Mumbai may be the chosen city of India World, where everyone of every stripe, caste and origin in the country comes to live, but the lingua franca is possibly not the one you’d expect it to be, 64 years after the British left the place. It certainly ain’t Hindi.

One of the first ‘greetings’ I received when I first moved into the area I am staying in in Chuim village in the Khar Danda area of the city was, “Welcome to India,” immediately followed up with, “Get back to England.”

With the folk memory of the dark, rascist days of Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s hard-wired in from before I was born, my brain said, “How dare you!?”, immediately followed up with, “You little bastard”. But at the same time, my heart said, “Absolutely goddamn right.”

Typically, one or two people an hour will stop to say hello and find out what your good name is and where you do come from, and it may be too early to say, but so far, the reaction to my answer of, “England” seems to have been exclusively either a grimace and/or a swift exit.

(Of course it’s too early to say, it’s a blog – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?)

And let’s get this right, it is England. ’None of this Impero-peak, ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Queendom’ ; ’none of that bollocks. It’s England. You know? Fish, chips, cup’o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary F-ing Poppins – England.

And yes, it was us, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, I really am.

We belong in India about as much as America belonged in Vietnam; just as we don’t belong in Ireland; just as we didn’t belong in the West Indies. The paucity of imagination in presuming that the ‘West Indies’ was just another India, West of the ‘first’ one, is a perfect example of the kind of horrible homogenisation that runs all the way through the imperial enterprise—or, as it has now been rebranded, globalisation—whether it’s the Shemites, the Romans, the East India Company or the Americans with their names on the handle of the poker.

We didn’t belong in Indonesia, just as we didn’t belong anywhere in the Caribbean or the Pacific. We didn’t belong in America, so the French made us have it. We didn’t belong in Surinam or Tangier or Oman. We didn’t belong in Australia. We didn’t belong in Senegal, just as we don’t belong in Canada, Singapore, Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Madeira, Gibraltar, Afghanistan, Iraq…

“Absolutely goddamn right. Never get out of the boat.”

I felt some of the sting that is presumably absent from the life of the average old colonial in fixing on a name for an individual I enlisted as a contributor to a documentary I was making about hip hop in South Wales in 2002. Having not heard his name spoken properly, and too scared to ask the rest of his crew what it was, I began calling this immense, menacing West African drug dealer, ‘Donny’. If I’d gone for ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Dastardly’ or ‘Dangerous’ it might have been alright but ‘Donny’!? Is there a stiffer, whiter, squarer name in the English language than ‘Donny’? I was relieved when Diamond decided not to crush my head between his hands.

I felt the same way moving in to this family’s home in Mumbai when I misheard the name of the man of the house and scrabbled around at a couple of ‘T’ names before settling on ‘Trevor’. This huge, alcoholic Goan who nicks 5 rupees from me every time we go and fill up my water bottle at his mate’s overpriced shack round the corner is as Indian as Ghandi, but thanks to a bunch of diseased, dick-swinging Portugese egotists his ‘real’ name is ‘Tyronne Mendes’.

As I have found in many situations in Asia, I cannot explain my own apparently bizarre behaviour in any adequate way. I thought in a majority Hindu country I would be bang on masquerding as a de facto vegetarian for a few months, but sure enough, here in this Goan Catholic village, in this Goan Catholic household, with the indefatigable Goan Catholic, Trevor Mendes, I’m as much of an outcast as a vegetarian in Europe (at least in Southern Europe and the more working class parts of Northern Europe):

“You know, teek-hain? Prawns have got a type of iron in them that you’ll never get from spinach”.

Yeah, cheers Trev, normally I’d be trying to put you off yours so I could get more prawns in, but I’d rather not have amoebic dysentery until next week if that’s allright with you, cock. 5 rupees?…

V.S. Naipaul calls the embarrasment of colonial name-giving, “place names in the mouth of a conqueror”. Cassius Clay described ‘Muhammad Ali’ as, “a free name”.

“Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed, Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny”

–V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness, 1964

It was the same story in Hong Kong, and, to be fair it’s the same with lovely people from all over globalised Asia, from the thriving ‘Elvis Presli’ in Indonesia to the inumerable Chinese ‘Candy’s, ‘Pinky’s’, ‘Flower’s and ‘Josephine’s making moves and taking names all over the Pearl River Delta, to all the magnificent, firebrand Thai ‘Susan’s spinning Victorian notions of emancipation into candyfloss. The ubiquitous ‘English name’ is just a concession to Western ignorance, and god knows we need it.

What exactly are we producing at the moment other than over-specialised, lazy, drug-happy underachievers with an inflated sense of their own entitlement, like me?. We elbowed our way violently to that place in the sun, and now the sun has well-and-truly set.

