Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Three things: culture, time, words.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Modern vs. Ancient

In the ancient Egyptian numeration system, one million was written using a character depicting a kneeling man with his arms upraised. It is thought to be a genie, or the god Heh, god of infinity and that which can't be counted. It is sometimes referred to as the "surprised man":

In our contemporary notation, meanwhile, one million is represented by a single "1" followed by six "zero"s with commas at regularly occurring intervals:

Looking at these two numbers we can probably agree on the relative merits of both systems. Yet in the eternal struggle between the beautifully poetic and the blandly functional - between the ineffable and the replicable - Egypt wins this one hands down.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Languages

Anyone who has learned a foreign language – or at least anybody who has learned one well enough to speak it meaningfully – can attest how personality changes when shifting from one language to the next. The subtleties of each language – its unique lexicon, the pace of sentence formation, the values embodied in its grammar – gently nudge our thoughts into well-traveled channels that influence the way we perceive the world, how we articulate what we see, the ways we react to it, our feelings, and, ultimately, the framework for how we act and justify our actions. Speaking different languages, we change as a result.

A friend of mine recently expressed it as: “My Chinese-speaking self is different from my English-speaking self.” And I think anyone who lives comfortably among multiple languages can identify with this. In fact, one of the most painful things about acquiring and speaking a foreign language – in the beginning, especially – is the total loss of personality in that language. The speaker's expressiveness is robbed of subtlety. Emotions that could be rendered so easily in one's native language now become impossible to convey in the new one – either through one's own lack of knowledge, or, sometimes, through limitations of the language itself. It is not until much later, when you have begun to master the second language, that you are freed to learn new and vital expressions to articulate what has been left behind. Sometimes these are fair approximations of the emotions you express in your own language; other times, they come entirely unannounced, unfamiliar and new – ideas that cannot be articulated even in your language. Often it is only by their expression that you become aware of the existence of these emotions at all: for these “emotions” do not exist in other languages. In time, as you become more proficient in the new language, you can begin to articulate these new emotions comfortably, to internalize them, to feel them naturally and without a corresponding need for their articulation – such that in time you may even begin to compare them as equals, to recognize the expressive “shortcomings” of your own language. Being in control of multiple languages, therefore, means becoming more aware of how futile any given language is in articulating our inner selves – how we are never fully able to express the extent of who we are as human beings due to the specific limitations of the specific languages we speak.

Each language brings out certain elements of our inborn nature. These elements are there, within each of us, but are given expression only if the right language comes along to release them. Language being a relatively arbitrary construct, it’s interesting to wonder which elements of our nature are being given expression by the languages we speak, and which are not.

Even more fascinating is to wonder of those that are given expression whether one or another is closer to the core of one’s true self. If my English self is different from my Russian self, which of them is the real me? While most people will assume that their dominant language is their “real” one, it would seem highly coincidental, given the wide range of languages that they might otherwise be speaking, that this would ever be the case. How likely is it that the language you happen to speak really is the best one to express the person you really are? Often, it seems, we lose sight of the extent to which our thoughts and feelings are not true expressions of our real selves, but simple conveniences of language. More probably, it is not that our native tongue is any more expressive of who we are but that we are – or become – what our native tongue best expresses.

I can only guess how many hidden dimensions of my personality are never given expression due to my lack of language. My German self. My Japanese self. My Arabic self. All of them are there, yet none are allowed to come out. Somehow, I lose a little of my humanity for not knowing them. Knowing only what I know, I am a sliver of who I might be, just as my words are nothing more than the arbitrary expression of those sides of me that can be released by the words I am able to think and speak.

And so, as humans, we are condemned to become merely what we are able to become, while the seeds of who we really are lie buried deep within us, dormant and shriveled, waiting for the life-giving water of language.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

An Open Letter to Mr. Paul Theroux

Dear Mr. Theroux,

I read your recent article with interest - both as a Hawaiian and as a writer who has traveled and written earnestly about a culture that is foreign to me. In the latter regard, we would be peers. In the former, I am qualified to give you guidance. Your conclusions here suggest that you are unnecessarily confused by very simple things. Let me be the one to help you get closer to the pith of what has become a forbidden fruit for you, inasmuch as that is possible.

