Monday, September 26, 2016

Sarah Viren on Hybridity

Hybridity and Essay DNA
(or my answers to your question on the event of the second day of my qualifying exams)

It is five in the morning and I am awake. This is not an uncommon occurrence. I’m bigger now and so I sleep less soundly. But also, the baby likes to wake around 5 a.m. and move around a bit. I felt her this morning, needling my left side with what I assume was her right foot. She’s upside down by now. I know because when she hiccups I can feel her in my hips.

When I last wrote to you all, it was before I started feeling her, before what they call “the quickening”—a word I’ve always loved. I wrote then about going in for a screening to test the traces of her DNA that are floating alongside my DNA in my blood. I wrote about how just the fact of that test made me aware of my own hybridization, how I have become two in one. And I compared that doubling to the essay and the way it can be embedded in many forms, including poetry and fiction, sometimes without us ever realizing it.

I now realize I am hybrid. I don’t need a test. I have those kicks in the night. The roundness when I look down at my feet. The way my belly button is filling in, threatening to pop out. But mostly it’s the kicks. There is nothing like a movement that is not your own to confirm that you are no longer alone in a room, or in the world.

And so now you’ve asked me about the essay and how I recognize it, especially when it’s often still so small and growing within the body of another beast, something someone else has called a story, a novel, or a poem. It would be easy if I could just tell you that it kicks. And in some ways it does. Seeing the “I” on the page is always a hint that the essay might be there, but not an assurance. I’ve had palpitations in my leg at times before that feel somewhat like this baby moving inside me, but I know there is no baby there. It is not enough to just see the “I” on the page or even necessary to see it at all. What you need is the presence of an I—or its implied presence—an “I” that is thinking, thinking on the page, thinking in an invented timelessness that is the mind on the page, in an attempt to figure something out, and maybe failing.

I just listed six characteristics—you may or may not have noticed. I don’t think all six need to be present for us to feel the presence of essaying in another work. If they are all there, you’ve probably already felt the kicking anyway. But since you’ve also asked about hybridization, I think it might be helpful to consider moments where the contours of the essay are less clear, as well as some moments where an essay has just been born.

1. The “I”—or its implied presence

I’ve always liked the way Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin called the novel a work of competing voices. He invented the term heteroglossia specifically to describe the way in which the novel—for a long time the defining literary work of our era—was marked by its many voices: the narrators, the characters’, sometimes the author’s. At the time he contrasted that multi-voicedness with epic poetry, but I think it’s better compared with the essay, which many now say is the defining literary work of our era, and which requires the presence of an “I,” even if that I is only implied and never directly stated.

Of course, what do I mean by the “I”? Novels include the “I” all the time and they’re still novels, at least mostly. But what I mean is an “I” that is not competing with other voices. The “I” might be competing with its many-voiced selves, the many selves of one’s mind, but we are not witnessing the village of voices in the novel that Bakhtin meant when he thought up heteroglossia.

Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation is called a novel, but much of that sparse book reads very much like an essay, in large part because of the insularity of its narrative voice and the prominence, and isolation, of the “I.” Composed of short fragments—some quotes from philosophers, some facts about space travel, some that read like journal entries penned by an isolate new mother moored in a timelessness that is new parenthood—the book reads in many ways like an essay by Montaigne, who also liked to mix quotes from others with his own pedestrian thoughts on a subject he hoped to dissect.

“I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger,” Offill writes. “‘It’s for my daughter.’ I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.”

The biography of the first-person narrator in Dept. of Speculation overlaps in several ways with Offill’s autobiography: both are new mothers, trying to write a second book without much success, while living in New York. But that quality—what used to be called autofiction—isn’t what makes much of this book feel like an essay. What makes it read like an essay is the strength and solitariness of the “I.”

Even when partway through the book, Offill suddenly revokes the “I” and replaces it with third person, referring to “the wife” as a character, even then we feel the steady beating of the “I.” We realize that she is trying to make herself into a character, as if that might give her the distance she craves from her own life. But that distance is only invented. Every time we read “the wife” we can easily see behind it an “I,” lurking. And by the end of the book, Offill returns the “I” to its rightful place on the page.

Though it is also at the end that the book starts to feel somewhat like a novel again and less like an essay. There is resolution to the story being told and a sense of completion as we move toward closure: the marriage recovers, the narrator finds a sense of peace, order is restored. And instead of ending in an “I,” Offill ends with an “us.”

2. —who is thinking,

This is key. Because there are “I”s everywhere. In pop songs, in novels, on reality television, in that text message you just got. But in an essay, the “I” is thinking. Or as Mary Capello explains in her essay "Propositions; Provocations: Inventions,": “I write creative nonfiction because while many ask how I’m feeling, no one asks how I’m thinking."

Cappello says creative nonfiction, but I think she meant essays. Creative nonfiction doesn’t always require the presence of thought. There are beautiful pieces of reported journalism or memoir that likely required much thought to piece together, but that don’t including that thinking as it is actively thought, by the narrator, who is also an “I.”

But what do I mean by thinking? I mean something that is not feeling. Not that feelings don’t enter the essay. They do. But when they do, it is often so that they can be thought out or about by the narrator. Think of T Fleishmann’s Syzygy, Beauty, in which the author tries to think out desire and its opposite, rejection. Or think of Eula Biss in On Immunity as she tries to rationalize her own fears about contamination that arise soon after she gives birth to her son. Or Hilton Als in White Girls as he understand his competing desire for and anger at the figure of the white woman in America. In all of these books there is an “I” thinking and we as readers witness their thoughts.

An essay, Philip Lopate writes, “tracks down a person’s thoughts as he or she tries to work out some mental knot, however various its strands.”

Scott Russell Sanders in his essay “The Singular First Person” adds: “In this era of prepackaged thought, the essay is the closest thing we have, on paper, to a record of the individual mind at work and play. It is an amateur’s raid in a world of specialists. Feeling overwhelmed by data, random information, the flotsam and jetsam of mass culture, we relish the spectacle of a single consciousness making sense of a part of the chaos."

3. thinking on the page,

Now we’re getting somewhere. And by somewhere, of course, I mean the page. Thinking on the page is different than just thinking. I am thinking now, but on the page I’ve only written this sentence, and so you, my readers, have no idea what I’m actually thinking, or if I’m even thinking at all. What I’m thinking, though, is about how to parse the difference between thinking and thinking on the page, between the static “I” and the “I” who thinks.

I think what I mean is that to think on the page is a different sort of act than to just think. There is a leap of faith required on the part of the reader and an act of creative invention on the part of the writer. The essayist must simulate what it feels like to think and make that feeling felt.

How we do that is another question. In his anthologies on the essay, John D’Agata often includes works that are fragmentary. And it’s true that our thoughts are often fragmented. They are also often associational.

I had a student one semester who was mostly silent up until we read Lacy Johnson’s memoir The Other Side. “This is amazing,” he said, during our first week into the book. “It’s just like the way my mind works.” Johnson’s book is composed of hundreds of small segments of prose that move back and forth in time and seem to cohere mostly by way of association, though there is a narrative arc and some chronology.

Little Labors is a book by Rivka Galchen that was supposed to be a work of criticism about Japanese literature in translation—specifically The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu—but ended up being a book-length essay built around fragmented thoughts about Galchen’s new baby, among other things. If Galchen had written the book she was supposed to write, that book never would have been a literary essay because, more likely than not, the critical thoughts she had about The Pillow Book and The Tale of the Genji would have appeared on the page fully formed, organized, and argumentative. Whereas what Galchen gives us in Little Labors includes a list of her baby’s habits, musings about Godzilla and Frankenstein as metaphors for baby-making, notes on authors and their parental or non-parental status, and the conclusion that all reactions to a baby are really more indicative of the hopes and fears of the reactor than they are of any intrinsic characteristic of the baby. Galchen leaps from one subject to the next with almost no connector except, of course, the baby, which always seems to be on her mind, at least on the version of her mind we find on the page.

