Monday, November 20, 2017

Disrupting the Macho-Man from Within and Without

Ezra Pound’s poem Erat Hora, the magical powers of woman beheld:

‘Thank you, whatever comes. And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed. 

The woman, beheld, holds the gaze. She has power over nature and time. She makes an impression on the mind of the male poet who would give anything to have it back.

Helen of Troy with the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships.

I have spent my life in books, wondering if that is who I am (not Helen of Troy but perhaps some lesser woman who might be described as thick-waisted but effervescent!). Am I the wife in Jonathan Franzen’s Precious? Not the daughter. Certainly not the hot sex-having woman who dies in the car crash. To be a woman is to be shaped by margins on a page, by a paint knife against the palette, by the return key on the typewriter. Behold Behold. We can see the woman. Here are the words—it only takes a few—to describe her.

In Ms. Aligned 2, edited by Connie Pan, Pat Matsueda, and Rebecca Thomas, published by Léon Press in Berkeley, the collection of stories and poems take a turn at punctuating maleness. They shape soft clay. They put the male in the female gaze and behold him. So many stories and poems in a row about men almost normalize this change in mode. If it weren’t what I had been reading for, I may not have entirely noticed.

In these two books, the men are on stage and meant to be the ones asking “Is that how women see me? Am I forever being seen?” The stories and poems in Ms. Aligned behold the man.

Men as Stereotype and Interrupters of Stereotype:  But then breaks the cliché with attention paid to her number of bracelets and admission of his impotence.  
“I’m a little embarrassed to have her looking over my shoulder. I wonder if she will mock my fabric softener. She doesn’t.”
“I’m cleaning my cell phone when she calls, like I had just wiped the plastic in order to see her name light up the screen, unstreaked and shining (18).

Men as subject of artistry/of curiosity: “Can I hang out at your garage? Take notes? Study the culture.”
“The guys don’t have much culture to speak of,” I say, trying to make a joke of it. “No, but you are your own culture. That’s what I’m trying to say.” It’s starting to be more than uncomfortable, the discomfort in my chest.
“You want to study me?” I say. “Do a report. it’s called an ethnography. I just want permission to enter your space. Act like I’m not there.”
“That,” I say, “would be impossible.”
“Come on,” she says. “I can blend in. Be a participant observer.”
“This is your homework? Writing about being a mechanic?”
“Why not?”(21)

See how the gaze changes: Even when the male protagonist is attempting to behold the woman, the woman in these stories behold back:
Francisco Romero caught a glimpse of her before she disappeared down his street. in his living room, he sat reading the morning’s paper and sensed that someone was watching. His eyes left the news about the Angels’ trade—an outfielder, useless; they needed a second baseman— and shifted to his window. He saw her staring at his boarded-up home as she walked away, and he watched her for as long as the window let him, following her as she passed the vacant dirt lot next door. She kept glancing back as she walked, and he wondered if his house had been tagged somehow and he didn’t know it, that he was losing his sixth sense for graffiti” (26).


In “Sex Education: A Tragicomedy in Seven Years,” by Angelina Nashimoto are seven stories about how a woman resists being the sex object—even sometimes becomes the sex object.
He took my hand and we walked to the front door. He put his hand on the back of my neck to kiss me again, but I exhaled through my mouth on his face. “Whoa!” he said. “Your breat’ stink!” I pressed my lips together, over my decayed front teeth—gotten from jumping on the bed and falling face-first onto the cold, tiled floor of my bedroom. He flung my hand away and stomped off into the house. i stayed behind, kicking at the coral chips like I wanted to kick at his ‘ֿkole” (42).

Amy Holwerda’s “Gardenia,” the man takes his wife place as caretaker, a role he cannot sustain:
Saul sat almost peacefully staring at the aquarium in the waiting room, watching the neon fish cut their way through the water. When the blonde nurse entered the room, Saul wanted to tell her to sit down. Pour herself a cup of coffee. He knew what she was going to say, and that he wouldn’t be able to stop her. He swallowed hard and nodded.  An ambulance was there in minutes. Henrietta’s eyes rolled back in her head, eyelashes fluttering. “Oh, Henny,” Saul said. He patted her cheek with a shaking hand” (52).

Adele Ne Jame, in Grief, an evolving, behold a beauitufl man.  
Dreaming in Arabic, flying red clouds
hang over the high Chouf village.
A young boy dresses early by lamp light,
does his morning chores in the cold sun.
Leaning heavily into the cedar wind,
he lugs fire wood into the kitchen
to keep the heat going.

And finally, men achieve supreme woman-status and become metaphor in Angela Nishimoto’s poem, Start with Mustard:

Young men green as wasabi,
the freshening causing your nose to run.
You sip green tea to cease the flow.

Steven Church’s studies of maleness are not metaphors. Church swings the camera around to himself. He’s fully aware of how males perform maleness. What he does uniquely is to show how the male defines himself within and against that performance. His methodical investigations about a man, himself, and how he became that way beholds maleness differently than the women writers in Ms. Aligned. To watch a male writer behold how men shape themselves, how the narrator describes perceiving his own masculinity shaped in comparison to other men, his father, and especially after he becomes a father.  

