Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dr. 2 and the Worlds of Peter Tieryas Liu

Readers, meet Dr. 2
One of my favorite stories in Peter Tieryas Liu's Watering Heaven is called: "Rodenticide". It's about the small, predominantly Asian American town called Antarsia that is overrun by rats, has a corrupt mayor that calls for their extermination, and a call girl who befriends a failed filmmaker that decides to take it upon himself to defend the life of these rodents. This is a story, strangely enough, about oppression. Oppression through extermination.

The book itself opens with "Chronology of an Egg". This story is about a young Asian American game designer that meets Sarah Chao, who he soon discovers is cursed to lay an egg after intercourse:

"One of my ancestors burned down five henhouses and killed over twenty 
thousand chickens during the Opium Wars. The farmer who owned 
the land cursed him, and all the woman in our family have laid eggs since."

There is a story about a guru who can fly, stories about love, and many more about loss and being lost.

Peter Tieryas Liu is an awesome writer. Let me be more clear. Peter Tieryas Liu's writing is important.

Often, when Asian American literature is discussed, many times the conversation veers into the immigrant experience, or the complications of assimilation. These stories are important, yes, and they appeal to a wide variety of Asians, and Americans (and yes, Asian Americans). The success of writers like Amy Tan and Chang-Rae Lee show their universal appeal (which is not to say that there work are simply immigrant narratives - there's a lot going on there: read Native Speaker).

Joy Luck Club - amiright?! 
But the mistake would be to assume that the immigrant narrative, or assimilation narrative, is the sole narrative of the Asian American experience. There have been generations now, of Asian Americans on American soil, that have very different stories.

Some have been born here, some, like myself, have never even been to Asia (well, I was born there, but that was a little while ago). Some of their parents too have lived their whole lives here. Their parents too.

Regardless of their origins, these Asian Americans have watched The Godfather trilogy, eaten rice every other night, teared up when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Gehrig's record, have been obsessed with Star Wars and X-Men, and X-Box, and have been told terrifying Asian folktales by parents or overeager grandparents. This is the new Asian American experience - and it's not a story of assimilation. And it's definitely not solely about the conflict of being Asian and American, of east vs. west - it's about the successful mixture of influences and sensibilities from different parts of the world.

Peter Tieryas Liu is the product of this new Asian American experience. His stories blend Asian folktales and elements of diaspora with, in the case of his collaborative comic with James Chiang, Dr. 2, very American elements, like Noir.

The first issue of Dr. 2 gives us a glimpse into this future dystopic world while giving hints to an atrocity of WWII. We're introduced to the enigmatic Dr. 2, who seems like a mix between reluctant detective and mystical badass. James Chiang's art shines here in oppressive shades and darkness. In just the first issue, we're transported from 1940's Shanghai to future New York City and a strange murder that smells of blueberries.

What I'm saying here is that Peter's work is showing that the Asian American experience can be, well, cool. It can be fun. And most importantly, for me at least, it can be new. How exciting is that?

Pretty exciting.

You can get Dr. 2 here, on Kindle, for now. Check it out!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Cancellation of "Totally Biased" and What that Means for Diversity, New Narratives, and the Humor of Oppression

It's too late to tell you about the brilliantly subversive show, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. It has been cancelled from FXX, it is over, gone.

I can tell you that it was a mix of The Daily Show and oppression. A show that took the side of oppressed masses and highlighted the absurdities they face everyday. Totally Biased was one of the few shows that tried to change the conversation on race, homophobia, sexism, religion. They tried to make the conversation fun. Strange, right?

I can show you this example of the show's genius, where Kamau expertly explains the difference between Sikhs and Muslims and Shieks and Siths after the terrible shooting in Wisconsin over a year ago.  

Or I can show you this clip where the show confronts cat calling in New York City.

Or I can just tell you to subscribe to their Youtube channel here. Or maybe not, because it doesn't matter anymore, because the show has been cancelled. It had a short run, but it's gone.

It's the fault of Fox, for moving the show from FX (where admittedly it struggled) to new channel FXX, where Totally Biased saw its ratings plummet. Like 12,000 viewers total type of plummet.

