Friday, January 31, 2014

Meditation: On Belonging

It starts in my head with a joke: "To be is to do" (Aristotle?); "To do is to be" (Nietzsche); "Shoo be do be do" (Frank Sinatra). It morphs to: To be is to long; to long is to be; to be is to long to belong.

Nowhere is belonging so longed for and being so suspect as in Hawai`i.

I was driving near Pearl City once, where I invariably get lost. I pulled into a church parking lot to look for someone to ask directions from. Opening the church door, I found a congregation of Pacific Islanders speaking a language I did not recognize, and realized this was a community I did not know. How often that kind of experience has repeated itself over the years, that sense of moving in and out of communities you might not see ever again. If one were to slice O`ahu like an onion, or like brain cells, you would see layers and layers of communities. Then you might see the Venn diagram that links them. Or you might not. It turns out that the move from layer to Venn diagram, from discrete communities to mixed ones, is a choice. And it's not always the choice you might suspect. Members of mixed families might choose to define themselves as parts of one layer; members of more mono-tone families might choose to see the diagram, the space (empty or not) that emerges between layers. Of course, when is "choice" really ever chosen in a place as fraught as this one?

Much of this negotiation of belonging has to do with names. Before you meet me, my last name marks me as Euro-American; before you meet me, my first name indicates I was almost certainly born in the 1950s or 1960s. After 1966, or thereabouts, the name "Susan" died out. There are complexities here, too, because our children bear first names from their places of origin, but our last names. You would not know that they are Asian-Americans if you only saw their last names, Webster Schultz. Their middle names link them to my father and to my husband's mother; like my name, they are old-fashioned Euro-American names. But their full names assert their entry into a mixed community created by adoption, migration, and, yes, love.

In her first documentary piece of writing, my honors student, whose family fled Vietnam in the 1970s, offers us her grandmother's Vietnamese name, but not the names of her other relatives. We have a hard time pronouncing grandmother's name, but she's patient with us. She tells us that the family experienced hardships, but not what they were. Name a hardship, I ask her. Her mother did not speak English well as a child, and was put in special education, says her daughter. And what is your mother's name? I ask. "Karen," she responds. My student's name is likewise "American." I ask if there is not a story in the move from a Vietnamese to an American name, and she nods.

Another local Vietnamese student in the class has a Vietnamese name. He does not communicate well with his family, he says. His father is a fisherman who leaves home for weeks, comes back only for short respites. He asks his father about the family's history by starting, "this is for a school project." The history is one of dislocation and work, further dislocation and more work. It's a hard story. I notice that the son, my student, also works hard, that what distinguishes him more in the honors class is his public school in a tough part of town, not his name.

Many of my students are the children of immigrants, others are native Hawaiian, sometimes with their own family history of migration out and back; the linguistic history of my English 100 class last semester was fascinating. At home, students heard Tagalog, Ilocano, Chinese, Vietnamese, Pidgin, Japanese, English with an English or a Canadian accent, Spanish. Hardly anyone had grown up in a family that spoke only English, even if that was their sole language. There were two Hawaiian students who spoke only English. One had fallen in love with Korean soap operas and wanted to study Korean. The other had been discouraged from learning Pidgin by her family, which had lived for a long time on the continent, and then moved back. Neither Hawaiian student spoke Hawaiian. Most of the students had some notion of judgment imbedded in them: either they hated the fact that they hadn't learned the other family language, or they hated that language. The choice of language seemed moral; students berated themselves rather than open up to the possibility that they had made choices as small children that they could not be held to account for.  Their narratives were narratives of choice--"at four years old I chose English"--not of larger historical or cultural or family issues.

That gets me to typos. Those of us who edit work in Hawai`i try very hard to avoid typos, not simply because they are mistakes, but because these mistakes contain meanings that are overdetermined. To get diacritical marks wrong in Hawaiian is considered an insult, though some Hawaiian writers (Sage Uilani Takehiro comes to mind) choose not to use diacriticals because there's more poetic ambiguity to be mined without them. Getting things wrong is what the missionaries did. They transcribed the Hawaiian language using letters whose sounds did not occur in Hawaiian. And much worse. So there's a history to orthography here that is incredibly complex--for Hawaiian especially. For the Hawaiian students in my English 100 class to speak only English reflected back on this history (though I've also had students from immersion schools who speak Hawaiian as well as they speak English).

