A rude awakening

March 23, 2009

In one week I’ll be on my way to China. My first trip there. I’ll be bringing slim books with me—Saramago and Hrabal, of course, and also monographs on centuries’-old art and architecture. I suppose I have an image of China based on these latter little books and on the stories I want to write. I will write these stories down, of course, because fiction is what I know, but I also know that a rude awakening awaits.

I am not partial to the phrase “rude awakening.” When I take apart such a phrase—sometimes to confirm for work, most times to confirm for self—the meaning vanishes and I am stuck on the individual words. This is even more of a problem with Chinese phrasings. Once, I’d translated four words from one of my father’s calligraphy pieces, a short, pithy saying encapsulating the range of life, but in my clumsy hands they were divided into individual blocks, as neatly defined by the separation between the characters as by the space inside them left clear of ink—happiness, home, peace, world. My father had laughed when I told him how I’d translated the phrase, and I looked again at this piece of calligraphy, how the words seemed caged, none of them allowed to sweep outside their border in a flourish. I couldn’t see what he was seeing. I respond to the possibilities and freedoms in ink, the restrictions a hand places on paper, and so my relationship to words themselves is a slow burn, loose, a mixture of imprecise metaphor, all clunky and incorrect though sometimes, when I’m concentrating, deliciously on point. It may take time for me to reach clarity of any sort—my rude awakenings are many—but when I do, I see the space around the thing, the importance of defining emptiness, and despite my tendency to translate a controlled space faster than an uncontrolled one, the words in whatever form do eventually show themselves to me.

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