“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

snow-2

Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

snow-1

The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:

hm-ss-reality


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (pp. 7, 173)

 

What I’m Reading: August 2015

Trying to keep the momentum from posting my June/July 2015 reading.

Haruki Murakami’s first two novels, 2/3rds of a trilogy that English language readers have had only the final 1/3 available, are now published together: Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 as Wind/Pinball.

Since the Rat trilogy ends with A Wild Sheep Chase, a reread is up after the above.

The controversy surrounding both publishing and then the content of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is in line after the Murakami-fest.

Magical Murakami Nightmares

I was afraid
I’d eat your brains
Cause I’m evil

“Conversation 16,″ The National

The foundations of my own quest to be a poet and fiction writer were laid while reading and hoping to be e.e. cummings and J.D. Salinger (hence, P.L. Thomas). Both share an idealizing of childhood and innocence against a skeptical, if not jaded and cynical view of adulthood.

Salinger’s short fiction also spoke to my early faith in craft; his stories are like diamonds so perfectly and carefully cut that one is both unable to look at or away from them.

Also—and quite logically in hindsight—I became fascinated with Franz Kafka, who posed a problem for my obsession with writer’s craft since his work was in translation and there was something unnamable in his stories and diaries/letters that moved me unlike cummings or Salinger.

More or less thirty years later, I am a much different writer as well as a much different reader. Part of my more recent journey has been the work of Haruki Murakami, who now bookends my Kafka phase with his magical nightmares that seem to defy much that I know about writing and reading (notably any clear concepts of genre).

The Murakami bounty in the last year-plus has been magnificent: “Samsa in Love,” “Scheherazade,” Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Matthew Carl Strecher’s critical work, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami.

But the work that has lingered for me is his The Strange Library because it captures nearly everything both marvelous and difficult about Murakami.

Many years ago I read The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel and have always thought the title was perfect. It is the Kafkan in Murakami—and notably in The Strange Library—that pushes me to magical nightmare for Murakami.

As a book lover and library advocate, I first noticed The Strange Library is a physical argument for the power of hard-copy books (not ebooks). The clever flap opening, the stunning illustrations, the heft of the cover and paper, the neoclassic typewriter font, the occasional blue type, the ink smell, the odd and final tiny-print paragraph—all of these publishing craft elements shout out for the enduring beauty of buying and holding a real-life, printed book.

The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami. Book design and illustrations by Chip Kidd.

Having recently presented at NCTE’s national convention on the importance of libraries—highlighting Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Louise DeSalvo—I was even more eager to read Murakami’s story since he has included libraries before (see Kafka on the Shore).

While DeSalvo’s memoir, Vertigo, opens with the library as sanctuary, The Strange Library is immediately ominous: “The library was even more hushed than usual,” it begins with the main character’s shoes making a “hard, dry sound…unlike my normal footsteps.”

Although the nameless boy frequents this library, the librarian is unfamiliar, and this experience reveals the library to be a labyrinth and a magical nightmare leading to the boy imprisonment and horrifying fate:

The sheep man cocked his head to one side. “Wow, that’s a tough one.”

“Please, tell me. My mother is waiting for me back home.”

“Okay, kid. Then I’ll give it to you straight. The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brain’ll get slurped right up.”

I was too shocked for words.

“You mean,” I said, when I had recovered, “you mean that old man’s going to eat my brains?”

“Yes, I’m really sorry, but that’s the way it has to be,” the sheep man said, reluctantly.

The sheep man has also appeared in Murakami before: Dance Dance Dance and A Wild Sheep Chase.

The story is brief, but layered in the way that makes Murakami, Murakami: places and people are not simple dualities, but simultaneously opposing forces, to the point of being irreconcilable.

The Strange Library leaves a great deal unsaid in the wake of nearly too many aesthetic messages, a magical nightmare of childhood that almost reminds me of Neil Gaiman (almost).

The melancholy loneliness that clings to everything Murakami—”After that, I never visited the city library again”—remains once you carefully interlock the flip opening, much as those giant cartoon eyes seem to demand.

However, my heart is warmed because this book demands to be read and re-read, held solidly in your hands that remain somewhat unsure what to do with this odd little book.

