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.

Intercultural Sensitivity, Writing Process

Intercultural Sensitivity for Writers

One of my greatest frustrations with attempts to support diversity in writing and publishing is the assumption that if diverse people are hired or diverse writers’ books are accepted, automatically publishing itself will become more diverse. Writing across difference is not simply an instinct, a talent, or an innate skill. It has to be learned and practiced. Writers need support with this.

Intercultural Sensitivity in Writing (ISW) Goals

  1. Diversity in writing will be seen as a skill that can be LEARNED and IMPROVED by ALL WRITERS.
  2. Writers who identify as #ownvoices will not bear the full burden of responsibility for “diversifying” the rest of publishing.
  3. We will develop and embrace an ethic of diversity in our writing akin to the medical Hippocratic Oath that we can share no matter our own background and identities.

I hope that writers will develop a helping culture in which we can share actual skills that can be implemented in our writing, no matter who we are or how we identify.

Why I Hope You’ll Let Me Help

I want to break down the experience of difference specifically for writers and show how it can help us understand our characters, plots, and overall stories better than we do without this awareness.

What can I contribute? I have six years of editorial experience and I also spent 10+ years with on-the-ground mentorship and training with Milton Bennett’s fantastic Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). I’ve honed my knowledge of this intercultural sensitivity model in multiple contexts: international schools, foster care & adoption programs, study abroad, work abroad, daily life, interpersonal relationships, and more. I also have training and hands-on experience with models for ethics, including biomedical ethics. I have practiced non-violent communication and peace-building skills such as those advocated by Thich Nhat Hahn and Marshall Rosenberg.

I have seen from firsthand observation and experience that you can’t just pounce on a person who is “different” and expect them to solve a community’s problems. It’s unnerving at best to discover you have been brought into a space to be the token figure of diversity, like an exotic doll. When you try to change something or raise a real issue, there will always be a “good reason” to leave things as they are, often in the name of “efficiency” and “tradition” and “common sense.”

I want to introduce two approaches to diversity, both valuable but for different reasons. Then I’ll continue this ISW series with a post each the six experiences of difference, following Bennett’s model. I will apply these experiences specifically to writers and writing.

  1. Denial of difference
  2. Defense against difference
  3. Minimization of difference
  4. Acceptance of difference
  5. Adaptation to difference
  6. Integration of difference

Each one of these experiences of difference comes with moral dilemmas that individual people have to address on their own terms. I’ll share examples of those dilemmas and offer tips/techniques for resolving them.

Real-World Experience of Diversity

Diverse writers have “street smarts” in dealing with diversity issues: they have developed coping & survival mechanisms to handle conflict. They know from day-in, day-out experience what it’s like to be different from the majority culture around them. That’s massively important. This on-the-ground experience gives diverse writers the power to:

  • Help people discover themselves in and relate with characters, perhaps even for the first time
  • Offer fresh insight into an experience that has been otherwise stereotyped or become a “tired trope” or possibly is invisible
  • Encourage empathy in the majority of readers who wouldn’t normally identify with someone different from them
  • Validate their experiences and the experiences of others as real

At the same time, these on-the-ground experiences can also lead to some negative or harmful impacts/dilemmas in the writing process:

  • All the onus of sensitivity in the writing and publishing process can end up being placed on the writer rather than on the team of editorial, production, and marketing. They are treated like the “expert” when in reality they represent only one possible experience of difference.
  • The writer may not be emotionally ready to share some of their struggles and even traumas on the page.
  • The person who has the on-the-ground experience may not be in a position to tell their own story. For example, they may need to protect themselves from threats. They may have too much to lose to risk exposure.
  • The story may be foreign to too many readers’ immediate experience, making it difficult to form the empathetic bridge between reader and character. This issue is complicated, so I promise I will unpack it in later blog posts.

