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.  

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.