Sunday, June 12, 2016

Close Your Eyes

I thought about Jason Molina the other day; he was not yet 40 when he died from complications of alcoholism. I don't have much to say about that but plenty to feel about it...

Here's something of his I never heard until this weekend. A Townes Van Zandt cover, "I'll be Here in the Morning." Van Zandt was no stranger to alcohol, and though in popular myth people's genius seems to stem from the bottle or the mental illness, it's always in spite of all those things.

I made a new print the other day. I messed up the eyes so now she's blindfolded.

It's been twenty years since the release of Belle & Sebastian's Tiger Milk. For a while in the spring I'd walk into Guitar Center and play "The State I am In" on wildly inappropriate guitars like a Slash-from-Guns-N-Roses-special-edition. I love the opening lines, I was surprised/ I was happy for a day in 1975/ I was puzzled by a dream/ It stayed with me all day in 1995

I'm rarely puzzled by dreams but I am haunted by images and places I've seen. I wrote a short scene about a European cemetery I saw in Taiwan in 1999. When I looked it up I learned that it's the French Military Cemetery in Keelung. I didn't know that on their way to conquering what would one day become Vietnam, the French bombarded and attempted to take Taiwan in order to discourage China from interfering. The French lost that one, the result being 700 soldiers buried in Taiwan...and I caught a glimpse of the white walls and plaque with French writing from a car on my way somewhere else, but I never forgot the surprise I felt.

And maybe the woman in my print is saying, "Oh, love of mine/ would you condescend to help me/ 'cause I am stupid and blind"

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

It's Too Late to Articulate

Ever since I went into full on fan mode with Car Seat Headrest I've had this idea that Will Toledo is the successful son of Nik Kranis, the outsider musician from Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia. 

The story goes that a Matador intern passed along Car Seat Headrest's bandcamp stuff to Chris Lombardi and that's how he got signed. To have been such a history-making intern! I was an intern at Matador back in the late '90s and the closest I ever got to helping make such a monumental decision was when Chris Lombardi called me into an office to watch Yo La Tengo's video for "Sugarcube" and asked me what I thought. I said I thought it was cool. End of story.

I've teased out this idea of the tyranny of sense-making before, especially when it comes to lyrics. I hold that impressionistic lyrics can be smart without having to make concrete meaning. I often prefer that because key and tone already do the emotional heavy lifting in rock music. Pavement's Grounded and Car Seat Headrest's Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales are both examples of songs where the lyrics become more affecting because of the musical crescendoes and yelped vocals than what the song is actually saying. I suspect Will Toledo was playing with that when he took a song that could have gone for straight meaning-making and shifted things into non-sense when he threw in two words that have the power of the most fist-pumping anthems, but don't fit the context of the previous lyrics. Killer whales? Sounds great! Does is mean anything besides the existential mind fuck that is climate change and species extinction? Does it matter? Not to my mind. I'm sure these are exactly the non-committal lyrical shenanigans that have always irked Stephen Malkmus' critics. Why can't he just GET SERIOUS FOR ONCE? Again--the tyranny of sense-making.

If someone options Spiotta's Stone Arabia for the movies, I nominate Car Seat Headrest to write the soundtrack and provide the musical ephemera. He's the Internet's incarnation of Nik Kranis's self-mythologizing (if you don't write your own myth, who will know you're a genius?)

Got to believe that Lombardi loves me<----this lyric was added to an updated version of "Times to Die", one of the bandcamp songs that got re-recorded and released as Teens of Style. I like that Will Toledo doesn't consider a song finished just because he put it on a record. That's cool.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Girl In a Band

The reading at the Asian American Writers Workshop was a great night--Kate Gavino is so generous to writers, and I loved her ABCs of being an Asian American Writer. I got to meet spunky writers like Larissa Pham, and I gave away copies of my zine, Tally Ho Sulky.

I was uncharacteristically late because I couldn't find my earphones and I can't bear taking a long subway ride without listening to music. When I arrived my friend Angela said, "Are you late to your own reading?" I nodded, yes, I am.

I read an essay on cassette tapes and how and why I quit my band. No gory details, but broad strokes. Here's the intro:

The short version of my online dating profile reads: Librarian. Writer. Former psych rock drummer. Future cult leader. Since you can’t prove I’m not a future cult leader, it’s all true.

I am a school librarian and nothing offends my students more than hearing that I was a DJ in college, or that I used to be in a band, or that I am a writer and some people think I’m funny. Any indication that, despite my cardigans and sensible shoes, I might in some other context be cool is suspect bordering on intolerable.

