My latest for MobyLives.
Celina Su wrote a short story called “Missing Persons” for CultureStr/ke. I contributed photographs to accompany the story.
When Celina first showed me her story, I saw the images clearly: figures passing through one another, with the longings of both the living and the dead compelling them to make contact.
I also saw her images clearly in the photographs I was taking at the time, where a pattern of reflection and lateral storytelling emerged.
Below is an essay I wrote a year after moving to Brooklyn, before starting the new job. I’m at the point in my brain evolution where I don’t remember things before a certain period—and for some reason I don’t remember writing this. I found it again after searching for writing I’d started when Celina had finished “Missing Persons.”
You Are Now Here
Reflections on the Subway Commute
For the past few months I’ve been formulating, sometimes aloud, in the middle of crossing a busy street or passing a familiar storefront, a thought about capturing reflection in a photograph. I think about this to both contain and expand my curiosity about my environment. A reflection is a mirroring of a self—as anonymous or specific a self as one chooses or as the situation dictates. And through this mirroring, even multiplying, depending on the angles and number of surfaces involved, depending on the softness or hardness in the image’s resonances, a network of fractured others can be identified. Inside a single window, then, lives the microcosm of a city.
What interests me today is the reflection of a window in a subway car. Before moving to Brooklyn last September, I walked eight blocks to work for eight years, and at the job before that one, I had to cross only a single street to reach my office—a trafficking, literally, of complacencies and short thoughts within the span, during each walk, of ten to fifteen minutes. Now, instead of complacencies, I have the luxury of time and unchecked scrutinies—from the world of home and comfort to the world of work and duty, from an A-to-B direction to an R-to-D-to-F line, of whose zigzagging route, lasting forty minutes to an hour, becomes still as soon as the D rises aboveground for two minutes’ worth of East River brightness. This is an astonishing privilege. To participate in a subway commute is to participate in the respective solitudes of my neighbors. I’ve heard that we put on our outer self as soon as we leave the front door, moving as though puppets inside the shell of an itinerant theater. For me, this outer self arrives only when I encounter a reflection in a window, preferably a moving window, specifically a plurality of windows, in which these various solitudes, or puppets, are revealed. Yes, encounter is the word, for only through encounter am I aware that a self, my own, contains multiplicities.
The transition from an ambulatory commute to a commute involving overstuffed cars and passageways has not, however, been smooth. I tend to fall asleep past my stop. I forget to transfer. I gag at the multiple odors coming from my end of the cramped car. I apologize for bumping into my neighbor, and curse the neighbor who’s bumped into me. I berate the D for snapping its doors shut just as I reach it, then praise it like a child when it welcomes me in. I realize I’m on the wrong train. I realize I miss walking to work. I dread returning home, because returning home means this day has ended and a new one—that is, a reused one—will soon begin.
But this is my story, and I always ask my stories, whether I am living, writing, or photographing them, to transform. And because now I carry a camera with me nearly every day, I find transformations everywhere on the subway: a woman leans against a wall and stares back at me, a man gazes out the window and ignores his fidgety seatmate, a boy stretches out in his mother’s enduring lap, a girl studying her newly painted toes finds herself on the cusp of excitement. These are moments of such calm, such insight, that the angles of refraction become angles of total comprehensiveness. Every day, then, by examining a reflection, or a series of reflections, the city, as well as the story of my commute, transforms itself. When I realized this, I felt I’d discovered a new language. Yet when I returned to Saul Leiter’s own trembling reflection, I was reminded that there is no such thing as new language, only appropriated or amended ones. I think constantly of “The Analytic Language of John Wilkins,” in which Borges meditates on an infinite Chinese encyclopedia that explains how appendations of multiple prefixes and suffixes subtly adjust the meanings of words, indeed creating a new understanding towards language. Our language grows because it is appropriated, or is appropriated because it grows. Language is indirect, creating depthful reflections; reflections in a window are indirect, creating depthful languages.
My mode has always been indirectness, a slantness. But for the sake of a series of posts I’m writing about strangers and strange places, in which I explore an intimate dislocation and relocation within New York City to expose a sense of place through movement or stillness, brightness or darkness, &c., I have to learn the mode of directness and exteriority. And because I love this city, and have grown to love my commute, I will learn to wear my interiority on my sleeve.
