Book Reviews, Intercultural Sensitivity, Writing Process

Deeper Waters—Thoughts on Compassion and the Intimacy of Violence

Reading Notes: Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge

I’ve read an extraordinary number of books this month, more than I have at almost any other time. The urge has come at a time when the thought of posting even one little thing on social media is physically repulsive to me, almost a source of horror.

Which is interesting, because my good Buddhist training has me asking myself why it provokes that response at all, and why reading feels so much better right now. (And perhaps also why I don’t wish to delete my social media accounts, just retreat for a while.)

I’m not immune to the ups and downs of the political landscape, and I’m at a moment of shift, like many people probably are, following the tumult of both pandemic and elections. My beliefs and strategies for handling certain moral-social issues are changing, but they aren’t stable, so I feel simultaneously exposed by social media and attacked by it. It’s like when you’re trying to concentrate, and somebody keeps interrupting. “Just a minute,” I want to protest.

It makes sense, then, that reading is what gives equilibrium and feels better, because it aids with thinking through complicated questions about how I should live.

My latest read is STRANGE BEASTS OF CHINA by Yan Ge (trans. Jeremy Tiang). I’m only on page 70, “Impasse Beasts,” but the book is capturing my mood better so far than most everything else I’ve read lately … which is setting a high bar, because I also read and loved speculative fiction like both of Arkady Martine’s Teixcaalan novels, Lena Nguyen’s We Have Always Been Here, and Katherine Addison’s A Witness for the Dead, among others, and I enjoyed them all for vastly different, thought-provoking reasons.

But Strange Beasts of China is, as I said, capturing my mood. This is one of those “as if this were true” novels, where the narrator could possibly be the novelist herself. Here, the main character is a zoology school dropout in Yong’an who became a novelist, but she retains her connections to friends and her professor in the department. And what does the zoology department study? A nebulous category of denizens of Yong’an she calls “beasts,” which are also—of course—the subjects of her novels. Sorrowful beasts, joyous beasts, sacrificial beasts… she details them each with loving care.

Sorrowful beasts are gentle by nature, and prefer the cold and dark. They love cauliflower and mung beans, vanilla ice cream and tangerine pudding. They fear trains, bitter gourds, and satellite TV.

The males of the species are tall, with large mouths and small hands, scales on the insides of their left calves and fins attached to their right ears. The skin around their belly buttons is dark green. Other than that, they’re just like regular people.

Strange Beasts of China, p. 1

The voice is charming, a blend of empathy and terror for the beasts and humans entangled with them. It would be easy to translate each beast into a human equivalent: who would you consider a sorrowful beast, who cannot smile without dying?

But I find myself preferring not to. I just want to move through the streets of Yong’an with the narrator and look around wonderingly until jabbed by the inhumane decisions of the city, such as a decision to kill all the birds, making possession of a bird illegal. It resonates with the emotional why this that hits me in response to our own decisions about how to protect ourselves against contagion, how to survive forest fires and drought. You thought this would be the best approach? Really?

And in between: the little acts of intimacy and violence carried out by individual beasts and humans alike.

We’re at an impasse at the moment, where a lot of people want solutions to be simpler than they are. “Don’t write about people who aren’t like you.” “Stop being so sensitive; it’s just a story.” “Pay someone else to tell you what’s right or wrong about your stories,” rather than testing what you compose against your own moral compass and life experience, as if we have lost all faith in our own intellects. We’re not all practicing deep, complex thinking very well as a society, and we don’t tend to respect wisdom, even where it was hard-earned, especially if it doesn’t feel good. So when movements that are meant to encourage diversity and tolerance end up cannibalizing it instead, everybody shudders and just wants the community to be nice while still continuing to use the same strategies, which of course will not lead to any kind of new result.

The sacrificial beasts were all killed by the city because their deaths provoked copycat suicides among the humans. Was that really the right way to fix the problem?

