Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.20: Larissa Lai

Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013
by Larissa Lai

It's been a very eclectic sort of year for reading, writing and listening. The nature of my work means things get often get read as my teaching schedule dictates. The nature of my health, this year, meant that I got some enforced reading/listening time. I'm much better now, and happy to amble through some of the things that caught my attention in 2013.

I began the year as a juror for the Dorothy Livesay Prize, which is the British Columbia Book Prize for Poetry. Of the hundred or so books in the box, my pick for the winner was speculative in its experimentation with language and form. Roger Farr's IKMQ is about the adventures of four letters of the alphabet. IKMQ consists of sixty-four brief passages. These are variously stories, vignettes, descriptions, instructions, scenarios and formulae, each of which involve the characters I, K, M and Q. Because the characters are letters, the fragments sometimes have the quality of a psychological or algebraic hypotheses, in which broader social, political, mathematical or psychological ideas are being tested out. Other times, it is grammar itself that gets tested, particularly when I is the protagonist. As in: "I was it. K ran behind the hedge, M climbed onto the deck, Q ran around the perimeter of the yard." The "I" here could stand in for a self—"me"— or it could be an abstract, like K, M or Q. Or "I" could be the first letter of someone's name— "Ivan" or "Isabelle". By leaving the possibilities open, Farr shows us how context dependent all writing is. I,K,M and Q show up in scenarios as diverse as a committee meeting in which Roger's Rules are being followed, a pornographic film, a physics experiment, a heist and a chart for testing vision. This is language that speculates on our expectations. If we want it, we get lots of sense for our pennies— more than we might imagine possible. Maybe I could put it beside Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, which I read and did a little talk on for the Vancouver-based Kootenay School of Writing talk series "I'm in You, You're in Me" in February of this year. Twelve-year-old Riddley is a "connexion man" desperately attempting to retrieve history after the nuclear blast. English as we know it has been lost, and the youngsters of post-apocalyptic "Inland" (England) reconstruct it from what they've got.

I do often find myself wishing that experimental poets and speculative fiction writers would read each other more. I think we'd have a lot to talk about. Some speculative fiction writers and readers might enjoy Bhanu Kapil's Humanimal: A Project for Future Children, an experimental fiction about the "Bengali wolf girls", feral twins found in 1921 and "recuperated" to Indian society. Seeking an ethical way to engage their story, Kapil travelled to Midnapure with a film crew, and revisited the place where the girls were captured as well as the various sites connected to them. She met a ninety-eight year old woman who recalled their howling, found a tree in which one of them had been photographed trying to grab the tail of a cat, and visited the room in which they had been kept. Her book shows us our own animal continuities, the cruelty and impossibility of humanization, and likelihood that we are all more animal that we usually imagine.

One of my tasks in the spring was to rework a seminar on 1970s feminist speculative fiction for graduating English majors at the University of British Columbia, where I work, to teach this coming winter. Last year, that class was a rough one to teach. It seems always difficult and painful to teach material that I think is democratic and liberatory. Some students loved it, but many of them just hated it and resisted the course material at every turn. The material I was teaching— Woman on the Edge of Time, Kindred, The Left Hand of Darkness, Les Guerrillères, The Female Man and Mind of My Mind— is 40 years old. I didn't set out to shock them. I was surprised by what they found surprising. As a great believer in student-centred learning, I actually want to start the discussion where they live— a much harder thing to do than one might imagine. This year, I'm framing it through Tom Moylan's idea of "critical utopias", as a contemporary phase of utopian writing that seeks neither another place (like Thomas Moore's Utopia) nor another time (like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward) for utopian possibility, and yet also refuses the defeats of some of the middle of the 20th-century's speculations (like Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Huxley's Brave New World). Other thinkers I'll use to frame this course include David Harvey and his idea of the "insurgent architect" as he articulates it in Spaces of Hope. I'm particularly interested in those passages where he talks about the difference between what activists and thinkers plan and what actually unfolds. I'm interested, in other words, in that element of the unpredictable. I'll also use a little teeny bit of Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. This is an important text because it addresses shifts in the political sphere that accompany shifts in the economic one. It articulates the relationship between utopian fiction and the material world, and helps us see more clearly the time in which we are living.