The sun of the British Empire rose in the West and finally set in the East, in India. Not content with perverting the natural order of the world in geographical, political, economical, spiritual and psychological terms, we went for a little astrophysical perversion as well.

As far as India goes, we just simply didn’t belong there, just as we didn’t belong in the Phillipines or Nigeria or Uganda or Jordan or Zanzibar or Qatar or Malta or Lagos or Palestine or Fiji or Kenya or Kuwait. When we eventually realised that we only really belonged on a tiny, rainy island in the North Sea notable principally for its fishing, it was too late, so we had to invent globalisation to keep the dream alive, even when it was dead. And now we’re desperately trying to reanimate a corpse.

“…limited islanders, baptised with mist, narrowed by insularity, swollen with good
fortune and wealth.”

–R.B. Cunningham Graham, Bloody Niggers, in the Social Democrat, April, 1897

I should know, I am one, and yes, my little friend, I am going back to England. We had our chance and we Royally fucked it up, and you deserve all the opportunities available, and all the luck in the world.

It’s your world, mate. We just live in it.

Hi Christian, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I have to say that you’re shorter than I expected.

Um, thanks.

 

So what do you think makes you qualified to write about white people?

Well I like to say that I have 32 years of experience. (CRICKETS). Well, I don’t really think anything qualifies me as the expert. I’m really just the guy who started writing about it. I think I have been especially blessed with a talent for observation due to my being Canadian.

 

Why does being Canadian imbibe you with an observational acumen?

One of the things you learn very early on as a Canadian is that literally no one outside of Canada cares what’s happening in your country. We have spent our entire national existence trying to get some sort of credit or recognition from the UK and more recently the United States. I don’t mean recognition like an award, just recognition that something is happening in Canada besides hockey. We are literally a self deprecating country. So when you come to this realization, you spend most of your life looking outward and observation what the English and the Americans are doing. Mostly so we can dress better.

 

Alright, enough with the niceties, are you a racist?

Not really. I have two black friends, which legally qualifies me as not racist. However, you could say that I’m a bit racist against white people. I stereotype them, I get easily annoyed by them, and very very frustrated when they do something predictably “white.” But all of that anger comes from self-loathing. I am often angry at myself when I gush over a fancy restaurant’s modern take on Poutine or Macaroni and Cheese. I’m frustrated when I find myself lusting over sweaters, and mid century furniture, and raw milk. So am I racist? Not really. Am I self loathing? Yes, most definitely.

 

I was recently informed that you attended your second reggaeton music festival. Did you find that you were embraced by Latino culture?

Not really. But I did impress a number of people by being able to mouth all the words to a Chino y Nacho song.

 

Chino y Nacho?

Yes, they are a very popular duo from Venezuela.

 

Okay, do you think that you’re into this reggaeton music merely because such a small amount of white people are drawn to it? I mean, are you trying so hard to be different from other white people that you’ll fork out money for concert tickets and CDs just to remind them how different you are?

No Comment.

 

Fine, we’ll move on to your next question. How would you define a “White city.”?

Any place where the local economy cannot support real estate prices.

 

Touche. So have you read any books lately that you’ve enjoyed?

I read Jonathan’s Franzen’s Freedom and I am forced, by law to love all things produced by writers named Jonathan from Brooklyn. I also read the book Our Bodies, Our Junk which is hilarious and the new book from the guys who run Free Darko. All are brilliant and highly recommended.

 

So tell me about the new book?

It’s really a continuation and a progression of the first one. It still has the same numbered entries like the first one, but this is broken up by regional drawings and descriptions of all the kinds of white people you’ll find across America.

 

You know, I thought you’d be a lot funnier in this interview.

Sorry about that.

 

No no, it’s fine, it’s just that for all the success you’ve had, you’d think that you’d be more, you know talented.

Well, luck has a huge part to play in all of this.

 

Yeah, I’m starting to realize that. Thanks for your time.



The waiting room of the Côte D’Or préfecture de police has but one open seat.It’s beside a mustached older man in a knit cap holding a green passport.Around the intimate space of plastic chairs arranged to allow for the minimum amount of leg room, I see other green passports along with various shades of red.Mine appears to be the only blue.  I don’t get the sense that any one member of this colorful international coalition desperately wants to obtain the brown passport emblazoned with the words République française.But this is what has brought us together.

We are not expectant, we’re resigned.Whether we think procuring the right to stay in this country is just a matter of procedure or whether we assume it’s almost pointless to try, we wait for our number to be called.I’ve torn “46” from the machine at the door.I sit down with it and my own renewed doubt about my prospects here today.

“The kitchen was the center of life at Owl Farm and it was the engine room for Hunter’s literary Juggernaut.”

