Sunday, June 4, 2017

Coalhouse Walker (Part 2): Writing Black Characters

I can only see Coalhouse's anger (in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime) as righteous indignation. Doctorow as a white writer in the 1970s, allowed for that reading, even if it's not how his white contemporaries may have read it. 

What right does a white writer have to write black characters? How good of a writer do you have to be to write something this timeless about anything, let alone race in America?

I am not Doctorow. I don't generally write about black people. When I wrote fiction, some characters "happened to be black," but  this was probably a disservice. Following that recognition, there became so much I want to say about our time that I felt ill-equipped to say. 

I used to love the idea of adopting a black child from my local area, not because she would be black, but because I recognized (I thought practically) that this would be one way to make a family without bringing a whole new life into an already difficult world. 

Sonia criticized the fantasy saying, "the only reason you think you can raise a black child is because you're white." As an Asian person who has experienced only a fraction of the racism and challenges experienced by other minorities, she'd never presume to raise a black child. 

What can a white, queer writer contribute the conversation about race in America and in my own city? If I do not have the right to raise and love a child of another race, what right do I have to create a representation of blackness that (dare I hope) may pulse and vibrate like Coalhouse, with life beyond the author's? 

Who is served if politically active, socially liberal white writers cannot write black characters? Surely the only white voices cannot be the bigoted ones; that's serving exactly no one. 

In the most recent episode of With Friends Like These, Ana Marie Cox interviews W. Kamau Bell and he tells white people to handle ourselves, calling out racism when we hear it and advocating for a new narrative of whiteness. 

This resonated with me because I recognize that there is not a strong narrative for the "good white person," while the white supremacist is a familiar character. We need names for things, and leaders, in order to inspire. 

If I'm to follow W. Kamau Bell's advice as a writer, the task becomes not writing black characters but trying to find empathy or insight in my parents' view of the world. 

That feels more foreign to me. I've ridden the wave into adulthood on the premise that the old white, Christian tale of America was simplistic and ignorant, the result of brainwashing or fear. 

It is easier to see my black neighbor or the Coalhouse character as sympathetic humans than it is to see my own parents, with all of their ingrained prejudice and homophobia, as sympathetic humans. 

But who said being a writer was easy?

Coalhouse Walker (Part 1): Real Characters

Into this waiting-to-move period, I've injected an old favorite: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. Before I opened the book this time, I remembered loving the book but I did not remember the story. I got to fall in love all over again.

The book is a collage of the early-1900s. Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman make appearances. Two families, one upper-middle class and the other new immigrants, meet these giants of their time in likely, sometimes inconsequential scenarios.

Because there are so many "real" characters in the book, you imagine Doctorow researching and discovering all of the characters: Father, the executive at the fireworks factory, self-empowering Mother and the revolutionary Younger Brother. Tetah the artist who makes it big and his little girl. Their lives elevate to be as important to the course of history as all the names a reader in 2017 still recognizes.

When I last read the book, Emma Goldman was not familiar to me. Now that I know her as a historical figure, the book reads differently: as though any character, if you explore enough old newspaper articles, could come to life and be proclaimed as "real."

This brings me to the central character: Coalhouse Walker. In this reading, I was sure he was a historical figure. Following humiliation at the hands of the local all-white fire department, Coalhouse and his men (a ragtag team of 3-4 black youth and one middle-aged white man) barricade themselves with explosives inside the library and museum of J. P. Morgan. The metaphor is simply too perfect. I wanted to believe it.

From a NYTimes article written shortly after the book was published: "Asked if this angry black man were a real person Mr. Doctorow said, 'There are several hundreds of thousands of Coalhouse Walkers in this country.'" (Article here.)

But Coalhouse Walker entered the novel as a polite and proud black man determined to marry a young maid who was already the mother of his child. It was only through humiliation and his insistence on his own humanity and worthiness that he became indignant, and ultimately dead at the hands of his oppressors.

I believe in the reality of Coalhouse Walker, as unique or as aggregate, as both human and metaphor. I wonder if many black readers also believe in him.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

We're Buying a House!

"We're buying a house!"

