Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Allow me to interject in our discussion

a brief note about an interesting essay that arrived at random in the mail last week (thanks to you, unknown person who sent this; it's pretty great to get a package as cool as this one without notice), M. Kasper's OPEN-BOOK, not nominated for the Essay Prize, like other texts under discussion here in recent days:

It's a lovely package, the book itself, an accordion-fold essay made up of eleven five-line, all caps strophes of essay slash possibly poem or crypto-prose, printed on spreads of digitally manipulated backgrounds that are meant to suggest "MARBLE FACING ON WALLS OF WEALTHY CHURCHES...CALLED 'REVETMENT' / TWO SLABS...SOMETIMES MOUNTED LIKE PAGES IN AN OPEN BOOK". The structural conceit is pretty straightforward but is no less lovely for its transparency:

. The book as physical, manipulable object--and the spread as unit of meaning--creates a great deal of what's interesting about this particular reading experience. Don't get me wrong: the prose is right on too, even though there's not a lot of it. What prose there is reads aphoristically, and spreads can mostly be read fruitfully individually, though they're clearly meant to add up to a larger whole. One spread reads: "NOW INSTEAD WE ADMIRE ITS DIALECTIC OF GRAPHIC DAZZLE AND COOL / SERENITY (ON A HOT MEDITERRANEAN DAY ESPECIALLY, ITS META- / MORPHIC MAKE-UP, ITS DISCOVERY, ITS MINIMALISM ("A PRODUCT OF / CHANCE WITH A SMALL DEGREE OF DESIGN" (ALEXANDER COZENS), ITS / LONG, VARIED, MODEST LIFE AS AN EPITOME OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSION," buttressing its ideas with some nice linguistic licks. I'm actually not sure if these lines are prose or poetry or something else (I suppose the hyphenation suggests the prose, but you never know, meta- being one of those words that, isolated, seems to suggest its own reading), but I can say that it is a lovely little reading experience, this one essay, floating up history and philosophy and some serious thinking, all in pursuit of its subject, which is partly the act of reading, that same dirty act that I'm (and now you're, I becoming accomplice) involved in here. One section explains that "OPEN-BOOK REVETMENT DEVELOPED IN THE SAME EPOCH AS THE CODEX / DO THEY BOTH INVITE VIEWERS TO READ? TO READ IN? LATE CLASSICAL / COMMENTATORS ADMIRED HOW RANDOM FORMATIONS IN THE STONE / SUGGESTED REPRESENTATIONAL IMAGES," and it's true that the images behind the text lend themselves to interpretation. Which after all is a space opening up in the reader as we do our thing, right?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the future of the book, if the book has a future (hint: of course it does; see also here if you're interested) and how so much of the hand-wringing about the future of the book is tied up with books that as physical objects don't do a whole lot right now to justify their physical form, the pulp and ink and glue they're made with. They might as well be e-books, I think, or apps, or whatever cloud-based awesome is coming next, because they're hardly books at all. They're text that could be reflowed fruitfully in most any container. So why complain about the end of those books, I wonder? This book, however, is one that couldn't be presented in any other way, really, since the physical act of accordioning the book open is so inherently pleasurable and involved with the meaning of reading, and the text so well tailored to the layout and design and production of the object.

This also strikes me as a hallmark of a successful essay, that its form is the one best suited to its content, and in fact that they're inseparable, like me and pigs-in-blankets, the fs in bff. Which is all as it should be. Stay sweet, M. Kasper. Remember the old technology of the year book, Ugly Duckling Presse? Have a good summer! See you in the fall!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Antoine Dodson’s Bold Speech as Found Text

