Estate Sale: Places of Detective-Work

I’ve recently gotten into going to Estate Sales. I started this recent obsession because I’m on a new health kick, one in which I haul myself out of bed and jog early every Saturday morning. This has been going on for four months and I feel fit and trim and never-better.

What I soon realized is that, once I finished my scenic run, I emerge into this dream world of Estate Sales. Pasadena—for those of you who don’t know—is a great old city that abuts Los Angeles. It has a lot of old historic homes and a charm that makes me think of the quiet, dignified grandeur of the Midwest.

jogging

It seems like all those little old ladies from Pasadena —those little old ladies in the song of the same name–are dying.

This means that going to an Estate Sale is extremely depressing. You see the house, like a crime scene, in a state. Everything is left out, almost as if ransacked by thieves. Old depression glassware, mink coats, stained hankies—these are common items at Estate Sales, and they make the hairs on my arms stand on end.

ESTATE-SALE

Going to an estate sale, you also begin to learn how to sleuth—to see patterns, to look for tell-tale signs. You begin to figure out who was an alcoholic. Who had a mistress. Who liked to wear women’s clothing, despite many years of service in the Marines.

I almost didn’t go to my first estate sale because of the sadness of seeing life at a standstill. But the nice old lady who manned the cash register put her bony hand to her chest and exclaimed. “Oh my stars, no–nobody died here.” She leaned forward. “It’s not that type of estate sale.”

The house was next to a very nice gas station and perched on the edge of a tonier neighborhood—San Marino—where the great Huntington Library, with its sprawling gardens and its archives, stood. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. But the house—a modest one—was definitely a fixer-upper.

house-for-sale

There were patches of bald on the lawn, and streaks of brown where the crabgrass had withered in the summer heat. It was obvious that the house was kept in the family for several generations. Everywhere, there were decades of junk—like the stratigraphy of rocks on a Paleolithic cliff.

Finally, I met the owner—a man in a wheel chair—who was guzzling a case of Budweiser at 9 o’clock in the morning. He had long, straggly white hair, the silvering of a grey five o’clock shadow.  A loose terry cloth bath robe fell open to expose thin, ashen legs. Around him were strewn the empties.

He thanked me for coming. Then, he regaled me about growing up in this neighborhood in Southern California when everything was nicer, simpler, and cheaper. “Back then, a twelve year old kid could walk down to the corner store and buy a beer for less than fifty cents.” He was expansive and I could tell he didn’t have many friends who talked to him. “Do you know how much I sold this shit hole for?”

budweiser

He confided that his parents had left him the house and he had crippled himself with the kind of heavy drinking that leads to diabetes. “1.7 million dollars.” I picked something out quickly from the stuff set out in the living room.  As I left with my purchase, he waved to me with his cigarette. “Now I can buy a condo in Glendale, and live the rest of my life without being a burden to society.

The irish linen I picked out still had the tags on it. The nice old lady at the cash register let me have it for a song, and I wondered out loud why nobody had ever used it. “Sometimes things just end up that way,” said the lady.  But the answer was obvious: all the ordinary things in the house had been so used, they were worn down to a nub. But the nice stuff—the nice stuff—was never used: it was too nice for everyday use.

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Halloween Exercise: Writing the Truly Scary

It’s almost Halloween—the time for ghouls and zombies, vampires and mummies. But let’s face it: those things are not really scary. In fact, the paradox of Halloween is that we are immune to zombies; ghosts do not truly frighten us; we have been weaned on the modern day horror flick, and in the process have become demanding consumers of The Truly Scary. So these creatures of the night are exactly the opposite—simply signs of glee, of socially sanctioned drinking, of the possibility of being naughty.

Boo

What is actually scary is the ordinary stuff of life that hits at your deepest, darkest phobia. Freud actually gave this a name: unheimlich—that feeling of being at home, but not at home. This term is often translated as “the uncanny,” but I like this idea of being at home and not at home better, because it catches the essence of a certain kind of fear that we all experience. The fear of the ordinary is a common part of the human experience.

Freud

So in this installment, I want to suggest an exercise that focuses on fear. This will help you develop your character (your deepest, darkest fear tells a lot about you). This will also help you develop plot (it is usually your character’s fear that will help move the story’s conflict). But the kind of fear I want you to work with is actually a little tricky.  So I’ll do this by giving you two examples of the kind of uncanny fear I am talking about—first, by using an example of one of my acquaintances; second, by making it more personal and using an example in my own life.

1

I just ran into an acquaintance who has a phobia of toxins—invisible pathogens that are in everything. So she steadfastly avoids all plastics. Anything printed on a laser printer—letters, receipts, handbills—she will not touch. This means that she cannot pay her bills. Because of this irrational fear, she has developed OCD, constantly washing her hands. She wishes she could pay her bills, but she fears the toxins more: they are everywhere, invisible eels that float through the air and threaten to destroy her. For her, a letter in the mail is the sign of the corruption of society and the trap it has laid for its victims. She recently got a new apartment—to get out of this world of fear—but she finds herself irrevocably stuck. There are so many toxins in this world that she cannot even begin the overwhelming task of moving into the apartment, so she has been paying, for the last year, rent for an empty box.

