Birding with Annie Dillard

This is not merely wishful thinking.

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek years ago. At this moment in time, with the pandemic and disruptions, it seems like what she describes in her book is a piece of Arcadia, a setting in a totally bygone era, idyllic, clean and pristine, and also something I’ve long swept to the back of my mind. Just this week, I’ve the chance to listen to the audio version of the book, read by the marvellous Tavia Gilbert, a very ‘Dillardy’ voice. Her narration prompted me to dig out my copy of Tinker Creek.

This time, Dillard’s nature writing meant much more to me. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t a birder, couldn’t even ID a chickadee. Now, though still with minimal knowledge, at least I know what bird it is she’s describing.

It’s her chapter entitled “Seeing” that grabs me most. Her words I must quote directly:

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair… the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift…

I know how hard it is to capture an oriole before it ‘fades into leaves’:

Oriole

For nature does reveal as well as conceal: Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do. For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away.  They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged…

Even though I haven’t seen an Osage orange before, I know exactly what Dillard means by hundreds of blackbirds taking flight from one single tree. I’ve seen not blackbirds, but waxwings or starlings like that. As for our blackbirds, they usually gather at the Pond, solitary among cattails, seldom in flocks of hundreds:

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How I get what she means by nature reveals as well as conceals. Just a few days ago, I had both of these experiences.

I saw a pelican swimming peacefully on the Pond:

Pelican in serenity

Just as I went closer, she flew away. It happens a lot of times when I try to take bird photos:

Pelican Flying Away

And conversely, I also have a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do moment. Walking in the woods, I suddenly caught sight of something in a distance, a ghostlike appearance:

Distant finding

As I waded around fallen trunks and leaves to get closer to investigate, hopefully to get to the front to take a picture, I lost sight of it. Then suddenly, something huge close by me flew away. It was right beside me!

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GBH Fly 2

It was a Great Blue Heron. I’d never seen it in the woods perching on a tree, only by the water. Just as I didn’t expect it, I saw it, and just as I realized what it was, it disappeared.

Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do, now-you-don’t again. “These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration,” Dillard writes. Too mundane to even mention? Far from it. “The grand nonchalance” of nature keeps us in a place of humility and evokes our need for sharper senses.

Yes, a better camera.

 

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Greta Gerwig Creates A Third Way to Adaptation with ‘Little Women’

In recent decades, there seems to have emerged two paths to approach movie adaptations of literary works, especially for a classic: faithful to the source, or awash it with contemporary strokes.

Here’s the rub: total loyalty would trigger criticisms of movies being a kind of illustrated book, simply redundant. But gloss it over with postmodern touches could strip an adaptation of the meaning and authenticity of the original text. Debates arise as to which is a better path.

A few days ago, in a Writers Panel with five screenwriters at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Greta Gerwig presented a third way. She didn’t call it that, but that’s how I see it, a happy medium (pun intended). Her approach to Little Women is both loyal to the spirit and letter of Louisa May Alcott’s as well as creating a contemporary, artful production for modern viewers to enjoy.

 

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I’ve to quote her exact words as they are inspiring. Here’s the link to the video. The following quotes can be found from 27 to 36 mins. How does Gerwig handle the loyalty aspect? The writer-director did extensive research in preparation for her screenplay:

I wanted to treat the text of Little Women as almost a sacred text, also other texts that Louisa May Alcott and her family and other contemporaries had generated between letters, and other books that she’d written. I wanted to ground as much as I could in that. I wanted everything to be footnoteable (she well had coined a new word) and I wanted every line you ask me about and I can say it’s here, that I have my references.

How does her version relate with previous adaptations?

But the fact that it’s been adapted for screen seven times, it’s been made into an opera, and made into a musical and made into two anime shows, this is a loved and interpreted work. The way that something that’s been loved and interpreted many times you get this collective memory of what it is.

There’s the text, which is the book, and then there’s urtext, which is every time it’s loved and interpreted again. Urtext does have a relationship with the text, but it’s also separate… I wanted to deliver on the pleasures of Little Women as we’ve collectively come to know them.

And how does the collective interplay with the personal?

Gerwig instilled her own style and framed it in her own light. Quite a few things I’ve observed, the most obvious difference from previous versions is the structure, her juxtaposing the past and present timelines. The story is told as Jo’s memories seamlessly woven with her present as a struggling writer alone in NYC, a fresh take that adds depth and texture.

