Monday, October 28, 2013

Point: Break

It's been a wonderful weekend.

I got up on Saturday morning and went to Newport, RI.  Took a nice walk from Easton's Beach down Memorial Drive and did some shopping downtown.  Yes, it was chilly at first: the wind kind of caught you by surprise.

But totally worth it.

Only down side: I forgot my camera.  I always do.

I got back and did some yard work.  Call it a minor victory, but I'm always quite pleased with myself when the leaves are manageable enough that I can mow them and use them to mulch the lawn.  Raking leaves seems like such a ... pointless... task otherwise.

And given that some creature is apparently using a small section of my lawn as his/her own private port-a-potty, the lawn-mower mulching is very much preferable.

I've been knitting.  I'd show you what I've been working on, but it's a gift and a surprise, so... sorry.  No go.

What I can show you is what I did this morning.  I headed out to North Scituate and picked up these little beauties:

I ate two on the walk back to the car.  Yes, they are quite good.  Add a gallon of cider, which is right now mulling away on the stove with a couple of cloves and a cinnamon stick, and it was a morning well spent.

This is what I love about Rhode Island.  You can be on the beach one day, and in the woods the next.  Locals who complain constantly don't realize how good they have it, in my opinion.

After I got back from Newport on Saturday, I decided to make an Italian wedding soup.  It's a perfect way to ring in the newly-arrived autumn.  I found really good ground chicken and ground chicken sausage (apologies to the vegetarians), and the resulting meatballs were good enough to eat on their own.

But I refrained.  Sort of.

Okay, I ate a few.  But I saved the bulk of them for the soup.

Because the soup had all kinds of good things in it, including chopped spinach:
And the last of the fresh carrots from the garden.  I also used whole-grain pasta in the soup itself, so it isn't terribly unhealthy, per se.

It's just rather yummy is all.  A comfort food par excellence, if I do say so myself.  Here are the carrots from the garden (which is basically history, as of this weekend):

Yes, I know they're funny shapes.  That's the beauty of carrots fresh from the garden.

At least, that's what I tell myself.  Anyway, they taste good, and as my mom used to say, "that's all that matters."

The soup turned out great.  I used homemade chicken broth that I made last winter, so it ended up really hearty and full of flavor--although admittedly, not very photogenic.  It totally tastes better than it looks, in my opinion.

So this has been the break.

I've also done a fair amount of reading, and I've stumbled upon a novel that I'm liking a lot, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (2004).

I read her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and I thought it was probably pretty good, but I couldn't really tell.

I read it while my godson was having an MRI after his round of chemotherapy, so in all fairness, there isn't a work of literature on the planet that would have absorbed my interest, under the circumstances.

But I do remember thinking that Lahiri is a good writer, and I'd have to check out something else that she's written, to do her justice.

So in the grand scheme of things, the break has been a success.  Here's wishing it didn't have to end.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Real and the Fake, Revisited

Back when I was in college and graduate school, the Asian-American writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan were all the rage.

No one mentioned Frank Chin all that much, although Chin had been writing short stories throughout the 1970's.  He was one of the first Asian American playwrights to have a major New York production.

Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), on the other hand, was immediately and enormously popular (a chapter of my dissertation is on Hong Kingston's work).  Her next memoir, China Men (1980), appeared a few years later, to somewhat less popular acclaim (although quite frankly, I think it's a somewhat stronger work).

Amy Tan arrived on the scene a few years later with The Joy Luck Club (1989), and helped fan the flames of interest in Asian-American literature.  In 1993, her novel was made into what is, in my opinion, a truly cheesy and terrible movie.  Tan wrote a few more popular novels in rapid succession, including The Kitchen God's Wife and The Hundred Secret Senses.  I read the former and didn't like it at all--to such an extent that this ended my little run of reading Amy Tan.

In 1991, Fran Chin wrote an article entitled, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake," angrily blasting Hong Kingston, Tan, and David Henry Hwang (the author of M. Butterfly) for writing works of Asian American literature that perpetuate racist stereotypes.

Chin was irate about the extent to which these works achieved instant and seemingly everlasting popularity with an American audience.  In his opinion, they do a serious disservice to "authentic" representations of the Asian experience in America by tapping into the very stereotypes that Asians have been trying to combat for centuries.

Specifically, Chin charges, "Kingston, Hwang, and Tan are the first writers of any race, and certainly the first writers of Asian ancestry, to so boldly fake the best-known works from the most universally known body of Asian American lore in history."