In I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: Essays on Work, Fear, and Fatherhood from Outpost 19,
work and fatherhood are traditional male territories but fear isn’t usually. The book opens with an understanding that being a “man” is kind of a goal and the manliest man might be a Western Man: “This is 1995 and I want to be a mountain man, a pioneer of sorts.  As Church leads us through his young desire to be a mountain man, to live free in the west, giving tours of old mines to travelers coming to find out exactly what a mountain man is, Church mostly describes the fear of the roof falling in on his head and the fear of losing his girlfriend, who remained back east, not so invested in becoming a mountain man, or any kind of man, herself.   Church supplies the tour spiel as footnotes, undergirding some of the macho-ness required to perform this job. “We’re standing at 10,500 feet above sea level. You may have felt the burn in your lungs when you walked up from the parking lot. First things first. A few terms you might want to know. (You did not abandon her. This is just something you have to do. It’s about you as a person, as an individual. It’s about you as a man.)” (2).

Some traditional guy behavior remains preserved: Doug never stops working to make it a reality. Ever. He lives to work. Tall and thin with unruly hair, he’s always confident, always upbeat, never openly worried about anything—business, progress, cave-ins, etc. But he also has a way of looking right through me sometimes, as if I’m just a spare part in a machine he’s trying to fix. Doug is one of those dreamers and schemers, never satisfied with one thing, one project, one hobby or habit—eternally spiritually restless” (7).  

Church doesn’t undercut everything about manliness, just the signature moves that signal archetypal and stereotypical male performance.    “’Yeah sure, whatever,” he says and shuffles down to the stream. Buck picks up a pan and walks right out into the water. I look up at Doug and he just smiles. Buck crouches down in the stream and begins to instruct the two kids next to him how to properly swirl the water in their pans such that they won’t lose any gold. “No, it’s like this,” he says. I watch him, worried what the parents might think; but they’re gazing at Buck with a bemused look on their faces. Tourists absolutely love Buck—at least from a distance. He seems so mythical to them, straight out of a storybook. He’s not bizarre, he’s eccentric. He’s not stinky and dirty, he’s seasoned and weathered” (13) but end “I’d say we should pay him to hang around the Country Boy, but he’s a paranoid misogynistic misanthrope who smells like swamp ass; and once the reality of Buck inevitably clashed completely with the storybook picture of Buck, I don’t think the tourists would find him so romantic. (13)  Church’s parentheticals direct the reader to perform his manliness instead of his real sense of fear, emotion, or identification with death.

What I love about this book is that Church is constantly willing to undermine that machismo by poking fun at traditions and the way we behold men, women, natural phenomena, landscape postcards: In the laser-enhanced postcards we sell at the gift shop, the sky is always a brilliant laser-enhanced blue and the crater looks something like the giant puckered rectum of planet Earth (44).

Of course, the search for the real man behind the performative man fall apart like most Westerly dreams:  I keep thinking we’re going to find something  else here, some hidden vein of good we can tap into. But Kenny, the former fireman, won’t stop talking about the tubule pregnancy his girlfriend had. He wants to gloat about drinking beer and balling Indian chicks in his pickup. Sam the ticket guy raises pigeons in Winslow and he’s never seen the Grand Canyon.” (50-51)

The spiel from the “manly” tour goes like this: Today we’ve used it to display some beer cans left by the Apollo astronauts. That’s right, Coors beer was crucial to their training. Feel free to take a look at the astronaut’s beer cans, but keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. They sometimes like to curl up in the shade there. (56) 

But the narrator, with real human emotion, freaks out when, working in Colorado as a Maintenance Man, a renter calls him to come scoop blood out of a clogged bathtub drain:    What sort of future husband or father runs off in the middle of the night to help a stranger get blood out of his bathtub? But for some reason I don’t want to hear this. I just want to follow the impulse. I just want the certainty of this work. 67 And in the end, he runs away from the blood into the essay he calls “Chicken Exit.” I figured that marriage and graduate school would be my excuse to leave the Blue Valley of Colorado, that it’d be my chicken exit from this rollercoaster way of life. (76) 


In the second of I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part, in the eponymous essay, Church moves on from single man manliness to husbandly and fatherly manliness.
Let me tell you what I don’t know at this point in my story: I will be afraid of water. It will happen a few years from here. This will be a new fear that develops unexpectedly, and it will be hard for me even to admit, difficult to reconcile with my childhood love of water.

The fears build as the imagination builds as his children are born and encounter more dangers. But then of course, doesn’t the full impulse of manliness take over. Protecting the wife and child? Church gets that and then turns it on his head.