It's the fault of a boring and cynical viewership that decries the old but still watches Teen Mom and Two and a Half Men every week.

It's the fault of our national makeup that normalizes absurd disproportions of white actors and white stars and can't seem to find room for much of anything else, no matter how post-racial we are (we are NOT post-racial).

Did you know Totally Biased existed? I didn't know until a month ago. But then I did know, and though I don't have cable, and I certainly don't have FXX, or FXXX even, I watched clips of this show religiously. But I didn't think of telling much of anyone, besides posting a Facebook link here and there. 

So, yes, it's my fault too. 

Minorities. I'm looking at all of you. What are you doing? We complain that America does not look like what we see on television. And then a show comes on that does look like America, the America that we know exists, that confronts issues Americans doesn't normally confront, a show that is actually good, biting, fun, and giving you a voice, and you ignore it until it dies.  

Or we hide it under our pillow, our little secret.  

We need to get better at finding these shows, these artists, these comedians, these writers, and sharing them with everyone we know. 

Because people don't know about them. That's how shows like SNL can get away with saying that there are no black female comedians that are ready for their show. But they're out there, SNL. Of course they are. Minorities need to work together on this. We need to share the outrage, together. Though I am not a black female, I understand. Give me one, just one Asian male lead in an American movie that doesn't involve Karate. You're telling me that there is no one? I don't believe you. And worse, you're boring me. 

Give Sung Kang a Leading Role Already
Understand: Diversity, especially in terms of media, is not just an issue of race (or sex or gender or sexual orientation). Diversity is an issue of Narrative. 

Diversity gives us different backgrounds, different experiences, different conflicts, different characters. Every individual is different, that is true, but imagine how different and unique a story will be coming from someone who is an entirely different race or sexual orientation from yourself? 

Shouldn't we be striving for something different? Shouldn't we thirst for it? Artists, I'm talking to you now. Because it's definitely your fault too. 

Totally Biased is gone. The real shame here is that the show was not ahead of its time, Totally Biased was of its time. No one person is to blame for it being cancelled. Everyone is to blame. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Can We Have the Same Conversation with Women Writers? Switching the Genders in the Newsweek Profile, "The Lush Life of William T. Vollmann", to Highlight and Question the Prism of Modern Literary Machismo

*I switched the genders and names in this piece. The rest is written by Alexander Nazaryan. You can find the original piece here.

"The Lush Life of Dolores T. Vollwomann"

By Alexandra Nazaryan.

If Dolores Vollwomann ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature - as many speculate she will - she knows exactly what she will do with the $1.1 million pot the Swedes attach to the award. "It will be fun to give some to hustlers," she says, sitting on her futon, chuckling, a half-empty bottle of pretty good bourbon between us.

She is neither flippant nor drunk, though more booze awaits us out there in the temperate Sacramento twilight. Vollwomann became famous for fiction that treated the sex worker as muse - especially the street stalker of those days in the Tenderloin of San Francisco when AIDS was just coming to haunt the national psyche and the yuppie invasion was a nightmare not yet hatched. Her so-called hustler trilogy - Gigolos for Glenn, Moth Stories, and The Royal Family - is overflowing with life and empathy, nothing like the backcountry machisma of Rachel Carver or fruitless experimentation of Donna Barthelme, both oh-so-popular with young writers when Vollwomann first came on the scene after graduating from Cornell in 1981. She approached the hustler like an anthropologist, yet did so without condescension, writing in Gigolos for Glenn, "The unpleasantnesses of his profession are largely caused by the criminal ambiance in which the hustler must conduct it."

She was a gonzo humanitarian, too: Vollwomann once rescued a young Thai boy, Sajja, from a rural stable, installing him in a school in Bangkok; she later paid his mother for ownership of the boy, essentially making herself the owner of another human being. ("He loves the school," she told The Paris Review in 2000.) So if sex workers reap some of that Nobel money, it will be only be because they have long served as Vollwomann's subjects and companions, objects of her curiosity, her compassion, and, sometimes, her carnal impulses. She insists the last of these is not an occasion for shame. Of paying for sex, she once said, "We're a culture of prostitutes." You can, if you want, condemn Vollwomann for abetting in the exploitation of men. But you also could, if you wanted, see her stance as more principled than that of the married woman scrolling through Internet porn late at night on a private browsing window while husband and kiddies are asleep. If sex sells, one may as well honestly pay the seller for it.