4. thinking in an invented timelessness that is the mind on the page,

In his Believer essay on the “expositionary novelist,” Ben Marcus makes a distinction between time in traditional fiction—which he calls invented time—and in nonfiction, which he characterizes as timeless. These hybrid novelists, he argues, are “working primarily without or around time, producing fiction that might appear more essayistic, discursive, inert, philosophical, and, well, literally timeless.”

Of course, what Marcus fails to notice is that a sense of timelessness on the page is also an invented form of time. It’s an invented form of time, in fact, that mimics the mind on the page.

In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes what is essentially an essay about becoming a mother and no longer writing in her diary. The book is also very much about time and, though it moves in a more or less chronological manner from before Manguso had a child to afterwards, the writing itself occurs in a state of invented timelessness. That timelessness is marked by sudden chronological leaps and by a constant sense of revision, in which one thought is expressed only to be contradicted or overridden by a subsequent though. For example:
Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.

One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake. The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it—an incapacitating sweetness.

The memory throbs. Left alone in time, it is growing stronger.

The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that.
In this series of mini-observations, what we feel as readers is that we are inside someone’s head as they think through an experience. We have just watched Manguso consider memories as they exist and change in time and yet the state in which she considers these thoughts is a timeless one.

5. in an attempt to figure something out,

We all know the most famous characteristic of the essay: as an attempt. Montaigne called his collections essais, which in French means “attempts” or “tries,” and at some point English-speaking essayists latched on to the quaint simplessness of that idea. Unlike novelists, we are not trying to build a world where one did not exist before. Unlike poets we are not trying to build a new language. We are just trying something out, or trying to figure something out.

For instance, I’m eating Korean sushi at ten in the morning and I’m trying to figure out if that’s because I’m pregnant or because I’m pinned to this desk writing these exams or because someone got the sushi for me to be nice and, when someone is nice to me, I feel obligated to accept their gifts, even if they’re not exactly what I wanted at the moment. Though this sushi is good and, if I were so inclined, I could probably write an essay about it, or about the regularity of meals and the jouissance of breaking out of that routine.

The fact that essays are preoccupied with attempts means that they tend to be, by nature, much more focused, more quotidian, more ordinary, even, than either novels or poems. But this is not to say that they’re boring. In fact, one of the tricks of an essay is to take the smallest, most pedestrian aspects of life and, by filtering them through the questioning self, suddenly make it intriguing and new—bigger and flashier, somehow, than they were before.

For instance, The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker is called a book of poems, but it reads very much like an essay, especially in the moments in which we see our narrator observing and questioning herself and the world around her:
It was hard to say goodbye to the ocean. It was not the same ocean as it had been the day before. Today the waves crashed against her, pushing her back toward the shore. At the same time the tide was going out and tried to pull her with it. It was hard work just standing her ground. She wanted to say, ‘I love you.’ She wanted to say, ‘Thank you.’ But to whom? To which part? The part of the ocean that was trying to push her away or the part that wanted to swallow her?
In this essayistic moment, Zucker is simply trying to think through her feelings about the ocean, but when this scene is read within the context of the whole work, we can’t help but also see the ocean as a metaphor. Because throughout the rest in the book, Zucker keeps trying to understand what it means to be a mother and a writer, but also a mother and writer with no plans to have more children—and yet with the desire to have them, to keep having them. Her book, then, is itself a contemplation of the pedestrian aspects of life—like motherhood, like standing in the ocean—and how they correlate to the larger questions about life and death and meaning. In a poem near the end of the book, Zucker asks:
—how can any mother write an epic when—my
fear receding behind his small-voiced apology (a
little nodule in my right breast) safe—when I'm
so terribly interruptible
My response is that maybe you don’t write an epic. You write an essay.

6. and maybe failing

At the end of her book of essays, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes:
Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end. It’s easy to do, and I’ve done it again and again, sometimes with a betrayal of the complexity of what came before, and sometimes when I haven’t done it, an editor has asked for the gift wrap and the ribbon. What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?
What she’s asking, it seems to me (though of course you can disagree) is why we can’t accept that essays by definition fail—to conclude, at least. Stories are supposed to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Poems are known for that last line or lines, in which everything turns and paints the world anew. But essays are about process and process is not the same as product, which is to say conclusion.

Solnit’s book is fascinatingly hybrid in that it mixes literary analysis with the retelling of myth with an attempt to understand the life and slow death from Alzheimer’s of Solnit’s mother. And then running like a counter narrative to all this is a ticker tape along the bottom edge of the book with another narrative about sadness that both complements and distracts from the main one Solnit is trying to tell. Even the chapters of the book refuse to move toward some sort of pat ending. The chapter titles are a series of words that eventually mirror each other, with a “Knot” chapter in the center: Apricots, Mirrors, Ice, Flight, Breath, Wound, Knot, Unwound, Breath, Flight, Ice, Mirrors, Apricots. And so, even in this, there is the sense of circularity, of ongoingness, rather than of ending, even when we get to the ending.

Which is a failure of sorts, though now that I’ve written all this, I’m apt to revise my thoughts. Perhaps an essay is not about failure, but about incompleteness, like this baby kicking inside me. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in all its verbosity, can be the most arresting in those moments when the last sentence of a chapter just breaks off, as if in mid-thought

*
Sarah Viren is a writer and translator living in West Texas. Her essays and essay-like beasts have appeared in the Iowa Review, Guernica, TriQuarterly, The Normal School, Diagram, and others. More at sarahviren.wordpress.com.

Monday, September 19, 2016

On What Maps Might Do: A Conversation From The Editors of Territory


Nick Greer: How do you feel about maps? I ask this question often. I ask it of friends, acquaintances, and strangers; artists and non-artists; old and young. It’s not an especially hardball question, but it’s one that’s intrigued me (and my co-editor Tommy) for a while now. Intriguing, in part because I wonder why I myself am so attracted to maps, but more because the answers to this question are surprising.

The responses are surprising, but not because people have especially personal or well-considered thoughts or feelings about maps. It’s the opposite. Most people say sure, they like maps, or that they love maps, how did I know? Nobody dislikes maps, but when I press for specifics or an explanation, the responses I get aren’t exactly illuminating. The most common response is to shrug, but rarely is this to communicate nonchalance. Unable to give a good explanation, people ask me what others think, what I think, what they should think. Some divert the conversation or get defensive. Others backtrack and apologize. Some simply stare at their shoes.

In other words, people tend to behave the way we do when we’re lost, when we need a map. Territory is an attempt at making that map.


Thomas Mira y Lopez: In the course of reading up on maps before we launched Territory earlier this year, I came across this legend. It doesn’t necessarily articulate how I feel about maps (I’d most likely be staring at my shoes), but it does get at what I feel maps might do:

In 1824, the Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton visited the court of Mohammed Bello, the sultan of Sokoto and the most powerful man in western Sudan. Clapperton wanted to trace the course of the Quarra, also known as the Niger, the third longest in Africa.

European geographers had been seeking this course for centuries. The Quarra runs inland from the Guinea highlands, extending north and east over a breadth of 2,500 miles until it bends sharply—and unexpectedly—at Timbuktu and empties into the Gulf of Guinea. Rumor had it, however, that the river ran straight east until it joined the Nile. If this were the case, the Quarra would prove an invaluable tool. Colonial armies could travel inland without the prospect of becoming lost in the desert. They’d also possess a trade route to transport men and goods from the Gold Coast to the Mediterranean. In short, a great many lives depended on the knowledge of the Quarra’s path.

