Sunday, April 29, 2007

Imaginary Geographies

With Daniel Alarcón, Arthur Japin, Tatyana Tolstaya; moderated by Deborah Treisman

This talk was up in a theater that's part of Lincoln Center. Which is fine and easy to get to and all except for the fact that it was disgusting out. By the time I got there I looked kind of like I'd just popped out of a washing machine. Curly hair and that kind of damp, almost raining weather don't mesh well. Granted, the little old ladies and men who make up most of the audience for these things (particularly at 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon) aren't going to care. But I still hate looking like I haven't even bothered when going somewhere.

The person coordinating the talk then had to ask people to move down toward the front. Which seemed kind of funny considering that the people there were not, shall we say, of an age to be gossiping with their friends at the back of a classroom. I think it's just that people don't want the speakers to actually look at them. You don't want to be observed when you're there to observe other people. And what if you yawn, or look bored or what have you? Very troublesome.

Anyway, the reading. They started out by each reading a bit of their writing, which I always find fairly boring except insofar as it lets me see what a writer I'm not familiar with is about. It's like going to see a musician, sure I like their music but I could just listen to a cd. I want to see what they have to say and how they dress and talk. It's a bit of a cult of celebrity thing I suppose, except for the fact that at readings you sometimes get to hear about a readers process or inspiration or what have you. And there's often a question or answer session during which people prove that there is indeed such a thing as a stupid question. Or at the very least that there are people who enjoy hearing themselves talk far more than I do. And I talk a lot.

Alarcón was wearing jeans, layered t-shirts, and converse sneakers. So he basically looks (and at times talks) like a slacker college student, which, because I was sick and cranky, caused a minor existential crisis for me. I thought for a moment that if you're not the sort of person who writes, you should want to be the sort of person who is written about. I meanwhile, I am the sort of person who works at a nine-to-five desk job and then goes home and heats up dinner in the microwave. Oh the angst. Then I remembered that I actually quite like my life, and had a moment of annoyance at the fact that he couldn't even be bothered to put on a nice pair of shoes when he was going to be on a stage, and felt better. He read from Lost City Radio which is set in an imaginary city much like Lima, Peru.

Japin wore a suit with a sweater (no tie), has mostly greyed hair, and talks like he has money. Not what he says but the way he speaks. He read from a book called The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, about two African boys who were given to the king of Denmark. Tolstaya is overweight and wears gold-rimmed glasses. I think she dyes her hair. She wore jeans too (tapered and fairly awful), but at least paired them with nice boots and a red shawl. She read a story called "Okkervil River." There's a beautiful bit of description in it..."apple-round heels," that struck me. I kept getting distracted by listening to her accent and forgetting to listen to the actual story. She's the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy. Unlike Pasternak's grandniece she's not writing scandalous books about Princess Diana or cleverly-titled chicklit, so props for that.

After they read there was a a panel discussion and question and answer session. The first question put to them was why they chose to use imagined settings. Alarcón explained that he chose an imaginary city for expediency--so he wouldn't have to worry about getting details correct. "To escape the burden of reality." Japin spoke of finding a new reality. Talked about his father who was mentally disturbed and about going to visit him as a boy. He said it seems to him that it wouldn't be bad to be mad so long as one tuned into the right world. Tolstaya said that literature was both a way out and a way of being in a better place while remaining in the same place. When asked specifically about writing under a repressive regime, she said it was good for literature (hardly a new idea, after all) because it forces writers to write about things indirectly, through allegory, etc. To just say, "I don't like the regime," is boring and annoying (a la Wainwright's Going to a Town, no?) and that noone likes any regime. She then mentioned that although the titular river is a real river in St. Petersburg, she had never been and would not go, because if she doesn't go then the place can be anything she wants it to be. She also said that there is a band in Texas that is named after her story which is named after the river where she is never been, adding one more layer to the imagined place. I looked up the band, incidentally, and they're not very good. I'd stick with the story.

They talked then about historical fiction such as Japin writes. He said that he considers reality a gateway into imagination. Tolstaya talked about nostalgia for the past and how culture is destroyed by time, war, etc. The effort to capture this feeling in writing. All fiction, she said, is imaginary (and historical, as I understood her) because what is written about is gone. That we imagine again and again and think we know.

The question and answer session began then and the first question was, ignoring the topic for a moment, what are you actually thinking about now. I'm quite interested in the topic of imaginary geographies so I thought the question was kind of annoying. Happily, Alarcón brought it right back to the topic--at which point I decided that I did like him after all--by saying that he was thinking about immigration, and New York as an imaginary geography for other people. That it is a place imagined in different ways by people all over the world. Japin followed this up by a story about women in Accra who spend their days typing in NYC tickets (hurrah for outsourcing) and have to create their own version of the city because they don't know what it's actually like.

The last question is about memory and forgetting. Alarcón talked about young writers (not unlike himself) remembering what had happened in Peru, and how creating a kind of chronicle of memory is a good thing, although something that others would also like to avoid. He talked about politicians and bureaucratic functionaries in particular wanting the past to be forgotten there. Japin spoke of creating alternate biographies or histories by using the facts that are usually forgotten and skipped over. How you can take things that are all true but create entirely different stories just by choosing what to use and what to cast aside. Tolstaya then spoke about people wanting to forget the truth. How there is a difference between what we think we remember and what really happened and that people don't want the truth. She talked about how people are forgotten and thrown out of history and we allow it to happen because the truth destroys and is painful. But she also talked about the way truth has of seeping out.

And that's where time ran out and the panel ended. I know this seems like a disorganized summary but it's difficult with panels like this. They wind up somewhat disorganized in reality as well as in typed up summaries. To be honest, I tend to prefer lectures because I need my information in little linear bits to begin with. A little silly, maybe, but true. And beyond that, I always want people to go on talking and speak about things in more depth, which doesn't really work when they're sharing an hour with other writers. Still it was an interesting panel to listen to.

There was a signing with books for sale afterward. I always feel bad if I don't buy anything but I really don't have the money to buy extra books at the moment (particularly not at full price) and I don't have the time to read them or a place to put them, so I just bought a cookie and waited for the next talk to start, and figured there were plenty of other people buying books and even if anyone noticed they wouldn't care. And went on feeling guilty because I have a complex, but whatever.

1 comment:

Objectionable Conduct said...

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