Monday, March 31, 2008

Writers Residency: VSC or VCCA?

VSC: The Red Mill

As a writer, at some point of your writing career, you may find yourself tired of workshops, instead looking for a residency where you can write without distraction.

I am at Vermont Studio Center (VSC) right now. And I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) last summer. According to Jon Gregg, director of VSC, these two are the largest artist residencies in the US. At any given time, the average number of residents is 55 in VSC, twice as many as in VCCA, compared to the national average of 9.

There are some differences between the two residencies. VCCA, located in a ranch-like area of Virginia deep in the country, with horses and cows nibbling around, seems to operate in a more informal manner. There are no (advisory) visiting writers or artists, which helps to keep the overhead costs lower. In the application form, the suggested fee is $30 per day. Voluntary higher contributions are very welcome, of course, but you can also request a lower fee based on your financial situation. (I was awarded the Goldfarb nonfiction fellowship by VCCA last year, thus paid only a $50 deposit for a full two weeks of wonderful productive time.)

In comparison, VSC is an in-town site in northern Vermont, and its operation is

VCCA: on the path to studios
well organized and programmatic. Each month there are several visiting artists and writers, who give talks and one-to-one conferences with the residents. Thus, when applying, you have the choice of a month when your favorite authors visit. This is nice, however there is a catch. Except for the lucky few who receive full fellowships, for most residents the cost it a lot higher than VCCA. I received a partial scholarship and am paying for the balance, which amounts to $70 per day. The normal stay is one month, but because of the high cost I opted for two weeks instead.

Here at VSC writers are a minority compared with visual artists, with a ratio of 17:38 in the first two weeks of April. To my delight, our studios, in a new building named Maverick, are the envy of the visual artists. The building is only one year old and still smells of fresh paint, with windows facing the running Gihon River (I wonder why it isn't frozen). I like that we writers are all together in one office building, as it makes it much easier to have a writerly chat.

Both VCCA and VSC are open to international applicants. While I saw quite a few European artists but no Asians at VCCA, VSC seems to be the opposite in this respect.

One important thing to mention: both residencies provide great food. Again VSC is more programmatic in organizing meals. Last night when we lined up for our first dinner, the plates were filled by the kitchen staff instead of ourselves, and we were told "no seconds." In comparison, at VCCA, you get your meal in a buffet manner. This is easy on the residents, but might be harder for the chef to do quantity management. Last summer a change of chef at VCCA resulted in a few days of uneven food supply. On the other hand, to be as well-organized as VSC requires more kitchen staff and again increases overhead costs. There are pros and cons either way.

In conclusion, both VSC and VCCA are wonderful residencies where you can get writing done, yet you have a choice of organization style. Other things being equal, if you'd like an opportunity of exchange with established authors, and don't mind paying a bit more, go for VSC. If you just want to have your own time to write, and prefer an informal, self-governing rural setting, you'll probably enjoy the lower-cost residency (plus a nice trail in the woods) at VCCA more.

A friend once asked me what else I get from a residency. I find meal times a wonderful opportunity to network with other writers and artists. You sit with different people each meal, and you often can have fun and stimulating conversations. It is a real plus that you get out a writer's isolation once in a while.

Apart from VSC and VCCA, there are a number of no-cost and highly reputed residencies in New York State, such as Yaddo and MacDowell, for which you pay a small application fee but nothing else. However because of their limited capacity and high demand, those are much harder to get in. And you are only allowed to apply once per year. Those are my targets for next year.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Finding Silver in the Cloud of CO2

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

China has taken the lead as the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide. Actually, according to some estimates, that title should have been granted in 2006, a year in which China’s CO2 emissions increased 9%. More important than the quickness with which China managed to pass the United States for this dubious honor is that speed with which emissions of CO2 are increasing. That is exponential – in the mathematically correct sense of the word – and 9% per year is a very big number.

The implications of this for global greenhouse gases are staggering. Were China to continue at a 9% exponential growth rate, and every other country hold to current output levels, worldwide output of CO2 would double from the levels of today in about 18 years. Of course what everyone is looking for is a way to decrease total CO2 output. If the rest of the world manages to reduce CO2 production by 5% per year then world output won’t double for 22 years. Little comfort that.

These calculations are very back-of-the-envelope, though these days it is an email-envelope. Others, with fancier, or at least more convoluted, math have concluded that we have at more like 35 years to a doubling. But while developed countries are looking at, if not embracing, technology to reduce carbon emissions, the developing world is trying to develop. When those lesser developed countries were economically tiny, how they developed did not much matter, but it does now. China is not going away, India is riding close behind, and the rest of the underdeveloped world would love to be on the same trajectory. The pressures to grow economically are stronger than those to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, most importantly, they are driven from within. If good things are going to happen for the environment, it will take more than thoughtful science and demands from the international community.

My purpose in pointing this out is not to be an alarmist, however strongly the warning bells may be clanging. Rather, I am looking for opportunity – a silver lining in the billowing clouds of coal smoke and concrete dust. The disquieting rate of emissions growth in China is the result of widespread development in places with limited access to modern technology. China has an impressive educational system that is churning out bright people who can do amazing things, but those amazing things are strongly focused on the big cities, often with an eye toward producing for the developed world. When it comes to something like turning coal into electricity in rural Fujian, there is not a great deal of intellectual firepower at hand. The plants built are inefficient and use technology that was out-of-date when it was developed in the 1950s. The Soviet influence on China has not disappeared entirely.