When Clapperton arrived in Sokoto, Sultan Bello drew the river’s course in the sand: its path north and east and then its sudden drop into Guinea’s gulf. Clapperton was thrilled and asked Sultan Bello’s permission to navigate the route. But the Sultan surprised the explorer and refused. Clapperton was unable to set off without the Sultan’s goods and men and so he remained at Sokoto, hoping in vain for a change in mind.

Clapperton was ill and a year later he would return north to Tripoli and die from yellow fever. Before he left, the Sultan provided him with a map of the Quarra’s route. But this map, Clapperton noticed, looked completely different than the line first drawn in the sand. The Quarra was once again the river of European legend. The Sultan had drawn a bold black line on the map—in reproductions of the map (only available in lo-res online, perhaps fitting given the map's history), it looks a bit like a stray hair left on a photocopy—curving down and around Sokoto and the other cities of his kingdom. Nowhere did he show its origin or its emptying out into the sea. Along the line, the Sultan wrote that this was the river “which reaches Egypt and which is called the Nile.”

                                                 

In other words, the Sultan drew a lie. And Clapperton believed the lie, or at least he accepted it, bringing the false map back to Tripoli to live on as an artifact of his daring yet never traveled adventure.


NTG: Lying is central to maps, both to its construction and its appeal. The atlas I grew up with, my mom’s own childhood atlas, was published in the early 70s, and I remember loving its anachronisms: Rhodesia, South Vietnam, the USSR. Maps that still include these countries are “wrong,” but this wrongness is charming in a way. You can decide to right the wrong by buying a new atlas, altering the old one, or simply making a mental note. Or you could leave it as is, a wrong. When I was a kid, reading my mom’s atlas, I often chose this lattermost path, choosing my own adventure, so to speak, seeing these countries as mythical and mystical, the stuff of legend. I imagined myself there, a spy or journalist among elephant poachers and puppet rulers, an exciting alternate reality to my safe suburban one.

Our fondness of maps is so often childlike--friendly and natural; curious but uninspected and unaware--and many of us have pleasant memories from childhood. Of leafing through an atlas or spinning a globe, using these maps as prompts for play and imagination. Here is where you were born. Here is where you will get married. Here is where you’ll die. And, if you don’t like what you got the first time around, you could give the globe another spin--right the wrong. I played my own versions of these games, sometimes losing entire afternoons to “reading” my mom’s atlas. I obviously loved it, but had you asked me, How do you feel about maps?, I couldn’t have offered any specifics, just that I did.

Nobody did ask me that question, not so directly at least. I encountered this and other questions over many years and in many forms. A short story about pogroms and labor camps. Movies about child soldiers, heroin smuggling. Photographs of napalm eating through skin. A childlike joy is something that can’t really be accounted for, so it’s no surprise that once you make someone account for it, it goes from childlike to childish, selfish even. Thinking back on how easy, how enjoyable it’d been to make places and their people the objects of my fantasy, I grow embarrassed. In my excitement, I had let the map become the territory, but, when made to see the territory through another map--an other’s--I realized the crassness of my own.

When you read the Clapperton story, whose sympathies and motivations are consciously gray, how did you read the Sultan? Is he naive, believing the Quarra to lie just as the legend describes, or clever, knowing Clapperton expected a hospitable and dignified, but ultimately unrefined African to somehow fail him? Or maybe a combination of the two, or neither, or something else entirely. The legend, or rather, Tommy’s version of the legend, leaves enough of these doors open that it invites the same questions about the story itself. Look at how he insists on calling it a “false map,” as if there were such a thing as a “true” map. Look at how you accepted this implication without a second thought. The story doesn’t put on airs about putting on airs--it announces itself as a legend in ways explicit and implicit--but this guilelessness is a kind of guile. It makes the story friendly and natural, inviting your uninspected curiosity, your childlike attention.

In other words, Tommy drew a lie. He and I know this, but we’re presenting this false map to you anyway, an artifact of artifice.


TMYL: Right. And the tension created by that lie is what interests us in a lot of ways at Territory. It’s after all what inspired our name (and URL): the map is not the territory. Part of our aim is to explore this tension; what happens, if you’ll excuse the pun, when we investigate the difference between the lay and the lie of the land?

You could argue most interesting writing, and most interesting essays, explores that tension. It limns the uncomfortable, often unfathomable difference between the way we conceive of the world and the way the world actually is (if we can even say the world is actually some way and not just the sum of other people’s conceptions...but that’s a rabbit hole for another day). If you put me on the spot and asked me why I like essays, that’s the closest answer I might stumble towards.

That tension--and that uncomfortable space--also pops up in the moment when a first romantic notion about maps--as child’s play, as space for the imagination--abuts against a growing awareness of their connotations. That might be as good a reason to like anything, including maps: they’re beautiful and dangerous at the same time.

I come back again and again to the story of Sultan Bello and Clapperton (a story that I picked up second hand from a book, of course, and whose holes I populate with my own thoughts) as a tool for both artifice and accuracy. I like the story because it calls attention to its mapmaker and his motivations, to his awareness of a map’s social concerns. If we see an essay or work of prose as a type of map, that is as the translation of experience into a legible construct, we can carry this parallel over to the question of who’s telling stories and setting the terms of the world today. We might start questioning our own legends: the ways we interpret a set of signs on a map and the stories so well-known their provenances becomes doubtful.

And finally I like this story because I like maps. I don’t know if I know why I like them--but I figure if they cause most of us to express fondness without being able to articulate exactly why, then that’s as good a reason as any to direct writers we admire towards them. If a map claims a territory, we want to see what happens when those writers claim the map, knowing the full effects that claiming a territory implies.




Nick Greer is a writer living in and originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and a BA in Mathematics and Music from Williams College. His chapbook, Glass City, a collection of vignettes about life in a fantastical modern city, is forthcoming in Salt Hill (2016). Find more about him here or @nickgreergkcin.

Thomas Mira y Lopez is from New York and holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. He currently lives and teaches in Athens, OH. Find him @TMiYL.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Prayer for the Lamplighter: The Little Prince as Essay

I.

The Little Prince is now streaming on Netflix, and there was a movie version in theaters. The ads on my Facebook tell me this. I recoil at the mention of The Little Prince as a movie. And I have to ask myself why. It’s not because I don’t think books can be made into compelling films or because I think the subject matter is too precious. It just doesn’t feel right to me, the way cheddar cheese with ice-cream would be horrible. Sure, the two substances have lots in common, but something in the mixing surely must be awry.

The Little Prince is, of course, a beloved children’s book that has fans who insist it’s not really for kids. An aviator gets stranded in the desert and meets an other-worldly visitor in the form of a child. The child-prince tells the aviator of his problems on his home asteroid involving a conceited rose and his travels to various other asteroids, where he meets archetypes of adults, including a king, a drunk, and a businessman. The moral of the story is something like Only with the heart can you see rightly or Grown-ups are terrible creatures.

I’m being glib here because it’s hard to explain why the book matters to so many people and I include myself as one of those people, especially because of a strange time in my life almost a year ago.

I think the main reason behind this gut reaction of Oh no no no no no for the book being a film has to do with how I think of The Little Prince. There’s a plot and characters, sure, but it reads something like an essay, especially the middle portion with the archetypical adults. And no one wants to see the film-version of an essay by Montaigne or Camus. The book is often discursive, with the Little Prince going from asteroid to asteroid, interviewing different types of grown-ups, asking them what matters. And the pilot as narrator too reads something like an essay. He is looking back on a strange time in his life, trying to make it make sense, somehow. The whole thing is colored with memory and a deep sadness.

