Today we are pleased to feature author Afaa Weaver as our Authors Talk series contributor. Afaa reads three of his poems from his new book, Spirit Boxing. He says of the book, “Spirit boxing continues my direct conscious application of principals of Chinese culture.” Much of his influence comes from the ideals of Tai Chi.
You can read four of Afaa’s poems in issue 3 of Superstition Review here.
Lately I find myself less intimidated by the blank page (screen), and more by the thought of revising something I’ve already written. Not something in the early stages—usually when I’ve got a new project underway, I can’t wait to get back to it. The revisions I dread—or at least postpone far longer than I should—are on work I’ve already sent out into the world, one way or another. Writing I’ve workshopped at a conference, with feedback that now must be weighed. Writing I’ve submitted to literary journals that has been rejected often enough—even if some rejections have been encouraging—that I know I must reopen the file, reread my own work and wrestle with my pages.
Of course the ease with which we make revisions these days—and here I am talking about the mechanical ease of editing a document through the magic of word-processing software, not the mental work that goes into rewriting—is something most of us take for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way. I used a manual typewriter—and gallons of whiteout—in high school. I pecked my way through college papers on an electric typewriter, which fortunately had a ribbon of corrective tape, because I’ve always been a lousy typist. My first job after college was as a medical writer in a teaching hospital, where I worked with staff physicians and visiting fellows and residents to polish their research papers, book chapters and presentations. We were lucky enough to have in our office one of the three word-processing machines in the hospital; it was about the size of a Mini Cooper, and only two people in our four-person department were even allowed to touch it. I wasn’t one of them—my job was to write on or mark up paper, sometimes to literally cut and paste (with scissors and tape), then turn the pages over to one of the girls whose job it was to type or revise documents. In the 1980s, this was cutting-edge technology. Our machine was a Vydec, and he (we four women all agreed the big lug was a “he”) was both a technological wonder and a highly temperamental co-worker. At least once a week, Vydec acted up and we had to call in a technician. Still, we cranked out a lot of medical papers on that old machine, and the doctors were not at all shy about asking for one more set of revisions before we sent their pages out into the world. They took to word processing like ducks to water.
With one exception—Tiger John, a surgeon from China who spent about three years with us as an international fellow. He was one of the first physicians permitted to leave China after the Cultural Revolution, and he was in the U.S. to learn about Western medicine so he could bring new knowledge back home. He couldn’t practice here, but he could watch surgeries, observe clinics, attend conferences. And since everyone around him was writing papers, he thought he’d try that, too.
Everyone loved Tiger, who was nothing like his name. He was gentle and polite. And he was constantly offering us small gifts from China. I’ve kept one of Tiger’s gifts for nearly 35 years, because in itself it is a treasure, but also because it holds a riddle it took me forever to solve. It’s a small rectangle of silk, printed with the image of a large marble boat. Tiger explained it was a real boat, made of marble, from a long time ago. But with his limited English (and my nonexistent Mandarin), he couldn’t make me understand how a marble boat could float. It was a marvel, for sure. But our conversation about it ended as many of our conversations did—with me nodding my head, him bowing, and both of us grinning, pretending we’d managed to communicate more than we actually had.
Lately, I’ve been feeling like making myself sit down to start a revision is like trying to make a marble boat float: impossible. The longer I wait, the more I convince myself I’ll be disappointed with my writing—and, because mostly I write personal essays—with my life.
Revision always reminds me of Tiger John—although not in the best way. Tiger took to word processing like a marble boat takes to water. He used a manual typewriter, and when he was satisfied with a draft, he would bring it to me, as if it were another of his gifts. His typing was worse than mine, and with little English at his command, his manuscripts were incomprehensible. I’d read through his pages, making edits and scribbling questions in the margins, drawing arrows to indicate which paragraphs might be moved where. We’d discuss—as best we could—what I had understood and what he had intended. Then I’d mark up the pages some more, and turn them over to one of my colleagues, who would sit down with Vydec and produce an almost-readable manuscript. Which I would proof, she would re-revise, and together we would present to Tiger—as if it were our gift to him.