The new Hawai`i Review came out this week. The design is beautiful. Many of the poems are deeply anti-colonial. (More on the content another time, perhaps.) There is also a typo. The poetry editor's name is No`u Revilla. Her full first name is No'ukahau'oli, but on the masthead of the new issue the name was spelled Noʻukahouʻoli. This changed the meaning from "the pleasure is mine" to "the joyous sweat is mine" (not so big a difference, if you read No`u's joyous sexually charged poems). The editor's reaction was one of despair: she declared that the typo made her "want to die." (The editor is not Hawaiian; she is also not Euro-American.) She writes: "I am a guest/outsider/settler in an illegally overthrown, occupied nation, and I have just participated in the callous misspelling of the name of a kanaka maoli friend whom I am fortunate enough to work alongside."

She is not alone in using this language; it's been in circulation for nearly two decades now. Candace Fujikane, whose book Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life helped to institutionalize the term named in the title, has said: "You can’t talk about alliances between local non-Hawaiians and Hawaiians. If you’re not Hawaiian, you’re a settler and part of the colonial problem. You have to look at in what ways Asians in Hawaii have engaged in practices that obstruct Hawaiians’ struggle for justice." (2009) Fujikane and her co-editor, Jonathan Okamura, are also not the original authors of this idea. I do not know that she is, but Haunani-Kay Trask was the strongest voice in asserting the non-belonging of Asians, as well as Euro-Americans, in Hawai`i. On the first page of the Fujikane/Okamura book, Trask is quoted as writing, "Hawai`i is a society in which the indigenous culture and people have been murdered, suppressed, or marginalized for the benefit of settlers who now dominate our islands" (2). The history is very bad, as Barrett Watten would say, but for the editor of a literary magazine to feel herself charged with a perpetuation of "murder" after noticing a typo is surely not a solution. It feels like another act of violence.

So the editor is hardly the first person to describe herself as "guest," as "outsider," as "settler"; she is hardly the first to do so with self-lacerating tones. She is not the first, nor will she be the last, to make an outright assertion that she does not belong here. That she is perpetuating a historical wound by way of the typo. I wonder why the self-laceration: she works hard, she publishes work from Hawai`i, she participates in communities on the island. She is a lovely, caring person. I want to hug her.

But I also want to suggest that these self-lacerating terms, these terms that mark people as outsiders no matter how long they live here, that these terms are paradoxically intended to mark those who use them as belonging. (I would like to thank my friend, Vera Lee, for helping me with this during a conversation some months back.) This is a difficult paradox to explain (to myself, let alone to anyone else). But to say one does not belong is to establish a stable identity position based on blood. To be "guest/settler/outsider" is to be somewhere, here but not of here. It's not to float, it is to be, and to be certain. To be [choose your term] is to belong in however difficult a way. But it also tells those of us who do not use the words "outsider" and "settler" to describe ourselves that we are that. It pre-judges our choices. It suggests that my students who are trying to deal with family stories of flight (including students from Vietnam, Cambodia) immigration, changes of language, that these students do not belong here either. That they inhabit that space of "not-belonging" that is not liberating, but which hurts, lacerates.

More difficult, perhaps, to let those titles go, to be here without longing to belong, without the judgment. It's appropriate that there are "slashes" between those words, for they are judgment words. To say: I am here, I do no intentional harm, I do good work. My life a gerund, not a noun. To put the emphasis on process rather than on static position. To think long and hard about these issues, and then to let oneself long--to let oneself be--that is my hope.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Small Press Publishing (English 713): The Material Text from Emily Dickinson to Albert Saijo

In the reader for my Small Press Publishing course, essays by Jerome McGann and George Bornstein hammer down the materiality of the text. McGann shows how Yeats's "rag and bone shop of the heart" refers, in large part, to the rags gathered to make paper. While McGann considers the rag-picker to be like Wordsworth's leech-gatherer, a figure of nostalgia, I'm more inclined to think of the rags as the origin of the poem, precisely because they compose the paper the poem is written and then printed on. McGann's essay considers Emily Dickinson's manuscripts vis-à-vis what happens when they are printed, however "faithfully." Bornstein discusses the ways interpretation alters when the text moves from manuscript to journal to book to Norton Anthology.  Anyone who's taught out of one of those Nortons knows to what extent the poem disappears into the apparatus of the canon, the literary history that is only implied by the heft of the volume itself.

