Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lake of Fire

I have a memory I know must be false and it makes sense that it takes place in Taiwan because whenever I'm there I live in that disoriented in-between space that not speaking the language puts me in. I rely on symbols and instinct and take cues from the physical environment but it's never quite enough to be completely at ease. In that way it's haunting, a place I'm drawn to but can never grasp.

My false memory is of driving across a narrow bridge that sits low to a large body of water, with a shin high wall. We get out of the car and it's misty and I look across a lake of fire. I was not raised a Christian and my grasp of Christianity is hazy and probably misinformed by popular Western culture, and my first grade year at a Catholic school. So, when I speak of a lake of fire, I am not talking about hell in the Christian sense. This was more like a volcanic lake of fire. Taiwan has many dormant volcanoes, and there are hot springs across the island, but as far as I know, the lake of fire of my memory does not exist. I don't know where it came from but I can date the false memory to my visit in 1999.

That same year I thought I was moving to Taiwan to teach English, and I did, for a few months, but I began to feel alienated because I was living with my Taiwanese family and I wasn't able to participate in the expat culture. I briefly dated an Australian teacher but our dates were chaste affairs that involved bad Taiwanese pizza and visits to Internet cafes where we checked our e-mail and the lives we left back home. I'd just graduated from college, was in my early twenties and thought I was missing an important chance to have formative experiences with my peers living with my aunt and my mother's paranoia (she was convinced I'd be kidnapped if I was allowed to take the bus or ride a motor scooter by myself).

Before I went back to New York to face whatever Y2K was going to unleash upon us, we went to Jiu Fen, my mother's home town. When my grandfather died from a stomach ailment in his late 30s my grandmother was pregnant. After she gave birth, she gave her son up for adoption to a neighboring family, bought land in central Taiwan, and relocated the family. I used to think my grandmother gave up my uncle for superstitious reasons (and she partially did) but now I know part of it must have been grief. My mother was about nine years old.

My mother says my agong he was a handsome playboy who wore a white suit. The only other things I know about him are that he, like my great-grandfather, was a gold miner, and when Japan lost WWII, and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan from China, both my grandfather and great grandfather hid in the mountains above Jiu Fen for fear they would be rounded up and be accused of being collaborators with the Japanese (who colonized Taiwan for 50 years). What might have been considered collaboration was just business to my family. The Japanese government held mining rights and my family wanted to mine gold.

I visited Jiu Fen in December and the weather was mid-fifties, high humidity, and drizzling with that whispy mountain fog that streaks Taiwan's peaks. I remember our clothes were always damp and my cousin's wife tried to dry my pants using a hair dryer. My mother's uncle had several large trophies on top of his television--awards from karaoke contests. He serenaded us for hours in Taiwanese, and my aunt, fifteen years older than my mother (and just fifteen years younger than my grandmother) sang Japanese songs because her few years of schooling was in Japanese. She taught herself how to read Chinese as an adult and still does not speak Mandarin well. My mother having gone to school when Mandarin was required and Taiwanese was suppressed, sang in Taiwanese.

We walked along the touristy Jiu Fen Old Street at night to eat regional snacks, but we spent our days taking trips around northern Taiwan. I think we passed the French cemetery in Keelung (who knew the French tried to take Keelung during the Sino-French War? Who knew about the Sino-French War?). We stopped in McDonald's for french fries (okay, I ate the french fries). We visited that spooky geologic oddity, Yehliu.

Here's some fiction I wrote about that place:

The geological park was at the edge of the sea and one of the weird pockmarked caves was named the Lover's Den. The words were carved on a plaque in Chinese and English and hung above the entrance as if to give invitation to couples in case of a storm. I never learned much Chinese but the bottom of the character for lian, was the character for heart--xin. I pointed it out to my mother and she said, “Lian is a funny word. It means to love, but it also means to miss someone or be homesick.”
It made sense to me. The landscape was lunar and strange. The sea had eroded and carved fantastical shapes out of the sand colored rocks. As the sea pounded the rocks and sent spray above our heads, loneliness suffused the air. It was the perfect place to wallow and nurse an unrequited love. It was a place to make a suicide pact. Someplace conjured in the mind of a poet.
This is fiction. What I probably felt when I visited was a post-teenage annoyance at my mother, and begrudging wonder at the weirdness of the place. It wasn't until I'd left and could only see it in my mind that it took on greater significance. And the same thing happened with Jiu Fen itself.