From a literary standpoint, what is at issue in Chin's charge is the way in which Hong Kingston and others revise (in Chin's words, "boldly fake") the stories told in ancient Chinese legends and novels.  For example, The Woman Warrior retells the legend of Fa Mu Lan, the medieval story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to go to war and spare her father.  She goes in place of the son the family does not have.

Have you seen the Disney movie Mulan?  If so, this is precisely Frank Chin's point.

The legend of Hua Mulan is a story that is potentially appealing to an American audience, in a way that other Chinese legends might not be.  Quite frankly, there are a TON of Chinese legends about the heroic deeds of male warriors who sacrifice themselves in acts of honor, loyalty and duty, out of a love for family and community. 

And why, really, does someone need to retell the story of Madama Butterfly, of all things?  This is also Chin's point: given the vast array of ancient and classical materials from the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions, readily available for Asian American artists to work with, why choose these particular texts as the organizing framework for a literary intervention in contemporary American literature and culture?

Chin's charge is that these retellings are "fake," that they pander to racist stereotypes of Asians and of Asian Americans, and that, as such, they lack "authenticity."

For her part, Hong Kingston countered that she never claimed to be writing "history," that The Woman Warrior and China Men are "memoirs," and that as such, she never intended them to be "representative" of the experience of "being Asian American."  They represent her experience, which is also, simultaneously, that of a Chinese-American woman.

And yet, I can't simply dismiss Chin's point, because I think he does have a point, and I think literary history may bear him out.

There was a time in the early 1990s when I suspect that a serious subset of the white female population strongly wished that their moms and grandmoms met for stories of wisdom, love, and laughter over games of mah-jong, a la Tan's "Joy Luck Club."  And while Hwang's retelling of the Puccini opera is interesting and compelling, in its depiction of Song Liling, it could very well be seen as drawing on racist stereotypes that have traditionally served to emasculate Asian-American men.

All of this to say that I have always been curious about Frank Chin's work, but I was initially turned off from it largely because of the tone he adopted and the terms on which he waged war with other Asian American writers.

Back in the late '80s and early 90's, it seemed relatively clear that, whatever the validity of Chin's claims about the preferences of the American literary audience regarding depictions of Asian Americans and writers of Asian American literature (and the test of time has shown that they may well have a great deal of validity), they paled alongside the notion that his own allegations were fueled by a measure of professional envy--and streaked with more than a hint of misogyny.

The terms upon which Chin staged the debate--my Asian-American texts are "real" examples of Asian-American realities, whereas yours are "fake"--is fraught with problems and even a bit odd, given that we're all talking about fiction here.

Or are we?  Ultimately, Chin's attack raises an excellent point: legends and stories, like stereotypes, are fictions that take hold of our world and shape how we perceive both ourselves and others.  They determine how we perceive experience--both our own, and that of others--and who and what we identify with, culturally, politically, and morally.

So if there's such a thing as a literary bucket-list, Frank Chin has always been on mine.  I have always wanted to read his work, and I knew that once I got over my initial annoyance at his mode of expressing his literary politics and found some time on my hands, I would.

I finally picked up Chin's 1991 novel, Donald Duk the other day.  And I must say, it was worth the wait and a very enjoyable read.  Chin's story of an almost twelve-year-old boy who is navigating the terms of his Chinese-American identity in the first days of the Chinese New Year is quite fascinating.

Chin draws upon American iconography--Donald is well aware that his name is shared by a cartoon character (and he hates this fact).  His mother's name is actually "Daisy Duk."  He longs to be "the Chinese Fred Astaire."

In short, Donald initially seems to participate in some of the most prominent stereotypes that have dogged the representation of Chinese-Americans in the United States: Timidity.  Passivity.  Internal self-hatred.

And then, slowly and systematically--and above all, artistically--Chin's novel undoes all of them.  Donald Duk confronts the stereotypes in clever, funny and original ways, and uses literary tradition to rethink how and why they have functioned in the way that they have.

As the novel unfolds, Donald begins to learn about the 108 heroes of the Chinese epic, The Water Margin.  Representations of these heroes begin to visit him in his dreams and offer a framework within which he begins to rethink the history of the Chinese who, along with a contingent of equally-shunned and similarly sterotyped Irish workers--built the Central Pacific railroad through the Sierra Nevada in the 19th century.

Chin's representation of the merging of Chinese and American culture is far more complex and literary than Tan's or Hong Kingston's.  I have to give him that.  I suspect I'll return to Donald Duk far more often than I have returned to Hong Kingston's narratives.

At the same time, I really like Hong Kingston's China Men, and it was particularly interesting to see how each of these gifted writers reflect on the role of their Chinese ancestors in the building of the American railroad.