Gerwig paints the past with a golden hue signifying the warmth of cherished family memories and the present with a cool, blueish tone sending out harsher, lonelier vibes. She has also given an elevated role for Amy to interact with Jo, two seemingly rival siblings but could well be two sides of the same coin. Amy the pragmatic realist who grows up to understand too well her lack of economic status as a woman and who is ready to take financial security over real love ultimately gets both. Jo the dreamer and idealist, who’d vowed she’d never marry, has also carved out a path of her own.

So what does the ending mean?

I don’t want to say: O here’s what the ending means… I wanted to create something that’s open to interpretation along two lines. I think the movie belongs to the audience, so it’s down to the reflection you see…

With the layered ending, Gerwig effectively depicts the struggles of not only the book character Jo as an aspiring author in Little Women, but parallels it with Louisa May Alcott the woman writer in a man’s publishing world, and extending by implication to Gerwig’s own reality as a woman writer-director striving in a male-dominated film industry. The triple-layered final act opens the door to a golden future as we see a progressive school for boys and girls, and a published author giving birth to her work and keeping her own copyright. As for that third, invisible layer, I do wish Gerwig continual success in her writing and filmmaking career despite the obstacles she faces in the real world.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Little Women Movie Review

Top Ripples of 2019 and the Decade

Can a Movie Adaptation ever be as Good as the Book?

 

 

 

 

The Colours of Fall

About this time last year, I had a post entitled “Golden Fall”. Yes, the title says it all. We don’t have much reds in our fall, no maples, but we have foliage like gold.

Here are some photos I took after returning from Toronto a few days ago, just in time to witness the changing of the seasons and catch the last remaining songbirds before they fly south. This is ‘my Pond’, home at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

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An Orange-crowned Warbler in the golden foliage. It’s goodbye until next Spring, my avian friend:

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Here’s another one. Olive against red.

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A ‘Where’s Waldo’ puzzle for you:

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The White-breasted Nuthatch against a watercolour backdrop:

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Two-frame capture of a shy subject. See it in both?

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Home is where you know every path and turn, where to shoot with the sun at your back for the best light, and where to look for your friends whatever the season, to wave goodbye as they leave, and then welcome them back for another new lease.

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Six Degrees of Separation or Prophetic Voices of our Time

I’ve read several books in recent months that are good evidence of ‘six degrees of separation’, and I’ll just end with four here. But more crucial is why such content at this time? They are all published in 2016 but still enjoy current bestselling positions. All are similar in their historical backdrop, authoritarian dictatorship in the 20th Century in two neighbouring countries, China and Russia. Or, maybe these writers of our time are indeed prophetic voices to stress that eerie caution: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Here’s the sequence of my reading:

Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The top selling book in Canada according to CBC Books, Madeleine Thien’s exceptional novel of three characters, musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music during the Cultural Revolution in China, leads us through decades of contemporary Chinese history from the Communist takeover after WWII to Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, spanning generations and across two continents. Thien was teaching creative writing when her program was abruptly cancelled in the aftermath of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ sprouting from the Occupy Central led by teenaged students in Hong Kong. That was a motivating force propelling the writing of the book. Following the most recent news that four young student leaders are given months of jail sentences for their actions, we know how timely a voice Thein is with this book.

 

Barnes The Noise of Time.jpgThe Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Dimitri Shostakovich’s music is in the minds of the three musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Thien’s book. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin, is an apt parallel of the situation the trio have to face.

Julian Barnes has crafted an imaginary biopic of Dimitri Shostakovich during Stalin’s tyrannical rule in the Soviet Union (1929-1953). Barnes’ depiction is internal, presenting the struggles, the giving-in and the self-loathing of a world famous composer and pianist who was unable to stand up to a ruthless and manipulative dictator. Speak truth to Power? Who can still stand, or live, after that? And it’s not just about oneself, but one’s family and all those associated.

 

Cometh the hourCometh the Hour by Jeffrey Archer (#6 of the Clifton Chronicles)

Jeffrey Archer, a prophetic voice? While his Clifton Chronicles have entertained us with imaginary characters spanning three generations of two British families, Archer does have the political mood of our times firmly held under his pen, and Lord Archer is a savvy political historian in his own right. This summer I binged on Jeffrey Archer, okay, not exactly your serious, prophetic voice, but no less relevant. This is especially true when his fictional character, Russian writer Anatoly Babakov, is imprisoned in Siberia for his book Uncle Joe. Based on his own experience while working under Joseph Stalin, Babakov offers readers an insider’s look into the ruler, revealing the ruthless dictator that he really was.

