January 11, 2004
Let me pick up where I left off last night with a scattering of notes I made on the discussions
Robert Olen Butler quotes Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa who said "to be an artist is to never avert your eyes" He said the artist is deeply conscious of the primary ways we encounter the world. The artist encounters senses and emotions directly in his body without intellectual constructs and what he sees is chaos. The artist also sees order behind the chaos.
The non-artist believes order can be expressed with abstract ideas (math, science, philosophy, religion). For the artist to not avert his eyes is to observe order in the moment-to-moment sensual experience and to reinvent these moments as art objects which reflect the artist's experience in the moment and resonate with truth. He says, "Art comes from the unconscious -- from where we dream."
Clark Blaise gave a hilarious speech on the artist as a smuggler. He mentioned his father who during the Prohibition smuggled whiskey and spirits to the US. Blaise said "Jews in Montreal made the whiskey, French Canadians smuggled it across the border to the Irish mafia who delivered it to the Italian mafia. This is how they gave the finger to the Protestant establishment."
Elizabeth Nunez, novelist from Trinidad, says she was amazed at how a racial identity was imposed on her when she first came to the US. Race was pretty invisible in Trinidad. Her father, an intellectual, changed the family name from Nunes to Nunez because he didn't want to be associated with the (white) Portuguese of Trinidad who were primarily shopkeepers. Divisions were more class-based than race-based.
My thought: When do we feel at home in our skin no matter how others treat us or impose stereotyped identities on us. What would make that possible? Is it a good thing? (Is the feeling at home in your skin a point of redemption for the characters in immigrant-themed novels?)
Andrei Codrescu, a novelist, poet, essayist, and NPR broadcaster originally from Romania, in a panel on the topic, "What does an immigrant writer know that a non-immigrant writer does not know." Among his answers were the following:
The immigrant writer knows that the non-immigrant writer doesn't know he's a non-immigrant writer.
The immigrant writer struggles and wrestles with language. The non-immigrant writer takes his language for granted.
The immigrant writer knows more about pain, including the pain of Nazism, communism, Castroism, Pol Potism.
The non-immigrant writer knows about the pain of bad parenting, nervous breakdowns, divorce, the terrible career choice to be a writer, alcoholism.
The non-immigrant writer has the uneasy feeling that his suffering is inferior to the immigrant writer's.
The immigrant writer knows the sounds, smells, objects, customs, and languages of an exotic culture.
The immigrant writer knows that the public's taste for the exotic waxes and wanes.
There were more.
Francisco Goldman, a Russian-Jewish-Catholic-Guatamalen writer, says the US overthrew a democracy in Guatamala and "still has a death grip on the country. 200,000 citizens were massacred. They essentially created countries where poor people can't live."
He tells a story of the differing perceptions of the immigrant workers and describes an interview he had with the owner of a top Manhatten restaurant. The owner said Mexicans get ahead because they are so hardworking. The owner gave the example of a Mexican who started as a busboy and with skill, attitude, commitment and hard work, rose above the white kids trained at the best cooking schools, and became a sous-chef making $80,000 a year. Goldman then interviewed the Mexican sous-chef. He said, "We rise because we Mexicans know how to put up with a lot."
Cristina Garcia, a Cuban-American novelist, says what is a newsbite or moment of ire for the non-immigrant writer -- such as the war in Sarajevo or the invasion of Guatamala -- for the immigrant writer is their history. They will never forget. In the memory of the refugee, "the half-life of the arrogant misuse of power is forever."
Writing is so difficult for some because there is so much anger...and you can't be didactic and preachy. "Nothing ruins literature more than piety." that is writing as though you have the answers.
It is getting late and I still haven't finished with Friday...but let me add one more thing from Andrei Codrescu. He talked about the effect of the censors on east-European writers. He said when there are censors, you use language in subversive ways. You write for readers who could read between the lines. These were either wonderful readers -- or censors who were the best readers of all. In Eastern Europe, without censors you have a different literature. Writers are confused because they're not important.
Codrescu said an assignment he would give his students was:
Write a poem that will get you arrested.