OCD

2

Today, I walked out of the gym, and suddenly realized that during the hour I was toning my body, a large festival had built up around me—a once-a-year event called The Cruz’n for Roses Hot Rod & Classic Car Show. It’s actually a pretty big event that the City of South Pasadena puts on to raise money for its float in the Tournament of Roses Parade. And it’s real old-timey with the old-timey downtown filled with impeccably finished cars, boosters, police officers, boy scouts, and folks dressed up like rockabillies and greasers. But this actually reminded me of one of my biggest panic attacks when I first started teaching Creative Writing in Iowa.

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I had just walked out of a breakfast where I had felt I was getting such poor service that I was sure the waitress was a racist. In the time that I had walked into the diner, a car show had suddenly popped up in the quaint downtown. To suddenly be confronted with an old-timey event called, of all things, “Happy Days,” filled me with dread. I did the math: the nostalgia for simpler times suddenly meant that I would live in a world of profound segregation. And everybody in that town—a town that loved its oldtiminess—was secretly a racist that pined for the 1950’s, a time when colored people knew their place.

3

Of course, these fears—the kind I have been describing–are irrational. And as it turned out, my waitress wasn’t really a racist at all; she was just slow; and I was a newbie from the Big City where everything moves fast. Moreover, most likely people just liked old cars and were not secretly members of the KKK. But the fear that resides in the ordinary is a powerful thing. It grips you. It fills you with its toxins. It paralyzes you. It makes you feel as if you can’t hardly stand to breathe.

So here is your exercise: think of a fear that your main character has, and make it reside in the most ordinary object—a teacup, a pebble, a ring, a hair in the shower. Then, write a vignette where those fears reach out and grab the main character, refusing to be ignored, refusing to live in the margin. If you write a vignette like this, you are well on your way to getting a plot and you might just leave the exercise with a few supporting characters you never knew you needed.

Five Rules for Finding Your Community of Writers

I’m going to give some advice about building a writing community, which is one of the sure ways to build a writing practice.  But first, I will start with an anecdote that illustrates the rewards of surrounding yourself with a curio cabinet of fellow writers.  If you have no patience for anecdotes, just skip to the end and you will find a list of ways to wheedle yourself into the good graces of your peers.  Of course, if you have no patience for anecdotes, you are in all likelihood neither a reader, nor a writer.

*  *  *

So recently, I had the opportunity to see another writer—Ed Lin—who came to Los Angeles to promote his book, Ghost Month. And sure enough, he was a ham who stole the show. This was to be expected. But what was more curious was that there were a lot of other writers, too, who came to support him. And these writers formed a community in and of themselves.

Right before the reading, I met Steph Cha who writes Los Angeles noir fiction. She is the author of Follow Her Home and Beware Beware, both novels that I would kill to have written.

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I also met Yumi Sakagawa—a graphic novelist who does these awesome cartoons, and who was recently nominated for some big prestigious award. She looks as quirky as her cartoons.

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The two were introduced to me by the poet Nicky Schildkraut, whose poems are published by the same press that first got Ed Lin his start. And so even before the reading, I found myself at the reading, watching my fellow writers slurping down a bowl of slippery wet noodles at a ramen joint. (I totally would have joined them, but had gone on a low sodium diet).

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Writers want desparately to be alone—an island unto themselves—but they also know this fact, a thorn on the stigmata of their existence: they want desperately to be with other people, to feel a connection, even if that connection arrives from desperation.

This is not what I imagined all my life about writers. I had a romantic vision of them—one composed of corrugated cardboard, flat and one-dimensional. I imagined that these rare creatures were hermit crabs—adrift in a world not unlike the subterranean depths described by Paul Auster, a world in which the writer emerges from his dark little New York apartment and realizes that he is such a misfit that he could very well be mistaken for a homeless person.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I learned this first when I started teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College and running Writers At Grinnell. Suddenly, I realized that writers don’t live in a vacuum but, rather, are incredibly social creatures. Writers At Grinnell brought many famous scribblers to campus—Adrienne Rich, Ana Castillo, John Edgar Wideman, Lan Samantha Chang—and that meant I spent my time boozing and schmoozing: before the reading came dinner; after the reading, drinks; then perhaps an impromptu pizza-making session at my house; and stories followed by toasts.

Some were desparate for an ear into which they could pour conversation. Some were criss-crossing the country on manic book tours. All were generous of spirit, ready to take you into their intellectual embrace, and show you the secrets hidden under their cloak. I always gave my students extra credit to show up. I couldn’t stand to see these writers reading to an empty room. And, yes, I was the first and last person at any reading—the guy who was ready to pay for the first round and tell them how god-damn-fucking-brilliant-they-were.

*  *  *

So here’s my advice, if you want to find a writing community that will help you jumpstart your own writing practice.

