My essay, “Kibun” is out in the 2015 Fish Publishing Anthology!

SF ChinatownMy essay, “Kibun,” on navigating cultural misunderstandings in South Korea is now out in the 2015 Fish Publishing Anthology! It was selected as a runner-up in Fish Publishing’s annual short memoir contest by author-judge Carmen Bugan.

This essay began as a section of my graduate thesis, a memoir on living in South Korea in the 1990s. It morphed many times over and, seven-ish years later, it’s finally in print. Here’s the opening graph from “Kibun”:

When Chung kicks us out we think about returning to the U.S., but to leave now would feel like giving up. Late one evening he announces he’s getting married. “I’m sorry! You are living another home,” he says. English is not his strong point and Korean is not ours. We exist in this ambiguity of language; a riddle of verb tenses. We are living in the home of another; we will soon be living in another home. We are not at home; we will never be at home here. 

I’m thrilled to finally have this piece in print! It’s available in Kindle formats on Amazon here and is just $5, so pick up a copy and enjoy a fine collection of poetry, fiction and memoir from writers worldwide. You can see the table of contents, some notes from the judge, and excerpts from the winning pieces here.

The Best Female Travel Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

I just finished reading a memoir of sorts by the late New Yorker writer Emily Hahn (1905-1997), entitled No Hurry to Get Home. The book is actually a collection of Hahn’s New Yorker articles which she strung together upon encouragement from others who thought she should write a memoir. She herself was less intrigued by the idea (she didn’t like to revisit old ground, according to an introduction in the book by her biographer, Ken Cuthbertson.)

Hahn wrote 54 books and more than 200 articles for the New Yorker over her 68-year association with the magazine. According to Cuthbertson’s intro to No Hurry to Get Home, Hahn had been making a living as a writer from 1929 onward, and by 1970 she was producing at least one book a year. Her books ranged from novels to short stories to biographies, histories, humor and travel writing. Strange then, that few people know her name. Strange too, because she was a woman who pushed the boundaries of the female experience during her time, and attracted attention for it. She describes many of these incidents in No Hurry to Get Home, including the period in which she and her sister wore knickers to school at a time when such dress for women caused an uproar, and how she decided to major in Mining Engineering at the University of Wisconsin because some male students and professors told her it couldn’t be done – no woman had ever majored in Mining Engineering before, and the general consensus (by the male faculty members and students) was that women simply didn’t have the head for it. Whether Hahn was actually interested in Mining Engineering was beside the point; the prevailing attitudes presented a challenge, which she accepted.

Later, her unconventional life led her to live, work and travel in Africa, England and China. She kept pet gibbons. She became addicted to opium for one year, until a hypnotist cured her. She lived in Japanese-occupied China, where she began an affair with a (married) British spy, Charles Boxer, and gave birth to a daughter at the start of World War II. Boxer was interned as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and Hahn kept both he and their daughter alive with food acquired on the black market.

All of these experiences are chronicled in No Hurry to Get Home, which reads like a childhood memoir-turned travel adventure story. Roger Angell has described Hahn’s tone as “the offhand first-person casual.” Her laid-back response to some of the situations she gets into, for example blundering onto private mining land in the Belgian Congo and being faced with some angry gun-toting Belgians who accuse her of spying, or dodging bombs in China while being seemingly unaware of the danger or urgency of the imminent Japanese takeover add suspense to already-exciting adventures. Her sense of humor, though dry and offhand, is always present.

Some might find Hahn’s writing’s old-fashioned in that these pieces lack some of the emotion and the share-every-detail mentality of modern memoirs. Hahn is not out to detail her emotional responses to her challenges, however, but the experiences themselves, and yet she conveys feeling all the same. She describes her failed attempt at suicide matter-of-factly, with that same casual tone, which perhaps makes the writing more impactful. Only in the last piece in the book does she hint at the lasting traumatic effects the war had on her and her new family, and even that she achieves without becoming maudlin or self-pitying.

