Monday, August 8, 2011

My Asian Stories, Feminisms, Bibles, Artworks

Here I am.  Yep, it's me you're looking at.  My Mom, one of my brothers, our friend Ông Siew, and then, on the right, me.  Well, it's me when I was younger.  Or, to be even more "accurate," and "precise," and "literal," and so forth and so on, it's just a picture of me, a photo graph, a digitized one now, on a blog on your PC or smartphone screen, or maybe printed on some paper or shined up on a screen.  So is it me?  Yes, there I am.  I'm the same person as in the re-presentation you're looking at above.

My Dad was telling me stories of Ông Siew as I spent this weekend with him and my Mom.  Many of the stories I hadn't heard.  Most I was a part of.  In fact, what got us looking at this picture was the fact that Dad was telling me a story of going to visit Mr. Siew's village in the highlands of central South Viet Nam.  And he told this particular story as if I wasn't there.  In fact, he'd forgotten how often he'd take us with him to the village, sometimes with Mom, most of the time without her.  The photo doesn't really "prove" anything to him or to me.  Except we were people who we still may be today.  And yet, we're different some too.  And we wouldn't be who we are today if we hadn't been where we were or who we were.  [I think you may want to hear that Ông Siew is what the French called "Montagnard."  Literally, that may mean to you that he is a "Mountain Person."  Figurally, that may mean to you that he is of an indigenous people of Viet Nam.  Doubtfully, you know something of the discriminations his people experienced and still experience because they have darker skin and different languages than those who are now officially Vietnamese by race and by language.  To call him Ông is just to refer to him by one of his two mother tongues.  So the stories get told and the representations go beyond western logic.  They are personal, and you can tell your stories too.]

The framing of the photo, the framing of the stories, is key.  I write at this blog oftentimes because I am this uncommon mix of the West and of the East, of what Edward Said reframed as Orientalism when having no idea really how he, then, was reframing his own Occidentalism, as a mixture.  This is very unlike Aristotle, whom many of us here in the West get our epistemology from, as if it's the only or at least the default way of understanding our world, and who we are.

While in my parents' home this weekend, I read the forward to the book, The Story Bible, by Pearl S. Buck.  Let me see if I can come to some point of what this blogpost might be about.  If you get it at all, then you might need to know how I always take too many books with me when I visit my parents alone (that is, without my siblings or without my nuclear family), because my parents are often interrupted by visitors making house calls to see Dad, who has cancer in its final stage.  They call him Mục Sư Gayle or Pendeta Gayle or Pastor Gayle because he is a missionary, or was when we in South Viet Nam and in Indonesia.  They don't care to see me, usually, and it's usually a mutual feeling.  So I do have a little time to read.  Maybe some day, here at this blog, I'll read more of the book Pearl wrote, and more from her forward.  Today, let me tell you how she starts it and finishes that forward, the last couple of paragraphs coming as if she's trying to let you know what the Bible as told in her Story Bible is about.  This isn't a difficult thing if you just go with it a little.  She recalls:
"When I was a child growing up in China in the household of my American parents, I was not encouraged to read the Bible."