I understand that sentence now more than ever: two months of limbo, negotiations and anxiety. Also, the exclamation point. There is an end in sight, after which we'll be homeowners.

This wasn't a part of the plan for 2017. In late April, we got a letter from our new corporate landlords saying that rent would be raised over 10% this year.

Plus Sonia would have to start paying for her garage space. Plus all of the good people -- the ones who have lived here for decades and make this place feel like a community -- are being priced out.

It was time to go. We wouldn't waste another year of rent.

We looked at less than a dozen houses. In three weeks, we found an adorable stone row house in Mount Airy.

It has sun tunnels that tunnel natural light into the top floor. It has a small, carefully manicured front yard. It has a large picture window in the living room.

Before we said "yes," I emailed Sonia my list of improvements I'd like to make in 1-2 years, and improvements I'd like to make in 2-5 years. It was a cultural wake-up call.

Sonia's Korean immigrant parents moved into their house 30+ years ago, and haven't changed a thing. They didn't alter anything unless it broke.

My white parents (2-5 generations removed from their immigrant roots) built their house from the ground up 30+ years ago, and a year hasn't gone by without a major renovation or improvement.

We'd both fallen in love with our new house, but Sonia loved it as it was. I saw only potential: new flooring in the foyer and basement, new drywall in the laundry room & select replacement tiles in the kitchen and bathroom. Once we could articulate that, and I could reassure Sonia that I would not be randomly ripping through drywall in the middle of the night, we could move forward.

On Sunday, I told my parents the news. After trying to call the house, I played the coward and texted them both a long message. Turns out, they were just getting in from the beach. They did not respond with any exclamation points initially. After they caught their breath and looked the house up online, they called.

"Looks like a nice place," my dad said. "There's a baseball field nearby, I think. Did I see that on the map?"

"Do you mind if I ask how much you paid and how much your mortgage payment will be?" my mom asked, relieved when I told her we hadn't paid full asking price.

When they were 24, my parents were married. By 26, I was born and they were in their first row house. By 29, they were parents of two sacrificing daily for their dream, raising a couple of kids in the country on a homestead where, if needed, they could grow their own groceries. They don't understand city living. There are many ways in which I'm foreign to them.

Two years ago, my dad asked me why people of my generation didn't seem to care about buying houses. I realized later this was as close as he'd get to suggesting I buy a house. Such is our communication.

As we spoke about the new house, I kept saying Sonia's name: Sonia's commute would be longer, Sonia is wary of big renovations, Sonia was reading The Automatic Millionaire when we decided to buy a house. My parents didn't respond to any of those points. The conversation skated onward.

As we hung up, my dad said, "Tell Sonia we said hi."

Baby steps.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Old Skins to Shed

The narrator of Rachel Cusk's Outline might or might not be a singular person. By the time I began to suspect that the characters were folding into one another, I was nearly finished. It will be a good one to reread, but I'm uninspired to do so right now.

I didn't have enough empathy for the characters, or interest in their movements. This may have been because the whole book was a brain tease and I didn't catch on until too late.

However, this reflection by Angeliki, a mother of one son, knocked me over.
'...for me, of course, it would be disastrous to have more children: I would be completely submerged, as so many women are. I ask myself why it is my mother wishes me submerged in my turn, when I have important work to do, when it would not be in my best interests and would be, as I say, tantamount to disaster, and the answer is that her desire is not about me but about herself.
'The parts of life that are suffocating,' Angeliki said, 'are so often the parts that are the projection of our own parents' desires. One's existence as a wife and mother, for example, is something often walked into without question, as though we are propelled by something outside ourselves; while a woman's creativity, the thing she doubts and is always sacrificing for the sake of other things...has been her own idea, her own inner compulsion.'
I don't want to be submerged.

In high school, the Immaculate Conception scared the shit out of me. There wasn't an Internet and sex education was virtually nonexistent. My overactive brain couldn't handle that combo. I convinced myself that when I got pregnant due to some freak accident, I would be strong enough to kill myself. I carried this conviction into my twenties and I'm not even sure when precisely I let it go. Once you've gone down that road, I'm not sure there's any coming back.