1)  Attend a reading.  Make sure it’s a reading for a moderately well-known writer who works in a genre that you will aspire to.

2) Buy a book, and get it signed.  Writers love to feel appreciated, even if they get almost none of the money that comes from the purchase of the book.  When you get to the front of the line, ask questions.  Better yet, tell them that you’d love to have them come do an event for your church, book club, community center.  They will become your new best friend.

3)  Stay Late.  Mill about.  Wait until there is a cluster of folks who seem to be of the event but, also, apart from it.  Those are the friends, lovers, colleagues who are waiting to whisk the writer off to an evening of fun and excitement.

4)  Talk to People.  Talk to the friends of the writer. Talk to the introducer.  Talk to the bookstore manager.  It goes a long way.

5)  Get on a Mailing List.   Then, go to the next event and complete the process, again.  And again.  And again.  You need to do this until you become a fixture.  You need to become a recognizable face that people will wave to.  Stick to a genre; If your genre is Science Fiction, try to make it to as many of these readings as possible!

Ed Lin

This weekend I decided to read through all four of Ed Lin’s books for two reasons:  he is coming out with a new book–Ghost Month–and he is coming to LA for a reading that I will be attending.  The reading will also feature my good friend, Nicky Schildkraut, who is an all-around amazing poet with a real legitimate book.

For those of you who don’t know, Ed Lin is widely considered one of the best Asian American Detective Fiction writers.  He’s been on my list for a long time.  In fact, somehow we became accidental Facebook Friends…even though we don’t know each other.  So, every time I’m on Facebook, I see his mug and feel guilty about not reading his books.

Ed Lin

I’m finishing the third one—Snakes Can’t Run–right now…and it’s totally killer… so much so, that I knew I had to put my book down and write something up.   Lin is totally awesome.  For me, the first book, Waylaid, is the best—a coming of age story that follows an extremely horny young boy, exploited by his Taiwanese parents who own an hourly rate motel on the Jersey shore.  Like all young boys, he’s obsessed with losing his virginity and obsessed with porn…which he finds all over the place in the motel rooms he cleans.  You can tell a book like this is good when you want to teach it…and then you realize it’s a little too dirty to teach.  Awesome.

Waylaid

The second book—This is a Bust–is super-cool.  I love the title, which echoes the noir lingo of detective speech (you’re under arrest) and, also, street slang (this sucks).   It’s Lin’s move into the mystery genre and we follow Robert, an alcoholic beat cop—the only Chinese officer in Chinatown—who is used by the department as a tool of PR.  His work situation is kind of messed up; he’s the officer who gets paraded around like a show pony at the banquets—the token—to placate the masses.  And this only exacerbates an alcoholism that is linked to his stint in Vietnam where he killed a young boy.  Oh yeah, his father is an illegal immigrant—paper son, gambler, life-long waiter—who commits suicide.  Robert’s got a lot of issues.

I’m finding the third book a bit of a chore.  But I’m learning a lot from it.   I still love this book but there are three things that are problematic:

1)    Exposition:  the connection to the last book takes a hundred pages, as we get all the background on Robert.  This is undoubtedly necessary but often we get the same descriptions (the midget’s hair is licorice) but kind of done faster, so they lose the power of pacing.  I just wish it was shorter.

2)    Too Much History:  there’s a reason why all of his mysteries won Asian American literary awards.  There’s tons of history.  It’s like taking an Asian American Studies 101 class.  This is awesome in the first mystery because it’s well-integrated.  But the third book has even more history and sometimes the characters start talking to each other and citing laws like the Magnuson Act or the War Bride Act of 1943. 

3)    Not Enough Action:  I like action.  Tons of murders.  Gore.  Chases.  There’s little of that in an Ed Lin novel.  My wife is my ultimate guide for mystery reading.  She reads mysteries on the tread mill.  If there’s no action, if she can’t turn the pages quickly, if she isn’t filled with adrenaline, she will stop reading.  She’s merciless but also has a pretty awesome ass.

So, this is my takeaway from reading three books:  Ed Lin is a funny writer who is really great at painting a realistic portrait of Chinatown that is not too sensationalized.  You’ll get a lot of history in his books at the expense of plot.  But I’m a total fan.  I’ll be at the reading to pick up the new book and I’ll give you a run-down on my impressions!

 

Writing Exercise: Public Transportation

I recently went on a traveling jag that took me to several parts of this patchwork nation—Hawaii, Texas, Iowa—and this is why I have been a bit lackadaisical with the blog:  too much time on the road, too much jet lag.  Each time I landed in a new place, I found that I was a different person, that I assumed a new role.  It was strange—like being superman who enters not a phone booth but a plane—emerging as an entirely different person.

1940s-PhoneBooth

Part of this came from the fact that there were new people suddenly all around me.