Michael Cleverly & Bob Braudis, The Kitchen Readings

*

Since my teenage years I have idolized Hunter S. Thompson. I have read everything he wrote, and have written about him at every opportunity. It is his words I look to in my darkest moments, his voice that guides me when I am nervous, and it is his symbol – the double-thumbed Gonzo fist – that was my first tattoo, proudly set upon my left forearm.

In 2007 I travelled to Colorado for the first time, chasing the legacy of the Beat Generation. It was hardly lost on me that Colorado was not only a temporary home to the Beats, but the long-time residence of Hunter S. Thompson.

The Crash

By David S. Wills

Travel

On Wednesday, 28th July 2010, at around 4pm Japan Standard Time, I was sitting in Narita airport, waiting for a journey that would carry me a significant way around the world. I was, however, not as excited as I could have been. I couldn’t shake the fact that I was leaving a comfortable life, leaving my girlfriend, leaving my cats, leaving my motorcycle… I couldn’t look forward because I was so focused on all that would cease to be a part of my present.

Boarding was uneventful, as had been my flight from South Korea’s Incheon to Japan’s Narita. I waited and waited and finally moved my bags onto the hideously crowded peak-season airplane, and took my seat in the middle of a five person aisle, right at the centre of the plane. My heart sank a little as I realised I’d been given the worst seat on the plane.

I didn’t look around at my fellow passengers. I don’t like people, for the most part, and I find my life is a little easier if I simply pretend they don’t exist. I had no idea then that these faces would become so familiar to me; that these people would become my friends, allies and enemies in the coming days.

I was busy feeling unimpressed by Mt. Rushmore when I noticed the people around me. Four busts over a medium-sized ridge stared deadpan into the clouds as a collective image reproduced so often the original was an inevitable and sorry letdown.

The visitors, though, were something to behold. Among well-dressed Germans, Boy Scouts, sweaty fathers setting up the tripod, earnest tourists listening to the Lakota version of the audio tour as an act of solidarity and even a few Minnesotans, I also noticed bikers.

Every other person at Mt. Rushmore, after I started counting, was clad in bandanas, leather and jeans. Of vehicles in the overflow parking garage, a full two levels teemed with Harleys.

There was a one-word explanation: Sturgis.

I need a place. Just one room. I prefer furnished. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is Chinatown, Las Vegas.

Looking on Craigslist I find an ad for a furnished room. I want to live within walking distance of Asian food, neon foot massage signs, and the angry faces of smoking Chinamen.

The ad says to call May.

I dial. No answer. I leave a short, polite message inquiring about the furnished room. I say I’m an interested party and not much else.

A few hours later I get a call back from a Chinese woman. She sounds confident, mysterious. I imagine my phone quickly filling with incense. “Hi, this is May. You interested in room?”

“Yes, a furnished room.”

“You want two bedrooms? I have two bedrooms.”

“Just one. In Chinatown.”

“Ohh. Chinatown. Why you want room?”

This is the second time in two days someone has asked me why I want a room. The day before, a woman named Mindy was on the other end of the phone and said the same exact words. Her voice was distrustful, disinterested.

“Because I need a place,” I said to Mindy.

“Speak up. I can’t hear you. Will you speak up?”

Mindy hung up. I leaned back in my office chair and wondered if anyone overheard my call come to an abrupt end.

Now May hangs on the other end of the phone waiting in anticipation for me to answer. I feel that whatever I say will be part of a mysterious puzzle of locks hiding treasure beneath the Forbidden City. “I just moved here,” I say.

“Ohh. You just moved here.”

“I want to live in Chinatown,” I say again.

“Ohh.” Every time she says this I hear her voice trail off, hiding five other sentences. “I have a place not far from there. You catch bus. Close to Chinatown. Ok? Where you work?”

I tell her I work for a radio station.

“Where you come from?”

“California. I’m in Las Vegas now. I live with a DJ.”

She explains the rent, says that doubling it is what it would take to move in. “You like that? Ok?” she asks. I imagine May in a slinky Asian dress talking into an old rotary phone. The smoke-filled room casts shadows on her aged face. “When you want to move in?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Ohh.”

“Can I see it tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow… Listen, I will give you number. You ask for May Wong. May. She no good English. You speak very slowly. She meet you there.”

“But your name is May.”

“She another May. You call her. You show up. She show it to you. But speak slowly. She no good English. I call her right now.”

I get off the phone, wait a few minutes and call the second May.

“Yes?” There is an uncomfortable moment.

“May Wong?”

“Yes.” There is another silence. “See house?”

“Yes.”

“Nine… a.m.?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“Bye?”

The home is just around the corner from a mansion with an amazing horse statue guarding a giant metal gate. The streets are wide, quiet, with big single-story homes and half-circle desert landscape driveways that probably look like emoticons when one’s peering at them from the sky.

John is with me. He’s the DJ. He carries a blue bag filled with work papers and notebooks. “You don’t mind if I tag along for the walk through?” he asks.