Turning such dirty inefficient power plants into somewhat less dirty and less inefficient plants would have a huge impact. Orchestrating the construction of clean and efficient new plant would have a bigger impact still. So what does it take to get high-tech into areas that people with skills and smarts are desperately trying to get out of? Engineers without borders?

Perhaps this is an opportunity for developed countries to export workers, instead of jobs. Engineers and skilled construction and industrial workers, together with the technology they bring, cooperating with the local people now on the job might be able to produce wonders. Such efforts would, in part, need to be a sort of foreign aid but China is sitting on a stunning accumulated trade surplus that they might be willing to part with for the right reason. Since the money would be spent on higher quality infrastructure, with a fairly limited direct impact on the domestic economy, the inflation and economic overheating pressures would be minimal.

There really is an opportunity to improve not only global environmental footprint, but the long run quality of life in China, and other developing countries. In addition, the demand for engineers and skilled production workers to support such projects will keep developed countries in their own economic games by improving the skill base. Any shared cultural understanding that might result would simply be a bonus.

The world is facing some interesting, and probably difficult, times. We can all defend our corner and push for others to reform, but the results are dismally predictable. Alternatively, we can put down the gloves, drop some of our ideological baggage, and scratch our heads together. Freely providing technology to China is as likely to be an anathema to American politicians as accepting significant foreign stewardship on development is to Chinese politicians. And China and the US are far from having a monopoly on political vitriolic. Still, with so much at stake, it seems like it would be worth the indigestion. #

Also by Larry Mongoss:

Paterson the Blind New Governor
Also on Literal and Literary Truth
Disagreeing with Smart People
Decreasing Readership among the Corn-Fed

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Don't Limit Your Characters – An Author Interview

Pamela Erens's novel, The Understory, was the winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize and is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Erens's fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in a wide variety of literary and mainstream magazines. She has twice been awarded a fellowship in fiction from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
What role does the Ramble play in the novel?

This interview was conducted by Xujun Eberlein during two weeks of March, 2008.

Interviewer: Is The Understory your first attempt at a novel?

Pamela Erens: Yes. I had written and published short stories, poetry, and essays, but I was afraid that a novel was beyond me. I didn't think I could build that elaborate a structure, hold that many strands of character and plot in my head at once. So the novel was a challenge I set myself. I was daring myself, to see if I could pull it off. Also, I was a mother of young children then, and my time was very fragmented. It felt very reassuring to have this project I could go back to day after day, that just stayed there even as the rest of my life was all about quick shifts of attention.

Interviewer: Many writers start the first novel from their own experience. Apparently this is not the case for you. What triggered the idea for this novel?

Jack takes refuge in a Buddhist monastery
Pamela Erens: From the beginning I've enjoyed writing stories that aren't close to my own. I've always liked writing male characters and from a male point of view. That's partly because when I do so, it's plain to me that the character is a fiction, is not me. My imagination is more free. At the same time I strongly believe that there has to be an autobiographical component to the emotion in a story or novel. With Jack I was writing out of, if exaggerating, my own experiences of isolation and longing. The seed of the story was an idea that came to me, God knows how, of a man who wants to find a spiritual twin, someone with whom he can have a complete emotional and psychological connection. I literally had the guy putting an ad in The Village Voice, advertising for this spiritual twin. That was the Ur-source of the Jack-Patrick storyline. After a while it became clear to me that what I was writing was really a story about a man whose buried longing for human connection begins to come to the surface, in a way that is threatening to his stability.

: Very interesting that you like to write from a male point of view. What are the challenges of writing from the POV of the opposite sex? Do you have brothers who you grew up with? If so, does the experience help in understanding male minds?

Pamela Erens: I honestly didn’t find writing from the point of view of a male character a challenge. I just didn’t think about it. As I mentioned before, I’ve often gravitated to writing from a male p.o.v. I do have brothers but I don’t think that has much to do with that choice. I really do feel that the primary emotions—longing or rage or remorse or whatever—are accessible to you as a writer whether you’re working with a male or a female character. I think at the base level we’re all made up of the same stuff. Maybe I’m naïve.

Interviewer: Why is it so important for you to separate from a character and make it plainly clear that "the character is a fiction, is not me"?

Jack first meets Patrick in a brownstone

Pamela Erens: I meant that it has to be clear to me that the character is a fiction. I’m not thinking about the reader here.

If I merge too much with a character—if I give her (or him) a history or hobbies or a personality that is too much like my own—it limits that character. I might fail to let an aspect of her character bloom because it feels alien or frightening to me. I might not let her take an action I would never take. It hobbles my imagination. At worst, it can also be a species of self-therapy: Oh, let me put this version of myself on the page and then I’ll just grind all my axes and wail about all the stuff I’m still unhappy about and feel a little self-satisfaction or relief that way.

Interviewer: You mentioned the author's emotional truth in fiction, and in the case of The Understory it is related to your own experiences of isolation and longing. Where does your feeling of isolation come from?

Pamela Erens: That’s probably an unanswerable question! In many ways I don’t feel isolated at all. I have a husband and children, and my life is quite full. But I’ve always had a hermit side to my personality. I like being alone for big chunks of the day. I have a pretty busy interior life—I’m not saying a fascinating one, just a busy one—and maybe at times that makes me hyperaware of the boundaries between me and everybody else. And then there were times in my life, when I was younger, when I was much too much alone and felt kind of frighteningly lost. So it doesn’t take that much for me to access the feeling of being alone, different, or isolated.

