At dinner, the Santiago poet averts her face from the gringo although no one else is sitting close enough for her to engage in conversation. A synecdoche, he is taken for his government. She lights up and blows sullen smoke down the table. With suspicion at the threshold of dialogue, there is always a word blocking the first word.
And on the second day of the festival, after many papers, a consensus emerges that there are no longer regions of poetry; there are zones. A distinction weakened, perhaps, in translation?
Final night, a local poet accuses the host of avoiding the issue of regionality altogether, of talking around it with clever language games when, in fact, some people’s lives are at risk, even now, at this moment, because of what they write, because of where they live.
Another shouts from the audience that vanguard poetry doesn’t speak to him, it is elitist, the tone of the whole conference is elitist.
And so the last evening dissolves into tensions,
A dinner table balanced
like a barbell, partisan drinkers
cluster at either end.
The foreigner can’t control his situation; mastery eludes him. After four days in another language, he who started out infinitely sensitive is completemente rendido, rent by the effort of constant attentiveness.
– Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (p. 86)
Español no es mi lingua natal. Antes de que tenga veinte y ocho años, hablé solamente inglés. Cuando enseñaba la historia de los estados unidos y la geografía mundial in Florida en la programa Inglés para los habladores de otros idiomas, tuve que comunicar con mis estudiantes. Ellos no pudieron hablar en inglés bien; yo no pude se hablar bien en español. Nuestras culturas fueron bastane diferente que estaba facil a tener malentiendos. A veces, nosotros estaban inquietos. Tuvimos miedo que nos hacería tontos. Cuando debimos estar comunicando, estabamos silencos. Diez años más tarde, todavia me arrepento por causa de no traté bastante.
Chances are, many of you did not understand what I just wrote above. Chances are also that some of you did and a few might even comment on my grammatical mistakes. Yet buried within this issue of language communication is a larger issue of human relations and empathy.
I quote from Gander’s book because this passage, taken from his time in Chile, contains a striking image that is so applicable to certain comments I’ve seen at divers site. Pay close attention to the beginning scene, where he sits at a table with a Chilean woman who is distrustful of him. “There is always a word blocking the first word.” In the intervening ten years since I had to learn how to communicate in a second language in order to teach students a subject in my native (and their second or third) language, there have been several times where I have been that forastero at the table, seated at unease.
Recently, there was a post
that took another blogger
to task for his depiction of her native Thailand (and his views on Islam and near-slavering over this “Girls of Geek” calendar). When reading Gander’s prose-poem and the passage I quote above, I could not help but note the complete difference of approach between him and Pat. Where Gander notes the discomfort and explicitly states how “the foreigner can’t control his situation; mastery eludes him,” Pat in his response to the Requires Hate
posts does anything but acknowledge his obliviousness to how his words showed a callous disregard for a complex situation. No, the narrative there is that he was just pointing out an uncomfortable “truth” about the sex tourism industry over there (while neglecting to point out or being very unaware that sex trafficking is a very serious problem in both the United States and his native Canada). Of course, the way he put it was taken as very condescending at the very least, not just by acrackedmoon, but by several others who read it. But what happened is that there was no communication to hint that hey, ya know, maybe a native’s perspective might just be more valuable in this case than someone who, like the people in the Holiday Inn commercials, think that they “know” a culture or society just because they visited a few places over a period of days, weeks, or months.
Problem is that it takes several years at least for an outsider to become acutely aware of an insider’s perspective. Lord knows that in 2012 there are still all sorts of Mississippi Burning or Deliverance jokes told about my native American South region. Oh, sometimes there’ll be that bright, enlightened person who wants to sound all sympathetic and say “I am impressed by how much you’ve changed since the KKK days,” in that grating tone that seems to accompany an elderly adult patting the head of a young child who is tempted to kick that oldster’s shins but has to refrain from doing so because s/he’ll be in big trouble. It is understandable that after a while of being talked down to, as if an adult from another society/culture were a gifted child, you grow tired of being polite and being deferential to the irritating dumbfucks who can’t bother themselves to learn more than the most superficial aspects of your culture/society.
Same thing applies to gender issues. I know just enough to know that there’s a helluva lot to learn and that it’s best to sit at that table quietly, even if it makes you uncomfortable, and learn to listen to another person’s narrative. To tell someone who is fed up and who has to use elements of rant/rage discourse in order for that other to pay attention in the first place that “Masturbation might help you release some of that geek rage, you know. I could even supply my complimentary copy of the Girls of Geek 2012 calendar for you to focus on. . . It’s not true it will make you deaf. . .”? Really? And there are people who aren’t viewing this as sexist language, especially after it was made clear that the poster in question is female? Add to that the comments made earlier over several posts about other cultures and religions and for some, including myself some time ago, it is very difficult not to conclude that Pat has said some very racist and sexist things.
Yet what’s even more disconcerting than the spewings of those who use the sexist terms of “shrill,” “harpy,” and of course the ubiquitous “bitch,” are those who feel that they should lecture her on her “tone” when it is precisely because of the trangression against “polite talk” (read “the deference of ‘inferior’ races/women to their white male superiors) that women like them are heard at all. I’m sorry, but if someone wanted to lecture me about my tone when I went HAM on someone “bein’ ignert” about my native region, I would not be keen on listening to them because it’s insulting and counterproductive to the extreme. So what happens are those groups of people, segregated by race/gender, end up in clusters around the great table, not communicating to those in an opposing group.
What’s also insulting about this recent turn of events are those who act all disturbed and troubled by my willingness to consider what acrackedmoon and others have to say. Look at the comments elsewhere on this blog or elsewhere where my name keeps being brought up as if I were doing some horrible thing by being willing to hear her out. It’s not grade school where I have to participate in an ostracizing lest I be ostracized myself. As I said in response to several of such bewildered comments of “how can you defend her?”, there are certain review techniques that she uses that make her reviews stronger than the vast majority of what I read online (some of her critiques delve further into the workings of particular books than what I managed to do in my own reviews of these works). Does not mean I agree with everything she’s written (I don’t), but I also found that by being willing to listen, that there is at least the potential for a good discourse (one day, for example, I’d like to know if she’s read Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and if so, what she made of Twain’s treatment of Jim). My personal narrative allows for other perspectives, including dissenting ones.
It all boils down to getting past “that word blocking the first word.” I don’t need to sit here and proclaim that I am good, noble, empathetic, decent, swell, etc.; it would mean the focus would be on my personal self-narrative and that in turn would drown out other narrative voices. I know perfectly well that I’m a flawed person and that there’s a lot to learn by just being quiet for a spell and listening. Perhaps that would be a better course for those worried about “tone” or another’s “reverse racism” (which I presume they mean prejudice, since racism is an institutionalized discrimination of peoples based on group prejudices), as lecturing someone yet again about their perceived need to be outspoken is as bad as speaking to a foreigner and acting like they are a child when they cannot replicate your language better than you do (as if most would do any better in a non-native language; I certainly realize my limitations despite my continued exposure to Latin American dialects of Spanish). Sit at that table and realize that you don’t have to have control at all times. Maybe you’ll learn something. I know I hope to do so.