At the Dallas airport, I met an eighty year old, a career salesman now happily retired, who was returning from his Caribbean cruise.  He was still wearing his tropical shirt and panama hat.  His face was pink, peeling from the exposure to constant sunlight.

used car dealer

Like all seniors, he had risen at the crack of dawn, getting to the Florida airport so early that the staff let him get on an earlier flight, which made him land now, with much time to spare, at his transfer point–Dallas.   Now he had a half day to spend while waiting for his connection and did not relish it.  This was a vast desert for a man whose occupation made him crave interaction, whose life had primed him for talking.

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“Are you going to Des Moines?” I asked.  And in minutes my attempt to read a John Grisham novel was put on ice:  he switched seats and was on me.

“No, I’m going to San Diego.  That’s where I live now.”  And thus began his life story.  By the time we parted company, I felt I knew too much about his sons, both in their sixties—one married with children; the other a confirmed bachelor, teaching community college.  I learned about his life as a used car salesman and the intricacies of making a deal.  “You can’t lie to people.  They’ll find you out and never trust you again.”  Used car sales, it turns out, makes a lot of money back in his day, but now the car business has been gutted.  “I put two boys through college with that money and once a month the owners took me and the wife to the nicest hotel in New Jersey and we could order whatever we want.”  There was a pride in his voice.  It was the pride of someone who bought IBM when it was still a small fish in a very big pond.  “Now these guys in the car racket, I feel sorry for them.  The commission is nothing.”

So here is the Creative Writing Exercise:  Put your character into a space of public transportation—an in-between space—where he can collide with all sorts of other folks:  salesman, data analysts, prostitutes, conventioneers, celebrities, students, confidence men, terrorists.  From there, he can pivot to a number of possibilities, a few of which I will name but many more of which I will leave you to figure out:  he can lie about his identity, he can suddenly develop a friendship or animosity, he can be caught in an intrigue, he can be forced to perform a task, he can catch somebody in a deception, he can have a confrontation.

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These are just some of the possibilities that come from a space of transit.  Transit yokes character to plot, the cart to its horse—pushing onward, pushing upward.  If your character is just lying around in bed or too lazy to get out of the house, public transit will force him to do some work for a change…so this exercise is a good remedy for the plot that has stalled.  Remember that many great novels and films both begin and end in zones of public transportation—Casablanca, to name but one—so this simple fix-all is not just an exercise that goes nowhere but a legitimate entryway to producing great art that goes somewhere.

Another Vignette Inspired by Audrey Chin: My Name is Snow

Recently, I published a review of Audrey Chin’s book As the Heart Bones Break–a novel that I found both intriguing and instructive.  In this review, I mentioned that I actually put the book down at points and found myself writing little vignettes–responses to her work– compelled by the rich subject matter.  What I ended up with was stuff that, in another liftetime, I swore to never take on–stuff that previously turned me off–but which I decided to take a stab at.  I’m glad I did it.  And I’m indebted to Audrey for opening a new world for me.  For this piece, I used the second person narration (the “you”) that Audrey made her centerpiece device. Give me your feedback.  Tell me what you think!

 

My name is Snow, but until I was thirteen, I never saw it, never touched it, never tasted it.  All I knew was that it was white, cold, distant—and at nights when I dreamed of this thing, this thing called “snow,” I envisioned a ghostly bride in a translucent veil, walking across a beach, trailing a train on sands that hold no footprints.  If you cup snow in your hand, it disappears.  It becomes something else.  It is no longer snow.

snow

An American soldier once said that in his native Alaska, the indigenous people have a thousand words for snow—all different kinds of snow.  I never met this man but I read it in a newspaper clipping from a now defunct newspaper.  And then I lost the newspaper but I kept the words with me.  The words of the newspaper were in Vietnamese but I thought he was speaking to me, only to me, in English.  There are words for slushy snow, icy snow, pure virgin snow.

I had a friend in school who shared my name.  It was a popular name and we had a choice of whether to become friends or enemies.  We became friends.  I told her of my American from Alaska.

“Is he tall?”

“He is tall, as pine trees.”

“Will you remember me when you go to him.”

“I will always remember you,” I told her.  She knew that she would never be able to go to the United States.  But me:  my papers were already in.  And it was just a matter of time.

If I close my eyes, I still think of this man—freckled shoulders, chapped thin lips—and in my dreams, he gives me an eskimo kiss, nose-to-nose, chaste.  I must have described him to my friend, Snow, so many times.

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And then he instructs me about the properties of snow.  My, how he longed for his snow.  Snow is beautiful in Alaska and when it interacts with the light that bounces through the atmosphere, it forms rainbows, it forms fantastic illusions.  You have never lived until you see the Northern Lights.

It would be a long time before that would happen.  And I guess I never lived.  I cannot say that much of my life counts for much—much living, that is.  I am nothing in this country.  And I was not much of anything in the one I left behind.

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And then I saw snow for the first time at the age of thirteen when I found myself in Minnesota in the coldest winter.  The snow came down like ashes from a great fire.  It floated.  And then it came down like a curtain of finest lace.  “Don’t go out there,” said my sponsor.  “You’ll catch your death.”  But I was already out the door.

