Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Moon Tea and Whiteface (I)

An essay in two parts: June 2014 and April 2018

Part One: June 2014

Days after Wiscon, in our back yard, I set a quart jar with water and tea bags for sun tea. At breakfast the next morning, looking out the window at birds and flowering apple trees, Martha said, "I see you made moon tea." After having been out overnight it tasted much as it might have after the usual few hours in the sun. Yet I had been thinking earlier about how one sets out to do one thing and ends up, deflected by circumstance, doing something else. Making moon tea seemed just the phrase for saying that we have this way of accomplishing the unintended.

Later that day I happened to see a photo related to an old theatrical revue, and that brought to mind the word "blackface." I recalled a Wiscon panelist making passing reference to the vaudeville tradition, during an "Afrofuturism" discussion, that Sunday afternoon previous. The panelists had been addressing the question whether writers who were not tracing their personal, non-ancient ancestry to African sources might participate in helping create the body of creative works covered by this particular umbrella. The panelists noted that Afrofuturism itself, as a term, had been coined by a white observer. This to my mind seemed not quite akin to blackface performance, although somehow allied.

The term tied, too, to another strand of thought arising from the scattered panels that I attended over Wiscon's main three days. This related to the "default white." It seems that this term refers to a character's race when a story leaves race unspecified. The reader presumably assumes the characters are "white." The contemplative reader, it would seem, might further guess that the author assumed that the characters were so.

Do authors set out with a full knowledge of the racial make-up of their fictional characters? I am not at all sure — even being a writer who does spend time thinking about his characters, and who occasionally — I do think occasionally may be the right word — feels moved to consider "race" as a leading consideration during the creative act.

I feel quite clear about this being-not-at-all-sure: for by accident, or at least through no careful planning on my part, my Wiscon hours partly went into revisions on a new story. Between those work sessions, the panels I was attending made me ask myself, "Does my story reflect the racial diversity found in our world?" At first I thought not. Yet after revisiting the question at various hours during the days and nights of Wiscon, but especially in the relatively clear-minded morning hours when I devoted myself more to my revisions, I realized my ultimate uncertainty. In the story I was working on, I saw two characters, an off-stage son and an on-stage father, as distinctly Caucasian. The focal character, a woman, however, I saw with no such distinctness. I truly felt uncertain. Not until the convention was in its ending moments, when I happened to be talking about the experience of reading aloud my story the day before, did it sink in what she was, in racial terms.

Conversation can start a mind to improvising differently than it does in reflection, or in writing; and in this instance it opened to me connections between default whiteness and the woman character in my story, and between those thoughts and my own difficulty in knowing distinctly what sort of creature I am, myself, being partly one thing and partly another. I said, in this conversational moment, that I had been thinking about this idea of the default white, and had been considering introducing my story to the audience by saying that I feared all the characters in it were default white. In the event, when I looked out onto the room, which ended up surprisingly full, I saw myself addressing a white audience. Whether or not my perception encompassed the true state of things I naturally cannot say: for the reality of a performance situation is that the performer has some powers for observing her or his audience for a time, but then enters a state that is not altogether present to the room, being partly absent, to be inside the work offered. Yet I had this impression, and as a result made no comment about default white characters. The next day this incident arose to my tongue, and I said, to a friend newly made at the event, that there we were, four white writers reading to a white audience. I said that and fully participated in the meaning of the sentence without realizing the irony of the fact that I had just earlier said, in the same conversation, that I, myself, was default white.

"There we were." In that moment I called myself white. My self-image was weighted by the image of my father, Anglo-Swiss of background. In a mirror I see someone other than him. He whom I do see see is a familiar presence to me, as well as a familiar puzzle: yet in the context of a foursome of writers, the others of whom I assumed were white, who were speaking to listeners I assumed were white, I assumed of myself, too, whiteness. The assumption had nothing — absolutely nothing — of novelty in it. Forget about that Anglo-sounding name, Mark Rich: for in this weekend I had found my true name, initials D.W.

For I had said already in this improvisatory spiel that I was default white — as were my story's characters. I said this while still not quite seeing that the lead character in my story was white in the way that I was. In other words, she was, and she was not. I had been encountering such problems in thinking about this aspect of her character, while doing revisions there at Wiscon, because I have never resolved my thoughts about this aspect concerning myself.