Babakov is awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature while still in prison. But not long after the announcement, he dies of a heart attack. His wife Yelena although escaped out of the country, wants to return to honour her husband. Archer’s character makes me think of the real life dissident Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, also Nobel laureate, but was denied the freedom to go and accept his Prize. He had been imprisoned for 11 years and sadly, died of liver cancer in July this year, 2017. And even more sadly, Liu’s wife could not see him at his deathbed and had gone missing after his death. Archer’s book was published in 2016. I’d say that’s quite prophetic.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA totally different tone, but the same historical backdrop. Towles has created an interesting and colourful character, the aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov, kept in house arrest when the Bolsheviks overrun the country. True to his personality and lifestyle – the major consolation of such a misfortune – Count Rostov serves his house arrest in the elegant Moscow Metropol Hotel across from the Kremlin, albeit in a cramped room in the attic. With his always pleasant demeanour, the former aristocrat makes himself at home at the grand hotel, meeting interesting characters, wine and dine to his heart’s content. He stays there for decades, with the historic changes happening outside the four walls of the Metropol: Lenin, Stalin, post-Stalin, and further. As fate would have it, Count Rostov encounters an idealistic youngster named Nina, and years later, takes up guardianship of her daughter Sofia, and thus his life and view begin to turn into something more purposeful. The Metropol makes me think of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Instead of speaking truth to power and get slapped in the face or worse, Count Rostov thinks of an ingenious scheme to beat Power at their game. If I were a filmmaker, this is one to bank on.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

 

Jane Austen 200: Room or No Room, She Did It

Today is the Bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. On July 18, 1817, suffering excruciating pain, Jane died of her illness at age 41. As a tribute, I’m reposting my article on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

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A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lecture Woolf delivered at the two women’s colleges in Cambridge University on the topic of “Women and Fiction”.  It was published in 1929.

Woolf lamented the disparities women in a patriarchal society had to face throughout history.  The stream of consciousness flowed into torrents of incisive social observations and satirical commentaries.

She noted that women had long been deprived of equitable opportunities in education and employment. Men were rich, women were poor; men got to roam the country and travel the world, women had to be satisfied with the domestic.  Men were great writers, poets, playwrights, women had to concede to find fulfillment in “making puddings and knitting stockings”. Men had rooms to work, to rest, to create…women, the average, middle class women, seldom had a room of their own.

…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And sadly, Woolf had to utter this statement:

Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes.

Isn’t it true, Jane spent her most prolific years writing in a very public room in Chawton House.  In the midst of family activities, at a small and spartan desk, she revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon:

Jane's writing desk in Chawton

And isn’t it true that only in movies do we see the idyllic desk against a clear window, with soft light diffusing in, gently illuminating a lady dressed in elegant regency gown, writing on expansive papers and stationary, contemplating in solitude:

Room or no room, recognized or not, something happened towards the end of the eighteenth century that, according to Virginia Woolf, deserved much more mention in history than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses:  The middle-class woman began to write.

Woolf pointed out that not only did Jane Austen lack a room of her own, having had to write her novels in the very public sitting-room, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting-paper, as observed by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

Ironically, there lay the genius of Austen, and the few woman writers around her time such as Bronte and George Eliot.  Woolf wrote:

…and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write.

Little did they know, it was in such a room that they were trained in the prerequisites of novel writing:

…all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion.  Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.  People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes.  Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels…

Not only that, they wrote good novels.  With reference to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf concluded:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote.

High praise indeed.

 

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Previous Post on Jane Austen 200:

Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A Bath Walking Tour

10 Years

WordPress tells me I’ve been blogging for 10 years now. It’s been a life-changing decade. From a film lover writing reviews just for personal journalling, I’ve developed into writing to share. Hundreds of movies later, I’m now an Arts and Film Writer for Asian American Press. In recent years, I started covering Film Festivals; my appreciation for cinema art and independent films from all over the world had grown deeper.

