Speculation on the History of Drawing
A burnt stick,
Extends the body
Mostly, the trope is annoying: “Juvenile offenders study Russian literature” and goodness sakes alive, lookie here, these [insert stereotype] kids are really getting something out of all that “literary fluff”!
It would be more surprising, by far, if some young people in Russian literature programs didn’t connect with Fyodor and Lev and Nikolai’s stories. Fyodor, in particular, has much to say to anyone doing the hard work of identity formation. I remember reading записки из подполья when I was sixteen and weeping, horribly, in a shock of self-recognition.
But so what? the Washington Post reader asks. You cried, that’s nice. Are there any “concrete results” for all this literary nonsense? The Washington Post almost flinches while relaying the story, assuring readers that “No one’s predicting a miracle cure for recidivism, a national problem” and anyhow, don’t worry, because even if this Russian b.s. is just a sugar pill, “there’s no cost to the Department of Juvenile Justice for the class.”
These are not Enlightenment times, after all, when we can openly suggest that literature might have a positive, constructive effect on people’s lives. These are practical times, times for “a tough wake-up call and practical job skills.”
I’m not suggesting, either, that we go back to Enlightenment thinking. I don’t believe that teaching Russian literature in prisons (or churches, or mosques, or malls, or fast-food joints) is going to have a effect on the national crime rate, or homelessness, or unemployment. Those problems are big, deep, and structural; great literature is operating in an entirely different sphere.
In the collection Doomed by Hope, ed. Eyad Houssami, theater director Zeina Daccache writes of directing “12 Angry Men” in Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison. It would be absurd for Daccache to claim — as she doesn’t — that staging this play was going to stop petty theft in Beirut. Lebanon has serious problems of class, race, and religious divisions, political imprisonment, and more, and these won’t magically go away if we change the prison drinking water. Daccache focuses instead on the power of theater for individual prisoners.
So, no, Russian literature (or Bengali, or French, or even Arabic literature) is not going to stop young people from being sent to prison in the United States. For that, perhaps judges and policymakers should be reading it. But is giving young people access to good literature a good thing? Do we really need to ask?
A number of my conversations with writers this year have revolved around the difficulties of securing a job in the academic world. What happens if you’re a writer and can’t get an academic job? Or what if you have other career interests, or prefer different sorts of work? Because writers have to eat, too, it seems like a necessary time for Leah Falk’s new blog, MFA Day Job. The site features interviews by writers who work and write outside of academia. MFA Day Job also seeks to answer the daunting question so many of us are asked: “What are YOU going to do with your MFA?”
Leah Falk is a poet, essayist, book reviewer, and recent graduate of the MFA program at University of Michigan. She’s also been my close friend since our days at Oberlin College, where we were once creative writing students. Last week, I had the chance to talk with her at length about the origin and substance of MFA Day Job.
ELR: What was the seed or inspiration for your creation of MFA Day Job?
LF: My first year at the University of Michigan, I attended a panel on ‘alternative’ (non-academic) careers for MFAs. I thought the panel, while useful, was sort of done backwards–it focused on what jobs you might be able to get with an MFA, instead of suggesting that the advantage the people on the panel had in common was not their writing degree, but a creative approach to making a writing life work. To me, the flexibility and inventiveness of a person who takes that kind of approach to their career doesn’t come after the MFA–it is in the person to begin with, and perhaps filtering it through the degree program refines it a little. But I wanted to create a site that focused on the diverse ways creative people can make their professional and creative lives work.
ELR: What kinds of interviews and posts have you featured so far?
LF: The site just went live! So not a lot, yet. Our first interview was with Sarah Scoles, who’s a fiction writer and editor at Astronomy magazine, and I have conversations scheduled with people who run writing workshops, do technical writing, practice psychiatry, farm, you name it. I’m also trying to give the site a general liberal arts focus–there’s a lot of liberal-arts bashing in the media right now, because people are scared of the bad economy. You hear about scary things like Florida governor Rick Scott proposing that liberal arts majors pay more for their degrees than STEM majors. I’m hoping that by letting these writers tell their work stories, and linking to positive articles about the arts and humanities, I can provide a counterpoint to that kind of fearful ideology.
ELR: What kind of responses have you received?
LF: In just a week, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The first post received almost a thousand views, and I’ve received a lot of email from people who want to be interviewed or just generally think the site will be a good resource for writers.
ELR: What’s been your own experience of getting an MFA (and the life after it)?
LF: I have really adored my time in the program at U of M. I’m a pretty solitary writer, so having time to myself was almost more important than a community or contact with faculty. But the people in the program, both faculty and my peers, are very available, and that’s been extremely valuable. I just finished our third-year fellowship, where we stay on after the degree to finish a manuscript, so my sense of life after the program is still somewhat limited. I do think that as euphoric as the experience of the MFA can be, people are hungering for some practical life advice. I think there’s a split responsibility between the students and the institutions to gather and transmit that kind of wisdom.