A rapist is terrorizing the Breckenridge neighborhood where Church and his wife live:  
“What if he had been the rapist, and he was searching for an open door? What if I hadn’t been home to protect my wife? I called the police and told them that I had just chased a man out of my yard but that I didn’t think he was the rapist. “I think he’s just a drunk college student,” I told them. “He’s probably harmless,” I said. Probably someone else’s kid. Just trying to find his way home. “Probably,” the voice said.103  Strangely enough I wasn’t so worried about what she might have done. Instead what worried me—frightened me actually--was how quickly, coolly, and rationally I had decided that I could destroy anyone or anything that threatened my son. He was just two days old. I was just barely a father, still green. But some instinct clicked inside and I knew, as soon as I heard that doorknob rattling, that I could kill to protect him from harm.” “105” 


Church hikes, somewhat fearfully, as he recalls the story about the toddler boy he once heard about who may have been attacked by a mountain lion. He may be able to kill another man in a suburb but could he protect his son in the forest from a coulgar?  
Mountain lions. Big cats. This was something new, something I hadn’t predicted. We might have moved out of the city but we’d also leaped into the lion’s territory and moved into a lower status on the food chain. The attack tales--people pounced upon, eaten, mauled, etc.—haunted me.108  Toddlers love the woods because it’s so easy to get lost. Too easy perhaps. It feels safe, comforting, and distant from the obvious evils and dangers of civilization. The group of adults assumed Jaryd had joined the other group ahead, that he simply chose another circle of safety. But he didn’t. He never made it to them. Nobody knows for sure what happened. He just disappeared. Massive search efforts, lasting days, weeks, months, turned up nothing. No evidence. No tracks. No signs of struggle. No blood. No nothing. At least for a few years. Then they found him. Or parts of him.  (112)

 And he can’t protect his own son from bombs or falling airplanes or terrorism or uns:  On To my two-year-old son, born into a post 9/11 world, the recent elevation of the terrorism threat-level to orange did not mean much. Orange did not make him more vigilant at the mall with his mom. 122 

But maybe the thing Steven Church can’t protect himself from is the performance of manliness itself, the non-innocent demonstrations of machoness:  “I freaked my sister out,” he [some random guy Church is walking the kids to school with] said, gesturing toward me with the fruit baggie. The children had already begun streaming out the doors, single-file, gravitating toward parents or guardians, gathering on the grass to wait. “I poured salt on a block of dry ice,” he said over the chaotic noise of children. “Watch,” he’d said to his sister. “Wait for it.” And the deer did come. Two of them. Put their tongues to the salt. Stuck there, they pulled against the dry ice. Anchored to the lick, they strained to break free. And I wanted to tell him to stop. “And my sister was like, ‘What are you going to do 167 to them?” I could see the deer pulling on their tongues, practically yanking them from their skulls. Panicked, they must have strained against their own anchor. The other father handed his daughter the fruit baggie, “Here you go, honey,” he said and then he finished his lesson: “And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing nothing,’ and that’s when I slit their throats.”  

As Ms. Aligned 2 shows, it’s fascinating to turn paradigms on their head. And, perhaps even more fun it is, as Church does, marking your place in well-defined paradigms and then vigorously bucking against them.



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Monday, November 13, 2017

Mari Yoshihara on living in two languages


On the clear afternoon of March 11, 2011, I was about to start my jog around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The sun and the air announced the arrival of spring, as did the attire of many businessmen walking outside, but to my tropics-acclimated body—I was living in Japan during my sabbatical from the University of Hawaiʻi—it was still a bit chilly. As I waited to cross the street, I saw a big truck at the intersection shaking. Was the driver playing with the gear? Then I felt the ground move.

The quivering was bigger and lasted longer than any other earthquake I had experienced. But the Japanese are used to earthquakes. After the shaking seemed to stop, I crossed the street and went on with my merry jog. The realization that this was no ordinary earthquake came only gradually as I saw more and more people come out of the tall office buildings, many of them wearing emergency helmets. Back at the seventh-floor condominium where I was living, the upright piano had moved a few feet and the books had fallen off the shelves, though the earthquake-protection stoppers in the kitchen cabinets kept the dishes safe. 

I did not lose any family or friends in the earthquake or tsunami. I do not have children whose safety to worry about. Reduced public transportation did not affect me as I did not have a commute. Because I was living in an affluent part of the city close to government offices, the area was exempt from regularly scheduled blackouts. I was not engaged in any rescue or relief effort. I was not working in the traditional sense and thus was not even contributing to the economy. In short, among those living in Japan during that period, I was one of those who suffered the least and contributed the least. 

And yet, being in Japan on and after 3.11 changed my relationship to the country. Until then, with my academic propensity to question any evocation of “the nation” and my wariness about any sentimental notion of belonging, I would almost never have referred to Japan as “my nation” or the Japanese as “my people.” But in the weeks and months after the 3.11 earthquake, I was shocked to find myself using those phrases a number of times in my head. I felt in my gut the suffering of my people, and I seriously feared that my nation might indeed perish. And even as many of my friends in the United States suggested that I leave Japan—some even offered to let me live in their house for a while, as they knew that I had rented out my apartment in Honolulu until the end of the school year—I felt a strange, and perhaps utterly misplaced, need to stay, witness, and live through this national crisis.