Rather than dive into the controversy surrounding The Bed Intruder Song, I would like to start by examining the Gregory Brother’s iTune hit as a work of found art. The Gregory Brother’s have repeatedly selected text that is topical in order to create their music: the debate over health care, the regulation of cigarettes, the melting of the polar ice caps, to name a few. The fact that they find their lyrics by watching televised news programs gives me a clue as to the intent of their work.
Imagine a suburban working couple who, after running their kids from one activity to the next, plop down on the couch to watch the evening news. Images flit by their half-closed perception: corporate scandals, nuclear meltdown, drug busts, and rapes. Their level of retention is nil. Though the images create anxiety in them the emotional impact passes once the television is turned off.
We are increasingly inundated with images. The news has become symbolic, a simulated reality that has nothing to do with our daily lives. The television itself is a giant pacifier, a glowing lullaby that makes people drowsy before heading off to bed. As a result, television news reporting has lost its efficacy, its political import, its journalistic edge. Remember the boy who wasn’t in the balloon? What about Charlie Sheen’s goddesses and trolls? The average television watching American is on autopilot, the level of information piles up weekly, with no foreground or background to contextualize it. Our connections to the myriad events, the happenings in our world, get lost in a nonsensical heap.
While television in its early days brought the world closer to its viewer, I would argue that our jaded population now uses the television as a distancing mechanism. Many of us have replaced our subscriptions to the New York Times with TV Guide or YouTube. We have become comfortable with the dumbing down of important issues, the metamorphosis of crime into entertainment. I think of Jon Stewart’s satirical bite on The Daily Show, his claim that Fox News regularly twists information to fit a conservative agenda, the funny way he calls them “the meanest sorority in the world.” The GBs have taken to mocking our counterfeit news musically in their Auto Tune the News series. They question our state of mind: we either laugh at their work as satire or roll our eyes and say that it is meaningless drivel. Our state of perception, our understanding of the GB’s interpretation, dictates how we receive their work.
For found text to qualify as essay it needs to filter through a subjective process and be transmuted by the artist. Like Borges essayed in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” the post-modern idea of found text gives centrality to reader interpretation. Thus I ask myself, have the GBs created something innovative in their juxtaposition? Has their reading and manipulation of the text given it something new?
The format for the song is the local news frame: red and blue stripes displayed quasi-patriotically across the bottom of the screen. The anchor Elizabeth Gentle, Antoine Dodson, Kelly Dodson, and the GB’s as newscasters, flit on and off screen. A split ‘news’ frame shows one brother in dual capacities: on the left he is a serious-looking reporter in the studio, on the right he is a reporter on the street wearing a ridiculous white hat and white sunglasses. Antoine’s portion of the song ends with his voice echoing over the image of a silent and staring Elizabeth Gentle.
For those critics who say Dodson is the only character who is acting ridiculous or funny: an overly serious, piano-playing brother follows. In a farce of a blues singer, he croons like a fool while an advertisement is displayed across the screen, “Subscribe! day. cover? Original.” An arrow points at the word “original” while a talk-show host voice advises the viewer to click on the word, “Watch the original video here if you haven’t already seen it [the news segment] enough.” The implication is that we’ve all seen it enough, a million times over.
I admit that their technique is not subtle. What I like about the video is Antoine Dodson as he was in the original news segment. He is so charismatic, so angry, so witty and lyric, he overshadows the other characters. In the original footage, I can hear a song, a poem, in his speech. He draws out the vowels in certain lines, “hide your kids, hide your wife,” then rushes into a run-on, “and hide your husband because their raping everyone out here.” In front of the cameras he is savvy, he knows what he wishes to convey.
I understand the argument that his portrayal as a black man may be construed as negative, the suspicion that people may be laughing at him rather than with him. As a half Native American and half Chicano woman who grew up on a reservation in Arizona, I am not insensitive to issues of appropriation or instances of unfair stereotypes. I know what it means to have your culture appropriated, but it is important to remember that Dodson is not performing. He is being himself and I would argue that he has nothing to be ashamed of. The GBs are promoting him and he has made them money because he is so (fill in the blank). What is your response to Antoine Dodson?
The Bed Intruder Song controversy reminds me of two stories that made the national news in a suburb of St. Louis in 2009. The first story: a pizza-delivery man, Caucasian, kidnapped several boys and kept them against their will for several years. He was captured and convicted. The boys were freed. It shocked the middle-class community of Kirkwood: they had driven by his apartment on a regular basis. The second Kirkwood story: an irate African American homeowner who was a regular at local events went into a Kirkwood City Council meeting and shot a politician after years of aggravation over some government policy. Kirkwood was up in arms after the City Council shooting. Many people wrote editorials talking about their new distrust of African Americans in their community. Supposedly, the shooting felt like a betrayal of the good will they had shown local African American organizations.
No one, after the pizza man was arrested, professed a fear of pizza men in the aftermath. That is, while many professed a fear of black men in general after the shooting, no one associated the one pizza molester with a larger demographic. Why was one man viewed as an individual while the other was considered representative of an entire ethnic group? I understand the impulse but it hardly seems fair to Antoine Dodson. He should be allowed to act as an individual. It’s too heavy a load to bear, to always be an ambassador, an apologist, a representative for an entire group of people. Dodson has benefitted from this song. He should be allowed to operate independently, to be eloquently angry at the camera, to promise retribution to his sister’s attacker, and to enjoy his monetary success.
I believe that Antoine Dodson has star power, that he acted admirably, and that he has nothing to be embarrassed of regardless of what people might say. I am aware that his song went viral because it made people laugh yet I am uncomfortable, in fact I find it dangerous, to assume that the reason they are laughing is because they are prejudice. I am in control of my own subjective knowing, outside of that it seems important to assume the best in others until the worst is proven. To do otherwise is to undermine the possibility of civility among ethnic groups in the U.S. before any sort of conversation can get off the ground. Perhaps this is naive but I would rather be hopeful than cynical. It is not that I am blind. I just can't live my life always suspicious and defensive; it takes too much energy.
The only people I see who should be embarrassed are the newscasters who interviewed Dodson and claimed, right in front of him, that the humor in the piece had to do with people mocking him. Their suggestion that the song perpetuates stereotypes and makes fun is something they should think about in regard to their own 'entertainment' work. I’m not saying that The Bed Intruder Song deserves to win the Essay Prize this year. I’m not even saying that it is a song I would purchase. I am simply saying that I am happy that Antoine and his family have moved out of the projects as a result of his charisma, his innate musicality, his wit and energy. It’s a bummer that we the viewers have to project our race fears on him as an individual. I hope, as they say, that he laughs all the way to the bank.

Autotune & Authenticity

This post explores the Gregory Brothers' "Bed Intruder Song," and the use of Auto-Tune to investigate the value of authenticity as a literary tool or device.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

La Inseguridad

There’s something I got stuck on when looking at the Essay Prize nomination for Finnegan’s “Silver or Lead.” It’s that this piece is “the kind of real-world essay I’m always dying to share with anyone around.”

What, exactly, is a “real-world” essay?

Are other essays, say the work of past winners Mary Ruefle and Aaron Kunin, not of the real world? Ruefle’s world has fantasy elements, sure, but does the weight of Finnegan’s “real world” trump these, I don’t know, less-grounded works? I am reading “real-world” here as a signifier of relevance, of importance. I’m inferring that, to the nominator, the scope of Finnegan’s work – not just the depth of reportage, but also the topic’s scale, from a private ranch owner outside of Zitácuaro to international relations – makes it significant in ways that other essays of 2010 were not.

This seems problematic to me, the idea of an unspoken sliding scale of relevance and import as applied to works that, when it comes down to it, are pretty tough to compare. But of course I do it, too. One of the things that bothered me about “Plastic Bag,” for example, was the way it was essentially a commissioned project resulting in what I saw as a form of propaganda. But since Finnegan is a staff writer for The New Yorker, does that make this project commissioned as well? What stake does he have in telling this particular story? He traveled, as he seems wont to do, to places where his personal safety was at risk. I don’t get the sense that Finnegan is only telling the story because he was paid to in the way I felt that Bahrani was. Finnegan doesn’t have an agenda. Or! Is it that any agenda he’d be pushing would come from the prize scapegoat of conservative activism, the liberal media, whose bias I’m blind to because I share it?

The answer to that, at least, is below in Lucas’s entry – that Finnegan’s uncertainty is so visible on the page that I think it’s clear he doesn’t have a stake in pushing the reader to develop an actionable political stance on the vast clusterfuck of issues facing Mexico—its cartels, its government, its ordinary people – and of course – the basic issue of supply (Mexico) and demand (U.S.) that seems to be at the root of all the power grasping. I mean, this is the stuff of book-length essays. Like The Devil’s Highway. Or the back catalog of unapologetic breast man Charles Bowden (seriously…read Desierto and try to come away with a different impression).

