I woke up this year with a fear: what if reading brings me nowhere? What if reading delivers me to nothing? To myself, as a person among people/s, nobody; that all the time I have spent reading and all the things I have read, do not change me, do not improve me, do not deliver me into a greater form?
I draw the fear, the question, out: what if all the reading and all the things to be read (as all the writing) does not change anyone or anything. I mean enough to deliver anyone or anything, the world, into a greater form. The question feels cynical. It feels like squandering. I chastise myself, briefly, then go on; I am being honest: nothing greater than an altar for all the living and the dead so monolithic its memorialization obscures and makes the living and the dead more easily forgotten?
Because (also) I have been thinking, the last few days (weeks, whenever this is being read), about ancestors. I have been mourning my ancestors. I have been mourning some part of their existence, only partially formed at the time of their passing into ancestorhood, which is being translated through my thinking about them now as: mourning. At first, I felt it particularly: I mourned their arrivals, and the consequences that influenced and/or enforced their arrivals, as either settlers or aliens, in some cases, enemies, in this, the settler colonial United States. I mourned the fleeting shadows of their feet first stepping up or down.
How is this related to the fear? I have been having two related thoughts: that (1) ancestors, occupying and BEING the space between the people of whose genealogies we are one form of consequence and what is being translated across time of those people, manifest in moments of awareness and recognition (fleeting consciousness) including those which happen inside reading; and that (2) books, which possess not only stories, histories, thought, and expression, but stories’, histories’, thoughts’, and expressions’ dreams of being and being continued — dreams which they hold, in the interval, for (future) readers — are not only the bearers of ancestors, but, themselves, ANCESTORS.
I think of the ways in which I am and/or am not the incarnation of my ancestors’ dreams, when they were thinking, abstractly, of what they were imagining of, and committing to, the future, in the same ways in which I either succeed (receive, bear, and carry forward) the work of what I am reading, or fail to be the inheritor, the messenger, the book that I am reading might have imagined.
The first book I read this year was Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior(1975), in which she writes, “The reporting is the vengeance — not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words.”
When my great-aunt Joy was four, she was incarcerated, with her family, in the Poston Relocation Center, on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, in Arizona. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversaw the camp. The Japanese were free labor; they would be used to build the reservation’s infrastructure. Iyko Day, in Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (2016), writes about how, after the war, the government offered the vacated barracks to the indigenous people as compensation for using their land: “From this vantage point, Poston becomes a space where the dispossessed and the recipients of government ‘welfare’ confront each other as exchangeable figures of colonial management.” Alien Capital does a million things, including mapping out the triangulation of Native, alien, and settler positions in settler colonial capitalism. I entered Alien Capital through Chapter 3: Japanese Internment and the Mutation of Labor (thanks to Kimberly Alidio, who sent me, first, the chapter, then the book; thanks also to Caitie Moore, who introduced me to Day through Day’s essay, “Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and Settler Colonial Critique.”) Joy told me that being incarcerated was not as difficult for her as it was for her parents; she was young, had not yet begun to question the reasons why her country would force her, a young American girl, into confinement in the desert. But she said it was even more difficult when her family was released and returned to Los Angeles, where her mother found work as a maid for a white family in Beverly Hills. She remembers being fed the white family’s scraps.
In An Autobiography (1974), Angela Davis witnesses, one night, from the window of her cell in the Women’s House of Detention (NYC), a demonstration on the street below protesting her solitary confinement. She describes, in that moment, “losing the sensation of captivity,” then, hearing her sister Fania’s voice among the people, being “shocked back into the reality” of the “weight” of her imprisonment. With the voices outside enlivening her cell, she reflects upon the “impenetrability” of her situation, before bringing what she calls “self-pity” to a halt. “I transformed my frustration into raging energy for the fight”, she writes. The range of feeling in that moment of impenetrable confinement is extraordinary, and fast, and through it can be seen a transfiguration. See also the window of Davis’s cell, apprehended from both sides: from the silent side, voices; from the street side, silence: both demanding forms of belief that constitute a large part of the struggle.
