year-old son, Xinbiao, he flew from Bazhong in Sichuan (just another anonymous Chinese city of three million) to Pudong international airport by the Pacific ocean. He took a plastic bag into the theme park. In it were two pots of instant noodles, a cylinder of chips, three bottles of water and a pack of what I can only describe as miscellanious meat jerky in shrink wrap. In his line of work as a travel agent, he explained, he has been to many of China’s tourist destinations, from the Sichuanese nature reserve Jiuzhaigou to mountainous Zhangjiajie in Hunan. “China has famous mountain and water scenery,” he told me – a stock phrase – then seemed to doubt his own pitch. “But it’s just mountains and water. Disneyland is more experimental.”

I asked what he meant. “It’s the meeting point of Chinese and Western culture.”

We were on a Pirates of the Caribbean themed ship at Treasure Cove. Over the lake rose the spires of Enchanted Storybook Castle. Other attractions included Tron Lightcycle Power Run, Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, Alice in Wonderland Maze and Marvel Universe. I saw the Western culture, I said. Where was the Chinese?

“Well,” he eventually responded. “It’s in China.”

Families like the Wangs are why Disney chose the mainland as the location for its newest resort park in ten years (Hong Kong already has one). The $5.5 billion site has been under construction for five years, a joint venture between Disney and the Shanghai development group Shendi, and since it opened on June 16 an influx from all over the nation has proved it a smart investment. Zhigang paid 499RMB ($75) for his peak period entrance ticket – a significant sum, which is why he was stinting on the Mickey burgers by bringing his own food in. Then again, disposable income and a rising middle class is part of the magic.

There are Chinese characteristics to the park, but they feel token. A pagoda-roofed restaurant, the ‘Wandering Moon Teahouse’, serves Shanghai-style braised pork and ‘eight treasure’ steamed rice with duck inside a lotus leaf. At ‘Garden of the Twelve Friends’, the animals of the Chinese zodiac are reconfigured as Disney characters – Pluto for dog, Kaa for snake, Abu for monkey, Tigger for … you get the gist. Yet domestic tourists aren’t there for that; they’re pulled by the soft power of Disney and the rest of the world, which Chinese society embraces all the while that its leaders assert China’s uniqueness.

For a thirty year old, I had a wonderful time in Disneyland. Mickey and his friends were stoically cheery inside furry costumes in the blistering heat. The Tron ride was amazing. We picnicked in a grassy park in Fantasyland that everyone else seemed to assume was off-limits. The light show on the enchanted castle at nightfall was everything my inner preteen hoped for. Even a three-hour queue for a ride called ‘Soaring Over the Horizon’, where our feet dangled over smellovision vistas from the Taj Mahal to the Australian outback, somehow seemed an essential part of the experience.

When the four-minute ride finished with fireworks over the Shanghai skyline, and our toes touched the ground once more, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Then I turned to my right, where eleven-year-old Li Jiayi from Shandong province was in conniptions. Shanghai was the furthest from home she had ventured, and she was biting her fingers in shrill excitement at the thrill of it all.

Xiasiwole!” she said. Shocked to death. “The world is so big!”

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Where Is Korean Translated Literature?

By Charles Montgomery

Over the next two months, the LARB Korea Blog will feature chapters from a draft of Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress titled The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, an attempt to give a concise history and understanding of Korean literature as represented in translation. Here is the introductory chapter.

Almost every English language reader would immediately recognize the words “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach” as the first line of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, a work that helped define his style and changed literature forever.

Or, quote to an English reader the line “Mother died today,” and they might well immediately recognize it as the first line of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. If they did not recognize it, perhaps one would only need to begin humming “Killing an Arab” by the English band The Cure to make the literary allusion obvious. Though written in French, The Stranger has been translated and not only read, but incorporated into English-language culture in such a way that it can become not just a hit as a piece of literature but a hit in popular music as well.

To go even farther back in time, one can quote the famous line, “The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts,” and the savvy reader will immediately recognize the first line of Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars. Some might even recognize this quote in its original Latin: “Gallia omnis divisa in partes tres est.”

“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” That might be a bit more obscure, but it is the first line from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which sold out upon its first day on sale in Japan and has been translated into many languages with first editions published in at least seven countries (Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Norway, Turkey, and Greece). You could go to your local bookstore and immediately purchase this book, most likely in English, perhaps even in some language other than English or Japanese. 1Q84 has also been translated into Persian, Chinese, and Korean. In Korea, the book sells as a three-volume set, as it originally in Japan, but in Korean literature, it has few if any equivalents.

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An educated person might well recognize “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered far and wide after he had sacked Troy’s sacred city, and saw the towns of many men and knew their mind” as the first line of Homer’s The Odyssey, or “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s,” as that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

All of these first sentences cross time, space and language, to achieve immediate recognizability to many English-speaking readers of fiction, whether that reader knows the original language at all, or even that the works come from other languages in the first place.

Yet ask that same reader about the following classic lines from Korean literature in translation:

“Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?”

“Perhaps we ought to begin this investigation into the deviations of his life by evoking the problem of memory.”

“Fighting, adultery, murder, theft, prison — the shanty area outside the Seven Star Gate was a breeding ground for all that is tragic and violent in this world.”

or one of my all-time favorite first lines in Korean literature,

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”

It is an almost certainty that the “well-read” reader of translation will not recognize the first line, from Kim Young-ha’s brilliant detective novella Photo Shop Murder. The second line, nearly Nabokovian in nature, comes from Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet, and the third from Kim Dong-in’s translation of the tragic Potatoes. The last sentence is from possibly the most successful translation of Korean literature to date, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (and, it is worth noting, a kind of spiritual heir to the first line of The Metamorphosis).

There is, in fact, possibly only one opening line that many readers of Korean fiction might recognize: “It’s been one week since Mom went missing.” And yet, ask yourself if you actually did recognize this line from the other candidate for most successful translated work of Korean fiction in history, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom.

Now consider the following plots:

A young, sexually abused hacker takes revenge, with the help of an older male journalist, on her abusers.

A deranged knight on horseback, followed by his loyal companion on burro, tilts ridiculously against windmills.

The adventures, misadventures, and disillusionment of a young man who ends up wanting nothing more than to tend his own garden.

A great, but blocked author visits Venice and finds himself obsessed with an extremely attractive young man. While the writer suffers the pangs of unrequited and unattempted love, he dies of cholera.

To many readers, these plots would be instantly identifiable as those of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Don Quixote, Candide, and Death in Venice. But describe the following story to any English-language reader (or non-Korean speaker): a young boy and a young girl meet while playing by a stream. They meet again and form a kind of friendship. Suddenly, a cloudburst appears out of the sky, forcing the boy and the girl to take shelter in a cramped stack of millet. The story ends with the girl dying, her final request being that she be buried in the same clothes that she always wore when she met the young boy.

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This would most likely ring no bell with a non-Korean reader, even though it comes from Sonagi (“Cloudburst”), among the most famous stories in Korean fiction. In fact, until quite recently one would have been hard-pressed to come up with any plot description of a Korean story that a non-Korean would recognize.

When I presented at conferences in Korea, I would always begin with a thought experiment. Imagine someone at a cocktail party in any intellectual city in the English-speaking world. The topic might well turn to literature, at which point the question might arise: “Who is your favorite author from (insert any country here)?” It is easy to imagine a partygoer with quick and easy answers for many countries: Japan, Asia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, China, and so on. But faced with the question of “Who is your favorite Korean author?” our hypothetical partygoer may feel the immediate need to go refresh their drink.

And this is the unfortunate position in which translated Korean literature now finds itself, despite yeoman’s work from translators, publishers, the Language Translation Institute of Korea, and others. Despite a few breakthrough works, Korean literature has not succeeded to a level weaves it into the intellectual fabric of the Western world. The good news is that this seems to be slowly changing, and The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation will look at Korean fiction through translation, trace its influences and development, and suggest where an interested non-Korean-speaking reader might begin — in some sense, an “idiot’s guide” to translated Korean fiction.

To understand Korean fiction, we must first discuss some of the historical and social influences that have made it what it is, and to some extent helped keep it off the international literary map. This discussion will occur two posts from now, and chapters from The Explorer’s History will appear here at a pace of about one per month. I would love to hear any feedback that readers of the Korea blog might have on them.