I’m almost finished with the photo essay about dance rehearsal. The online magazine that kindly agreed to publish this is patiently waiting—I am about two weeks late—and will probably post only an eighth of what I turn in.
Below is the start of my general introduction.
In 2011 and 2012, when various personal upheavals—some good, some not so good—were overwhelming me, dance kept me properly occupied. I was moving house for the first time in fourteen years; I said goodbye to several loves; I got a tattoo that seemed too big for my arm; I watched my family mourn the death of my grandfather. To maintain emotional equilibrium, I decided I would pretend to be a dancer. I took classes nearly every day. I learned which genres sank into my body the most. I learned about contact improvisation. I learned how to do a double pirouette. I learned how to both relax and contract my muscles while up on relevé. I learned how to pay attention to and absorb physical musicality, my own and others’, and learned how to interpret it for future classes, for future exercises, for the future.
One summer night, when my body was at its most limber, I danced in the subway car with my eyes shut. When I opened them, a stranger was standing before me. He told me he liked the way I danced. I thanked him, and then it was our stop. Though I’d been aware of an audience—him in particular—I danced with the idea that the real performance, my moment of truth, or comeuppance, was a long way off. For two years I danced in order to warm myself up for whatever was to arrive. That is, for two years I was in a state of constant rehearsal.
A year ago I took Cat Cogliandro’s beginner workshop for contemporary dance at Broadway Dance Center. There were varying levels of experience in the class. Out of the fifteen students, three were men. One of them, clearly already trained in all things dance, wanted to brush up on his skills before returning to the stage. The second man, trained in ballet in Paris, wanted to understand the challenges of contemporary. And the third man, who clearly had no training at all, had perfectly arched feet.
In one exercise, Cat had us link limbs one by one. We did this while crouched to the floor. We crawled through the gaps made from our tangled arms and legs. “Get in there—get in there—get in there!” Cat cried. The next challenge was to break apart from this chain as fluidly as possible, one dancer at a time, with one trying to hold on to those slipping away. What I concluded from this exercise was sudden: We are constantly escaping from somebody, or else holding on too tight.
Cat said: “Get out, get out, get out!”
Definitions of contemporary dance vary. It is a combination of ballet, modern, and lyrical, a smooth flow that, when you break it down, is full of unintuitive oppositions, angularities, and doubled, tripled, or quadrupled rhythms. No one style stands out the most, but ballet is the foundation, the rules that one must master—have mastered—in order to know how to break them. Most acknowledge the debt to Martha Graham.
I didn’t grow up with formal dance training, and not knowing the rules can be maddening. I am not flexible, I have little balance, my pirouette limit is two in a row (and no more than once a day, successfully). But I can tap into emotion and musicality. This vocabulary is familiar. I hold on to this vocabulary in all the contemporary classes I take.
On the first day of class, Cat asked us what we hoped to accomplish here. The answers were as varied as the levels of experience: I want to be more flexible. I want to get in touch with my emotions. I want to be on So You Think You Can Dance. I want to spice it up for my boyfriend.
I said: “I want you to make me sob.”
Cat nodded: “Done.”
My first proofreading job in months: Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. His lectures in the year 1966, to be published by New Directions. Halfway through the job, I took breaks to buy, download, or read the following: Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson, Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” De Quincey’s opium confessions, Eckermann’s conversations with Goethe, and so on.
Borges can convince me to read anything.
At one point, while Borges discusses biographies—Boswell’s of Johnson, Sancho Panza’s of Don Quixote—he says, “I, for example, was born the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day.” I gave a start. That Borges was constantly aware of the “other Borges,” as described in “Borges and I,” is touched on by Geoff Dyer in The Ongoing Moment, which I’ve been reading for the past month on my commute. I had bought this book, and another of his, about yoga (though I don’t think it’s really about yoga, I don’t know, I haven’t opened it yet, and regret the purchase), on the day I had to turn down an opportunity to study with him at a residency that, at the last minute, had changed my wait-list status to “accepted.” Later that evening I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of an old love. So when I walked into Greenlight Bookstore, drunk already on one glass of wine, I was in a mood to be careless with money. The intention was to buy all the books they had by Geoff Dyer—if I could not attend his class (I said no because of the new job), then I would send him a note of admiration, but not before I read all his books, or at least one more than I’d already read—but I bought only two, which in the end should have been one.