I am lying on the ground.  I am sticking out my tongue.  I am catching it in my tongue, and my tongue can taste its becoming and unbecoming, the unwinding of that spool of thread—first snow, then water—like a trick knot in a magician’s hand.  I am making a snow angel.  I do not know it.

I am making a snow angel.

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Vignette Inspired by Audrey Chin

Last week, I published a review of Audrey Chin’s book As the Heart Bones Break–a novel that I found both intriguing and instructive.  In this review, I mentioned that I actually put the book down at points and found myself writing little vignettes–responses to her work– compelled by the rich subject matter.  What I ended up with was stuff that, in another liftetime, I swore to never take on–stuff that previously turned me off–but which I decided to take a stab at.  I’m glad I did it.  And I’m indebted to Audrey for opening a new world for me.  For this piece, I used the second person narration (the “you”) that Audrey made her centerpiece device. Give me your feedback.  Tell me what you think!

 

Short, squat, brutal—you could have had a promising career as a mixed martial artist but you were born in the wrong time.  All you needed were the tattoos, you think, appraising yourself in the motel mirror, watching the fuzzy television set, which is feeding you spoonfuls of a blurry premium channel for free.

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“He’s got the shape of a trash can,” said your uncle Hong, always rosy-faced with booze.  “He’ll never amount to anything.”  And you showed him.  You punched him in the face.

Now he’s dead.

Almost everybody around you is dead—you’ve got the igneous touch.  Hong killed himself with cigarettes and booze, then ran his car into a tree.  Your mother was a whore and she died a whore’s death—putting food in your sour little gullet. It was easier to tell you she ran off with a man, instead of telling you the truth, but you found it out anyway, in your own good time.

The rest of your family, they all fell into the ocean on a boat.  And you, the deserving one, floated like a message in a bottle into the arms of a religious couple in Minnesota.

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At night, this is your foster child dream:  Underneath the black blue of the South China Sea lies the treasure of your extended family–diamonds, pearls, gold in the form of necklaces.  Drifting.  Scattered.  The currents are pushing them away, into oblivion.  Your mother is a mermaid and she glides among the wreckage, dapples of wayward sunlight like freckles on her shoulder, but she never turns back to you.  And then with a flick of her tail, she is gone.

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How much could that treasure have bought?  Could it have turned your life around?  Could it have bought you a tract house in Orange County? Would that have changed anything about the life path you have come to know as your own?  Probably not.

You became a little food horder.  Thief of Spam and Corned Hash.  Then, you kicked that habit and horde nothing.

Here you are, at fortytwo, already an old-timer.

But when you washed up on the shores of these United States, you were already fully formed—a delinquent.

You look at yourself in the motel mirror.   It vibrates from the couple next door, who are continuously fucking or fighting.  “Do it.  Go ahead.  Do it.”  The voice is a female’s, high pitched and yappy.  She is speaking alternately in Spanish and English.  But you have stayed in hotels long enough to know the Esperanto.

Your body, it is a funhouse mirror—lengthening and folding into itself, distorting, buckling, weaving.  Now’s the time you could say I could have been a contender.  You with your wifebeater shirt and your sneer.  You with your comb in your back pocket.  You with the igneous touch.

Fun house mirror

But you wouldn’t have gotten that reference.

Growing up most of your life in a foreign country means you are lobotomized of most popular culture.  No accent have you, but everything else is a little bit messed up—not all the wiring with all the factory parts.

You’re a perpetual foreigner, a dispensable cog.  You’ve only ever made enough money to splurge on a shit hole hotel like this.  That announcer who does the play-by-play asks you this question in the voice of Howard Cosell:  How does it feel to be on the run?

And in that finely tuned instrument that is the harpsichord of your mind, you answer deadpan—no accent, no stutter:  I been running all my life, my life all one run.

Review: Audrey Chin’s novel, As the Heart Bones Break

The first book is the bravest one.  The second, the third, the fourth—those too are feats of brawn, of calculated risk.  By “first,” I don’t mean the conventional sense: debut.  The book I am about to review comes from an author who has already written quite a bit, who has sharpened her knife on the whetstone of craft.

Heart-bones

By “first,” I mean novel, innovative, groundbreaking.  Highwire acts, first books of this order—the ones that open up the doors to new areas, bridging gaps in our intellectual DNA–represent an incredible feat of derring-do because they lay the foundation for a tradition.  First books are that seed in the oyster, that first crystal that forms a matrix of startling geometries, multi-faceted and sparkly.

Who cares about the umpteenth Harlequin Romance? Those books remain forgettable and anonymous–contraband wrapped in a paper bag, the detritus of a disposable culture.  We only care about the trailblazers:  Jane Eyre lives forever in our erotic memories, remade in our wet dreams and our silver screen fantasies, because it is the first book that set the stage for the formula of the Harlequin Romance.

Even the hero, who is described as charismatic but ugly, gets remade in our memories as startlingly handsome; in our idealizations of Jane Eyre, the craggy-faced Earl of Rochester transforms into Michael Fassbender and Plain Jane, into Mia Wasikowska.