Related Korea Blog posts:

 Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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On Christopher Bram’s The Art of History

By Emmett Rensin

Christopher Bram likes some books. He doesn’t like some others.

If you were to list these books, one by one, and include with each Bram’s marginalia a few short paragraphs explaining what he liked about the books he likes and what he didn’t like about the books he doesn’t, you would have in your hands something resembling the preposterously titled The Art of History, out from the ordinarily peerless Graywolf Press this month.

Bram, himself the author of nearly a dozen novels and nonfiction histories, wants to make sense of historical writing: What is it? Why do we read it? Most importantly, how do we do it well? Answering these questions is an ambitious project for a book scarcely longer than 150 pages, and one made more ambitious by the fact that Bram wants to answer them not only as they relate to nonfiction, but to historical fiction as well.

At least I gather that this is what he wants. At no point in The Art of History does Bram state any goals explicitly. The better part of his introduction is given over to an anecdote about a beloved history teacher who helped inspire his own lifelong dedication to the past. The rest goes to the value of studying history (In the end we learn about… ourselves, more or less). From there we launch directly into case studies, grouped by topic: details, lives, comedy, right through to “endings”. The closest we come to a statement of purpose is Bram’s assertion that history is “good medicine”, something that helps us learn that “the past isn’t as long ago as we think, and it isn’t radically different from the present,” that “we must learn to distinguish fact from fantasy,” and that this will in some way help us defeat the Tea Party.

Nonetheless, Bram says, history is not “a magical mystery solution to the problems of the present.”

The jacket copy on The Art of History calls it “an essential volume for any lover of historical narrative.” It isn’t. This isn’t so bad, really, because if there is a way to recommend this book, it is as a primer, better suited for historical neophytes than “lovers.” Bram introduces the reader to dozens of authors. He provides neat summaries of their work. He is an extremely competent, if somewhat superficial close reader, and his book would be of great service to any teacher of undergraduates looking for a quick way to introduce their students to the canon of historical writing while providing an example of the sort of fluid prose and detailed analysis expected in their forthcoming term papers. The Art of History excels as a survey.

But that is all it does. Nothing in The Art of History works toward any theory of aesthetics; if there is an art revealed here, it is the art of Christopher Bram’s taste. We learn whom he likes (Marquez, McCullough, Morgan, William Styron, and Nancy Mitford, among others). We learn whom he doesn’t (Eco, Hugo, Broch, most modern historians writing in multiple volumes, among others). This second set produces a few solid one-liners — Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is “like a North American One Hundred Years of Solitude but even harder to follow”; Blood Meridian, “could be just the fantasy of a really mean fourteen-year-old” — but these burns don’t tell you much.

Bram does offer reasons for his taste, but they rarely extend beyond his assessment of whether or not a particular approach “worked” for him. In a chapter on details, for example, we learn that Lampedusa’s The Leopard is “all details, and good details, too,” while in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall “details open windows only into [Mantel’s] own virtuosity.” War and Peace uses “surprisingly few” details, “which is one reason why War and Peace remains alive.” But Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels has “none of the surprising, striking details that historical writing needs to cut through the clichés.” Key questions remain unanswered. Charles Portis’s True Grit, we learn, is a “wonderful historical novel.” “Postis must’ve read scores of Old West memoirs and dime novels to get the tone exactly right, as well as to capture the slang and wealth of details.” But did he? We don’t find out. By the end of the chapter, we’re left with a thorough account of what kinds of details excite Christopher Bram’s imagination, but no particular sense of what to make of this knowledge, much less what they teach us about the art of historical writing. Sometimes details help, but other times they don’t.

When Bram does attempt a more general lesson, the results are rarely more than platitudes, which are occasionally bizarre but more often just boring.

We learn that certain books help the past “come alive” or help us “see the big picture.” Endings, we learn, are difficult to choose “because history doesn’t stop.” History imported from other languages can be tricky — but also revealing. “Something is lost, but something is also gained,” Bram writes to sum up the translation of A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani from Hebrew to English. Attempting to explain how the comic can add depth to history’s most brutal episodes, he tells us,“comedy opens the reader to a more complex and profound sadness than tragedy does, in part because we don’t see the sorrow coming.”

He is talking about Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, a book about Little Bighorn and the indigenous genocide. Humor adds quite a lot to Connell’s narrative, but I am confident we all “see the sorrow coming.”

After a long, serious chapter about the treatment of American slavery in history and fiction, we nonetheless end on the observation that W.E.B. DuBois, a Marxist, wrote about the white worker too. “Like it or not, we are all in this together,” says Bram. Well, alright.

It is possible that all of this is deliberate. There are indications that Bram does not care much for philosophizing, that a kind of unsweeping ambivalence is his sense of the art. The final pages of the book are dedicated to excoriating War and Peace’s second epilogue, a novel Bram otherwise loves:

The Second Epilogue is less than fifty pages long, but it feels interminable. We shift from the novelist’s world of specifics — bodies and emotions and acts — to an amateur philosopher’s jumble of ideas. Tolstoy asks some good questions. […] But his answers are airy and contradictory.

“I don’t know about the laws of history,” Bram writes, but Tolstoy, having successfully worked “the human scale for more than a thousand pages” has “lost faith in his accomplishment by the time he writes his conclusion.”

Maybe so, and maybe it is precisely this kind of humiliating gesture at grand theory that Bram is attempting to avoid. Perhaps a safe collection of close readings is the only thing he believes is achievable in a book like this.

But our culture is so full of this kind of criticism already, so full of writers who are only able to issue lists of praise and condemnation, only willing discuss their preferences, which is to say only willing to discuss themselves. We have too many autobiographies of taste, justified by platitudes. If we are going to have an Art of History, I would rather have it from Tolstoy’s palest imitator. I would rather have it from an author who believes he has uncovered the secret of that art, and who will argue its case, even at the risk of embarrassment. Even at the likelihood of being wrong.

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White Nights in Split Town City: An Interview with Annie DeWitt

With Annie DeWitt and Stephanie LaCava

“He said it looked like we were wearing our birthday suits. But, there weren’t any birthdays that summer. Birdie was born in May. I was born in November.”

So begins chapter two of Annie DeWitt’s debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, the heartbreaking tale of the summer of 1991 narrated by 12-year-old Jean. Jean’s mother skips town to chase after a man, leaving Jean with her younger sister Birdie. Jean falls for local delinquent Fender Steelhead — “the boy who smoked cigarettes on the playground still sleeping between spaceships and stars” — only to lose him to her sometime babysitter. And in one of the novel’s most harrowing scenes, Jean loses her virginity to her father’s riding buddy, the 60-something Otto while the news blares from a television behind them: Dr. Kevorkian is administering a fatal dose in an RV park.

It’s DeWitt’s rhythmic sentences and sly nods to Jean’s naivety that make the book uncomfortable in the best way.

White Nights in Split Town City is the story of what it means to feel desired and plugged in to what surrounds us, and how this informs our identities from a very, young age.

***

Stephanie LaCava: I want to ask you about the last line in the dedication: “To my sister who witnessed it all with me.”

Is this an admission of a kind of autofiction? Also the word choice: “witnessed.” So much of the book seems to be about what it means to be present and watching the world either at home in a small town or farther afield at war—in this case, the Gulf War.

Annie DeWitt: That sense of presence and witness was really important to me. I hope the book is defined by a strong sense of place. It’s set in New England in a small unnamed town next to Fay Mountain—the name of a young woman, specifically. I wanted to anchor the book there in a single summer – to make it feel as though that summer time slows and expands and becomes almost hyper-real. As a child in the pre-internet age, when the school bus dropped us off for the last time in late June, we changed into permanent bathing suits and spent every day outside running through the hose. A lot of times small Southern towns get described in this way. I think there is this false sense that this kind of dialect is localized to the South, writers like Hannah or O’Connor. I sometimes get the criticism, “You write like a man. You have this muscular prose. Who speaks like this?”

I grew up like this. I grew up until 7th grade, Jean’s age, in a small rural town on an unpaved road. Everyone was elderly, except for this brood of boys that lived up the mountain. So, in terms of autofiction, the sense of place stems very much from my early reality. That place was so full of possibility. It was the nexus for all the possibilities of what can happen to people when they live in an isolated place.