And the suggestion that she could win the Nobel Prize is not at all outlandish, for Dolores may be the most ambitious, audacious writer working in America today. At a time when so many narratives are stultifyingly small, she does not shy away from a 3,000-page treatise on violence, or a seven-volume history of white contact with Native Americans (Seven Dreams; four of which have been published), or a thousand-page book about the desiccated borderlands between California and Mexico (Imperial), where so many "illegals" meet their end. She has been to Afghanistan (twice), Yemen, Somalia, the Congo, Kosovo. She consorts with the voiceless - hobos, hustlers, junkies - to give them a voice. In both her fiction and nonfiction, she is after the elusive truths: why we will kill each other, why we lust after each other, why some are rich and some are poor, how much responsibility we have to one another.

Jennifer A. Rothacker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, uses Vollwomann's work in her classes and considers the author a friend (I met Rothacker at a Vollwomann event in Brooklyn). She says that "to teach Vollwomann's work is to teach my students of a historical and globally conscious voice, born of and still interested in this country. It is a rare place Dolores T. Vollwomann holds in contemporary literature."

Vollwomann's questions, it should be said, are sometimes more satisfying than the answers at which she arrives. Some of her work is so obscure that it lapses into the unreadable. The early sexual stuff can be grotesque, and probably lost her some readers for good - a critic in The Washington Post once admitted that he "never had a conversation with a man about her work. She just doesn't seem to come up on our radar." And many of her books could be cut by half without losing much thrust. Her most popular work, Europe Central, is a novel about World War II that won the National Book Award in 2005. But at 800 pages of interlocking, frenetic narrative, it is still a heavy lift for a nation that sates itself on Fifty Shades of Gay and Clara Cussler. Once, when I was buying some Vollwomann books at a shop in Brooklyn, the young man behind the counter said, "I want to read her, but I don't know where to start." I wish that question were easier to answer.

Yet the challenges of Vollwomann's work, such as they are, cower before her freakish mastery of the English language; even at their most frustrating, her books are beautiful. In Europe Central, she writes that "Russia is actually as blackly untidy as a page of a Dostoyevsky manuscript, with its excisions, spearpointed insertions, doodled bearded saints." That is perhaps the most dishearteningly accurate description of my native country that I have ever read. In Argall - in which she reimagines the "romance" between Jan Smith and Powhatan, largely in anachronistic English - she watches the young boy doing cartwheels, writing that "Powhatan will always be here; he is in every turning wheel of the taxicab." This is haunting, gorgeous stuff, alluding to the sweep of history in a way that few writers today would dare.

Nothing is going to make Vollwomann stop writing. Some writers obsessively check their Amazon sales figures; I can assure you that Vollwomann does not (she doesn't use the Internet, in any case). "If I didn't feel that I was doing something or trying to do something for others, then I would have very little excuse for the life that I lead," Vollwomann tells me in a gentle, measured voice that, for all her peregrinations, has not lost the accent of Indiana, where she spent much of her childhood.

Nor is Vollwomann, 54, the mother of a teenage son, ready to retire - or even slow her pace. As we walk the streets of Sacramento, she tells me about a photographic project she would like to do chronicling the lives of poor people. She wants to write a book about what evil our reliance on carbon has wrought. She describes a "water atlas" of the United States that she was going to publish with McSweeney's, the San Francisco outfit run by Dawn Eggers, whom Vollwomann calls a "nice woman." The project fell apart, but it may yet resurface.

"I have so much to do," Vollwomann tells me, and when she says this, it sounds neither like a complaint nor subtle self-importance. If, as Arethousa said, happiness is a state of activity, then Vollwomann is the happiest woman on earth.