Books, I’ve read a few, but then again, too few to mention. My TBR piles is expanding much faster than I can tackle. To manage them, I use the simplest method: deleting them from my memory. Many I’ve bought from the annual Book Sale (several posts), but I’ve since donated them back. There’s one on my Goodreads ‘currently reading’ shelf for years now which I don’t want to give up just yet, and that’s Proust’s In Search of Lost Time Vol. 3, The Guermantes Way.  Some day.

Other than books, movies, and my special interest in the transposition of one into the other, I’ve also become an avid birder. Arti of Ripple Effects has turned into a nature paparazzo. I’d thought of starting another blog just for nature photography but thought, hey, everyone needs a respite even from books and films. The Pond is open to all to throw in their two pebbles, make some ripples while enjoying a piece of natural beauty.

WordPress tells me in the side bar that I have 6,843 followers. Simply amazing, considering the number of comments I receive in each post. No matter, commenting isn’t a requirement when you visit the Pond. I’m just glad to know you’ve enjoyed your stay, even if it’s a short minute or two. And to all visitors and followers, a hearty thank-you. You’ve made my presence in the blogosphere meaningful.

To celebrate 10 years, to say goodbye to Spring (already) and welcome Summer, I’ll leave you with a few photos I’ve taken in the past few days.

The forest by the Pond:

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They may be the most common bird, but every Robin is a welcome sight against the blue sky:

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The well-groomed and handsome Cedar Waxwing, always camera ready:

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True to their name, the Yellow-headed Blackbird on a cattail:

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The female Red-Winged Blackbird. Nature endows with different features:

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Up in the sky, an Osprey is busy transporting his building materials:

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And a touring group of Pelicans, looking for my Air BnB?

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More to come.

 

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

April 3rd UPDATE: Do Not Say We Have Nothing shortlisted for the Baileys Prize.

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First the Booker, then the Giller and the GG, and now longlisted for Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, this voice must be heard. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full, and Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer’s copy.

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Just a few months after it was published in May, 2016, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and had won the top two Canadian literary awards, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. That is extraordinary achievements for the Vancouver born, Montreal based writer.

Thien creates her third novel on a large canvas, spanning from the decades leading to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960’s China and onward to the Tiananmen Square protests and government crackdown in 1989. Even though her novel does not stem directly from a personal experience like others’ such as Dai Sijie’s semi-autobiographical Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, or the eye-witness account of journalist Jan Wong’s Red China Blues, Thien’s outsider’s stance is far compensated by her extensive and detailed research, not just 20th Century history of China but down to the streets and local teahouses. Further, the absence of a first-person experience is replaced by an exuberance of imaginary characters and storytelling, all intricately woven with actual accounts of historical figures and events.

While not being an eye-witness, Thien’s cultural lineage could have brought her into a kind of insider’s realm. Born to Malaysian-Chinese immigrant parents in Canada, Thien’s previous writing had depicted the unique perspective framed by her upbringing. The stories in her collection Simple Recipes (2001) have revealed poignantly the cultural and generational conflicts that could exist in a North American Asian family. Further, Thien’s previous novel Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) had prepared her well to venture into the abyss of human atrocity, with the backdrop of Khmer Rouge’s infamous killing fields in Cambodia. Do Not Say We Have Nothing presents a larger landscape and a more ambitious undertaking than her previous works.

Madeleine Thien

This is how the book opens, simple yet powerful:

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.”

Here we hear a voice, seemingly nonchalant, but still lucid and sad. This is the voice of the protagonist, Marie. She was ten years-old and living with her mother in Vancouver when she learned of her father’s suicide in Hong Kong. The year was 1989. Not long after this news, Marie’s mother took in nineteen-year-old Ai-ming from China, alien and undocumented, escaped out of the country during the Tiananmen crackdown.

Ai-ming’s short refuge in Marie’s home bonded the two like sisters. As well, she opened the eyes of young Marie to life inside a totalitarian regime. The radio played only eighteen pieces of approved music. Her father, Sparrow, would listen to illegal music secretly and hum the melody of his own composition when he thought no one was around. Ai-ming’s interactions with Marie have prodded her—now twenty years later and a professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University—to search for the truth about her father Kai and his mentor, Ai-ming’s father Sparrow, as well the tragic personal and national history that had consumed their lives.

With Ai-ming’s help, Marie and her mother began to decipher a secret hand-copied manuscript Kai had kept, “The Book of Records”, passed on to him from Sparrow, an allegorical account of their life in China, outward journey and clandestine dreams, “things we never say aloud”. As a young child, Marie was overwhelmed. Now as an adult, she is driven all the more to pursue the truth of her own family history.