For Further Reading

remnant 37: “‘If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again'”

remnant 61: “The right words always seemed to come too late”

remnant 70: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains”

CALL: Haruki Murakami: Challenging Authors

Series: Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres

Sense Publishers

Volume: Haruki Murakami: Challenging Authors

Editors, Matthew Carl Strecher and P. L. Thomas

Timeline

Proposals due: June 30, 2015 [EXTENDED]

Email to paul.thomas@furman.edu 100-word chapter proposal, 50-word author(s) bio(s), contact information, and 8 key words by above due date.

Accepted chapter notified: June 30, 2015

Accepted chapters due: October 31, 2015 

Final draft submission: December 15, 2015

Overview

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has achieved a rare status among writers—incredible popularity in his native country and world-wide as well as rising critical acclaim. Murakami, in fact, in addition to receiving most of the major literary awards in Japan, as well as many around the world, has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize, and is likely to be Japan’s next Nobel laureate in literature.  At the same time, his relationship with the Japanese literary community proper (known as the Bundan) has not been a particularly friendly one.

Writing about Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Matthew Carl Strecher (2014) notes that one of Murakami’s central and enduring themes is a persistent warning not to suppress our fundamental desires in favor of the demands of society at large. And while Murakami’s writing over his career reveals some recurring motifs, his message has also evolved, creating a catalogue of works that reveal Murakami to be a challenging author.

Many of those challenges lie in Murakami’s blurring of genre as well as his rich blending of Japanese and Western mythologies and styles—all while continuing to offer narratives that attract and captivate a wide range of readers.  A highly challenging author, Murakami is, as Ōe Kenzaburō once contended, not a “Japanese writer” so much as a global one, and as such, he merits a central place in the classroom in order to confront readers and students, but also to be challenged as well.

This volume seeks to offer 15-20 chapters examining Murakami against the problems of genre and form, within cultural and national ideologies and mythologies, and spurred by the tensions that arise from being both popular and critically acclaimed.

Analyzing and considering teaching Murakami through the lenses of critical pedagogy and literacy offers another layer of complexity to the Murakami phenomenon and expands the scope of this series significantly, notably in the context of Freire (2005):

One of the violences perpetuated by illiteracy is the suffocation of the consciousness and the expressiveness of men and women who are forbidden from reading and writing, thus limiting their capacity to write about their reading of the world so they can rethink about their original reading of it. (p. 2)

Reading, teaching, and studying Murakami serves well the goal of rethinking this world.  It will open new lines of inquiry into what constitutes national literatures, and how some authors, in the era of blurred national and cultural boundaries, seek now to transcend those boundaries and pursue a truly global mode of expression.

References

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Strecher, M.C. (2014). The forbidden worlds of Haruki Murakami. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Working Table of Contents

Name/contact title
Foreword
P.L. Thomas Introduction
Matthew Carl Strecher The Chronicles of Murakami Haruki and the Chamber of Secrets
P.L. Thomas Magical Murakami Nightmares: Investigating Genre through The Strange Library
Yuji Kato The Memories of Our Old “Murakami Haruki” and the Teaching Experience of “Haruki Murakami” in Classrooms in Tokyo Today
Tomoki Wakatsuki The Haruki phenomenon and everyday cosmopolitanism: belonging as a ‘citizen of the world’
Chikako Nihei Leaving Behind the Label of ‘Un-Japanese Author’: Reading ‘Mirror’ in Japanese Class
Rebecca Suter Between Self and Other: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World As Cultural Engagement Through Fantasy
Deirdre Flynn The Trancreation of Tokyo: The Universality of Murakami’s Urban Landscape
Jonathan Dil What’s wrong with these people?: The Anatomy of Dependence in Norwegian Wood
Daisuke Kiriyama Exchanging “Far-From-Avant-garde” Jazz Records: Haruki Murakami’s “Nausea 1979” as Historiographic Metafiction
Matthew Carl Strecher Conclusion

Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum”

On Twitter, John Warner offered a few reviews of his new book of short stories, Tough Day for the Army, followed by this Tweet:

Warner’s comment is grounded in his being a writer, but I suspect also in his being a reader and a teacher. I want to stress his #agoodthing and use this brief but insightful moment to push further against the mostly dispassionate academy where New Criticism has flourished and laid the foundation for its cousin “close reading.”

With a sort of karmic synergy, I read Warner’s Tweet above just as I was diving into a new Haruki Murakami short story, “Scheherazade,” and the companion interview with Murakami about the story.