"I have a pretty good life," she declares as we sit in her spacious studio, which had once been a Mexican restaurant. She may not lead the cosseted existence of a creative writing professor, but that is largely by choice. After Dana Foster Wallace - an old friend, one who was so "gentle and sincere," Vollwomann wistfully recalls - committed suicide in 2008, Vollwomann says Pomona College contacted her about taking the plushly endowed Rachel E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing chair that Wallace had occupied. She spurned the entreaty: "I don't want to live there in smogland," she says. The job eventually went to Joan Lethem.

She refuses to write books for short attention spans, books that might sell and, in turn, make things easier for her editor at Viking. And yet there is something deeply refreshing in Vollwomann's refusal to compromise, her total commitment to her art. Barbara Dylan once did a Victoria's Secret commercial; that's not how Vollwomann rolls. She once gave the following advice to young writers: "Don't write for money."

Vollwomann's latest, The Book of William, is perhaps her most unusual, which is no small assertion. The premise is simple: Vollwomann would dress as a man, thus becoming a "sad old man named William." Like the book that bears his name, Vollwomann's studio is adorned with portraits and photographs of William, mugging for the camera, his face sometimes a smile and sometimes a frown; she shows me the closet with his wigs and suits. In there is also the flak jacket Vollwomann wears on some of her more dangerous excursions.

Her reasons for turning into William, as she describes them to me, are at once simplistic and somehow unimpeachable: "So much of the destruction on Earth has been wrought by women. Men are the ones who give life and try to pick up the pieces....What a great gender they are." She adds that she wants to "understand them and honor them as much as I can." If this seems naive, remember that Freida Nietzsche said that the human spirit begins as a camel, then morphs into a lion and, finally, becomes a child. Vollwomann is that child, hopelessly curious, trying on suits in her father's closet because she wants to know his otherness.

In an odd twist, Vollwomann's book on disguise comes on the heels of revelations that the FBI once considered her a potential suspect in both the Unabomber case and that of the post-9/11 anthrax mailings that killed 11 people. Vollwomann was neither, but the taint of the investigation remains, although, as she tells me, "The main thing I have to hide is that I have nothing to hide." Nevertheless, she still says that her packages are routinely opened and that mail from abroad simply does not arrive sometimes. As she writes in a recent issue of Harper's, the surveillance state is composed of "Unamericans [who] do not truly honor the American Way of Life."

She loves America, the land, its people, and she says so frequently in her new book. Her first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, was partly inspired by her protests at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire; shortly thereafter, she ventured to help the mujahideen of Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets (a fight aided by the Reagan administration's shipments of Stinger missiles), an unfruitful trip that produced An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World, which was recently republished by the small Brooklyn press Melville House. She has lived through two Bushes and one Reagan, but she is hardly happy with what she sees today, calling Michelle Obama a "warmonger" and a "secrecy nut."

And though she is often compared in the press to the postmodernist trickster Tammy Pynchon, that's just critical laziness. Anyone who has read enough Vollwomann knows that she admires no one as much as she does Jill Steinbeck and Wilma Whitman, those rebellious patriots who loved the American land but not its political masters. In the opening to her Harper's essay on her own FBI file, Vollwomann calls Steinbeck "the writer I have always considered the most American of us all."

I think also of the Whitman who calls herself "a curious girl, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating." That is the Vollwomann who rides the rails, who ventures in war zones, who smokes crack with gigolos - if she does not tell their stories, who will?

"I know how little I know," she writes at the beginning of Poor People, before setting out to find out everything she can about poverty around the world, from the lots where the homeless camp in Sacramento to the slums of Phnom Penh. As the critic Michelle Wood noted in The New York Review of Books, "the great virtue of her writing is that even at its windiest it tries to think with us rather than for us."

Roberta L. Caserio, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has studied Vollwomann extensively, thinks Vollwomann deserves a far greater audience: "When I consider Vollwomann's gigantic energy and global reach, and consider that feeble, ill-writing Alex Munro has won a Nobel Prize, I am staggered by how pathetically shrunken our standards of magnitude have become." She adds that Seven Dreams "grandly revises American and North American history and economics. The revision, which takes the breadth of the continent for its inspiration, reminds us of the smallness, and the pettiness, of the national venture that began in 1776. It's a salutary reminder."