In your article you note that Hawai'i, which is your current residence of choice, happens also to be the most elusive place for you to write about. This strikes you as irony, or coincidence, rather than the reward for achieving a deeper knowledge of a place with which you are familiar. Is this not a sign that the fruit you are attempting to pick is at once closer than all the others and, therefore, higher and harder to reach? That what might have passed for astute observation or understanding under different circumstances - for example, sitting comfortably on a fast-moving train pulling out of a station after a brief interlude - no longer rings true when given the time for thoughtful reflection and re-reflection? I imagine that the same depth of insight that fails to satisfy you now, in your adopted home in Hawai'i, would have seemed perfectly reasonable in a different time, during your more vagabond passings-through in countless other places. For this reason, the elusiveness of your quest to understand Hawai'i - or, at least, to write about it - is not so much a failure of you as a writer as it is your writerly triumph. Of depth over superficiality. Of humility over arrogance. Of the timelessness of careful reflection over the temporality of literary deadlines and career-making. Ultimately, it is this "failure" that you can hold up as proof that you are a writer in the honorable sense of the word.

In your article you cite Hawaiians as being closed and petty and give examples of how they were not forthcoming in sharing their knowledge with you. One refuses your request outright; others attempt to charge you money for their time. This offends and perplexes you. Your characterization of Hawaiians is surely stilted yet it effectively illustrates the exasperation that you have felt when rebuffed in this manner, seemingly unjustly. Let me explain, however, why this is exactly as it should be. You see, in our culture knowledge is not an entitlement but something that a person must earn. If the thought of paying for the expertise of a teacher is absolutely abhorrent to you, then you should pay for it for that very reason. If, on the other hand, it is your time that is most precious to you, then you should give that very thing - eagerly, with appreciation, and in far greater amounts than you would ever have wanted. You were tested in this way and, regrettably, you failed. The wise guardians of meaningful knowledge must always be there to challenge the random knock at the door, lest all knowledge become the animals in a controlled hunt that are densely herded into a confined space for the benefit of the casual hunter with sloppy aim. Worthwhile knowledge requires investment and sacrifice. It requires commitment and humility. Oh, and purity of intent would not hurt in the least.

Toward the end of your article you allude to a recent recognition that your earlier writing has not always spoken to the essence of things. This is a laudable admission and I commend you for your honesty. A mature author - the intellectually rigorous sort, at least - should see with clearer eyes the faults of his more youthful writing; in recognizing the superficiality of your earlier attempts at understanding, you show that you have achieved this noble plane, and for this, again, you should be commended.

As a fellow writer, and one who does not feel so at ease domesticating cultures that might otherwise choose to run free, I challenge you to learn more about the Hawai'i that so baffles you, to delve deeper into its essence, to cast aside the easier knowledge for the kind that is harder to find and heavier to hold. Your reward, if you are sincere and forthright and if you are blessed with a little bit of luck, will be truth. And the tangible outcome, in all likelihood, will be that most profound and elusive of all rewards for a writer: the ability to find joy and meaning in simple silence.

Best of luck in your future efforts, Mr. Theroux, and thank you for taking the time to appreciate Hawai'i as the unique and special place in the world that it is.

A.J. Perry

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A novelist should produce no more than three works in a given lifetime: one to celebrate the uniqueness of personal experience; another to espouse a philosophy for future generations; and a third that contributes to the canon of death and dying.

Anything more is mere vanity. Or careerism.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Surprisingly, the difference between a good short story and a bad short story is much less than the difference between a good banana and a bad banana.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


...I'm amazed at how little I have to say.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

A perplexing riddle

If the opposite of a man is a woman, and
the opposite of an optimist is a pessimist, then
what exactly is the opposite
of a poet?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Coming Full Circle

"Right now, it's a wait-and-see and hope-for-the-best."
- Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Mitch Frazier, on the approach of Hurricane Rita.

There's an old Guido Sarducci routine that offers a new theory regarding the demise of the dinosaurs. In case you've forgotten the old theory, it basically had it that a large meteor struck the earth many millions of years ago and that as a result of this collision--gaseous clouds, rise in temperatures, change in ecosystem, whatever--the dinosaurs disappeared. The joke picks up from here by offering an alternative to this theory. What really happened, the joke tells us, is that intergalactic travellers arrived to the earth in metal spaceships and were so enamored of the dinosaurs they saw walking the earth that they decided to round them up and take them back as pets to their own galaxies. Over several years the aliens rounded up the dinosaurs and herded them into their spaceships and took them into outer space; they did this until there were only two dinosaurs left--a male and a female--and leaving these two remaining specimens to repopulate the earth, the aliens left.

And then what?

And then the meteor hit.

Bu-dum-PAH. (Or whatever available percussion sound best highlights this punchline....)