There’s a book’s worth of material in La Familia. That Finnegan was able to wrangle this into a comprehensible and digestible piece of journalism strikes me as an accomplishment in and of itself. And I can’t overlook the fact that to me, “Silver and Lead” was not only comprehensible and digestible, but devastating, once we moved from the attempt to untangle the post “Pax Mafiosa” political environment and into the personal stakes of nearly-executed ecology officer Delacruz or retired school teacher Don Miguel. I am invested in these people. The uncertainty about Don Miguel’s ranch at the story’s end is more upsetting now, because I’m reading it almost a year later, and so much can happen in a year.

Call me out for misspeaking, Lucas, but it seems to me that initially you had some doubts as to whether this piece of literary journalism qualified as essay per se. On my first read, I had reservations about its contention for the Essay Prize, not because I don’t think it’s a very fine piece of work, but because I too have some lingering parochial concerns about category. It’s journalism! It’s reportage! Lucas quotes: “Work that is defined by what it does—the activity that it engages in—rather than what it is—its ‘nonfictional’ verifiability.” To which I additionally quote that the Essay Prize “emphasizes the activity of a text, rather than its status as a dispensary of information.”

This is a dispensary of information, yes, and important information, but on second read, it seems to me that it is the presence of Finnegan’s first person narration that tips this work into essay territory. And not the “I” alone, but the action of the “I” – Finnegan’s relentless lines of inquiry are visible on the page. We know when he is conducting an interview in Mexico vs. Washington, D.C. We know when information is second-hand. We are aware when he has been forced to choose sides (traveling with the “Queen of the South”) for the purposes of information gathering. And we get loaded observations: “Such violence sounded so benign and neighborly that I felt odd asking about the kind of violence that La Familia is better known for.” I think that Finnegan’s methods in “Silver or Lead” are unequivocally essayistic.

Which brings me back to the question of weight and scope and the idea of a “real-world” essay. It’s so hard to shake my own poorly-defined sliding scale of relevance and import. One way would be to ignore content in favor of structure and craft. But these are all interrelated, and discovering the way that they integrate in this particular piece (thinking here of the way that this formally traditional essay controls the release of information, from the abstract to the personal), is evidence, I think, of a fine mind at work.

So as far as I’m concerned, at this juncture in the nominee discussions, it’s Finnegan’s hand-carved walnut box to lose.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Entre Los Otros

Silver or lead. The expression is derived from a philosophy attributed to Mexican cartels. Either you cooperate and accept due compensation or your corpse becomes ad space for cartel propaganda. William Finnegan begins his essay by introducing us to Michoacan, a western state of Mexico, and corpse messaging, the mutilation and dumping of what amounts to a pile of limbs and torsos wrapped in marked poster board or cloth. The messages, we are told, read something like, “Talked too much.” or “You get what you deserve.” Welcome to Michoacan: “The People of Iowa Welcome You” this ain’t.

Finnegan is not trying to entice the reader in with poetic devices or formal tropes, he is offering us a grim story of violence and corruption that reads like an arc for a season of “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”. Michoacan is a state rotting from within, barely maintaining the façade of civil structure. Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon is waging a war on drugs that has proved as successful as Bush’s war on terror (when will governments learn to avoid fights with nouns?). Those opposed to Calderon even have a “Dubbya” for purposes of disparagement, distilling the president’s name down to “Lipe”, which, as Finnegan points out, puns on “Fe” which means faith.

During a visit to a communications official in Apartzingan, a city of Michoacan, Finnegan notes that the woman hangs a picture of the governor, Leonel Godoy, in her office but Calderon’s image is absent. The governor and president belong to rival parties, a feud which led to an unannounced raid of Arpatzingan’s municipal offices, landing some members of Godoy’s officials in federal custody.

What is apparent from Finnegans essay is that there exists no unified effort in Mexico. The politicians, soldiers, cartels, and citizens are fractured between myriad sides from the highest officials to the poorest neighbors. Some seek greater wealth and power while others just yearn for basic human rights like healthcare and food—most are willing to deal within the terms of silver and lead in order to reach some semblance of either.

Throughout the entire essay Finnegan is aware of his U.S. readers. Our country is familiar with political scandal, yet, despite the cynicism and disenchantment, there is still a certainty that order will be maintained and rights upheld—a certainty that comes with such entitlement it is barely recognized as existing. I realize that an average reader of The New Yorker rests a spectrum away from the average Joe or Jane that demands the right to strap on a Smith and Wesson M&P to buy Cheerios, but even those who are three degrees deep can be complacent in self-reflection and appreciation. This certainty does not exist in Michoacan.

There are no heroes emerging from the ranks of politicians and the conversations Finnegan has with
officials and locals makes it clear that from their perspective, the only party resembling salvation is La

Familia Michoacana. “If people don’t trust the police or the courts, crime groups will fill those roles,”Finnegan writes. Perhaps it is the cartel’s Robin Hood-esque method of maintaining order. One connected
woman Finnegan speaks with has a number that gives her direct contact to La Familia’s services. “The police work for them,” she says. Though we are never certain what she has done or currently does to
obtain this level of safety, we understand why she did.

On "Silver or Lead"

I’m in an airport bar, slightly drunk and being glared at for typing too loudly by a man in a “One Tequilla, Two Tequilla, Three Tequilla, Floor” t-shirt. For a moment in this mode, drinking, writing my way through hostile territory, implying a whole lot about a stranger’s character from a single observed detail, I can pretend to feel a kinship with William Finnegan and his writerly persona. But I know that it’s a very, very tenuous connection. Ridiculous, in fact. I’m trying and failing to think of a clever metaphor to express how odd it feels to have Finnegan’s “Silver or Lead” in our Essay Prize pool, jockeying for position with transcendent maps and play essays and talking bags. Perhaps it’s the booze or the hours of awkward, exhausting bar chat about Libya, but all my distracted mind can come up with is Pretty in Pink. Finnegan is Blaine, strolling into a funky record shop in a crisp polo shirt, conventional, successful, amused to be slumming. And we’re Ducky.