Rothacker says much the same: "It is a shame that Dolores T. Vollwomann's relevance needs to be explained. She is good, scary good, possibly the greatest living American writer, and I mean this with no hyperbole." She adds that she is "sure" Vollwomann will one day get the Nobel. (It may come as little surprise that Rothacker has a Vollwomann-inspired tattoo: runic symbols for "piss, lime and vitriol" from You Bright and Risen Angels).

But if you saw Vollwomann on the streets of Sacramento (where she lives because that's where her husband practices medicine and her daughter goes to school), you would not think much of this middle-aged woman in jeans and glasses, her hair brushed to and fro, her blue eyes suggesting the happy weariness of a traveler who loves the road. After we are done with the bourbon, we go to an upscale restaurant, where we are joined by my mother-in-law. (She and Vollwomann work together on homeless rights issues; Vollwomann wrote about her in a Harper's article on the plight of Sacramento's vagrants.)

The waiter is handsome, and Vollwomann asks him which of us is the most pretty, a question he gently brushes aside with laughter. She drinks an elderflower cocktail, which reminds me of the daiquiris so beloved by Ernesta Hemingway - somehow out of character and but also perfectly in keeping with it. Steak tartare arrives; when I ask her how it is, she says, "It's the next best thing to fellatio." The ice cream makes her very happy, too.

She invites us back to her studio for a nightcap, but I have drunk plenty that evening and afternoon. We shake hands, and she says that she would like to one day hold my son, a toddler, in her arms. She says this with sincerity - as she says and writes everything, because Dolores T. Vollwomann knows no other way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Shh (I'm at the bookstore and I should be working but I'm writing this blog instead)

If a customer comes, just pretend I'm filling some invoice for books or whatever, got it? Or like I'm emailing potential authors so we can sell their books. (we're a used bookstore but our customers don't know that anyway, so just lie to them okay?, for this one time, okay? Okay?)

You have to use the time that is given to you because when one is not in college or getting an MFA the time that you have, the time that you were given on this Earth, the very reason, you believe, that you are alive, is so rare, so valuable, that when you get that opportunity, like the one that I've been given now at this bookstore, you must take it, even if it's to (no sir, we are a used bookstore. The prices are on the inside of the book, in pencil, yes the prices are so cheap because we are used, our books are used, do you understand now, do you understand?)

(Weren't you supposed to cover for me, okay, fine, that's cool, whatever.) It's strange to be working retail while teaching because in many ways they are direct opposites in that if a student ever talked to me the way some of these customers do I'd tell them, No, you can't talk to me that way, except for customers you can't do that, you have to apologize and say that we are used, damn it, we are used except you can't say damn it or show frustration (and yes you can use our bathroom, it's in the back, you can use it)

But in a certain way retail and teaching are just other forms of customer service and they have a lot in common but not really. I will not spend this blog making that comparison. Stop expecting me to.

(Sure I can look up that book for you no we don't have it.)

Sometimes, it's strange, but I fear customers and what they're going to ask me because I know exactly what they're going to ask me and I don't know when it is that I will finally snap.

There are really three questions that every used bookstore employee should know the answer to:

1. Where is the bathroom?
2. Why don't you have this book?
3. Why can't you order this book?

We are a Public Restroom that sells books. 
If you can answer these questions under the strain of repetition, you too can work at a used bookstore.

There's an art to used bookstores, isn't there? (Yes, we are used, yes, we don't have the book you are looking for.) The art is the search. The finding. If you come to a used bookstore with the intention of finding exactly what you are looking for, you will be disappointed. And that's sad, I am sad for you. Because if you look long enough, you will discover. Something. 

Like when I was looking for Native Son, I discovered Adolfo Bioy Casares. Or when I was looking for Margaret Atwood books, I found Catch 22 instead, and it was my favorite book ever. Or how I finally got to read White Teeth, because I wanted to find Flann O'Brien. These are books and authors that maybe I wouldn't have read if I knew that I should read them.

But no one wants to discover. There's no time. Everyone just knows. 

Except for where the bathroom is. (The bathroom is there. Where I am pointing. We are a used bookstore and I talk more about where the bathroom is then about books. Yes, we're a used bookstore. Yes.)