Interviewer: What made you choose a Buddhist monastery as one of the main settings? Buddhism believes "No desire is strength" and, in a way, embraces isolation and loneliness. Do you find this an interesting contrast to Jack's mindset?

Pamela Erens: Yes, I thought Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on silence and awareness, would be an interesting counterpoint to Jack’s type of solitude and introspection. I could see Jack being instinctively drawn to Buddhism. But Buddhist practice actually requires that you spend a great deal of time not being in your own head--in being attuned, rather, to what’s outside of you. It also requires that you follow external rules and submit to authority. Both of those things are difficult for Jack, who wants to set his own rules and happens to enjoy the world of his thoughts. I don’t think I chose the monastery setting in any rational way. Like most of the bigger decisions I made about the novel, it was kind of intuitive. I just wanted him to go there.

Interviewer: Are you a plant lover? How did this help in portraying Jack's character?

Jack attends bonsais

Pamela Erens: I don’t know if I’m a plant lover. I like plants, but I’m not a gardener and I’m not even that knowledgeable about plant life. I learned a fair amount to write the novel, but I’ve forgotten a lot of it now. I do have a fascination with systems, and the taxonomy of plants always seemed a cool thing to me, as it does to Jack. My husband happens to be an avid gardener, and I’ve learned some things from watching him or listening to him talk about our garden. He’s the expert, not me. But when he gets me to focus on, say, our tomatoes, or cajoles me into planting carrot seeds, I can see how people get totally obsessed with this activity. There is something magical about the way plants grow and mature, and if you want them to thrive you have to pay attention to all the little details in the same way that you have to pay attention to all the little details when you’re raising children. I keep telling my husband that if there were twenty extra hours in the day, then, sure, I could see getting pretty absorbed by gardening.

Interviewer: There is a memorable side character, Mrs. Fiore, who wants Jack to address her by first name. Is this interesting detail from any of your own experience?

Pamela Erens: I didn’t base that detail on any one particular experience, but names and how we address people are bound up with questions of intimacy. What do you do when you don’t want to invite further closeness with someone, but you don’t want to insult them, either? This is a classic Jack dilemma. There are other moments having to do with names and naming in the book, such as when Jack sees his name written on an envelope in Patrick’s handwriting, and that connection makes him feel differently about the name, which he’s never liked.

Interviewer: The opening paragraph strikes me as deceptively calm, almost matter of fact, yet it radiates such an ambiance that I was immediately drawn to read more. It turns out to be a great opening in many different respects. What were your considerations in choosing such an opening?

Pamela Erens: For a long time I had a different opening, in which Jack was already at the monastery and was just talking to us about it, its look, its feel, its routines. One day it struck me that the current opening would be more distinctive and dramatic (if you can call pouring a cup of coffee dramatic), and crystallize something about Jack’s character and the kind of interior tensions he lives with.

Interviewer: I'm glad you changed the opening to the current one, because it really works. Did you ever consider ending the novel with the second last chapter? What do you think the book would lose or gain without the last chapter?

Jack hides in a knotweed bush at a climactic point

Pamela Erens: I never did consider that. I think too much would be lost. We need to know, first of all, what happens to Patrick, and we also need to glean what is behind Jack's final attempt to contact him.

Interviewer: The key reversal moment caught me by surprise, however in retrospect it is only logical. Had you planned this moment all along, or did it come to you as a surprise as well?

Pamela Erens: I had that key reversal or climactic scene in mind from very early on. I had an idea of the basic arc of the novel, and wanted that to be the ending. Although many things changed over the course of the writing, that scene was one thing that never changed, that I always knew I was going toward.

Interviewer: What was the most challenging part in writing the novel? What was the most enjoyable part?

Pamela Erens: The most challenging part was moving from an earlier incarnation of the book--which was more intellectualized and involved more of Jack yammering on about various topics—to the version that exists now, in which Jack is hopefully revealed primarily through action and situation. Another way of putting it is that the most challenging part was maturing as a writer! I didn’t realize at first just how much I had failed to dramatize.

But that hard work was also enjoyable. I got excited as I realized I could convey certain emotions and realities through scenes, not just by talking about them. I enjoyed figuring out ways to do that.

One of the other enjoyable parts was working with the structure. Right from the beginning I knew that I wanted to toggle between the present-tense monastery scenes and the past-tense New York scenes. It was an idea I’d stolen from a beautiful novella by William Trevor called Reading Turgenev, which starts in the present tense in a mental institution, describing the life of an older woman there. Then the novella jumps back decades to show you the woman’s youth, jumps to the present again, and so on, until gradually the two timelines converge and you understand how the woman ended up in the institution.

The structure did pose complications, of course. I was always poring over my dual timelines, trying to figure out how to make everything come out right.

Interviewer: When did you submit The Understory to the Ironweed contest? Did you try to find an agent or publisher for the novel before that?

Pamela Erens: When the book was done I sent it around to agents for a while. The comment I most often got was, "This is beautifully written, but...." I told my husband that that was what was going to end up on my tombstone, "She wrote beautifully, but..." When no agent took the novel, I started looking at small presses, and I entered the manuscript in Ironweed Press's fiction contest.