It is not easy to follow Thien’s story in the first few chapters as there are many characters introduced with their own backstory. Time frame switches back and forth, spanning two continents. As I entered Chapter 4, I had to draw up a character chart, as I was looking into a kaleidoscope of three generations and other colourful figures against tumultuous events. If the book had included such a chart at the beginning, it would be most helpful for readers.

We follow Marie’s discovery as she comes to learn that her father Kai used to be a gifted piano student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and Sparrow, a prominent composer, was his teacher there. Together with Sparrow’s young cousin Zhuli, a prodigious violin student, the three forged an unspeakable bond. They cherished each other’s dreams with youthful fervors, which all were altered if not extinguished when Mao ignited his Cultural Revolution.

When she was small, Zhuli discovered by accident her parents’ secret storage where they hid their treasures of western classical music records and books. This led to her parents, Swirl and Wren the Dreamer, to be charged as counter-revolutionary. They were publically criticised and humiliated, then sent to separate labour camps in the remote northwest of China in the name of ‘re-education’. Zhuli was taken secretly to her aunt, Big Mother’s Knife, Sparrow’s mother, and there she grew up. The woman who brought her there had met her aunt only once while on the train. As she ate a lot of the White Rabbit brand candies, we know her by that name. The White Rabbit told Zhuli about her parents’ situation matter-of-factly:

“They’ve been sent for re-education, that’s all… Since you’ve never been educated at all, it seemed pointless to send you along with them.”

This is just one incident where Thien deftly dispenses humour amidst somber events. This is what makes the book enjoyable to read. The subtle humour often is the wrapping of the resilience of human spirit hidden among tragic happenings.

Thien’s story is embedded in historical facts. The prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music was shut down in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, its five hundred pianos destroyed, denouncement and physical battering of the professors and students had resulted in deaths and suicides. Bearing the brunt of the persecution was the unyielding Conservatory President He Luting, beaten but not bent.

Due to their political affiliation, Sparrow’s parents Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute are spared, but what remains in Sparrow is a compromising existence, being sent to work as a factory work for twenty years after the shutdown of the Conservatory. Kai the pragmatist chooses to follow the mainstream and becomes a Red Guard. Young Zhuli sets foot on a tragic path.

With such a setting, it is only natural that Thien would use classical music as the leitmotif of her composition. Shostakovich, Beethoven and Bach are like witnesses to the unfolding of human atrocity, their melodies the fuel that sustains whatever internal fervour that remains. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin’s rule, is an apt metaphor of the situation the trio have to face. The different choices made by Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli well represent the paths that are opened to an artist facing political persecutions.

On another note, and true to her Canadian root, Thein lets pianist Glenn Gould and his two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations be a recurring motif in her story. Bach’s ethereal and invigorating theme and variations belong to Sparrow, the sustenance for his inner life despite deadening circumstances outside.

As the canvas is huge, Thien’s subject matters are numerous. The details and complexity may be a hindrance to readers’ enjoyment. Yet Thien’s voice is close and personal. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the title taken from the workers anthem the ‘Internationale’, deserves our listening ears. As an instructor of the then newly established MFA Program in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong from 2010, Thien experienced first-hand the abrupt cancellation of the program in 2015 “as a result of internal and external politics” as stated in her Acknowledgement at the back of the book. In her article in The Guardian (May 18, 2015), she notes that students from the Program had published essays in support of the Occupy Central student-led democracy movement, the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, that brought Hong Kong to a standstill. That personal experience could well have informed and given her the potent, insider’s voice in her novel writing.

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~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

 

The Ultimate Arrival

Spoiler Alert: This post contains a major spoiler of a current movie with a similar name.

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If you’d known the future, would you change anything?

In the movie Arrival, what’s most moving for me is at the end, when we realize, ah-ha! Dr. Louise Banks has seen it beforehand—knowing full well that years later, her husband Ian will leave her, and her dear daughter Hannah will die of illness at a young age—she still chooses to embark on this journey of love and motherhood, a small idea to illustrate a bit of the Ultimate Arrival.

In the words of the story writer Ted Chiang:

“From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly.”