Notice my profile says former psych rock drummer. The first date version of why I quit my band is I wanted to concentrate on my writing. The VH1 Behind the Music version is I quit my band because my ex-husband was the bass player, but since he slept his way into the band, and I was there first, I kicked him out once I no longer wanted to be married to him. Then when the guitar player wouldn’t let me switch from drums to bass, even after I learned all the parts, I quit the band for good.
I ended up cutting two paragraphs toward the end because they were too personal and I had up to that point kept things fairly light--or as light as an essay on dividing your music collection during a divorce can be.

I've been playing guitar again, and teaching myself bass a bit but I am in absolutely no danger of joining a musical situation. I went to Guitar Center yesterday and played a Belle & Sebastian song, The State That I am In, on the Slash edition of some guitar. It was pretty funny. And I think I hate Fenders. They don't feel good in my hands. I'm glad I sold mine.

If you know me at all you know I have a banana obsession. I learned print making last summer and made a patch for my "Girl in a Band" Halloween costume (I was the rock memoir genre.)

Kate Gavino gave a fun talk and I especially loved this graphic about being an Asian woman and fetishes. I do love a good hot dog.

See--Bananas and hot dogs.

I still look like me.

I suggested we stand for this photo because nobody looks good sitting on the couch at AAWW. Look, we all wear glasses and I wore my librarian's best. Larissa and I talked about writing erotica (she does so, I do not). I liked the idea of choosing a pen name for that. I think the perfect pen name for any erotica I write is Barbara Pym. Librarians/Anthropologists/Sociologists/Learned Conferences-turned-orgies, a re-imagining of the Pym universe in velvet and lace. Maybe not. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Poem

Not long ago I said, "Instead of writing about race I'm going to work on my novel," because that's what white people do while the rest of us defend ourselves from yet another racist event, so I'm really annoyed that I felt compelled to write about race, again.

The reason I am writing this post is because my friend, Elisa Gabbert, wrote: "I feel like racism against Asian Americans is "the other racism" and not taken very seriously." She also very generously included me in a list of writers whose voices she appreciates on this issue.

I am mixed race-- Irish and Taiwanese American to be exact. I used to identify as Asian American but I don't do that anymore because I am not mono-racial. I do have an affinity for my Asian-ness, however, so I identify as a mixed Asian American. I believe your racial affinity lies on a spectrum depending on your interests and your environment. I once spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese, but my sister didn't. I was a Chinese Studies/English Literature double major, while my sister studied film and took Latino Studies classes. Her racial affinity probably lies somewhere else on the spectrum and there's nothing wrong with that.

Because I don't know what it's like to be mono-racial I try to question myself when I am not offended by something Asian Americans are offended by. Maybe in those instances my whiteness protects me.

Calvin Trillin wrote a poem about Chinese food. I've read his other writing with some pleasure, but so what? We're talking about this particular piece of writing, so it doesn't matter if he wrote well before. He didn't this time, and that's what we're taking into account. I believe he's capable of writing something good again. I don't promise to read it, or to enjoy it, but I'm pretty busy. Nothing personal, Mr. Trillin!

My main take on it wasn't offense per se, but world weary head shaking at his corniness. It's like when a white grandpa with mixed Asian grandchildren said to me, "Mixed race Asians are beautiful--like you." I said,"Eh, I've seen ugly ones."

I'd wanted to say that for a long time because I've had people say stuff like that to me my whole life and I want people to see how absurd that way of thinking is. No one chooses who their parents are, so don't place a value judgment on my ethnic makeup; placing a positive value judgement on my ethnic makeup implies there is a wrong combination of ethnicities to be. That kind of "compliment" is one of those supposedly good things that doesn't feel good.

This morning as I curled my hair I looked at myself in the mirror and laughed, remembering an earlier racist event involving poet, Sarah Howe. She is part Chinese, like I am, and apparently some men in England were upset that she won a prestigious poetry prize. This prompted an article in the Guardian titled

TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful - and Chinese?

As I looked at myself I remembered the headline and how absurd it was. Do they know how ridiculous they are? How racist? I smiled at myself and wanted to be TOO BEAUTIFUL/TOO CHINESE out of spite. I wished I were more beautiful, and more Chinese. I wanted to be so Chinese and SO BEAUTIFUL I killed anyone who objected to Chinese-ness and Beauty by just looking at them.