ELR: What kinds of writing and creative projects (other than MFA Day Job) are you working on now?
LF: This year, I’ve been revising and sending out my first poetry manuscript, and working on some new poems. I think I finally decided not to divorce my poems from the hours I spend in front of the computer, so I’ve been playing with some stories and ideas from the history of artificial intelligence–how we make computers that think like us (we think) and what impact that has on our own thinking. I’ve also been freelancing a little bit, mostly writing book reviews. I write for this quirky website, thejewniverse.com. It’s sort of like a Jewish encyclopedia, except less boring to read than an encyclopedia.
ELR: Do you have big plans for the future of MFA Day Job? (Expansion, new features, etc?)
LF: Eventually, I’d like to separate the advice people give from their work narratives–I envision the narratives of peoples’ jobs as being in the tradition of Studs Terkel’s Working. But I recognize that many people will come to the site specifically for advice, whether it’s practical or existential. I’d also like to get a feature going where I talk to employers who have hired MFAs–what about a person who happens to have that degree is appealing to a manager who doesn’t necessarily list the degree in their job ad?
ELR: If people want to contact you about being interviewed or getting involved, what’s the best way?
LF: You can contact me at email@example.com if you’d like to be interviewed or have an idea for a guest post.
You can read the blog at www.mfadayjob.com.
There is very little (if any) variability in the brains of human beings regarding cortical localization. That is, the motor cortex responsible for, say, left arm movement, is reliably located on the right side of the brain, and in a specific location at that, in all human beings. Whether you flex, extend, or rotate the left arm at the shoulder is a matter of activating this or that part of the cortex; you are capable of all three movements.
I imagine religious thought as having its own bit of real estate in the brain, metaphorically at least. To think atheistically, to think monotheistically, to think polytheistically: These are all movements of the mind. The subordinate details of language and culture may vary, but the monotheistic thinking at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam follows the same neurocortical pathway. Likewise modern atheism and Epicurean atheism and ancient Indian schools of atheistic thought. Likewise Hindu polytheism and classical Mediterranean polytheism.
Every human brain is capable of all three patterns of activation. The difference is that we allow ourselves, all too often, just one kind of movement, one pattern of religious thought. We cripple ourselves into atheists, monotheists, polytheists; we limit our range of intellectual motion. The proof of our ability to think in any of the three ways, as need be, is doubt, first of all, but also the way people sometimes convert from one way of thinking to another, at some point in their lives. (Though in most cases they are just reconfiguring the sling.)
Well, you might say, in that case I was born a cripple; I have never thought, nor ever could think, in any way other than how I think now; I have always been an [poly/mono/a]theist, and could be no other way.
This matters little. I do not consider flexion, extension, or rotation of the arm a “good” or “evil” in itself: You can extend the arm in a handshake or you can extend the same arm in the same way with a loaded gun. It is the act this motion is in the service of that we judge as good or evil, right or wrong. It is the act, not the motion, that morality interrogates; the act, not the pattern of cortical activity. I care not at all whether a brain activates this or that pathway in its (metaphorical) cortical religion center; my concern is with the act to which this activity is subordinated. And the good to me is compassion, and the evil to me is division. Monotheists, polytheists, and atheists have all, at some point in their history, waxed divisive and antagonistic. And they are all capable of, and have shown, compassion. It is of no account to me by which neureligious pathway you have arrived at compassion. The compassion is the thing.
My favorite season is mango season. Two towering mango tress grew at my grandma’s house on the island of Guåhan. We patiently waited and watched the fruit turn from green, to yellow, to ripe red.
I remember afternoons sitting around grandma’s table as she cut a ripe mango into two cheeks, crosshatching the orange flesh with a knife, careful not to cut through the skin. When she inverts the cheek, magic cubes form. Still life with convex mango.
Sweet, creamy, tart, floral, transcendent. Eating a mango is like eating sunshine. They say the Buddha often meditated in mango groves. They say the “mango’s kiss” awakens consciousness. Yet the mango also embodies immanence: it returns you to your body as its juices stain mouth, lips, fingers, hands, and clothes. Every bite roots my body home.
Mangos aren’t indigenous to Guåhan or to the Pacific. Mangos originate in South Asia. In the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, mangos are described as heavenly fruit and food of the gods. In some cultural stories, mango trees emerge from the death (or dead bodies) of a loved one. Thus, mangos are associated with resurrection and new life. Perhaps that’s why they say mango trees can fulfill your wishes.
