“Past Lives” came between us in “A Little Life”

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While reading Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” I was constantly listening to Børns’ “Past Lives” and found the language of the lyrics manifesting itself into my life and into my reading of Yanagihara’s latest novel. I found a way to inject words like moons, ancient, the sun into conversations and I couldn’t help but see there was a deep similarity between the two besides their titles.

The sound was current but the words were as old and worn as those used by medieval troubadours. Like a string of keywords sewn together into a nonsensical love story, the song called upon “the moon, the stars, the sons, and the daughters,” it evoked “diamond sparrow, my moonlit majesty,” the conscious and the unconscious as it played with time and space recalling past lives, ancient kingdoms, time, waiting and of course destiny. Børns’ song about love started before time and will last until the end of time while existing everywhere, a love found in the mist of the eternal return.

Yanagihara does something similar yet contained. She recycles familiar stories and tropes just like Børns into a rendition of nowness. In her view, life and love are stories repeating themselves (not just evoked by words) but it is also mundane, formed mainly in childhood. Its golden moments are the unseen quiet ones when you’re not looking but hopefully someone else is there to capture it for you (like an artist, like her). She tells a drawn-out adult fairy tale like a Korean drama, making you anticipate and wonder things like: so who is coming to Thanksgiving this year, having already spent ten Thanksgiving dinners with the characters. In a 700 plus page novel, Thanksgiving gets mentioned 43 times. It is this repetition of normal traditions that has you reading till the end of the novel. You’re too invested to bid an early farewell or skip a long-winded experience of an emotion.

There is a house in the forest, the magical promise of turning sweet 16, human monsters, friendship and career dreams. But in this novel, Tinderella is now a Jude St Francis, someone “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past” but still an orphan with an abusive, exploited history marred in poverty but given the gift of a brilliant mind. The fairy tale trapping is just the gilded house Jude gets to live in, a safe haven from the big bad hyenas that chase him in his dreams. However, it is his work as a corporate litigator, a really bad-ass one (which allows him to afford the gilded cage), his friends and his newly adopted family which provides the only balm for his wounds.

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To the would-be writer In Cold Blood

Google image search of Babe Paley... whose bad blood friendship was the last thing on his mind before death
Google image search of Babe Paley… whose bad blood friendship was the last thing on Capote’s mind before his death

The poor would-be writer who told this to Truman Capote when he was beginning his research for In Cold Blood: “Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspaper -you know.?” The story walked into this English teacher’s front door but he ended up becoming a paragraph in someone else’s non-fiction novel. Capote does give the English teacher one thing, that he at least looks literary, kind of like a young Ernest Hemingway, married with children out in Kansas and not Paris.

My favorite German philosophy professor would often like to explain why most people never write that novel or pen that poem. (“50 to 60% of educated Americans believe themselves to be poets!” Pippin) As long as it stays inside them, the person would never have to acknowledge the truth – that his poem/novel actually sucks. According to Nietzsche via Pippin, all the ideas that we have of ourselves are unknown truths and only what we release into the world can tell us who we really are.

 

Ai Weiwei in Contemporary American Literature

Google image search (Tate Modern)
Google image search (Tate Modern)

Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds installation has made it into a recent work of fiction How to be a Grown-up by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. It was also my first experience of his work in the flesh. In the novel, a cameo character’s daughter chews on a sunflower seed and her mother immediately calls her art dealer to ask if Mr. Weiwei can provide a replacement piece since the sunflowers were purchased with an adherence toward feng shui and one less was gonna fuck that up. The moment I read this, I thought these two women writers are comic geniuses. While it was being shown at Tate Modern, edible sunflowers were given away as exhibition souvenirs.

 

Some Damn Good Writing

Image from the Atlanta "White Privilege" Ta-Nehisi Coates
Image from The Atlantic “White Privilege” Ta-Nehisi Coates

During a time when I wanted to avoid greeting my own thoughts, I immersed myself in the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. His writing led me calmly, step-by-step into the body politic of the African-American male. I started with “The Case for Reparations” and then moved on to his two non-fiction works Between the World and Me and My Beautiful Struggle back to his longer Atlantic pieces on the Obamas and the Negro Family. By unintentionally moving backward, I rewound the journey of how he became a writer.

His voice was fresh,  written in a measured, well-tempered cadence; specifically his most recent works, but his writing was quietly calling upon a bold revolutionary awakening, a call for the Conscious citizen that took me by surprise during a time that has been blanketed over as post-racial. He made calls for a “post-racist” era stemming from a clear-eyed assessment of the real scape of the land.

As an atheist and a feminist, his truth came down to the black body, a body that had been exploited, ravaged and destroyed for centuries in the US and continues to be so. Coates calls this fact heritage and in a long beautiful letter to his son, tells him he has to deal with this head on, no dreaming, no illusions. In America, a father warns, possessing a black body makes holding onto life precarious but this doesn’t mean you should stop wearing hoodies or take pre-cautions in being who you are. Here was a writer developing a vocabulary to clarify truths while I had been immersed in click-bait theatrics.