For example, in Chapter Four, the pilot discusses how adults would be loathe to believe his story of the other-worldly visitor in the following manner:
Just so, you might say to them: "The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists." And what good would it do to tell them that? They would shrug their shoulders, and treat you like a child. But if you said to them: "The planet he came from is Asteroid B-612," then they would be convinced, and leave you in peace from their question.
Here, the narrator isn’t going over plot saying “This happened and then this other thing happened” but rather reflecting on the events as a whole. The Little Prince isn’t just the pilot telling the story; he’s reflecting back on events and looking at the act of reflecting. He is presenting a worldview here, one filled with melancholy and isolation because no one shares it with him. He presents what it means for something to be true: namely, personal experience.

It’s depressing that I think of The Little Prince this way, as an essay and not a book for children or book-for-children-but-not-really-for-children. The characters don’t seem real. An elephant inside of a boa constrictor just looks like a really stupid tattoo. And I think the Little Prince would cry, probably, if I told him he wasn’t a real character, just an matrix of thoughts and ideas. He would call me a grown-up and tell me I’m not seeing things rightly.

But it’s important that I think of the book this way, I think, because all analysis begins with description, and if you leave out that it’s at least part essay, you’ll run the risk of falling into the book, over-relating to it, acting like the book was made just for you, and buying tickets for what is most likely a very stupid movie.

II.

With the idea of The Little Prince as essay in mind, let’s take a look at one discursive part in particular, Chapter 14, where the Little Prince meets a Lamplighter and a discussion ensues.


The Little Prince said that the Lamplighter could have been his friend, of all the people he's met, because he is the only one that thinks of something other than himself. That's an odd thing to say of someone who does nothing but complain the entire time of his need for sleep. That's an odd thing to say of someone who lives on a planet where there isn't any room for other people.

I wondered what it would be like to have such a silly-looking friend, hair sticking out like frying pans on either side of his head, a scarf that goes around and around. He must have sturdy shoes, although it's hard to see in the picture, and it's not discussed. And he could have been safe in those shoes, I'd bet, roots springing from the heels, to counterbalance a planet that speeds up. He could have stood by that lamp, carrying out orders, like the stiff, clown-doll he is.

I’m inferring a lot here, and I want to learn how not to do that. Because an analysis starts with description, and what I’m describing isn’t actually in the book. The book isn’t any of the things I’m trying to make it do to make it fit a strange time in my life; it’s too much of a meditation, of a rumination, on things I can’t see rightly.

The Lamplighter said that every minute there's a sunset (light the lamp) and every minute there's a sunrise (put out the lamp). He thought he was the hero. He thought he was the hero. Carrying out orders so adroitly.

The Lamplighter's planet is so tidy and has no plants. Clean and still. My house and garden are a mess. They're full of things I don't need and don't know how to take care of. But there's big a porch with a cheap chair that isn't heavy so I can move it around when I go out there after my dinner to smoke, and sunsets are beautiful when you're sad.

But I won't cry about it. Not this time.

Someone I thought I knew well did an appalling thing where he bought me a ring. And I, who I thought I knew well, said No and Get out and I don’t love you. After four years of trying to make it work. After four years of forgiving, of over-looking everything. After I bought a huge house for us, with the big back yard so he could garden. People keep telling me that they thought we were doing fine and try to give me food and let me stay on their couch. And that's the thing, isn't it? Fine isn't enough. You can be faithful and lazy at the same time.

And when I think about The Little Prince, and what the book really is, I once again am lazy and faithful. I want Chapter 14 to to be an image of my actions, to mirror my thoughts and ways, but it doesn’t work, no matter how hard I try to narrativize and impose my own justification. I can’t pretend the essay is other than what it is, but I can’t stop myself either. I want to say I was the Lamplighter and My lover was the light and write a sort of fan-fiction for a new ending for the Lamplighter, but essays don’t really get new endings.

My arms grow tired, and I don't know how to rest. And so I make up a new ending anyways, and pretend the book is a story so I can sleep better. I soothe my conscience through a false interpretation. And in the end, I’m no better than the filmmakers who’ve tried to make movie-versions of the book that eludes a simple transposition from book-narrative to film-narrative.

The ending for Chapter 14 that I wrote is this:

My hope, my prayer, for the Lamplighter, is that maybe a flock of birds will come for him too, like they did for the Little Prince. He'll jump up and hitch a ride to Earth, ridiculous scarf flying out behind him.

He will feel like he's lurching towards an abyss. He will feel like he's been bit by a snake for his abandonment. He will sit in train-stations and villages and desert places and feel like a piece of shit. He will call himself a cunt when he is very drunk, with all his friends around him in a very public bar. They will all say Shhh, Nadia, don’t call yourself that. He will have to learn about numbers and figures and maps and matters of no consequence.

But maybe, just maybe, if he can see rightly, he will meet a great astronomer (in Turkish robes) who will tell him about spin. How if an object is weighed down, it slows down. Picture a large top, the astronomer will say. Now glue a small object on the side, such as a snail or coin. The top careens off-course and doesn't go as fast as it ought.

And then the Lamplighter will think of his planet and that lamp he used to care for. And perhaps the planet is spinning a little faster every year, gathering much more speed without him and his rooted shoes. Soon, the planet will flicker like a candle between sunrise and sunset. Flickering faster and faster still, shorter amounts of time between sunrise and sunset. Soon, all will be light.

*

Nadia Wolnisty is a poet and performer in Dallas, Texas. Her work as appeared in several small, independent magazines. She can be seen performing with Bonehouse, Common Company, Dark Moon Poetry Arts, Mad Swirl, and Poets on X+. She doesn't like it when people include information about their pets in their bios.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Wren Awry on Cleveland, Mike Golden, and d.a. levy


On reading Mike Golden’s “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun (the life, legend, and mysterious death of d.a. levy)” 

[Content warning: This essay mentions suicide throughout.]

When I was seventeen, I found The Outlaw Bible of American Essays at the local Barnes and Noble. The anthology’s cover had a shiny copper background and, printed over it, in small black letters, were the names of authors included in the volumenames like bell hooks, Michelle Tea, Annie Sprinkle, Ben Fong-Torres, Eileen Myles, and Eldridge Cleaver. It was a particularly crucial time in my development as a writerafter I started writing creative nonfiction but before I knew the genre actually existed (I called my pieces on the history of Bust Magazine; my favorite diner, The Star; and character sketches of people I knew “journalism,” although I was more interested in pontificating and description than cold, hard fact); and those small black names carried a certain mystique. I didn’t know any of them, but I wanted to. I wanted them to tell me strange, sad and humorous stories and to show me how I could replace my five paragraphs essays and who/what/when/where/whys with weirder, more interesting ways of writing nonfiction. I bought the book.

I loved Myles’ “Everyday Barf,” about sestinas, protesting Fox News and a galley of pukers on a ferry to Provincetown (it includes the killer line, “The boat was rocking and the people were puking and it was her gift to me”). I liked James Sullivan’s piece on 1950s teenagers in the popular imaginationwhich I mostly remember as an essay about blue jeansand the portraits and accompanying text in Fly’s Peops series, which captured the characters of New York City’s bohemian Lower East Side (I grew up in a nearby suburb). I was titillated by Sprinkle’s description of a sex club in the 1970s, and inspired by hooks’ treatise “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” But my favorite essay in the anthology was Mike Golden’s “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun,” a biographical piece on 1960s countercultural poet d.a. levy.

I was predisposed to like “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun.” In elementary school, I devoured Young Adult biographies about people like Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Tubman, and Annie Oakley; I also read books on Buddhism, the belief system of my favorite teacher, an eccentric who kept a houseful of pets, walked with a limp because of a llama bite, and had, at some point, helped smuggle monks out of Chinese-occupied Tibet. By the time I was in high school, my interests had shifted to the poems of Rimbaud and the films of Jean-Luc Godard (I think I was searching for something in the cool, androgynous masculinity of Rimbaud’s smudged portrait and French New Wave cinema, trying to find my own queerness in those sad boy templates because they were what I knew). I was also a bright-eyed young anarchist, leading discussion groups on feminism and dancing to three-chord punk bands at the local center for peace and justice.

“Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun” appealed to this stratum of interests. levya Jewish-American influenced by the Beats, Buddhism, and the incendiary politics of the erawrote poems with lines like, “If you want a revolution // return to your childhood // and kick out the bottom.” And his biography felt downright Rimbaudian: discharged from the Navy for manic depression, he was put on trial for obscenity after reading his poetry in the presence of two high school students and, at twenty-six, purportedly shot himself in the head using a gun nestled between his knees.

He was also a small publisher. According to Golden, levy’s Seven Flowers Press and his periodicals, The Marrahwanna Quarterly and The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle, “published scores of poets, writers, and artists, [from 1963-1968] as well as many unknown from all over the underground press circuit, such as Charles Bukowski, R. Crumb, and Ed Sanders, to name but a few who went on to achieve acclaim.” My literary heroes at age seventeen were zinesters like Aaron Cometbus and Cindy Crabb, who self-published their writing via photocopied pamphlets and became punk legends for doing it well year in and year out. The romance of levy bent over mimeographed newspaper sheets and handbound books grabbed mein my teenage daydreams, this was who I wanted to be.

It was levy’s publishing that got him in trouble. “From the start his mimeoed poetry and underground newspaper stuck in the craw of the sleepy city fathers,” Golden writes, “He used language that Cleveland had never seen in print before … went directly after the real estate interests, after the police and the narcs, and became the most visible figure in Cleveland’s burgeoning youth culture.” In December of 1966, the Asphodel Bookshop, where most of levy’s publications were housed, was raided to collect evidence against levy. A trial followed, and both The Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press covered it, and levy, sympathetically (of his growing fame during the trial, and his discomfort with that fame, levy wrote, “i certainly don’t want to be reborn into a world where everyone is attempting to imitate a foul-mouthed saint”a line that is as brilliant as it is narcissistic). levy was let off the hook for a time but, Golden writes, “on March 18, 1967, levy was arrested at his apartment and charged with five counts of contributing to the delinquency of minorsspecifically for reading so-called obscene poetry at The Gate, in the presence of a seventeen-year-old boy levy has published … and a fifteen-year-old girl.” Even after those proceedings wrapped uplevy pled no contest, paid a $200 fine, and agreed to probationhis feisty-but-capricious spirit had, according to his contemporaries, been pretty much due-processed out of him. “Cleveland has a ‘Subversive Squad,’ going back to the McCarthy era … Today we can almost laugh about it, but back then it was like being under the thumb of the Nazis,” Franklin Osinski told Golden. “He was a scared, little worried guy, and we really had a deal where he wouldn’t have to go to jail,” levy’s lawyer, Gerald Gold added, “So we finally made a deal, which in retrospect I’m sorry we made. Because I think as long as he had this fight he probably would have stayed alive.”

These descriptions of how the obscenity trials impacted levy and his community of friends felt personal and visceral, a far cry from the Wikipedia articles on Students for a Democratic Society and 1960s feminism that had, up until that time, fed my burgeoning interest in radical history. As I read about a teenage girl sneaking a tape recorder into a reading to entrap levy, and levy writing, to a friend, "...the cia fbi are going to get me for something (burn this letter)," I felt for him, felt the mounting pressure on all sides, so tight all around that it felt like he couldn’t escape.

*

I lost my original copy of the book, then forgot about it until, at age twenty-three or so, I came across a copy at the public library where I was living in North Carolina. On my second read of The Outlaw Bible of American Essays, I was aware of things I hadn’t been before, like the Camp Trans protests outside of the Michigan Women’s Festival that Michelle Tea writes about in “Transmissions from Camp Trans.” I was also closer to some of the worlds described in the anthology: I’d briefly crossed paths with Annie Sprinklewe were both working on ecological issues in Appalachia, bawled on the Subway while reading bell hooks’ Belonging: A Culture of Place, and had some New York City friends who were drawings and stories in Fly’s Peops series. As I re-read “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun,” I was attentive to levy’s privileges as a white, male poet in the 1960s. levy seemed less tragic and more like the person that Steve Ferguson describes as “a pretty vain guy” in Golden’s textself-absorbed and self-pitying. And I couldn’t help but notice that when Golden introduces Dagmar, levy’s controversial girlfriend (the girlfriends of worshipped dead men always seem to be controversial, don’t they?) he describes her as “Fresh out of Cleveland Heights High, with the look of a working class Madonna.” Innocent and beautiful, like all worthwhile girls who don’t happen to be geniusesalthough who’s to say she wasn’t, or couldn’t have been.

But I was still, against my better judgement and anarcho-feminist values, drawn to the piece. That time around, I found myself reading it as an essay about Cleveland, a city I’d come to know. Reading “...Darryl Allen Levy first became known to other Cleveland poets as d.a. levy while he was living in a grungy garrett overlooking the Cuyahoga River and the Cleveland Flats;” I recalled driving through the Flats one icy midnight with a friend who grew up in the city. We wove through the narrow streets, crisscrossed by a tightly-packed network of train tracks and lined with steel mills while, a few blocks over, the LTV Cleveland Works’ smokestock shot its nightly flame into the pollution-purple sky. When levy associate Tony Walsh tells Golden, “When the Hough riots broke out levy was in the middle of it, trying to bring it altogether,” I thought about how, a year and a half after that drive through the Flats, I squeaked on a half-broken bike through Hough, riding with a friend to the sprawling urban farmhouse where they lived. My friend pointed out abandoned buildingsI remember one apartment complex in particular, a stone edifice with boarded-up windowsand told me they’d been that way since the riots, that the city hadn’t bother to fix them ever since the black, working-class neighborhood rose up against a racist police force and white business class in 1966. (Of course, like levythough he might have felt like he was in the middle of itI’m white, and the Hough Riots aren’t my struggle to claim. My bike ride through Hough gave me a deeper understanding of systemic racismand resistance to that racismin this country, but it’s a system that, as a white citizen, I implicitly benefit from.)

Cleveland is what killed levy, Golden suggests again and again throughout the essay: “Maybe if he had gotten out of Cleveland, he wouldn’t have been swallowed by the times … his reputation and work would have already transcended the boundaries of a regional underground cult figure.” Golden mentions that many of levy’s contemporaries left Cleveland in the years after levy’s death, frequently for the milder climes and often milder politics of California. levy, too, was tryingor said he was tryingto move away. “levy was supposedly getting out of Cleveland, coming to California, when his body was found,” Golden writes, based on conversations with the poet D.R. Wagner, who levy was in correspondence with. But the poet’s plans were always ephemeral and reluctant. levy wrote to Wagner: “i am not hung up on cleveland and haven’t been for a whileit is just that i am here and can get things done here.” Salomon added, “He was going to stick around Cleveland and make a point,” as though making a point was the only reason to stay in that harsh steel town at the southern edge of Lake Erie.

My world had grown bigger in the years since I first read "Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun." Cleveland was no longer an imaginary landscape but a place I knew, a charming Rust Belt city with a bustling central market and a cast of Rodin’s The Thinker that had been partially blown up by the Weatherman. Golden doesn’t seem to share my pleasant opinion of the town: he describes Cleveland as nothing more than a murderera soul-sucking, police state of a city. But he sees Cleveland, and that seeing held me enraptured until the last page.