This reframing gave me the opportunity to read Ernst Callenbach's Ecotopia, which is so visionary on the environmental front. We're living in a moment when our economic system seems very much like a death cult bent on destroying the earth and life as we know it, and I'm hoping that students might draw some inspiration from Callenbach. I'm also somewhat worried about the book's sexism, though it might do the work of illustrating what writers like Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy and Ursula LeGuin wrote so passionately against in the 1970s. I also finally read Daniel Heath Justice's Kynship, a fantasy novel that draws out the complexities of Indigenous political locations, and the tensions among them. What I loved about this book is that humans are pitched as the colonizers. Reading Kynship and thinking about how to teach it put me on to Grace L. Dillon's Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. It seems to me an important thing to think about fantasy universes, technology and speculative futures with Indigenous world views at the centre.

For several weeks at the end of May and into early June, I had a little health trouble that made sitting and standing very difficult. The upside of an otherwise unhappy situation was being able to immerse my mind in pleasure of audiobooks. I usually listen to them to save my sanity while in transit on long international trips. I can't imagine a better way of enduring the three-hour immigration line-up at Heathrow, for instance, than to spend it listening to A Remembrance of Things Past. This spring, in the dark comfort of my bed, I listened to Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke and Sea of Poppies, of interest to me because they are about the movement of opium between India and China in the 19th century, and the South Asian, British and Chinese lives touched by the British enforcement of opium production and trade. I was quite blown away by his figuration of the Ibis, as a schooner once used to transport African people across the Atlantic into slavery, now redeployed (in world of Sea of Poppies) to transport South and East Asian coolies as well as opium across the Indian Ocean. The world system of the 19th century was every bit as ugly as the one we currently live in. I listened to his The Glass Palace, as well, about the fall of the Burmese monarchy and its exile in India. I also heard The Calcutta Chromosome, a novel in which Ghosh imaginatively locates the cure for malaria with a scientific/mystical Calcutta-based movement that can give people eternal life. He offers us, in a sense, an alternate history that embeds the documented history of Sir Ronald Ross's cure for malaria within it. What Ghosh's novels have in common is that they foreground the stories of South Asian (and sometimes East and Southeast Asian) characters and offer us non-Western ways of knowing, so that we can see the past, and sometimes the future too, differently.

I also had the luxury of having Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 read to me. I loved that novel's premise— that it is possible to enter another world by listening to Janáček's Sinfonietta then climbing down a staircase that juts from a busy freeway offramp in Tokyo. And that one knows that one it in that world because there are two moons, the second of which is small and moss-coloured. Originally published in Japan in in 2009 and 2010 in three volumes, 1Q84 also tackles some weighty issues— secret cults, serial murder, domestic abuse, and literary fraud. I very much enjoyed Murakami's ability to take us from the ordinary to the subtly unfamiliar and then to plunge us from the subtly unfamiliar into the profoundly weird. He does it with such a deft hand one doesn't even realize it is happening, until small beings emerge from the mouth of a sleeping girl and you just nod and think, "okay." (Some critics hated Murakami's "little people," but they worked for me, and I appreciated the risk.) I'm always disappointed with his portrayals of women, though. Because he writes well, his female characters are always interesting, but because he doesn't really understand women, there is always something a bit alien about them. He doesn't understand them, but he reinvents them in interesting ways. As long as I think of his women as another species, then I can quite enjoy his books. Otherwise I get irritated. In 1Q84, the protagonist Aomame (trans. "Green Peas") is a martial artist, physiotherapist, and paid serial killer who specializes in the murder of men who have abused their wives. In her spare time, she hangs in seedy bars with her only friend, a policewoman called Ayumi, picking up older men with well-shaped heads for manga-style foursomes. In the audiobook, the Aomame sections were read in the high, soft voice of Allison Hiroto. It was a very strange experience to have Murakami's weirdly-styled female interiors narrated by this voice. Her voice was so clear and high, and her diction so perfect. The listening experience was at times like being taken to a particularly filthy lavatory by a lovely angel. Good thing Murakami has already taken us up the offramp and down the staircase into a world where the there are two moons.