At this point, I had spent just about equal halves of my life in Japan and the United States, and I was living a kind of life common to expatriates. Having just as strong connections to two places and almost equally comfortable in two languages, I had two lives, even as my body was only in one of those two places at any given time. For the most part, my two lives are compartmentalized. In terms of everyday reality, my life in one context is quite distant from my life in the other. Most of my friends in one place have little tactile understanding of my life in the other. Even in the digital age, people in my two lives not only inhabit different spaces and time zones; they also follow different media which report different news, and they read different books which depict different worlds. Over the years, I had come to accept my bifurcated life as such. 

But in the days following the 3.11 earthquake, I found a situation I had never experienced in my life. All eyes of the world were on Japan, and those eyes were following the events in “my nation” concurrently as “my people” and I were. “We” took up almost the entire front page of the New York Timesevery day! My Facebook friends in the United States—most of whom have no particular interest in Japan during ordinary times—were posting their thoughts and prayers about Japan and links to the articles they read about Japan all the time! Having spent the 1990s and 2000s in the United States, I had long felt the patent and rapid decline of Japan’s place in the global consciousness that pivoted to China. But suddenly, we were the center of the world’s attention. My friends all around the globe were closely following what was happening in Japan in real time, and thinking about Japan simultaneously as I was. They were finally taking interest in my life and my world here, not by reading Murakami novels or watching Miyazaki films but by following what was happening now, in real life. It felt like, for the first time, my two worlds were coming together, people in my two lives living the same life simultaneously.

But then a few days into this turmoil, I began to feel an uncomfortable dynamic in this sudden interest, not by the media, critics, or experts but, well, my Facebook friends. Many expressed serious concern for my safety and well-being, and offered to send things I or others needed. Not a few shared articles they read about the impact of nuclear fallout, perhaps thinking that I did not know about them, and sent me all manners of advice. 

As kind as these thoughts were, I could not help but feel uneasy at all of this. It was true that the Japanese government was far from forthcoming on the facts and projections about the nuclear fallout, and the reliability of mainstream Japanese media coverage was questionable. But I am bilingual. I read the New York Times and access CNN and BBC and other English-language media, just like my Facebook friends do, in addition to reading Japanese-language news. As much as I appreciated my friends’ concern, I was annoyed by the suggestion that those outside Japan somehow knew better, that they had information and insight we in Japan did not. 

The coming together of my two worlds, however illusionary it might have been, did not last for very long. Within a week, with the beginning of the military intervention by a NATO-led coalition, the world’s attention quickly shifted to Libya. Japan no longer dominated the front page of the New York Times or my friends’ Facebook posts. I felt like the world had moved on, leaving “my nation” and “my people” behind. The speed with which the global interest came and went felt jarring. The elusive and uneven nature of the imagined community was underscored by the distance between the world created by the English-language media and the life lived in Japan. The momentary synchronicity between the two made the distance seem all the bigger.

In her book of criticism, Fall of Language in the Age of English, Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura discusses the history of the relationship between local, national, and universal languages across the globe and the portent of the irreversible singular dominance of English shaping global discourse. Even in the age of globalization, the literatures written in English and those written in other languages, especially non-Western languages, do not exist on the same plane, she persuasively illustrates. Precisely out of the unevenness between English and “other” languages emerge “national” language and literature that can portray the particular temporalities and localities that cannot be communicated in the universal language.

Cherishing the power and promise of national language and literature written in it, in her own novels Mizumura captures the beauty, comedy, and tragedy of the “imagined community,” to borrow Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, created by mass print culture in national languages. In Inheritance from Mother, itself originally serialized in Yomiuri Shimbun, a tragicomic family saga is traced back to the day the protagonist’s grandmother begins to confuse fiction and reality, thinking that she is the heroine depicted in the popular newspaper serial. That a woman with little education and a less than respectable family background imagined herself as the protagonist of a novel read all over the nation—and thus became a national subject—illustrated the power of the print media, and particularly the novel. Two generations later, protagonist Mitsuki faces her own family and marital crisis while facing the project of translating Madame Bovary into Japanese. That a woman processes her own life by living through a novel written in another language in another country in another century, and contemplates translating the novel into her mother tongue, also illustrates the humanistic power of the novel across national borders and languages. Readers like these women—and many other characters in Mizumura’s works—come to live multiple lives simultaneously: a “real” life of the here and now, filled with the mundane challenges of the everyday, and a “true” life depicted in the world of letters, where their own selves are realized regardless of how big a distance lies between their lives and those of the characters. 

At the end of Inheritance from Mother, seeing the cherry trees that bloom almost despite themselves, Mitsuki gains courage to step into her “true” life, while also reaching resignation, realization, and acceptance that the “real” has been no less a life than the “true.” I too remember almost tearing up at the sight of the cherry blossoms when I finally felt the energy to go jogging again a few weeks after 3.11. For me, living in Japan in the day’s aftermath and continuing to read and write in Japanese as well as in English made me appreciate both the synchronicity enabled by the universal language and the here and the now of the lives lived by my people in my language. It made me cherish both of my lives in both languages as at once “real” and “true.”