Tiger, it seemed, had as much trouble grasping the concept of a word processor as I had with the concept of a marble boat. He just couldn’t make it float in his head. And so every time we gave him a neat new manuscript to review—and even after we’d let him stand near Vydec and watch as words were typed and came up on the screen and as pages with those very words were spit out of the printer—he’d go all the way back to the drawing board and spend days mistyping his next revision. Which he would deliver to me, smiling broadly. And we’d start all over again. If any of those papers ever got published, it was after he returned to China, and probably in his own language.
I’ve kept the little piece of silk with the marble boat—in a plain white ceramic frame—near at hand for all the years since I knew Tiger John. It’s a reminder of people I met in that hospital half a lifetime ago, people from across the country and around the globe. It’s also been a reminder that what seems impossible often can be done—I mean, if ancient Chinese engineers could figure out how to make a marble boat float, anything is possible, right?
Except that’s not exactly what happened. Not long ago while cleaning up my home office (a highly effective tactic for avoiding the work of revision), I dusted the frame around my silk marble boat and thought to myself, I should Google that. And I did, and discovered that while there is indeed such a structure on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing, originally built in 1755, it is a lakeside pavilion shaped like a boat, not a vessel that was ever meant to float. The Marble Boat is sometimes called the Boat of Purity and Ease, which is what one can only aspire to when it comes to writing—and revision.
So lately, I’ve been thinking about the marble boat in a whole new way. I’ve been using it as a reminder that Tiger John made revision so much harder than it had to be. Like I do, but in a different way. Because when I do finally get around to rereading myself, I almost always find some things to like about what I’ve written, even when I also see ways it could be improved. And so I sit with my pages and start marking them up, and eventually I head for my computer, open the file, and begin revising in earnest. Perhaps not with purity and ease, but with every intention of making the work better, making it sing, maybe even making it sail.
Songzhuang is a town on the eastern edges of Beijing, China. In the past two decades it has become the home of a number of artists both Chinese and foreign. Songzhuang is one of many art districts in Beijing, perhaps the most notable of which is 798, formerly a military factory complex. Songzhuang is distinct in that it is less commercial, more community oriented and is still an affordable place for artists to work and live.
In the early 1990s many artists in Beijing worked at the Old Summer Palace in the northwest of the city. The government shut down the group of artists working in the Old Summer Palace and many chose to move to the far outskirts of Beijing where they could work free from economic and political pressures. According to some the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre was a catalyst for driving artists out of the city.
Many artists in Songzhuang are oil painters, but there are also sculptors, photographers, installation artists, traditional Chinese painters, calligraphy artists, woodworkers, furniture designers, and filmmakers. Some live in traditional houses with a courtyard, some in massive spaces that resemble a factory, and others in large complexes built specifically for artists.
Marc Baufrere and Tine Deturck are artists from France and Belgium, respectively, who first came to Songzhuang in 2008 after Marc was invited to a group gallery show at the Songzhuang Museum of Art. Tine notes that after first seeing Songzhuang they, “didn’t hesitate for one second,” to move to Songzhuang.
Upon first glance Songzhuang might appear very similar to any small town in China with many restaurants and scattered buildings, but one can’t help but notice the abundance of paint stores, framing shops, canvas stretchers, and the traditional calligraphy supply stores. It is home to hundreds of artists who often frequent each other’s studios where the tradition is to pour tea for a visitor. When asked why so many artists came to Songzhuang Marc says that it’s cheap. Tine disagrees noting that in Songzhuang there is, “a sense of community [like] we were somewhere else.” This is opposed to the city-center of Beijing which is slowly having much of its traditional communities uprooted in favor of rapid development. Marc adds, “it’s very convenient,” referring to all of the art stores. “If I need blue, I walk 20 meters and get blue.”