In fact, the word dinosaur itself is synonymous with backwardness and lack of progress when compared to our modern societal achievements. Which makes Frazier's quote all the more striking in its candidness. How did people prepare for hurricanes in the days before our technologically inspired society built levees to hold out the water, and pumps to keep our cities dry, and sea walls to break the storm surges?

Well, they probably held their breath in a helpless sort of "wait-and-see" and "hope-for-the best."

And what do we modern citizens do?

Well, we build levees to hold out the water. We build pumps to keep our cities dry. We erect sea walls to break the storm surges. We ship in truckloads of bottled water and ice. We build artificial barrier islands. We fly planes in the eye of the hurricane to track its course. We send storm satellites into space. We invest in large engineering projects. We promote science and research. We encourage children to learn the hard sciences in schools--whether they like it or not. We underfund education. We pass laws requiring standardized testing at the elementary level. We clone sheep. We ban aerosol cans and organize community-wide recycling programs. We pull out of global accords. We devise exit strategies. We conduct computerized enactments of disaster situations many years in advance. We call in the military. And the National Guard. We put sheets over our electronics and plywood over our windows. We block off incoming traffic so that the lanes can be used for a mass exodus from the city. We issue warnings to looters. We board up our shops. We write our social security numbers on our abdomens. We stand and wait for the Army's Corps of Engineers to offer sober reassurance that everything we've believed in since the Industrial Revolution has not been in vain. We turn off our computers and pull the plugs from the wall. We bundle our medical supplies. We ready our solar-powered flashlights. We wait.

And then...?

And then the meteor hits.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina's Clowns

One of the few positively instructive things to come out of the aftermath of a calamity like the one unfolding in New Orleans is the opportunity to watch America's various clowns of conscience suddenly exposed for what they are. In times of relative calm, these purveyors of irrelevance--and America seems especially blessed with fashion designers, Hollywood stars, grunge bands, comedians, movie critics, nightclub owners, animal-rights advocates, celebrity athletes, stock gurus, television chefs, interior designers, sports-radio talkshow hosts, etc--all seem somehow germane and even important to the fabric of a society. But when true tragedy strikes (10,000 people dead?) things change overnight, and suddenly a clown must come to terms with an awfully inconvenient dilemma: how, in a time like this when the horrible realities of life have taken center stage, does one continue the trajectory of a trite and superfluous calling without seeming utterly and absolutely ridiculous?

The first few hours are telling. Usually a tragedy of any real magnitude is followed by an eerie calm from that corner of the Big Tent where the clowns make their residence. For two or three days there will be a sort of subdued and embarassed silence as they wait patiently for the rescue workers to pluck the victims from their flooded houses. These are the hours of devastation and deliverance; of heroism, not hedonism. Luckily for them, most clowns live in the parts of the city that have been spared the highest waters, the blackouts, and so they are able to watch it all on television.

It must be a disheartening time for a person like this to see their life's priorities suddenly relegated to second-class citizenship in the hierarchy of human values, their current vocation placed onto the much more significant backdrop of death and rape and murder and disease. One can't help feeling sympathy for the New Orleans musician whose first big gig had been scheduled for the night of the hurricane. Or for the Tulane football player whose start on the offensive line was postponed because his stadium was being used to "accomodate" the survivors. Or even for the New York fashion designer whose press conference to announce a new line of lingerie has been unfairly overshadowed by the hurricane and its aftermath.

Tragedy does not discriminate.

But Americans are nothing if not resilient. As the waters begin to subside from the city and the remaining refugees are whisked from the temporary shelters to their new lives in exile, the country will breathe a collective sigh of relief that this tragedy is finally behind us all, and that now, at long last, we can begin to pick up the strewn-about pieces of our customary way of life.

It is here that the clowns will click off their television sets, relieved that the long wait is over. Ever so slowly they will begin to reapply their face paint--the perpetually surprised eye brows, the big red-lipped smiles--and make their way, sheepishly at first but then with a renewed sense of authority and purpose, back into the arena of American life. To announce their return they will organize a benefit performance of some kind, perhaps a fashion show or black-tie gala, with proceeds directed toward the relief effort. Then they will hold a wet T-shirt contest in memory of the victims. With more and more gusto the clowns will eventually come to their rightful place in society, until they have once again assumed the controls.

Which is a good thing.

