Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Dialogue with Shin Yu Pai on "Jun in Taipei"

With Shin Yu Pai in Taipei on her last visit. Photo by Mélusine Lin

Well aware that my story "Jun in Taipei" played fast and loose with American stereotypes of Asian students, I wanted some input as to whether or not it at least worked as a story and how the elements of stereotype played out. Did the stereotypes put in play come off as cheap or mean-spirited; or did they rather, as I hoped, get absorbed in the glee and cross-purposed ironies of the tale?

Who better to ask than poet Shin Yu Pai, a sophisticated reader and friend whose writing experience as Taiwanese American had often put her right in the tangle of these same issues. Shin Yu was generous enough to spend some time in online dialogue with me on details of the tale. (Aside from her accomplishments as poet, Shin Yu has recently done more writing on Taiwan, her ancestral home and now for many years my own home and one of my favorite places on the planet. If you're interested in Taiwan, and you should be, here's one of her pieces from a recent visit back.)

I think, based on Shin Yu's reaction, that too many ambiguities remain in the tale. In short, just as I'd hoped! But she wasn't all that happy with the execution, so I have to work harder next time.

Since I'm not prolific in terms of literary work, I'm grateful for Shin Yu's comments on this one piece. I try to address some of the issues she raises in my reply.

The tale "Jun in Taipei" is posted on my blog.

Eric Mader
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March 3rd, 1:21am, SHIN YU writes: The way the story starts makes me uneasy as a reader. It is an opening/introduction that relies on trust, patience, and a reliable narrator (I’m not saying that the narrator is unreliable, but that combined with some other issues, he becomes suspect and that destabilizes the reading experience--it’s actually Parrish who’s the unreliable narrator). The story starts with a story within a story, a kind of hearsay until we arrive much later at meeting Jun the legend. So a lot relies on how the characters are introduced and represented.

Jun seems like a caricature. A kind of Long Duk Dong character from “16 Candles” that is “totally hopeless” and “kinda funny.” He is stereotypical in that he is a highroller/gambler, smokes incessantly, does not talk much, remains fairly undeveloped and is without a significant voice. White dude takes pity on Jun and adopts him as a kind of project/pet and doesn’t really know the guy--Jun’s behaviors are surprising to Parrish. I mean--he’s a gambler--is that like an addiction thing? He’s losing all this $--does he come from wealth and privilege, or does he have guys coming after him trying to break his knees? And then the scene with the older woman kind of being a servant/mother figure--that also felt unsatisfactory to me. There are questions that are unanswered--but I get that that’s also the point.

Parrish “has a good heart” and doesn’t know what questions to ask, because he’s not able to see himself or others clearly. Back to the depiction of the stereotypical in Jun’s character: the dialogue around the cigar was reminiscent to me of that moment in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray’s character is confronted with an escort who tells him to “lip my stocking.” (Rip my stocking.) It’s not exactly that the depiction of language and cultural misunderstanding is mean-spirited--but it might be useful to you to read some of the critiques of that film from Asian American viewers/critics.

The point of the piece seems to be about something of the anticlimactic. That and semantics/words--what is a legend. Is a legend supposed to be like a badass? And what is a badass. And what is privilege. And what is excess. And what is pathetic. But the characters are not very sympathetic. The guy from London seems like a stand in for the opposite of Jun and Parrish--but we never see what makes him charming.

It's actually a very complex story--albeit one that made me feel uncomfortable and cringy at times--not a bad thing per say--but it did lead me to question the position of the speaker

This kind of story could be very funny to a certain kind of audience/reader, but at the same time this is exactly the kind of reader who would identify with a Parrish vs. the speaker.

Issues of representation are very complex, and I could picture a dumbass reader just being like "Yeah, that Jun, how pathetic!" when actually there are many other layers of patheticness running through the whole thing.

I think you know this is not an issue of yeah I liked it, no I didn't like it. That's besides the point. I found the piece to have a lot of complexity. Was it fully unpacked, I'm not sure. It's very intelligent writing that invites a more critical mind, but I'm not sure all readers are going to bring it.

March 3rd, 3:48pm, ERIC writes: I knew I was doing the right thing throwing this little tale at you, Shin Yu. You raise a whole series of issues, some I was already aware of, others not.

