Dao Strom’s We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People
Dao Strom’s We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People is one of those books that both tells a story and then untells it, retells one thing, which challenges something else. It is a book of no easy form nor answer.
On the surface, it tells a story of searching for home, for family. Strom’s mother moves to America with Strom when Strom is still a child, fleeing the vestiges of the Viet Nam War. Her mother was a writer, and one always pushing at boundaries: Her fiction was censored, and the newspaper she ran with Strom’s father in Saigon was politically inflammatory to the government, which tried to shut it down. Ultimately, it is the reason Strom and her mother left.
But her mother says little about this past. She says to Strom, “Just pretend I’m dead, ok? Whatever you want to know about the past, whatever you’re trying to find out, I can’t tell you.”
Strom’s mother has also told her that her father is dead, which is not true. Strom’s father, on the contrary, had been captured in Viet Nam and imprisoned for twenty years, for his ‘reeducation.’ When Strom is in graduate school, she sets out to Viet Nam to find him.
The work itself is both about boundaries, and working to break down boundaries—whether those boundaries are cultural/geographical (America & Viet Nam); genre (poetry and prose); or even media (image, text, images-of-text, and music, too, with an accompanying CD of songs composed and performed by Strom). To hold all of these things in balance is itself a feat, and Strom pulls it off with apparent ease.
But beyond holding these elements in balance, the presence of each destabilizes the other. It’s the story of generations, of diaspora and memory, but even as it is pieced together with memory, it is destabilized by the notion that memory is flawed, stained with everything from hope to desire to desperation. Everything, it seems, that is said, is later unsaid; every meaning found to mean something else, after all. One of my favorite paragraphs is this:
Consider this: the word desire has its roots in the stars. It comes from the Latin desiderare (which traces back to an original sense along the lines of “to await what the stars will bring”). This derives form the phrase se sidere (“from the stars”), the stem of which is: sideris (“heavenly body, star, constellation”). The ancients believed or otherwise ascertained that it came from the stars, those directives of what “should” be, whenever that sense of yen awoke in them. Or we might look at it this way: desire as an audacious impetus to drag something down, from the place we should well know it is unreachable to us, the stars.
Ariel Levy’s “Dolls and Feelings” in The New Yorker
I liked “Transparent” from the moment I watched the opening credits, which is composed of family home movies. Usually there’s a learning curve for me with new shows, but this one made me feel things right away. And of course the show is revolutionary. It centers on a family, the father of which tells his wife and three grown children that he’s always felt he was a woman. Both of the female adult children have relationships with men and women, when usually–on TV and in real life–there’s only room for one. (When I told my liberal and supportive parents that I was dating a woman after my older sister had already done so, they were not as happy as I’d hoped. The were more like, Really? Another one?)
In her review of “Transparent,” Ariel Levy shows readers that much of the show’s story and rhetoric come from its creator, Jill Soloway. Levy looks at what it’s like to work under the female gaze—the actors feel much more freedom. Not only was the show created by a woman, “Season 1 was directed exclusively by women, and four of the five primary characters are female.” My favorite quote from Soloway on female directors is echoed in the essay’s title:
We all know how to do it [directing]. We fucking grew up doing it! It’s dolls. How did men make us think we weren’t good at this? It’s dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors? What the fuck happened?
Levy also discovers that Soloway aims to challenge not only the right, but also the left by asking that they “undertake a momentous shift in thinking.” Soloway would have us all replace “he” and “she” with “they.” She wants no less than to revolutionize gender.
Molly Crabapple’s “Drawn and Cornered: A Young Artist Hustles Her Way Through New York City” in New Republic
This is an excerpt from Molly Crabapple’s memoir Drawing Blood. I read the entire book in a period of post-midnight obsessiveness because I absolutely could not get enough of her hustle and her irreverent I-will-fucking-be-an-artist-on-my-own-goddamned-terms attitude. Crabapple drops out of art school, becomes a nude model, and makes money in a million and one ways that society would typically shame a woman for doing. But Crabapple never loses sight of her goal–to have enough capital to launch herself as an artist. And she never stops drawing.
When working as a nude model for art classes, she eschews the typical silent role of the model: “If an artist failed to capture my face, I’d tell him. If he yelled at me for moving, I’d flip him off. ‘If you were any good at anatomy, it wouldn’t matter,’ I’d reply.”
Crabapple is brutally and unflinchingly honest in describing herself, and admits, “I was not cool. Cool is not needing. As I turned twenty, all I had was need.” Oh, how completely my twenty-year-old self can relate to this!
She navigates both the art world and the world of models and sex workers, constantly fighting against a sexist system that tells her that she is and can only ever be the sum of her body. In the process of becoming an artist, she befriends journalists and activists and discovers that she, too, is a writer. And she is by any measure of the word.
Lisa Gregoire’s “Breathing Holes” in Eighteen Bridges
I came across this essay, initially, because it’s about a journalist in the Canadian North, where I live and work. But it deserves a much wider audience. Lisa Gregoire writes thoughtfully about her time as a young reporter in Iqaluit, Nunavut, twenty years ago. She spent her days covering domestic violence and sexual assaults–but outside of work, she began to live the same story she kept re-telling in print.
Week after week, I wrote stories about how Inuit society had been messed up by residential schools and pedophile priests and child sexual abuse and family violence and the Indian Act and how all the “Eskimos” were given government dog tags starting in the 1940s so Ottawa could track them and give them welfare. I wrote about rum and rape and racism, about southern laws suddenly imposed on the North and forced High Arctic relocations and the slaughter of Inuit sled dogs by RCMP in the 1950s and the European sealskin ban, which decimated entire communities. I wrote about a society upended, largely because of southerners, some of them good-intentioned but also arrogant, careless, poorly informed.
My boyfriend was a product of all this, I’d concluded. I would be sympathetic and forgiving. I’d fix him with love. The assumption that I could “fix” anything in a complex, ancient culture in transition was naïve and offensive and, in retrospect, made me guilty of the superiority I had shunned. I figured that out later, in therapy. This too: Maybe I felt like I deserved it. Southerners had scattered plenty of reckless disregard over the decades. Wasn’t it time someone with privilege suffered a little? Felt what it was like to be powerless?
Christ, for real? Did I think that? My therapist thinks I thought that.
Brooke Jarvis’ “When I Die” in Harper’s
It’s strange how things line up sometimes. I went on a canoe trip with Brooke Jarvis this summer, while she was in the middle of reporting this story–it’s about an oncologist and “death with dignity” pioneer who helped to legalize doctor-assisted death in Oregon, and then was faced with his own terminal cancer diagnosis. We spent an hour or more in the boat, talking about the doctor, death, and the act of witnessing a death. Then I wound up having to leave the trip early because my mom had had a stroke. I sat next to her and watched her die a few days later.
So it would probably be fair to say I was more emotionally primed to read this story than most people will be. But people should read it even if it’s not eerily relevant to their most recent family tragedy! It’s carefully reported and beautifully written, and it deals with an important subject that we don’t talk, or think, enough about.