An. An Autobiography. Also: Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography (1987). The number of autobiographies inherent within the lives of these two women suggested by An. Both books are extraordinary self-portraits and portraits of American life. And both are reports from the political, legal, extralegal, especially judiciary and carceral, labyrinth that is the war against black dissent, and black lives, in the United States.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016) enunciates how the impending regime of Der Donald was made possible by the collaboration of MANY forces, including, but not limited to, the continuing solidification of neoliberalism and the incorporation of protest movements into the compromise of electoral politics, both legible and encoded functions of white supremacy. It is a masterpiece of synthesizing, and building a tragic narrative out of, the unending cascade of facts and figures by which the United States could be appraised as the slow-boiling terrorist organization that it is. Read Taylor on the consequences of Bill Clinton’s “crime-fighting” legislation of 1994, pp. 100-102, 119-121. Also among the cascade: the 2010 study that revealed the disparity between the median wealth of single white women and single black women: $42,600 for white women, $5 for black women.
Mohamed Bouazizi (1984-2011) was a fruit vendor on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, who, on December 17, 2010, after years of harassment (extortion, confiscation of fruit, humiliation, assault) by the police, set himself on fire on the street outside the governor’s office. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s fictionalization of Bouazizi’s story — included in By Fire: Writings on the Arab Spring (2016), translated from the French by Rita S. Nezami — reminds me of the Daimonji fires on the hills surrounding Kyoto during Obon: five fires, burning in enormous shapes, that guide the dead, following their annual visit to the world of the living, back to the spirit (ancestral) world. The fires form the threshold of the story of the dead, extending their life, trajectory (light projection), while illuminating the reconstitution of the dead in the imaginations of the living. I do not mean to be comparing fire/s, they are very different fire/s, but to see, in Ben Jelloun’s story of Bouazizi’s struggle, a reimagining (illuminating) of desperation and resistance as unending threshold AS memorial.
Among the many revelations in Karen L. Ishizuka’s Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, an indispensable narrative archive of Asian-American organizing and insurgency, is the revelation of another indispensable archive: Gidra: The Monthly of the Asian American Experience (1969-1974), the inaugural newspaper of the Asian American movement, the entire run of which is available through yet ANOTHER indispensable archive: Densho’s Digital Repository. I spent a long time staring at Robert Nakamura’s photograph of the inaugural Manzanar Pilgrimage, December 1969, which first appeared in the January 1970 issue of Gidra, reproduced on pp. 156-157 of Serve the People. The pilgrimage was the “first public national commemoration of the World War II concentration camps,” and gave rise to annual pilgrimages to many containment sites. I spent a long time staring at the 29 faces framing, surrounding, looking into and through, the desert, in which they and/or their ancestors were incarcerated.
I read Fred Moten’s The Service Porch (2016) in my friend Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s backyard. I was traveling through Arizona back to west Texas from back-to-back family reunions, both on the Japanese (Yamashita, Shimoda) side of my family, in southern California, and was still feeling the discomfort and sadness of having ACTUALLY been surrounded by so many incarnations of my (our) ancestors’ dreams, which I have been trying to articulate, to myself, and also to my therapist, as the discomfort and sadness of observing (feeling) within my Japanese-American family the process of self-erasure with which the United States indoctrinates its people in the name of citizenship and assimilation. The Service Porch was not an antidote, but I did want to counter my feelings with poetry, as occasionally happens. Josh, who published The Service Porch, gave me a stack of paper. I sat in a chair facing a long white wall with my back against the kitchen window and let the stack of paper fall apart in my lap. “It’s not about cutting piercing, or even putting it in its place,” Moten writes, “but bearing radical displacement everywhere.”