*

I revisited the essay for a third time just recently (at age twenty-seven, if you’re keeping track), after I lent a friend my latest copy of The Outlaw Bible of American Essays and, upon returning it to me, she mentioned liking “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun." It was, once again, good timing: I’d just finished up edits on a biographical project of my own, a zine about Geneviève Hamon, a little known scientist and filmmaker in 20th century France. I’d also returned to school and had spent two semesters in nonfiction workshops, picking apart well-known essays and trying to make my own sturdy enough that they wouldn’t fall over at the first sign of critique. As I opened to page 153 of the anthology and fell, once again, into Golden's prose, I found myself de-constructing the essay as I read it. It became less of a biography and more of a comment on biography as a genre, and on the desire to make sense of conflicting pieces of a person's life. I also found that, once again, the character I was most interested in had changed. It was no longer levy, or the clanking, industrial streets of Clevelandthe most interesting character was Golden himself.

Based on his biographical paragraph at the back of the anthology, I know Golden's “a poet, journalist, novelist, filmmaker and award-winning playwright and screenwriter” who “through his book, The Buddhist Third-Class Junk Mail Oracle: the art and poetry of d.a. levy, has done more than any other person to preserve the legacy of d.a. levy and garner for the Cleveland poet the admiration he assuredly deserves.” In his entry in the Poets & Writers’ Directory, his only listed book is the one about levy, although he’s been much anthologized. Smoke Signals, the online magazine Golden runs, describes itself as: "An alternative lit-magazine. Witty, sexy, and off-beat, Smoke Signals features underground pop culture from the 1970’s to the present while waxing philosophical on some of the more controversial topics from the news.” From the information I've quickly gathered, I can guess that Golden is older, counter-cultural, and into the Beats and the descendents of the Beatsanything else I know about him comes from “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun” itself. Andbecause he talks so little about himself in thatwhat I can draw from it mostly is his obsession with levy and with puzzling together the circumstances of levy’s death.

Even if there are answers about how, and why, levy died, Golden believes they’re unlikely to be found. In the first paragraph, he writes: “There never has been enough to go around. The right questions aren’t asked. Meaningful answers never appear. Even words get lost.” And in the second: “levy’s story is a modern Rashomon, filled with the contradictions illuminating the dichotomies that appear on the path of the warrior artist.”

While Golden never returns to the kind of heavy-handed rumination that fills the essay’s first few pages, his opening words form a kind of prism through which, at least for me, the rest of the essay is read. The essay itself is constructed as an editorialized oral history, with snippets of interviews from levy’s contemporariesRussell Salomon, R. Crumb, D.R. Wagnerarguing over everything from levy’s sense of humor (D.R. Wagner says he had one, R. Crumb says he didn’t) to his relationship with Dagmar (“I had gotten to the point where I was really not happy with our relationship,” Dagmar tells Golden, “and when he came back [from a residency in Madison] I wasn’t living at our place anymore.”). Golden’s selection and arrangement of interviews drives the narrative towards one question: What happened to d.a. levy in the end? Did he shoot himself with a pistol cradled between his knees or was he killed by a close friend or the government or did someone witness his suicide but, fearful of being implicated, refuse to own up to it? (“I think it’s … possible the suicide happened in rjs’s presencethat he locked up the room and came back two or three days later with a witness,” Ferguson tells Golden. rjs himself, while not admitting to being present, buys the suicide theory: “Why’d he do it? … He left Cleveland! That was the whole point, he left Cleveland … He left. He went to Israel. Get it?”)

I wonder why Golden went down this route, collecting everything he could about a mystery he didn’t think he could solve. Maybe Golden thought, at the beginning, that he could find answers, and by the time he realized they weren’t there he was already obsessed. Or maybe Golden went looking for himself in levy’s biography. There’s something alluring about stepping into another life and trying to reconstruct itit’s a little like trying to polish a scuffed up funhouse mirror. Who could I have been, if I were not me but them? And then there’s the wonderment over the puzzle pieces themselves, the different conflicting shards the writer picks up and can’t quite fit together.

For my essay on Hamon, I wasn’t able to conduct extensive interviews or drive around her old stomping grounds (the Breton coast of France)I was dependent on published writing and was mostly piecing my subject together through mentions of her in writing about other people. There are things I'll never uncover about Hamonshe’s little documentedand part of my essay is about being alright with that. Part of it, too, is about my obsession with this person, my drive to rescue her from obscurity despite the fact that she might not have wanted to be rescued (Hamon may well have been, as a correspondent told me over email, "a rather modest person who never made the headlines"). I'm fascinated by this unknowability and so, I'm willing to guess, is Goldenhe has, after all, devoted much of his life to a conflictual dead poet who left behind a heap of mystery.

“Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun” is a sort of anti-biographynot the oversimplified, 192-page Annie Oakley: Young Markswoman I read when I was eleven, nor the bestsellers branded with the airbrushed smiles of politicians, but something messier and more honest. levy’s life has more speculation in it than verifiable fact; the stories told about him don’t quite fit together (which is true, maybe, of most lives). Golden doesn’t try to come up with answers where there aren’t any to be found, doesn’t strive for a neat summation, but dwells in the confusion. The confusion and the unknowing are the story.

Golden believes, as I believe, that there is something to be found in the mess. “Even words get lost,” he writes, “Lost words, wild words without a home wander endlessly for years, sometimes lifetimes, before they resurface to make an impression on a public of a different time.” As a keeper of levy’s legacy, it’s easy to assume that the “words” Golden’s referring to are levy’s poems. But maybe, too, he's referring to the words that he’s collected from others about levy’s life and deathmaybe there’s something to be found not just in wild, confusing, electric poetry but also in wild, confusing, electric biography. What that is, exactly, is up to you and I to decide.

*
Wren Awry lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona. They edit Tiny Donkey (a short-form journal of fairy tale nonfiction), make zines, and occasionally publish their writing in places like Essay Daily, The Anarcho-Geek Review, filmmakermagazine.com, the Fairy Tale Review blog, and Rust + Moth. Their zine Luminous Interferences: Locating Geneviève Hamon is forthcoming from Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness just as soon as they get a chance to incorporate new information that’s recently come to light.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Int'l Essayists: Colin Hosten - Home and Back Again, with V.S. Naipaul


Home and Back Again: The Immigrant Perspective
A Conversation with V.S. Naipaul


It seems deceptively trivial for essays by and about non-American writers to be anchored by themes of immigration, home, and belonging. We may not be from here, but here, especially as it might be similar to or different from there, still consumes us. To be fair, though, it’s not just us: the majority of our readers in the U.S. are, after all, American. The idea of belonging, what it means to have a place to call one’s own, is one that transcends nationality and ethnicity. We all know there’s no place like home. And perhaps that is why we turn to the non-American writer time and again to help us explore such themes in literature. Immigrants tend to have a particular eye and sensibility for parsing the vicissitudes of place. We often live in two places at once: the place where we exist physically, and the one we conjure in our mind’s eye whenever someone asks, “No, where are you from?” which itself may not be real place that exists in the known universe, but rather some contortion of the space between where we live and where we were born. You can observe this dichotomy among every stripe of immigrant in the U.S., even the Canadian, but it is especially poignant when this sense of duality is also reflected in the language. The immigrant speaks English—very articulately, at that—at work, at school, among friends and neighbors, then switches to her native tongue inside the house, with family, on the phone with relatives. A sometimes unconscious code-switch that acts like an instantaneous teleportation device.

When I left Trinidad at eighteen to go to school in Atlanta, I had only a vague, if persistent, sense that I would not be returning “home” anytime soon; yet I still found myself seeking solace in literature that echoed the sounds and expressions of my homeland. English is the official language of Trinidad in the same way that it is an official language of Wales; it’s difficult to follow along if you’re not from there. The particular flavor of the local accent and dialect is even more tricky to capture in writing, which is part of what makes V.S. Naipaul such a singular writer. He is not the only one to tell compelling stories using Trinidadian patois, but for me, he was the first, particularly striking at age eleven, when my literary explorations had thitherto revolved around foreign people living in foreign places, to read the seminal book Miguel Street and recognize in characters such as Bogart, Eddoes, and Titus Hoyt, people I might encounter around the corner.