“Scheherazade” is classic Murakami—odd, awkward, and then ultimately an unmasking of the human condition. As a writer myself (my creative, expressive writing exclusively now poetry), I was laid bare as a reader and writer toward the end of the story:

It was also possible that he would, at some point, be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women would disappear from his life. Never again would he be able to enter the warm moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response. Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other. That was something Scheherazade had provided in abundance—indeed, her gift was inexhaustible. The prospect of losing that made him saddest of all.

A recurring motif of my creative self is confronting exactly what Murakami states directly: “Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy.”

And it is this type of lucidity in stories, novels, poems, and films when I often cry because I am filled too full of feeling deeply what the author has both expressed and felt (I assume), what I know as well.

If we turn to the interview by Deborah Treisman, however, we can see Warner’s point above clearly since Murakami repeatedly deflects Treisman’s efforts to mine meaning from the story; for example, Murakami replies to two separate questions with:

Sorry, but I don’t know the exact circumstances that brought about the situation, either….Because what’s important isn’t what caused Habara’s situation but, rather, how we ourselves would act in similar circumstances….

I don’t know, but things certainly don’t look very good for Habara….

What matters to Treisman as a reader (and interviewer) appears insignificant to Murakami.

These exchanges highlight that text has both author intent and reader inference (think Rosenblatt’s reader, writer, text triangle)—but the exchanges also allow us to consider (or reconsider) that text meaning often depends on a power dynamic that involves who decides what matters and how.

Murakami’s “Scheherazade” focuses on an unnamed character (called “Scheherazade” by Habara, the other character in the story) who is a source of both sex and storytelling for Habara, who is mysteriously restricted to his house:

Habara didn’t know whether her stories were true, invented, or partly true and partly invented. He had no way of telling. Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives. Habara therefore enjoyed them as a child might, without questioning too much. What possible difference could it make to him, after all, if they were lies or truth, or a complicated patchwork of the two?

Whatever the case, Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart. No matter what sort of story it was, she made it special. Her voice, her timing, her pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate, and then, in the end, gave him precisely what he’d been seeking. Enthralled, Habara was able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment. Like a blackboard wiped with a damp cloth, he was erased of worries, of unpleasant memories. Who could ask for more? At this point in his life, that kind of forgetting was what Habara desired more than anything else.

As readers, we share with Habara a brief journey through Scheherazade’s episodic tales of her own adventures, leading to the end where Murakami appears to suggest that her storytelling is more intimate for Habara, and thus more important, than the sex she shares.

Just as Murakami’s interview reveals the range of what matters in text, that Habara “enjoyed [Scheherazade’s stories] as a child might, without questioning too much” (and we might add, as Treisman does in the interview) speaks against the dispassionate ways in which formal schooling frames text and dehumanizes the reading experience for and with children and young adults (hence, New Criticism, close reading, and the enduring “evidence hunt” of reducing text to what can—or should—be mined from that text).

In her “Language Teaching in a Changing World,” Lou LaBrant (1943) warned:

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding. Some children’s books, moreover, are directed toward encouraging a naive, simple acceptance of externals which we seem at times to hold as desirable for children….Let us have no more of assignments which emphasize quantity, place form above meaning, or insist on structure which is not the child’s. (p. 95)

LaBrant, then, builds to her key point: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum” (p. 97).

Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum” is connected to, as LaBrant explains in “The Place of English in General Education” (1940), the essential element of being human: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Seven decades since LaBrant made these arguments, we must ask—especially in the context of Warner’s Tweet and Murakami’s story and interview—why do we persist in reducing text to the dispassionate responses demanded in the academy, whether that sits within the mechanistic processes of New Criticism or the decontextualized demands of close reading? Where in formal schooling is there room to “[enjoy] [text] as a child might, without questioning too much”?

In the answer-driven classrooms that have traditionally and currently mis-served both the text being analyzed and the students evaluated by how they analyze those texts, Murakami sends a much different message:

Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a “desert island.” Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story.

As author of this story, Murakami is interested in the questions raised, what is left unknown to him: “I don’t know. Scheherazade is a riddle to me, as well—what she is thinking, what she is looking for.”

Fiction and poetry seek the mysteries of the human condition, the unknown, the unanswerable. As LaBrant and Murakami tell us, language and teaching are about the intimacy of being human—not about the dispassionate calculation of meaning, the objective pose that is both misleading and efficient as well as manageable.

Unlike Habara, we are not in fact trapped in the house of such dispassion; we have chosen to remain there. Instead we should step outside, to enjoy text “as a child might, without questioning too much.”