Years ago, when we visited Albert Saijo every so often on the Big Island, I mentioned Dickinson's manuscripts, the Franklin edition of the fascicles, to him. His handwritten pages reminded me of hers; nothing was normalized into lines, straight or not! I ordered the two volume set for him (he paid me back). When I went to see Laura Saijo a few weeks ago to talk about publishing his Woodrat Flat, poems from the 1980s and early 1990s in northern California, she suggested I take some of his poetry books. I asked only for the Dickinson volumes, but of course ended up taking others, mainly books with some sign of Albert in them. There were at least two lovely Joanne Kyger inscriptions to him in books of hers.

Yesterday I prepared some class time for moving backwards from the final versions of Saijo's poems in Bamboo Ridge #100, from his Bamboo Ridge book of the late 1990s, from the edited typescript of his forthcoming Tinfish book (edited by Jerry Martien), from the original pile of poems and scatter that Laura sent me, and--finally--with all its Benjaminian aura intact, several manuscript pages. But how marvelous to realize that there was a further "poem" by Saijo that led to all of these. In the first volume of the Franklin Dickinson fascimiles, one page was dog-eared.  I went there and found that Saijo had written in his own pencil above many of Dickinson's words; he had translated her handwriting into his. Here's a photograph of that beautiful moment:

Here is Dickinson, interpreted by Saijo, both using pencil.

This is how Bamboo Ridge Press renders Saijo's writing
This is a screen shot of the Tinfish manuscript, Woodrat Flat, which our intern Kailana Kahawaii is scanning in.
There's a shock in looking back from these all-caps pages dense with print to Saijo's original page (below). It's the shock of losing something, of seeing blunt force where so many tones seem to have been intended, of seeing mass produced product where the workshop had been. This is more than nostalgia; there is something lost in translation from pencil to type.

What I wonder most is how to preserve some of the manuscript in the book. Bamboo Ridge uses occasional scanned pages in amid the caps, but that's only a gesture at the motivation of the writer, the odd grace to his handwriting, the "authenticity" that I usually abhor except here--I'll be asking our designer, Allison Hanabusa, if there might be a third way. Part of me thinks not, but Julia Wieting, a member of the class suggested that alternatives of someone else's handwriting (a form of mimicry that sounds wrong to me, but it may simply be my lack of imagination, or attachment to Albert himself); others suggested a book that might include a sheaf of these pages, or a set of two books. We do not have enough manuscript pages for that, but perhaps a few individual pages slipped into the book? That takes me back to the strong feeling I have when I touch these old pieces of paper of his.

I'm not usually one to coo over manuscripts, though I recall seeing a typed page of an odd Wallace Stevens poem in a case at Yale's Sterling Library and feeling a strange chill. That piece of paper made it clear that someone actually HAD written that odd poem, in a way that seeing the poem in The Palm at the End of The Mind never could. Still, that was typed, and Saijo's work is printed in pencil on smudgy pieces of thick paper; one of these manuscript pages has a tiny round burn mark. The book is, in part, about being a marijuana farmer in California, after all! Perhaps because I knew Albert, albeit not well, these few pieces of paper seem, if not quite sacred, then imbued with his presence, two years after he died, several decades after his pencil wrote on this piece of paper.
Here is the Saijo poem in manuscript

Charles Alexander, who joined us on a laptop via Skype, talked about how much small press publishers love when they do, and at moments like the one last night, I felt that rush of joy in making books (or, in my case, making it possible for them to be made). To the left is a photograph of the class huddled around Charles's head on the computer screen. The room is cold. The weather outside so blustery that the building's louvers have taken to singing; they sound like the wax-paper covered combs we used to "play" as children.


George Bornstein, Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page, Cambridge UP, 2001.

Emily Dickinson, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, Volume 1, edited by R.W. Franklin, The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1981.