So many of my friends are having their second babies. My best friend is pregnant with her first. Two others are attending a book/therapy group called Maybe Baby for queer couples thinking about kids.

On Saturday, Sonia and I went over to a couple's house and met their daughters, who are two years old and five months old. The woman and I used to be roommates in Philadelphia; we'd run into each other at Molly's funeral and didn't want to leave it there. I'd always liked her.

Sonia spent most of her time with the baby, but that two-year-old was my favorite. I am 35; Sonia is 32. No decisions have been made. I don't doubt for a second that I'd love raising a kid, but the pathway there is still unclear.

Plus, I have some old skins to shed: that scared teenager I used to be and others' desires I've been carrying around. Spring's a good time for that.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How Death Animates Us

Perhaps this blog will become: life as animated by literature.

I couldn't fall asleep last night, as happens when I'm newly off alcohol and back to the gym, so I read this graphic novel that's been sitting on my coffee table for about a year: Unknown by author Mark Waid and illustrator Minck Oosterveer.

It's about death. Since Molly's it's become clear that every piece of art and literature is about death. I knew this at fifteen and twenty-one. Just forgot.

The main character, Cat Allingham, is a detective with a brain tumor whose last mysteries involve learning if there is or is not an afterlife. It was only the first in a series, so the jury's still out.

On Sunday, Sonia and I had lunch with my parents and they acted like themselves for the first time in her presence, teasing one another relentlessly, engaging with us and actually showing some joy. It felt good.

We met at the Cheesecake Factory in the suburbs. My parents bravely tried the thai lettuce wraps and loved them. We shared two pieces of cheesecake (all chocolate) at the end and moaned about the indulgence. We walked around the mall together afterward and went shoe shopping, where Sonia impressively saved me $30 on a pair of $105 shoes at DSW.

Who knows why people do what they do? Given time or traumatic events, my parents seem to have turned a corner. They seem more open, more accepting, lighter. I have two theories and they both have to do with death.

A few weeks ago on the phone, my dad told me about a 26-year-old boy who had gone missing from the bar a few miles from their home. It was the same bar my brother and I frequented in our twenties, the closest one to our childhood home. The boy had suffered from mental health problems and substance abuse. He'd joined my mom's church to get help with the drinking and the drugs.

Then one evening, he left the bar, threw his phone and his keys in his car and walked into the woods. It took them a few weeks to find his body, but everyone knew what had happened. My dad told me that path led to an overlook where it would be easy to jump into the river. He didn't tell me that the boy was gay.

The boy who killed himself was or was not gay. In any case, he was in working class Pennsylvania where some combination of lack of opportunity, lack of options and lack of mental health services led to him finding this way out. His options were religion or alcohol. If he was gay, a religion that despised him wouldn't cut it.

Another thing happened this winter. Driving home from the high school where he's been substitute teaching since he got laid off 12+ years ago, my dad did a 360 on an icy two-lane road and narrowly missed an 18-wheeler. Says his life flashed before his eyes. He is increasingly the kind of man who will say things like that, although it's a new look for him.

My mom texted me about the incident the night it happened. She expressed thankfulness for Sonia and my brother's girlfriend. In their shock after that near-miss, they knew what mattered. They knew that Sonia and my brother's girlfriend were the people that their children would come home to if something similar happened.

In The Unknown, death is a chalky-faced stranger with the build of Herman Munster. In my life these days, it seems to be animating a little empathy among my family from a still-safe distance. The empathy is motivating -- it feels like all I've ever wanted -- and makes me want to spend as much time with them as possible. Help them keep their monsters at bay.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

An Ocean of Knowledge

The pond in the back of the Hempstock's house in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is also the ocean that carries Lettie's body away, merits more unpacking.

The metaphor of the ocean in this book is so rich it feels Biblical. It is both a placid pond and a ferocious ocean. It's also a bucket of water that transports the seven-year-old narrator to another dimension.
I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.  
Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all. 
The ocean is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. Makes perfect sense that the writers of the Bible would want us to avoid it, too. Seems to me that the keepers of the keys of knowledge too seldom wish to share, as though disseminating knowledge decreases its value.