I returned to Miguel Street many times in college, but found that sense of recognition increasingly complicated by a more sophisticated literary awareness that made it harder to separate Naipaul the writer from Naipaul the person. He has a somewhat complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature (some lay claim to Derek Walcott, who, though born in St. Lucia, lived in Trinidad, and married a Trinidadian). Yet Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth, professing fealty instead to England, where he migrated after leaving Trinidad at the age of eighteen, like I did. (We won’t even get into some of his more colorful statements regarding gender here.) They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes; perhaps you shouldn’t read their promotional interviews either. Suffice it to say that reading Naipaul now left me feeling more disconnected. I couldn’t understand how someone who wrote so beautifully could say such ugly things.

I found some of the answers I was looking for in his nonfiction, which I didn’t discover until well into adulthood. The Middle Passage in particular, his essential travelogue about Trinidad and the West Indies, reminded me of a series of essays I wrote in graduate school about my own ambivalence about where I’m from. The first essay in that series, called “Homeland,” begins with the line, “I don’t think I can ever go home again,” and charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” Perhaps, in this regard, I could find some common ground with Naipaul after all. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up the oil and natural gas industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

That’s my rationale, anyway—what about Naipaul? How does he account for the severity of the statements he has made and written about the island of his birth? In The Middle Passage, Naipaul has captured some of the finer notes of the angst, anguish, and ambivalence almost every immigrant experiences at some point in trying to reconcile the old country with the new, so why don’t we just ask him, and let him answer in his own words:


CH: You use an epigraph in The Middle Passage from James Anthony Froude, who writes, “There are no people [in the West Indies] in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own.” Do you agree with some of your critics that you have been unnecessarily harsh in your depiction of the West Indies?
VSN: Nothing was created in the British West Indies, no civilization as in Spanish America, no great revolution as in Haiti or the American colonies. There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect: the size of the islands called for nothing else.
CH: But is that all there is to it? Is there any historical context can help us understand the present?
VSN: How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historian adopt? Shall he be as academic as Sir Alan Burns, … setting West Indian brutality in the context of European brutality? … The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.
CH: You were created in the West Indies, in Trinidad. Can you find nothing in Trinidad’s history worth exploring?
VSN: Outside the Royal Victoria Institute in Port of Spain an anchor, still in good condition, stands embedded in concrete, and a sign says this might be the anchor Columbus lost during his rough passage into the Gulf of Paria. So much, one might say, for the history of Trinidad for nearly three hundred years after its discovery…. In Trinidad society never hardened around the institution of slavery as it had done in the other West Indian islands; there was no memory of bitterly suppressed revolts.
CH: You’re referring to the fact that Trinidad was colonized by the British shortly before they ended the slave trade, which accounts for the influx of “immigrant” workers from India, China, and the Middle East.
VSN: In the immigrant society, memories growing dim, there was no guiding taste. As you rose you evolved your own standards, and they were usually those of modernity.
CH: Modernity?
VSN: Trinidad considers itself, and is acknowledged by the other West Indian territories to be, modern. It has night clubs, restaurants, air conditioned bars, supermarkets, soda fountains, drive-in cinemas, and a drive-in bank. But modernity in Trinidad means a little more. It means constant alertness, a willingness to change, a readiness to accept anything which films, magazines, and comic strips appear to indicate as American…. To be modern is to ignore local products and to use those advertised in American magazines. The excellent coffee which is grown in Trinidad is used only by the very poor and a few middle-class English expatriates. Everyone else drinks Nescafe or Maxwell House or Chase and Sanborn, which is more expensive but is advertised in magazines and therefore acceptable.
CH: Does this, then, create a double standard? You are admonished for criticizing local culture, yet locals flock to foreign products whenever they can?
VSN: For a long time in Trinidad there has been a campaign against poems about daffodils—daffodils in particular—because daffodils are not flowers Trinidad schoolchildren know…. To the Trinidadian mind, however, no absurdity attaches to the presence of being American in Trinidad; and while much energy has been spent in the campaign against Wordsworth, no one has spoken out against the fantasy which Trinidadians live out every day of their lives.
CH: Which fantasy is that?
VSN: The Negro in the New World was, until recently, unwilling to look at his past. It seemed to him natural that he should be in the West Indies, that he should speak French or English or Dutch, dress in the European manner or in adaptation of it, and share the European’s religion and food. Travel-writers who didn’t know better spoke of him as a “native,” and he accepted this…. Africa was forgotten…. This was the greatest damage done to the Negro by slavery. It taught him self-contempt. It set him the ideals of white civilization and made him despise every other…. Twenty million Africans made the middle passage, and scarcely an African name remains in the New World…
“The creole slaves,” says a writer of 1805, “looked upon the newly imported Africans with scorn, and sustained in their turn that of the mulattoes, whose complexions were browner; while all were kept at a distance from the intercourse of the whites.”
CH: Should Trinidadians examine their own prejudices before becoming self-righteous about yours?
VSN: Grenada, immemorially, has been as funny a word in Trinidad as Wigan is in England…. The attitudes to immigrants are the same the world over—the stories about West Indians in England (“twenty-four to a room”) are exactly matched by the stories about Grenadians and others in Trinidad. 
Modernity in Trinidad, then, turns out to be the extreme susceptibility of people who are unsure of themselves and, having no taste or style of their own, are eager for instruction.
CH: This is not endemic to Trinidad or the West Indies, is it?
VSN: West Indians are English-speaking and when confronted with the foreigner display the language arrogance of all English-speaking people.

Naipaul’s responses bear the characteristic cleverness and authority of someone who sees himself as rational and impartial. His writing is self-aware, precise, allowing the readers to infuse their own judgments, humor, irony. He is above the moral whims of other human beings. Or is he?

CH: You’ve written than on your return to the island in 1960, as soon as the ship docked at the quay, you began to feel an “old fear” rise up.
VSN: I was distressed, not so much by the familiarity, as by the feeling of continuation. The years I had spent abroad fell away and I could not be sure which was the reality in my life: the first eighteen years in Trinidad or the later years in England.
CH: What was so distressing? What were you afraid of?
VSN: I had never examined this fear of Trinidad. I had never wished to…. I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical. The only professions were those of law and medicine, because there was no need for any other; and the most successful people were commission agents, bank managers, and members of the distributive trades. Power was recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society which denied itself heroes.
CH: And you, the writer, were not considered a hero…
VSN: Such skills were not required by a society which produced nothing, never had to prove its worth, and was never called upon to be efficient. And such people had to be cut down to size or, to use the Trinidadian expression, be made to “boil down.” Generosity—the admiration of equal for equal—was therefore unknown; it was a quality I knew only from books and found only in England.
CH: The island enjoys a burgeoning literary scene today—do you think there is newfound space and regard for writing as a vocation?
VSN: Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands. Here the West Indian writers have failed. Most have so far only reflected and flattered the prejudices of their race or colour groups…. To the initiated, one whole side of West Indian writing has little to do with literature, and much to do with the race war.
CH: Again, this seems harsh. Aren’t you implicating yourself as a writer with that indictment?
VSN: No writer can be blamed for reflecting his society. If the West Indian writer is to be blamed, it is because, by accepting and promoting the unimpressive race-and-colour values of his group, he has not only failed to diagnose the sickness of his society but has aggravated it.
CH: You’ve written extensively about race relations in Trinidad, indicating that you identify more with your Indian ancestors than with the island of your birth. How much did that factor in to you wanting to leave?
VSN: We were of various races, religious, sets, and cliques; and we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island. Nothing bound us together except this common residence. There was no nationalist feeling; there could be none. There was no profound anti-imperialist feeling; indeed, it was only our Britishness, our belonging to the British Empire, which gave us any identity.
CH: Is that why so many Trinidadians flocked to England in the 1950s and ’60s?
VSN: Pursuing the Christian-Hellenic tradition, the West Indian… never seriously doubted the validity of the prejudices of the culture to which he aspired. In the French territories he aimed at Frenchness, in the Dutch territories at Dutchness; in the English territories he aimed at simple whiteness and modernity, Englishness being impossible.
CH: Yet you identify as English now…
VSN: With the emphasis on America, English things are regarded as old-fashioned and provincial.
CH: Well, it can come off a little stodgy compared to the warm, tropical climate in Trinidad…
VSN: Columbus… had discovered, he wrote Ferdinand and Isabella, the approaches of the terrestrial paradise.
CH: And what did you discover, on your return trip in 1960?
VSN: It seemed to me that I was seeing the landscape for the first time. I had hated the sun and the unchanging seasons. I had believed that the foliage had no variety and could never understand how the world “tropical” held romance for so many. Now I was taken by the common coconut tree, the cliché of the Caribbean…. I had never liked the sugarcane fields. Flat, treeless, and hot, they stood for everything I had hated about the tropics and the West Indies… Now, in the uneven land of Central and South Trinidad, I saw that even sugar cane could be beautiful.