I’m all for sharing the adventure. We soon wait outside for May Wong to show up in a Mercedes. I ring the doorbell. It’s loud, a “ding dong” fit for a castle. I step back. No one answers though two cars are parked on the side of the house. The front doors have two different colored locks: one silver, one brass. Both wooden doors look like they’ve been dragged through gravel pits and rail yards.

Ten minutes later May Wong calls. “See house?” she says.

“I’m here.”

“Wait.”

“Yes.”

“Three minutes.” She hangs up.

“She’s going to be rolling up in that Mercedes any minute,” John says.

Down the street I see a tiny red hatchback that looks like a Smart Car. It pulls in. May can barely see over the steering wheel. She scoots it into the shade beneath a seventy-foot-tall pine tree.

“I should have taken that shade,” John complains as we watch the car roll to a stop and tiny May Wong step out. She carries a green handbag and a little pink coin purse with cartoon characters on it. She pulls out a set of keys.

“Hi May,” I say. 

She ignores me and walks to the double doors. She fumbles with the keys and the silver lock for a good thirty seconds before finally pushing open the left door.

John and I follow her into a dark foyer. Off to our left is an extravagant living room filled with statues and paintings. One of the statues is missing a head. I scan quickly for old wooden chests and gaudy birdcages filled with gremlins. She bypasses the room and takes us past a living room that has a giant TV, couches and a coffee table covered in newspapers and magazines. We step into a hallway. Its walls are covered with photos and paintings. It’s alongside a kitchen where a huge rice cooker and three blenders sit on the counter. I wonder if any of them work.

May continues down the hallway. She stops, turns and gives a half smile and motions to a door. She fumbles with the lock and can’t get it to work. Walking away from the door she heads further down the hallway and looks around a corner and starts talking to someone. “Kevin,” she says then immediately starts talking in Chinese. She disappears around the corner but I can hear them talking.

Kevin’s voice is sleepy. He’s in a room and has been woken up. He says something in Chinese to May.

I look back at John who is far down the hallway behind me. He’s taking photos of pictures on the wall.

May appears from around the corner and motions to another door. She opens it and I step inside a tiny furnished room. There’s a big window with a view of the back yard. I gaze toward a yellowing weed-covered lot and an empty cement swimming pool. A faded blue diving board looks brittle in the heat.

“You like?” May says.

“Sure,” I say.

May then shows me a laundry room, a garage and then a bathroom obviously occupied with Kevin’s things. It’s a mess of bottles. Towels lay piled on the floor.

I wonder if there are rooms at the other end of the hallway. “You have other rooms?” I ask.

May gives me a curious look but shuffles down the hallway to the other end where there is a clean bathroom. There are also two doors. One has a lock on a brass handle. She opens it. It looks just like the other room she showed me. I’m happy it’s far from Kevin for some reason.

“You like?” she asks.

I look at the other door. There are combination lock dials on it. “Who lives there?”

“Mimi Lin,” May says.

“Ohh,” I say.

She leads me back down the hall, past black and white photos of a Chinese woman. The photos look old, from the Fifties. The woman in them wears cat eye glasses. Her hair is shoulder length. There is a mysterious gaze in her eyes.

“You like?” May looks at me curiously. Her stare is long, almost pleading.

“You mean do I want to move in?”

“Yes.”

“I have to think about it.”

“You call Mimi Lin.”

“Who is Mimi Lin?”

She points back down the hallway to the room with the combination locks.

“Is she the owner?”

“Yes. You call.”

“What’s her number?”

She can’t say the numbers but shows me her phone. I see Chinese characters. I see my phone number. I’m one of the only two people May Wong has spoken to in the past two days according to her phone list.

I write down the number she says belongs to Mimi Lin. There is something fishy about it. Something familiar.

That night I get a call. It’s from the number. I don’t answer. I realize I’ve gotten calls from this number before. I listen to a phone message. “Hi, this is May.” It’s the first May. The old mysterious May. She doesn’t call herself Mimi Lin, though it’s the number May Wong gave me for her. “Do you like the house May Wong showed you yesterday? Please give me a call. Thank you.”

I hang up in wonder. Is Mimi Lin, the woman behind the mysterious combination locks, really May?

That night I take a walk down Spring Valley Parkway, and then onto South Rainbow. As I head past Ravenwood Park I decide to call Kike. She’s my mysterious Chinese friend whose old piano teacher died from a heart attack after a lesson one day. She was blamed for putting a curse on the teacher. She claims her grandfather’s ghost regularly visits at night to tickle her feet. She lives with a gypsy.

She often assists me in making crucial life decisions.

We make small talk as I walk down the burning streets of west Las Vegas before I finally bring up the possibility of living in Mimi Lin’s house.