I balk a bit at the word autofiction. It somehow feels like saying – I’m just replicating my own life on the page, which is not at all the case here. To me all fiction comes from life. Even the invented worlds of sci-fi writers, like Samuel Delaney in his amazing book Dahlgren, are new worlds built out of the writer’s experience of our known world. They are just expanding the horizon. I think writers have rich inner worlds where the known and the unknown become intertwined. The known gives the work authority. The unknown renders that authority magical.

I dwelled on that dedication for a while as I didn’t want readers to wrongly assume that this was memoir. However, I felt it was important because I didn’t want my sister to feel like I somehow was the only one that had the right to tell this story. There are elements that are her story too. I wanted her to know: I know you saw some of these things too, even if we never talked about it.

SLC: As the mother of boys, I was struck by the opening of the book. The fierceness and realness of the Steelhead boys playing risky games. It also reminded me of my brother (he used to build ramps and jump off them with his bike in our front yard). It was striking to begin with such a charged male scene when so much of the book is about sex and the sexes, and, of course, the relationship between Jean and her mother.

AD: On a basic level The Steelhead brothers’ function is to be the foil— they’re the supposed impending danger. Yet, in reality, they end up being the most benign thing. Fender is not the one hit by Margaret later in the book, even though you expect it to be him. He needs to remain innocent. He’s in that same place Jean is, but he and she are going to go different directions. Him: burning down the pheasant farm, stealing the library books, spending time in a boys’ penitentiary, getting together with K. She: feeling outside the world of her own home looking in, which for her is as painful as anything that happens that summer.

Jean’s Dad goes up to the Steelhead brothers’ dwelling and tells the boys not to keep prank calling his house. Afterwards, Jean and Birdie can’t play in the front yard. The irony of this being that the father is protecting them from the wrong kind of lurking. His riding buddy has sex with his 12-year-old daughter while Wilson, Otto’s older, mentally disabled son, looks on. It was important to me that Wilson be emotionally at the same age as Jeanie. Wilson is also witnessing something terrible at that moment when Jean is having sex with his dad. Wilson feels the terrible jealousy of watching his father focus his attention on someone other than him. Even if Wilson doesn’t understand what it means to “rake a girl,” he can sense intimacy. He pees himself.

SLC: That’s a perfect segue to what I became obsessed with about the book. So much of the media now is watching others—cheap voyeurism that’s imperfect because the person watched wants to be seen. Social media and reality programming facilitate schadenfreude and sensationalism, what attracts viewers to a story. One of the special places where we go to look at a story because its unremarkable, but is remarkable in its universal nature, is and always has been the novel.

AD: To me, so much happens in this book. It is about how the smallest decisions in your life alter the course of existence. One critique by an editor who read an early draft was that “nothing happens.” I thought this odd. Within this novel, a war breaks out, a man dies, a predator is offed in the bushes, a farm burns down, a mother leaves her family, and we realize that a prominent doctor and farmer are not who we think they are all along (never mind our cognizance of all the national news taking place in the background on the television – Operation Desert Storm, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandela etc. which frames the novel and bleeds into life). I wondered if the editor’s comment was because this all transpires in a small town. Does she understand the gravitas of what it is for millions of Americans to leave or lead this very circumscribed middle class American 90’s life? “Small” was a word thrown around in a way I didn’t understand. Small, so it doesn’t matter?

But that’s exactly what does matter in this book. So much happens.

SLC: I felt this and in particular what I loved was a kind of unconventional pacing. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but it seemed to me that the “major” events, deaths and accidents, always crept up and in a moment were over. There was no dramatic build up or weighting of the moment. That is so much more real. These things happen in our own lives without warning.

AD: It makes me think about watching the actual eruption of the Iraq War, “Shock and Awe,” that thing that descended in bold red headlines on the news. The Early Gulf War was the lead up to this. However, I remember thinking that even though a war was breaking out in the Middle East, no one really cared. No one really realized what it would mean for the massive shift in our geo-political future.

That relates to the way the novel is structured, everything is about to explode: the Internet is about to be born, America will now forever be inextricably linked to Middle East, and Jean’s mother is about to leave her family.

For Jean to survive, she needs to somehow feel that the things that are happening to her are not monumental, like falling in love with the local neighborhood boy. This subsumes the major action within settings. I’ve always admired the way Marilynn Robinson accomplishes this in Housekeeping. Major plot points happen on the page and you barely recognize them. Someone’s car goes off the cliff and they die in a paragraph where all you remember is the setting of the lake. It’s not lead up to in the way you feel one would in classic plotting.

Here, weather and atmosphere feel most oppressive in this way. In rural landscapes, weather and landscape take over the discussion. In cities, its academia and world events. For me, I wanted every page to feel like something terrible or wonderful could happen in this world. Who’s to say what’s most detrimental in a child’s reality is actually most affecting? The kind of typical pacing we see used in novels to me often seems artificial. Small things touch children.

SLC: That’s so valid. This morning my son came in to me crying and said, “Mommy, I followed this girl on the playground and she turned to me and said, ‘You should play by yourself’.” He had been thinking about it for days, I think.

In regards to the question of being seen. I’m also interested in how this “small town” scene is so essential to telling about this very human, female desire without a sensationalist plot point. The women, particularly Jean’s Mother, are still obsessed with the kind of far away icons that pop up in all kinds of narratives. Jean’s mother is obsessed with being telegenic and using her looks and sexuality as a way out.

AD: The mother is the one that suffers the most from being unseen. She becomes obsessed with the news. Jean walks into the scene of her mother pretending to commentate the news with her hairbrush in the bathroom. (The mother wants to witness trauma and maintain control by reporting it.)

The Gulf War was the thing that made CNN as a network. I went back and ordered back issues of Time magazine to see what people were talking about. The beginning of America’s dream of being able to see War. There was a full color spread with lazy boys and TV dinner trays, everyone staring ahead at the news. The feature article wasn’t even about the war, but about people watching the war.

For that final scene in the book, I did a literal transcription of what Jennings said in an episode of the nightly news.

SLC: Have you seen artist Fiona Banner’s book The Nam? I have one I was just lent and will show you. It’s like 1,000 pages reporting out all the big Vietnam films.

AD: I haven’t! I’d love that. To return to your earlier question, the emotional bluntness of Jean comes from the general cultural sense of people from isolated areas feeling blunted, like nothing is happening in my world, but that’s about to change with internet and war. That generation that came out of living through Nam, felt like they couldn’t see it. So much of what transpired during that time period politically was covered up. COINTELPRO etc. was redacted. If Jean’s mother’s generation was hearing about the atrocities of the war, it was somehow removed or delayed. There is now such an interest in documentary films, and, of course, all the fictionalized remakes of that time period.

SLC: In addition to wanting to be a newscaster, Jean’s Mother is obsessed with Hollywood beauty clichés: smoking, Catherine Deneuve. She sees sex as a conduit to being saved, a ticket out of town.

AD: For the mother smoking is a cultural appropriation of what it meant to be beautiful, sexy, and upwardly mobile. It’s her way of feeling other or foreign. That’s why the Englishwoman above the Agway, Margaret, is her friend, a purebred European with a photographer husband. Jean’s mother thinks this is exciting. She wants to be attractive to everybody.

This character’s always trying to light up the world in this one way, through being seen. She feels she’s not able to light up the family or the world in a way that has more gravitas.

Sex is the tool to feel chosen, to be the most important person to someone. Jean’s mother embodies this, as does Callie. Jean wants to know, “Why isn’t this tool available to me?” It’s partly that the world naturally sexualizes her sister Birdie, even at a young age.

SLC: Is Jean meant to be reliable narrator?

AD: Yes. She’s meant to be so plainly truthful, but her version has everything emotionally weighted backwards.

SLC: I love that her youth is played up with these incredible sly malapropisms or misunderstood references throughout the text.

AD: On some level, I wanted to say to readers I trust you to make your own moral judgments of these characters. I want to put you in that space of both knowing and not knowing. And to say that maybe Jean is actually smarter than we make out. Maybe all of these people who are made to seem small and culturally unimportant are a lot more beguiling than we give them credit for.