A Latin scholar from Columbia University once taught a class in my high school, and I took Latin 101 my freshman year. I averaged a C, chewed gum in class, and allied myself with the other female freshman in the class, Nicky, with whom I wasn’t much friendly but whose big hair fascinated me. This professor, whose name I’ve forgotten, walked in with a briefcase and cowboy boots. He was short, stocky, erudite, and looked at us with a mixture of scorn, amusement, resignation, and challenge. Why have I stooped so low? I thought he was thinking, as he lectured about declensions. But while I was intimidated and bored by his authority, noting how he favored the two A students in class, seniors, one on his way to Princeton, the other to Harvard, something of his lectures must have sunk in deep, because I scored a 100 percent on the national Latin exam that he had us all take at the end of the year as an informal exercise. There are two reasons why I, an average student, did so well on that exam: 1) I was good at standardized tests (the SATs gave me a high), and 2) without my knowing it, the professor’s many digressions, his excitement about the material, impressed themselves upon me deeply. I remember and am interested in something only if it’s delivered a certain way. I think of Joel Meyerowitz whispering into my ear a narrative about pianos and melodies as we’re stopped in front of the boat house in Central Park. I think of this Latin professor and his cowboy boots, who was my introduction to a seminar-style class in which I was not allowed to hide (though in the end, because of the force, or rather the mellow register, of my nature, I was allowed to hide). I think of Borges and these lectures about English literature, where he offers up a juicy digression now and then, steers the lecture back to the poem in question with “But let us return to the poem in question,” and repeats details from one class to the next, threads that have embedded themselves permanently in his mind’s eye, because he is by now totally blind.
Dyer recounts the following story in The Ongoing Moment: Richard Avedon, known to engage in (or claim to, at least) an active, equal participation between photographer and subject, found that the intensity of his session with Borges did not translate at all into a satisfying portrait. Later he heard that Paul Theroux’s meeting with Borges happened in almost exactly the same manner as his own had: Borges talked about his admiration for Kipling, had his visitor read a poem to him, then recited an Anglo-Saxon elegy. Avedon suddenly understood why the portrait session with Borges had been a failure: “[His] performance permitted no interchange. He had taken his own portrait long before, and I could only photograph that.” If Borges were to respond to this, he would do so with a story about Boswell and Sancho Panza, or about literary portraiture in general—that the subject is indeed complicit in the portrait, but is not necessarily on the same wavelength, or planet, as the biographer, the chronicler, the photographer, the admirer.
For the past couple of months I’ve been helping put together the Spring issue of Asymptote, a free online journal that showcases literatures from around the world—and now here it is.
Please take a look. Included are an enlightening interview with Margaret Jull Costa, in which she mentions that All the Names is her favorite José Saramago novel (it’s mine too) and a gorgeous short story by Lo Kwai Cheung.
And there’s an Indiegogo campaign to help keep the journal going. The last day to donate is tomorrow, April 30.
And so I am reading Asymptote.
Reading this journal is a balm, and an addiction. When I’d first encountered it in 2011, I was content (and had only enough time) to read the first few lines of each piece. This is how I read a collection of stories: dipping only into each first paragraph to savor what is to come later, both in the story and in the eventual act of reading it. To delve into translation, especially, is to delve into an uncanny voice, specifically into the precursors and descendants of Kafka; and I knew from the start that Asymptote offered plenty such precursors and descendants. At the close of each piece—whether Adonis’s “Ambiguity”; Lin Yaode’s “Hotel”; Josh Honn’s review of César Aira’s The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira; Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito; Quim Monzó’s “Life Is So Short”; Alejandro Zambra’s “The Cyclops”; or, finally, Vasily Grossman’s “An Armenian Sketchbook”—I felt a familiar shift in my mental horizon. Something new, yet recognizable, was experienced, something worth repeating.
Five stand-outs for me are Gérard Macé’s “The Museum of Shadows”; Aleš Debeljak’s Smugglers poems; Mariët Meester’s “The Protagonist”; Reif Larsen’s “The Generosity of a Matchstick”; and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s “The Class, Death Seminar.”