Here's more of my fiction:

It took a movie to make my mother's hometown come alive again. City of Sadness. Jiu Fen's economic depression preserved its heritage—buildings clung to the sides of the mountain like stone mushrooms, unchanged from the gold boom heyday.
In the distance, at the summit of another peak stands a temple to Tu Di Gong, a Daoist earth god. When the gold boom arrived the temple was overwhelmed by men lining up the mountain track leading to the temple, eager to make their offerings to Tu Di Gong, in the hopes that theirs would be the lucky strike. Tempers flared and the crowds became unmanageable for the temple monks. They made an offering to Tu Di Gong, and threw down red wooden half-moon shaped divination blocks and asked if they should move the temple to a new location. No matter how many times the question was reiterated, the answer was the same. The red blocks landed smooth side up, indicating that Tu Di Gong was angry. In the end, instead of moving the icon of Tu Di Gong, the monks built a larger temple around the original wooden temple. A temple inside a temple; Tu Di Gong sat safe inside the inner chamber, the heart of Fushan temple. 
As the mist floats above, the sea heaves below, and the temple stands in the far distance, people crowd the narrow lanes, engaging in the nostalgia tourism that sustains Jiu Fen now that the gold is too deep for human hands to extract. Teahouses and food stalls line the alleys. My second cousin knows which stalls sell the best regional delicacies. 
A gold miner's son, he runs a guesthouse where his wife uses a hair dryer to take the damp out of his socks.
When my grandfather died my grandmother relocated to the central plains where the heat dries clothes on the line within the hour.
On our last day we passed a gated tunnel, with the words Tunnel Number 5 carved above the curved entrance. My second cousin tells my mother that their fathers worked inside, side-by-side.
Not allowed to visit my grandfather's grave for superstitious reasons, when I peer into the dark tunnel, I imagine that Tunnel Number Five is where his spirit lives no matter the facts or reasons why not.
I had the haunting images but no plot. That came when I spent the long weekend of the Jewish New Year 2014 not sleeping. It was starting to make me a little crazy. I decided to sit down and figure out the structural problem at the heart of a difficult novel I've been working on for years. I finally figured out how to make Jiu Fen a character, and tie it into a central conflict, without relying on my family's actual history. Then, still not able to sleep, I thought I might tire myself out by exercising so I did some sit ups using a balance ball and managed to do something to my inner ear and couldn't walk straight. I went to the hospital once I started throwing up. It passed. I didn't have a stroke. I'm still working on the difficult novel on and off. I'm still thinking about Jiu Fen and I hope to go back, alone, or with a friend, so I can view it the way my character would, without the crutch of interpretation my mother would provide. I hope I can finally get a copy of my family's jia pu (Chinese genealogical record). My mother says my Taiwanese family left Fujian province for Taiwan more than a hundred years ago. I asked her how she knew that and she said, "It's in the book." I hope I finish my book.

Visiting a place that haunts you is an attempt to capture what you were and what you hope to be. It might be impossible but it's why we return. I know the lake of fire doesn't exist but in fiction it could. That's where it lives.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

You Too Can Have a Body

I interviewed Alexandra Kleeman over at Electric Lit about her debut novel, "You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine".

We talked about writing, working in different forms, and female beauty products, but in the introduction to the piece I teased one of the story lines which involves a snack cake that is touted for being natural even though all of its organic ingredients are neutralized by chemical processes and rendered more plastic than food.

I took a print making class where I learned how to make block prints. As is my nature, it's become an obsession of mine. Here are some prints I made.

I call this a banana pickle.

It's total bullshit that there isn't a hot dog emoji.


And this is my favorite snack food name. (From Taiwan, of course.)

Friday, July 3, 2015

Interview with The Blunt Instrument

I had a conversation with Elisa Gabbert over at Electric Literature about the reaction to her Blunt Instrument advice column where she tackled the "white male writer and equality in publishing" problem.

As I stated in the intro to our conversation, I have a horse in this race, being bi-racial, and running a school library that serves a population that is 94% people of color. Running a school library means that every year I select books and materials to purchase for pleasure reading and to support the school curriculum. I have a fair amount of power in this position considering I am given (a mere) $6.25 per student with which to purchase materials. That averages out to about $8,000 a year, and I spend every penny. Yet, every year I look for books by black, Latino, Asian American, Muslim, LGBTQ, etc. etc. etc. writers writing about these people and issues, and most books on offer are by and about white men and women. That's when it feels like white supremacy; that's what it looks like. This is not a theoretical problem, so we need concrete solutions.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How Do We Live? Why?