I didn't think Trillin's poem was the worst example of racist writing, but I understand why people were upset because the New Yorker supposedly has high standards for publication. How did this make the cut?  I find David Sedaris's essay about a trip to China to be much uglier in its racism. He doesn't even like Chinese food! At least Trilling LOVES Chinese food. Sedaris does this thing where he pits two Asian countries against one another. Japan is clean and civilized while China is dirty and uncivilized. The white man gets to decide!

But let's talk about satire, or self parody. I believe Trillin believes he was parodying his class of bourgeois food-obsessed aesthetes, but those little cuts he made at his own expense don't cut as deep as the daily cuts Asian Americans feel from experienced racism. Asian Americans are always made to feel foreign no matter how deep their American roots are. You can't talk about Chinese immigration today without thinking about The Chinese Exclusion Act. This country was so afraid of Chinese people they enacted legislation to EXCLUDE them. Don't tell us we're being too sensitive when we object to satiric suggestion that there are too many Chinese provinces. We remember how Americans felt about us (and some still do). If you want to talk about Chinese food, let me tell you about my student who goes to school and then works late at her parent's Chinese take out restaurant because they need the money. How about my other student who dropped out of school to work at a Chinese restaurant because her mother became too ill to work. Their lives are tough, and then they have to be the punchline to a white man's attempt at satire? Trillin's satire will never cut him that deeply.

Those who benefit from defending old white men, and whiteness in general, tell us to lighten up, to give racist writing the benefit of the doubt. But they don't give our offense the benefit of the doubt. And if we don't lighten up they say we're angry (always seen as a negative trait) and they call our criticism "attacks".  They belittle the platforms of our criticism. Dismissing our criticism as Twitter storms, or FB rants, or whatever else they deem is an illegitimate forum for airing our grievances. And if we take to the pages of the New York Times to give our side of the story, then they lament that the PC Police are worse than racism or sexism. They see criticism as a loss of their freedom of speech, instead of what it really is: being called to account for your writing and beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from criticism.

So, even though my initial reaction was to roll my eyes at how CORNY it was, I'm happy other people are pissed, and I support them. We're in an uncomfortable moment on lots of fronts--gender, sexuality, race, class--but that's a good thing. It makes me think things are changing.

I recently told my mother, "Every time I eat a dumpling I'm proud to be part Chinese." (See--I am not above corniness.) She said, "Do you ever wish you were completely white?" I felt so sad when she asked me that. "Never," I said. And it's true. I've never wished I wasn't part Chinese. That would be like wishing I didn't have a mother.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Blue Red and Grey

I've been officially divorced since September 2015, but I just received my copy of the divorce papers on Monday March 21, 2016. I wasn't expecting them, and while on any other day they might have simply represented the bittersweet close to ten years of my life (because I had already had my cathartic moments all through last year), that day they felt like a bad omen in my hands. I could already taste the bitter irony in my mouth because I had just met someone, and while things seemed to being going better than I dared to hope, by the evening he wanted to talk, and people usually only feel the urgent need to talk when they want to bring something to a close.

It took a lot for me to write to a friend that I was sad. I am sad. How hard can that be to admit? My therapist said my composure isn't good for me. She was happy to hear that I found myself crying on the subway the next morning.

Six months before I ended my marriage by telling my ex-husband, "I can't do this anymore," I wrote this piece, My Anaconda Don't Want None, about Bill Callahan and how my mother reacted when she found out I was depressed. When I wrote the piece I still thought I had a future with my ex-husband. Knowing that makes it hard for me to trust myself, and to trust how I feel about anyone, but I still take small leaps of faith because what else can anyone do?

Not to diminish this particular person who made me sad, but I don't really know him--it started and ended too quickly to get more than a backdrop on which to project my own hopes and fantasies, and yet, I was sad when it ended. This isn't about him specifically, but what it means to have hope and then to have it squashed.

But something we talked about was Joni Mitchell. I had written that I have now read more about Joni Mitchell in other people's memoirs than I have heard her music (like the excellent memoir,  The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky). I also said that I re-read Zadie Smith's graceful essay on her Joni Mitchell epiphany and it made me sure that I would one day have my own Joni Mitchell epiphany. Zadie Smith's essay is called "Some Notes on Attunement", which reminded me of the conversation I had with my therapist about finding a romantic partner who is attuned with me in all the ways that are important to me. Some people need physical, intellectual, and emotional attunement in differing degrees, and in the past I had accepted less of what I needed instead of waiting for a better match. Waiting is scary, but settling leads to regret, as I learned at the end of my marriage.