I made these comments in one conversation, and, in another, I observed that this Wiscon had offered an accidental arrangement of events — mainly programming ones — that, for me, had an overarching narrative strand — so that I was for all purposes a character within that narrative.

I have long felt some awareness that this difficulty beset me, concerning what face I present to myself or to the world; and I think for that reason, probably microseconds after having the word "blackface" come to me upon looking at this photograph, days after Wiscon, I accepted without question the complementary term that then popped to mind — no doubt already coined and re-coined in times past:


(Continued in next post.)

Moon Tea and Whiteface (II)

Part One, June 2014, continued

When driving away from Madison, north and west through quieter territory than that the city offers, all this struck me — what I had said, and how I said it: "There we were, four white writers, reading to a white audience." In that audience I had anticipated more obvious racial diversity than what I saw; and that anticipation had been what made me think about introducing my example of non-diversity with a spoonful of self-denigration — an admission of my failure to possess the sort of creative imagination that has as its default setting a vision of diversity, not one set in place by dominant-culture pre-setting and imprinting. I say self-denigrating, for I have a tendency that may be self-defeating, as an "artist" in our culture. For our culture rewards self-proclamatory artists over others; and this tendency of mine is to admit to my self-perceived shortcomings. I resist the tendency at times, even while embracing it as a sign that I am not overly self-deceiving — with self-deception being the Scylla to match the Charybdis of flattery.

"There we were, four white writers." At the reading I believe my mind had no such thought. At convention's end, however, I said this aloud. Even though I had just talked about having a "default white" way of viewing myself, which is not the same as saying that I have a white way of viewing myself, I used those words — "there we were" — perhaps so that I would have an unalterable fact to mull over while heading northeast.

I passed through few population centers, on my preferred route from Madison — towns with simple names that may embody white history and language: Plain, Loganville, Hillsboro. As far as I know they are mainly white-complexioned these days, although Hillsboro and its surrounding area once had a significant Black American component. Within Hillsboro a historical marker stands to commemorate either their former presence or their current semi-absence, since that particular community, a century or more ago, left the area.

Whiteface? However white that area might appear today, its history, in the time since the Native American expulsion, contains more than simply white history. In the Afrofuturism panel the term "one-drop rule" arose several times, with the panelists assuming the audience knew its meaning. Does that rule apply to village or town? In an organism, a one-drop rule must pertain to its entire life. In a community, too?

In a way, in my inadvertent statement — "there we were" — I demonstrated what I already had said of myself, in my of-the-moment realization that whatever I may be, I have felt uncertain enough about its nature that the course of least resistance has made me, in self-image, white. Although some individuals in my life have seemed to see my Japanese-ness, they may have known my parents first. In meeting Japanese people I usually feel the need to announce my being half-Japanese — as if certain that this cannot be seen. At such moments I believe that, in some way, perhaps in a purely symbolic way, I am a white man who, when he speaks, becomes non-white.

To make a gross generalization about the Japanese, they, or we, are realistic. While being realistic can lead to a certain hard-headedness, it may point toward adaptability, as well.

To make a gross generalization about Sansei, who are third-generation Japanese immigrants in America, we (I leave out the "they," since I have never had a question about being Sansei) tend to assimilate rather than stand back in order to assert our racial or cultural heritage. I have no idea, truthfully, if this tendency actually prevails among Sansei. Yet that it does exist in the group forms one certainty, in my mind full of uncertainties. Bill Hosokawa wrote a book entitled Nisei that chronicles contributions in America by second-generation immigrants, who were not only inventive and industrious but also clearly conscious that they occupied a distinct place among "Americans," generally speaking, in being Japanese. The U.S. government made sure that this awareness remained bedrock in their minds, through its actions during World War II; and the awareness helped give the Nisei a group-sense. No such similar experience strengthened the Sansei group-sense. That we had Japanese backgrounds no one was making quite so distinctly, vocally, or socially an issue.

I know I am more curious about my Japanese cultural roots than some in my generation: for some do seem content to erase their Japaneseness in becoming part of that "Americans, generally speaking" group. Yet I may feel more open to my Japaneseness because my mother, in marrying my Anglo-Swiss father, half-erased my Japaneseness on my behalf. My own Sansei tendency to erase my Japaneseness, to "assimilate" myself, has less to work with, while my curiosity and inclination to draw out my Japaneseness has more, since my already-assimilated "white" self can be whole-heartedly curious, when it wants to be.