Mari Yoshihara is Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is a bilingual and bicultural scholar and author who has written on U.S. history, culture, and society; U.S.-Asian relations; and classical music. With Juliet Winters Carpenter, she co-translated Minae Mizumura’s Fall of Language in the Age of English.


Essay Daily's Int'l Essayists series


This series kicked off a while ago as I was digging into Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and found myself trying to name all the essayists I could who were born / live / reside / write from outside the U.S.—and I got a few, sure, but not as many as I’d like. There’s the obvious 20th-century-and-earlier cadre of greats, but who’s writing essays in Italy, or Argentina, or Morocco, or Ireland, or India today? 

That’s a bit disingenuous. Of course we know a bunch of contemporary int’l writers, some great essayists, and Essay Daily contributors, among them. But, still, wouldn't we like to know more? 

So I thought we could use this space, every few months, to solicit a writer with a distinctly international background, whatever we take that to mean, asking them to write about another international writer of interest, someone we may or may not know, someone we should know, someone we would probably like to know, someone writing interesting things. A link to each piece in the series so far is below. 

As always, comments/suggestions are welcome: craigreinbold@gmail.com @craigreinbold @essayingdaily




Monday, November 6, 2017

Katy Sperry: Cool Cunt

I have been thinking a lot about the word cunt, lately. The way that it rolls so sweetly off my tongue. The way it does not make me think of grotesque things. The way it makes me think of my vulva, its lips, curves, clitoris. The way I like to use the word, think the word, to refer to my anatomy. 

I am sitting in a coffee shop rereading punk poet Kathy Acker’s essay “Humility.” It feels cool to read the word “cunt” in public—even to myself, nonconforming. I am drinking tea; by now, it is cool. Cool enough to wish I had a cup of ice to pour it over, but I don’t; so I drink it like it is, out of a coffee cup, meant to be warm. And I reread the word “cunt” a few times as I sip on earl grey: cunt lips, cunt lips, cunt lips

And I feel cool because I am young enough to feel subversive for thinking the word. 

Acker’s writing utilizes a cut-up technique in which she cuts up texts and rearranges them to create new work. Controversial, some call it plagiarism. Her essay “Humility” explores her use of this technique and criticism of it through the protagonist Capitol. Capitol reflects Acker. She makes dolls; one doll, writer doll, is accused of plagiarism. 

Punk is not afraid of “cunt” either; in some cases redefining the meaning of the word, while in others simple spills it out in rage. The Queers “Just Say Cunt” forever emboldened a twenty-first century generation of punks to call their cunts, cunts. As an adult, I found punk past the age of life consumption—barely, maybe. But the way the genre has embraced the cunt makes me admire the subversive thrashing, vocals, drums. The way the lyrics promise me it's okay to say cunt, that it's the best thing to say. The best thing to call my vagina, vulva, clit. 

I have some poems about citrus, grapefruits, and vaginas, vulvas, my vulva, a growing collection. But in these poems, I have not used the word cunt. Maybe I am still scared of writing it down—of forever naming my citrus anatomy cunt—because the world has called it dirty. 

I am in love with the word cunt. More and more, I ruminate. The texture of the hard “c,” oral consonant, originating against soft palate, pushed through back of tongue. The tip of my tongue’s blade, slick behind teeth to create the hard “t” oral stop (Ball and Muller 2014). Enunciate the word slowly to myself, over and over. Casually. 

Writer doll is told that she plagiarized. Feminist publisher doll tells her to apologize, but Capitol controls the narrative, no apologies. Writer doll is told “Feminist publisher replied that she knew writer was actually a nice sweet girl” (The Making of the American Essay 786). Acker subverts the ideas of sweetness, niceness through Capitol. Through refusal to say sorry, through the cunt. 

Kathy Acker uses the word cunt exactly one time in “Humility:” “CAPITOL MADE A DOLL WHO LOOKED EXACTLY LIKE HERSELF. IF YOU PRESSED A BUTTON ON ONE OF THE DOLL'S CUNT LIPS THE DOLL SAID, "I AM A GOOD GIRL AND DO EXACTLY AS I AM TOLD TO DO" (786). Capitol does not do as she is told. The cunt lips are lying, and through their lying, Acker is empowering the cunt—its lips, and its language. 

That one “cunt” feels so good to read to myself, mouth to myself, maybe whisper between sips of cool tea to myself. Think of my own cunt, the work that it does for my body: balancing, restoring, renewing. Think of how it not so rebellious to call my cunt a cunt. Think of my poems, about citrus, vulva. Think that they need cunt. Cut out cunt from Acker’s essay, place it in my poems, over text, see how it looks inside my poetry. Like it. 

At some point, I tell a friend about the word cunt, about the way I call my vulva my cunt. Over tea, we have a short conversation, among coffee shop stir, rejecting cunt as a dirty word. We call our cunts cunts. Agree that the word should not be a slur, agree not to use it as one. Promise. 

Still don’t use cunt in normal conversation. We are young. 