I want to commit less violence against others. That includes vitriol. That includes scouring their ideas and words for whatever is unforgivable. I’m a parent; I already know how terribly flawed in every way I am. I’m not holding other people to higher standards. I’d rather focus on how they’re coming back from inevitable failures of empathy to try again, which means I’m also not interested in dissecting those failures except as a personal moral exercise to improve myself, not something to share with others, tinged by an underlying note of hysteria and rage (which social media sucks on like candy, in a terrifying sense, because plenty of us have now experienced how it feels to choke on that).

I don’t have enough power over the world to be so judgmental of other people’s attempts to survive in it. I have to be able to do the good work already assigned to me by the trajectory of causes and consequences that brought me to a particular place: I need to parent my children, tend to the plants and animals on the land around me, attempt to write one true thing in a story.

Those acts are the extent of my power. Recognizing that actually can make a person more capable and resilient, not less. I already know from first-hand experience that once you save the world in one context (adopting children, in my case, among other world-altering, world-shattering choices), you become part of the fabric holding that particular instance of fate in place, and your wide horizon becomes grounded in it for a very long time, maybe your whole life. Other people will want you to serve their causes, but you have to keep your eyes open and maintain the justices you’ve already committed yourself to carrying out.

Which is my long way of saying, I want to sink deeply into things right now: books, my own writing, my family life, my local community and ecosystem. I don’t want to skim the surface of things, buffeted by emotions that lack clear purpose and direction. I listened to Robert MacFarlane’s OnBeing interview the other day, about his extraordinary book Underland; that was worthwhile and put me in the right frame of mind, too. The good thing about being an adult with real responsibilities and a couple decades of experiencing the consequences of one’s actions is that you get bored by watching the same narratives of “us versus them” played out on repeat. Our lives, moment by moment, rarely are defined in terms of winners and losers in practice. It feels more like a game of “alongside” and shadowing and sudden intimacy.

So I am resorting to something that is most delightful and slightly embarrassingly mature: sinking roots into things that are important to me. Observing what I care about, however insignificant it might seem to others. Like Yan Ge’s unnamed narrator, quietly keeping an account of what happens to Yong’an’s beasts.

Book Reviews, Writing Process

Reading to be immersed

“At some time impossible to pinpoint, I had begun to read more to be informed than to be immersed, much less to be transported.”

—Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home:
The Reading Brain in a Digital World

My switch to skimming from reading was abrupt, spurred by anxiety. I had sent out some projects, which meant acceptances and rejections would be coming in unpredictable increments of 5 minutes (as one did) or in 11 months (as did another). It didn’t help that I had set myself a goal of 100 rejections for the year, as many writers do. That level of random expectation messed with my head, and instead of sinking for hours into fiction and nonfiction projects as I once did, suddenly I was hopping from one thing to the next in quick succession every hour.

The agony of the empty mailbox let to an especially strong impulse to linger on social media, where something was always being delivered—6,000 somethings every minute, which I could curate into feeds, share, or interact with in innumerable other ways until I felt connected and whole again. Only, of course, I had no control over what confronted me there. Stung by unexpected barbs from people who often did not even have me or people like me in mind as their main audience, my emotions would be thrown into total disarray, bleeding into the rest of my life long after I left the platform.

Now, I easily correlate my anxiety levels with how much and how deeply (or not) I read in that era of my life, which lasted about two years. Maryanne Wolf says she had to try twice to remember how to become immersed in a book she had once loved. The first attempt was a total failure, and the second attempt took two weeks before she settled into the rhythm and trust of moving at the pace the writer set instead of trying to rush ahead, skim, re-read the same long sentence over and over, or shove the book aside in frustration or boredom. In my case, I spent several months reading books a few pages at a time, in a circle, until I finally remembered how to get fully lost in the story again.

When I become immersed in books instead of skimming them or “reading to be informed,” I find myself settling into a familiar and enjoyable rhythm of reading, revision, reflection, and drafting in my own writing process. I tend to invest the effort into painstakingly copying passages from books I like into my journals. I forget to check messages. I spend less than 2 hours/day with access to social media. Every week, I experience at least one full day where I never get on social media at all. Ironically, I worry less about “missing out” or being “left behind” by the book community. Less pressured to buy the talked-about books of the moment, instead I’m buying the books I find most compelling based on the writing and subject matter itself, whether it’s a speculative novel, history, or religious studies, even if it is now considered “backlist” by the industry.