Professional Training in Intercultural Sensitivity

By comparison, someone with professional training in intercultural sensitivity can help people understand each other and communicate with each other across their differences no matter how they personally identify. Professional training in intercultural sensitivity gives the power to:

  • Notice your own biases and the biases of others.
  • Resolve conflicts and misunderstandings in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.
  • Help other people move from unhealthy attitudes toward difference toward healthy ones.
  • Find the words to address problems that result from difference even if you personally are not affected by it.
  • Write diverse characters with more awareness of how your own current experience of difference can shape the way you conceive of them and what kinds of conflicts you introduce in their lives on the page.
  • Notice more quickly and intervene more effectively when editorial or production or marketing recommendations will have an impact on how diversity in your writing is experienced by readers.

I believe that the on-the-ground experience of diverse and #ownvoices writers needs to be actively supplemented and supported by professional intercultural training and skills for ALL writers of ALL identifications. More anon, and thanks for any suggestions, ideas, and questions you may have about this new project!

Apocryphal Monologues, Publications

“Autopsy of a Stillbirth” (Progressing Spirit)

I am grateful today to be sharing a poem from my growing Nag Hammadi collection in the Progressing Spirit newsletter (subscriber access only). Here is an excerpt from the poem, which juxtaposes some of the difficult experiences and questions around miscarriage with verses from the apocryphal Gospel of Truth:

You loved her.
The book of her life cannot be read with the naked eye.
Her holy Word, a folded wing, rustles between the atria.

This broken filament you place inside
your lover’s cavernous ventricle.
Together, you are defibrillating the dark matter.

Is she the voice of God?
You already know. Still, you trace her
through microscopes and hadron colliders,
listening for a wingbeat,
the First and the Last.

This poem, along with two other poems I drafted this week during a workshop at The Cabin literary center in Boise, have now raised the total pieces in this collection (tentatively titled Apocryphal Monologues) to nearly 20. However, I’m hoping to compose at least 5 to 10 more pieces before finding a publisher to give it a home.

Japan Novel Research, Publications

“Drying Tatami” & “Failed Adoption” (Sweet Tree Review)

This month has been a busy month of poetry publications! Sweet Tree Review has published two of my poems, a concise prose poem called “Drying Tatami,” and also “Failed Adoption,” which is based on how I experienced our family’s failed adoption of two children in the 1990s. (This experience left such a strong impression, in fact, that my twin sister and I went on as adults to adopt — thankfully without the same heartbreaking result.)

What’s coming: In August I am anticipating several essay publications and at least one poem. I’m also hard at work on drafting a new novel set in mid-19th century rural Japan during the peak of Buddhist persecution. I expect to be working on this novel for the next year or so, but I’ll be sharing some of my research on the blog. There were moments during the 19th century when it appeared Buddhism might be scrubbed from Japanese identity. Sometimes I’m amazed at how it not only survived but even experienced a bit of a renaissance during this fascinating moment in Japan, when the country was opening up to the outside world for the first time in hundreds of years (or, more accurately, when Japan was becoming something that could even be called a modern “country”).

Drying Tatami

You lay out the rice straw on the suspension bridge to bind it. Every three
years, replace the wisteria. When the bridge sways, sag vine—slice…

Continue reading

Failed Adoption

It was snowing in Chicago when the plane landed,
must have been the time taken for the father
to walk two toddlers across a terminal

the same hour bitter-cold in Idaho,
and a pack of dogs in the sheepfold

It was intestines ballooning over wool, it was red on black gums
It was the ewe bleating against the cinderblock wall while the dogs tore while the mother stood for the tender thing
when she made for the door and for the propped gun…

Continue reading

Thank you, as always, for reading my work! You can read the full Summer 2017 issue of Sweet Tree Review here. I especially enjoyed the luminescent “Loss of Mass” by Steven Pan: Scientists once believed they / could weigh the human soul. / In the beginning, you were a / flush of frenzy and copper. / Now, time has decolorized / your fever.

Photo credit: “Iya Valley Vine Bridge,” © Karl Baron.