I interviewed Hanya Yanagihara for Electric Literature about many things, one of them being suicide, another being the emotional capacities of men. We corresponded by e-mail over the course of a few weeks. I'd started following her Instagram feed and each day I saw her lush photos from Sri Lanka, while most days I had a view of the BQE.

Art plays a big part in her novel, A Little Life, and she wrote about the artworks that inspired the novel over at New York Magazine.

A view of the BQE isn't all bad, though. I found some drums there and took two of them:



And sometimes I think the dollar store is my natural habitat:

Other days I write wishes on a crane and send it off on its way:


Saw Courtney Barnett the other day at a last minute invitation and met a woman from Canada. Days like that are reason enough. Here's Courtney Barnett at SXSW.




Monday, May 18, 2015

I Get Superstitious

In the winter I interviewed Elisa Ambrogio and Naomi Yang for the Rumpus. That entire adventure fell into my lap because I tweeted a link to a blog post I wrote about Elisa's video for Superstitious; she RTed, and then I asked if I could interview her and Naomi. Sometimes you just have to ask for things.

I'm happy to say that Elisa scored a major publicity boost last week when the New York Times T Magazine ran a short post on her new video for "Arkansas". Check it out! Her record is great and more people should be listening.

I have some forthcoming interviews with writers set to run in Electric Literature. Stay tuned.

And here's a plug for Okey Panky, a literary journal under the EL umbrella, run by writers and editors who have been friends and mentors for a long time. Elisa Gabbert's poems in last week's issue are fantastic.

A taste:

We had crossed into
November. I spoke
of my desire. I said desire

but I meant longing.
Desire is despair
with sex mixed in.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Permissive Playground/ Menacing Nightmare

I interviewed writer Dylan Landis over at Electric Literature. I loved "Rainey Royal," a book about a tough but vulnerable teenage girl making her way through 1970s New York City. Landis talks about writing in a way that is both instructive and inspiring, and she also talks about pre-gentrification New York City in a way that acknowledges that there was real danger with the grit, but that's not necessarily something that turns off a teenage girl.

"Rainey Royal" was the first book I'd read in a long time that I felt truly represented what it was like to grow up in New York City. There's actually a Latina in the book! If you go by the fiction published in America you'd think there were no Latinos in New York City.

Something that Landis talks about in the interview is how dangerous New York was, but that didn't stop teenagers like Rainey Royal from treating New York like a playground. We also talked about sexual assault and harassment and how it is and isn't talked about. There are definitely people and things I encountered that I should have told an adult about but I didn't because freedom seemed a tradeoff for safety (up to a point, I'll say--I'm lucky in that I've never been sexually assaulted). When I worked at the Strand when I was nineteen I used to take my break outside and eat a banana on the corner of 12th street. I wasn't trying to be provocative, I just liked eating bananas. Anyway, I was just minding my business and despite my giving no indication that I was interested, an older co-worker repeatedly tried to buy me candy bars and ask me on dates. I wondered what I was doing wrong that he didn't stop bothering me, but he should have stopped after the first time. And then there was the sweaty man with the crooked glasses who asked me if I would come to his studio to have my pictures taken. He asked me once and then forgetting that he'd already asked me, he asked me again the next week and was startled to recognize me once I showed my fear and anger at being harassed by a creep. All I could think was, this fucker thinks I'm going to let him take naked pictures of my like Coco from the movie Fame! The worst, scariest thing was when I stupidly let a co-worker from a telemarketing job drive me home. He was so much older I just assumed he was taking a fatherly interest in me (how naive I was to think men older than 40 thought 18 year olds were off limits). It became clear that he had other ideas when he told me that his last girlfriend had been 17 and that he liked a girl to be a lady on the street and a tiger in the sheets. Yes! He actually said that. This was pre-cell phones so I just prayed to all the gods in the pantheon of gods I'd ever witnessed in any house of worship that he simply drop me off at home and not take me to the Bronx where he said he lived. He did simply take me home but not before scaring me and making me vow to myself to never get into a car with a man again. I didn't tell my mother but I immediately called a friend and she yelled at me to be more careful. I was. I tried to be. When we don't talk about these things we think it's just us or that these are isolated incidents, but they happen to women all the time and not just when you're 18, 19, whatever. In the fall I took a yellow taxi home and after some idle chit chat the cab driver said that I was very sexually attractive and that if a man didn't think so, not even viagra would help. Men can't possibly think that this feels like a compliment--there has to be a part of them that knows that this feels like a threat, even if that knowledge is subconscious, it's there, and still, they say these things.

Read the interview. She's great.