Guest Post: Robert Detman, Letter From Japan

On Not Knowing

 

View of the roof in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.

It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.

I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.

A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.

Photo of Robert Detman on the streets in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.

The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.

Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.

So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.

I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.

There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.

This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.

Photo of bikes in the street

Photo by Robert Detman

On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process?  I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.

The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?

But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.

I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.

Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: The Center of the Sundial

Gnomon

From the Greek word meaning one who knows,
it’s what we call the center of the sundial
whose understanding comes to us in shadows
that are its voice, and ours, the saint of all
who speak and can’t quite say what they are meaning.
How do they know, you ask, they who stand
inside their bodies, by their words, by things
that must be larger than the shape they’re in.

Bruce Bond

Graffiti in Greece

Photo provided by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

On Sunday, September 20 (2015), there’s going to be another election in Greece. We just had an election this year, in January, one that had felt hopeful and brought in Alexis Tspiras’s SYRIZA party. There had been euphoria for the anti-austerity changes it promised. Less than 6 months later, SYRIZA called for a referendum. There had been little headway with the Euro group, who essentially wanted previous (austerity) agreements to continue despite the fact that Greece’s economy had shrunk to a level of no-growth & unemployment had risen again. Youth in the 20-30 age range were the hardest hit; unemployment was at a staggering 51.8% in May 2015. But the Euro group wanted Greece to be an example, too. Even if things were not working out, as Tsipras said in a meeting after he buckled to the Euro group terms, after 61% of the country had voted “No” or “OXI” to the measures (or perhaps because of this), Europe, and particularly Mr. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, refused to cut any of the unsustainable debt. Famous economists the world over were speaking of how much better it would be for Greece to leave – but then what – large ideas have a tendency to have very concrete body counts when they fail.

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To be in the midst of “things/that must be larger than the shape they’re in…” is what it often feels like to let the body succumb to a terror and also, a gift; the unknown moment of a certain nakedness, experienced as the wager of crafting a piece of writing, or any art that will transcend the moment in hopes of becoming more than itself, as William Carlos Williams famously expressed it in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” —

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I had hoped not to write incessantly about Greece, to speak so constantly and obsessively about the facts of its and others’ failures, but the moments one finds oneself in aren’t always moments of choice. Perhaps Greece, too, didn’t believe it would find itself in such a dire situation. Its leadership certainly was negligent (to be very generous about it), and in Tsipras’s case, dangerously naïve. But the history of humanity is more about its failures, the grand gesture that meets with the flawed reality of fact, than it is about the successes of those ideals. It seems as if every so-called ideal or success has been built, since antiquity, on the backs of those who sacrificed. If not the outright slaves, then those who, willing or not, were sacrificed. The tragic heroes are those with enough compassion and sense of the collective good to take it on themselves to admit to the mistake. There is Oedipus, who swears he will do all it takes to rid his city of the plague only to discover he is the source of the scourge and then, heroically and nobly, puts out his own eyes… Gnomon, “the one who [now] knows” … There are others, too, Antigone, and Hamlet. While mistakes have been made in the building of the Eurozone, no one is sharing the responsibility. It seems easiest (apparently) to scapegoat Greece, to sacrifice it perhaps.

Graffiti in Greece

Photo provided by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

Meanwhile, Syria has exploded and refuges have poured into the country since August. A crippled economy is doing what it can, and Germany is taking in the largest percentage. It (perhaps) is also finding itself in the midst of “things/that must be larger than the shape they’re in…” Maybe they want to show the world they’re not always stingy and vindictive.

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But back to Greece. John Psaropoulos has a pre-election piece in Al Jazeera. He calls it “An Election without Aspirations.” It’s poignant to hear the resignation in the words of a woman who forgives Tsipras’s “negotiating stumble with Europe’s debt-collectors, saying ‘it was clear that he wasn’t ready, but there were interests in Greece and abroad that wanted him to fail.’” Kostas Lapavitsas, who is part of the Popular Unity party, says,”Greece has become already a marginal and insignificant country in the monetary union and the EU. Why? Because it’s going nowhere economically. It’s a beggar, fundamentally, and it has terms dictated to it. We want to reverse that.”

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In Greek tragedy the reversals and catharsis have come when those in power have their fallibilities revealed, belatedly, sometimes forcefully made to see them. It is already very late and no one has taken the responsibility for seeing… none of the governments, including SYRIZA, have taken the mistakes seriously enough to pay the collective costs. But this includes the Eurozone members too. As Williams has told us:

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“Try not to make things personal,” someone said at work, at the beginning of the year’s faculty meeting; it was said with humor, and in light of the political climate. A 23% VAT tax was put on private education. Removed from meat, which went back to being taxed at 13%, and now put on education. It was another absurd mistake. It was going to hurt language schools as well. People could barely afford to pay tuition let alone tuition with an added value tax. Another large chip in the country’s dismantling. Another example of blindness or plain idiocy in the country’s leadership… I want to close my eyes and just smell the tang of the fall sea, let “the center of the sundial” come to me “ in shadows”… it forces its own recognitions. Anna Akhmatova in 1919 in her poem “Why Is This Age Worse…?” (trans. Stanley Kunitz) tells us “In a stupor of grief and dread/have we not fingered the foulest wounds/and left them unhealed by our hands?//”

Meet the Interns: Melissa Silva, Interview Coordinator

melissasilva_0Melissa Silva is a Sophomore at Arizona State University majoring in Economics and International Relations.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Melissa Silva: I’m the Interview Coordinator. I organize potential authors to interview, contact the authors and then become the communication link between the editors and authors.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

MS: My ENG 102 teacher recommended I become involved.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?

MS: The interview section. I like hearing about how the authors developed each character and where the whole idea had its origins.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal?

MS: Jonathan Safran Foer. He wrote Everything is Illuminated and I love his writing style. His characters are always very beautiful and complex. The format of his novels are always a little out of the box.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

MS: Because I’m a business student I think an admin job like advertising or funding would be a really great challenge to try out what I’ve learned and get some real-world experience.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

MS: I’m excited to see who the authors are that are going to be interviewed for the next issue. I’m hoping to be able to contact some of the names that I’ve read and loved.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

MS: The first book would probably the collection of Winnie the Pooh tales my mom had from when she was younger. Now that I look back on it the lovable characters were just simplified versions of personalities I encounter now. But I loved how unique and special each character was to Christopher Robin.

SR: What are you currently reading?

MS: I just finished Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s a collection of short stories. Her writing is so exact and realistic but somehow it draws a lot of emotion and sympathy from the reader for her characters.

SR: What artist have you really connected with, either in subject matter, work, or motto?

MS: I remember I read JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey while I was going through a hard time. The idea of someone who would help you rationalize out of your own mind trap was a beautiful idea.

SR: What would be your dream class to take at ASU? What would the title be and what would it cover?

MS: The title of the class would be “Getting through the Labyrinth.” I remember in the book Looking for Alaska, after the suicide of one of his students, the teacher assigned the class to write a paper on how to get through the labyrinth that is life. They would look into their sources of happiness–religion, texts, friendship, etc–and create a strategy. Finding those things that have meaning and applying them to your own life would be the goal of the class.