I did a good deal of revision after the book was accepted. My editor had some changes he wanted, and once I started to make those I wanted to rethink everything. I ended up doing far more than I, or my editor, had planned for. But I think those changes eventually solved the "beautifully written, but...." problem. The novel came out leaner and the element of suspense was increased.

Interviewer: Even though you struggled to publish this novel, it has gained significant literary acclaim and press attention. At the same time, many works that get published are not that well received. Do you see anything, beyond luck, at play in this?

Pamela Erens: If the question has to do with number of reviews, it’s been a combination of luck and footwork. I amended the list of reviewers that Ironweed Press planned to send bound galleys to, because I felt it was too all-purpose. I wanted to send to places I thought might actually take a specific interest in the book, either because of the subject matter or because it was a small-press book or because (if I was really lucky) I knew someone – or knew someone who knew someone – who worked there. So I did a lot of research to find those places, and after the galleys went out I wrote lots of followup letters. A large number of galleys still fell into a black hole, but that’s to be expected.

If you’re talking more about the positive nature of the response, I’ll have to hope and pray that I’ve actually earned it. It does seem to me a plus that my novel is so short. People don’t have too much time to get bored.

Interviewer: Chicago Tribune calls the writing "understated." Another review mentions the novel’s "minimal plot." Do you agree or disagree with those comments?

Pamela Erens: Yes, phrases like "understated" and "minimal plot" come up over and over in the reviews! I more or less agree with those statements. Certainly I think the novel's narrative approach is to express major emotions through minor occurrences. I'm not sure I'd call the plot genuinely "minimal." A few dramatic things do happen. But it's true that the novel takes place over a fairly short period of time, the cast of characters is small, and there are no wars or shootings or flamboyant love affairs. #

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Taiwan Election Photos

A friend of mine, a Hong Kong poet, took the following photos during Taiwan's presidential election the past week. Yesterday, 57-year-old Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party won 58 percent of the vote. A CNN report says Ma "endured an often nasty campaign by [Frank] Hsieh, a former premier who got 41 percent of the vote." Hsieh was the candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party.

The presidential campaign focused on relations with China. Ma, the president-elect, has plans to improve Taiwan's relationship with Beijing.

Below: March 22, 7:30pm, after losing the election, Frank Hsieh and his campaign team bow to their supporters giving thanks and apologies

Above: Evening of March 20, a Frank Hsieh rally in Kaohsiung City. The slogans read "Save democracy" and "Long live Taiwan people"

Above: March 21, Ma Ying-jeou's supporters march to a rally.

Above: Evening of March 22, live-show of the election results on a TV at the Nationalist Party's headquarter.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tibet: A Balanced View Is Called for

by Xujun Eberlein

Getting a clear picture of what is happening in Tibet is no easy task. Bias is evident in both the Chinese and Western media coverage. A number of interested and thoughtful bloggers, however, have managed to paint a plausible picture, from which one does get important on-the-scene observations that help spotlight what's going on. Continue to read>>

Tibetan Cowboys' Last Stand: Globalism Sets Grasslands on Fire

by Yoichi Shimatsu

"A peaceful rally on March 10 by monks of the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, school was all it took to spark uncontrollable fires across the Plateau. In the first day of the Lhasa riots, most of the casualties of arson were Hui Muslim noodle-restaurant workers who migrated to the newly prosperous provincial capital over the past decade – just as Mexican immigrants have immigrated to Chicago and New York to work as dishwashers....The frustration and anger of the Tibetan mobs will not immediately result in either independence or genocidal repression – only a heightened state of anxiety and distrust." Read the story here

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Wednesday, March 19, 2008


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The New Yorker Receives Most “Ellie” Nominations
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Magazine Industry Toasts Best and Brightest on May 1 at Jazz at Lincoln Center

NEW YORK, NY (March 19, 2008) — Marlene Kahan, Executive Director, American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), today announced the finalists for the 43rd annual National Magazine Awards, the magazine industry’s highest honor. Named after the Alexander Calder Stabile “Elephant,” the 2008 “Ellies” represent a record-setting 1,964 entries from 333 print and online magazines. Twenty-five winners will be announced at a gala event on May 1, at New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Frederick P. Rose Hall.

“Magazines retain their unique appeal even as they traverse platforms to provoke and please today’s most discerning media consumers. The unparalleled mix of immediacy and depth in magazine editorial keeps bringing readers back for more,” said Marlene Kahan, executive director, ASME. “From perennial favorites to unexpected newcomers, this year’s record number of submissions speaks to the exceptional level of quality consistently delivered to our newsstands and mailboxes.”

Two hundred forty industry experts voted on the 2008 finalists, which represent the full spectrum of magazine journalism from politics and science to child-rearing and the arts. Among the emerging themes and statistics from the 2008 nominees:

  • The New Yorker leads the list of 128 finalists with a total of 12 nominations.
  • Twenty-six other titles received multiple nominations: New York (9), Vanity Fair (6), GQ (5), National Geographic (5), The Atlantic (3), Popular Mechanics (3), T, The New York Times Style Magazine (3), The Virginia Quarterly Review (3), Wired (3), Aperture (2), BusinessWeek (2), Domino (2), The Economist (2), Field & Stream (2), Good (2), Gourmet (2), Harper’s Magazine (2), Martha Stewart Living (2), Men’s Health (2), Mother Jones (2), The Nation (2), The New York Times Magazine (2), People (2), O, The Oprah Magazine (2), Slate (2) and W (2).