The question rises, as I write these thoughts, as to what I saw when I looked in a mirror, as a child. Did I even look? As a child I was, of course, short. The bathroom mirror hung in its usual place, at adult eye-level above the sink. My parents had, as I recall, a full-length mirror on the inside of their bedroom door, into which I rarely peered. Even when I did, who knows what I saw. I remember when I was young and my younger sister was a year or two old, that she had the lightest brown hair — the hair, I am supposing, of my father's mother, Ada, whose lightness of hair and complexion seems to have been part of her Woodbridge inheritance, the inheritance that gave my father an appearance markedly different from the men of the Rich family of my grandfather's generation. They were large men with prominent brows, strong jaws, and hair dark enough to pass for Japanese. At a few years old, my sister looked more Woodbridge — as it seems to me now. She later acquired an appearance with more Kikuchi elements, to my eyes.

As we grow older the images we take to the mirror change — as do our inner resources for seeing, not-seeing, or reinventing the reversed object, the backwards fact, that we find looking at us.

As it happens, the short story I read aloud, Saturday at Wiscon, included a passage in which the woman character — the one whose racial identity I feel uncertain about but who is, all the same, as I am — looks into a mirror, not at herself, at first, but at a cloudy image that seems to be there, behind her.

(Continued in next post.)

Moon Tea and Whiteface (III)

Part One, June 2014, continued

I approached this Wiscon planning to pay attention to its guests of honor — not something I always do, or always can fit into my schedule, especially in years when I volunteer my time to moderating panels. I was curious to hear more from Hiromi Goto, since I had heard her speak relatively little, the year she won the Tiptree, and since I have been trying to find room in my reading schedule for some Japanese-background writers. I was curious about N.K. Jemisin, too, partly due to her having appeared on the scene in 2010, the only recent year when I gained significant insight as to happenings in the fantasy-writing scene, and partly due to her Convergence 2013 speech that had won her a reputation for controversy.

I had read that speech's text and had thought it neither incendiary nor overly provocative. Yet I had come across comments from some within the science fiction and fantasy field who expressed discomfort. This suggested that more was taking place, in the speech or outside it, than fell within my purview — enough so as to make me feel it important to attend a panel that Friday, the first night of regular programming at Wiscon 38, with the title "Reconciliation within Science Fiction and Fantasy." The description cited Jemisin's 2013 speech, quoting a passage that seemed quite positive in nature, to my perspective, in calling for making "an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone." The program description added the questions: "What would a Reconciliation look like? How can we start one? How can we grow one?"

In that 2013 call for action, which struck my eye and helped send me to attend the panel, lies the beginning of the journey I would take during the next few days — not a journey anyone else might have noticed me undertaking, and not even one I much noticed myself undertaking until it had taken place. In the words "active, conscious effort" I found my stimulus: for they planted the pearl-seed that lodged not solely within my thoughts pertaining directly to the stated topic but also within the part of my mind concerned with creative effort. In the former thought-arena I wondered what more needed to be done, truly, that was not already in process, within the genres. In the latter arena, I wondered how an active, conscious effort might affect creative endeavor: for in the development of one's artistry, whatever that might be, one must seek an understanding of one's unconscious contributions to the creative act — insofar as "to understand" offers the best word for that statement; and to achieve, then maintain, a balance between unconscious and conscious contributions to the creative process. Excess reliance on the unconscious creative urge leads to incomprehensible, disjointed works that come across as flighty and undisciplined — whereas giving excess emphasis to conscious decisions can make it impossible for that indefinable quality to emerge that makes our word "art" so elusive. We have seen writers of talent becoming dry, becoming old, when riding a hobbyhorse mechanically designed to go from point A to point B, a course determined by a pedantic, moralistic, or political message — thus a predetermined message, or in philosophical terms a formal cause — a teleological expression, hence not one that we take as true expression, or at least as full expression, of the creative process, even if for no other reason than that the creative process cannot be pre-determined.