I was initially happy with the story because I felt there was a lot there and that I'd done it through very simple language. I didn't however know whether the enclosed-tale structure worked on such a small scale, or if the shifting temporality and perspective would even be picked up by most readers. Or rather: I suspected most readers would pick it up, but would a sophisticated reader, like yourself, be satisfied with how it was done? Which is a different issue. So I was very curious how you'd react.

The narrative voice for the first half is, as you note, channeling Parrish. It's in free indirect discourse (at least that's what we used to call it) and I believe most readers have become so used to this kind of thing that they know this is not simply a personal narrator speaking from a kind of stable "I".

Nonetheless, I know there are many readers out there who will immediately react: "Hey, WTF! You stage this Korean guy as 'smallish' and 'quiet'--you even say he's 'hopeless'! That's just racist stereotyping."

Indeed I am staging Jun this way. Or rather: Parrish is. Through free indirect discourse. But the fact that the word "smallish" is not in quotes, followed by "Parrish said"--certainly it confuses some readers. Or perhaps we might say it invites them to feel consonance with that voice. Which I can see is an aspect of free indirect discourse which makes it less that trustworthy if one intends to provoke distance from this or that voice.

As for your comment about the "dumbass" reader who'd simply enjoy the story because in fact he's totally in harmony with the racist stereotypes and sees no irony there, I hear ya. I know there are many people who would read the story this way. But what I was hoping was to trip them up--in part through the shift to "legend" territory. But that, I know, is itself ambiguous at best--because yes, what IS the status of legend here? Isn't it ultimately a pretty pathetic concept of legend that's put in play?

I guess I'd have to answer that for many men out with friends in a bar what I narrate here is in fact the most commonly evoked notion of "legend". A legend is not quite the same as a "badass". Rather, the legend is a fuck up who nonetheless has character and is not even really miffed by being, or being seen as, a fuck up. The real legend may not KNOW how ridiculous it is for a man to name his dog Lancôme, but the main point is--once he's shown how ridiculous it is, he doesn't give a damn. He laughs himself. At himself. And is on to the next "adventure". That's my best explanation of "legend", of the redeeming element in the concept, and I think you largely got it.

But again: Does this sudden jump in Jun's stature in the eyes of a bunch of white guys who took him "under their wing"--does the jump to legend status really show that their initial attitude toward him, as a sort of "pet", as you put it, was wrong? I think the answer to that is complex. I think it shows them as largely wrong.

But again: Is this a story that shows up racist stereotypes or isn't it? Hard to answer, I believe. What makes things even less clear: When I called Parrish and his friends "good-hearted", I meant it, or meant it, say, 80%. The word "good-hearted" is still channelling Parrish, who ascribes to himself good-heartedness, but it's also, to a great degree, meant to be literally true. Yes, they were having fun with Jun, they were laughing at him, but ALSO: they were likely most of the time to have such mocking fun at each other's expense too. And were likely besides to know how to laugh at themselves. So for them this embrace of Jun was actually an act of true friendship. Arguably, at the very least.

There's much else in the tale that's ambiguous, I know. I found it interesting that you thought the character Laurence was meant to counteract both Jun and Parrish. I intended that only to a very slight degree. I couldn't give Laurence an actual voice in the tale without destabilizing the general narrative tone, which was set by Parrish and by the narrator, who only comes into selfhood toward the end, and who really does laugh heartily at the Jun "legend" as it's narrated.

As for the first appearance of Jun's real character in his demand for a "singer", I think it's hard to really characterize this as mean-spirited. Everyone who lives as an expat or who lives between two languages knows that much of the joy in life is in other's and one's own linguistic mistakes. The best we can do is celebrate it. The only instance where I find laughing at such mistakes to be problematic is when those laughing assume English to be a kind of default language--assume it to be, indeed, language as such. This typically only happens with people who've never seriously studied another language. Which is to say: Most Americans. But not in Taipei, which is where the tale is set.