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And here’s another life…

If you’d known that you’d be born in a smelly horse stable, had to flee from a death threat on your life while still an infant, and later, you’d be misunderstood, criticized, rejected, plotted against, deserted and denied by your intimate friends, betrayed, beaten, spat upon, taunted, and finally hung on the cross with just three nails holding you up until death of asphyxiation, and that’s after living a short life of only 33 years, would you rather not be born?

Yet, He chose to arrive.

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The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

— Madeleine L’Engle

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Other Related Posts:

Arrival: From Short Story to Film (a spoiler-free review)

Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading the Season: Arti’s Annual Christmas Reads 

Paterson: Of Pug and Poetry

Some movies are like the roaring ocean, waves mounting upon waves rousing up excitement, eliciting continuous, sensational reactions. Some are like a bubbling brook, smaller but still boisterous, teeming with life and sounds. The film Paterson is a quiet stream, water gently flows along, seemingly uneventful, and yet, you can sit there by its side and just watch its quiet swirling.

Paterson has been screened at many film festivals this year. I missed it at TIFF, glad I could catch it when I came home to CIFF. For a film about poetry and a loving couple (not dysfunctional, for a change) with a British bulldog named Marvin, a character in his own right, and helmed by a Palm d’Or winning director, it’s got to be a unique experience.

Director Jim Jarmusch has been garnering accolades at the Cannes Film Festival since 1984, with his early feature Stranger Than Paradise. His most commercially known work probably is Broken Flowers (Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury, 2005) with Bill Murray and Julie Delpy. This year, Paterson has once again brought the director to Cannes as a nominee for the prestigious Palme d’Or. 

Jarmusch ought to be applauded for making a film on poetry, for who in this day of mega explosive, blockbuster productions would think of turning Williams Carlos Williams’ poetic notion into a movie. Yes, WCW himself was a resident of Paterson, New Jersey, and his 5-volume epic poem Paterson must have been the source inspiration for Jarmusch.

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The movie Paterson is about an admirer of WCW and an aspiring poet whose occupation may be furthest from the creative process. But that’s exactly the point. Where do we get inspirations and ideas? What kickstarts our creative process? Do we need to climb to the top of the mountain, soak up a magnificent sunrise to unleash our creativity? Apparently not.

We see in the film that the most mundane of everyday objects, like, a box of matches, can spark off a new poem. Jarmusch has his own style of cinematic poetry making: the deadpan, casual expressions of his main character, thus, embedding humour in the serious. Adam Driver (While We Were Young, 2014) is probably the best person to star in this film, not only in name, but in his demeanour. He is Paterson, a bus driver with a daily route of driving bus route no.23 around the small town of Paterson, New Jersey.

We follow Paterson for a week. He gets up at the same time, around 6:20 am, plus or minus 5 minutes, eats his breakfast cereal, carries his lunch box and goes to work. He drives his no. 23 route around town, overhearing passengers’ small talks, brewing in his mind thoughts and ideas, writing down lines in a note book when he has a chance, has his lunch sitting on a bench overlooking the Great Falls of the Passaic River, then back to work. After work he goes home, has dinner with his loving wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), walks the pug Marvin, ties him outside the bar, goes in and have his beer, chats with bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), meets the regulars Everett (William Jackson Harper) and Marie (Chasten Harmon) and listens to their stories, then walks Marvin back home and sleep.

As viewers we see this seven times over. Reminds me of Groundhog Day (1993). But Jarmusch is clever in sprinkling subtle humour and surprises, quite like life. Paterson is a contented soul, driving a bus may be as fulfilling as writing poetry. Wife Laura is more experimental, and takes charge of her creative expressions more explicitly, like learning the guitar to reach her dream of being a country singer, like interior decorating her home according to her obsession with black and white, or baking cupcakes in her own signature style as a step to opening her own cupcake store. Whatever, the two are a loving, contented couple. Creativity manifests in various ways.

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And then there’s Marvin, who may be the best pug in pictures. He has a role to play too in this mundane plot. His story line is, again, life as well.

That’s about all I’ll reveal about the movie without giving out the spoiler, yes, even for this seemingly uneventful film. But as I write, I’m thinking of another matter. This film is probably screened only at very limited cities, at arthouse, independent cinemas. So, why am I writing about a film that not many of you will actually be able to see? What exactly is the relevance of writing something that few may relate to? Or… is the review a piece of writing that readers can respond to despite not experiencing the film itself?

If you have some thoughts on this, I’d appreciate your input. Throw your two pebbles into the Pond and create some ripples so I’d have an idea.