It was refreshing to read this book, a memoir that covers sexism, depression, addiction, war and other challenges but never goes over the top to describe every single disturbing event. It made me want to read more by Hahn, and more memoir – a genre I have been turned off from of late, after being overwhelmed by too many books that were far too hard to get through due to their heavy-handedness.

Links:

Emily Hahn’s obituary in the New York Times

Ken Cuthbertson’s biography of Hahn

A incomplete listing of Emily Hahn’s many books

 

The unreliability of memory

I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel Lighthousekeeping, which contains (in addition to a forlorn Scottish lighthouse, an anguished pastor, Charles Darwin, a dog with legs of different lengths and a sage orphan) ruminations on the nature of storytelling and, in a way, memory. For example:

The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

Memory is like that — we remember the highs, the lows, the oddities, the moment of laughter, or the moment of tears. But whole days, weeks, and months of  existence, perhaps banal, perhaps not, disappear from view. There are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

“What is startling about memory is its willful persistence and its obsession with detail,” Robert Angell wrote in his collection of essays Let Me Finish.

This is also true.

But the details can be so elusive, and when uncovered prove surprising. My 19-month-old son has in the past few months fallen in love with music. If he likes a song, he wants to hear it over and over again, sometimes to the point where I think I cannot survive another rendition of, for example, “Splish, Splash Elmo’s Takin’ a Bath.” I am trying to expand his musical interests and tastes, both for his sake and my own. I’ve done quite a bit of browsing on iTunes. I struggled to remember what I used to listen to as a young child, thinking that Aaron might like the same. My parents listened to a lot of the folk music that was popular in their generation: the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas. Their tastes became my own preferences, for a time. I have fond memories of singing “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

At some point, perhaps in high school, I noticed that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is more a bittersweet than happy song, as I had long thought. As a kid, I imagined a dragon and a child who were friends, and that was enough.

The other day I remembered a song I used to sing, loud and full of glee. I had not thought of the song in many years, Pete Seeger’s “Garbage.” Throughout much of the song, Seeger chants “garbage, garbage, garbage” in a low, almost comical (I thought) voice. As a kid, I loved belting out that “garbage, garbage, garbage” chorus over and over again. I thought it was hilarious, maybe even a little bit forbidden.

I thought my son, for whom the weekly appearance of the garbage truck is a bit like a gaggle of pre-teen girls encountering Justin Bieber, might also like a song that reveled in trash.

I listened to a clip of the Seeger song on iTunes yesterday. I heard Seeger’s growly chant (garbage, garbage, garbage!) and was stunned to find that the lyrics that followed were not of a fun, children’s romp, but a serious, angry manifesto of sorts. A sampling:

Mr. Thompson starts his Cadillac and winds it down the freeway track
Leaving friends and neighbors in a hydro-carbon haze;
He’s joined by lots of smaller cars all sending gases to the stars.
There they form a seething cloud that hangs for thirty days.
And the sun licks down into it with an ultraviolet tongue.
Till it turns to smog and settles down and ends up in our lungs, oh,
Garbage garbage…Garbage!
We’re filling up the sky with garbage (garbage…)
What will we do
When there’s nothing left to breathe but garbage (garbage…)*

Oh, the nature of memory! So selective and so slippery. There are lit-up bits, and the rest is dark. The lit-up bits persist, stubbornly. And rest that’s dark: that part is just as stubborn in its absence. I remembered my joy in the song, not the anger or the almost apocalyptic future Seeger describes at the end.**

In the introduction to Let Me Finish, Angell wrote:

Our stories about our own lives are a form of fiction, I began to see, and become more insistent as we grow older, even as we try to make them come out in some other way.

I don’t think I quite understood what he meant when I blogged about that collection of essays a couple of years ago. I think I’m starting to.