His descriptions cut to the heart of a longing I have not quite been able to express since leaving my homeland. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…

CH: Absence, it seems, can make the heart grow fonder…
VSN: Everyone has to learn to see the West Indies tropics for himself.
CH: Could you ever go back, now that you’ve learned to see it for yourself?
VSN: Trinidad was and remains a materialist immigrant society, continually growing and changing, never settling into any pattern, always retaining the atmosphere of a history of enduring brutality, in the absence of a history; yet not an expanding society but a colonial society, ruled autocratically if benevolently, with the further limitations of its small size and remoteness. All this has combined to give its special character, its ebullience and irresponsibility. And more: a tolerance which is more than tolerance: an indifference to virtue as well as vice. The Land of the Calypso is not a copywriter’s phrase…. If curiosity is a characteristic of the cosmopolitan, the cosmopolitanism on which Trinidad prides itself is fraudulent.
CH: You don’t believe the island has made any genuine progress?
VSN: This sophisticated play-acting is part of that Trinidad taste for fantasy, which finds its full bacchanalian expression on the two days of Carnival.
CH: In Carnival, at least, there is a legitimate claim to a festival that sets a world standard?
VSN: It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality. The calypso is a purely local form. No song composed outside of Trinidad is a calypso. The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider. Wit and verbal conceits are fundamental; without them no song, however good the music, however well sung, can be judged a calypso. A hundred foolish travel-writers and a hundred “calypsonians” in all parts of the world have debased the form, which is now generally dismissed abroad as nothing more than a catchy tune with a primitive jingle in broken English… For this bastardization Trinidadians are as much to blame as anyone. Just as they take pleasure in their American modernity, so they take pleasure in living up to the ideals of the tourist brochure. They know that they are presented to the world as the land of calypso and steel band. They are determined that the world shall not be disappointed; and their talent for self-caricature is profound. The Americans expect native costumes and native dances; Trinidad will discover both. Few words are used more frequently in Trinidad than “culture.” Culture is spoken of as something quite separate from day-to-day existence… It is like a special native dish, something like a callaloo. Culture is a dance—not the dance that people do when more than three of them get together—but the one put on in native costume on stage…. Culture is, in short, a night-club turn. And nothing pleases Trinidadians so much as to see their culture being applauded by white American tourists in night-clubs.

I have to admit that some of this “culture” played a part in my leaving the island, specifically the culture of homophobia. This is where I think I can begin to understand Naipaul’s stoic stance, even as I sympathize with the reactive indignation of my fellow countrymen.

CH: You’ve written about “the need to escape” Trinidad, something I felt keenly as a gay teenager. Whenever I get nostalgic—about the food, the weather, the landscape, my family—I remember that I would not be able to live my life as a married, gay man there. It can be at once frustrating and heartbreaking, feeling that you can never really go home.
VSN: There is no set way in Trinidad of doing anything. Every house can be a folly. There is no set way of dressing or cooking or entertaining. Everyone can live with whoever he can get wherever he can afford. Ostracism is meaningless; the sanctions of any clique can be ignored. It is in this way, and not in the way of the travel brochure, that the Trinidadian is a cosmopolitan. He is adaptable; he is cynical; having no rigid social conventions of his own, he is amused by the conventions of others. He is a natural anarchist… If the Trinidadian has no standards of morality he is without the greater corruption of sanctimoniousness, and can never make pleas for intolerance in the name of piety…. Everything that makes the Trinidadian an unreliable, exploitable citizen makes him a quick, civilized person whose values are always human ones, whose standards are only those of wit and style.
CH: I will say I’ve seen great strides toward more inclusiveness in the past twenty years. I think legislative progress will continue to be slow and labored, but general attitudes have become much more accepting and understanding of difference.
VSN: Change must come from the top. Capital punishment and corporal punishment, incitements to brutality, must be abolished. The civil service must be rejuvenated…. The need to be efficient will change some of these attitudes. An efficient civil service is in some ways a considerate civil service.

I feel as though I understand the man on a more nuanced level now. Does his prose sting a little to those who may not want to reflect on its meaning? Sure. Is the sting of him being right, at least on some level, even more discomfiting? Absolutely.

CH: Thank you. You get your share of flak for being outspoken against Trinidad, yet there are so many citizens like you, like me, who have left the island with no intent to return. We live, as immigrants tend to, a dual life, our minds existing in a place where our feet were not born, so that we sometimes feel unanchored, unsure of even whether the life we live now exists in the same universe as the one we left behind.
VSN: Port of Spain is the noisiest city in the world. Yet it is forbidden to talk…. In a private home as soon as anyone starts to talk the radio is turned on. It must be loud, loud. If there are more than three, dancing will begin. Sweat-sweat-dance-dance-sweat. Loud, loud, louder. If the radio isn’t loud enough, a passing steel band will be invited in. Jump-jump-sweat-sweat-jump…. In the street people conduct conversations at a range of twenty yards or more; and even when they are close to you their voices have a vibrating-fork edge. You will realize this only after you have left Trinidad: the voices in British Guiana will sound unnaturally low, and for the first day or so whenever anyone talks to you, you will lean forward conspiratorially, for what is being whispered is, you feel, very secret. In the meantime, dance, dance, shout above the shuffle. If you are silent the noise will rise to a roar about you. You cannot shout loud enough. Your words seem to be issuing from behind you. You have been here only an hour, but you feel exhausted. Your head is bursting. It is only eleven; the party is just warming up. You are being rude, but you must go. 
You drive up the new Lady Young Road, and the diminishing noise makes it seem cooler. You get to the top and look out at the city glittering below you, amber and exploding blue on black, the ships in the harbour in the background, the orange flames issuing from the oil derricks far out in the Gulf of Paria. For a moment it is silent. Then, above the crickets, whose stridulation you hadn’t noticed, you begin to hear the city: the dogs, the steel bands…. All through the night the dogs will go on, in a thousand inextricably snarled barking relays, rising and falling, from street to street and back again, from one end of the city to another. And you will wonder how you stood it for eighteen years, and whether it was always like this.



Colin Hosten is an expatriate writer, because that sounds fancier than immigrant. His work has appeared most recently in The Essay Review, OUT Magazine, and Spry Literary Journal. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he currently lives with his husband in Connecticut, where he is a children’s book editor and a lecturer in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. See more at colinhosten.com. Find him on Twitter @colinhosten.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and is curating this Int'l Essayists column. He would love any suggestions, thoughts, comments: @craigreinbold @essayingdaily