In the arena of the attitudes and practices within the field, I did think the process had gotten well on its way. One development occurred around 2010, following the formation of the Carl Brandon Society, which does seem to be performing a function akin to that of the Tiptree Awards organization. In 2011, the trio of new novelists N.K. Jemisin, Karen Lord, and Nnedi Okorafor made a striking debut in the U.S. fantasy scene, with all three appearing on the World Fantasy Award ballot. Okorafor won that award. Their appearance on the ballot reflected strengths: for the three made their novelistic debuts when other quite accomplished novels appeared without ballot acknowledgement. For me, Patricia McKillip's The Bards of Bone Plain comes to mind. While Okorafor gained perhaps the most public stature, in the immediately following years, both Jemisin and Lord earned readerships and critical attention.

2010 had arrived not as anomalous but as a year that arose from the continuum that began in the 1950s, when the self-awareness of the science fiction and fantasy genre reified itself — made itself physical, palpable, and almost measurable — in the form of awards. For better or worse, award-winners became prominent features on the genre's constantly changing, mirror-viewed face. Their lists created at least the impression of racial diversity after Samuel R. Delany won many nominations and awards, spanning decades; and his 1989 Hugo for The Motion of Light in Water made it more than clear that a work's expressing thoughts relating to minority identities in our culture, both racial and sexual, offered no obstacle to its achieving the highest recognition, nor to its becoming, as a memoir, an accepted subject or term within the field's conversation with itself. To draw on Charles Peirce's notions regarding the continuum of thought, Delany's book changed the continuum of the conversation within the genre, just as any other book would and could; and the book's title represented not only the book itself but also became a sign that yet another change had affected the continuum.

Similarly the 2010 World Fantasy ballot presented individual novels, drawn forth from a communal reading experience; and at the same time it became a sign in the continuum that three new novelists, who to readers seemed to share the quality of expressing the Black American woman's experience, had become significant parts in the field's development. From that point onward, any new signs of change within the genres would appear within a continuum in which the signs of 2010 were indelibly a part. These novelists had achieved permanence within the ongoing conversation; and the conversation that has taken place since then cannot be said to be the same as the one that took place beforehand. In other words, the genres cannot be said to be the same after 2010 as they were before. Or, to put it in yet other terms, Jemisin, Lord, and Okorafor seem to have taken the step, by means of cooperating genre editors and publishers, "to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone." Whatever their creative intentions, in their novels they had created works that would become standards, against which future works might be measured. Their works "established" them; and just as those works became part of the established genre, their authors acquired established voices. Neither the works nor the voices stood outside. Whether or not they stood elsewhere as well, they stood within the genre.

I should note that I was a judge in the World Fantasy Awards process that resulted in a ballot slate of which half were written by new Black women writers. Please note: half. The slate is normally not made up of an even number of novels. I am quite unsure as to whether any among us judges were quite aware that we were so disturbing tradition by sending in a six-novel slate. Had the administrators thrown out the slate, I have, naturally, no idea which of the six they would have cut, although Jemisin's might have seemed the logical sacrifice. I felt Jemisin's novel portended something of importance, while feeling it could not actually win the award, as part of a trilogy. What other judges felt I have no way to say. I do have reason to suspect some might have jettisoned the Lauren Beukes novel Zoo City, which impressed me tremendously, but which other judges regarded as too science-fictional — which came as a startling perspective, to me, since its flight-of-fancy elements were out front and essential, and were in-the-face anti-empiricist.

Imagine, though, if you will, what would have happened had Zoo City been expunged from the list. New novels by Black American women novelists would have occupied thee-fifths of the slots, on the nominee list. If, at that moment, the literature of the imagination did not belong to everyone — supposing that "everyone" means all who are black or white — then I find it hard to imagine a similar, equally powerful moment at which just such a gate-passage might have taken place.

In emerging from that gate-passage, Jemisin undoubtedly had experiences that helped inspire her comments at Convergence 2013. Yet from her comments at Wiscon 38, it seems to me that the situation within the genre that led to her comments about reconciliation derived — in however small a degree, though probably not small — from her experiences in the field of genre literature that prevailed before 2011. Anytime after that date she, herself, takes her place in the actual conditions surrounding and involving science-fiction and fantasy assessment and consideration.

For this does seem to me to be factual. The field as a whole, to some unknown degree, is to be judged on the basis of the works of the three Black American women novelists who achieved beyond the norm in their publications of 2010.