 

Melancholy: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

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Snow in Istanbul (Google image search)
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Young Pamuk drawing (Google search image)

Istanbul: Memories and the City

In a city whose colors can easily turn drab and dark by stumbling around wrong corners, one’s eyes constantly refer back toward the Bosphorus as a reminder of its beauty. Pamuk describes a similar orientation in his memoir of Istanbul and his childhood. The Bosphorus encapsulated for its residents a circus of life, death, and entertainment as the heart of the city with a soul deep enough to forever swallow whole anything that fell in. Ships and cruise liners from all over the world would flow through challenging the children to identify each and every one, car accidents consisted of leaps of faith into the Bosphorus and old wooden Ottoman mansions burned and served as a pastime spectacle. The last vanishing remnants of an empire for child’s play.

For Pamuk, while everyone was drawn to the Bosphorus, he was also drawn to the streets, those melancholy, dark alleys where he spent his formative years wandering. He lovingly tells the story of some of his favorite chroniclers of the city, whether it be in the form of drawings or out of print encyclopedias seen through foreign eyes or as natives. A young French expat Antoine Melling comes to Istanbul and gets commissioned to design buildings and interior spaces and draw some landscapes by an Ottoman Princess only to have his money cut when he marries an Italian. An homosexual academic Reşat Ekrem Koçu takes on the task of completing an encyclopedia of Istanbul also including youths or street boys he encountered on the streets he had crushed on.

A view of the Bosphorus from Antoine Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (Google image search)
A view of the Bosphorus from Antoine Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (Google image search)

Pamuk also grapples with the relic of a former Ottoman glory and the poverty that could be seen walking the streets. He admits to being a victim of seeing the city through the receptacle of a critical Western lens but approves of this over a romanticization of the past.

James Baldwin in Istanbul

“You will never make a carrière here in France, you know that as well as I. You will just grow old and discontented and you will make me a terrible life and then I will leave you.” French lover to his expat American

Another Country James Baldwin

James Baldwin in Istanbul (Google image search)
James Baldwin in Istanbul (Google image search)

This portrait of Baldwin in Istanbul, searching for a home, searching for something, with his novel Another Country in his suitcase speaks to my condition like no other portrait. At times, most times, I am afraid of simply growing old and making a terrible life and having no choice but to live it. If you flew into nowhere, you’re gonna have to live there. Baldwin’s slight figure and the prominence most specifically of his eyes reminds me of someone in the most peculiar way, with his obvious intelligence and homoeroticism. But Baldwin’s eloquence and riveting manner in speech does not translate to his fiction writing (his non-fiction writing is another story). In this respect, his ideas and his presence are much more powerful than his talent for fiction writing.

“China Rich Girlfriend” through Ta-Nehisi Coates

By different means but with a strangely common objective, I’ve been reading two writers concurrently, Kevin Kwan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, of the non-white, non-Jewish persuasion. Having grounded myself, all the way from Berlin, in the contemporary New York literary scene, I was particularly struck by the freshness of one writing voice, that of Ta-Neishi Coates. His literary tradition stemmed from a deep African-American heritage, one that only gets the most singular of treatments (singular in the sense of a single book) within the broader study of English/ American literature. His most recent work, Between the World and Me can be found on two separate bottom display shelves of Berlin’s Dussmann English bookstore. I took note it was placed on the bottom.

Their common objective, a telling of their stories to release to the world that yes, there exists a beautiful middle America where African-Americans exist and yes, there exists extremely wealthy Asians whose wealth goes back generations. In one case, we are the not just the ghetto, drug-dealing, drug-using, imprisoned, pariah underclass, and in the other, no we are not all vulgar, uneducated in terms of class consciousness, nouveau riche, buying up all your Louis Vuitton, rich dumb consumers.

Both writers try to bring a conscious awareness to a popular Western culture which pigeonholes them into ugly archetypes. In Kevin Kwan’s opening prologue in the first book to his generational family trilogy, Crazy Rich Asians, he illustrates a typical racist episode in London and provides for any reader who has been classified as déclassé solely by their outer appearance or ethnicity, a wet revenge fantasy.

A wealthy Singapore Chinese family find themselves soaked from the London rain trying to check into a room with their extended family including several aunts and some kids into an exclusive hotel.
“The Dorchester or the Ritz might let this kind in, but this was the Calthorpe, owned by the Calthorpe-Cavendish-Gores since the reign of George IV and run for all intents and purposes like a private club for the sort of families that appeared in Debrett’s or the Almanch de Gotha. Ormsby considered the bedraggled women and the dripping children. The Dowager Marchioness of Uckfield was staying through the weekend, and he could scarcely imagine what she would make of these folk appearing at breakfast tomorrow…

“Where are we suppose to go at this hour?” Eleanor asked.
“Perhaps someplace in Chinatown?” Ormbsy sniffed.”

Kevin Kwan

With their reservation denied, Eleanor calls her husband who realizes he knows Lord Calthorpe and knows he wants to sell his damn hotel and so he buys it. An hour later Eleanor walks back into the Calthorpe with Lord Calthorpe-Cavendish-Gore and tells Ormbsy to leave the premise.

Ta-Nahisi Coates describes in The Beautiful Struggle the cosmopolitan and urbane nature of Howard University, or the Mecca. The main difference between the two writers comes from whose measuring stick the writer uses. Coates doesn’t care if the reader shares his referential knowledge or not, his measuring stick is a homegrown one that isn’t simply an incorporation of local jargon. It is not Harvard, it is the Mecca. Kwan, on the hand either needs Western/English signifiers of the elite to prove a point or the infiltration of colonialism and Western power has been so strong in Asian culture, there simply is no Asian version of Oxford or Stowe strong enough on an international playing field, his measuring stick has to be borrowed.