Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Taco trucks: the shocking truth

Back when I was a kid growing up in Cicero, at that time almost equally (at least in my immediate neighborhood) made up of Eastern European and Mexican families, there were ways of expanding your ethnic identity. Ok…expanding is the wrong word. You could become an “honorary” Mexican or Lithuanian by going through initiations.

To be baptized an honorary Lithuanian, you had to eat a jar of herring or a huge chunk of homemade headcheese. My friend Juozas and I came up with this initiation, an ironic one, at least in my friend’s case, as he had never eaten either herring or headcheese in his life. The child of displaced persons,  he still qualifies, despite his culinary tastes, for Lithuanian dual citizenship. The Mexican boys who gagged over pig nose jelly will never be able to claim this.

Becoming an honorary Mexican was much easier.  You had to lie down and let your Mexican (and honorary Mexican) friends kick your ass for three minutes. The only rule was no punching in the face or balls. In truth, the three minutes often stretched to four or five.

We did not do this because we valued multiculturalism or envied each other’s identities. We were just boys finding ways to fuck with each other in the packs we joined for protection and friendship.

These initiations, like other rites and customs of the street, depended on unspoken but clear codes. Everybody understood that if your friend had gone through the trouble of taking a three (or five) minute beating,  or if he had slurped down a quivering cube of pig ass—which, mind you, often resulted in real tears—you had to defend him in the event that bullshit came his way.

So, as an honorary Mexican who oversaw the baptisms of a few dozen honorary Lithuanians, let me say a few things about the prospect of taco trucks on every corner.

To America, this would represent a culinary revolution of a magnitude not seen since the invention of the Weber grill. If there were a taco truck on even one corner in most any random town of less than 50,000 people between Youngstown, Ohio and Limon, Colorado, the quality of the local cuisine would improve by a factor so large that I cannot find any tool to help me calculate it. If there were taco trucks at both ends of my block, I’d have hardly any need to go to a grocery store.

A taco truck is superior, both as a food delivery system and a purveyor of quality, than any McDick’s, Burger Thing, Undies, Taco Hell, Beef’n’Cream, Pulverz, Shitway, Jimmy Shlong’s or any other such dump. A taco truck is a civilized place to eat and sells a food item with a rich and fascinating history, linked to lifestyle changes among the working class, specifically to men mining silver. Its development is not unlike the arrival and evolution of the pasty in Michigan’s iron mines or the Vienna Beef dog on Chicago’s South Side, the latter during the Depression. So the taco has more in common with the story of class struggle than does any pumpkin latte or chocolate stout.

So, bring it on. A taco truck beside every school, across the street from every workplace, down the road from your town hall, public library, place of worship and watering hole. Especially the watering hole. Because the only thing better than a taco following a night of raucous frolic is the tamale guy.

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New essay published

The good folks at ReImagining Magazine have published their summer issue. My essay, An American Imposter, finds itself there.

I spent a long time abroad this spring and summer, and got tired of having to “explain” my American identity. It got to the point that I no longer wanted to talk to strangers about where I was from. It became impossible to have conversations about anything besides our loathsome national politics.

The experience inspired this essay. Hope you’ll read and share. 


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I Am Lietuva (not me, personally)

I was recently interviewed by Alexsandra Kudukis of I Am Lietuva. She asked me one question that is, to date, the most difficult one I had to answer in any interview.

The script is available in a newsletter available to subscribers only. To subscribe, please follow this link and go to the upper left-hand corner of the web page where you can add your e-mail address and receive the weekly letter.

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Here’s a teaser:

 

6.) We ask all of our guests at www.iamlietuva.com the same final two questions. What does Lietuvybė, or being Lithuanian mean to you?

Being Lithuanian in America offered me a vantage point from which I eventually grew and evolved to imagine myself a global citizen. What I mean is that the policies of isolationism and the point of view that sees America as exceptional and God’s best friend with a gun didn’t work on me.

When I came to Vilnius at age 19, read the city’s history, realized how complicated the place was, it was liberating, and I started to see the entire world not as a set of teams behind borders but an ever-shifting, ever-changing interplay. Realizing how different Lithuania was from the story I’d been told drove my curiosity through the stratosphere. I started traveling, opening myself up to the stories and ideas of people different from myself. Vilnius was my gateway drug to global consciousness.

 

 


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Feeling the weight of history

The perpetrator and the victim learn the real truth, but the witness, the observer gains only an impression. The quality of that impression—is it stronger or weaker—to tell the truth, there’s no difference. One way or another, the impression will die out, become a distant, faint memory, but the victim and the perpetrator will never forget the truth. –Sigitas Parulskis, Tamsa ir Partneriai (Darkness and Partners)

I have experienced a handful of moments in my life when I felt history as a massive, unfathomable force sprawled out behind me and yet entirely present in the moment. These transcendent moments inform my work as a writer about as strongly as anything I’ve experienced. My identity conjures itself around these immovable forces.