Change is bound to be a facet of almost any conversation involving the modern face of China. In Michael Meyer’s book, “The Last Days of Old Beijing” he describes the force of change as “The Hand.” Songzhuang is yet another microcosm of the restless change that envelops China and “the Hand” is never far away; moving, adding, deleting, reimagining. When asked how Songzhuang has changed since they arrived seven years ago, Marc says it used to be only artists and farmers, “no cars. You saw one car every fifteen minutes.” Tine added, “No apartments like now.” Songzhuang is still relatively quiet and dark at night, but has a constant stream of vehicles during the day that run the gamut from BMWs and Audis to large trucks transporting lumber, watermelons and sometimes a gang of migrant workers piled twenty-deep. Marc notes than when they first arrived, “the only traffic was the sheep,” and that there were, “firecrackers every day.” Tine adds that before there were, “no locks on bikes, no banks.” Tine says, now farmers, “profit from artists.” There is a constant clamor of hammers in Songzhuang either knocking down buildings or erecting new studios and restaurants, with many eager to cash in on the wave of artists and cash that continue to arrive.
When asked about the good and bad with life as foreigner in Sonzhuang, Tine declares, “I don’t feel as a foreigner, I feel as a Songzhuanger.” The most difficult part, Tine says is, “I don’t speak Chinese, it’s a handicap for me. I can’t have interesting conversations.” She adds, “I speak baby Chinese.” But in Songzhuang, “I am at ease as who I am.” Many seem enamored with the sense of community in Songzhuang and an almost spiritual sense of calm that exists in the town. Tine says, “It’s different, you feel outside [of Beijing]” and adds that it is,“an artists’ community” I feel, “more like a person.”
Tine points out that there is a, “range [of] famous to poor artists.” Perhaps one of the most talented and overlooked artists within Songzhuang goes by the name, “The Siberian Butterfly.” He creates images using a traditional paper-cutting technique that has its origins in his home province of Shaanxi and history of more than 2000 years. Although his technique is traditional, his subject matter explores homosexuality and his personal life. Life has not been easy for him, having recently lost his son and having worked numerous jobs from shoveling coal and collecting trash to working as a security guard. Thanks to attention from the LGBT center in Beijing he has been able to get international exposure.
A 30-minute video about The Siberian Butterfly is included below:
In Chinese, there is a proverb, “Tian gao, Huangdi yuan.” It translates to, heaven is high and the emperor is far away. It often refers the autonomy local areas far from Beijing are afforded due to the vast scale of China. More than two decades ago Songzhuang was a remote farming village accessible by no buses, taxis or subway. With Beijing’s rapidly expanding and developing suburbs one can only wonder how free Songzhuang will remain from “the Hand” constantly redrawing Beijing.
Almost every writer I know is a procrastinator. I certainly am. That is, I was, until I moved to Shanghai, China, last fall to teach, and found myself with six classes and 160 students crammed into two days of classes, and five days a week with nothing to do. I teach oral and written English to graduate students at one of the country’s leading universities, yet homework in my course is discouraged by the administration, so unless there are papers due—and that’s not often—I have roughly fourteen waking hours a day to pass alone. I’ve explored the neighborhood, the campus, the local shopping centers, and all the city’s major museums. Most of the shrines are merely tourist traps, but I’ve checked many of those out, too. As for friends—there aren’t any. So how did I end up here?
Four years ago, I taught in a remote city in northern China and shared an office and too many good times to count with other foreign teachers, many of whom remain good friends. In Shanghai, although it’s a bigger and more international city, the foreign faculty who share my apartment building keep to themselves. The few who speak English are busy with their young Chinese girlfriends and side jobs. We had a getting-to-know-you meeting in the fall, and one dinner at a Brazilian barbeque restaurant in the New Pudong District, but as the semester wore on there were fewer, and then no opportunities to socialize. My only regular contact is the British professor who teaches across the hall from me. He lives off-campus with his Chinese wife and child, and we chat and complain to each other for about five minutes on the two mornings a week we teach.
At my apartment, the one English-speaking channel on television delivers propaganda disguised as news, so I’ve unplugged my TV. Most outside news sources commonly available via internet in other places have been cut off by the Chinese government. I didn’t even know there was an Avian flu outbreak in Shanghai until my parents told me in their weekly phone calls. And as far as the local authorities are concerned, those thousands of dead diseased pigs floating in the Huangpu River haven’t damaged the local water supply one bit.