One of the most emotional moments in my year of reading took place when I turned to pp. 54-56 of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (2016), to discover, forming something like a dream map, Choi’s childhood drawings of outfits for her paper dolls she made while her father was in Vietnam, accompanied, as if being observed and encouraged, by cropped photographers of her father, in Vietnam. Or maybe the outfits, awaiting their paper doll bodies, are observing and encouraging and breathing into and wishing well and hurry home, Choi’s father; the outfits really start to move…
I slipped, as if hypnotized, into several passages on the color gray, including in: (1) Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953): “The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the large and ugly hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh — all these were gray;” and (2) pp. 70-75 of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (2011), which I read via PDF on a bunk bed. As Brooks writes, “There was a whole lot of grayness here.”
When I read a novel, it is like living life. Because when I am living life, like when I am reading a novel, I am half in living life and half in conceiving the part of life that realizes itself, like overlapping roof tiles or fish scales, as memory. What I mean is: I read a novel in real time, but the novel often does not continue or complete itself until I am no longer reading the novel, not yet dead, but no longer inside. I do not mean the production, like of history, or interpretation, or the difference between process and knowledge, but experience. A novel is not experienced, and does not experience itself, all at once. Sometimes it does not happen at all, but when it does: not all at once.
Am I just rephrasing the fundamental experience of reading…
In more garbled language?
Novels inscribed on three planes at once: the subterranean, terrestrial, and ethereal. For example, among the novels I read this year, there are four that I feel are still reading both themselves and ME in the guise of no longer being read, which maybe means they might not ever end: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood (1977), Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green (2005; Jordan Stump translation, 2013); and Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile (2016). Yes, it sounds like I am rephrasing the fundamental experience of reading. But there is something particular about these books that makes me believe their authors wove into them some kind of time-release (extended) life, by way of what and how they used of substances, colors, coelenterates, voices, faces, fields at night, nocturnal rites, blood-nearnesses, rerouted traumas, lapses, inborn absences, hallucinations.
The night before entering Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo (2016; translated from the Japanese by many translators, and edited by Forrest Gander), I had a dream about four peaches. In the dream, the four peaches looked like apples, and were rotten. When I woke up, I entered the book, and found peaches. “Poetry is (Soaked is drowning / is a stitch,,,,,,) a way to a (pitch-black) Perpetual World // Peaches, peaches, golden peaches white peaches” [exact formatting more complicated and beautiful]. I was on a train and when the train rose over a river, I entered, through “Peaches, peaches,” back through my dream of peaches, a moment of integration. I had been, until that moment, feeling like I was disintegrating. Something happened above the river. I cannot explain.
I read Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (1978; translated from the French by Georgina Kleege), a novel about the life and death, by Christian Phalangists, of a young woman and teacher in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, every year. I read it every year for many reasons, one of which is the final chapter, the final paragraph even, which is given to Marie Rose’s deaf-mute students. I have not, even after many readings (years), reached any clarity or resolution. About it or anything. Maybe that is why I return. Maybe that is why I keep returning. I hope you do not mind me sharing the entire paragraph here:
Whether you like it or not, an execution is always a celebration. It is the dance of Signs and their stabilization in Death. It is the swift flight of silence without pardon. It is the explosion of absolute darkness among us. What can one do in this black Feast but dance? The deaf-mutes rise, and moved by the rhythm of falling bombs their bodies receive from the trembling earth, they begin to dance.
More from A Year in Reading 2016
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Paper is a star of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as one critic put it. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. A star of this show — the star, in my opinion — is what’s on the paper. And what’s on the paper is something that has been on a lot of museum and gallery walls lately, as we noted here early this year. That something is the thing we tend to think of as the domain of writers, not artists. That something is words.