I tried to explain how profoundly moved I'd been by an essay published last year called "The Trip Treatment". It's about research into using psychedelics to treat many ailments, including fear of death in terminally ill patients. What had struck me was a patient's conviction that what mattered at the end was love, and this line,

“People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”
If you've ever suffered from a period of depression, the idea that there might be something that can help, that won't dull your affect, that will only make it easier to face life, even if it is, to quote Lou Reed, "just to die", why wouldn't you?

Anyway, after I read that article I had a new conviction that I wanted to eventually meet someone when I was ready. What meeting someone means, and what the details will be, are still unclear. I just know I want to have someone in my life with who I am attuned to and who is attuned to me. Some people turn away from the idea of romantic love after a divorce, or they rush toward something that feels like it, but might actually be a mirage created by the anxiety of loneliness. So there's that problem again. How do you know it when you see it? How do you know when to trust how you feel?

We also talked about Big Star and Chris Bell, both favorites of ours. What I didn't say is I watched the Big Star documentary with my ex-husband when he was still living with me because this is New York and he lost his job soon after we broke up. You think you're going to stop having profound moments with someone when your romantic relationship ends but that's a child's understanding of marriage and divorce. If you're still in one another's lives you will still hurt one another, and help one another until you are no longer able to do either. When I received the divorce papers I immediately thought--I better let him know to call his old roommate to get his mail forwarded--but then I remembered that he is no longer my problem.  He has a girlfriend and he's her problem now (but I hope she doesn't see it that way).

I don't play guitar well and I don't play often, but sometimes I am compelled, and this week I learned "Blue Moon", and I played "I am the Key" because it's easy and a favorite. I like this version of Blue Moon by Damon and Naomi. And this version of I am the Key by Britt Daniel. Lee Mavers, the leader of The La's wrote that one, but he's more famous for There She Goes . When things still seemed to be going right I stopped myself from sending this man "Listen, The Snow is Falling", a song I mentioned when we saw clips of John and Yoko's bed-in, because I thought it would give too much away.

I like hearing demos and live versions of songs because you hear other possibilities. Like this live version of the Who's Blue Red and Grey, Pete Townshend says about his line, I like every minute of the day, --"Such a fucking lie!" Songs are the idealized version of love and death and everything in between.

Today is Easter Sunday, but it is also the day Guan Yin achieved Enlightenment, and the centenary of the Irish Easter Rebellion. Heavy all around, but I'm less sad than I was on Tuesday.

You can't have a Joni Mitchell epiphany if you don't have Joni Mitchell on your listening device, so I put her famous album on my phone. And as I was walking home from a long walk today a song I had never heard before came on shuffle. Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You". I heard it once, then I had to hear it again and again. That's how it works. I like this BBC version. Maybe you will, too.

Yesterday I observed that the best thing about song lyrics is that they're all about your life and the worst thing about song lyrics is that they're all about your life. That's why music is one of the most universal art forms. Almost everyone has felt what music makes you feel. You almost trust that what you're feeling is true.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Winter Round-Up

Back in the fall I published an essay about my mother's belief in spirits, but one of the initial impulses was to write about a supposedly haunted hotel in Taiwan. One of the unresolved pieces of that puzzle was whether the supposed execution ground the hotel was reportedly built upon was a Japanese-era execution ground, or a Taiwanese KMT-era execution ground. Now I know it was a KMT-era political prison. Read the sad story of families just-now learning what became of their family members during the White Terror era. These letters are heart breaking.

One of my favorite writers, Elisa Gabbert, was interviewed over at the Rumpus. She mentions our exchange for Electric Literature, but do read the interview to bask in her brilliance.

I interviewed one of my favorite writers, Dana Spiotta, for Electric Literature.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ghost Stories

I recently published an essay, "My Mother's Ghosts," at Electric Literature.

I originally planned to include a parallel storyline about the supposedly haunted Grant Hyatt Taipei, but my editor asked me to narrow my focus (for which I am grateful). This section now seems timely, given the "historic" meeting between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents.

Why is the Grant Hyatt Taipei Haunted?