In fact, the argument that nearly all clowns make when justifying their singing and dancing on the still-decaying bodies of the victims is that by returning to such shenanigans (which, remember, would not be shenanigans at all if the bodies didn't happen to be there) they are actually helping to "restore a sense of normalcy." (Be wary of this mantra, my friends, as it is the battle cry of the clown on his march back into town!) And so the Surf-And-Sand Invitational Volleyball Tournament, the Country Music Jamboree and All-Nite Carnival, the 7th Annual East Coast Barbecue Cook-off, the Five States Celebrity Pro-Am Golf Challenge, the Father-Daughter Gunnysack Race and Pie-Throwing Competition, the parades, the festivities, the endless fun and frivolity that must be held from one end of the country to the other in the name of the disaster's hundreds of thousands of outcasts from among the swampy ruins of what used to be the Gulf Coast--all of it is not so much a tactless and belated trumpet played to the tune of the world's suffering, now brought home, as it is a much-needed respite from the hopelessness of the situation. By going ahead with the ceremonies for the World's Largest Hot Dog Eating Contest, which, after all, has been months in the planning, event organizers manage not only to salvage their investment, but, more importantly, to provide a much-needed service to the storm victims by reassuring them that their lives can once again have hope and meaning. (In this sense, the more superfluous the activity, the more comfort that is provided.)

Even better is when the tragedy can somehow be incorporated into the clown's normal routine: thus, a chef might bake eclairs for a hurricane shelter; a movie star will make an appearance at a refugee camp to sign autographs and offer words of encouragement; and an animal rights group will offer to provide free housing for displaced pets. During their programs, sports-radio hosts discuss the impact of Katrina on ticket sales for the upcoming season, just as sports organizations from around the country offer donations to the victims--millions upon millions of dollars--as if to say to the victims, Here, this is to help you get on with your that we can get on with ours.

All of which casts the spotlight on an even greater question. What exactly is this so-called life of normalcy that we in America are all so eager to return to? Is it the pleasantly familiar one where the baker can tend to his eclairs without feeling guilty about the thought of refugees? (As if the world's 35 million refugees could somehow settle in the evacuated bowl that is New Orleans.) Or a place where a professional athlete can play his game without being needlessly distracted by the awareness that innocent people are being raped and murdered on the streets of a city somewhere? (As if the quelling of looting in New Orleans could mean physical safety to people in other places of the world.) Or, perhaps, we all desire simply to return to a friendlier place, the happier time, not too long ago, when the ocean's waters were just a little bit cooler to the touch?

(Isn't it just a little ironic that in our day and age we have no better point of reference to compare the force of a hurricane than the equivalent force of an atomic bomb?)

So yes, America will return to its previous ways. And, rest assured, there will be something built to take the place of what was once New Orleans. And the World Series will be played as it has nearly every October since the rest of us can remember. In time the clowns will be there to resume their place in life, just as they have after every period of crisis. It is their time to shine, to be of real service to their society in a way that nobody else can. And when our clowns have returned, the rest of us will be there to greet them with open arms. And we will make sure to be there at every concert with our celebratory hats on, our party favors in hand, and a pair of big floppy shoes, tied to each other with their laces, draped around our shoulders like a wreath.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Essay Questions for MFA in Creative Writing?

A friend of mine, a fiction writer, is currently trying to get into an MFA program in Creative Writing at a prestigious midwestern university and was surprised to see that, in addition to an individual writing sample, they are now requiring applicants to answer essay questions. My friend was especially taken aback by the questions themselves, which were unusual to say the least. Here's what she had to choose from:
Please select one (1) of the following essay questions and write an essay of no more than 500 (five hundred) words:

1) It has been said that an artist's responsibility to humanity is, above all, to tell the truth. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

2) Give one example of a personally significant experience that caused you to re-examine your views of the world and tell how you were able to put it to use in your fiction.

3) If you were having a dinner party and could invite one character from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, who would it be?

4) Some people write in first person, others in third, while only the most ambitious write in second. Why do you think nobody uses fourth person anymore?

5) If Dante, Cervantes, and Updike found a bottle containing a genie, which of them do you think would be the one to make the third wish? What would they wish for? Would they get it? How would humanity be changed? Would this change be for the better? Or would it be for the worst? Or would things stay pretty much the same? Explain.

6) Discuss the role, if any, that innovation should play in the writing process.

7) Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: "If the publishing industry continues to abuse the sensibilities of readers by spewing out literature at the rate it is now, we very well may reach a point in the not-too-distant future where the act of having published a book will be looked upon as a sign of extremely poor taste."

8) Please list any good plot ideas you'd like to share with the Committee.

(My friend chose question #7.)