In the first post of this series I wrote of how the miniseries Roots and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of the Earth and Sky tackled a simple question of individual identity amidst displacement – “Who am I?” But there is a second question that both the show and the book addressed that looks beyond the status quo and the present revealing active identity creation. “Who do I want to be?” is a question that is both aspirational and forward looking.
And so two other art/history pieces I experienced this spring – the Smithsonian’s Crosslinesand the Folger Shakespeare Library’s District Merchants– demonstrate that not everyone wants or chooses to internalize their heritage in the same way. Rather they make it clear that answering the question “Who do I want to be?” is a combination of conscious and unconscious choices we make in the process of forging identities.
“And he, Marin Djivo, younger son of a merchant? What was his life about? Trade? Clever, profitable dealings? He was from a city state that flourished by letting no one hate them enough to do anything disagreeable. Where you are situated in the world, Marin thinks, digging a grave in a Sauradian meadow, shapes how you act in the world.
Then he amends that thought: It is one of the things that does so. Rasca Tripon and Danica Gradek might frame it differently. Or the old empress living with the Daughters of Jad on Sinan Isle might do so. They are all exiles, he thinks, taken from what they were, where they were.”
–Excerpt from Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (emphasis mine)
For those of you that are fans of musical theatre the title of this piece may prompt you to belt out a singular name. A man whose identity at the moment of questioning had long been obscured by a series of numbers.
In the foreword of the new translation of his book Night Elie Wiesel wrote:
“In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer—or my life, period—would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
Like most American teenagers I encountered the words of Elie Wiesel in an English class. The stark white cover, Wiesel’s name in blue lettering, a shadowed image of barbed wire obscuring a singular figure: we were two years from my first visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (of which Wiesel was the founding chairman) and while I knew about the horror in abstraction, this was the first witness testimony I had ever read. Continue reading “Never shall I forget that night: On Elie Wiesel”→
Words have power. Fact. We live in an age where anyone can say anything and be believed. An age where fact checking is only reliable if it aligns with your beliefs. Words. Have. Power.
But power to what? To sway, to innovate, to encourage, to bring hope – and in their absence limit important forms of expression necessary for real communication. A few weeks ago two events brought these thoughts to the surface. And while both cases are based in fiction there are real world implications.
In eighth grade science class my friend Tracy slid me a folded piece of notebook paper. Scrawled across the top were the words “Star Wars Expanded Universe and Ratings” or something like that. On this paper she had painstakingly written out the name of each of the books marking each in turn with a series of stars. One for Children of the Jedi. Five for The Last Command. A blueprint for a newly inducted fan.
Soon I found myself devouring each book as it came along. Wanting to stay current, and let’s be honest, to know everything. In 1995, the internet was in its infancy, and my sphere of conversation on this topic was limited. But, boy, did I read.
I read regularly until the end of the New Jedi Order. Then things took a turn towards darkness. bugs, strange adventures, twisted Solo children. So I moved on, returning occasionally for a book by Timothy Zahn and to read about Mara’s demise firsthand. I felt like I owed it to her to read about her death, to pay my last respects.
Despite all this the internet kept me informed and it was enough. A single toe in a larger pond.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am hopeful. Cautiously optimistic. Filled with anticipation. Even thrilled now that we have three films in three years.
Seriously all — ROGUE ONE. Even if it isn’t linked to Michael Stackpole/Aaron Allston, the idea alone… Whew.
Then there was a notice about the new books, including a blurb about Star Wars: Aftermath, and there it was: an unexpected twinge next to my heart, a sudden moment of loss.
I have a theory about why we are attracted to epic storytelling. It’s all about the history. However, for many that past is not our past, but rather history created in the minds and imaginations of writers around the world.
For an example we should look no further than the incredible popularity of Game of Thrones. A medieval fantasy filled with political jockeying, power struggles, zombie like ice walkers, and dragons. A story nerds have been following long before it ever hit the small screen. Now others are discovering the show and going back to read the novels and get more out of this world that George R.R.Martin created.
In the middle of last year a friend asked why we as a culture seem to be drawn to epic storytelling. These are stories where grand visions of what a world could be are garnished by the magical, the mystical, and the fantastical, spanning nations and many worlds. Stories where fights for truth and justice are disguised metaphors for what authors and readers see as missing from our current way of life. After months of letting the question circle around in my head I’d like to spend two posts presenting my answer largely based on musings from recent experiences and readings.
We’ll start with epic storytelling of the dystopian sort:
There was a moment in high school over a decade ago when I was tasked with reading post-apocalyptic books of all manner of styles. 1984, On the Beach, Fahrenheit 451 — each with their own set of rules and commentary on privacy, nuclear warfare, and censorship. I realized then that the dystopian fiction I am most attracted to are narratives with something to say beyond death, destruction, and warfare. I am also attracted to post-apocalyptic fiction that provides a commentary on choice. Stories that juxtapose our reality against a world we can barely recognize.
Two weeks ago I finished two books, The Bone Clocks and Station Eleven, that illustrate why some dystopian fiction enthralls me. They reveal how their ability to tell stories on a larger-than-life//larger-than-reality scale really hits home.
I was young when I first fell in love. I was raised on tennis the way a lot of kids are raised on football and baseball. I was raised on Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Patrick Rafter, and of course Steffi Graf.
But Love? That was how I felt about Andre Agassi. It wasn’t a romantic love, but a fan’s love. Whenever he would play I would sit on the edge of my seat knowing that he would pull it out of a fifth set. And when he said goodbye in 2006 I cried.
My knowledge of his personal life was limited to broad strokes — he was married to Brooke Shields, then Steffi Graf. I knew he was Armenian-American. And I remember talking to my dad about how when Agassi was happy in his personal life his game seemed to suffer.
The silence on this blog hasn’t been so much due to a lack of inspiration, but rather the time — or the quiet — to put it all down on paper. A lot of what I’ve had to say comes between the lines of real-life events, catching up with friends, and spending pool side time with a book.
None of these moments are particularly revelatory. In fact, they are ordinary, occasional, spur-of-the-moment flashes of joy. Like nerding out every time the John Adams theme plays at a Washington Nationals game.
So the latest Hodge Podge is a look at 500 episodes of This American Life, A few short book reviews, and a round up of a mish-mash of things my brain stopped to examine in the last two months.
This American Life at 500
It would be funny to joke that the radio show was five-hundred years old, but really five hundred episodes of top-quality storytelling is something that deserves a few lines. When I first started this blog almost four years ago my intention was to spend every week commenting on the latest TAL episode. While that hasn’t exactly come to fruition, I still find myself listening every week and thinking about the people that are profiled, their lives and what they say about living and being a citizen of these United States.
This essay contains spoilers for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
There is a moment in the second half of Cloud Atlas when physicist Isaac Sachs posits a few theories on the nature of the past.
“Exposition: the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction-in short, belief-grows ever “truer.” The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”
This is nothing revelatory to those of us who work in the public history field–memory is fickle, the objects we interpret can only tell a fraction of the story and for every oral history produced a recognition of perspective is taken into account. In graduate school we spent days talking about authenticity trying to determine what exactly is the nature of historical truth. Continue reading “Diary. Letter. Novel. Movie. Hologram. History.”→