Or, what if the tree/ocean of knowledge was cast as "original sin" because spending too much time thinking about it -- how souls are made, where we go when we die -- prevents us from being present here on earth, which is the whole point?

After his ocean experience, the narrator has a conversation with Lettie that illustrates this beautifully.
"Do you still know everything, all the time?"  
She shook her head. She didn't smile. She said, "Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you're going to muck about here." 
"So you used to know everything?" 
She wrinkled her nose. "Everybody did. I told you. It's nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play."  
"To play what?" 
"This," she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
It's nice to believe that when she died, Molly entered this ocean, that she's been granted understanding and wisdom and comfort of a kind I hope not to see for several decades. It's an image of afterlife I can get behind, and provides me comfort comparable to what my mother probably feels when she visualizes heaven.

Long ago, literature became my Bible. I return to the books that have shaped me -- Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Stephen Dunn's poetry, and many more -- in the way Christians return to the Bible.

Literature does the Bible one better, I think. It's not a closed system; writers are constantly adding new ideas and metaphors to the conversation, interpreting the world as we find it for a new generation. Thus a book written in 2013, when I was cooking dinners and partying with Molly, offers me comfort when she's gone, just a few years later.

Shine on, bright star. Swim in knowledge.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Ocean Has Taken Her

What a book to read in the weeks I've been staring down death for the first time. Molly's casket was open, my first experience of one. It was bizarre.

I kept looking around, afraid of offending someone, and wanting to whisper, "It doesn't look anything like her." I didn't dare. Did I think the mortician was hanging around, might be insulted?

The body didn't look anything like the human I remembered seeing just over a year ago. Yes, the disease had ravaged her: made her thin, allowed sores to pop up around her mouth. But I'd known Molly on acne-plagued, hungover days without makeup. I'd known her to fluctuate between skinny and a little bit chunky. The changes were more than cosmetic. Molly simply wasn't there.

Which begs the question: where did Molly go?

I struggled with questions like this as a young person -- middle school, high school. I had the Catholics' answers to wrestle with then. By the end of college, I'd adopted a wholistic spirituality inspired by books like The Celestine Prophecy and The Secret, with a little Kerouac thrown in. I trusted my own subjectivity and the power of my mind and my life force to drive compassion, integrity and decision-making. They haven't let me down.

My questioning today feels less like a struggle and more like a point of curiosity, something I wouldn't hesitate to bring up at a dinner party. You know, the nature of mortality. Let's talk about it.

Enter The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In this lovely, scary tale reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time, a seven-year-old boy discovers truths that remain hidden to the adults around him. He also befriends a girl named Lettie Hempstock.

Lettie looks like she's eleven, but she and her mother and grandmother are older than the world. They get our main character twisted up in other dimensions. A window to another world becomes embedded in his heart, quite literally and quite dangerously.

Lettie ultimately has to sacrifice herself to save the little boy, but the exact nature of that sacrifice remains blurry. Lettie's mother wades with her limp body into the backyard pond. The body floats. We hear about what happens next from the seven-year-old boy.
The great wave came, and the world rumbled, and I looked up as it reached us: it was taller than trees, than houses, than mind or eyes could hold, or heart could follow.  
Only when it reached Lettie Hempstock's floating body did the enormous wave crash down. I expected to be soaked, or worse, to be swept away by the angry ocean water, and I raised my arm to cover my face.  
There was no splash of breakers, no deafening crash, and when I lowered my arm I could see nothing but the still black water of a pond in the night, and there was nothing on the surface of the pond but a smattering of lily pads and the thoughtful, incomplete reflection of the moon.
If only all sendoffs from this world came complete with erratic, otherworldly weather. In fact, as Molly's brother spoke at her "celebration of life" last Saturday, it started to downpour. As he was wrapping up, a clap of thunder shook the Irish center.

"That's Molly telling me, 'that's enough sad talk,'" her brother said.

She's in the weather. She's in the ether. But where is Molly really?

Lettie's mother has an explantation for what happens in the end, to a girl whose spirit is as old as time itself.

"Lettie's hurt. Very badly hurt. The ocean has taken her. Honestly, I don't know if it will ever give her back. But we can hope, can't we?"