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Audrey Chin’s book is definitely a trailblazer in this sense.  As the Heart Bones Break follows a Vietnamese refugee as he traverses a world that Vietnamese Americans know well but have yet to write about:  civil war, escape, displacement, integration into society as a refugee, trauma, memory, history.  Most Vietnamese American writers have taken a piece, a chunk, and woven stories with more modest dimensions.  But Chin’s book is singular because it is an ambitious book; Chin wants to capture the sweep of history—its complexities and contradictions, its ambiguities and dark shadows.

And she makes no bones about the fact that she is absolutely aware of the risks.  As a woman who herself married a Vietnamese refugee, Audrey Chin understands that she enjoys a privileged vantage point both as insider and outsider.  In a previous piece for Diacritics, she wrote touchingly about this position—the risks involved, the fact that she is well aware that she is still an utter outsider.  She has also put her finger on one of the pitfalls of over-identifying with any minority group:  the arrogance behind the faulty assumption that by marrying a refugee and indeed learning the Vietnamese language, you somehow enjoy special access.  Her conclusion is one that is absolutely true but oft forgotten by the people who choose to love us:  you may understand up to a certain point but, really, after that you are in a vast ocean on a rickety boat and you will never know how deep it is until you capsize.

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On the strength of her very compelling essay, I chose to give this book a serious look-see.  Why?  Because of the self-consciousness, the unprecedented sensitivity, the candor it brought to the table.  Audrey Chin made it clear that she understood the power dynamics behind representation.

Most of our lives, Vietnamese people have not been able to control our own images.  Most times, non-Vietnamese who married into our special world—turbulent, ever-shifting, precarious—have had to do this work for us.  They get a bit cocky about actually “knowing” the world.  I’m sure every Vietnamese person reading this has met someone who, precisely because they have become attached to one of our tribe, will then act as spokesperson, cultural interpreter, tour guide.

The strength and also the weakness of Audrey Chin’s book comes from this sentiment of circumspection.  We can tell that the author has spent a lot of time meticulously researching the history of the Vietnam war, the causes behind it, the people, the places.  Why?  Because quite often she will display that knowledge.  She will explain.  Sometime, she will over-explain in order to prove she is on firm ground.  She will take care to insert points of history into exposition or dialogue.

The best parts are when the author lets go of the need to explicitly address history.  Here is a nice example that I wish there was more of:

You bit into the banh.  How you love the feel of the thin crispy skin in your

mouth, the nutty richness of the filling, the candied melon and sesame oil

aftertaste.  Nibbling the cake alone this way reminds you of 1979—eating in

hiding so you don’t have to share, swallowing slowly to keep the flavors in

your throat, to make believe you’d eaten more.

For a Vietnamese, 1979 is a year that doesn’t need to be explained.  It is a time of hunger, a moment when many folks are plotting their rickety escape.  There are people who are in refugee camps.  There are people dealing with the aftermath of war and embargo.  There are folks who are struggling to make it in the promised land of whatever country has shown them charity as aliens in need of harbor.  In this passage, history does not need to be explained but still reemerges as the trace.  The nothing.  This is how, in my mind’s eye, Vietnamese people experience history—less as sweeping narrative punctuated by battles and treaties, more as incursions into the every day, savored in odd moments.

I must say that I benefited from the book in great but unexpected ways, because I saw so many things still yet to be put into print—things I shelved.  I found myself putting the book down and seeing if I was up to the task of rewriting scenes, composing vignettes, refining portraits.  Why?  Because I was smitten enough by the novelty of the subject—a subject I personally never wanted to write about but also knew had to get written by someone with greater intestinal fortitude.  The book forced me to actually get off my butt and join in Audrey Chin’s high wire act.

Taking risks.

Gliding through the air.

Catching an idea on the upswing.

This may be a long way of finally saying that I recommend that people take a gander at this book, not because it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but because it just might get you to write a book that has yet to be written, that remains an embryo—anonymous—beckoning, biding its time, demanding that it should come to be known.

Cinco de Mayo: Stereotypes, Writing, Understanding

This essay originally appeared on Huffington Post but it was always intended for Los Angeles Mystery! 

Cinco de Mayo came and went, and this time, it developed its latest wrinkle:  the wide-spread charge that it is politically incorrect, corrupt, unwholesome.  The charge follows a pattern that we are long familiar with—that the American holiday has little to do with the event it commemorates, that it is simply an organ of capitalism, that it becomes the breeding ground for the mold spores of racial stereotypes.

There is some truth to that:  most people just don’t know what Cinco de Mayo is about, beyond the fact that it is an excuse to guzzle tequila.  They do not know that the event commemorates an heroic battle for the city of Puebla.  Not Mexican Independence Day.

Indeed, it is an obscure holiday—one that Mexicans South of the border do not celebrate with as much intensity as gringos up North. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the defeat of the French in Mexico by a force of men who should have lost.  It is notable, but for most of its history only notable regionally.