Having poured out this puzzling thought that has been troubling me for some time, I’m reminded of Paterson’s poetry writing in the basement of his home, his notebook filled with his private thoughts and lines, which nobody has ever or will ever read. What’s his purpose then?

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Other Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time

While We Were Young: Wearing the Hat of Authenticity 

A Quiet Passion (2016) at TIFF16

Risen for Hope

The photo was taken just yesterday. Due to illness in the family, I’ve been staying mostly indoor as a caregiver. Yesterday was the first time I went out to greet spring and the birds. A Downy Woodpecker darted right into frame.

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While we’re enjoying an early spring this year, there had been times when it felt like spring would never come. A few years ago, I wrote this poem at Easter, when winter lingered and spring seemed so far away… and it was already April.

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April is the month of empty dreams
Half the days gone
waiting for words and spring
still frozen ground
and on the screen
a frigid page as white as snow.

Brown could be the color of hope
After the white
for all I know
green is too much to wish for
I’m contented to see a patch
of dry and withered brown.

The sun is a perpetual sign
that there’s still hope
But it’s no herald of the seasons
for its presence comforts all year long
warming my blank and barren state
as I await for words and spring.

But Easter is an apt reminder
that The Word had come
spoken clear to half-frozen ears
His body hung on a lifeless tree
Blood and water flowed
onto parched and dusty earth

So what if no words come to me
That dreaded writer’s block
reigning the winter of sterility
numbing senses,
snatching thoughts,
seizing any sign of spring.

It’s not about a post or a blog,
Or even buds and melting snow.
The Word had come
lived and loved among us,
broken, bled, died and rose,
melting frozen hearts to greet
a new dawn and eternal Spring.

– by Arti, April 2011

  ***

We look not towards the climate, but the Christ.

Happy Easter to all!

 

 

In Other Words: Lahiri’s Reconstruction of Self

In Other Words book cover

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to read about Jhumpa Lahiri moving to Italy to live, even just for a few years. Author of four works of fiction – Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland – at the prime of her writing and teaching career, having received the O. Henry Award in 1999, the Pulitzer in 2000, and her latest The Lowland shortlisted for the Booker in 2013, Lahiri decided to uproot her family and move to Italy to totally immerse in the Italian language. That means speaking, reading and writing in Italian.

In Other Words is Lahiri’s brave and candid account as a language learner. It compiles twenty-one essays and two short stories which she wrote in Italian. She uses the metaphor of swimming out into the lake instead of safely hugging the shore to refer to her Italian language learning experience. From her descriptions of the challenges and risks, the loss of anchor, the inability to express herself and be literate, let alone literary, the disorientation, the total humbling, her Italian venture is more like jumping off a precipice to billowy waters of unfathomable depth.

My hat off to Lahiri’s honest revealing of her frustrations and strive for a new identity; yes, after all, language is a major determinant of identity, one which is, unfortunately, superseded by one’s outer appearance and racial features. So it is heart-wrenching to read that despite her love of the Italian language, her total devotion to adopt it not just to live but as a tool of her trade as a writer, she is often seen as an outsider, a foreigner, barred from acceptance. Even when she speaks to Italians fluently in their language, they would respond to her in English.

English, that’s the rub. I was surprised to read that, while the author had achieved so much in her literary career as a writer in English, she chose to discard it to totally immerse in Italian. In the chapter entitled “The Metamorphosis”, she candidly admits that her writing in Italian (which she had been learning in America for some twenty years before) is a flight:

“Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?
The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so
much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me…
It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was
afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes
a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it….”

Of course, that’s also the language that she loved, and succeeded with. The conflict in identity, first as an Indian immigrant with Bangali as her mother tongue, then as a writer in English who had garnered the Pulitzer Prize – an award that she felt she did not deserve – had shrouded her with unresolved tensions. Lahiri had felt deeply the tug of war between her parental heritage and adopted land. A rejection of both had silently crept in. Italian provides a way out:

“Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish
myself, I can reconstruct myself, I can join words together and work on
sentences without ever being considered an expert. I’m bound to fail when
I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t
torment or grieve me.”

Unbelievably surprising and honest, written in Italian and translated by The New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, the bilingual book opens up to a dual English and Italian version. The short essays chronicle the progress of not only an insightful identity search and reconstruction of selfhood, but an invaluable personal documentation of second – no, additional – language learning journey. If this book was published a couple of decades earlier, I would likely have another topic for my thesis in my graduate work on second language learning; not only that, my view of English being the lingua franca, the language holding linguistic hegemony, would have completely changed as well.