  • Twenty-two of the finalists are based in cities outside of New York (Athens, GA; Atlanta, GA; Boulder, CO; Charlottesville, VA; Chicago, IL; Decatur, GA; Denver, CO; Emmaus, PA; Kansas City, MO; Los Angeles, CA; Northampton, MA; Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC; West Hollywood, CA).
  • The continuing impact of the war in Iraq in all facets of life—from tales of mercenary soldiers and analysis of administration statements to the plight of returning veterans.
  • Surviving unknown disasters, as demonstrated in essays and articles in publications as diverse as Popular Mechanics and O, The Oprah Magazine.
  • First-time finalists include Babble, Bloomberg Markets, Budget Travel, Chow, Condé Nast Portfolio, Domino, Good, The New York Times Magazine, Paste, Play:The New York Times Sports Magazine, Radar, and T, The New York Times Style Magazine.
  • Several traditional print categories (Reporting, Public Interest, Feature Writing, Profile Writing, Essays, Reviews and Criticism, Columns and Commentary, and Fiction) were opened to include articles published online only.

The awards honor print and online magazines that consistently demonstrate superior execution of editorial objectives, innovative editorial techniques, journalistic enterprise, and imaginative design. Established in 1966, the National Magazine Awards is the preeminent program in the magazine industry to honor editorial excellence. ASME presents the awards program in association with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Barnes & Noble is the exclusive sponsor of the awards. There will be a reading of winning and finalist articles at a Barnes & Noble location in Manhattan in early May.

See The categories and finalists here>>

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Is Going on in Tibet

Yesterday, a few writer friends asked me what I thought about what was going on in Tibet. I was at the Nieman Conference from Friday to Sunday, and had only heard sporadic mention of the situation in the car radio. Yesterday I spent hours digging around for more information, but the Western media lacks first-hand citations, while the cyber voices on the Chinese internet are ruthlessly, though not surprisingly, uniform ("Resolutely oppose separatism!"). One thing is clear though: there has been significant violence, as if this world has not gotten enough of that. Photos can be found on this Chinese website.

Probably the best place to start looking if you want to try to understand the situation yourself is, a website run by several level-headed Americans living in Beijing. I have been reading this site for quite some time and find its reporting objective and honest. For the Tibet situation, they summed it up with an apt quote:

"Today, information on Tîbet is duopolized by two different political propaganda machines. One machine is located in Beijing, and the other in Dhåramsala. ...

...Faced with this absurd situation, the solution is to choose your position first and decide which side you want to stand with, and then you treat the information from that side as true and everything from the other side as false."

The only Western eye-witness report appeared in The Economist: "Fire on the roof of the world," which contradicts both Dhåramsala and Beijing. Some readers commented that the reporter owed us an explanation as to why he was the only foreigner allowed to stay – a legitimate question that I hope the Economist will answer.

My main question is: What caused the violence in Tibet? Ethnic hatred seems the most likely answer. How to alleviate such hatred, on the other hand, is not easy to figure out.

For a deeper understanding of the Tibet issues, recommends an excellent 1999 article from The Atlantic, "Tîbet through Chinese Eyes" by Peter Hessler. It provides rich information and multiple points of view, and puts things in a historical perspective with objective, though not comprehensive, reporting. This is an anti-propaganda article in all senses. Propaganda works, as we all know, by allowing one and only one view to the audience. In China it is achieved through government censorship. In the United States it is propagated by people who pick a side first then choose to eschew any other point of view.

Peter Hessler's article reminds me a dear friend, a Sichuan writer, Gong Qiaoming, who died in a car accident during her volunteer service as an editor at Tibet Literature in the 1980s. An extremely kind and compassionate heart loved by both her Tibetan colleagues and Han friends, if Qiaoming saw today's violence, she would have died of heartache.

In my twenties, an idealist myself, I had also seriously considered doing volunteer service in Tibet. I can see the source of tragedy only now: what one side views as a cultural service, the other may see as cultural intrusion. Perhaps the best thing to do is to abandon the notion of "advanced" or "backward," and to leave every independent culture alone, to develop at its own pace. Globalization is not an absolutely benign concept.

Another writer friend, Qiu Shanshan, wrote a very moving novel I am Waiting for You in Heaven (in Chinese), after she visited Tibet eight times. The center story in the novel is how the Chinese soldiers built the highway from the inner cities to Tibet in the 1950s. Many died during the long road construction. While the idealism behind the sacrifices is a questionable one to my Americanized mind, the novel certainly provides a different perspective on the historical event, and different perspectives are the only way to counter propaganda. I wonder if any American publisher would dare to publish a translation of that novel; certainly it would offend those who wave "Free Tibet" banners. America is, after all, not completely free from fear of politics.

Hessler's article points out both good and bad things brought by the Chinese government to Tibetans: the former includes economic growth, medicine and education; the latter is mainly the suppression of religion and freedom of speech, things familiar to people throughout China be they Tibetan or Han.

Puzzlingly though, when Hu Yaobang, one of the few post-Mao leaders loved by the Chinese people, carried out a political reform to allow more religious freedom in Tibet, it ended with a series of riots in Lhasa in the late 1980s. Why? I wish Hessler's article had more explanations on this; I don't know myself and would like to find an answer.