Cinco_de_Mayo,_1901_poster

The recent critique of Cinco de Mayo is that this kind of event is terrible because it is not harmless but insidious:  drunken men and women frolicking in sombreros, imitating Speedy Gonzales, only serve to reinforce the glee in racialism—so the logic goes.

Sleeping-Mexican-1029777

And there is some truth to that, too: this is the time of year that the image of the Lazy Mexican—that perpetual brown-skinned napper, ensconced underneath a cactus with his legs pulled to his chest and his sombrero shading his eyes—gets trotted out.

I’m sure this gets old for many Mexican Americans.

Me:  I’m entirely sympathetic.  I don’t personally celebrate Cinco de Mayo for that exact reason.  And the thought of rubbing shoulders with slobbering drunk racialists is revolting.

But part of me wonders if the sad exploitation of Mexican tradition also has some residual value.   After all, the point of a stereotype is that it makes things that are invisible suddenly perceptible.  The Art Historian E.H. Gombrich tells us that stereotypes originally were used by artists to train themselves to see and reproduce visual experience.  We can draw “from life”—we can therefore see–because we have a scheme already in place in our mind.  And this allows things that we cannot readily see to suddenly come into focus.

Frontispiece to E.H. Gombrich's master work Art and Illusion

Frontispiece to E.H. Gombrich’s master work Art and Illusion

So here is my take, which I will introduce as anecdote:  I was in Brasil a few years back, right when the craze for Chinese tattoos became a national obsession.  Everywhere on the beaches frolicked beautiful, brown-skinned people showing off tattoos that featured Chinese characters for luck, happiness, beauty.  Often those people didn’t know what the very words on their ripped, tanned bodies actually meant.  Many tattoos were drawn crudely by artists who clearly did not grasp the fundamental principles of calligraphy; none of the strokes held together; none cohered.  Many tattoos were simply applied with stencils, and so the words were written—permanently—backwards:  monuments to ignorance and poor life choices.

chinese-tattoo17

“Look at that,” my East Asian wife nudged me.  It was a little girl, no more than ten years of age, sporting with her family in the waves.  “That’s supposed to say Luck.”  But the tattoo had obviously been applied with a stencil; the character was spelled backwards.  And so this tattoo that was supposed to commemorate Good Fortune was its opposite:  un-lucky-ness.  You could say that the tattoo had cursed the girl for life but I saw the family–frolicking, happy, blissful–in the waves and could only think of them as blessed.

For me, the broader context of the tattoos was the fact that China now was everywhere in Brasil.  China is a major economic force, and a great importer of Brasil’s raw products.  There was even a float that year at Carnaval, commemorating the importance of soy production to the Brasilian economy, which is emerging as a juggernaut on the world stage mainly due to the alliances that are forged across the ocean in China.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So for me, the tattoos were the sign of a culture grappling with the meaning of this encounter—turning it over in their minds, getting it wrong, getting it backwards, getting it sometimes right—and arriving at a dawning awareness of a mental coupling that is happening, that is manifest, that is all wrong but potentially, eventually, all right.

 

Notes on Gentrification: Highland Park, Los Angeles

Recently, I attended a presentation at USC about gentrification in my neighborhood—Highland Park, an area north of downtown that has quickly become valuable because of its new Metro system and the rezoning of downtown for mixed use.   HLP, as the locals call it, began its career at the turn of the century as a red light district. Later it became a bohemian zone, later still a white working class bedroom community of Ozzie & Harriet types.

USC Logo

More recently, it has become an ethnic enclave composed of Asians and Latinos.  The neighborhood has become a refuge for recent immigrants arriving in waves that coincide with each decade’s wars:  Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Vietnamese and Chinese.  Its latest waves are a mix of young professionals—NPR types–who have been priced out of the bidding war that is the LA real estate market.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

Gentrification is a fascination of my own writing, because the mystery novel-in-progress is preoccupied with the re-zoning of Los Angeles in general:  the changing downtown, now the stomping ground of yuppies, has shifted the center of the city away from the beach communities of the Westside.  It’s a different downtown from the one I knew in my twenties as a grad student:  one populated by artists who lived like bromeliads—mostly on air.  They have scattered.

My narrator absolutely despises gentrification.  Robert is filled with self-righteous rage at the foul intruders who stink up his stomping grounds with dog piss and upscale boutiques.

But my narrator is not really me.  Yes, I’m an LA native.  Yes, I’m Vietnamese American.  Yes, I can claim some kind of legitimate sense of belonging to the landscape not only because I have friends and family in HLP but, also, I lived there over a decade ago, well before it became a victim of hipsterfication.  In my fiction, I love to channel the fire and brimstone of self-righteousness—it makes for great denunciations and a charismatic voice—but really I can see the good and the bad.

* * *

A huge orange Buddhist temple anchors the main drag—Figueroa Boulevard. It has been around longer than the over-sized Chicken Boy brought to the neighborhood by the first wave of hipster settlers and the Roaring Lions that are part of kitsch of the much-documented streetscape.