The current Whitney Biennial, like its precursors since 1932, tries to answer an impossible question: What is contemporary art in the United States today? Here’s one answer: “Shape-shifting.” That’s the title of the catalog essay by one of this Biennial’s three outside curators, Stuart Comer of the Museum of Modern Art. Comer writes that in making his selections for the show he was “compelled by artists whose work is as hybrid as the significant global, environmental, and technological shifts reshaping the United States.” Nowhere is this crossbreeding more vividly expressed than in one of this Biennial’s staples — what Comer calls “the complex relationship between linguistic and visual forms.”Etel Adnan, “Five Senses for One Death,” 1969. Ink and watercolor on paper. 11 x 255 in. (27.9 x 647.7 cm)Collection of the artist; courtesy Callicoon Fine Arts, New YorkPhotograph by Chris Austen
Consider his choice of Etel Adnan, an 89-year-old, Beirut-born, Lebanese-American artist who wrote a highly regarded novel, Sitt Marie-Rose, set during her homeland’s brutal civil war. (She has also written poetry and essays.) A room at the Whitney has several of Adnan’s bright paintings on the walls, looking down on a large vitrine that contains Adnan’s accordion books made of long sheets of folded paper, known as leporellos. One is titled “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut.” Through a series of watercolor images and blocks of writing, it tells the story of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space. But Adnan’s lovely book is less a celebration of technological achievement than a reflection on creativity and loss. “In the beginning was the white page,” it opens, a chilling fact known to every writer. It goes on to describe Gagarin’s achievement as “a requiem for the sound barrier.” Another leporello, “Five Senses for One Death,” conjures a whimsical world where “every Chevy calls me by my name.” I want to go there.
In his catalog essay, Comer calls the unfolding pages of the leporellos “a proto-screen, a kind of precursor to the laptops, smartphones, and tablets that increasingly dominate our lives, where the distinction between language and image continues to collapse and multiple surfaces and screens abut and fold into one another.” He notes that Adnan’s life and career are, like this Biennial, about breaking through boundaries. “I find myself gravitating toward artists like Adnan who are working with culture in a freer and more open-minded way — not fighting so much against traditionally established boundaries as ignoring them, unwilling to define themselves as image-makers or writers, painters or sculptors or filmmakers, but working in the interstices of categorical distinctions.”
Many of the 103 participants in the show have chosen to ignore the traditional boundaries between linguistic and visual forms. (Happily, there is also a lot of straight-up painting here, along with sculpture, videos, and performances.) Artists whose works prominently feature written, drawn, painted, printed, or photographed words include David Diao, Carol Jackson, Philip Hanson, Steve Reinke, Karl Haendel, Martin Wong, James Benning, and Allan Sekula. There’s an archive from the works of the boundary-shredding artist/writer/critic Gregory Battcock. Susan Howe has done something William S. Burroughs would have appreciated: She has taken fragments of poems, folklore, criticism, and art history, then cut and rearranged them, printed them on a letterpress, and laid the fragments on facing pages. “The bibliography is the medium,” Howe says on a note card beside the paired pages. “(They) occupy a space between writing and seeing, reading and looking.”
Lisa Anne Auerbach, a Los Angeles-based artist, has stitched together a large woolen assemblage, an ebullient bath of thought bubbles that simply will not shut up. Like some yammering New Age shaman, it peppers the viewer with witticisms and dubious wisdom, such as “You’re All About Going Deep,” “The Sooner You Get To the Second Chakra, the Better,” “Write It All Down,” and “Let the Dream Write Itself.” Auerbach has also produced sweaters that bear messages (“Touch Me” and “Everything I touch turns to sold/Steal this sweater off my back”), as well as a giant zine she calls “American Megazine.” Move over, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.
Of course these artists’ bewitching use of words is nothing new. Artists have been using words as images for at least the past century (along with single letters, even entire alphabets), an appropriation of the writerly strategy of arriving at meaning through narrative. This Biennial adds to the body of evidence that the practice is accelerating and expanding. I have a theory why this is so. As the practice of writing on paper (everything from telegrams to letters to books to Post-It notes) is increasingly devoured by technology, words on paper are evolving from widespread tools of communication into the rarefied stuff of art. As things recede, they also expand. As a result, words are becoming as legitimate as the more traditional subject matter of painting, drawing, video and sculpture. Running parallel to this trend is a more capacious notion of what constitutes art. Or, as the great critic Holland Cotter put it, this Biennial demonstrates that “not-art” and “maybe-art” deserve a place at the table with “Art.”
