> 09 on writing about china

09 on writing about china

2008-04-11 - jjackunrau

If you go to Israel for a few days you can write a book about your experience. If you go for a month you might be able to write an article about it. If you stay much longer than that you won't be able to write a word.

Holly read that yesterday and was a little annoyed with it. “That’s China, not Israel!” It’s always a little sad to see what you see as your own complex niche appropriated. But really, this is the kind of thing you could say about anywhere remotely interesting. You start with surface highlights, the kind sold at the drugstore/LonelyPlanetized for your convenience. And then things get more involved. You exhaust the highlights the strangeness and things begin to get con-fused (I believe that’s my favourite bit I’ve picked up from reading Neal Stephenson - hyphnating words to highlight their origins). Once you get into life in a place you hit the wall of “where do I begin?”

I’ve felt that to a certain extent. While I was in China living, my writing about it trailed off. What was I actually saying? What did it mean? I couldn’t tell you. But that’s what this trip is about: Seeing it again and letting the filter/whatever of memory get activated. I’m not concerned here with the details adding up into one grandly designed whole. There will be no point, because just like anywhere you live long enough you lose sight of the beginning and the end because these things don’t exist in life. But they do exist in voyages, expeditions, journeys and books. These pages are signs and signifiers not the signified. Of course.

No one is arguing I have to tell the truth in here, though I’m trying. Holly was talking to her brother last night on the Internet and one of her comments was “I’m just hiding here in China. Since it always stays the same.” And that it does. It’s not the same being back hoe and watching your friends get married maybe start having kids. China (anywhere) remains somewhat outside “real life” and maybe that’s why I’m writing about it again. Stepping out of the stream I’m in at home. But is that even true? At home I’m doing a job that has no real responsibility. I’m not trying to get ahead or do anything story-like. Just existing in a way that’s so hard to write about without it turning into some “literary” thing I can’t give a soul to.

This is my writing about hamburger steak. I will not make you taste it I don’t think but I can point at it, say it exists. Hmm. A bit scattered here. I blame the sun for only warming up one of my arms. All unbalanced like this I’m writing faster with less to say. I did want to get at the thing that bugged me about the inverse relationship between time spent and amount written. It works for many places, but only for strict journalistic writing. Reports and such. Essays about “The Meaning of Place X.” That kind of thing. But when we set our sights on literature we need all this time. Literature begins slowly and helps the writer discover how she really feels about things [that’s a mangled Kazuo Ishiguro quote -JJU]. I think this is what I’m doing here. I think this is what this ink will become.

Just to continue in that vein a little more (and please forgive any repetitions you may find here; I’ve begun a new page in my notebook on a new day) I am not here in China this time to experience it. Of course I do want experiences, that’s one of the things I am a secret glutton for (though even that has the ring of falsity: I am a secret glutton for the stories that having experiences give you the right to tell. Stories that are your own and don’t belong to some collective unconscious or invisible clergy or popular culture. Stories that belong to you.) but experiences aren’t the driving force here. I’m on a trip into memory and the rain and construction noises and the harmonious repose of the electric kettle are all sparks for that. Out the window I can hear a bus stop with it’s chuggling engine and it is the number 8 bus in Wanzhou while I’m jogging through the rain with a blue plaid umbrella to engage my baozi lady in our secret smiling dance of thanks and compensation and running home to find the heat sapped out of the bun into the cold wet air leaving a sponge and salty oil behind.

experience holly israel kazuo ishiguro memory nanjing neal stephenson rain real life the hangman wanzhou