______

* You can see Seeger performing “Garbage” here.
**Let’s put aside for a moment the obvious questions about what my parents were thinking, what listening to this sort of thing as a small child did to me psychologically, etc, etc.

“It was a land mine you wanted to go off.”

I had been driven to nonfiction against my wishes. I wanted to read fiction, but I had learned to be cautious about it.
When you open an book,” the sentimental library posters said, “anything can happen.” This was so. A book of fiction was a bomb. It was a land mine you wanted to go off. You wanted it to blow your whole day. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of books were duds. They had been rusting out of everyone’s way for so long they no longer worked. There was no way to distinguish the duds from the live mines except to throw yourself at them headlong, one by one.

From An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

G is for geology.

In college I took a course called “Geology and the Environment.” The class was part of a brief flirtation I had with minoring in geology, a feat that seemed likely until I discovered that the requirements for a geology minor included courses in chemistry. Which as everyone knows is just math disguised by Bunsen burners. And, as you may remember, math and I don’t get along. I gave up the idea of minoring in geology, though I secretly coveted one of those bumper stickers that say “Geologists rock!”

I took what non-number-oriented courses were available, in which I learned names of various rocks and minerals and studied how plates shifted on the earth’s crust. I liked the classes, I think, more than the actual information. We packed into vans and drove around to various creekbeds and rock formations to look for evidence of the glaciers that had flattened the Midwestern landscape around us some millions of years ago.

If the field trips were better than sitting in a lecture hall, geology textbooks left something to be desired. With chapter titles such as “Lava: A Peek Inside Our Earth,” and “Water: Shaping Our Landscape,” I was often reduced to Nap: Head Down and Drooling in the Library.

My “Geology and the Environment” textbook included an entire chapter about California (California: Living With Geologic Forces), and we devoted several class periods to the state. Since I had lived my entire life on the East Coast, I knew only vaguely that California suffered from periodic earthquakes. I had seen footage of wildfires raging there on TV, but I had never really given the state’s dangers much thought. As I read my geology textbook, however, I understood this: California wasn’t a safe place to live. If the shifting tectonic plates didn’t get you, the mudslides would bury you alive. If your house wasn’t built on a seismic fault or cliff full of slippery shale that could shear off after a rainstorm, well, by god, the wildfires would sweep through and take everything you owned. I had seen the geologic forces, and I did not want to live with them.

“Why on earth would anyone choose to live in California?” I asked my mom the next time I called home.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe Californians wonder why anyone would want to live in Maryland,” which might have been her way of pointing out that I couldn’t possibly see into the mysterious minds of Californians, and since I’d only been there once, on a family vacation when I was seven, I probably shouldn’t be mouthing off on the topic.

*

When I declared to my mother that California was a dangerous and unlivable place, I did not foresee the following: Six years later, I would choose to live in California. The why had absolutely nothing to do with California and everything to do with the boyfriend (who later became the husband), who’d left the East Coast to take a new job in San Francisco.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more ill-prepared for a move to California than I was in the year 2000.  What I mean is: I did not know what I was getting into. I had long since forgotten (mostly) about the state’s geologic dangers and had, on one or two weekend visits, learned that California makes good wine, a discovery that I now see may have clouded my judgment. This is, I suspect, how many of California’s transplants end up here. A suspicious number of us have stories about being taken to Wine Country by “friends” on our first visits, and “falling in the love with the place.”

Despite the wine buzz, however, I couldn’t deny that no matter what the weather was on the East Coast when I left, the sun shone when I arrived in San Francisco. Palm trees swayed in the breeze. I got to eat myself into a sushi coma. Friends kept proffering bottles of Pinot Noir. What wasn’t to love?

Turns out, earthquakes, fires and landslides, for starters. But that’s just geology.