One of them occurred when I was about seventeen years-old, standing on the corner of Michigan and Wacker, facing the Tribune Tower in Chicago. This is the former site of Fort Dearborn. I had read about it for a high school assignment, but this day I happened to look down on the ground to see the demarcation. (Photo from Chicago Detours):

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In a flash, the fort and its story, the people who lived there, the people who died violently on the bank of the Chicago River…it all became real. Not a story in a book or a memory dancing amid the lightning of synapses. Not a film or a painting. I could sense the reality, unfathomable yet palpable, and how different that space had once been: no skyscrapers or metal bridges, street lights or fancy stores. I became aware of a force all around me, inside me, in which there were no longer sides to a story, enemies and friends. There was simply a human experience so overwhelming that I felt myself extinguished yet deeply connected to a great everything.

I had exactly this experience, although perhaps ten times more intense, while sitting at a table with writers Ellen Cassedy and Sigitas Parulskis. Cassedy, author of We are Here (an amazing book) was traveling around Vilnius, Lithuania collecting stories and experiences that had to do with her Jewish identity and the Holocaust in Lithuania. Parulskis had published Tamsa ir Partneriai, a novel which imagines the events of the Holocaust from the point of view of a Lithuanian photographer. She was to interview him, and I had been recommended as an interpreter.

At first I approached the conversation as I would any job. I felt a little anxiety, had brought my small dictionary along, made sure to come early. We sat at a table in an outdoor cafe, just down the street from the University of Vilnius. The conversation began and lasted a few hours.

The interview was published this past January in Cosmonauts Avenue. I highly recommend it, not just to those interested in the Holocaust, but especially to those interested in European history and questions of ethnic identity.  Click here to read.

I recognized, perhaps a quarter hour into the experience, that I was witnessing something important, and I knew the conversation I was hearing—I was soon participating—would change me forever. I hope one day to write with greater detail about that afternoon—in fact, the experience inspired me to pursue the completion of a work of non-fiction. I won’t say very much about it right now, only that I’m working on it, and that it is based on a moment of transcendence. It left me understanding what it means to admit a burden and then to let it go.

I will forever remember the moment I walked away from the table with Sigitas and Ellen, and how ultra-vivid Vilnius seemed to me. An orange sun had skewered puffy clouds with shafts of glass. I walked down streets in the middle of Old Town where atrocities had taken place. I had always known about them, but now they were different. Not scenes from a book, images from photos, memories I’d heard about. I recognized the feeling, the weight of history, at once annihilating and unifying, unfathomable yet palpable, sprawled out behind me and yet entirely present in every brick and cobblestone. Indeed, it was there in my body, in a hand that trembled uncomfortably for the rest of the night.

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Decency amounted to naïveté: An interview with Leland Cheuk

Leland

Leland Cheuk has titled his novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong perhaps in jest. The novel is a faux prison memoir composed by Sulliver, or Sully, documenting four generations of mis-adventuring Pong men: Chinese-American migrants and their offspring. They work mines and railroads, invent video games, run brothels, casinos and—in the case of Saul Pong, Sulliver’s narcissist father—an entire town.

Most of the action takes place in the fictitious (hilariously named) Bordirtoun, population 157,000. Bordirtoun is surrounded by mountains, crossed by two rivers, and sits right on the Mexican border.

Sulliver is at once tragic and comic. His self-awareness allows him self-deprecation, but he can’t avoid his ancestors’ misadventures. A gargantuan loser, he’s unable to communicate, have sex without injury, find stable employment or play a good card. Tragically, Sully seeks, not to be present anywhere, but to be absent from Bordirtoun, something he can’t achieve even by marrying a Danish woman and living in Copenhagen.

The novel is multi-layered, at once satirical and historical, concerned with male identity and the Chinese-American experience. Among Cheuk’s many achievements is the portrait of a narcissist father, an asshole so insufferable that it hurt my stomach to read about him.

I had a chance to talk to Cheuk about the book.

Your novel is a critique of American capitalism, a system where a local politician can also be tycoon and pimp, and few people see any contradiction. To me, Bordirtoun resembled the world of a dictator, Saul’s portraits and statues everyplace, including the airport. Why did you choose to make Saul so malignant in his self-absorption?

I was inspired by Coen Brothers’s films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, in which larger-than-life villains threaten to overwhelm the innocent, virtuous, and/or inept (in the case of Sulliver). Sully’s dad, Saul, is an absurdist amalgam of my father, the President of Turkmenistan (Saparmurat Niyazov, and his golden statue that rotates with the sun), and P.T. Barnum. A more recent analog, of course, is Donald Trump. Saul grew out of the novel’s aesthetic: part-absurdism, part-realism.

My father is very much like Saul. He risked his life to come to America with nothing when he was 29. By his mid-40s, he was a self-taught engineer working at a big Silicon Valley telecom company, and he owned a real estate firm. As a toddler, I remember mom working at Taco Bell and in sweatshops. By the time I was a teen, we lived in a 3,000 square-foot house in the suburbs, and it seemed like dad bought a new Mercedes every year. He liked to show off his wealth in gauche ways, like a lot of immigrants who come from nothing.