Great Wall

Talking Rural Reconstruction, Books, and Blogs with Kate Merkel-Hess

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Prelude: The Birth of a Blog

On a sunny day way back in the summer of 2007, when Kate Merkel-Hess was still a UC Irvine graduate student rather than a member of Penn State’s History Department, one of her professors posed an unexpected question to her.  Would Kate, he asked, consider joining him and her thesis adviser, Ken Pomeranz, in launching a digital publication aimed at trying to bridge the gap between the way journalists covered and academic analyzed China.  This could, he said, stumbling a bit over the word, be a sort of “blog.”  Perhaps she could be its lead editor, he proposed, as she was the only one of the three of them with any actual experience “blogging,” having launched a personal blog during her just concluded year doing research in Chinese archives.  He said that he and Ken had enjoyed reading her online commentaries, and this was part of what had inspired them to consider doing something similar, but with multiple contributors. Kate quickly said “yes,” and the rest, as they say, is history.  Meaning, in this case, the start of a four year run of a blog, plus the publication of a spinoff book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, of which Kate was the lead editor.

That is how the “China Beat” came into being—at least, I think I’ve got it right.  To be honest, it might have been Ken (now at the University of Chicago), rather than me (still at Irvine), who asked Kate if she’d join the project.  It might have been early in the fall, rather than summer, when one of us broached the subject to her.  And being a sensible person, Kate might have taken a day or two to think about whether to sign on.  It was no simple matter to juggle completing her dissertation—which in dramatically revised form is about to come out from the University of Chicago Press as a book—and playing a key role in a blog whose other co-founders seemed to have only a vague idea about what exactly the publication would be like.  Some day I’ll quiz Kate about what her memory is of the origins of China Beat (a venture whose final editor would be the China Blog’s own Maura Cunningham), but I didn’t think of asking her about that until we had concluded the following email interview, which took up other, perhaps more interesting questions, related to Kate’s work, her hobbies, and her hometown:

Let’s begin with The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China, your forthcoming book.  Can you tell our readers a bit about it?  Who are some of the main figures in it?  What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from reading it?

In The Rural Modern I describe an incredibly vibrant effort to mobilize China’s rural people in the 1930s and 1940s, an effort that contested the state’s prioritization of urban areas. When I describe it this way, at least some people will assume I’m talking about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which built a revolution against the ruling Nationalist (Guomindang) Party in China’s rural areas at precisely this time. But the CCP wasn’t the only rural reform organization in China during this period. In fact, there were thousands of other rural reformers – urban intellectuals, government officials, missionaries, educators, public health workers, agricultural outreach specialists, committed social activists – who started hundreds of rural reform projects in rural China and experimented with efforts to reach out to rural people that look a lot like the rural outreach programs the CCP adopted. In the course of my research, I even found individuals who started in some of these neutral or Nationalist-affiliated programs who then took their expertise to the CCP base areas – very direct evidence of the connections between these two seemingly separate groups of rural activists. The Rural Modern tells the story of what I call the second most important rural reform movement of the period (second to the CCP, that is). Describing the breadth and depth of this undervalued movement complicates the notion that the CCP rural strategy “succeeded” and everyone else’s “failed” and places the CCP reforms within a much broader context of efforts to remake the countryside – the milieu in which the CCP actually functioned at the time and from which it drew a lot of ideas, personnel, and strategies of rural engagement.

This is a story with fascinating, charismatic figures, like the Yale-educated literacy evangelist Yan Yangchu (known as James “Jimmy” Yen in the U.S.) who worked his Ivy League connections to fund his outreach project in Dingxian, southwest of Beijing, but also many others who have been forgotten or who barely register in the historical record. I laced my book with these stories, as best I could excavate them, because these largely forgotten people were the ones who were engaged in generating an agenda of rural reform that I argue prioritized a specific process of self-transformation. First, reformers believed that people needed to be literate. This was part of a bigger trend in late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalism, where elites believed that being able to read profoundly changed the mind, made people more disciplined, and prepared them for civic participation. If many people learned to read, then reformers believed they would have the basis on which to draw together communities of reformed individuals who could collectively act for the social and economic good. Finally, these people would create self-governing communities that would be a part of but not completely subject to the nation. I want to emphasize how radical this idea was, particularly in comparison to some of the more hierarchical proposals for the construction of a nation that were floating around China at the time.

These ideas didn’t emerge from nowhere. Reformers grounded some of them in the ideas of earlier Chinese thinkers, like the early nineteenth century intellectual Feng Guifen. They also, however, were influenced by a set of ideas coming from abroad that contested the headlong rush to prioritize urban modernization. The Chinese rural reforms of this period – which were often called “rural reconstruction” (乡村建设) – drew on a global “rural reconstruction” movement that I have traced back to efforts in Ireland in the first decade of the twentieth century, with iterations also appearing in South Africa and India, among other places. These global rural reconstruction movements, like the later Chinese one, argued for the importance of robust, self-governing rural communities. Their proponents, among them the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, believed that having lively rural communities mattered to the nation’s culture and identity, and they feared that corporate agriculture would wipe away that culture. Tagore, for instance, made the argument that such communities were proof that Britain had not eliminated a kind of native Indian spirit and tradition of self-reliance. Everywhere I have found it, rural reconstruction was about preserving rural communities and establishing them as a bulwark of localism against the state. It’s really important to make clear that these rural reconstructionists were not anti-modern. They embraced many elements of modernity. They were against a specific vision of modernity that prioritized urbanization and that made rural areas ancillary to some kind of center – whether it was colonial or national.

But, of course, their vision of the countryside did not triumph. In the past fifteen years in China we have seen both an emptying out of the countryside and also some half-hearted government efforts to bolster rural communities. I hope that readers will take away from my book that this contestation over the countryside’s role in the Chinese polity (and the polity’s role in the countryside) – and the efforts to keep the balance from tipping to the cities – has been going on for a very long time. The debates of almost a hundred years ago about the future of rural people and their livelihoods and communities remain very salient.

The book evolved out of your UCI dissertation.  What’s something interesting in the book that wasn’t in the thesis?

The book is significantly different from the thesis and I added a lot of new material to further fill out the story I’m telling. My favorite new part traces the emergence in the Republican period of organizational charts. Much of the research for the book was based on popular publications meant for cheap and easy distribution, social science reports, government reports, and reports to funding agencies. Few of these were things created to be beautiful or aesthetically appealing. So when I saw images, I got really excited because they were very rare. But these were hardly ever reproductions of photographs. Instead, the images I ran across were rough charts and graphs. The ones that struck me most were the efforts by the rural reformers I was studying to sketch out their visions of a new society or a reformed person – and how they rendered that process of transformation into a two-dimensional image. I think how they depicted it tells us a lot about how that process of remaking society was conceived.

What are you working on now?

I’m now working on a book on the history of the warlords in early twentieth century China. Every time I teach the modern China course at Penn State, I get tripped up on the warlords week. It’s just a mish-mash moment that gets treated like an aberration – there’s the effort to establish the Republic of China, and then things go haywire for a decade of warlord mayhem, and then Chiang Kai-shek comes back and now, yay, we’re back to a narrative with a center. I wanted to see if the warlords could be part of the narrative of modern China. And they are all such fascinating figures. There are a lot of great stories to tell about them that haven’t been told.

I’m particularly interested in the contributions the warlords made to shifting Chinese politics and political rhetoric in this nascent period of the Republic. Very quickly in my research, I realized this meant looking beyond the warlords as individual personalities and examining the people around them, particularly their families. For the first time, political wives were mobilized as public assets. They start to appear in pictorials and become engaged in philanthropy (particularly in the 1930s, as the war efforts kicks off). The networks of elite women who become acquainted through school and employment begin to matter to politics. When you use these descriptors, we all think of Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Song Meiling. But she wasn’t alone. I found a journal article from 1928 that mused on who the first lady of China would be: Song Meiling, Feng Yuxiang’s second wife Li Dequan, or the wife of Zhang Zuolin. They were presented as equal possibilities (each with her own distinct style). The warlords were part of a broader and more public political class than had existed in earlier periods, and they began to experiment with how to court the public that now sustained them and kept them in power.

Are there thematic as well as chronological and geographical connections between this project and your first one or do you see it as a complete departure?