Ultimately, Chin's criticism of other Asian American writers raises a point that I can't quite answer.  Is it dangerous to write for an audience that typically knows nothing about Chinese literature and to then impose significant changes on traditional Chinese materials?  Or to select only traditions that seem to fit more readily with what an American audience might want to believe--or think that it sees--when it looks at "what it means to be Chinese in America"?

Or do texts and traditions belong to the writers and readers who use them?  Are they always open to change?

I often think I'm in an odd position as a reader of Asian American literature: I've read several of the (very long, but very, very interesting) Chinese novels that form the basis of their literary tradition: The Journey to the West, The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin.

In fact, the only one I haven't read, is the one Chin draws on: The Water Margin.  So now it's on my list.  Chin's novel has piqued my interest.  I actually have the novel, in all 4 volumes, sitting on a shelf in my office.  Time to dust them off and get cracking.

These works form the basis of Chinese culture.  If you mention any one of them, a Chinese listener will know exactly what you are referencing.  But readers and listeners in an American audience have usually never even heard of them.

Ultimately, this is the issue confronting Donald Duk: on the eve of his twelfth birthday and at the start of the Chinese New Year, he is poised to turn his back on Chinese culture as a whole.  He doesn't want to know about it, because he thinks there's nothing to know.  He thinks he hates everything "Chinese".  He thinks the traditions of Chinese culture have nothing to offer him.  He wants to be an "American" (whatever that might mean).

Whatever you might think of his literary politics, as a work of literary art, Chin's Donald Duk is the real deal.  It is a funny, clever and richly interesting novel about the dynamics of authenticity, identity and assimilation.  I highly recommend it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Official: Break

It is finally fall break.

For the past several years, our fall break has been about a week later than it used to be.  All I can say is, what a difference a week makes.  I'd like it earlier, please.

Granted, I did overschedule my month of October.  Granted, I did not plan to get a stomach-bug with an accompanying laser-beam headache that took me out of commission for an entire day right in the middle of my busiest week.  Granted, I took time out to celebrate my birthday.

But still.  Break.  Please.

My plans are pretty simple.  I have a ton of books to read.  I just started Frank Chin's novel Donald Duk (1991) last night, and I like it.  (Yes, I know I haven't finished the other novels I've started.  They're part of my plans too, obviously.  Yes, I know I'm way behind.)

I have writing to do.  Lots and lots of writing.  I have an article that I've been asked to revise and resubmit, so I need to sit down and do that.  Actually, I have 2 articles that are pretty much in that situation, and another that is well underway. I have classes to get ready and perhaps get ahead on, so I don't drown again in November.  I have a couple of conference proposals to write and a book review to draft.  I have to write a follow-up report for my summer project. 

I have a garden to put to bed for the winter and a lawn to take care of.  I have a couple of new knitting projects to do.  And yes, I'm going apple-picking.  No matter what.

I always feel like fall break is the last chance at peace and quiet before the craziness of the end-of-semester and accompanying holiday-season is upon me.  Although all the things I have planned probably don't sound like peace and quiet, in a way, they are.  As Fergie sang, "I can be with myself in center/ Clarity, peace, serenity."

Right now, the introvert in me is screaming for a break from meetings and conferences and get-togethers and... well, people, actually.  And I don't mean that in a bad way: it's just the way I am.  If I spend too much time around other people, I feel like I'm behind on my thinking, frazzled and irritable.

I need to recharge, and that's the only plan I have for the break.  To read and write and be by myself until I don't mind being around other people any more.  4 or 5 days should do it, particularly if a walk around an apple orchard is involved.

Today is also the birthday of my little godson and friend, Ezra.  We're all missing him and thinking of him so much today--and every day--and always wishing we could spend more time with him, the way we always thought we would.

So it's a good day for a start to peace and quiet.  A good place to start when taking a break from the noise and the clutter.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Birthday Train

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
     --Mary Oliver, "Wild Geese"

Today is my birthday, and I'm actually 45, which is kind of hard to believe, because I distinctly remember celebrating when I turned 40, and it seems highly unlikely that the decade would already be half over.

But that appears to be the case.

I'm going to be on a train to Boston today and then spend the evening celebrating with friends, so I'm trying to get this written and posted before I have to go do all of that.

I've been thinking a lot about the last year and how busy it's been for me, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad.  As I've said many times, I like being busy when it means being productive, but I don't like being busy when it means I'm overscheduled.

And over the past year, I've overscheduled myself in ways that have meant I haven't had time to pause and reflect and blog.  That's important to me, so I want to make sure I reintegrate that into my life.

So, as I think about the upcoming year, that's what I think about: pacing myself.  Making sure that I do the things that I want to do and that the things that other people may want me to do--no matter how well-intentioned--don't take center-stage all the time.

