Tuesday, March 1, 2011


For those of us who have never experienced the anus-cleansing power of real Buddhism, this essay is a revelation. Here is my personal epiphany: "ethnic" literature, by which I mean literature written in English for consumption by anglophones about ethnic minorities, is generally in the form of either 1) a confession, or 2) a commercial.

As an American by birth and lifetime consumer of coagulated masses of day-glo orange "pad thai," I know that the most palatable way to get Americans to eat something is to present it as a down-home recipe, representative of an entire culture, but brought to us nevertheless by a lovable stereotype. In other cases, its a sly huckster, versed in our culture, but tempting us to enjoy some sinful indulgence or freakish thrill. Jenny Boully's "A Short Essay on Being" manages to employ neither of those approaches 99 per cent of the time, making it–to date–the most successful essay nominally about "ethnic food," which is at least as prestigious a title as "Winner of the Essay Prize 2010."

Boully's narrative runs with the metaphor of food as constituent of its consumers. In her world you truly are what you eat, and the only impediment to understanding is a certain lack of taste, both literally and culturally. In the scene wherein the narrator is (finally) "recognized" as Thai, we find out Boully's husband, is not a "good husband," because he is apparently Thai, or apparently German-Italian, but because he has taken upon himself to involve himself the ingredients which go into a given dish, rather than simply allowing himself to be served. The young ladies of the dormitory, Pretty-boy" Justin, and the "real Buddhist" are all here (both in the piece and, apparently, on the earth) to be served, and to dispose of their utensils as they please.

In "on Being," as in the Thai language, the emphasis is on "sound and inflection." Boully's tone acts as a companion and illustration of the cultural skirmishes of the piece, and vice versa. This is most apparent in her handling of the word "pad," but also in her repeated assertions of her own Thai "authenticity." Her repeated decision to act politely and quietly rather than to engage in argument with her detractors is "the Thai way." By these assertion, she both places us in the position of identifying with her frustration and disappointment, and makes it increasingly difficult for us to question her authenticity, that is, her ability to represent herself. Her silence is not the hush of defeat, but the quiet, and not infrequently derisive laughter of the genuine article. Her narrative and cultural authority become dually established by the same subtle movements of apparent non-contention, punctuated (I'm thinking here of the man who makes his girlfriend "douche with lavender oil and get abortions.") by moments of controlled violence.

Boully's snapshot scenes pose for us not only the question of her own identity, but that of everyone who comes in contact with her. The "real Buddhist," as Boully refers to him, would be lost without the hyper-authenticity her apparent submission to him implies. He would, at the risk of spelling it out, simply be another American tourist who'd allowed one or several persons to sodomize him with a water-hose. For those of us who recognize sodomy as its own reward, this may seem strange, until we remember that the experience alone is not sufficient for this man unless it is somehow authenticated. This authentication process is revealed to us by Boully as requiring nothing but bluster and ironclad ignorance, though the implication is that this man, and many like him would spend their own lives, and hers, to protect it.

Boully's language play is infectious. Her "pot-see-you," instantly brought to mind (for me) the expression "pot calling the kettle black," which has always confounded me. Are not both the pot and the kettle black from being over (what I presume is) an open flame? Perhaps the kettle is kept elsewhere...but if the kettle happen to be black, is this expression anything other than propaganda? A type of hypocrisy of hypocrisy? Maybe I'm over-thinking it. I recall my first grade teacher telling me that people who looked like me, in a continent she had never been to, ate nothing but bananas and peanut butter. To her, Africa was not only the largest country in the world, as it is to so many Americans, but also a means of affirming her identity–and in this case her authority–as a pedagogue. I recall eyeing the treat she'd had the whole class prepare in anticipation of Black History Month, and thinking there was something of the push-button 1950's ants-on-a-log quality to this supposedly "authentic" African cuisine. And yet I also recall wondering whether the starving black faces on the television weren't starving as a result of massive diarrhea resulting from an exclusive diet of bananas and peanut butter.

I only said "99 per cent" earlier out of respect for what I believe this, and all successful essays are attempting to do. This essay must, at some point, be a type of confession. Even if it's only the confession of a woman who poisons a young, promising American musician with fish sauce, since there is here (as is always present in confessions, no matter how sincere) something of the manifesto. There can be no consideration of the formal qualities of an essay without a grasp of how deftly it weaves itself into its subject. A successful essay could, in this definition, be one in which the seam between the tutor text and those surrounding it is indivisible, literally limitless. Boully's essay is not this limitless animal. It is far too human and, as such, must skirt confession as a sort of parody of a parody. It must do this so it can give us an opportunity to find ourselves in this essay, not on "one side" of any given "issue" or another, but amidst the varied and often mortifying roles we are called on to play. This is where she does it. This is where she slips us the fish sauce.

-dan ashton chevalier

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