After searching the Internet for  examples of Taiwanese ghost stories, I came across the story of the Grand Hyatt Taipei. Built in 1990, the hotel is rumored to be haunted. Link after link revealed a classic ghost story adapted to the Internet. The travel sites had reviews with titles like “Nice hotel, but haunted,” “Haunted, schmaunted,” and “Haunted beyond belief.” The Daily Telegraph published an article, “The World’s most haunted hotels,” that has this to say about the Grand Hyatt Taipei, “Taipei’s luxurious resort was built over a former wartime political prison and is said to be haunted by the ghosts of several inmates who were executed, according to local residents. The hotel has placed a Chinese sutra and other sacred scrolls throughout the lobby in an attempt to rid the place of any wandering spirits.” Like any good ghost story we have a plausible tragedy confirmed by a secondhand source. There is also an Internet rumor that Jackie Chan refuses to stay at the hotel after encountering spirits. Interestingly, according to the hotel’s Wikipedia page,Jackie Chan is not one of the Notable Guests, but Guns N Roses is listed, perhaps enjoying Chinese democracy while promoting their record, Chinese Democracy.

But why do Taiwanese people believe this hotel is haunted? All I could find were vague references to the hotel being built upon a wartime execution ground, or prison, or cemetery. When Taiwan was a Japanese colony, the Japanese held Allied prisoners of war on the island. I did research to see if the location of the hotel matched up with the known locations of Japanese colonial era prisons and it does not. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but POW survivors have published detailed accounts in English and nothing matched up.

The polite consensus about Japanese colonization of Taiwan is that it was a good deal for everyone because Japan built railroads and other infrastructure, but they also suppressed the Taiwanese language, banned Chinese language newspapers, and fought a continuous war against Taiwanese independence guerillas. In 1902 Japan offered these guerrilla fighters amnesty if they came down from the mountains and surrendered. The men gathered at a hall, believing they were being honored, and were told to wear white flowers. Historian Jonathan Manthorpe writes, “When 360 of the partisans were in the hall the doors were bolted and everyone wearing a white flower was killed.”          

In the chain of rumors the ones most grounded in actual historical fact were on Forumosa, a message board catering to Western ex-patriots. Again, the rhetorical strategies of the traditional ghost story are in play. One person says the land was a World War II battlefield, another says it was a prison and execution ground used by the current ruling party, the KMT. A book, “A Taste of Freedom,” by Taiwanese independence activist Peng Ming-min is cited as evidence. Another person claims that his godfather was one of the feng shui experts consulted. The Jackie Chan rumor resurfaces. Everything is second hand, but plausible; nothing is proven.

I went as far as matching up sites on my map of Taipei and taking a ride on Google Street view, but I couldn’t find any definitive markers that proved that the hotel was situated on tainted ground. I read several articles about a neglected cemetery turned into the Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park. It overlooks the land upon which the Grand Hyatt Taipei is built, but it’s too far away to be the origin of the supposed hauntings.

Which brings us to the White Terror. After World War II, control of Taiwan was given to the Kuo Min Tang—the Chinese Nationalist party— who then had a tenuous grasp on China, but they lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists, and fled to Taiwan for good. My mother has a Taiwanese saying about the period when the Japanese left, and the KMT arrived— “The dogs left so the pigs could take over.” Like the Japanese, the KMT suppressed the Taiwanese language, and quashed the Taiwanese independence movement. Many people were imprisoned on suspicion of being Japanese collaborators. In Jiu Fen, a gold mining boom town, my great grandfather and grandfather leased mines from the Japanese colonial government. After the KMT arrived, they fled into the surrounding mountains and hid out until they were sure they wouldn’t be arrested.

On February 27, 1947 a dispute between a cigarette vendor and government officials sparked an uprising. The deaths in the aftermath became known as the 228 Massacre (February 28, 1947). Martial law, and the White Terror lasted from 1945 to 1987, during which time the secret police surveilled political dissidents and civilians, hunting for Communist spies. According to Manthorpe, as many as 90,000 were arrested during this time period, and “about 10,000 of those were actually tried in military courts, but about 45,000 were executed summarily.” Where do forty-five thousand restless spirits go? To put this into perspective, the CIA World Fact Book lists Taiwan as being slightly smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined.

As I rolled past the Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park using Google street view, the land unremarkable, what had seemed like groundless superstition began to read as an expression of a collective grief and fear over past trauma. Even if no one can definitively name the execution ground upon which the Grand Hyatt Taipei supposedly stands, the fact that the hotel hired feng shui experts speaks to how ingrained the memory of terror is. The Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park is one of the government’s shabby apologies for the White Terror, the first of which didn’t come until 1995. Much like Ghost Month, the White Terror is something to honor, but not necessarily talk about. Maybe ghost stories like the Grand Hyatt Taipei persist because the KMT government is still in place, the threat from China never ceases, and Taiwan remains in limbo, like hungry ghosts who died violent deaths, or whose ancestors have ceased to honor them.