Unfortunately, the Tibet problem is complex, and does not have as easy a solution as many Americans think. Certainly a "Free Tibet" banner won't bring peace and tranquility. When we take sides, we need to consider whether our shouting encourages more hatred and violence.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Local Government Stupidity in Beijing

They feared that those Beijing-resident American kids under the age of 10 could cause political trouble – read the story on Brainless, but I'm not that surprised. It seems the thinking of those officials remains unchanged from feudal times. China might have some more open-minded and educated national leaders now, but the quality of those local officials has little warranting flattery. Bad governance, whether from corruption or incompetence, has been a problem with local officials in China for thousands of years, under a good emperor or bad.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Paterson the Blind New Governor

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

It makes great headlines, but never comes as a big surprise, when some politician is accused of a crime. I was a little bit disappointed when the latest rendition of that was performed by Eliot Spitzer. I have always perceived him as a pretty dour individual, and never could tell whether his aggressive prosecutions were the result of some burning sense of justice, or just the desire to spread his unhappiness more evenly. Still, he seemed like one of those guys that could be depended on to walk the talk. Hope burns eternal I guess.

The really interesting thing, however, is that David A. Paterson will now be filling his shoes. Before the Spitzer story broke I have to admit I had never heard of Paterson, and everyone seems to be making a big deal out of the fact that he will become the first African American Governor of New York. But the cool thing about Paterson is not the color of his skin, it is in his eyes. People seem to mention only in an under breath that the man is blind.

Peterson does not sound like a man that considers his blindness something to hide in the margins. According to Wikipedia (and how can I doubt that) he ran the New York City Marathon in 1999 and is on the board of a track club for disabled people. I can remember fencing with blind people when I was in college – at the time it surprised me that they would want to do that but after a few bouts with a blindfold (for me) I could understand it. They were doing it for exactly the same reason I was – it was fun (I was always a pretty noncompetitive competitor).

So why politics? Perhaps it is more about importance than fun but being blind does mean using other senses. Most importantly, Paterson will have to listen to what people say and that, all by itself, is pretty special in his trade. I hunted around a little bit and did find a list of American Politicians with Disabilities. There aren’t any blind Governors in the list and I couldn’t find any mention elsewhere so Paterson likely is the first blind Governor. Now the question that raises for me, is what happens if he wants a second term?

No matter how good a job Paterson does as Governor, in a high profile campaign his blindness is likely to weigh him down. Irregardless of how well he can capture his audience in person, when facing the end of a camera it is a different game. We are used to looking people in the eyes as they deliver their messages in our family rooms and won’t be able to do that with Paterson.

I will listen to Paterson’s progress with interest. He may be a great Governor, or he may be terrible. Ironically, through, it will probably not be his performance in office for which he is remembered. If he can keep the public ear and mount a successful reelection campaign, people will hold that feeling for some time to come. If not, his footsteps will fade to nothingness before his replacement is sworn in. Politics is usually a visual game, let’s see if substance can triumph. #

Other posts by Larry Mongoss (guest blogger):

Also on Literal and Literary Truth
Disagreeing with Smart People
Decreasing Readership among the Corn-Fed

Thursday, March 13, 2008

'Lust, Caution': Dangers and Promise

by Lance Berry

"I have to be honest; as soon as I saw the flashback beginning, I thought, Oh, no--! Not another film that's going to try and be clever, by showing us a flashback and then returning to the present to show us how this character arrived at that point. It's been done to death (or absolutely murdered, if the recent Vantage Point is any indication). However, under the skilled aegis of director Ang Lee ('Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', 'Brokeback Mountain'), the device is wielded effectively, refashioned from a blunt club back into a surgical tool once again. Like the magnificent 'Crouching Tiger', 'Lust, Caution' is an automatic classic...and is a complete and absolute apology for 2003's abysmal Hulk." Continue to read>>

Related posts:
Another Kind of Movie Reviwer
'Lust, Caution' (色戒) ,Tony Leung, and Eileen Chang
Michael Wood on Lust, Caution ("色戒")

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ning Feng and Paganini's 'Cannone'

by Hong Jiang (translated from Chinese by Xujun Eberlein)

(Hong Jiang is my townsfolk from Chongqing, China. Our friendship began many years ago as undergraduates in Chongqing University. She now works as a database administrator in one world, and the chairwoman of Yan-Huang Performing Arts in another. – Xujun)
I first heard Ning Feng's name from Hu Kun, professor of the Royal Academy of Music in London and my husband's childhood buddy. It was 2003, and I was organizing the "Concertos for Piano, Violin, Erhu and Pipa." I invited Hu Kun to perform a violin concerto. He was unable to make it, so he recommended his newly graduated student Ning Feng. I hesitated. The players I recruited for the concert were all world-level musicians, but Ning Feng was an unheard-of name.

As if guessing my thought, Hu Kun said, "Don't worry. I promise Ning Feng will make your concert a success." He even mailed me the congratulatory letter from the Academy's president when Ning Feng became the first in 200 years to receive full-score for his graduation concert.
Thus 21-year-old Ning Feng came to Boston. A fellow Sichuanese, his lovely honest face looked artless. If you ran into him on the street, you wouldn't have connected his image to a world-level artist. However, when he stood at ease on the ornate stage of Jordan Hall, intoxicant in his own playing of Jean Sibelius' "Violin concerto in D minor," his rakish manner and artistic excellence thoroughly conquered the entire audience. The nearly 40-minute long violin piece was played in one perfect breath. The excited audience applauded and shouted "Encore! Encore!" Ning Feng had to return to the stage three times. Afterward, several people said to me, "He was too good! My hands are red from clapping so hard."