Mystic Dharma Buddhist Temple

Chicken Boy

Lion

Vietnamese refugees settled in HLP during the 80s.  You can sense their presence in little things—the front yards (which do not have lawns but vegetable gardens) and the doors (upon which are tacked red and orange banners that ward off bad luck).

I am the youngest boy from a sprawling family of eight and one brother ended up in the neighborhood next door three decades ago:  South Pasadena, which has gone through a warp-speed gentrification upon whose heels Highland Park nips. This is sadly one of the elements that was lost in the presentation at USC—the fact that the transformation of the neighborhood was scripted as a Latino-White problem oversimplified the dynamics and marginalized already marginal residents.

There may be good reason for this oversight: the numbers of Latinos have declined, mainly because many don’t yet own property.  In contrast, my Asian neighbors who live in multi-generational housing have not suffered as much of a decline because they have bought in.

* * *

John Tapia Urquiza–a photographer and the driving force behind the community arts organization Sin Turistas—made the presentation at USC.  He leads workshops in which community members document the disappearing culture of this North East corner of Los Angeles.  John grew up in Highland Park and owns a graphic arts business that once stood on the “hipster strip”—York & 50th—but was forced out when rent tripled.  “I am a refugee of gentrification.”  Mom & Pop bodegas, taco stands, pupserias—these are landmarks that John’s team captures as they fan out into the area.  There is an element of wistful nostalgia in the project:  the documentation of a disappearing world going the way of the last Mohican.

sin turistas

For John, the story of gentrification is black and white: it boils down to a question of outsiders–white outsiders–coming in and changing a neighborhood. “Neighborhoods are always in flux,” his official respondent, a really smart Art History professor with blocky purple glasses, pointed out.

“The first photography project, which began in Paris, was initiated by the need to document a changing urban landscape in the face of gentrification.”  Another such project occurred in Paris in the 1970’s, a century later, ostensibly to capture that which was to be lost to time.  “There is nothing new to your project.  My question to you, as you formalize an understanding of your practice, is how you position yourself in relation to a tradition.  Are you simply documenting?  Or are you doing something else?”

But beyond this important question, the matter of what exactly constitutes an outsider remains (like the spider tending its cobweb) at the center of the gentrification debate.  For instance, the new businesses that John trumpeted as local Latino businesses were initiated by geographical outsiders who arrived with the know-how that came of advanced degrees that the Salvadorans who run the juice stands and pupuserias just do not possess—MA’s, MFA’s, PhD’s.

Those who own these new businesses can successfully navigate commerce because owning a business represents a corporate affair that moves beyond the fact of skin color:  each business owner is a pocket—a network, a flow of ideas, institutions, tastes and orientations.  These newbies bring to bear a keen knowledge of financial products, professional networks, marketing savvy quite alien to commercial practices dominated by pupuserias, liquor stores and bodegas.

One such business, I know quite well because it is on my jogging route:  Elsa’s Bakery, a panaderia owned for thirty years by the Vargas family.  It was bought by Edmundo, a professor at UCLA who learned of it, not from a stroll through the neighborhood, but from a graduate student’s research paper.

Elsas Bakery

Mr. Vargas, the previous owner, had health issues and it showed in the crumbling paint.  The dereliction all seemed a shame.  I even wrote a Yelp review that said that they should renovate and take advantage of their status as a long-time local business to compete with the hipster coffee shops down the street.

Elsa's Before

Elsa’s Before

Within months of my Yelp review, Elsa’s was vastly retrofitted to look like a Disney version of the failing panaderia.  The walls were painted purple.  Day of the Dead memorabilia now is strewn everywhere:  skulls, paper banners.  An oversize painting of Frida Kahlo is the patron saint of the establishment, looming large over the cash register. The effect is a bit over-the-top.

Since then, the prices have tripled.  They stay open late during the Art Walk to draw in the looky-loos who come from all parts of the city, something that the more established coffee shops just won’t do.   They Facebook.  They Tweet.  They write press releases, allowing them to be quickly featured in the newspaper of record, The Los Angeles Times, in a story that trumpeted change in Highland Park need not force out businesses that are “authentic.”

The new owner Edmundo tells me that the couple–Elsy and Manuel–who sold him the business did quite well for themselves:  they may have made a gesture to keep Elsa’s Latino, but the Vargas’s spent a lifetime amassing property throughout Highland Park at rock bottom prices, which they sold at a hefty margin to finance their retirement.

I’m happy for the success of everybody involved.  I see all the changes but cannot feel self-righteous, unlike my narrator Robert, who would have a field day blasting this outsider.  I still frequent the business.  And I do enjoy the improvements, which more than make up for the price increase.  But, of course, I can’t pretend otherwise:  inasmuch as my people have roots in this community, I am still one of the gentrifiers and I bring my own tastes to this zone of contact.  I like craft beer almost as much as I love me a good oversize Frida Kahlo standing guardian over the environs as I sip my half-caf ice capuccino.