I also listened to Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which tells the story of a man who returns to the village of his childhood. There he reconnects to memories of a young, supernatural girl who sacrificed herself to save his childhood self from less benign supernatural "varmints" who would erase him and the entire village given the chance. I enjoyed this book for the way it catches the whimsy and terror of childhood, and the way it shows us how the children we once were are still very much a part of us, if somewhat repressed or forgotten. I particularly liked the ways that Gaiman puts enchantment and disenchantment side by side, in particular with the character Ursula Monkman. She is a worm spirit from another world whom the protagonist initially pulls out of a hole in his foot. She appears in the family as a beautiful but nasty young woman who seduces the protagonist's previously loving father, and causes the father to try to drown him while she looks on. I enjoyed this book for its charm and its creepiness. I felt it lacked something in terms of a broader social engagement, but maybe that says more about my own tastes than anything else.

Once my health improved, I had a lot of work to catch up on, primarily the final revisions on a book of criticism called Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s, which I'm happy to announce is coming out through Wilfrid Laurier University Press this spring, for those of you interested in anti-racist criticism, theories of subjectivity and/or cultural life north of the 49th parallel.

In September, I attended a conference on contemporary poetry and poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell. Highlights included readings and talks by Sarah Dowling, Amaranth Borsuk, Robert Gluck, and Carla Harryman. I have been a big fan of Robert Gluck ever since meeting him at a conference on queer literary kinship in Ghent in 2009. His Margery Kempe, a very queer retake on the medieval Christian mystic who was in love with Jesus, is the sexiest, strangest and most heartbreaking novel I've read in a very long time. I probably should have known his work a long time ago. I confess to my gaps. He is an active member of the New Narrative school, of which Kathy Acker was probably the most famous member.

In October, I was at the University of Ottawa for a conference on Science and Society and to share my work in the English Department. Enjoyed talks by Yves Gingras on science and citizenship and Sheila Janasoff on science and its publics. Once the conference got rolling, I was somewhat taken aback by the hold certain streams of positivist philosophy have on science studies. Enjoyed talks by my co-panelists Robert Bean (about a project on early typewriters) and Cindy Stelmackowich (about her work on 19th-century anatomical drawings). I did a talk and reading and had a lively conversation with members of the English Department at the University of Ottawa afterwards, in which I shared both my talk for the Science and Society conference (on the liveliness of the material world) and a bit of the novel, Grist, which I have been working on for way too long. Thomas Allen had a few good reading suggestions, which I hope to take up in 2014: Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, which is about an African American woman who breaks into a league of elevator inspectors in a world where elevators are a prestigious technology, and Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange, about a magic orange that travels from Mexico to Los Angeles and drags the Tropic of Cancer along with it. Take that, Henry Miller!

In November, in preparation for the Sally Miller Gearheart conference, I read Vonda McIntyre's The Moon and the Sun. I loved the sadness of her 17th-century sea monster. I also read Suzy McKee Charnas's Dorothea Dreams, which made me wish I was a grown-up in the 1970s.

As the year closes, I'm reading Miguel Syjuco's Illustrado about the murder of a fictitious writer/eccentric called Crispin Salvador, and the attempts of Miguel, his student and friend to find Salvador's novel-in-progress, which mysteriously vanished at the time of Salvador's death.

In 2014, I'm looking forward to reading some of the books I bought in Eugene, especially Andrea Hairston's Mindscape and the two volumes of Ursula LeGuin's short fiction, The Unreal and the Real, that I bought there.

A lot of ambling was done this year, that much is for sure. As the dark and sleepy winter soltice descends, I'm seeking a little peace, both on earth and in the recesses of my overly busy mind.

 Larissa Lai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at The University of British Columbia. She holds a PhD from the University of Calgary. Her first novel, When Fox Is a Thousand (Press Gang 1995, Arsenal Pulp 2004) was shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her second novel, Salt Fish Girl (Thomas Allen Publishers 2002) was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award, the Tiptree Award and the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Award. She has also published a good deal of poetry. Her first solo full-length poetry book, Automaton Biographies (Arsenal Pulp), was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.

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