From Ning Feng's bio I learned that he had already won a dozen awards in international competitions. I asked him why he hadn't been in the Paganini Competition. He said, "I will."

True to his words, the next year, in 2004, Ning Feng applied for the Paganini Competition and was accepted. A week before he was to set off for Italy, however, he contracted a bad flu and tonsillitis. His high fever lasted for days, and he was forced to cancel the journey. A few weeks later, the competition result revealed: the first prize was vacant.

As if waiting for him, beginning that year, the competition was changed from annual to bi-annual.

In September 2006, 55 young violinists from all over the world traveled to Genova, Italy for the 51th Paganini Competition. Upon his arrival, Ning Feng's luggage and stage-costume were lost, and he had to wear jeans on stage. After a week of fierce contention in the preliminaries and semi-finals, Ning Feng found himself entering the final match with five other violinists. Besides a required Paganini piece, he chose a difficult Brahms' violin concerto. This is a piece of non-sentimental, profound music, thus one that is hard to please a jury with. The choice was a display of unusual confidence. Was he over-confident?

Ning Feng would later write in a blog article titled "Dream":

As a child I owned a hand-copied violin score, on its cover a hand-written title "24 Capriccios of Paganini." I thought then, "Perhaps one day I will be playing them on a stage."
In middle school, I once bought a CD, with it came a photo of Paganini's own violin "Cannone." I thought then, "Perhaps one day I will be holding 'Cannone' and hearing its sounds from my own hands?"

On October 1, 2006, in Genova, Italy, at the award ceremony of the 51th International Violin Competition, Ning Feng heard his name read three times by the chairman of the jury, who spoke only Italian. Ning Feng went on the stage three times to receive the medals, but he did not understand a single Italian word other than his name, and did not know what the awards were for. At last, he could not help but asking an English-speaking juror standing behind him:

"Who got the first place?"

The juror looked at him suspiciously, as if to decide whether he was pretending, before saying, "Why, it is you."

To Ning Feng, the highest award was that, as the first place winner he was given the honor of playing Paganini's violin, the 1743 Guarneri del Gesù 'Cannone.'

(Ning Feng, together with Chen Xi, will be performing violin in Boston on Saturday, March 22, 2008, as well as in New Brunswick, NJ, on Saturday April 12 2008. Details and tickets on )

Monday, March 10, 2008

At the Boston Flower Show

Yesterday, my husband and I went to the Spring Flower Show at Boston's Bayside Expo Center. The walls separate a blooming spring from icy winter outside. After attending a talk "Introduction to Garden Water Features," we spent hours perusing exhibits. We studied several landscape showcases, and lingered in front of many intricate flower arrangements. For the latter I want to share with you a few of my favorites (you can click the photos to enlarge).

1. (left) Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, is distinguished by its asymmetric form and use of empty space as an essential feature.

2. (right) Joyce Girvin, Hollistin GC/Sedona Area GC, Second Award

Judge comments: "A true tornado. Visual weight at the top affects the balance."

3. (left) Linda Clarke, Ikenobo School. Plant materials: Forsythia, Spray roses

4. (below) Cathy Walsh, Independent, First Award

Judge comments: "Skillful handling of pristine plant material creates a walk through the Fens."

Friday, March 7, 2008

'Lust, Caution' (色戒) ,Tony Leung, and Eileen Chang

I missed Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in the local theaters. Before finally watching the newly released DVD at home last weekend, I had already heard much about it. Even though I avoided reading reviews, words came into my ear from unavoidable friends. No surprise would have been left, or so I thought.

When the movie finished, I found myself in an upset state. I stayed up late trying to figure out what was so disturbing. It isn't the sex scenes that everyone is talking about; those scenes probably affect men more than women. It is the execution, or more precisely, the unshown, therefore seemly unfinished, execution of the students that include Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei). My unwriterly refusal to "see" the fact lingered until well after: isn't he going to spare her life, as she did his?

The rational and realistic answer, of course, is "no." We Chinese have a ready adage for this – "not cruel, not man," not to mention that issuing execution orders is part of Mr. Yee's profession. The question then is why I should be so shocked.

It is Tony Leung's melancholic eyes.

That night I searched on the internet and found Eileen Chang's original story in Chinese, in which the reputed 1940s author wrote the key reversal moment (my translation):

His smile at the moment is without the slightest irony, only a bit of sadness. His silhouette from the table lamp, his eyes cast down, eyelashes like rice-colored moth wings, resting on his lean face, and she sees tenderness and compassion in his look.

This man is really in love with me, she suddenly thinks. A bang on her heart, something lost.

Too late.

The store owner hands him the receipt. He slides it in his pocket.

"Go, quick," she says in a low voice.

Nothing could have reproduced those subtle words of Eileen Chang's like Tony Leung's melancholic eyes. The incongruity of Mr.Yee's inside and outside is a source of shock. The man is capable of being poetic and cruel at the same time, and true to both, while the woman, in an inexplicable and critical moment, chooses to see only the former but not the latter. The very source of tragic consequence.