Oddly enough, Jemisin acknowledged this situation, in particular terms, not general terms, later during Wiscon 38: for she spoke about her Inheritance Trilogy being not her first novel series. Her first, in making the rounds of publishers, encountered among other rejections one from a publisher, Orbit, whose editors said they might consider it publishable had she an established name. Jemisin then wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which ended up being published, in that things-coming-together way, in the year in which Lord and Okorafor also made their novelistic debuts. By doing so — by partaking in a group-alteration to the continuum — she created the genre-publishing environment within which her first novel-series could then be sold.

Jemisin said that she wrote this new novel in a rage. This makes me suspect that even if calculation went into devising a book that would make an acceptable first novel, it played a role subsidiary to heartfelt execution, in developing and executing a reply, through the means available to her as a writer and artist, to fit the situation.

Her first series reached publication likely helped by the fact, too, that the debut novels by Okorafor and Lord sported covers making it clear — insofar as any novel cover makes anything clear — that their perspective centered upon figures who were female and, too, were African, African American, or perhaps African-Global of identity.

Orbit, a presumably forward-thinking publisher of science fiction, published Jemisin's debut with a cover that might have spoken in almost any visual tongue to contemporary readers. I mean this observation not as a criticism against Orbit, especially given that Jemisin herself describes her Hundred Thousand central figures as being racially split, but rather to highlight the fact that DAW Books and Small Beer Press accepted the images of Black women for the fantasy-novel covers they published, with neither apology nor coyness. Jemisin became a "name" at the same time that two other prominent novels appeared under jackets placing, foremost, images that embraced the Black experience and the female experience, and that accurately presented the novels in that regard.

In any case, this trio, coincident in their rise, nudged the genre field in a new direction, without any "active, conscious effort" behind the re-directing. However much the coincidental might figure into the situation, it did arise naturally from an ongoing progress. Some observers in 2014 might have reflected on events in 2010-11, and made comments about the field "growing up" or becoming adult in a deeper way than before. We must remember, however, that mature, intelligent observers have made that same assessment since the beginning of the genre's self-conscious existence. The genre will never achieve any one, particular state until it has expired. Until that time, the process behind this appearance of maturation will continue.

That the Wiscon panel on reconciliation existed, as did Jemison's 2013 speech, reflects the perception and belief that "barriers that currently exist within the genre and fandom" do stand in the way of meeting Jemisin's call for recognizing "the real history of this genre" and acknowledging "the breadth and diversity of its contributors." These words from 2013, and Jemison's participation in Wiscon 38, take part in the process of facing these barriers — while these barriers, too, contribute to the process.

The panel description asked, "What would Reconciliation look like?" I would think that one possible appearance would be an awards category in the year 2011 that was dominated by woman writers, four in number, three of whom are "diverse" in an additional way — with one of the last winning the award, as chosen by a panel of judges, none of whom, to my knowledge, fell into that particular category of the "diverse." The four woman writers who did appear on the ballot, I might add, did edge out other women and Black-identity writers.

The year 2011 offers only one possible appearance, of course. As the process continues, just how Reconciliation "looks" will continue changing, with its ideal constantly receding into the future.

I will not say that I had all these thoughts while listening during the panel. Various aspects in the discussion interested me; and the fact that some related to matters other than the situation that existed expressly within the writing genres made it difficult for me, and perhaps for others, to remain focused on the core issue, or at least on the issue announced as the core one. Some aspects clearly had purely social ramifications. Yet even in these the topic became large enough to become unfocused. Did the notion of Reconciliation apply foremost to the situation of the Native American expulsion and segregation, and the theft of their land — in an echo of the Reconciliation process Jemisin had witnessed in Australia? Or did it apply primarily to relations between White and Black people in post-slavery America? Did it apply only to the current moment, or to all past time?

Despite the disparate comment-strands taking place, a crux moment arrived in the form of a question from the audience — a question that already had its equivalent forming in my mind, and that must have been forming in the minds of other listeners. For the panelists had returned repeatedly to the topic of the science fiction and fantasy genres, even while Reconciliation never yielded its central place in the conversation.

At some point this statement had arisen:

"Reconciliation takes place after great harm has been done."

I believe but cannot say without question that Jemisin first voiced this perspective, during the panel. I feel certain, though, that she restated it when the crux question came in, from the audience — which asked:

Was enough harm done, in science fiction and fantasy, to make reconciliation necessary?