It is tempting, therefore, to hate on Mr. Finnegan and list the flaws in his nomination. For one thing, I will guess that he has no truck in essaying and perhaps (gasp) never even thinks to use “essay” as a verb. He is a self-identified journalist, though a “new new” one, part of that elite, McPhee-influenced dream team of white dudes and Susan Orlean. He wins awards given for hard nonfiction and gets paid grownup money. He’s a fucking staff writer for the New Yorker. And his bio picture is the kind of straight-laced handsome that makes me think he plays bi-weekly racquetball games and curses himself in the third person when he screws up. The nominated piece doesn’t seem to be in any way untraditional, at least on the first couple of reads. It’s easy to glance over “Silver and Lead” and find a content heavy, standard piece of reporting, written by a true master of the genre. Finnegan goes to the Mexican state of Michoacan where violence stemming from the drug trade dominates peoples’ lives. He pokes around in this world. A lot. In his meticulous detail, he shows off the specificity of his research. In his frequent admissions ¬— “it was impossible to know for sure,” “I was unable to confirm the reservoir story,” etc. — he lets the reader know that much of the power of his piece will be derived from a sense of fidelity to the gruesome facts. All of which is really admirable, displaying the clear language and dogged work ethic that has made Finnegan so good for so long. But, on the surface, it seems to fly in the face of what the Essay Prize purports to award: “Work that is defined by what it does—the activity that it engages in—rather than what it is—its ‘nonfictional’ verifiability.”

So I didn’t know what to write about “Silver and Lead” for a long while, other than that I find it really powerful. Now, finishing my second inebriated reread, I think I’ve finally realized what it is that makes me like this piece more than I usually like New Yorker articles. Why it leaves me with a sense of wonder and deep, nagging sadness, rather than the dulled effect of simply being told of a reality worse than my own. It’s those admissions that Finnegan makes, his reaching for truth while being forced to acknowledge how hard truth is to find in a terrorized world. Underneath the exhaustive research, the muscular, attempted-expert tone, I think that Finnegan is showing us a writer failing. Sure, he dispenses a lot of information, but as he travels from town to town, he finds no certainty, no answers. He gains no expertise. This is a wandering narrative, a staple of literary journalism that, while captivating, isn’t exactly new, but it feels fresh to me because Finnegan expresses just how desperate, how hopeless, his wandering is. From the very beginning, we are shown a world where the writer has no footing, where there is no reliable authority to guide him through the story. Finnegan enters into a town where “the dismembered body of a young man was left in the middle of the main intersection.” Of course, he wants to find out what happened. The reader expects him to, that’s his job. But by the end of the first paragraph, he’s already conceded that, “I wanted to ask the police some questions, but I was advised not to let the police know I was in town.” By showing us his how all-encompassing the danger and lies are, he’s quickly begun not just to tell us things, but to give us the feeling of a world that is terrifyingly uncertain.

Throughout most of the essay, Finnegan weaves his way through teaching paragraphs that deftly drop massive amounts of research, but he always returns to his own uncertainty, outsider status and fear, tempering the facts with a chilling inferred question – how can anyone know anything for certain here? On p. 47, after nearly a page and a half of fascinating exposition about crystal meth production and distribution within Mexico, the nasty effect of U.S. drug markets and weapons dealing, and the La Familia crime syndicate’s assumed role of outlaw hero, attacking local meth use, Finnegan jumps to his own suspicious gaze in a hidden rehab center in Zamora. His “appearance caused a stir in the street” and the police escort that he still doesn’t trust, but that he needs because nobody else would point him to a rehab, refuses to leave him alone, certain he’ll be hurt. Then, we get a haunting scene – our writer touring the facility with a trusty who claims that La Familia ended meth use in the area, suspicious that this trusty is in La Familia, himself, even as the man “denied any connection.” After giving us all of the information out there about La Familia, its violence and influence, Finnegan is willing to show himself unsure of who to trust, unsure of what will happen next, unsure of just about anything in the place that he set out to report on.

I’m not trying to say that Finnegan explicitly crafted some meditation on the limits of knowledge and managed to slip it past David Remnick’s uniformity scanners. I am aware that this essay is, at its core, hard-hitting, urgent, badass journalism, the kind that prizes content above all else. But still, the effect goes beyond that. Our writer keeps trying, keeps pushing at doing his job, wandering further into secrecy and horror. And I keep going back to the last four pages of the essay, where there is, I think, a real turn. First we get another moment of admittance. Finnegan writes that he had gone into the project with “an idea of how organized crime took over towns” but that was “a composite sketch” that “left out a lot.” From that point on, he forgets about interviewing higher-ups and summarizing outside research. Instead, he ends his essay with a rolling list of horrifying anecdotes. He cannot get an official voice to fully trust, so he seems to give in and let voices that are never heard speak, each expressing unverifiable tragedies. There is no certainty, just pain. We see our writer kicked out of his hotel as tourists swarm for butterfly season, trying to reconcile his gorgeous surroundings with the horror constantly percolating there. We see him flailing for peoples’ stories and then putting them on the page because what else can he do? In the end, we’re given no conclusion because that’s impossible. Instead, just a quiet scene: Finnegan at a family cookout with a man who was almost murdered while innocently building his granddaughter a tree house. The man’s sons are there, too, ever prepared to “avenge him.” They eat and drink and enjoy the sun. It’s a brief, peaceful moment that leads to this last sentence: “The granddaughter’s tree house, they said, was almost finished, which was good, since she would be fifteen very soon.” It’s an odd sentence, sweet, yet also a reminder of the constant chance of a violent death. There’s no closure to it, just the triumph of tenuous survival, a loaded image representing a world that is impossible to really make sense of. It’s a beautiful, artful move, an essayist not leaving us with facts but with disconcerting, unshakable feeling. It’s a bold, unique ending to an essay that makes itself hard to forget.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Moron, the Form (on Bucak's "Eight Questions... and her formal constraints)

Excuse the punny title; I’m more of the moron because I overlooked the form for far too long. So, to make up for this, this post is purely about form.