There’s a very direct connection, which is that in the course of researching rural reform in the 1920s and 1930s I ran across a number of initiatives that were funded by various warlords – supporting adult literacy programs, educating women, trying to improve public health – and I was surprised that the warlords had been involved in such things. At that point I just thought of the warlords as military strongmen – glorified local bullies. Some of them were that. But most of them were much more complicated leaders, and they thought of themselves as a new kind of Chinese ruler, and attempted new models of political leadership. So that led me to look at them more closely.

The other connection is my interest in localism and in narratives that disrupt our notion of the nation as real or coherent. During the warlord period the notion of a unified China breaks down – it continues to exist as a dream, but doesn’t exist in reality certainly from 1917 to 1927 and arguably is quite broken in important ways from 1911 to 1949. Many of the warlords put themselves forth as local or regional rulers. I track the polities they proposed in place of a unified China and what kind of political identities they mobilized to that end.

Going in a totally different direction, I can’t resist asking what the deal is with China historian-blogger-editors and knitting.  I recently came across your 2014 interview with the American Historical Association, which somehow I hadn’t seen before, and you describe knitting as a great passion of yours.  Now, Maura Cunningham has been very public about her own interest in knitting, working it into her tweets and blogs posts.  Coincidence?  Or is there some reason that China, blogging, and knitting might go together?

KM: Knitting, blogging, and learning Chinese are all rather fussy projects, requiring persistence and an attention to detail, so perhaps there’s that. In addition, knitting is a great pastime in China because there are so many knitters there and it’s easy to find cheap yarn in almost any market. For me, though, it was also a conversation starter – I could pull out my needles on any train or bus and middle-aged and older women would chat with me about it. Sometimes, they wanted to correct the way I held my needles (since I was taught to knit by “throwing” stitches in what’s called English style, whereas most Chinese knitters “pick” in continental style), or they wanted to know how I had learned. This felt like a very safe group of people for me, as a woman often traveling by herself, to chat with on public transportation. I also felt the activity humanized me for the people around me. It doesn’t really fit the Chinese stereotype of the kinds of things that foreigners do and it opened the door to talking not only about the project on the needles – what it was and where I’d bought the yarn and why was I doing this or that with it – but also about family, craft, and tradition.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting little bits of historical details about hand knitting in China. I’m curious about the origins of Chinese knitters’ reliance on continental style, as well as their preference for fine gauge knits (which I’m guessing probably has to do with the desire to replicate machine knit goods; but it’s still an interesting contrast to Western hand knitters, who tend to knit in a wider range of gauges). Maybe someday I’ll have enough to write something about it.

I’m heading to Iowa soon to check out the holdings relating to the Boxer Uprising at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, and also to give a reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore on August 30 to help launch the American edition of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, for which you and I co-wrote a chapter.  I can’t resist asking what I should be sure to see when I’m in your old stomping grounds of Iowa City.  Any thoughts?

I’ll give a few historical recommendations – a reflection of the fact that I haven’t spent more than a few weeks or days at a time in Iowa City in twenty years and thus have no business recommending current restaurants or institutions.

One of my favorite places in the whole world is Rochester Cemetery in Cedar County, Iowa – just a little further east from West Branch (where the Herbert Hoover Library is located, itself just a little east of Iowa City). There are very few remnants of original Iowa “oak savanna” prairie left, but Rochester Cemetery is one of them. It’s a beautiful place to walk around and look at Civil War era (and earlier, and later) graves, but also to get a sense of the Iowa landscape and ecology. A lot of people think Iowa is flat, but it is actually quite hilly, particularly in eastern Iowa. By late August, you will still get a feel for the abundance the rich Iowa soil makes possible – not just the raspy, hot rows of corn but the riotous biological diversity that made those rows of corn possible. (To read a great article about it, click here—and, if you do go, make sure you do a tick check after you walk around in the tall grasses!)

Next, you could swing by Hamburg Inn No. 2 in downtown Iowa City – the famous home during caucus season of the coffee-bean caucus (where visitors get to vote for the candidates using coffee beans). If you are feeling brave, you can order a pie shake. It’s just what it sounds like. Iowans take their pie seriously … and in all other forms too.

Last, there are lots of historic homes in Iowa City. For a short visit like yours, I’d recommend a drive-by of the “Bloom County” house – the one that Berkeley Breathed modeled the boarding house for Opus and the gang on. It’s at 935 East College Street, just off downtown and not far from the New Pioneer Coop, where you can grab a quick bite to eat. Now it’s an upscale market with a super deli – but I remember when it was just a dusty warehouse selling bulk whole grains and carob treats (a serious disappointment when you are five years old). They have better candy now. If you are there on a Saturday morning, you can walk kitty-corner to the farmer’s market and check out the local produce.

You didn’t ask, but there’s a connection between Iowa and my research too – which is that though I grew up in Iowa City I remained throughout my childhood very connected to my mother’s laojia, her ancestral home (if there is such a thing in the US), in northeastern Iowa. I felt a great deal of affinity for the rural communities that I studied in China, which were so much like the little hamlet of Luxemburger Catholics that my mother’s family came from, and which has undergone some of the same dispersals and hollowing out that rural areas throughout the US have experienced since the 1980s (and really, of course, part of an ongoing process since the 1930s) and that Chinese villages have been experiencing over the past two decades. This is a global story, but for me also a personal one.

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Lost in Seoul, a New York Poet’s Memoir of Marrying into a Transforming Korea

By Colin Marshall

Book-length first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have so far come in two waves: one in the 1890s, and another in the 1980s. Or perhaps, given that they produced only a handful of works each, long-form first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have had more like two splashes. But though few in number, these books have held up through the decades: here on the Korea blog, I’ve already written about Percival Lowell’s Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea and Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbors, both published in the 1980s, both earnest, witty, and by modern standards massively detailed attempts to replicate in text the life and landscape of an obscure and frustrating but ultimately endearing country few of their readers could imagine, let alone visit for themselves.

The second wave, or splash, of Korea books happened in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, an event now regarded as the reconstructed South Korea’s debut on the world stage. Simon Winchester, the writer of popular history and a traveler of British Empire vigor, took the whole country on foot and published his experiences in 1988 as Korea, a Walk Through the Land of Miracles. The journalist Michael Shapiro spent a year here around that same time, chronicling the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1990’s lesser-known The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow, which interspersed his high-level political observations with everyday ones about life in the country he briefly called home.

That same year, another American Michael, the poet and playwright Michael Stephens (also professionally known as Michael Gregory or M.G. Stephens) came out with Lost in Seoul and Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula. An inversion of Shapiro’s proportion of the political and the personal, the book draws on the New York-born, New York-raised, New York-based Stephens’ marriage to a Korean woman, and five or six of the visits they made, young daughter in tow, back to her homeland in the 70s and 80s. Its fourteen essays, all framed by his interactions with the pseudonymous family Han and their culture, find ways deal with Korea’s history, language, and politics, but also its variety of cultures: commercial, military, shamanistic, drinking.

The marriage put Stephens among a colorful cast of Korean characters, not least his chain-smoking, eyeshadowed opera singer wife, here called Haeja, the only member of her family to have settled in America. She’s spent a full decade away by the time of their first trip to Seoul together, meant in large part to introduce the family their two-year-old daughter Fionna (who, in real life, grew up to become the filmmaker Mora Stephens). A pack of excited relatives comes to pick them up from weary old Gimpo Airport, Korea’s only port of entry by air at that time long before the construction of the perpetually award-winning Incheon International. But soon an air raid drill — just like the one that opens Chil-su and Man-su — has halted all traffic into the capital.

 “Haeja, Fionna, and I climb out after the Hans,” Stephens writes. “The siren whines and whines incessantly, and I half expect that we’ll all be diving for cover under the cars, hands over our heads, waiting for an incoming artillery from the lunatic communist horde.” Fear soon gives way to fantasy: “I’m already composing the copy to be smuggled out of the city at dusk via medivac helicopter to an American military base in Japan, where it’ll be wired to the New York Times — which will of course run it on the front page under my byline.” Passages like this, and others on the U.S. as well as the protest-bashing local military presence in the streets, capture the martial tone of South Korean life that lingers to this day, though (the occasional unexplained siren aside) the air raids have long since ceased, the tear gas he smelled in the streets has dispersed, the American soldiers seldom stray far off base, and the Korean ones look younger and more harmless by the year.