Panelists offered replies that I recall being various approaches to an affirmative answer — all having validity, in that their replies contained perspectives that shed some light on the current situation in the genres, whether from the perspective of the reader, the observer, or the writer. Jemisin, I recall, made general and generally perceptive points about the field, and suggested that it operated upon a base language within which continued the harm.

(Continued in next post.)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Moon Tea and Whiteface (IV)

Part Two: April 2018

I wrote all the above, in rough, soon after Wiscon 38. Before leaving the convention I had mentioned to Timmi Duchamp my perception that the event had been for me a journey. She replied that it sounded like something she might like for The Wiscon Chronicles. Afterwards, then, I began delving into my thoughts, only to abandon them — there, at that paragraph above this one, when I reached that crux question. At that point in the essay, knowing it had moved far beyond the word-limits for the Chronicles, I wondered what worth there might be for me to go on writing any farther. I felt I might have thousands of words yet to go.

Too, by June seventh — that last day when I was writing — I was feeling already the weakening grasp of the soul awakening from a thinning dream, with conscious perceptions hardening to the factual day. What had I seen and where had I gone? Was I, any more, the one to say?

In a week may seem too short a time to lose one's grip upon what an event had been, or upon who it was, who rode a cobbled-together raft on currents stirred by happenings. Yet such losses occur instantly. Just before or just after talking with Timmi about the journey — not the one undertaken but the one that had happened without being undertaken — I talked with Sherry Thomas about an insight that had arrived during the convention. The verbal music that I conjured at that moment, accidentally, led me to a further place that I had not realized I had reached. The thought rose in me that I should rush aside to write this down, that I might find my way back to that further place. Something in me knows when a new thought is fleeting. Whether I have access still to that further place will remain forever unknown to me, however: for I remained rooted to the social moment, not the personal one. I left behind that journey of many steps and many possible ends, with the brightest end having revealed itself obliquely only to take itself away.

Yet many things, in the second week in June, combined to take me away from seeking through memories and notes to redraw a map I had failed to draw when the moment was right. Summer developments in garden and daily life called; and that difficult shrugging-off of the ghost that overhung the long gestation and execution and aftermath of the C.M. Kornbluth effort remained for me to finish — unless it remained for me to I simply accept that particular haunting as mine.

It may be, too, that I held too much to that Wiscon for its factual aspects, and so remained too near it, for all that it already felt far away.

Whether or not distance needed to fall between me and what I had experienced, the distance fell.


In 2014 at Wiscon I did set out with a programme in mind: to find new writers to whom to listen. Not having read Hiromi Goto I planned to attend her events. Her guest-of-honor reading unfortunately fell against the panel on reconciliation, which, as I noted, called to me with a nearly imperative tone. Jemisin's calm and thoughtful approach to her subject, and to her audience, as it happened, altered my programme: for afterwards I found that the programming offered little of Goto, and ample of Jemisin, whose voice I did wish to hear more. Given that I was also spending time way from events — editing my story, reading passages aloud to myself, retyping pages on an old typewriter — the experience turned out oddly skewed, and perhaps spare.

I attended a panel featuring Goto on a "cultural grammar of experience," the panel description having led me think it would focus to some degree on her, her works, and the Japanese experience; and I listened with some regret to a discussion moving elsewhere than that. Goto, after a time in which other panelists spoke sometimes vehemently, said a few quiet words. An irony played into my later attending a panel called "Not All Aliens are Japanese" — a Jemisin panel, not a Goto one. I enjoyed it — Eleanor Arnason being in particularly fine form — although I felt unclear about why the panel had the title it did.

In looking back, however, I saw that in the program description appeared this: "#EndJapaneseElves." I supposed then that the panel's title had something to do with Anime, about which I know nothing. With that thought, in that week after Wiscon, when I was pondering the lack of Japanese-related content at a convention that in part was honoring a Japanese-Canadian writer, I noticed finally that the program guide did list Anime-related topics — which I suppose means Japanese-ness to many. It means anything but, to me.

I find now in my typewritten journal entry just after the convention these words: "I have been thinking while typing these thoughts of the tendency of Japanese to be self-effacing and how it reflects something exterior to the Japanese themselves: for this programming essentially holds up Japanese experience and effaces it."