Jerome McGann, "Introduction" to Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism, Princeton UP, 1993.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Suburban Sex Trade

Late last year I drove most evenings to Windward City Shopping Center, at the junction of Kamehameha Highway and the Likelike Highway, to pick up my daughter, getting a ride from soccer practice in Honolulu. Our meeting point was Starbucks, which sits at the corner of the shopping center across the highway from Kaiser Permanente's newly renovated facility. The bus stop nearby is usually populated with Castle High School kids, homeless people, commuters. It was usually getting dark when I arrived and it was dark by the time she and I left for home. One evening I got there a little earlier than usual and parked my car in a stall that faced away from Starbucks, toward the First Hawaiian bank building. Maybe I had the radio on, and certainly I was making an inventory of the day, my time in the classroom, the state of my department, how much I drive these days, and so forth. I noticed a large sedan parked in front of me, one stall to the side, facing me. A local man sat in the car's driver's seat, his arm braced against his car door. I went back to my inventory. There was a young woman in very short shorts knocking at the dark window of the passenger side of the car. The door opened. My scattered inventory continued. A few minutes later I noticed that the car had not gone anywhere, that the man, whom I could see in only shadowy form, was no longer leaning against the driver's window, that there were movements in the car. I returned to consideration of my course on Memory & Forgetting and vaguely wondered if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. The windows the dark sedan began to fog up, but the car itself went nowhere. Whatever going was happening did not involve the car's engine. People came and went from the parking lot, but no one noticed that car, or me. My vague wondering gathered coherence, its laces knotted. My daughter arrived. It was dark, the man and the young woman had been in the car at least 15 minutes, and his headlights came on. My daughter and I drove home.

I told my husband what I'd seen: "Talk to the shopping center security, not the cops; the cops won't do anything."

I told two ministers, former neighbors, what I'd seen, and the man replied, "It wasn't me!"

I told the woman who drove my daughter to the mall and she said, "I guess Kāneʻohe's more interesting than we all thought!"

I told a colleague, who yelled at me, saying I was complicit, that the children need to be safe. Call 911, he told me.

I told a second colleague about the first colleague; she said we're all under stress.

I filled in an on-line HPD form about the incident; there was no response. I looked several times for security, but found no one. A cashier at Foodland said they wear Securitas uniforms, but none were to be found.

I told a friend, wondering what to do, who said, "prostitution is illegal." 

When I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, one summer, I was in a second story apartment near the corner of Prospect and York (was it?). That corner was where women in Yale gym shorts came to advertise their bodies, where cars went around and around the block slowly. That corner was where one night, and one night only, the prostitutes were men. When my mother drove to pick me up at the end of the summer, I said, "there's something I need to tell you." When she came to the apartment in the evening and looked out the window, she inquired, "where's the action?"

We went to Cambodia last winter with a Baptist missionary group, because the local Cambodians we know attend a Baptist Church. In Phnom Penh, we stayed in a hotel that looked like "Mean Hour" in English. It was a large building with large rooms and beds that were more springs than mattresses. There were no shower doors, just a slanted floor with a drain in the middle. The views were of Phnom Penh, vast, chaotic, full of motor bikes and markets, crowds of people (mostly young, for reasons historical and cultural), and of tourists. There was only one small elevator for those of us staying in this large hotel. I got on with my children (13 and 11 at the time). More than once we were greeted by a young woman (or another) in tight short dress, standing next to a man. She would make eye contact, might look at the kids in a way I could not fathom. She and she and the men always got off at the fourth floor.

When we mentioned this to the group leader, a very devout and beautiful man, he said he liked having an enormous room in that hotel where he could store the mission's supplies (everything from toothbrushes to over the counter medications to toys), that he could keep the room even when he was traveling to other parts of the country.

On Thursday, I presented Charles Reznikoff's "Negroes" to my new class of documentary writing students. They talked about their emotions in the face of a poem that conveyed none. Shock, sadness, anger. "He's calling on us to do something," one student said. I might worry that what I've written asks too little of its reader, or of me.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The nearly completed syllabi in Documentary Writing & Small Press Publishing

On the graduate level, I'll be teaching a course in Small Press Publishing; much of what follows is contingent, but the flux is more sea-worthy than it was:

On the sophomore honors level, I'm teaching a course in Documentary Writing:

Both syllabi will ramify, especially at the beginning of the course. In any case, I'm really looking forward to both these classes.