KB - Lost in Seoul

 Even in the late 1970s, the regimentation of the postwar period had begun to loosen up, though the book opens with Stephens in a South Korea still run by developmentalist strongman Park Chung-hee. “Any day,” he reflects while making his way through busy market alleyways and factory-thickened air, “this nation will slough off that label ‘third world.’” In the only scene of his and Haeja’s life in New York, he gets home after day his university job to the news of Park’s assassination by his own security chief. Grimly fascinated, he can’t stop himself from asking questions about the event on his next visit to Korea, even as he dines on pseudo-French cuisine high up in the newly built Lotte Hotel — albeit early, “in order to have a full evening on the town before curfew,” adhering to the terms of the martial law then in effect.

By the final chapters, with the Olympics looming, the Koreans around Stephens have begun to speak of democracy in non-hushed tones, even at as staid a gathering as his mother-in-law’s sixtieth birthday party. He describes the event, which celebrates the most important age milestone one can pass in Korean culture, as “like those gala balls found in nineteenth-century Russian novels.” Indeed, Seoul itself “reminds me of Moscow a century earlier, or should I say, it reminds me of that city I think I know from Russian literature of a century ago.” That may reflect his elevated coterie: Haeja’s family, though not, strictly speaking, aristocratic, maintains powerful government and business connections, and most of its members live in a large, servant-staffed traditional Korean courtyard house, renovated by Haeja’s architect-scion stepfather and located right next to the residence of the president.

 That, combined with the very title Lost in Seoul, leads one to expect a standard memoir of the coddled, uncurious, and often hired American abroad. Standing at a deliberately uncomprehending distance, they grind out interminable pages of futile struggle with laughable foreign customs, unappetizing foreign food, and incomprehensible foreign language — the sort of thing, in other words, that hit its intellectual apex with Dave Barry Does Japan. But in many ways, Stephens has written the opposite of that, the story of his ever-deepening relationship with, especially at the time, a poorly understood and little-respected culture.

 “I grew up with bitter old men cursing the Korean peninsula because they fought a dirty war there,” he writes, scraping together whatever impressions of the country could have preceded his marriage to one of its people. “Their minds were filled with images of rubble, gutted landscapes, biting chill, Chinese hordes, napalm, claymore mines, frozen ghosts.” Whether meeting Haeja drained these frightening second-hand memories of their power or sparked a latent interest in Korea he doesn’t say; in fact, he says nothing of the courtship at all, though he does make several connections, explicitly and implicitly, between his wife’s heritage and his own.

 “Her crazy face reminds me of a redheaded Irish aunt with a bottle of whiskey in her,” he writes of a Korean spirit medium deep in the throes of exorcism. “The Irish of Asia,” once the standard shorthand description of the Korean people, evokes hard work, binding family ties, and, not unrelatedly, hard drink. But like many Westerners in Asia, even those married into the society, Stephens enjoys a certain degree of freedom from societal expectations, and even faux pas — smoking in front of his elders, giving too-colorful ties as gifts — stay off his permanent record. Not so Haeja, who immediately upon stepping onto Korean soil again becomes, in an official sense, “a wife and mother, two important roles to add to her repertoire in this familial world, where she is already daughter, sister, and aunt, each with its own complex decorum.”

 Despite the comforts of the Han household and its accommodations (including but not limited to an order given to its servants to replicate a daily “American breakfast” as best they can), Stephens eventually chafes against it as well. Hence the titular state, which he finds “sometimes the only way for me to experience Korea away from the overprotectiveness of Haeja’s family. When they are not too carefully watching out for my well-being, they are often too caught up in the pride of being Korean, in wanting to show their Western relative an airbrushed, charming side of Seoul.” Not a scene in the book takes place in, say, the subway (the Hans keep a driver, or drivers, always prompt with the pick-up), or in one of the lookalike tower blocks already on the way to becoming the standard form of Korean housing in the 1960s.

 Yet Stephens develops a keen eye for the city, then as now “a hodgepodge where the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor live side by side.” The concentration of wealth in what this book refers to as New Seoul, now far better known in the West as Gangnam, has since introduced more segregation into the cityscape, but visitors from other countries still quickly take notice of the relative proximity of the seemingly disparate, from social classes to architectural styles. Nor does its distinctive religious iconography escape them, as it doesn’t Stephens, who takes early note of a mountaintop atop which “a huge neon cross proclaims JESUS SAVES!” — and, in another direction, a Buddhist temple. “My eyes freeze,” he writes, “on a swastika painted just under the rooftop.”

 His attempts to get a handle on the distinctive morality and philosophy underlying Korean society lead Stephens to pronounce its people “Confucians socially, Buddhists when times are difficult, but they are animists nearly always.” The dynamic between the sexes, in which “men flaunt power” while “women finesse theirs,” comes explained to him mostly by the men in Haeja’s family, or at least those who willingly bring him into the Korea’s closed masculine circles. Much of it comes from the expansive, gregarious, aspirational (and also English-speaking) Uncle Mo, would-be quasi-royalty severed from the benefits of his pedigree by his illegitimacy. “Write about the women,” goes his advice to Stephens about his book in progress, “but always remember that Korea is a great country for men.”

 And just a few pages later: “If you are going to write about Korea, forget about the men. The women are the real story because everything about them is so subtle, nothing is what it appears to be.” He says this during the same driving range coffee-shop conversation in which he describes himself as a feminist and during which — “it is difficult for me to act like anything but a man in public” — he gruffly orders around and leers animalistically at their waitress, neatly demonstrating what might look to a Westerner like the unhealthy contradictions of Korean gender relations. “For most men, romance comes outside the home,” says another middle-aged Korean man, providing a clarifying addendum to another lecture of Uncle Mo’s, delivered in the locker room of another golf course. “’This is so,’ agrees a businessman, toweling himself off.”

 One personality has more vividness on the page than Uncle Mo: the diminutive, foulmouthed, Grandma Oh, long-widowed and with nothing to do but drink, smoke, and issue various complaints and pronouncements — to “be herself,” in other words, “as irascible and unhappy as that self may be, and accept everyone’s esteem for her. Americans would have sent her to a nursing home long ago. In a Korean household, she is not just tolerated, she is venerated as the great elder of the family.” Then as now, Koreans tend to regard those past the age of about eighty, coarsened, stiffened, and stunted by the sheer difficulty of their lives, as living totems of their country’s hardships. As, in a way, does Stephens: “I feel that if I can explicate the furrows, the cracks, the wrinkles, the deep lines on her cheeks and her brow, in her chin and along the bridge or her nose, I would understand all there is to know about modern Korea.”

 Sometimes, these bent and cranky senior citizens also become unlikely fonts of progressivism, Grandma Oh being no exception: “There’s nothing wrong with a good woman marrying twice,” she declares more than once. “Nothing at all. This is a new era.” Haeja’s mother, after the death of her own first husband, remarried herself, doing so in an era when such an act would have put her decidedly on the vanguard. Despite having been born in 1896 (just a year after “the great matriarch Queen Min had been assassinated by Japanese gangsters,” an era-ending death recounted in detail by Isabella Bird Bishop), Grandma Oh understands the changes sweeping South Korea better than the younger people who supposedly represent them, from the foreign-educated relatives with their surly demands for justifications for every tradition to the teenage Korean-Americans shipped in ostensibly for cultural enrichment. “I imagine that Korean parents driving by probably point them out to their children as examples of what will happen to them if they’re not good,” Stephens says of one such group, dyed of hair and theatrically irreverent of manner, hanging out on a street corner.

 A Seoul city block can change unrecognizably in a matter of months, or even weeks, a pace already set when Stephens first arrived on a background where “about every third building, there is an excavation,” to a soundtrack of “jackhammers, honking horns, whistles, shouts and combustion.” It must owe, then to his sense of the timeless that the neighborhoods through which he describes wandering (when not chauffeured), despite thirty or more intervening years, remain recognizable in the text today. Seoul, as he puts it late in the book, “is where I gather myself, where I put myself back together” on each trip he, Haeja, and the teenage Fionna (fast growing, in Stephens’ description, into of those increasingly alien Korean-Americans herself) eventually make each rainy summer season during the university break.

 Lost in Seoul‘s editor at Random House certainly demonstrated foresight in shepherding the book to publication — maybe too much foresight. Korea had, for the first time since the war, become a big subject in America in the late 1980s, albeit not quite big enough to eclipse the even more astonishing, and thus more anxiety-inducing, rise of Japan, its larger, outwardly sexier neighbor as well as former colonizer. (This opened a river of first-person Westerner’s narratives of Japan, not just by Dave Barry, that still hasn’t quite run dry.) But more than fifteen years of economic stagnation having since neutralized the Japanese threat, the Land of the Rising Sun has lost some ground to the Land of the Morning Calm as an Eastern site of Western cultural interest. It helps that Korea now wields “soft power” in the form of pop music, films, television dramas, and even literature, whereas in the 70s and 80s it seemed to offer practically nothing of potential international interest — in other words, nothing cool.

 But Stephens, a self-described rumpled academic who first brought to Korea little more than his knowledge of “basketball, open-form American poetry, western drama, Buster Keaton, I Love Lucy, and Thelonious Monk,” has little concern for the cool. But his interest in poetry provides him a lighted tunnel into the deep culture of Korea, a place where it holds popularly acknowledged primacy over all other literary forms. My copy of Lost in Seoul came, seemingly untouched, straight from the estate of a Pacific Northwest poetic luminary. Inside I found a letter written to her by Stephens himself: “As the enclosed book is as much about language, and specifically poetry, as it is about Korea,” it begins, “I thought it might interest you.”

 Stephens incorporates his own translations of Korean poetry in the text, and references to the Western variety appear with some frequency. (He titles the third chapter “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.”) But the interest in the Korean language itself sets him apart, to my mind, from his contemporaries, not just in the endeavor of writing about Korea, but in the endeavor of joining and understanding, to the extent possible, a Korean family. (Most of the first Korean-married countrymen I met, in the late 1990s, didn’t just know little of Korea but insisted on calling their wives by their comically bland “American” names.) He devotes much of another referentially titled chapter, “Politics and the Korean Language,” to the complications of speaking it in the particular way properly suited to one’s age, status, and origin. He even develops a certain ungrammatical, drink-lubricated fluency in the language himself, which is more than many long-term expatriates here can say for themselves.

 In the letter paperclipped into my copy of the book, Stephens also mentions that it “has not yet received too many reviews” despite several months on the market. Now based in London, he seems not to have written much about Korea since, and though Lost in Seoul remains reasonably easy to come by at the better libraries (I first read it at the Koreatown, branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, when I lived in the neighborhood), I have yet to meet anyone, in America or in Korea, who recognizes the title. Ironically, this long-out-of-print book now has more relevance than ever given the West’s rising Korea-consciousness, as well as the incomparably more thorough integration of Koreans into the outside world.

 Back in the era of air raid drills and political assassinations, a Western family member was still a novelty; now at least half of my American friends have married someone from Asia. The only one of them who’s yet read this book on my recommendation happened to marry a Korean woman himself: he has, forty years after Stephens’ experiences, his own Haeja, his own regularly South Korea-stamped passport from visits to his own Hans, and as of this year his own Fionna. Whether he’ll take the next logical step and write his own Lost in Seoul remains to be seen, but I sense that the time has in any case come for the book-length first-person narrative by Westerners in Korea, whether in another splash or that long-awaited wave, to return.

 Related Korea Blog posts:

 Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea

The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About What’s Gone: My Lost San Pedro

By John Shannon

Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past.

 — Before Sunset (2004)

An uncomfortable part of our soul gets pitchforked up whenever, in mid-life, we make a trip home, believing home is still at least roughly the same as it was, even as it’s beginning to break up into small, sharp, dangerous pieces.

I grew up in San Pedro, L.A.’s harbor, a place of marvels and mystery. (By the way, if it interests you, the non-Latino locals called it San PEE-droh. Sorry, Spanish speakers.)

When I was about 12, I would ride the town’s glory, the big auto ferry, back and forth between San Pedro and Terminal Island, across a quarter mile channel of gray, oil-slicked, toxic water, keeping watch for the occasional up-periscope of a harbor seal. As the ferry neared the far mooring, I would hide briefly under a slatted bench. The engines reversed in a shudder of backwater and the ferry’s blunt bow nudged awesomely into the creaking pilings, implying unimaginable mass. I’d hide so I could ride back to San Pedro and then to the island again without repaying the nickel fare. I’ve told this story so many times I’ve come to think I actually did hide, but I’m not so sure. Would the crew have cared a whit about a stowaway?

This was basically a car ferry, and back then the only rush of foot traffic came at shift changes at the canneries on Terminal Island. The mothers and older sisters of my school friends going to StarKist and Chicken-of-the-Sea and Van Camp’s and then coming home to drop their reeking white uniforms into pails of ammonia on the back porch. When the tuna boats were in and the canneries were canning, the whole town stank of it, as unmistakable as a skunk gone to panic under the house. The stench carried all the way uphill through the old town to my family’s middle-class Midcentury Modern house at the outer edge of civilization — the foot of the nearly empty (then, 1949) Palos Verdes hills.

The big Art Deco ferry building is still there, but it’s a maritime museum now, full of tedious models of ships, as well as an excellent exhibit on the history of local tuna fishing. The canning of tuna was invented in San Pedro in 1903; it introduced seafood to Middle America.

There’s no ferry any more. The Vincent Thomas bridge takes all the traffic now. The very suspension bridge that Robert De Niro hilariously called the “St.” Vincent Thomas in the 1995 movie Heat. Vince Thomas — born Vinko Tomasevic — was our long-serving and very powerful city councilman. He’d have loved the posthumous sainthood.

The tuna canneries are all gone now, runaways to American Samoa and other low-wage pockets around the Pacific Rim. And the tawdry and infamous Sailor’s Row — which had faced the ferry building from across Beacon Street — is also gone. Gone utterly, like the Carthage that the Romans burned and spread with salt, a city inhabited by losers, as Donald Trump would say.

Tommy’s and the Port Hole and the Anchor Hotel, which every kid in Dana Junior High whispered was a whorehouse, and, above all else, Shanghai Red’s on the corner of Fifth and Beacon, with its beefy tattooed barmaid, Cairo Mary, tossing drunks out the swingdoor all by herself. All gone now.

About 1970 the evil civic ferrets brought us Urban Renewal and decided a 10-block-square hole in the ground was preferable to that untidy past. Alas, the big hole lasted almost thirty years and never really healed. Of course I miss it all and it causes a strange flaw in the lens that keeps me from focusing.

Every building down to the seediest sailor joint served its time as part of a vast nexus of cultural bric-a-brac too extensive for any easy catalogue, and there is a kind of exhaustion that takes you over when you try to mourn this chronicle of your youth.

As a kid on a bike, I actually got up my nerve to peek into Shanghai Red’s once, saw a few old drunks slumped over the bar. But it was just a place then, not yet a famous Missing Place. And as a kid you never have the world’s full attention. The world is always looking past your shoulder at whatever or whoever really belongs there. Beat it, kid!

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Probably what I wanted to see when I bravely explored the harbor at the age of twelve was something “picturesque” in a much more Lutheran sense. The quaint, the earnest and sincere, even the iconic (but let’s try to retire that overused word). Something with a stable connection to the worldview that animated Life magazine and soothed our larger anxieties in the 1950s.

 To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly.

— Nietzsche

At 12, I carried my crappy little 35mm Ricoh camera down to the freighter docks just up-channel of the San Pedro ferry building. I’d been wearing the camera around my neck for some time in order to capture the world around me. And only now do I wonder what this daffy photography of my explorations was about. Did I feel I was a special node of the universe whose every encounter had to be documented? Or was I just oedipally emulating my father, who was a combat-cameraman in WWII?

One day I made my way out to the commercial piers a few hundred yards north of the ferry building. Suddenly, a Japanese sailor hurried down the gangway of a freighter and pointed at my camera, grinning and speaking rapidly in Japanese. Then he turned my little 35mm junker bottom up and cried, “Nippon, Nippon!” It actually said Nippon. A crude but certain link between us. Presumably lonely in this faraway land, he invited me up the ladder and showed me all through the freighter.