Acker refers more directly to her own cunt in My Mother: Demonology, coming to orgasm through her cunt. In an interview, “Kathy Acker: Where Does She Get Off?”, she writes and masturbates simultaneously. I am fascinated with the way Acker uses the word, so casual. A casual cunt. I am young, and the way she uses it still feels like rebellion to me. The best kind of rebellion, subversion, because it does not call itself rebellion at all. Because it does not want the world to watch it, does not ask to be noticed or gasped over. 

I tell a mentor, teacher, writer friend, that the word cunt feels so cool to me. We have a conversation in a vegan restaurant about it, subversive meat refusal. We use the word casually, and I can’t help but lean in, whisper to him, “Doesn’t it feel so cool to say it in public?” in normal conversation, without hesitation. He is older than me, chuckles, agrees. I don’t look around to see if anyone is noticing. Think about the way we could live in a world where cunt is normal, anatomical, casual—think of how I want to live in that world. 

Think about my poems, the way they need cunt. I look at my poems again. Change two lines. “When I cut the fruit in half, stare/at its insides, it reminds me of my cunt/hidden, caressed.” And in another poem: “Trace membrane with thumb/Think of the tenderness of the cunt.” Reread the poems, appreciate the way cunt lingers, but does not hesitate. Subversive the way it slips by. Rebellious in the way it fits in—casually, normalized. I like it. It feels cool, like pink citrus on my tongue. 

I read the poems again, again, sink into the words, linger on small revisions, cunt. I feel cool. 

*


Katy Sperry is an MFA student at Northern Arizona University, where she studies hybrid and flash writing. She is the current nonfiction and hybrids editor of Thin Air Magazine. Sometimes she writes about citrus.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sung Yim interview with T Clutch Fleischmann

Below is the next installment in a series on writing, gender, and genre, this time with Sung Yim. Sung’s first book, the memoir What about the Rest of Your Life, is forthcoming from Perfect Day Publishing (order a copy here), and their essays and poetry have appeared in The James Franco Review, Contrary, Kweli, Crab Fat Magazine, and in a chapbook from Ghost City Press.

What about the Rest of Your Life is an inventive, surprising, and deeply meaningful encounter with the writer’s life and thinking. Below, we talk of the book and of the landscape of nonfiction writing today.

Also, check out some recent interviews in the series with Cameron Awkward-Rich and Trish Salah.

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T Clutch Fleischmann: To start off, could you tell me a little about your relation to genre? Your book is categorized as memoir by the back copy, and is clearly working in and influenced by some traditions of nonfiction writing. How important was genre to the writing of this text? When you set to write something new, how much does genre figure into your thinking and your process?

Sung Yim: I really don’t think about genre in the writing process. When I was just starting out as an undergrad, I hopped from fiction to poetry to nonfiction as I tried to find my niche. Studying fiction writing taught me how to build scenes and characters, poetry taught me the elasticity of language and form, nonfiction taught me to be accountable to my persona on the page and seek broader truths with whatever I create. I think we can and should try to imbue everything we write with poetry. It would be wasting a great gift not to.

I’m not a poet or essayist and my poetry probably sucks. I’m just a writer. I want to create meaningful work that enriches people. The biggest way that genre figured into the crafting of What About the Rest of Your Life was making decisions like whether to change dates and names, whether or not to revise found material, and whether or not things were truthful according to my ethics, which were informed by studying memoir. I was driven by subconscious instinct, which, granted, is informed by influences such as Joan Didion and Kiese Laymon, whose work reflects many quintessential traditions of memoir writing.

Somewhat related, how important are other sorts of categories, and in particular identity categories, to your work? Do you think of the book as existing in broader contexts of, for instance, trans writing, Korean American writing, writing of PTSD, or other conversations? 

I consider those categories only for their pragmatic application. How they can serve my writing, and how my writing can serve them. If being received as “Korean-American writing” helps nurture a canon that I feel is under-served, that’s great. If being received as “trans writing” broadens the idea of what kind of lives trans writers lead, great. We all embody many “categories” of identity, and to fracture ourselves in favor of one or the other is damaging. I’m just being myself in a publicly available way. What the world does with what I offer, I have no control over.

One thing I really appreciate about your book is that it writes outside of a lot of the assumptions often associated with memoirs, especially the idea that writing memoir should have some sort of inseparable link with healing. You write about finishing this book, for instance: “I am embarrassed that I still have problems. That I’ve written a memoir without even getting over these problems.” I like the possibilities that open up from that, the potential of what else writing can do if we allow ourselves to be writers who are (still) in pain, (still) figuring things out. We get this especially in the Letters to the Publisher that recur in the book, where you make explicit some of these questions-- “It’s just i’ve been real fucked up since revisiting this manuscript and it’s probably why the book is still unfinished,” you say in one. 

Could you talk about your relation to this process? Of writing and revisiting the past not from a place of cohesive and total stability, but allowing instead that “the writing itself is fine, it’s just my brain is scrambled and i can’t get my story or feelings straight right now.”