When I visit social media less often, the medium feels wildly different than when I have regular, continuous exposure all day every day. For context, consider that like a lot of people my age I lived a lifestyle that involved being on social media continuously since around 2003, along with blogging off and on for many years even before that. Most of that time, I was on Facebook. I deleted Facebook back in 2015 and stayed off social media entirely for two years, at which time I began my still-regular practice of handwriting all my novels, essays, and poetry in journals. I joined Twitter in 2017, a veritable whirlpool of continuous content by (at first) complete strangers, because I was told it was a good place to interact with the book community. That proved true, and I took to the form instantly. Probably at my deepest involvement, I posted something new every 15 minutes or less, a practice I didn’t relinquish until I established my current “social media lite” routine about 1 year ago.

My experience of the “social media-heavy” times was the sense of always paying partial attention to the people and world around me, but at the same time feeling hyper-aware of “Cassandra” the social media personality. Contrary to stereotypes of Millennials, I felt grounded by my social media network. You’re never alone when you can touch an app and open up a world of friends, acquaintances, and “fans.” I continually composed narratives about myself, as if I were a brand or public figure. I enjoyed this and felt it enabled me to form a strong personal worldview, but it became increasingly stressful to maintain as I became an adoptive parent and stopped traveling. “Cassandra the world traveler” and “Cassandra the budding religious studies scholar” seemed more exciting than “Cassandra the editor and parent in rural Idaho.” That’s not true in practice; my life is as full and vibrant and intellectually challenging as ever, but the work I’m doing is mapped onto a longer, slower arc than it was in my twenties, which is not conducive to social media updates, especially when as a parent I made the decision to protect my children’s privacy by restricting how much I shared about them.

How, then, does it feel to be on a restricted-access rhythm with only one social media platform? I was shocked to find that the conversations (“threads”) I once lived for have come to feel not only repetitive but often irrelevant to my actual experience of books, writing, publishing, and best practices for encouraging diversity and intercultural understanding (a frequent topic of discussion in the book community over the past few years). Is that because I’m doing a better job of weighing what I see against my own reservoir of knowledge? I think so.

One possible explanation is that after such long daily breaks, I’m not skimming the feed, at least not at first. I’m fixing onto single statements or threads and lingering with them. I tend to share them in group chats and direct messages with close friends, and spend a lot more time on whatever topic caught my attention. However, after about 20 minutes, my brain remembers how that continuous-exposure mentality felt. I can viscerally feel the shift from ordinary thought to the birdlike flutter of attention from one piece of ephemera to another.

I don’t like how this makes me feel, so I don’t keep social media on my phone at all, and since I can’t trust my brain to quit once it makes the switch, my computer is also programmed to cut off my access after an hour or so. It’s rare that I accomplish anything else in that hour, and I often need to take some deep breaths once I’m off the platform to clear my mind and let go of whatever statements people made that might have confused, provoked, or stunned me. My other strategy is to simply stay off the feed entirely and visit individual friends’ pages to read their posts, drop in on group chats, send messages, and of course share whatever handful of things I’ve collected in the past 24 to 48 hours since the last time I visited the platform.

This approach goes completely against the grain of how these platforms are designed. Sometimes I wish I had a way to see my friends’ musings and news in a more intentional set-up that doesn’t prioritize speed and distraction, while still allowing me to discover new possible friends and acquaintances in my corner of the book community. (Instagram’s requirement that all posts must have an image and its limited linking to external sites makes it a clunky platform for me, but it satisfies some of my other criteria; I’ve experimented with it a little over the past few months.)

Mostly, though, the lesson for me over the past few years of total and partial restriction of social media and my conscientious efforts to read and write with intention, is that I’ve had to trade the feeling of relevance for better, more focused work that could lead to greater relevance in the book community over the long haul. It appeals to my spiritual practice and my standards of excellence for myself as an artist and scholar, so it’s a trade I’m willing to make.