Consider the room at the Biennial devoted to the independent publisher Semiotext(e), known for introducing French theory to the U.S. in the 1970s through the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others. Now based in Los Angeles, it continues to publish works of “theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession.” On one wall at the Whitney there is a selection of pamphlets produced especially for the Biennial, works by Simone Weil, Gary Indiana, and Chris Kraus, among others. Another wall is plastered with pages of Semitoext(e) books, flyers, and posters of events, including the Schizo-Culture conference at Columbia University in 1975. There’s also a poster for a performance by Semiotext(e) author/performance artist Penny Arcade that presents her succinct CV: “Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!” For four decades Semiotext(e) has been as much a sensibility as a publishing enterprise, championing the mash-up of high and low that’s now part of the culture’s bedrock. But is all this verbiage “Art”? Absolutely.David Foster Wallace, Page from The Pale King materials, “Midwesternism” notebook, undated. Manuscript notebook, 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (26.7 x 21.0 cm)Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Image used with permission from the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.
The highlight of this Biennial, for me, is a smallish installation on the top floor, where a sheet of glass serves as a literal window into the mind of David Foster Wallace. After Wallace’s suicide in 2008, Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little Brown, went to Wallace’s studio in California to retrieve a trove of manuscript pages, hard drives, file folders, spiral notebooks, and floppy disks — enough to fill a duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s bags. Pietsch then spent two years stitching the material into the novel we now know as The Pale King.
On display behind glass at the Whitney is a small but revealing fraction of that mass of material. There’s a spiral notebook with kittens and the words “Cuddly Cuties” on the cover, along with a scrap of paper that contains the word SCENES. Another spiral notebook contains lists of characters’ names, written in Wallace’s spidery script. Another contains references that seem to refer to the novel’s setting, an IRS office in the Midwest: “Bad Organization — many different departments all organized around a central command.” Here’s another way of looking at the IRS: “A ‘bad wheel’ — comprises hubs and spokes but no rim.” Another notebook page contains a group of pencil scrubbings, reminiscent of a Cy Twombly scribble. Or maybe they were an attempt by Wallace to burn off excess energy. Or maybe just sharpen a pencil.
Finally, on the wall above the window, there are two pages from a yellow legal pad that contain handwritten questions for the tennis star Roger Federer, the subject of a long article Wallace wrote for The New York Times in 2006. It became a classic of sports journalism and was included in his posthumous 2012 book of essays, Both Flesh and Not. As it happened, Wallace spent just 20 minutes talking directly with Federer for the article. But the questions reveal how hard Wallace prepared, how hard worked at everything he did, how much he cared. The questions also reveal a disarming directness, a necessary tool for any writer hungry to get all the way under his subject’s skin:
“Is your English good because it was spoken in your home?”
“Does it make you uncomfortable when commentators talk on and on about how good you are?”
“I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to the press and experts talk about you. When you hear people saying that your game is not merely powerful or dominant but beautiful, do you understand this?”
There is also a bit of sly humor here. Wallace, like every writer, sometimes bridled against editorial control. He gives one list of questions a disparaging title: “Non-Journalist Questions: (Q’s the Editors want me to ask).”
Even a few years ago, it would have been unlikely for these marked pieces of paper to make their way onto the walls of a major American museum. Thankfully, things are changing. These pieces of paper are beautiful to look at and beautiful to ponder. They provide nothing less than a glimpse into a brilliant writer’s mind at work. It’s so intimate it almost feels like a trespass. Even so, I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in how ideas become words, how words become literature, and how literature becomes art.