How much does this matter? Little, perhaps. Goto herself may have felt comfortable in not being drawn into discussions about Japanese-related experience. The appearance of effacement merges back into self-effacement. And my taking interest in outwardly Japanese-related matters was the Sun tea I sought, not the Moon I found.

The panel on reconciliation had so diverted me from my programme, in any case, that the Afrofuturism panel then called me to attend it — in unconscious whiteface. There I heard that reference to the "one-drop rule," which, it seemed apparent, related to one's participating in or claiming a heritage.

For me, at least, the "rule" would seem to offer a red-light, green-light game. At one moment I might be a "white" man, having that drop of white blood; the next, a "colored" man, having that other drop. Given blood transfusions and retrovirus gene-splicings one might think it inevitable that all people would end up both the default and the option, at once, or in alternation. Anyone might take a bow on a stage and be unsure whether one did so in whiteface or blackface; we might set out to wear the one and end up in the other; or you might wear the one while the audience saw the other. And I could always call myself one thing, whenever I looked the other.

And as with Sun tea and Moon, we might feel hard-pressed to the tell the difference.

Yet with Moon tea, although I never know what it will be, I do know what it is — whereas with whiteface or Japaneseface it seems I never can know. By nature I can only assume them, or wear them, but never be what they represent.

In never-so-being lies the not-knowing.


How does reconciliation fit the one-drop perspective? The latter seems too much a trick and a game, except when it provides a grounding fact to help explain one's own feelings about one's identity. If it does have any grounding effect, then it seems unfortunate that it so easily leads to thoughts so facile and flip as those I wrote a few paragraphs ago. Does not the thought that one might alternate between states of self-identity seem contrary to the nature of identity? If we undertake a journey do we not seek to find who we are, even if the journey's outward purpose may be to see and experience that which lies outside us — and to seek that which was beyond the reach of who we were? For is not our own identity at the heart of this matter? Can we reconcile ourselves to others, or others reconcile themselves to us, if neither we nor they know who we are — if our identity may be switched on and off at will?

Yet identity provides the base not only for action, for involvement in the world, but also for identification — for putting ourselves in another's shoes, another's geta or zori; and also for imagining our taking the journey that others have taken, through gates we cannot pass. Identification may be a reflex born of identity — a reflex that takes us outside ourselves — outside our self-identity — only then to swing us back to self-identity, enriched with the iota of changed perspective that alters the thought-continuum within which we exist.

From that perspective, the one-drop concept proves provocative. For can I partake of your journey — can I understand it — without the one drop of you within me? Can you follow me to this point without one drop of me, in you? I will never be that one drop of you. You will never be that one drop of me. Even so the thought-currents, the continua, begin to touch or merge or overlap; they alter, transform, and redirect themselves; and when they do, any such changes as do occur neither of us could have planned.

In other words it lies within our powers to do what is firmly outside our beings — to alter the world, simply through our having identity. If we need to put any face on this power then let it be the face of identity; if we must use the word default let us relegate it to some spiritless electronic program; if we are to think in terms of the genetic drop of enrichment or contamination then let us think of those streams, those currents, born in and borne upon, within and around, the souls that we believe to be ours — those streams and currents for which a single drop sometimes serves, in representing us — and sometimes serves, too, in the encounter, to divert an entire stream.

And as I write these words I do better realize the nature of that woman-character in that story of mine: for she is one apt to find herself drinking Moon tea.

Having turned to that now-years-ago Wiscon and its long-abandoned trail of memory and dream, maybe I should turn again to the story. "The Gate to Elfland," I called it, then. I have had another title in mind for it, for a year or so. "The birds have less to say for themselves, in the wood-world's torn despair," Robert Frost said a hundred years before the Wiscon of which I speak, "than now these numberless years the elves, although they are no less there." These lines nestle among the poems I keep in mind, these days. The unseen elf, the industrial evocations, the automobiles: these are whitenesses in that tale that I read aloud ... in whiteface. And into those places, those whitenesses, in my writing, I had thought sunlight fell. Should I see where moonlight fell, instead? Or where, unknowingly, I might have prevented its falling? I may need to look.

The End

Sunday, January 7, 2018

On those Frost lines ...

Thinking about "It Is Old Year's Day" a few days after writing and posting it (and this comes to mind at that verb's usage: "thousands at His bidding speed/ and post over land and ocean without rest"), the notion came to me that those lines from Frost must come across as nonsense, appearing there toward this poem's end.