In short, I live in a vacuum, a world insulated from the West, fearful and often disdainful of Westerners, and very lonely. Although I enjoy my students, it would be unprofessional to socialize with them. Using the few Chinese phrases I know, nodding, and smiling, I have friendly relationships with a few shopkeepers; others, and even older people walking down the street, scowl at me in disapproval. So I pass the time taking walks, reading, listening to my ipod, watching American television shows I download onto my laptop, and, yes, writing. I’ve finally begun my memoir, the one I’ve been meaning to start forever, and that blank computer screen that used to be my nemesis is now my best friend. I find that writing about my solo experiences, observations of people, loneliness, and occasional despair is not only cathartic, but serves as a sort of friend, someone with whom to share my deepest feelings—ironically, many that I wouldn’t share with other people, but which may be open to anyone who cares to read the piece if it is ever published. I’ve even applied for a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship to help to finance me in finishing my memoir-in-progress.
So far, I’ve completed fifty pages. To be honest, the writing flowed more easily during fall semester. There were those occasional faculty outings to write about, my solo excursions, and my students’ reactions to different contemporary topics I gave them to discuss during oral English lessons. I’ve woven in my earlier experiences in Shenyang, China, and there still is much to say about that (mostly good, along with one dreadful experience I won’t go into here). I’ve written about spending Thanksgiving as a normal working day, and strolling through the lovely French Concession area of the city alone and miserable on Christmas day.
Over time, however, I’ve become less and less productive. Early in the spring semester, depression settled in to stay. This illness isn’t entirely new to me—I’ve experienced major bouts of depression periodically throughout my life—but the disease breeds in isolation, when there is nothing to do but ruminate on one’s own dark thoughts. I’ve grown to understand why human rights advocates believe that putting prisoners in solitary confinement is a form of psychological torture, because I could hardly be more isolated than I am unless I were in a jail cell. Still, I can put on a bright face for my students, and give a friendly wave to a colleague when we pass on the street, or exchange a brief greeting with him (I’m the only female American teacher here), and send coherent responses to the administrative staff when they contact me about holidays or exam dates.
One thing I know for sure: I will never return to China, and probably never teach abroad again. The stakes are too high—I don’t know if I’ll find amiable cohorts, as I did in Shenyang, or end up totally alone again. And my father, who is frail and in poor health, needs me to come home and help care for him. I miss my adorable five-year-old niece immensely, even though we Skype every Sunday night. I fear I am missing the best months of her life, and wasting much of what’s left of my own middle-age. I will finish my memoir, I know. It just might take me longer than I thought it would.
Reading Series Editor Samantha Novak is a sophomore at Arizona State University majoring in Global Studies and minoring in Spanish and Urban Planning.
Superstition Review: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?
Samantha Novak: I actually came to the Review by a slightly unconventional route. I am not an English major, but I heard about Superstition Review from my Honors English 102 teacher. She proposed it as a really neat opportunity and said that any of us interested should apply. I did, and here I am!
SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?
SN: I think my favorite section of SR is probably the art section, I have always found photography incredibly powerful and enjoy having the opportunity to be exposed to new and different artists.
SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal?
SN: My dream contributor would probably be Ruth Reichl. She has written some extremely powerful stories about her relationship with her family and with food (Reichl was a New York Times food critic and the editor-in-chief of Gourmet). I can really relate to this relationship since I also love food so much.
SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?
SN: I really enjoy the job I am working at right now, but if I was doing something else I think I would like to try out being the blogger. It would force me to be more methodical with my blogging, which I think would bleed over to increased blogging in my other blogs.
SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?
SN: I am really excited to be able to experience new artists and writers. I am always looking for new work to read.
SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?
SN: I fell in love with The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede. The novels feature a really strong, feisty princess protagonist that would rather swordfight than do embroidery. When her parents try to set her up in an arranged marriage she runs away to be a dragon’s princess. Magic, dragons, pretty dresses, sly references and humor–what’s not to love? I brought the books with me to college and still read them when I’m feeling down.
SR: What are you currently reading?
SN: I am bout to start The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.
SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?
SN: I love mentalfloss.com, cakewrecks.com, Facebook and various food blogs.
SR: Do you create art? Tell us about a project you’re working on.
SN: I do photography, and I am currently in the post processing stage of some photographs I took this summer when I spent a month in China.