I’ve been going back and forth trying to place the formality of this piece, and the more I read it, the less formal it gets. In fact, the further I get into the reading itself, the more I feel included in what Bucak is attempting to say (although, of course, her speaker doesn’t want to completely divulge her purpose, keeping with the façade that she still just figuring shit out). And although Bucak initially seems insensitive (distancing the reader), at the end she becomes more amiable. Looking at the form on the page, the beginning of the piece has more of the switching of dialogues, more of the play-like qualities; the end, the more amiable bit, has less of the constraint. So, wondering how the form affects the piece, I have to assume that the formal constraint causes the tone and language to be terser, even obtuse. As Bucak puts it: “Me has been in this play before, and is not trying to be a jerk about it, but she kind of is.” Bucak knows she’s created a jerk of a character (though her definition of a jerk must be much different than mine; I kind of like her jerk), but that Me doesn’t feel like the same type of Me as the beginning. It feels like she’s slightly altered, changed, or, dare I say it, grown! But grown over the course of 3 pages? Yeah right…

What my winding introduction is trying to say is that while yes, we all want to see some growth or change in a character in a story, it’s not logical to see it happen that quickly, and it’s the form that’s making us think this.

Briefly, I’d like to ramble about the play as a form. Initially, I credited, even yearned the piece to be less formal than it is because I thought that a play was less formal, that there was room for interpretation, thought, even room for the actors to improvise. Bucak even writes variations for those actors, noting a tendency towards improvisation. She even has variations of the variations (Question 2 variation C). While this is all well and good, (nice, even, for Bucak’s ‘jerk’) by inserting multiple improvisations, she is taking away the You’s (or reader’s) ability to improvise. It’s as if she’s assumed (or lived) what the reader will do or say, but is leaving the guise that you (as the reader) can actually choose what to do/say. And this is where I began wondering more of the formality of her play.

Plays are meant to be performed, leaving room for actor improvisation, but the audience will typically never know when a line has been altered. However, Bucak’s piece is not a play; it is an essay (of sorts) and hardly begs to be performed. And because an actor, the You, is actually YOU, you have no problem filling the role. What Bucak takes from You (the reader, the actor) is space for you to think about what she is speaking of. Okay, I’m not saying you’re not thinking while you’re reading the piece, I’m just positing that you’re experiencing a different kind of thinking while reading. You’re filling a role, which is sort of liberating, to be part of a piece; however, in filling that role you are also limited by how much you can change what is being done/said/thought about you (or by you). You are both implicated and not, though, in either sense, because Bucak has already prescribed variations of certain events, you can never be certain if she really is implicating you or someone else. Either way, though, your space to think (and thus talk) is limited by the construct of the play. Furthermore, Bucak’s blurring of the lines (as the other posts have mentioned, so I really won’t go into this aspect) between You and Me complicates the equation. Both You and Me are present and acting, but the construct of the play truncates their abilities (their, meaning the reader’s) to think beyond the faux improvisation.

However, as I noted earlier, if you take a look at the last page versus the second/third, the last has far less of the variations and structured dialogue, feeling more relaxed and agreeable. I chalk that up to the form again. Our sense of Bucak’s friendliness towards the end doesn’t come with a shift in language (diction/syntax affecting tone), but a shift in form. On the third page, the page made up mostly of oscillating variations and a confusion with the You and Me, Bucak limits the reader’s ability to speak (think), truncating any stray thoughts (improvisations) with variations. What she is also limiting, by using the play-form more readily (more dialogue switching between the cast), is room for her speaker (more the Me [to the audience] than the Me [to You]) to speak.

It is in those moments where the ‘Me’ speaks to the audience that the most is learned about the Me’s situation, thoughts, etc. It is also in that moment that the reader is free from his/her ‘You’ role responsibilities to contemplate Bucak’s divulgences. The more room Bucak gives her ‘Me’ to speak, the more room the reader has to think, and, oddly enough, talk. In short, the space teaches the reader how to read Bucak’s affect. It is easier to note her flourishes, as in the Me [to the audience]’s answer to Question 7 (the whimsical bit about Pops), along with the abrupt stoppage of the flourish with the injection of the structured dialogue again (Can I call you Patty?). Even on the less-structured last page, the play-form attempts its truncation. One can, of course, posit the Chorus as being a more truncating force than the You (or vice versa), but it is just the inclusion of the play-form that does this. It’s as if Bucak has such a hyper-awareness of how she is supposed to act in certain situations (with You, with the audience, with the Turkish Chorus) that she is constantly cutting herself off with tangents or variations. Though those mostly come earlier, as noted, the last page attempts to do so as well. It’s that post-modern self-awareness of “I know what you’re going to say before you say it so I’ll just put it in here so you don’t have to say it. Yeah, I’m that aware of what you think of me and I think of me and the world thinks of me. Here.” What’s interesting, though, is that she chooses to have her final flourish at the end, never coming back to the play-form constraint. Although the last line is a bit cheesy and over-dramatic, the end is a nod to a more romantic realm of the individual (juxtaposed against many definitions of person/place/culture/individualism). Is it an abandonment of the formal constraint by which she and her situation (and us and our situations) has put her (and us) in? Probably not. But it is a freeing of her voice, and thus, our thought, which is welcome enough.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Papatyas (on Ayse Bucak, posted for Rebecca Epstein)

Two Papatyas

"Eight Questions You Would Ask Me If I Told You My Name" is, reduced, a clever package tied neatly, a script with elements that fall into their grooves and remain.  It is so tidy that to read it is to feel a shiver of perfection, an appreciation for a well-oiled machine with smooth, sliding, soundless parts.  But that perfection of form says to the reader, I defy you to peel away my layers; I defy you to look deeper.  And so many a reader likely reads the script in all its orderly design and puts it down sated, though one might argue that this satiation is nothing but a desert mirage.  To peel away the layers is to ask the following:

1) Why such a compact, delicious package anyway?
2) And what’s with the pronouns?
3) What function does the Turkish chorus serve, really?
4) What is the tone of the piece?  Does the form affect the tone?
5) How are we supposed to feel about each of the characters?
6) Is there anger here?
7) Is there self-pity here?  Is that a bad thing?
8) What, then, is the point of this essay?  Where is Papatya going with it?

The reader cannot answer all of these questions at once, but perhaps the one question that will answer itself most readily, or will at least beg its own question most seductively, is the last one.  What is the point of Bucak’s Eight Questions?  Is it an exercise in sympathy-gathering?  Does she want the reader to feel for her, for her troubles as a Turkish-American, straddling two nations?  On the surface, yes.  Bucak feels bad for herself, a touch outraged, and the reader, who as someone outside of the piece, straddles the points-of-view of all characters, especially You and Me, should feel some of this outrage, too. 