I will see if I can find some of the writing on Lost in Translation you refer to. You end by asking if the story was fully "unpacked". If I understand what you mean here, my answer is: By no means. The whole thing remains in tension, with much left unanswered. For instance: How did Jun have that much money to lose in Tulsa? The reader isn't supposed to know, but perhaps will guess: Family money. Is this, then, a rich family? The smart reader will likely guess: A family rich enough that their son losing thousands of dollars does not mean the end of the world. But is a catastrophe nonetheless. Jun's idea of showing up his American friends by showing off having seduced the Korean wife of another white guy, and his pathetic staging of Korean chauvinism, in which the wife nonetheless seems a fully willing accomplice--even, perhaps, the source of the lunch idea--this is meant to be troubling and ultimately unexplained. One of the tiny touches in the tale I'm proud of is the obvious fact that the Parrish character and his friend don't even realize what's going on: they just go for the food. It's only later they get it. And when they do get it it of course is just added onto Jun's status: Legend.

Yes, I'm a partisan of fiction, especially short fiction, as troubling, ambiguous, annoying, unexplained. I'll say one more thing: reading your comments I was led to realize this kind of story is likely to get (or perhaps to reveal) three kinds of readers: 1) the dumbass reader, who never quite notices that much of the tale is framed via shoddy American stereotypes of Asians; 2) the smartass reader (with a class or two of cultural studies behind her/him) who ONLY notices these stereotypes and doesn't notice how they're being put into question; 3) the good reader, who may end up satisfied or not by the tale, but sees the tension in it.

Many many thanks for your excellent comments, Shin Yu. You think this tale worthy of trying to publish somewhere? Just a thought. I don't much care one way or the other. I'm likely going to come out with a collection of short prose pieces (prose poems; tales) later this year and may place it in there in any case. Any time you want to throw something at me, I'll do my best to comment. But: I'm likely to be less useful commenting on your poetry than you are commenting on my prose. It's been a great little dialogue. Thanks.

[Shin Yu sent me a link that collected a sampling of Japanese and Japanese-American press reaction to Sophia Coppola's film Lost in Translation. There was a pretty wide spectrum: accusations of racism, defenses of the film as focussing on the characters' confusion rather than stereotyping, etc. Unfortunately the link is now dead.]

March 3rd, 10:20pm, ERIC writes: Thanks. A good range of pieces, and in fact I think pretty well balanced. The fact that Asia Media Watch went against the film isn't surprising. Asians in America, who probably are especially sick of being stereotype, would be more likely to focus precisely on the otherness (and zaniness) of the Japanese depicted. I think we have something similar when we project how Stateside readers (whether Asian or not) vs. expat or more international readers will interpret the staged miscommunication of Jun's "singer" request. A Korean in America, faced every day with Americans who seem to think English is the only language that exists, would think it's mean-spirited. One of these monolingual Stateside folks (what you might call the "dumbass" reader) would think it's funny because it shows Jun's aberrant English. Those whose mother-tongue is English but who have done serious time in another culture would likely see it as the kind of day-to-day mishap that gives life flavor. How would Jun himself see it? As a "legend", as I defined it, I think he's likely laugh too, once the mistake was explained to him. And then might joke about Americans in Korea and their absurd pronunciation of Korean words.

Anyhow I ought to go back and watch that film again. Been a long time and have only seen it once.

March 4th, 11:49pm, ERIC writes: As for short fiction, I often think of you as the one who introduced Ben Fountain to me. A brilliant short collection. I haven't read his more recent novel however.

Did you ever get to the writer I suggested in exchange--George Saunders. He's gotten famouser and famouser since then. And I still think he's often great. But the collections have gotten a bit weaker. At least in my estimation. The best is still CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. One of the things I object to in the recent work is his move toward more structured closure in the tales--tales you can see setting up their closure from the first pages.

March 6th, 3:38am, SHIN YU writes: I also really enjoyed the dialogue. I have always been impressed by the quality of your mind and your thinking and reading your story helped me to think and to ask questions of my own biases. As for whether or not you should send it out to journals, etc.--I want to say again that it's a very complex and multi-layered piece. And it deals with race/culture, a sensitive topic. That might make is more difficult to publish. But I think you could send it out--it has a quality of completeness, but also ambiguity.

I haven't yet gotten around to reading George Saunders. I have him on my library list/queue, but I think I have user #250 or so in a long line of readers waiting for like five copies in the Seattle Public Library system. Since you first told me about him, I've noticed his career skyrocket. He's always doing big gigs and readings these days.

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