____

Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous posts:

A is for Aaron

B is for Biddeford Pool

C is for crème brûlée

D is for dog bite

E is for everything, everything, everything

F is for Fort Wayne

Memoir Week

It’s “memoir week” at Slate! They’ve got a nice collection of essays that look at some of the touchier issues of memoir, including pieces by Edmund White (My Lives), Mary Carr (The Liar’s Club) and Danielle Trussoni (Falling Through the Earth).

Writing lesson from “The Tender Bar”

I’m reading The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moerhringer (which is, by the way, an excellent, non-depressing memoir) and I came across this passage this morning:

…I was the ideal candidate for writer’s block. All the classic defects converged in me — inexperience, impatience, perfectionism, confusion, fear. Above all I suffered from a naive view that writing should be easy. I thought words were supposed to come unbidden. The idea that errors were stepping-stones to truth never once occurred to me, because I’d absorbed the ethos of the Times, that errors were nasty little things to be avoided, and misapplied that ethos to the novel I was attempting. When I wrote something wrong I always took it to mean that something was wrong with me, and when something was wrong with me I lost my nerve, my focus, and my will. (p.314)

That may be the best short description of what not to do when writing I have ever read. Maybe I think it’s the best because I identify with it so darn much.

Franzen’s Discomfort

So I was listening to NPR while making dinner last night, and Terri Gross was interviewing Jonathan Franzen (he of National Book Award & Oprah-controversy fame for The Corrections) about his new memoir The Discomfort Zone. I’m eager to read this memoir, because I am always intrigued when novelists go nonfiction, and because I loved his essay collection How To Be Alone, particularly the title piece. I will admit to avoiding The Corrections, though I have no good reason for this; I’ve never heard someone say it was bad. It’s just…it looks depressing in a way that might be too close to home for me.

Anyhow, so Terri is talking to Franzen about his childhood and why he opened with a chapter in which he makes himself look so bad and Franzen basically says that he had a happy childhood and when it comes to writing memoir in the United States in these dark times, happy childhoods don’t fly. Those weren’t his exact words, but I felt like Terri caught him in something, that maybe Franzen’s novelistic reflexes took over more than even he expected. That this book might be an extreme case of the situation vs. the story, in which the story won out a little too much. Of course, I haven’t read it, so it is hard to say, but I definitely felt a little uncomfortable with the way Franzen was talking about writing his memoir vs. the way he talked about real-life events of his past. Anyway, it was an interesting interview and you can hear the whole thing here on NPR’s web site.

I should note that there was a fairly unfriendly review of The Discomfort Zone in the NY Times a week or so ago, in which the always-brutal Michiko Kakutani describes the memoir as “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.” Ouch.

Gay Talese memoir

Gay Talese, one of the writers at the forefront of the “new journalism” of the 1960s, has finally finished his memoir, A Writer’s Life, after 14 years. There’s an article in today’s New York Times about Talese and his quirky, often extreme writing habits. He is apparently incredibly meticulous and a notorious tinkerer. (Hey, my kind of writer.) He has, according to the article, compared writing to “driving a truck at night without headlights, losing your way along the road and spending a decade in a ditch,” which is perhaps the funniest, but also most depressing way of considering the craft that I think I’ve ever heard.

memoir news

1) There was a great, and most of all, sane, conversation about memoir writing on NPR today, with William Zinsser, the guy who wrote the classic On Writing Well. (The 30th anniversary edition comes out in May.) I’m so tired of these reactionary media stories about memoir writing, especially post-James Frey. Zinsser’s comments on the whole thing were very mellow, very sane. Interestingly, he said memoir was about “inventing truth.” That’s the best description I’ve heard.

2) I was flipping through some publisher’s catalogs at work today and noticed that Jonathan Franzen has a memoir coming out in September. I’m very excited about this. There was what I assume is a piece of the upcoming memoir in Best American Essays this year, and I thought it was quite good. I’ve actually never read Franzen’s fiction, which is, of course, what he is known for with the whole Oprah –The Corrections hubbub. But his collection of essays, How to Be Alone was fantastic. I can’t wait to read his memoir.