But there is more to it.  Bucak calls the interrogator You, the person who is mired in misunderstanding, ignorance, and insensitivity, not to mention the dreary cliché of always asking the same questions as every other You, and by calling the interrogator You, she is also addressing the reader, who is not Bucak, but is an other, a You.  Bucak is saying, if we met, you would ask me these questions too, and this is what I would be thinking.  So as frustrated as the reader feels on Bucak’s behalf, the reader must also acknowledge that she, too, would make the same offenses in Bucak’s presence. 

Bucak takes it even a step further, by transliterating the entire issue into the Turkish realm, as when she meets a Turk or travels to Turkey, and then she adopts the “’help me’ expression” herself, that so often graces the faces of her American interrogators.  So in a way, Bucak is admitting that everyone, under the right circumstances, is an ignorant jerk, and she just so happens to have a name in America that makes her subject to this ignorance more of the time than most.

So, yes, there is a satisfying balance of responsibility in this piece.  But ultimately, despite that balance, it appears as though Bucak herself is unaware of whatever her point might be.  Does she want the reader to feel guilty?  Does she want to relieve the reader of culpability?  Does she want to advise the reader on how to act should she encounter someone with an “unusual” name?  And if Bucak doesn’t know, then neither can the reader. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Blog 1, Variation A: Ayşe Papatya Bucak

There is a growing population of people in America who fit into the definition of so-called “Third Culture Kids”. Third Culture Kids are identified as people who do not identify with one nationality, but rather, have cobbled together an identity which merges two or more cultures, a “third culture” identity. They have created community around this self-identification. There’s even a whole magazine written by TCK writers for TCK readers. Full disclosure: I identify as a Third Culture Kid myself as a first-generation Dutch American with dual citizenship. So I was intrigued by Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s essay, “Eight Questions You Would Ask Me if I Told You My Name”, because I see this growing multiculturalism as something which is significant in contemporary art, a defining hallmark of the current artistic period on the evolutionary continuum. This generation’s artists often do not fit into clearly delineated categories, neither in style, nor in genre, nor in cultural tradition or identity. I would argue that the current generation of artists across all disciplines is the generation of hybridization, and Bucak displays this in both theme as well as form in this essay.

I love that Bucak chooses to frame the essay with an exploration of her name, because what is more connected to identity than one’s identifier- one’s name? Using this micro issue, Bucak essays the larger theme of identity and borders. Bucak writes about the failure to communicate with both Americans and Turks, though she alternates between affiliation with either group. She’s fiercely protective of her Turkish name and heritage (You: What Are You? / Me: My father is Turkish / Me [to audience]: As if I am not). She denies the attempts to Americanize her name to “Patty”. Yet she also cannot connect to her Turkish side, as she does not speak the language and admits “I’m afraid I’m not a very good Turk; I don’t know much about it.” She inhabits an identity somewhere in between the two, not accepting attempts to exoticize her or push her out of the parameters of “normal American”- You: “Do you like having an unusual name?” / Me: “It’s not an unusual name.” Ultimately, she decides the middle ground, what I would call a “third culture” identity, is acceptable and completely valid as a place to plant one’s flag: “a Turk who doesn’t feel Turkish, an American who isn’t only American, a writer who likes to ask questions but not to answer them.” I like this (non)conclusion as an answer to the essay’s questions about identity, because to me it encapsulates what people in the 21st century are really grappling with in an era of widespread travel, the Internet, and exposure to ever expanding possibilities: an erasure of borders. Bucak rejects the definitions of the old school of thinking where Bucak is an “unusual” name. In an interesting way, she creates a new baseline definition of a contemporary America that reflects the actual inhabitants rather than those of the old world. From this baseline definition she makes her arguments, with a modernistic rejection of a divisive, dichotomous “reality” where names like Smith and Jones are “normal” and “Bucak” is exotic. Bucak rubs that chalk line out and says she’s not sure what she is, but that’s simply not the line anymore. Somewhere in the muddled mixture of dirt and chalk is where she is, where we all are.

For me, the old adage “form follows function” is a sacred truism that I often find myself judging experimental forms through. What I appreciate about Bucak’s piece is that the straying from a linear narrative style makes absolute sense and supports rather than detracts from her theme. Each structural choice is made for a reason. She displays the same erasing of borders and hybridization that is explored in the essay’s content, in her form. She slips into the format of a play, borrowing across boundaries from ancient Greek tragedies to make the Greek Chorus new, now playfully identified as a Turkish chorus to explore modern themes. I think her play format works well here, because it forces the reader to engage as the “you” in this essay, literally as an actor in her play/life, whether willing or unwilling. The reader is placed into the center of this sticky mess of multiculturalism and hybridity and identity, so I think the appointment of that role by the essay’s author carries some interesting implications and adds a layer of meaning to the essay that would not have been there had she written it in straightforward prose. Further, the different variations on each question the “You” character asks (Question 1, variation A; Question 1, variation B, etc.) once again enhance this idea of multiple identities and possibilities rather than a black and white dichotomous world where there is one simple question and one simple answer. Now, the “You” isn’t just inhabiting one role, but several simultaneously, and Bucak isn’t inhabiting one role, but several. Instead, we get variations, an interesting and pointed word choice in and of itself- "the state or fact of differing, e.g. from a former state or value, from others of the same type, or from a standard".

The Turkish chorus deserves a few more lines than I afforded it above, I realize. On a second read-through, I see again how well they complicate and deepen the essay, the tension they provide the essay with as another voice in addition to the “You” (thus also removing that dichotomy in the essay of merely “Me” and “You”). The Turkish chorus belligerently (and humorously) champions the Turkish identity at all turns, wanting to push Bucak back into a clearly delineated box where muddiness of identity doesn’t exist- Me: “Where are you from?” / You: “Philadelphia” / Chorus: “She’s lying” / Me: “…I answer Philadelphia because it is the city of my upbringing, the city of my American side. And because, sometimes, I like to remind people that while my name is foreign, I am not.” / Chorus: “She is.” In a way, it’s pretty apt that the chorus in the piece is borrowed from an ancient, clearly-defined, old-school play format because they represent old-school thinking in the essay, the traditional dichotomous thinking that the essayist is pushing against. I suspect the chorus may represent the older generation of Turks and an older generation in most cultures, in fact, who fear or resent what they perceive to be a loss of cultural identity as new generations of immigrants and an increasing globalization begin to blur boundaries and hybridize. I appreciate Bucak’s use of them to interject humor and an argumentative voice, as I do her choice to create a “You” character to put us as readers into a role. Bucak wins high marks on form following function in my book.