Yet I have just re-read it, in my pencil draft here in this pad of paper, and am inclined to think it might still work for some readers. I took two lines from one, and one line from another, of Frost's two most widely known poems.

Then follows a line that sounds Frosty even if not; and then, the Frost reference that will be obscure to all who have not lived with the lines, "our faltering few steps on/ to white rest and a place of rest/ invisible at dawn."

So obscure to almost everyone.

The poem is "Stars," a snowy poem. And it has occurred to me — I cannot say if I had this in mind, when writing my noodle of "occasional verse" for the occasion — that the implacable, unmoved Wisdom in the universe, that the stars are in the poem, makes itself felt in our lives when the year ends.

For the year cannot but end.

A Frost-line found its echo, for me, two nights ago, in an effective way.

Near the end of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore, the aged Wizard Ged and young prince Arren enter the land of the dead: "The potter's wheel was still, the loom empty, the stove cold. No voice ever sang."

From among the earlier Frost poems that I had memorized came to mind the line, "with none among them that ever sings."

The voice in the poem "Ghost House" speaks from a place not far, in idea, from the one that Ged and Arren enter.

The irony only now has struck me that this voice belongs to one who in turn belongs to — to use Le Guin's term — the silent people. And in Frost's earlier poems, a poem is a song — perhaps literally but at least in metaphor.

This voice in Frost's poem sings, from among those who never sing.

You might say that the poet takes that which never sings, and has it sing — that being what a poet does.

Yet even so the irony remains.

Cheers ...

Sunday, December 31, 2017

It Is Old Year's Day

And I have fed the birds their seed,
and fed myself some words, just as I ought,
with air at seven points below the naught —
for the thermometer is what I read —
or frost-lines written on the window panes:
lines written with the patience of the cold
upon a year grown blind and stiff and old.
Such lines should write themselves as the year wanes

on Old Year's Day ... how way leads on to way;
how after roads are two, just one goes forth;
whose land this is I think I know — so forth
we go through snowy woods, perhaps to stay,
or find white rest; and so on, and so forth,
writing and reading on this Old Year's Day.

Writing on the World

The phrase comes to me sometimes — that I am writing on the world: the footsteps in new snow that I wrote about, that other day, you might see as an example. Each scrape and scratch we make; each rubbing, bumping, scuffing; each rearrangement, as of the leaves whose positions we change, by our passing, whether they are alive on a branch or are returned to earth at our feet; each thought, expressed by eye or tilting head or crooked elbow. All arrive as our writings on a place we call ours.

Just so we call a place in our book, the one we are reading, the place where we "are." We inhabit physical spaces anywhere but where that bookmark protrudes; yet there, pressed between leaves, we are. We have made the book ours, to one degree or another, by inhabiting it thus far. We have made it ours by writing ourselves into it, sentence by sentence. We are alive to it; for it takes footprints — invisible to others, yet footprints all the same, to be pointed out: for there we are.

And if there we are in the book, then there we are, anywhere we have been: we have inhabited it thus far, and no farther. So we read our world and write ourselves into it, word by word.

We all know how poorly we ourselves write, or others write. We see awkward handwriting, incomprehensible connections, slipping meanings, wrong turnings, false steps, false claims upon the language and for themselves, empty noises, mere motions. Mere motions may be writing to rank with the most thought-provoking when a mind in its meditations is moving somewhere, absent from and yet somehow pervading the mere motions. Yet we dwell in a world, in an all-surrounding book whose every other line tells us to move along without telling us why we should; and if inchoate and aimless in our mumbling we go on, moving along because we sense that we must move along, we express ourselves so because we have come so far, no farther. We say what we can, given the conditions. We brush a leaf in passage. We avert a gaze, unable to meet one — if we are to move along. We look around, and not to our surprise see how many are taking the world's injunction to move along to mean that they must hurry, hurry, hurry.

And if you hurry — perhaps it is you — you may justify yourself if you will, but only if in haste and without doing more than complaining; and if I — perhaps it is I — take the world's injunction to mean that I must slow, slow, slow, I feel that, like you, I must justify myself even though hesitating before putting my slip of paper in the slot in the box reserved for complaints.

For if I place my slip of paper there I fear I lose sight of how much better it is to be writing upon the world than to be written upon.

Cheers ...