Writing this book was painful and perhaps even detrimental to my well-being because, contrary to popular belief, writing isn’t necessarily therapy. Just because you’re processing trauma doesn’t mean you are healing from it. But if I had waited to write “from a place of cohesive and total stability,” I would never have survived, let alone the writing. I would have destroyed myself. This is how I coped with turmoil, by compartmentalizing it as an art object—I couldn’t fix my problems, but I could keep making the writing sharper, more effective. I lacked stable access to treatment and had no other recourse. The book exists because it had to. I just happen to be lucky enough that people wanted to witness it.

I can’t help resenting what feels like a superhuman expectation often placed on writers. It’s unfair to that expect writers be sage and perfectly knowing, to shut up and put up until you look like a success story. The fact is that I’m a sick person. There is no cure for bipolar disorder. My reality may never look like the glossy after picture, and there should be space for that in art. I might not have “healed” or “recovered” through the process of writing, but I do know I grew immensely on the page. My hope is that people reading my work will find comfort in seeing what that growth looks like—painful, humiliating, paradoxically cyclical, and achingly normal.

Maybe related to that, you have a few moments throughout the memoir where you mention your academic experience, and the reactions of peers/teachers to your work. Now that you’re out of the academy for a bit, could you tell us how this book formed in relation to writing workshops? How does your memoir, for instance, depart from the ideas you encountered in the writing classroom?

One thing I was taught by various instructors was to write seamlessly—if I can’t remember some detail within a memory, invent it to serve the scene. Treat the writing of scenes from my life like an exercise in world-building as you might with fiction. It would be lying to say I eschew this method entirely, but I wanted to depart somewhat from that in my memoir. Trauma, psychotropic medications, drug abuse, all these things have addled my memory. There are big chunks of my life missing. I also think erasure is a significant part of the diaspora experience—there are so many stories I cannot access because my entire extended family is an ocean away. There are things about my parents’ childhoods I’ll never know because they’re too painful to talk about. That lack of information isn’t something I wanted to hide, but rather consciously unpack.

My writing style has radically changed outside the academy. We mostly studied and worked on long-form essays in classes, which produced a good bulk of this book. But writing in solitude forced me to get inventive and weird, which produced some of my favorite pieces. My process is wilder now, more whimsical. I’m driven by instinct and obsession. I’ve embraced the miraculous potential of the fragment. I couldn’t have grown in this direction in an academic setting. Not to knock workshop. It just can’t be the only place where you’re developing as an artist. Workshops taught me a lot about writing, but the most valuable lesson I learned from them was how to say no. How to resist. How to push back and handle outside pressure. Relying on critique won’t help your voice flourish. It’s your voice and you have to learn to protect and listen to it.

The way that you frame the book, as a text that shows growth as “painful, humiliating, paradoxically cyclical, and achingly normal,” is one of the things I most appreciate about it. That achingly normal, especially—when I read, I’m not reading with the expectation that the writer will provide some sort of magical solution, but rather that we’ll have the opportunity to join together and to grow together, which is a messy and real process. It’s all a much more exciting way to meet a book, and much more valuable, I think.

Could you tell me some about the writers (or artists, activists, etc.) that you turn to for this experience? If you were going to chart some influences for this book, who would jump to mind?

Probably my biggest hero is Toni Morrison. Her book Beloved taught me everything I needed to understand about the inner workings of trauma, how it functions within a person and their family, how it fractures and binds us at once. It taught me what forgiveness means and where it slips between the cracks. It gave me an emotional rubric to work with.

In the later stages of writing my book, as those previously mentioned “letters to the publisher” suggest, I hit a dry spell where I wasn’t sending new pages for weeks. So I started reading to get out of my own head.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking became a great source of inspiration to me. Didion has a way of tracking the ephemera of her grief-struck everyday, with such a sense of immediacy. She doesn’t write solutions, she writes equations. She doesn’t construct meaning, she conjures it. She is living on the page after the loss of a life, capturing what that looks like in real time. It’s a book whose prose reveals a deep reverence for a moment, a story, a life. And in that reverence I found an enviable sense of trust in the process of writing.

I also picked up a copy of Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, which is such a strange and entrancing book. Kapil writes about many things I also touch on with my work—power and its intrusions on the body, the body as an immigrant’s, the body as a citizen’s, the body as a target for violence. But the approach is radically different from anything I’ve encountered before. Kapil’s formal experimentation is so intense and dazzling, there was this sense that the book was a living, breathing thing, that one had to give oneself over to it, and in that sense it embodied exactly the sentiment of growing together with a work. Becoming not a reader versus the work but a third and separate entity as a result of the work. I was deeply shaken by this book.

Experiencing these texts made me feel freer. I could allow my process to guide the work, and meaning would blossom of its own accord. There were no rules. No order. I was encouraged to trust my own instincts, which meant harnessing chaos rather than struggling against it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dylan Cooley on the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction

This week’s news that the U.S. has withdrawn from UNESCO has created a lot of uncertainty in Iowa City, IA. As North America’s only UNESCO City of Literature and home to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, the Nonfiction Writing Program, and the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City has a storied history of contribution to the literary world. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Iowa City’s UNSECO team insisted the nation’s withdrawal from the UN’s cultural program won’t affect this town’s City of Literature status, but an air of anxiety remains. Political maneuvers like the US’s withdrawal itself are largely symbolic, as is, as some might argue, a city’s UNESCO credentials.