Of course, this essay is about far more than a name. It speaks to concepts of cultural identity, the urge to define or to be defined, borders, hybridization, the influence of a surrounding culture on one’s development, and more. I could easily write another 1000 words about this short piece, address the political issues and Bucak’s conflicted statements about being a writer in America versus being a writer in Turkey. But I will leave it at this: I really like what this piece says about contemporary society. Bucak really embraces the theme of hybridization, this word that I think is absolutely the most exciting thing about this era. I think it’s a fine essay, worthy of further examination for its freshness and representation of a new era of writers and 21st century-relevant themes.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Short Essay on Being With Jenny Boully's "A Short Essay on Being"

I have a special kind of respect for things that bother me in ways I don’t understand. Another way of saying it might be that there are times when I find myself unable to ignore things even though I’m sure I don’t like them. It’s annoying when people say something’s “compelling” when they mean “good.” There should be a space for things that compel us but we don’t like. I don’t mind an occasional burr in my ass or fart in my temple. I don’t mind the occasional off remark. I still think about how there are enough jokes about dead babies that the dead-baby joke is actually a genre, and I still wonder why I am interested in these jokes even though I really like babies.

I’ve been having this feeling lately with Jenny Boully’s essay, and the fact that I’m still having it even though we’ve already discussed the essay in class has precipitated a need to exorcise Boully from my spiritual universe, or at least come to terms with the fact that I can never, at this point, un-read “A Short Essay on Being.” You could say I’m compelled to write this post.

Several of my classmates liked this essay. “Sophisticated” was one word, “subtle” was another. Toward the end of class, Ander said something to the effect of “well, I think there’s more to say about it than ‘Plastic Bag,’ and I think that’s a strong-enough endorsement” (and if I’m misremembering or mischaracterizing that, Ander, feel free to air me out in front of my peers). His assessment sort of sums up the feeling I was trying to explain a couple of paragraphs ago: Can I respect something I don’t like? Can I be compelled by it in a positive way?

Anyway, my classmates have already been subjected to my tense body language and vaguely combative comments, but I still feel a drive to boil down my issues and present them to you here—a tray of small, ugly food.

In the essay, Boully presents a series of scenes in which people say boorish and ignorant things to

her and she sits back like a bad dog and takes it. She doesn’t correct the mistakes of her friends and associates, who come off as dim, culturally insensitive people more interested in talking than listening—a strawman of the American individual. She doesn’t correct because it’s not the Thai way—a “way” she solemnly adopts even though she makes a rather big deal about how she’s from Texas, and what’s so hard to believe about that (you bigot). (The metatexual irony here—which I’m not suggesting Boully is unaware of—is that the whole essay is a correction.)

Later, she makes a point that pot Thai is poor folk’s food, but manages to find a place in Brooklyn where she can spend thirteen dollars on it. (I lived in Brookyln for six years and ate what was probably pad Thai every month or so. It was $7. I was the guy who ordered it at the “Native Thai” spice level, which usually forced me into the uncomfortable position of having to say, “I promise, I can handle it”—and I’m still sure they turned it down a little, which is sorta racist if you think about it).

Presumably, the place Boully went to was advertised as “authentic,” otherwise the anecdote deflates even further. And why, I wonder at the end, does Boully make the effort for transitive-property friends who seem so unbearably lame? In my more frustrated moments, my answer to that question is that if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to write this cool essay.

I’ve long been aware of the fact that people say they want “authentic” experiences and then don’t want them once they’re actually confronted with them. I’ve also long been aware of the fact that humans are, seemingly by nature, full-on operas of self-contradictory behavior and belief systems. But are those Boully’s “points”? (And I put “points” in quotes to acknowledge that my approach here might be skewered as regressive and masculine and indifferent to the fluidity and immorality of raw experience itself—I point it out because I know I’m being old-fashioned, but, like Boully, I can’t help who I am.)

If they are her points—or, if that’s what this essay illustrates—I’m skeptical. The instability of Boully’s cultural identity is so beautifully performed that by the end of the essay, I don’t trust any of her opinions or experiences. As a result, I find it easy to ignore her arguments about authenticity. I find it easy to think that Boully might just be a slightly timid—but also slightly mean—person with odd tastes and standards. (I even find it sort of easy to ignore her pain in these difficult situations, which is not a nice thing to say, and I’m struggling with that.)

I agree with Ander and my Boully-supporting classmates that the essay is very cleverly arranged. (If there’s subtlety and sophistication, that’s where I see it: In the essay’s leanness and balance, in the way it seems like Boully has found an electron for every proton.) But is that—to invoke a fiction workshop trope that I feel a sort of queasy bond to—what’s really “at stake”? I don’t necessarily need a struggle from Boully. I don’t need a skyscraping moment of revelation. I don’t need her to be standing on one side of the river saying, “And from that moment on, I was never the same.”

But shouldn’t I be able to ask for those things, especially when what we’re dealing with is presumably of active and real importance to Boully as a human being traversing the wilderness of identity? Isn’t this “important stuff”? I wonder what she thinks the sum of these anecdotes and experiences are (again, realizing that this is an old-fashioned concern, but one I’m willing to defend). What direction is her thinking moving in? Is it even thought in motion, or is she just presenting a series of sad misunderstandings? Is she really problematizing the nature of identity in ways that are novel? Is there morality here? Is she frustrated by all this free-range insensitivity? Is she, as my colleague and pal Justin Yampolsky suggested in his post here, presenting a farce? If so, for whose benefit? And if not… well, for whose benefit? And if for nobody’s benefit, then why?