Mangos have been cultivated for thousands of years. They have also migrated through global food trade routes. In the 4th century, mangos traveled to Southeast and East Asia; in the 7th century, they made their way to China. By the first millennium, mangos arrived in the Middle East and East Africa. A few centuries later, mangos journeyed to Europe and, by the 15th century, to South America, West Africa, and the Philippines. Mangos circulated to the Carribean and Mexico in the 18th century, and to the United States, Hawai’i, and the Pacific Islands in the 19th century.
Mangos became a hot global commodity not only for their taste and beauty, but also for their health benefits. Mangoes are rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and beta-carotene. Mangos are good for the kidneys and the digestive system. Mangos even contain bioflavonoids, which aid our immune system and help absorb energy from the sun. Additionally, parts of the mango tree can be utilized for medicinal purposes.
Around thirty-five million tons of mangos are produced globally each year, making it one of the most consumed fruits in the world. The mango is the national fruit and tree of several countries. Even the image of the mango has been consumed worldwide, as seen in the popular Paisley design motif (is that a mango on your bandanna?). Some believe the mango wards off evil.
The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam, published in 1905 and written by US Department of Agriculture botanist William Edwin Stafford, describes how Chamorros felt about the mango: “The natives value the fruit more highly than any other food product of the island. Indeed, the presence of a mango tree on a rancho enhances its value.”
My dad tells me a story about his great-aunt who raised and sold mangos on her farm on Guåhan. He used to go there as a child to help her with chores. She rewards him by letting him into a special shed that housed several handmade wooden dressers, each about five feet tall and several feet wide. She opens one of the drawers and he sees a dozen brightly colored mangos ripening atop newspaper. Each mango dresser contained several trays of mangos. Atop the dresser are dates of when the mangos were picked, and when they were stored. He describes this mango shed as “the vault.” Decades later, the smell of the mango vault still clings to his memory. During World War II, the military of Japan stole all her best mangos to feed the army.
It’s mango season in Hawai’i, which has evoked good and bad memories for me. I remember riding my bike to grandma’s house during the last mango season before my family migrated. I expect to see the ripening fruit, but I see no mangos at all. The trees were picked clean. My grandma says the mangos were stolen during the night.
I wish they would’ve stolen the radio or television or anything else. I felt angry that they stole my family’s food; moreover, they stole the mango moments my family would’ve shared together. So I ride my bike around the neighborhood, searching for clues. I only find a few discarded skins and mango seeds along the road leading to a series of makeshift settlements built by migrants.
I ride back to grandma’s house and gather rocks. I want to hurt whoever stole from us. She scolds me and calls me, “matå’pang.” She knows there is nothing we can do except turn the other mango cheek. She says if whoever stole it just knocked and asked permission, she would have shared. No one asks permission anymore. And even though I kept searching for evidence, I never found out who stole our last season.
After my family moved to California, mangos disappeared from my diet. My dad would occasionally buy some imported mangos from the Mexican and Asian grocery stores, but they never tasted as good to me. Plus, it just felt wrong to have to pay for mangos.
The other day I saw a man pull over onto the shoulder of the Honolulu highway, get out of his car, retreive a fruit picker from his trunk, and reach over into someone’s yard to take mangos. Was he a settler from another island, like me? Was he craving the heavenly fruit from our lost childhoods, like me? Did he ask permission? For a moment I wanted to join him. For a moment I wanted to throw rocks at him.
Today, I went to Kokua Market, a grocery co-op in Honolulu, and they had a bin of local mangos for sale: $2.99 a pound. I breathed them in. Mångga. Tested their ripeness. Mångga. Chose three. Mångga. They weighed two pounds and cost six dollars total. That’s two dollars per mango. Perhaps they call the mango “king of the fruits” because only kings can afford to buy them regularly. I have privileges that many other migrants don’t.
When I got home, I cut one mango open and toss its flesh in a pan with onions, garlic, ginger, chili flakes, and vinegar. I add some raisons, green beans, carrot slices, and leftover chicken. Put fresh cilantro atop and serve with Homestead poi.
As I do the dishes, I dream that someday I will have a home on which I can plant the tear-shaped mango seed lying on the cutting board.
A burnt stick,
Extends the body
In this space
And through time.
The mark renders,
We might yet read:
An abstracted serpent,
The moon’s trajectory,
A caribou’s spine.
As an arm can reach:
A drag of charcoal
High on the cave wall,
Still measured by,
Scaled to, a human body.
Waits to be sprung.
A startled horse slips,
Sinks through ice.
Dress a pig carcass
Hung on a hook.
If you look up,
Through doors and windows,
Because a stork
Nests on the chimney.
Twilight shadows lengthen,
Bleed into darkness.
Calls down the cold.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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A burnt stick,
Extends the body
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