Whether or not that’s true, one hardly needs to point out that symbolism matters to a town with five writers for every traffic light.

Regardless, the announcement’s timing adds a little gravitas —the Iowa City Book Festival, an annual UNESCO City of Literature event, started October 8. Although residents, writers, publishers, and readers wonder what political repercussions loom, they have also seen and participated in palpable reminders that the city will maintain its devotion to the arts. Not only is the Book Festival underway, but on the far edge of the University’s campus, at the Kuhl House — a small stone building that is among the oldest in the state — the UI Press is welcoming the start of a new round of its newest book contest. In total, the UI Press offers four such prizes, each of which have garnered critical acclaim and strengthened its role as one of the few university presses devoted to creative work.

The University of Iowa Press was founded in 1969, and in conjunction with the Workshop they launched the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the John Simmons Short Fiction Award shortly thereafter. Given the success of both endeavors, the Press eventually founded the Iowa Poetry Prize in 1987, and just last year, in 2016, the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction – a contest for book-length manuscripts whose third annual screening period began October 15th and runs until December 10, 2017.

The Prize is a collaborative pedagogical and artistic effort shared by the UI Press and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. “The Nonfiction Writing Program has a long tradition of trying to embrace as broad an understanding of nonfiction as possible, while also holding firmly to its deepest historical roots,” says John D’Agata, NWP Director, and editor of Graywolf’s acclaimed History of the Essay anthology series. “The Press and I thought it was time for a contest like this that was open to all interpretation of nonfiction, screened by some of the genre's smartest and most voracious readers, and judged by some of the country's best nonfiction writers.” The NWP’s Bedell Distinguished Visiting Professor, a position that’s been filled previously by esteemed writers including Geoff Dyer, Vivian Gornick, and Terry Tempest Williams, leads students through the contest’s screening process in a graduate seminar and also serves as the contest’s judge. While screening manuscript submissions for the contest, the NWP’s MFA students attempt to define what makes for “good” nonfiction, or what can count as nonfiction at all — a daunting task in a genre for which slipperiness of definition isn’t so much a bug as it is a feature. "Literary nonfiction,” says UI Press director Jim McCoy, “no matter how you try to define it, is one of the most exciting genres. It pushes new boundaries." And so, the NWP grad students and the contest judge ultimately offer up a single manuscript for the prize: publication by the UI Press, and a place on their bookshelves alongside Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Tom Lutz, Anne Carson, Eliot Weinberger, and other boundary-defying titans of contemporary American literature.

The winner of the 2017 Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction, judged by Meghan Daum, will no doubt find itself at home there. For Single Mothers Working As Train Conductors, by Laura Esther Wolfson, is an exciting example of the hybrid capacity of nonfiction in general, and of the essay in particular. As Daum writes in her praise for Wolfson’s manuscript, For Single Mothers is a book that explores “the subtle, perennial tensions between the lives we think we want and the lives we actually make” in a way that is “poignant, sophisticated, and as soulful as it is brainy.” Wolfson, a translator of Russian, French, and Spanish into English, has written a book-length essay about that love of language — and the ways that language barriers can in turn create barriers to love. Wolfson navigates a marriage, a divorce, chronic lung disease, and life at work as a literary translator with the grace and nimble-mindedness of one accustomed to traversing rocky artistic and intellectual borders. And yet, we never forget that such movement has not been easy: “It’s easy now to see what bothered Aleksandr: garbage is musor is garbage, all of it vile and evil-smelling. I shamed him, inadvertently, foolishly, blindly, in a way that transcended language.” To read For Single Mothers is to watch that grace develop as Wolfson watches the Soviet Union dissolve around her and narrowly misses out on translating Nobel-winning literature.

Given the shifting landscape of creative nonfiction, the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction is sure to yield a wide range of books with approaches to research, language, and truth that are as singular as the voices of each year’s judge: While Meghan Daum was pulled to Wolfson’s memoiristic exploration of fact and feeling, the Prize’s inaugural judge, Richard Preston, best-selling author of The Hot Zone and writer for The New Yorker, selected Barret Baumgart’s China Lake, whose narrative leads readers into the apocalyptic near future of a world in the grips of pseudoscience and climate catastrophe.

The 2018 Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction will be judged by Kiese Laymon, the prolific novelist and essayist and author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Long Division. Laymon’s writing on race, gender, and America’s myriad institutions of violence has already established him as one of the most compelling stylists and moral voices of twenty-first century American literature. In his role as contest judge, Laymon’s potential to develop our notion not only of what is possible, but what is necessary in nonfiction, is as thrilling as the elastic potential of the genre itself.

The Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction is accepting submissions now. Manuscripts must be postmarked between October 15 and December 10, 2017, and should be accompanied by a $10 administrative fee. Further submission and eligibility guidelines are available at the UI Press’s website.

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Dylan Cooley lives in Iowa City. He's currently writing a memoir about long-distance running and his strained relationship with Iowa. Follow him on Twitter: @TheGrandCooley