I’m taking calls on this. I’ve been bothered by this essay since I read it the first week of class. I’m still bothered. There’s a lot of merit in that. Re-invoking Ander, I do feel like I could talk about it for a while and I do think that means something. I think I’m just having a vaguely Emperor’s New Clothes moment: I’m hearing good things, but not understanding them, or they’re just not clearly stated enough for me yet, so I’m starting to wonder if maybe we’re just being smart people who like to talk and are lending this a lot more weight than it has. (Not to demean writing that relies on ambiguity and ellipses of consciousness—despite how buttoned-up I’m sure I sound here, I like freak music and nonlinear art and I’m perfectly happy watching David Lynch movies without making any attempt to “solve the puzzle,” a laissez faire mindset I might’ve inherited from my Dad, who frequently tells me that he thinks plot is for suckers.)

Surely this could be chewed on a little more though. Aren’t we writers? Articulators? [Thumps chest, stares at the ocean.] Again, that might be me being old-fashioned—I’m neurotic by birth and driven to hermeneutics by training. I don’t know why I’ve laughed at dead-baby jokes and I probably never will. It’s working at a level that, like Boully’s essay, is probably so complex that we’re just not built to get it. That won’t stop me from thinking about it though. I’ll be here with a chisel, chiseling.

Mike Powell

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Boully as Fool, Essay as Farce

Aren’t we proud of the ease in which we accept other cultures and ethnicities into our society and their practices into our own lives? We send our children to karate lessons. Our dentists want to be Jewish in order to tell the jokes*. How does the saying go—everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s day? I wouldn’t be where I am today spiritually without the help of my yoga teacher and guru, Chad Myers (Thanks, Chad!). We are one happy American melting pot sitting around a table at Pei-Wei, a non-denominational Asian restaurant, which is great because I love pad Thai and Katie loves Orange Chicken— our dining-out oriental style problems are forever solved (and believe me this was a problem).

* I often confuse “Seinfeld” with reality, which may or may not be a psychological disorder.

Yet, the problem that remains unsolved is our appetite for multiculturalism according to our own tastes. No fish sauce please. No canola oil. No chicken. No egg. We are sufferers of a Burger Kingnik’s paradigm and Jenny Boully’s essay, “A Short Essay on Being” tastes so strange, because suddenly having it your way doesn’t taste so good. It tastes like glass from the mirror I am forced to see myself in. I see an idiot (always, but now for different reasons) and how did I get here?

Boully’s Thai-ness asks of her silence, which often translates into foolishness. In the “enlightened” courts of Brooklyn and Austin, she plays/accepts/welcomes her role as “fool.” Like Shakespeare’s fools, Jenny Boully is a subtle agent of social criticism. She is lonely and lovable, sad and perceivably* unthreatening, and never outspoken of others’ mistakes, knowing by the final scene the real fools will recognize their errors, then a wedding (Mazel tov!). What better way to essay about our nation’s misguided exercises in inclusion/exclusion, then by stringing together (comedic?) scenes of well-intended (some?), yet incredibly off performers falling through the holes of their own idealism?

*I say perceivably here because all fool’s, at least the good ones, have their revenge. Feste gets revenge on Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Hunky Justin is left with blue balls and perhaps an upset stomach.

Boully does so much with so little space, I know our classes will want to attach a lot to this essay. So not trying to reduce the seriousness of Boully’s piece here, but I would like to consider some of its possible comedic elements as my contributing thread. It’s a stretch, but think of this essay in the mode of farce. On look at the first definition under “farced.” Pad, suspiciously, shows up. Everyone back to your college Shakespeare survey courses. Let’s make a checklist of the key components of farce:

Verbal Humor/Word Play: Bouly’s essay begins by playing with the words pad and pot. A pad you live in, a pad “you bleed on,” a pad you write on. Phuk-et/ Fuck-it.

Mistaken Identity: Boully, the Thai national, the Spanish speaker, the Puerto Rican, the Asian (of the scholarship winning variety), the fake speaker of Thai, the Mexican, the Taiwanese girlfriend.

Innuendo/ Sexual Humor: Buddhist anal cleansings, douching with lavender, blue balls.

Poetic Justice: We are literally left unfulfilled.

I am not suggesting that “A Short Essay on Being” uses inflated or fabricated scenes, but are not a good many of her anecdotes reflections of a certain type of absurdity? And farce allows for an indirect-directness, which may be the m.o. of essaying (?) The college girls having their taste of an “exotic” culture consume too much and their faces turn bright red. The Soros fellowship committee has no idea what criticism* means. Beyond the initial absurdity of Boully’s mistaken identity as a Spanish speaker, she is scolded for her inability to speak her “native” language, when a few decades ago the scolding would have been, perhaps, for her doing so. We are laughing, laughing at all these idiots, who want to correct Boully for her mispronunciation, until suddenly, amongst the padding of all these absurdities on top of one another, the realization occurs that we are being implicated ourselves (at least I am. My friends will tell you I am often unintentionally political incorrect.)

*Did Boully intend for this to be ironic?

Maybe that’s the sign of a successful essay. Its ability to find the narrow hole of which it can pass in order for it be heard and take effect. Pointing the finger is never easy, so Boully doesn’t point, at least not directly. While laughing at the Asian family in a Chinatown absent of fresh rice noodles, the finger I (I am not Thai) point turns on me…

I remember working in the campus bookstore, when two Indian girls asked me, “Where can we find the Hindi textbooks?” “Hindi. What’s Hindi?” I asked back. When they explained to me that Hindi was the official language of the Republic of India, I responded, “I thought Indians, spoke Indian.” Unlike Boully, these girls promptly corrected me and did nothing to hide that they thought I was an idiot. As they left the store, I do not doubt that my nineteen-year-old self thought “ I have never been with an Indian girl,” which now reminds me of verse pinned by my ingenious college roommate Matt Ward:

I want a chicken breast sandwich.

Hold the chicken.

Hold the sandwich.

We strip down/water down and in this case pour thick orange syrup over other cultures in order to transform them into pleasurable experiences (sex, food, quick spirituality). Yes, our ideal society is dedicated to tolerance, but what are we really tolerating? Only are own comfortable sugary conceptions of other cultures? This is not an easy point to make, but a good essay must/requires-an exchange between writer and reader that allows for fluidity. Boully does not soapbox us. She acquires her ingredients and she cooks her dish Thai-style. And if the Indian girls I offended hadn’t already corrected me this would be my opportunity to apologize.