"The Bible . . . may be read in many ways.  For some it constitutes divine teaching, and it does contain that element.  For others it is the purest literature we have in the English language.  For still others it is a compendium of information on suffering, struggling, rejoicing human nature.  For children, it is a story book.  May they read it as I read it long ago in a Chinese house on a Chinese hillside!
Yet stay--as I write it occurs to me that the bible has another meaning.  It is an Asian book, for Christianity [as the religion of my parents] came out of the East.  It seems a contradiction that today the West, facing conflict with the East, should nevertheless find its own source of spiritual life in a volume of Asia, centering about the Jews, who, though they have wandered far, nevertheless remain in many ways true to their ancient history which is Asian.  It may be that in this very fact we shall find the means of a common understanding, a basic agreement on the constitution for a peaceful world."
You may now be as surprised as I am at the Introduction to Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, A New Translation by Willis Barnstone.  Yep.  I took that book with me when visiting my parents this weekend.  Here's the way Willis starts his first two paragraphs, and we may want to notice his allusions to the East and the West:
"In Sappho we hear for the first time in the Western world the direct words of an individual woman.  It cannot be said that her song has ever been surpassed.  In a Greek dialect of eastern Mediterranean, she became our first Tang dynasty poet, akin to one of those Chinese of the eight century C.E. whose songs were overheard thought and conversation, in strict form, and who were said to 'dance in chains....."
"Time with its strange appetite has modernized these ancient voices, making the Tang writer Wang Wei and the Aiolic Sappho fashionable and intimate.  The East has preserved a ton of the Tang poets, or, as the Chinese would say, 'ten thousand' of those golden birds in the Middle Kingdom.  Despite early losses due to the fires of the book-burning emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (ruled 221-210 B.C.E.), China thereafter zealously preserved the work of its poets.  But Sappho suffered from book-burning religious authorities who left us largely scraps of torn papyrus found in waterless wastes of North Africa...."
Some other day at this blog we might read together how Willis turns to Chinese pinyinization for analogies to what we might do -- and some what he does -- with the Greek letters of Sappho and of her poetry burned and in fragments.  We might see how in the Glossary of his book he writes of HADES and of Tartaros (thinking of how Rob Bell and John Piper might differently think of these words in the Greek new testament written by Jewish writers, translating Jewish rhetors).  We might see how Willis characterizes HARAXOS and then HEKTOR (HECTOR) and then HELEN (Eléna), noting especially how the Sicilian poet Stisihoros (Stesichorus) writes lines as "counters to the story about Helen's venture to Troy" and how Plato, or at least his Socrates, "picks up on 'the false accusation of Helen'."  Sappho, we would hear Willis say, does something altogether different with Helen in her poetry.

The lines are not always so straight, or so sharply divided, in stories and in poetry and in art.  The lines of the East don't always seem so direct.  The women, whom we may call feminists, like Pearl S. Buck and Sappho, whether because of early lack of encouragement or because of later book-burnings or because they do get to what they want to say, do not always tell us what we first expect.  

In a book on my parents' shelf, I saw more of this.  It is Hidden Art, by Edith Schaeffer.  She starts in these ways:
"What is Art?  Authorities do not agree.  Definitions differ.
Who draws the line that separates
   Art from Design?
   Sculpture from Ornaments?
   Poetry from Jingle?
   Great Music from Pooh's Hums?
   Great Literature from Daily News?"
On her second page, Edith continues her questions.  Maybe some day at this blog we'll read more of them.   Today, I just want you to believe me when I tell you the story that she also goes on to talk about hidden art, of God as artist, of the Creation as art, of the Bible as art.

Today, I'd like to end here by pointing you to a Daily News piece, yes an op-ed essay.  It's something that one of my blogger friends pointed us all to:
"Theophrastus said...
Off topic: Lepore's Poetry, Medium and Message
What you shouldn't miss if you go reading that essay is this:  that there's this allusion to Aristotle, a great credit given to him:
"The main idea — that efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not — was not new. It has been generally agreed upon since Aristotle."
 Oh, but then I'd love for you to notice how the writer, Ernie, is trying to get us thinking about his thesis, which is how to answer this question, which appears as the up-front point of the whole essay:
"So what is your poem about?"
I hope you're gathering a bit what you think this blogpost of mine is about.

Think about this when you hear or read men saying things like "Rachel Held Evans is not writing Biblical blog posts" or "Well, at least she's not doing biblical scholarship at her blog" or "Oh, Come on.  You've got to at least agree that she isn't doing real scholarship.  Or else she'd be part of the biblioblogging Top community with us."   The logic of the West demands such parsing, doesn't it?  As if nature itself demands sharp distinctions and definitions that would exclude by rule.  What's not very clear to those propagating such logic is how there are hidden reasons which in public they don't very much like to admit.  And who can define poetry?  Who is the king of prose?

"So what is my blogpost about?"

Maybe stories another day can help us answer.  I believe I can say some of this gets very personal, but we shouldn't always be so afraid of telling such stories, should we?  For now, I'm out of time to tell any more.

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