Interestingly, the story is only an artful and symbolic rendition of Eileen Chang's real love life. An extremely happening writer in 1940s China, whose legendary life later ended with loneliness in 1995 Los Angeles, Eileen Chang's most-talked-about love was with Hu Lancheng. She was 24, and Hu was a 38-year-old married man. Like the story, he worked for the Japanese occupiers and thus was a "traitor to the Chinese." That did not matter to Chang. She was in love with the man, not his job. Unlike the story, their separation later was not due to political stance, but the man's infidelity. Yet his silhouette stayed with her for a long time.

Chang wrote "Lust, Caution" in 1950's Shanghai, not long before she fled China for fear of political persecution. There might have been a personal reason for the story's ending of Mr. Yee's betrayal and Mrs. Mak's destruction.

Though there are many modifications by Ang Lee of the namesake story, for example Chang pens no explicit sex scenes or violence, Ang Lee at least is loyal to Chang's original ending. The undisplayed execution has a deep impact on audience psychology. As long as we haven't heard the gun shots, our hallucination of humanity is kept alive. The longer the hallucination lasts, the harder the blow when it disintegrates.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Bufflo News Report on 'Radical Gratitude'

"In the mud hut they called home, the 5-year-old boy watched as his grandfather lay dying on a bed of straw. It wasn’t the harsh Siberian cold or the meager rations that were killing the old man, though they might have. It was, instead, that he decided to starve himself.

It was the winter of 1940, and Vladislav Paluchowski, a man of quiet strength, had been hungry for weeks, along with his wife, daughter and two grandsons. He did the only thing he could: He decided to die so the others might share a few more scraps of food."

So begins the The Bufflo News report on Radical Gratitude, a nonfiction book co-authored by Andrew Bienkowski and Mary Akers. I so look forward to reading the book!

Continue to read the report here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An Innovative Interview

Steve Prosapio, a novelist, interviews another novelist on his No Bull website today. What struck me as a fascinating idea is the concept of a "virtual meeting." The interview begins with eye-catching photos of the "meeting" place and a bit of its history. If – I'm being fussy here – the chosen place were somehow connected to the novel being discussed, the effect would be even greater!

The novel they discussed is Geoffrey Edwards' Fire Bell in the Night, a Civil War story that won the First Chapters contest. The questions involve both the process of writing and the content of the book. Check out the interview here.

"The Camphor Suitcase" Second in Essay Contest

My personal essay, "The Camphor Suitcase," won second prize in Literal Latte's Essay Awards. The top three winners will receive $1000, $300, and $200 respectively, and be published on-line when Literal Latte finishes redesigning its website in a few weeks.

A 10-year-old innovative magazine with a big literary presence and highly reputed contests, Literal Latte used to be a newsprint publication available for free in every independent coffeehouse in NYC. Now it has moved to completely on-line, complemented with annual print anthologies. With Starbucks taking over everywhere and the consequent disappearance of independent coffee houses, such a move is welcome. I heard rumors that the new face of Literal Latte's website will be exciting, and I look forward to seeing it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Also on Literal and Literary Truth

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Did you read the story in the New York Times – “National Enquirer Article a Fabrication?” I can’t remember what the article being referred to was about, something to do with the founding of Rome I think. Still, I was astonished that a nationally distributed periodical would knowingly publish something containing falsehoods.

After that, when I read the story about Misha Defonseca admitting that her book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was made up I was not nearly as surprised as everyone else seems to have been. I have not had a chance to read the book but in it four year old Misha’s parents are taken to a concentration camp by the Nazis and she wanders for several years in the woods until she is adopted by a pack of wolves.

OK, I guess I can understand that the temptation to believe a story like that. A few internet searches do turn up modern day Moglis. From the girl found in Cambodia after, some claim, 10 years in the jungle to a boy raised by dogs in Russia, these stories appear often (there is actually a website devoted to such children). Unlike Mogli or Tarzan though, these people do not present as well adjusted mentally healthy individuals. They are, in fact, stunted and traumatized to the point where most can never function as a member of society.

Anyone with even a little bit of common sense reading Defonseca’s book must have known it was not literal truth; the question then is whether it is literary truth. In this case the real source of distrust probably arises from the fact that her parents were not taken to a concentration camp, but underground movement members caught and executed. Does that discredit every, or most, insights into the human condition that one can get reading the book?

When James Frey’s book went through a similar turn I read it with just that question in mind. The book fascinated me, not so much because of the rich, and fabricated, storyline, but more because of the disdain it showed for the AA five step program. I have always been struck by what I perceived as a lack of dissent on that program. Frey’s book provides that dissent, but is it legitimate?

The whole question of literal and literary truth has been, and continues to be, heavily debated among writers. An article in the November issue of Harper's,A Lie that Tells the Truth” by Joel Agee, looks at this, concluding that some license is reasonable. When you approach this question from the perspective of the reader, however, different issues are at play. First, and foremost, everybody lies. Be it a memoir, a textbook or a newspaper article expecting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth seems pretty naive.

Thus the question of legitimacy is not one for Frey, or Defonseca, or really any writer to answer, it is for the reader to decide. Literary, and most human, truths have to depend on a preponderance of evidence. In short that means you have to read more than one thing. If anyone ever tells you there is only one book you need to read on a topic, run the other way and read none, or plenty. A great writer should be loved, but never trusted. #

Related posts:

Disagreeing with Smart People
Decreasing Readership among the Corn-Fed