“We all have choices,” Kike says.

“There was a decapitated statue in her house,” I add.

“Ohh. Then you have to beware of what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes a normal home can be one of sacrifice and spirits.”

“Sacrifice?”

Kike lets out a breath. I turn up the volume on my phone. “Let me tell you a story. I don’t like to remember this. When I was seventeen years old I was very sick. My family drove me to a home in Long Beach. I didn’t know why I was there. While I sat waiting, a witchdoctor suddenly brought forth a white chicken and a big empty tin, like a popcorn tin you might get for Christmas. The witchdoctor had a knife. Anyway, in a twisting motion he cut the head off the chicken.

“He drained its blood into the tin and added some ashes. Then he took toothpicks and jammed them under my fingernails. He pulled them out and squeezed my blood into the tin to mix with that of the chicken. He spit into it too. Then he poured in some alcohol and set it on fire to release the evil spirits as well as commit the sacrifice in exchange for those evil spirits sickening me.

“Then it was time for me to be renewed. Cleansed. He then grabbed a water bottle. There was no fancy container. Water is water until you bless it. Then it becomes holy. He poured out some into a cup. He blessed it and spit in it. I was terrified. But he held out the cup. Everyone looked at me. And so I had to drink it. I gagged. I wanted to throw up. But I knew they would have just made me drink more. So, I held the cup and drank.”

I soon get off the phone with Kike and continue my walk. I think about a friend at the Cannibal Islands who told me about meeting an old woman hanging laundry. The old woman revealed a story about a criminal getting eaten by those who discovered his crime. I’m thousands of miles away, but I wonder about that sacrifice cleansing an entire island. I think about Kike’s bleeding fingers, the chicken’s stained feathers and Mimi Lin’s statues. I think about her locked door and the photos on her walls.

I look toward the edge of the city into a pink dusk and a rainbow of desert mountains along Red Rock Canyon that jut above rooftops.

Later, walking through the darkness I wonder why I am even in Las Vegas as I continue to ignore calls from Mimi Lin.

Image from Flickr.

I called you from Utah because I wanted to hear your voice underneath the unending vastness of the pale blue afternoon sky, against the haunted emptiness of the waiting land.

I wrote you letters and sent them across the sea because I wanted you to come home to find them waiting, and hold them in your hands, and know the truth – that I wouldn’t leave you, no matter how separated we were by distance and by chance, by helpless accidents and unforgiving wreckages of the past we never had a chance of preventing.

I said goodbye to you for the first time, so long ago now, in the night at the airport terminal, and as I stood and watched you walk away through the loneliness of San Francisco International to Laura’s waiting car I wanted so much for you to look back at me, and you did, and the look on your face when you raised your hand uncertainly to wave cuts through me still.

I’ve stood guard over that moment; it’s too important to me to ever lose to the untrustworthiness of memory. Just as I’ve held all of my memories of you close to me and safe; just as now I’ll hold on to what it was like to see you, again.

I don’t need to replay the past and painstakingly construct new bridges of possibility of what you or I or we could have done differently on foundations of everything that has passed – but there is warmth in these recollections, and I allow myself the comfort of drawing them out when I need.

Of walking through the heavy rain in Japantown. Waiting for you in the lobby, my shoes soaked from flooded sidewalks, and rainwater still running down my face.

Of night through the Mission, waiting on street corners for the lights to change, walking through rivers of people in twos and threes, catching words and phrases in Spanish, light and sound and scent painting the streets and the two of us moving together. You told me then that being with me felt like being let out of prison; I didn’t know what to say back, because I knew I couldn’t say anything that would mean as much to you as those words did to me.

Conversations and coffee, and early mornings, and late nights. Market Street, 18th, Church. The J and the Muni and the stairs up to your apartment, and that cold light that washes over the streets of San Francisco in the late afternooon, that threw long shadows along the corridors of my house and warned of the heavy fog to come.

Today I stood on the sand of a Malibu beach and saw a girl who wore the same windcheater you have; for a second with the sun behind her she could have been you, and I wanted to take your hand and walk through the surf and over the rocks. Because while we’ve spoken of large and sweeping movements between us, so many of the missing parts were the small ones, the tiny brushstrokes of shared experience, measured in seconds and minutes and hours.

Now there has been so much I can’t know where to think it all begins and ends; I searched for understanding in our words and our silences. I needed to know where every piece fit together so I could still the terror of losing you that welled up in me whenever we were apart. I would have found something to be scared of no matter what – the flaws in me bend that way and without you, I might never have known who I am.

Whatever else, you have given me that. Whatever else, you have given me the knowledge of what it is to be loved, and now I want you to know that it was that, and it was you, that opened the doors of the world to me, who took my hand while I walked through. Whatever threads wind themselves around us to knot and catch our limbs or guide us home, wherever and whoever I am, and whoever I become, I will carry you with me, and the knowledge that everything changed because of you.

And so now that the last storms have passed, with so much fear at last drained from me, with my feet on solid ground, I can leave this country again tomorrow night, freed from what has been, and want happiness for you. I can leave this place we have found between us because it is a good place for us, I think, and while we may not share it, neither does it have to hold us tight and pull us down to the earth. I can leave behind everything that is not what has been, wanting only for you to know how grateful I am for you and what you’ve left me with, and how much I hope you find love and peace in the solace of days.

So, David, you recently got back from a long book tour; what were you reading in your downtime on the road? Any book(s) really blowing you away right now?

Have you heard of this book called Shit My Dad Says?  I love it a lot.


What’s making you love this book so much right now?

What do I love about the book? I was talking to Laurie about it tonight, as we walked around Green Lake. I really love how compressed the book is. I love how there is no space between the articulation and the embodiment of the articulation. I love how there are vast reservoirs of feeling beneath Justin’s voice and beneath the father’s aphorisms. The father is legitimately smart, even wise; he’s trying to teach his son that life is only blood and bones. Nothing more and nothing less. The son is trying to express to his father his bottomless love and complex admiration.


I have been aware of Shit My Dad Says as a blog. So there is a book out now also? What are the things about the book that you like? I thought the blog was pretty funny. The blog says they are getting a show on CBS. I wonder if the dad will slowly become aware of his minor celebrity status and become more self-aware, thus spoiling the main source of humor? The massive unselfconsciousness might be polluted?

Yep, there’s a blog posting, and it’s already become a TV show (bad, apparently) and a best-selling book. It sounds too easy–this guy just collecting vulgar wisdoms that his father says, but the book is actually kind of lovely. I love how Justin Halpern writes, and I love the mix between his father’s crazy truth-telling and the son slowly getting it. That is, the title is what it is because the son finally learns to embrace the rude vitality of the father. Also, the book is, to me, hugely about Vietnam—the father was a medic in Vietnam–and to me, based on a single crucial scene, it’s not inconsiderably about the father endlessly processing that violence, that anger. It’s also hugely about being Jewish in America–again, very obliquely, mentioned just once; it’s about the father teaching the son how to be Jewish and male in America, which is a complicated thing.


The blog entries all look like about the length of a Twitter post. Is the book set up that way, too? From what I’ve seen of the blog, the whole thing comes off as a very vulgar, un-PC version of something like La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims or Pascal’s Pensées: raw aphorisms that all seem to have some sort of brutal truth at the core. Does the book layout look at all like the blog–a bunch of 200-character bursts?

Yep. I think each entry is meant to be 140 characters or less: the length of a tweet. I love how it just cuts to the chase. How short all of the sections are–how it tries to have as thin a membrane as possible between author and reader and writer, and I love how it’s essentially a tape recording of the father’s best lines, overdubbed with very brief monologues by the son. To me, it’s almost a model for what writing can be now. It’s not great or even good, probably, really, finally, but above all it’s not boring. Which is everything to me. I compare it to the excerpt in the NYer recently of Franzen’s new novel. I couldn’t read past the first paragraph’s high-church sonorities, which have zero to do with life now lived.


The analogy of the tape recording of the father with color commentary by the son is a good one. I like that sort of double-layered narrative. It almost sounds like what I love about a really well-done sports broadcast. You have the main voice calling out all the detail as it happens, and then you have the color-commentator adding a less specific, wider view on events.

That’s a great analogy, but I’d change it more to the father is the action on the field, then the son is the announcer trying to explain it, analyze it, get it.


So are you seeing Halpern’s book as a pretty much flawless work?

The only mistake in the book is the last ten pages, and it’s a serious one. The mask comes off, and everything goes badly sentimental.

Till then I love the book.


That is interesting about the last 10 pages. I wonder why Halpern makes the sudden change at the end? Is it because he felt that a book needs a “book-ish” ending? Or maybe it was editorial advice?

It’s a terrible move. Almost certainly derived from editorial advice.  In many ways it ruins the book, as does the sit-com.


Do you think Shit My Dad Says could be a glimpse of a new form of book born out of the Myspace/Facebook/Twitter realm? Halpern’s instinct was to make a blog first. The book seems to be a secondary recasting of the blog. Before this conversation I didn’t know it was a book. To me it was a blog people kept telling me about.

I do think it suggests that you can be living as an unemployed screenwriter in San Diego and six months later you’re a best-selling writer. I love that.


Do you think Halpern put the book together by harvesting and editing down the blog posts that had built up over a stretch of time? Or was the blog part of a more deliberate plan, and the book was always the end goal? For some reason I find the latter scenario more artistically appealing, maybe because it starts to feel more like organic folk art. Also, do you think a book like this shows that the social networking, web-log impulse can lead to good literature?

I definitely don’t see it as a deliberate plan. If it is, I’ll kill myself. Can social networking, blogging generate great books? On very rare occasions such as this, yes. Justin Halpern has said that he was collecting notes for a screenplay, then of course the notes became tweets, tweets became blog, website, book, etc. That’s crucial for me: the notes for the book are the book, are the better version of the book than any too-considered book.


As I mentioned above, I find it interesting that I was told about Shit My Dad Says by a handful of people, but always in terms of it being a blog I should check out. It might be because the book has been out only a few weeks. But it makes me think about the fact that in the course of everyday discourse at work and in conversations with friends, I’m almost always being urged to check out blogs, YouTube videos, the odd TV show episode or movie now and then, and sometimes podcasts. Books are probably the furthest down on that list. Books don’t seem to occupy the “fun zone” (for lack of a better term). The word-of-mouth recommendations I get from friends are usually some sort of oral endorsement about how great something is and how I really need to have a look because I am missing out on the fun. That is how I found out about Shit My Dad Says. Someone said, “Have you ever read [the blog] Shit My Dad Says? It’s hilarious. This kid just records all the crazy stuff his dad says, and his dad says some real messed-up stuff.”  I’ll wager a million dollars that I’ll never have one of these folks come up to me and say, “Hey, have you heard of this book Shit My Dad Says? It’s great.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems far less likely to happen.

I think that’s crucial. The book as object is, as you say, not part of the “fun zone.” Book culture is dead. Books, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze the same energies for literary purposes. That’s what I try to do. Those are the books I love, read, teach, and try to write. Eg, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, David Markson’s This is Not a Novel, Leonard Michaels’s “Journal.” They’re all more literary versions of Shit My Day Says, but they all have that cut-to-the-bone, cut-to-the-chase quality. “This is how we write now.” At least it’s how I write and read now.


It just seems that 20-something and 30-something people I am in contact with are much more open to a new reading experience when it is a blog. I know there have got to be a hundred complex reasons as to why that is, but none of them change the fact that these folks, these non-literature-heads are reading. They haven’t stopped reading; they just don’t get as excited about the book form. I wonder if this is because the blog form is so much easier, immediate, low-time-commitment, non-homework-ish, and of course free?

Crucial for me are the immediacy, the relative lack of scrim between writer and reader, the promised delivery of unmediated reality, the pseudo-artlessness, the nakedness, the comedy, the real feeling hidden 10 fathoms deep.


I think for the most part we can rule out cost as a factor, because these same people don’t hesitate to buy a CD even if they could download it, if the spirit moves them enough or if the artwork is cool enough or if the significance of the release is high enough. I think the reason for these media habits has more to do with low time commitment, and also the feeling that with a blog they are getting something “rawer,” more unfiltered, more direct from writer to reader.

That’s so much what I argue, of course, throughout Reality Hunger. For instance, this new book about David Foster Wallace, called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. David Lipsky spent a couple of weeks with Wallace 14 years ago, then 13 years later he went back and excavated the notes. The book pretends to be just a compilation of notes, and maybe that’s all it is, but to me–this might be way too generous of a reading–it’s a meditation on two sensibilities: desperate art and pure commerce. Lipsky, I hope, knows what he’s doing: evoking himself as the very quintessence of everything Wallace despised.


I don’t think that these media-use habits that we’re talking about mean the book is obsolete. I think it means that we as writers are somehow missing a new element. It could be that a book is just less inherently immediate and raw because it has to go through the old-fashioned labyrinth of the publishing industry, and even when the book is printed and ready to go, you have to either go down to a store to get it, or have it shipped to you via Amazon. But I think this is a constraint that we writers can work around. I think it’s just a challenge for us–to give the book that “live” feel, that up-to-date, awake, aware, instant feel. There will always be a place for, say, the traditional novel that is read on the beach on vacation or chapter by chapter at bedtime for a month as a means of entertainment and escape. But there is this whole other, newer form of reading that most books being published today don’t have an answer for. Even achieving a happy medium between the new and old reading experience would be a great breakthrough. To me a book like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets has that sizzle on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. It’s boiled down to the bare elements, stripped down to just the basic notes (in both senses of the word).

That’s what I’m aiming for. The paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle is everything to me. Fusselman, Gray, Michaels, Nelson, to take just a few examples—-these books books have an extraordinarily artful “artlessness” that is to me crucial to contemporary art.


I have been taking notes and collecting quotes for nearly 2 years, all for this future book that I hope will materialize at some point. But every time I attempt to turn the notes into the book, I hate the results. It also doesn’t hurt that I love all these books, like The Pharmacist’s Mate, that are collections of scraps laid out in a pleasing manner. I think my love of this sort of structural style definitely nudges me towards the notes staying notes, or you could say “the book” staying notes. Really what I have built is a database of little meditations, riffs, metaphors, and quotations. I even find my notes on how the book should be structured to be full of energy, because it is an outline of my massive aspirations for the book, most of which I have no hope of actually pulling off. It almost feels like my book wants to be about the planning of a book. A hypothetical literature that can’t exist under earth’s current gravity. So, yes, I am with you all the way regarding your interest in these sorts of books.

The notes are the book, I promise you.



Yes, I agree, I deserved to be sat next to a big fat person for thinking Jesus, I hope I don’t have to sit next to a big fat person on this flight.

Yes, I agree, I deserved to be sat next to the biggest, fattest person on the flight after watching this person in particular walk down the aisle and thinking Jesus. Like that one right there.

The rule is this and always this: while walking though an airport on my way to boarding a plane, I must listen to the Dandy Warhols. The song doesn’t matter, the album is immaterial, and this isn’t something I do for luck, or to seal a bargain with fate that in return for my remembrance and recognition of this ritual the wings of the plane will stay sealed to the fuselage and not suddenly fall off over the darkness of the Pacific at mid-flight, midnight… it’s just the way it goes.

There’s a certain sound that the Warhols have perfected, a textured richness that rides the line between drone and groove. Played loud, it overrides everything else, washes through the world and puts you in a singular, solo universe – your own personal movie soundtrack. I like this; I like feeling like there’s a greater narrative of motion that is centred around me for an average of three minutes and thirty seconds.

I am crazy about poetry. Absolutely besotted. Poetry has helped me though the darkest days I’ve endured; it’s calmed me down during minor surgeries; it’s helped me remember experiences I never want to lose to the horizon; and it’s helped me put out of my mind destructive vexations.  Poetry is so utterly a part of my life, my everyday, that I am still astonished when I run into people who dislike poetry, who distrust poetry, who even fear poetry.  As any lover prickles in unrest unless everyone else acknowledges the magnificence of their beloved, I find myself wanting to draw my friends, my family, my colleagues into my inductive field of admiration.

This column is for those who are nervous about poetry, those who have had a nervous breakdown from the effects of poetry stuffed down their gullets by bad teachers. For those who have felt belittled or just bewildered by what they have been cajoled to admire, under pain of being called Philistines.  For those who have found their intelligence insulted by shallow irrelevance.  This column is not about educating you, but rather sharing delights with you, with the full understanding that you will like some of it, and dislike some of it, and that, that’s OK.  I’ll present different ideas and themes regarding poetry each time, and I’ll always have a poem or two to share, and I hope I can put you in the mood to share alike. To tell me why the poems I pick work for you, or why they do not.  To tell me in general why you love or hate poetry.  Each column is just a touchstone for discussion. I want to hear about your experiences with poetry, or lack of same, whether good or bad, satisfying or enervating.

The inestimable, incomparable Zara Potts and I will be bringing the ruckus back from New Zealand and Australia this June, with a cross-country road-trip spectacular that starts and finishes in LA, proceeds through Vegas, Denver and Chicago en route to New York, and swings back through Nashville, Baton Rouge, Dallas, and, possibly, Roswell, before bouncing back and forth from LA and San Francisco a little.

Cool, huh?

I personally have a few humble goals to knock off my across-the-USAniverse itinerary, such as see the florist’s store when Dion O’Banion bought it in Chicago, 1924, get baptised in a river somewhere, and make sweeping generalisations about every state we pass through based on the entirety of my prior experience (‘This isn’t Heaven! It’s <i>Iowa</i>).

We touch down on June 5 at LAX. Come say hi.

On the trip, that is. Not just at LAX.


For my fellow misfits at The Nervous breakdown

 

To belong? What’s it mean? Is it creature of tense? Is it active or passive?
Is it cold set in bone, magma oozing to plate ocean floor, or explosive
Crackling reaction, plume clearing to flesh jacked into the massive?

My parents were wartime romance. “There was something in the air that night,
The stars were bright, Fernando…” For liberty indeed, and ten years prior, NOT
Fernando; to ditch the justice of the peace and priest’s decree of might makes names right;

They’d fought the Queen so that Gerald could be Uche, raised on Nigerian playgrounds
But when ancient wounds opened and national grass ran red, they fought for…Biafran greens.
Never thought that they could lose so they stitched their winnings into my ten birthweight pounds.

My Early Assumptions About France

* more enlightened

* better food

* less restrictive attitudes about sex and gender

* mastering the language would take a few months tops

* the lifestyle of the writer is amply rewarded

* it’s pretty much like the film Amélie

* but with painful taxes and secret social codes

* and citizens who sometimes get stuck in the past

* and believe the world turns around their country

My Wife’s Early Assumptions About America

* can do spirit alive and well