After reading In Other Words and my surprising discovery of Lahiri’s ‘tormenting sense of failure’ with the English language (for all its symbolic meaning) or even her ‘undeserving’ feeling towards her award in her writing, I am relieved of a hidden burden. I don’t feel so badly about having had to constantly check and re-check my English: prepositions, idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs usage, subject verb agreement… All the hurdles that confront me every time I write a post or an article. If Lahiri can be so candid about her frustrations and errors when it comes to language learning, why can’t I?

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

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My thanks to Asian American Press for allowing me to post my book review here on Ripple Effects. The last paragraph is added in just for my Ripple readers.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

The Namesake (2006, DVD): Movie Review

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

 

 

Reading the Season: The Book of Ruth

For the past seven years, I’ve a special post at Christmas which I’d named Reading the Season, just to help me dwell on the Reason behind all the festivities. Some past authors I’d read include Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw. This year I’m going back to the source material, The Bible, for my Christmas read. And no, my selection isn’t from Luke 2, which Linus so eloquently delivers every year in the delightful A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I reread the little love story in The Book of Ruth, one of the earliest parallels pointing to the Christmas story. This time I found it particularly relevant. So here it goes…

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A long time ago in a land far, far away a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, together with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, had to pack up and leave their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to escape from a famine in the land. As migrants, they travelled to a foreign country called Moab.

Alas, Elimelech died soon after and left behind Naomi and their two sons. Years passed, the sons married two Moabite gals, Orpah and Ruth. Could it be the food there, for not long after Naomi’s two sons also died. Bitter and despondent, Naomi sent her two daughters-in-law back to their own family and began her lone journey to return to Bethlehem.

But Ruth was adamant to follow Naomi back to where she came from with this moving vow:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Touched by her loyalty, Naomi let Ruth travel with her back to Bethlehem. She was like a migrant all over again. To the people there Naomi, if anyone still recognized her, was now widowed, sonless, bitter and destitute. The two women didn’t even have a refugee camp to take shelter.

To survive, Ruth went out to the fields to glean the grains left by the harvesters. It happened that they were in the fields of a kind landowner Boaz, who after noticing Ruth and hearing of her love for her mother-in-law, told his workers to leave more grains in the fields for her to glean. Yes, it just happened that she’d come to the right field.

When Naomi learned of Boaz, she saw a glimpse of hope. Definitely this was more than the food bank; this generous landowner actually was a relative belonging to her late husband’s clan. Out of desperation, she sent Ruth on a risky mission: to go to Boaz at night and approach him tactfully, letting him know of their ties in kinship.

Lo and behold, Boaz, an honourable and compassionate man, was harbouring a deep and ardent love for Ruth. That night, though surprised to see Ruth, he received her readily and with respect, restraining and keeping his torrid passion well under wraps, umm like… Mr. Darcy.

According to the law of the land, the closest relative had the first right to redeem the lands that Naomi’s late husband Elimelech had sold and to marry Ruth to carry on the family line. But lo, Boaz wasn’t that person; instead, he did the honourable thing, extending the first right of redemption to the closest relative, yes, like umm… Mr. Collins.

And it happened that Mr. Collins was willing to buy back the land but wait a minute, he couldn’t take Ruth as a wife. There could be reverberations, for Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite. Further, the land was for her to continue with Naomi’s family ownership, and would not be under his name. “I pass,” he said in the sight of ten elder witnesses. Phew!

So only then did Boaz declare not only his willingness to redeem the land once owned by Elimelech, but also his desire to take Ruth as his wife to save her from destitute, poverty, and childlessness. How marvellous it was that Boaz, a legit kinsman redeemer according to the laws, was also truly, madly, and deeply in love with his redeemed.

And we are definitely indebted to the two lovers for producing the line of descendants, for Ruth later became the great grandmother of David, from whose ancestral line generations later came Jesus.

With this beautiful ending I come back to Christmas 2015, and ponder on the lowly birth of Christ at the manger, to become our Kinsman for the ultimate purpose as Redeemer.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.”  – John 1:14

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The Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

                              – Madeleine L’Engle

***

Previous ‘Reading The Season’ Posts:

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis