The OF Blog: Un forastero, sentado a la mesa, inquieto

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Un forastero, sentado a la mesa, inquieto

At dinner, the Santiago poet averts her face from the gringo although no one else is sitting close enough for her to engage in conversation.  A synecdoche, he is taken for his government.  She lights up and blows sullen smoke down the table.  With suspicion at the threshold of dialogue, there is always a word blocking the first word.

And on the second day of the festival, after many papers, a consensus emerges that there are no longer regions of poetry; there are zones.  A distinction weakened, perhaps, in translation?

Final night, a local poet accuses the host of avoiding the issue of regionality altogether, of talking around it with clever language games when, in fact, some people's lives are at risk, even now, at this moment, because of what they write, because of where they live.

Another shouts from the audience that vanguard poetry doesn't speak to him, it is elitist, the tone of the whole conference is elitist.

And so the last evening dissolves into tensions,

A dinner table balanced
like a barbell, partisan drinkers
cluster at either end.

The foreigner can't control his situation; mastery eludes him.  After four days in another language, he who started out infinitely sensitive is completemente rendido, rent by the effort of constant attentiveness.

– Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (p. 86)

Español no es mi lingua natal.  Antes de que tenga veinte y ocho años, hablé solamente inglés.  Cuando enseñaba la historia de los estados unidos y la geografía mundial in Florida en la programa Inglés para los habladores de otros idiomas, tuve que comunicar con mis estudiantes.  Ellos no pudieron hablar en inglés bien; yo no pude se hablar bien en español.  Nuestras culturas fueron bastane diferente que estaba facil a tener malentiendos.  A veces, nosotros estaban inquietos.  Tuvimos miedo que nos hacería tontos.  Cuando debimos estar comunicando, estabamos silencos.  Diez años más tarde, todavia me arrepento por causa de no traté bastante.

Chances are, many of you did not understand what I just wrote above.  Chances are also that some of you did and a few might even comment on my grammatical mistakes.  Yet buried within this issue of language communication is a larger issue of human relations and empathy.

I quote from Gander's book because this passage, taken from his time in Chile, contains a striking image that is so applicable to certain comments I've seen at divers site.  Pay close attention to the beginning scene, where he sits at a table with a Chilean woman who is distrustful of him.  "There is always a word blocking the first word."  In the intervening ten years since I had to learn how to communicate in a second language in order to teach students a subject in my native (and their second or third) language, there have been several times where I have been that forastero at the table, seated at unease.  

Recently, there was a post that took another blogger to task for his depiction of her native Thailand (and his views on Islam and near-slavering over this "Girls of Geek" calendar).  When reading Gander's prose-poem and the passage I quote above, I could not help but note the complete difference of approach between him and Pat.  Where Gander notes the discomfort and explicitly states how "the foreigner can't control his situation; mastery eludes him," Pat in his response to the Requires Hate posts does anything but acknowledge his obliviousness to how his words showed a callous disregard for a complex situation.  No, the narrative there is that he was just pointing out an uncomfortable "truth" about the sex tourism industry over there (while neglecting to point out or being very unaware that sex trafficking is a very serious problem in both the United States and his native Canada).  Of course, the way he put it was taken as very condescending at the very least, not just by acrackedmoon, but by several others who read it.  But what happened is that there was no communication to hint that hey, ya know, maybe a native's perspective might just be more valuable in this case than someone who, like the people in the Holiday Inn commercials, think that they "know" a culture or society just because they visited a few places over a period of days, weeks, or months.
Problem is that it takes several years at least for an outsider to become acutely aware of an insider's perspective.  Lord knows that in 2012 there are still all sorts of Mississippi Burning or Deliverance jokes told about my native American South region.  Oh, sometimes there'll be that bright, enlightened person who wants to sound all sympathetic and say "I am impressed by how much you've changed since the KKK days," in that grating tone that seems to accompany an elderly adult patting the head of a young child who is tempted to kick that oldster's shins but has to refrain from doing so because s/he'll be in big trouble.  It is understandable that after a while of being talked down to, as if an adult from another society/culture were a gifted child, you grow tired of being polite and being deferential to the irritating dumbfucks who can't bother themselves to learn more than the most superficial aspects of your culture/society.

Same thing applies to gender issues.  I know just enough to know that there's a helluva lot to learn and that it's best to sit at that table quietly, even if it makes you uncomfortable, and learn to listen to another person's narrative.  To tell someone who is fed up and who has to use elements of rant/rage discourse in order for that other to pay attention in the first place that "Masturbation might help you release some of that geek rage, you know. I could even supply my complimentary copy of the Girls of Geek 2012 calendar for you to focus on. . . It's not true it will make you deaf. . ."?  Really?  And there are people who aren't viewing this as sexist language, especially after it was made clear that the poster in question is female?  Add to that the comments made earlier over several posts about other cultures and religions and for some, including myself some time ago, it is very difficult not to conclude that Pat has said some very racist and sexist things.

Yet what's even more disconcerting than the spewings of those who use the sexist terms of "shrill," "harpy," and of course the ubiquitous "bitch," are those who feel that they should lecture her on her "tone" when it is precisely because of the trangression  against "polite talk" (read "the deference of 'inferior' races/women to their white male superiors) that women like them are heard at all.  I'm sorry, but if someone wanted to lecture me about my tone when I went HAM on someone "bein' ignert" about my native region, I would not be keen on listening to them because it's insulting and counterproductive to the extreme.  So what happens are those groups of people, segregated by race/gender, end up in clusters around the great table, not communicating to those in an opposing group.

What's also insulting about this recent turn of events are those who act all disturbed and troubled by my willingness to consider what acrackedmoon and others have to say.  Look at the comments elsewhere on this blog or elsewhere where my name keeps being brought up as if I were doing some horrible thing by being willing to hear her out.  It's not grade school where I have to participate in an ostracizing lest I be ostracized myself.  As I said in response to several of such bewildered comments of "how can you defend her?", there are certain review techniques that she uses that make her reviews stronger than the vast majority of what I read online (some of her critiques delve further into the workings of particular books than what I managed to do in my own reviews of these works).  Does not mean I agree with everything she's written (I don't), but I also found that by being willing to listen, that there is at least the potential for a good discourse (one day, for example, I'd like to know if she's read Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and if so, what she made of Twain's treatment of Jim).  My personal narrative allows for other perspectives, including dissenting ones.

It all boils down to getting past "that word blocking the first word."  I don't need to sit here and proclaim that I am good, noble, empathetic, decent, swell, etc.; it would mean the focus would be on my personal self-narrative and that in turn would drown out other narrative voices.  I know perfectly well that I'm a flawed person and that there's a lot to learn by just being quiet for a spell and listening.  Perhaps that would be a better course for those worried about "tone" or another's "reverse racism" (which I presume they mean prejudice, since racism is an institutionalized discrimination of peoples based on group prejudices), as lecturing someone yet again about their perceived need to be outspoken is as bad as speaking to a foreigner and acting like they are a child when they cannot replicate your language better than you do (as if most would do any better in a non-native language; I certainly realize my limitations despite my continued exposure to Latin American dialects of Spanish).  Sit at that table and realize that you don't have to have control at all times.  Maybe you'll learn something.  I know I hope to do so.


David said...

Hi Larry. This is my first comment on this blog though I've been a long time reader. I really don't want to get into this shitstorm the internet is brewing. I hope I'm trending cautiously for I don't want to step into a shit puddle and with an umbrella open out into this storm.

I wasn't even aware of the of the blog, It Only Requires Hate, until you pointed it out in one of your links. I read several articles on the blog and found myself agreeing. Particularly the Jim Butcher review, yet I still like the Dresden Files. >.>

You've made me aware of a bigger issues due to my native and ignorance. I'm still trying to figure this all out for myself and how it fits into my own everyday working. I'm also thinking about how I can better myself for the future.

Thank you, and the person behind the blog, for opening my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Okay. I don't pretend to be as I'd say smart -- but that's just because it's the easiest, maybe first thing that comes to mind, but maybe well read? or perhaps another term might better be used to get my meaning -- as Larry, or to tell the truth probably anybody else that reads this blog, so I'm hoping this will be taken as the, perhaps superfluous? superficial? question that I intend it and not something with deep-seeded? deep-seated? -- deep-seated meaning. In other words, I mean it as nothing more than what I actually am saying or think I'm saying, I think, rather than some hidden meaning with hidden agendas. Although, just saying that I imagine brings to the forefront that, at least to some, I really do mean what lies underneath.
So I'd put forth that when I read said review on said blog on certain countries of origin, most particularly Thailand, Malaysia et al, what I read I read as that while Pat was vacationing in Thailand, a thing that happened to him, which is to my superficial reading of it, what happened to him, was a lot of girls of Thai descent, prostitutes, were everywhere he went. He couldn't help but feel that it took away from the experience.
I didn't read it as, hey, this country -- that I'm now an expert on after having been here three or four days -- is only about prostitution.
I didn't read that he was putting this opinion forth as expert testimony, or as a national, but rather just that, that this was the experience Pat had. Granted, like I said, I only read what I read on the surface level. To tell the truth, I'd have been just as happy 'til the end of my days thinking that perhaps if I visited Thailand that would probably be my own experience.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Wow. So a lightbulb just this minute in the writing of this went off. I get it. Honestly, I was meaning to go somewhere else with this post, not sure where, just working to get there, and bam. Like that. Maybe that's the way to enlightenment.
So my original post was going to be hey, so what it's Pat's blog, he's talking about himself and his experiences, who cares. Who is anybody else to question what he has to say.
Now, I'm not quite so certain. Bear with me, please. I really would like a response from you, Larry, but anybody else to chime in would be wonderful. As I said, I don't pretend to be on the same level, but I might be able to actually grasp certain of other's truths.
So, thinking now, it really is -- maybe Pat does have the -- not sure what I'm trying to say, as he is in the public "eye" maybe he does have a certain degree of -- hell -- maybe he does need to watch what he says. Now, I know reading it my thought was so what, it's, no, he did paint it in a certain light and one would/does have the "right" to take him to task for "selling" that particular brand of I'm high, they're low.
Now, hopefully somebody can put my chaos into something resembling order as to why we can't just read Pat's -- only using him, as well, the whole storm is based on him -- blog for what it is on the surface. This happened to me. Not this is how it actually is for perhaps natives. Or why it is one should look beyond the surface and find intent, conscious or sub. Anyone?
Point two, I'd like to know how anyone can say they're not racist and then in the same sentence use honkey? Maybe I'm looking on the surface on that one too.

Anonymous said...

One last note. I read over, I think it was "derailing for dummies" last night and it seemed to me that it was just a quick reference guide on how to not debate. Many of the points I felt and feel were valid debating points that "derailing" used to turn it around. Kind of like, Oh, I don't have an answer for that, I'm on my soapbox, so I'll state this and then I'm superior. It seemed it blasted one -- oh, group of people's way of doing certain things and stated this is how I play the game. My own rules.
Like saying oh, I'm married to a black lady so I'm not a racist. Which seems pretty valid to me, but then the, for lack of a better term, other side says, you're racist precisely because you're with a black lady. Don't explain your side to me because you're really just condescending. But how is that different than the other side feeling that explaining it is the right way to go about it. Wow, ramble much?
So Larry, I won't mind if you actually don't post this if it makes absolutely no sense to you, but in all honesty I am looking for answers -- another thing I saw on derailing about something along the lines of oh, whitey asking for me to explain my position. No. I don't have the time. See, 'cause I don't understand why that's racist to ask a POC to explain more about their views. To me, that's how I think. Explain to me so it helps me to understand. I do understand how perhaps that's not their view, that perhaps it's racist even to ask, so to me it seems both sides have their own ways. Doesn't make one wrong. Even though side A says side B is wrong. Just because side B thinks a certain way doesn't mean they're wrong. Side B most likely believes side A is wrong. To me that's why you discuss it. Some say no that's this or that. hell, no I've gone off the deep end and I don't even pretend to hope anybody understands it. Introspection. I'll try it.

Anonymous said...

LAST one. Sorry, please delete either the entire thing or parts you determine have absolutely no relevance, but I would appreciate if you could help me out by explaining that which may have some sort of maybe intrinsic value as a question in and of itself. If at all. I'll go ahead and chop this into two. Any help would be appreciated. Hope this is read in the tone -- and I'll admit I don't really get the tone argument -- not the argument on tone, but the actual tone argument. Not sure what's meant by tone, in other words. That's it. Thanks for the time. Maybe I should become a writer of extremely boring novella length nonsense in the extreme.

Larry said...


You're welcome.


I'm not a very judgmental person by nature. All that I would note is that in your own attempt to grasp the larger arguments here, you are trying to reconsider what you hold to be true. Keep questioning, keep testing those assumptions and beliefs and quite possibly you'll arrive at a much more satisfactory answer than what I could provide. After all, I too am still searching for solutions and answers.

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