When I think back over what it means to be in my 40's, I realize that one great advantage is that you lose all kinds of fear that you had in your 20's and 30's.  Or at least, I did.

I look at conversations and episodes and events that would have floored--or at least seriously intimidated--me a decade ago, and I chuckle and shrug.  I think that, as Janis Joplin sang, freedom might very well be just another word for nothing left to lose.

I think that kind of freedom gives me the ability to weigh and value what's important to me in a way that's very different from the way I looked at things several years ago.

So that's been my gift for this birthday: the realization that, in the eyes of others, you really do not have to be "good."  You can simply be... you.  And 45.

Have a wonderful day, everyone.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Reading Day: The Read-a-thon Begins

It's the Read-a-thon today, and I'm about to get started.

It's actually not as drizzly and as dreary as they said it would be, but that's okay.  I've been looking forward to a day of couch, kitty cats, and books.  With coffee and tea liberally administered at regular intervals.  (To me, not to the cats.)

I'm going to start with Melville's The Confidence-Man, since I was warned that it might be tedious. It was published on April Fool's Day in 1857.  This may be telling me something.

I've been cheerfully reading Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865) for a few days now, so I think that will be my "relaxing" book.  Dickens published the novel in monthly installments, unlike his other novels, which were often serialized in weekly installments.

It's a novel that was briefly interrupted by a train crash.  

Dickens survived the Staplehurst railway accident in June of 1865.  After he helped the wounded, he climbed back through the wreckage to retrieve the manuscript of that month's installment of Our Mutual Friend from his coat pocket.

The montly intallment for June is 2 pages shorter than all of the other installments, and that's why.

I'm also going to try to get back into DeLillo's Underworld, at some point.

That's the plan.  More later...

7:15 p.m.

Well, I'm not sure where the day went, but the reading has been going slowly.  The Confidence-Man is a truly strange novel, and I'm not sure quite what I think of it yet.  I feel like I've read a lot of it, but I haven't, and that's a fact.  A frustrating fact, but a fact.

Why is it that on a Kindle, you feel like you've read 10 pages and when you check, you've only read ... 2?  What's the good of swiping those pages as if they're real pages, when really, they're not?  They need to fix that.  Spending 2 hours on a book only to be told you've read 2% of it?  Not cool.

So I may take a break for a bit, and then work on it a bit more, then switch to Dickens.  I just had a cup of coffee, so I should be good to go for a slightly later night than usual.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dewey's Read-a-thon 2013

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon is coming up on Saturday, so I'm going to participate again (to the best of my ability--I tend not to be an up-all-night kinda person).  I'm going to have to make a virtue of necessity this year and read some books that I need to work on for... work.

So my plan is, to try to make some more headway on Don DeLillo's Underworld.  I'm thinking of using it for a conference presentation I might like to make next spring, and I'm about halfway through.

Related to that, I started re-reading Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.  This is actually my favorite Dickens novel, so I suspect I won't have much trouble working on that all day.

I have an article that I've been advised to revise and resubmit, and as part of the revision process, they suggested I read Melville's The Confidence-Man.  When I mentioned this to friends who are familiar with the novel, they looked at me with sympathy.  

One friend said, "It's quite long."  I said, "It's only about 165 pages," to which she replied, "It's quite long."

But I need to do it, and this is a good time to do so.  So I'll try.  

If it's like Pierre (which I was never able to finish... or even get very far in), I may want to hang myself.  But I have the other novels to turn to, so I should survive.

I've also become interested in "discard studies" or, in plain English, the anthropology of garbage.  

Seriously, this a field of academic inquiry, and it's actually rather interesting.  (Really.)  A culture's attitude towards garbage and waste disposal can actually tell you a lot about the society at large

I'm hoping to do a blog post in the next day or two to convince the skeptical. 

So, in that vein, I've been reading Edward Humes' Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.  It's actually very interesting and totally disturbing, and Humes is a really good writer.  

So I may talk trash during the Read-a-thon.  (I'm not like the other girls.) 

Speaking of which, I'm also still working on Elaine Feinstein's Anna of All the Russias, which is a well-written biography of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, as well as Schweik's history, The Ugly Laws (which will also tie into my article on Melville, oddly enough).

So these are my fallback positions.  I'm going to try to have a solid day of good reading, whether or not I can make it the full 24 hours.  It's drizzly and dreary in the Northeast right now, and will be for a while so... what better weather for reading?

The only down side is, I don't have anything "light" to read, so I'm going to see if I can find something that fits that category, to give my brain a break from time to time.

But otherwise, I'm ready to read.  Bring it.