1. “The Museum of Shadows”: At first I’d read this as fiction. The very best prose reads with no such distinctions made. The work of such brilliances as Sebald, Pierre Michon, David Albhari, Andzrej Stasiuk, and Clarice Lispector emphasize voice, story, a narrator troubled by the puzzle(s) laid out before him or her. Macé’s work belongs here.
2. From Smugglers: When I came across the poem called “Anchor,” its first watery lines—“To wake up, but not quite yet, I would just hang on the edge, / holding on to the sail and taking the captain at his word, / I would faithfully roll and stretch the ropes, as I had been taught, / a shadow which refuses to separate the man, a world in balance.”—brought to mind the first few chapters of a novel called Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, narrated by a melancholic woman stranded on an ecotonic boat with her grand party of a garden swaying before her. On the first page she watches her husband, her captain, whom she’d been taking at his word for the past forty years, jump overboard along with maps, civilization, and sanity.
Then I read the rest of “Anchor” and discovered it to exist on its own, to be its own thing, its own drifting body—of water, of land ho, of endless sky. And behold: twice, the gift of a decisive “What a mistake,” the echo occurring in the final stanza:
What a mistake. To wake up, but not quite yet, you must gather
all your courage, shiver with anxiety and be almost mad, the fall
will be deep, if your hands fail you, especially if you have no guardian.
I would not wake up, not at all: I would rather float like a judgment
3. “The Protagonist”: A generous piece about relationships, how our protagonist is humanized and humbled in the face of honoring art.
4. “The Generosity of a Matchstick”: It’s no coincidence that two of my favorites on this list are about museums. As I read through this, I began to understand how a press or a salon operates. That is, attention to a special sort of detail, curiosity, and, indeed, generosity must be given to these words that emblematize the time, or rather a particular time. Asymptote publishes pieces that comment directly on such curating.
5. “The Class, Death Seminar”: This is not merely a comment about our fascination with death; it is an exercise in empathy. To empathize with the dead up close is to live among them. Aren’t the dead supposed to be the ones to school us in life? Instead, Rasdjarmrearnsook teaches us to teach them how to savor it. What an astonishing bit of bravado.
A young friend’s first novel has just been published in Spanish. He is in New York on a fellowship, and in 2012 was awarded the Alejo Carpentier Prize. He wants to show me his work, but I keep asking him for a translation. Okay, he says, maybe later.
I feel such urgency for translation, for having others recognize the gift of it. But the process is characterized and influenced by time. Time must pass in order for a translation to occur and to be understood. Maybe later in fact means It is happening right now.
Asymptote is compelling to me for a simple reason: the works it curates translate—so to speak—into a single modern sensibility. That is, each piece is part of a disparate whole. Not one seems to be unrelated to the other. The thread, the flow, is clear, each piece connected by strength of voice, characterization, direction, absurdity. This is why I am drawn to translation. Not only does it give access to a world foreign to my own, or at least to what I’m familiar with, but it also strengthens this web of Kafka’s literary heritage, or the heritage of ghosts.
And today, Sebald’s heritage is deep.
Other Asymptote favorites: Aditi Machado’s review of Amina Saïd’s The Present Tense of the World: Poems 2000–2009; and Simon Lewty’s “Two Adventures in Translation”; and Chang Hui-Ching’s “War Among the Insects”; and Gen’yū Sōkyū’s “Is It Possible to Fear Properly?”; and Aamer Hussein’s “Knotted Tongue”; and— Well, I’ll stop here.
And this, especially, in the current issue: an English translation of an open letter penned by the writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri to Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask following her recent public comments on a controversial immigrant policy known as Project REVA. He challenges Ask to switch skins with him and experience his experiences from age six through adulthood. The original Swedish letter ran in the Stockholm paper Dagens Nyheter on March 13. By the end of that day it had broken the record for most-shared DN.searticle on social media. According to a DN article about the story, it was shared on Twitter enough times to theoretically have reached every Swede with a Twitter account.
This account is now available to English readers for the first time via a translation Asymptote especially commissioned.
May I ask you to share any of this, and the rest of the journal, with your friends, followers, lovers, families, students, FB, Tumblr, &c.? Please do.
Again: the Indiegogo campaign. Any donation is welcome. The journal is funded by labors of love, and every little bit helps.