Oh, I know. I shudder today to think of what might have been on tap for a pre-teen boy in the deep recesses of a freighter that was technically extraterritorial land, but none of that happened. It was just benign UN stuff, friendship between the nations. And so in the end I captured him in black and white, plus-X, 80 ASA, smiling at me.

Was this a substitute for really coming to know him, a defense against the anxiety of meeting someone I couldn’t communicate with?

Some part of photography is probably always an attempt to tame and make sense of our world . Or maybe to substitute photos for real experience. Nobody even looks at paintings in museums any more, have you noticed? They just run around taking fuzzy cell-phone snaps one after another, or selfies in front of things. Hey, Bobby, I was actually here. I think.

Here’s a thought experiment about our precarious relationship to the past: let’s suppose they had preserved the Terminal Island Ferry, suppose that the conservationists had won a battle, for a change. Maybe it’s been kept as a ferry-themed restaurant (ugh), or, even worse, as a tourist sight tied permanently to barnacled pilings. Harbor Heritage Plaque No. 57. “This sturdy ferry once plied the waters….”

An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?

— John Cage

The ferry would be a splinter plucked from a whole texture of the past. That lovely tub would have drifted miles from the moorings of its context. As the context itself has drifted into the oblivion of nostalgia. The ferry would be a zebra in a zoo 10,000 miles from its home.

There’s so much disruption and loss in our world’s forward progress, its industrial development. We sense all this constant upheaval. I believe it’s the human longing for myths of redemption that imbues historic loss and “historic preservation” — is there any real difference? — with such profound pathos. Somehow, we convince ourselves that holding hands on vacation to look at a dead ferryboat or a mock saloon or a former battleground or a place where something was once authentic will save our urban-renewed souls and emancipate us from historical grief.

But the preserved or recreated site has inevitably been rendered surreal by its new context and new purpose — just as surreal as the hideous Ports o’ Call Village (a dying mall) only a half mile down-channel from the ferry building. Imagine, a simulacrum of a New England whaling village dropped from 30,000 feet onto a California waterfront. The psyche cries out, “Enough!”

The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases.

— Susan Sontag

Here’s the crux of the thought experiment: suppose that there’s still the old ferryboat moored down there in the San Pedro channel, with its blunt ends, its low white hull, a hollow superstructure to accept a dozen drive-on cars. What are we seeing?

Just like that zebra in the zoo, it’s a forced exile. But, more significantly, it’s an emblem that we cling to in order to convince ourselves that “we” — our industrial civilization, our advance in great strides across our world, our peculiar form of progress — have done no harm, at least no harm that could have been avoided.

See, we’ve saved this beautiful relic! This consoling symbol of our past shows our good intentions. Thus we mask the total rupture of all the bonds that tied that vanished world together and could have gone on tying it to us in some genuine way. This is why I say there’s little difference between ferry and no ferry, as long as we don’t recognize the hole we’ve ripped out of the world.

Today we all live in and accept a kind of society that cannot move forward without tearing apart and emptying all the traditions and cultures and individual lives in its path — both here and overseas, now that we’ve achieved “globalization.”

I once believed this was all a consequence of Western capitalism, the constant churning of growth that needs to eat or upturn everything in its path. But now I see the destruction wrought in Eastern Europe, China, even Africa, by other peoples trying other models of rapid and forced industrialization. “State capitalism,” some call it.

But this loss will persist as long as we can only respond to the ferry, or to the hole for the ferry, with a sloppy gee-whiz sentimentality, instead of….what? Well, it’s not an individual answer, in any case; it has to be a social answer.

Okay, I’ll say it, though it may offend some: we need to construct the kind of world that does not have to disrupt everything in its path in order to move forward — a more empathetic and human society, to put it simply. Why is that so much to ask? Basically, it’s all Bernie Sanders was asking — give the poor and weak and disadvantaged a break, give them a leg up. Of course, a form of socialism claiming to do that and more had been tried before, under terribly adverse circumstances, and had failed rather spectacularly. I know all that. I have no idea whether it will be tried again, but I know our current ruthless form of industrial progress hasn’t much of a future. Look around at the cruelty, the tent encampments and hunger, the permanent warfare and the social breakdown.

 

John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is: jackliffey.com

Featured Image Thursday 7-27

Revising Violence

By Jacqueline Feldman

Ahmad Kaddour was born in Tartus, Syria in 1964 and grew up there, later moving to the Mediterranean city of Jableh with his grandparents. At the age of 17, he moved to Damascus, where he lived with his brother and went to art school. Later, while reading Walter Benjamin at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he arrived at the guiding principle that masterpieces are fascist.

Ahmad set about creating large paintings he would never finish and silkscreens that, though painstaking to make, would resemble photocopies if it weren’t for their scale and the deep, liquid aspect of the blacks. The silkscreens are often headless bodies. They look abstract, almost topographical and have been hung outdoors in foreign cities like Chicago and Berlin. The pictures insist on the horror of violence by showing it obliquely, as if out of care. They are on display now at the BOA Art Gallery in Beverly Hills through July 30th.

Ahmad Kaddour prints images on war journalism, in hopes that they will improve on it. He first works directly on film, using black paint or India ink. The paint behaves strangely on plastic, pooling and forming the grain that he appreciates. As he scrapes and repaints, the film becomes fragile, so he often transfers the image onto another film to see it fresh. Sometimes, he likes the film so much that he keeps it and calls it art. What he likes about silkscreen is the opportunity to revise continuously, while retaining traces.

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While I was living in Paris, I often stayed with my friend Ahmad, and his paintings and silkscreens were architecture to me. I became accustomed to his motifs: simple machines, such as bathtubs, beds, wheels and an axis, columns, canoes, a funeral shroud, and figures with round heads, like babies. In the paintings, his figures perform absurd tasks with dignity, like withstand fire or push a wheelbarrow that contains a skull. Ahmad models many of his figures after himself or after images he clips from newspapers and collects. He prefers Le Monde’s broad pages; he finds Libération’s photos of war pruriently gory.

Ahmad lives in a section of Paris’s Fourteenth Arrondissement where history has been disregarded. In the ’60s, its neighborhoods were razed to make way for Montparnasse Tower. I used to make elaborate trips from the distant part of Paris where I lived, the Nineteenth Arrondissement, changing subway lines twice. The length of travel let me feel as though I’d really arrived. It was an act of devotion, or of blackmail. Ahmad, who calls his art works-in-progress, fixates on the distance that separates beginning from end. He talks about process as if it were unseemly to call one’s own job done. Likewise, I have heard him speak elliptically, invoking the emigrant’s right to abstraction. He left Syria in 1987 “because the return was very complicated, was impossible,” he told me recently.

In 2008, he went back. In practical terms, he had become what is called a draft-dodger or dissident, depending on the regime. Friends who had been imprisoned for their politics were now free. His grandmother had died. In 2009, he returned again and spent a few hours with his grandfather, who has since died as well. His parents still live in Tartus. Ahmad speaks carefully about his absence in case it may be taken as abandonment.

Syria has seen much destruction of images that, contrary to the principle in Islam, depict people. “They have destroyed statues of poets,” Ahmad says sadly. He renders bodies as gossamer shrouds as if out of propriety. We look at art about war and ask if prettiness is complicit. The distance he takes from the painful is a kind of politesse.

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During the exhibit at BOA, Ahmad is staying with his brother Monzer, who is a doctor in Tarzana and triathlete. Ahmad lives in French, and his English is patchy, and Monzer lives in English, and his French is elementary; together, they speak Arabic. The catalogue includes a letter by Ahmad to Monzer, written bitterly in French, which he terms “the language of exile.” It is addressed to “Manny,” an American nickname that Ahmad never voices out loud, again as if bitterly, as if to chart the distance that has separated them. For a letter, the text is willfully dense, making wide-ranging references, indicating, I think, that it is perilously deeply felt.

I’ve been away from Paris for one year. In French, I might say I’ve “there absented myself.” A silkscreen of Ahmad’s hangs in my New York apartment. Like the others, it dissolves or resolves in the time it takes my eye to fall.