Like Saul, dad was chronically unfaithful to my mother. Like Saul, he won all the fights with her with his fists. I have no recollections of him teaching me to be decent. Like Saul, he often claimed that decency amounted to naïveté, and to survive and thrive, you had to cheat. He would threaten to send me back to China, said I’d have to use my wits to survive there.

I’m the son of displaced persons, and grew up in an enclave, so your narrative’s really familiar. But I can’t say I’ve encountered it very often in Asian-American novels.

I think the dark side of the Asian-American immigrant experience is underwritten or underpublished. It seems like “diaspora” writers feel compelled to write about the complicated but well-intentioned person of color. With Saul and Sulliver, I wanted to go a different direction and stay true to my lived experience.

For my parents’s generation, domestic violence and philandering are accepted. Casual racism, sexism and homophobia are accepted. To me, that’s not okay. I didn’t want to gloss over any of those truths with an “Oh, they’re hard-scrabble immigrants…” or “Oh, it’s just the Asian culture…” subtext. An asshole is an asshole in any culture, methinks.

Are my dad and Saul assholes because of…or in spite of…becoming American? Did they misinterpret or distill and absorb America’s capitalistic values? Those questions interest me as a writer. I’m pretty sure I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to answer them.

Sully also has narcissistic traits, not least of which is his inability to communicate his feelings to those he cares about. Do you feel there’s an antidote to narcissism for the sons of narcissists, or are they doomed in a way?

I would say the book’s plot leans toward the latter, but in reality every moment is an opportunity to change, and every generation evolves. I would bet on Sully changing, even as he continually claims to be doomed to repeat his family’s mistakes.

Personally, I’ve considered it a great life achievement to have avoided my father’s bad deeds. I’ve tried to live free of empire-building, its emotional toll on relationships. I have tried what Saul suggests: learn only from my father’s good traits. But his behaviors have probably seeped into mine in ways I’m not conscious of.

For much of the novel, Sully is running against this father in a race for mayor. He’s not really motivated to win the race for himself but simply to topple his father’s empire, expose him as a fraud. In your view, is that a flaw in his character or a strength? 

It’s most certainly a flaw. They call it government service for a reason. Any politician should be serving the people and be willing to sacrifice for his/her constituents.

Sulliver is in way over his head. At the risk of being topical, I liken Sulliver’s motivations during the mayoral race to him being seduced by The Dark Side of The Force. If we wanted to be a Jedi, Sully would have had to run for mayor with the intent of being a better mayor than his father. Instead—excuse another contemporary reference—Sully broke bad.

I get that, but there’s a greater mission in the mayoral race: If Sully wins, he can foil his father’s plan to displace Bordirtoun’s poor. Sully needs to overcome himself just to run, because he seems overwhelmed by most any situation. An old lady steals his bike. Sex injures him. In a way, he gets past some portion of his complacency, even if the race leads to his own demise. I guess I’m wondering if you think Sully has a redeeming quality that isn’t ironic. Doesn’t he?

I definitely identify closely with Sully, and I would say that his most redeeming quality is his awareness of right and wrong. At the highest level, for the most part, he intends to do to the right thing. But as the cliché goes, God is in the details. Sully’s not so good with those.

 

Photo provided  by Leland Cheuk.


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Concert for Ukraine in Chicago 

Saturday, March 28th at 7:00, my wife, Maria Storm, will be playing a benefit concert for Ukrainian relief organizations. The first half of the concert, in Chicago’s gorgeous Second Presbyterian Church, will feature classical music by Maria and New York pianist Emiko Sato. The second half will feature intense and moving performances by Constance Volk, Matthew Santos and Foma (from Ukraine). 

If you’d like to donate to this important benefit but cannot attend the concert, please log in to Facebook.com/KyivCommittee 




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Junkie kids in Odessa

(WARNING: the included link leads to graphic photos of children depicted in states of tragedy.)

I was deeply moved by these photographs, by Michal Novotný, of Odessa street kids. It is not simply that these photos are completely annihilating. They also take me back to the time my novel was published, early 2009, and criticisms I received for depicting a false reality in Vilnius, where a good chunk of the book is set.

One of the characters in my novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar, is a junkie, and he becomes a junkie when only a child. He joins a community of junkies, and eventually contracts HIV from sharing needles with fellow child-addicts.

A lot of people were pissed at me for this. They claimed I was misrepresenting Lithuania, exaggerating the problem of drugs; others claimed that I should be been doing better for the country by “focussing on the positive”.

This criticism did not sit well with me. I had based this junkie character, named Kovas, on a young man I knew. I had lived with his family, am still close to his sister, and had spent intimate hours in Vilnius with him. In a way, he shaped my view of the city, especially in the mid-90’s, by bringing me close to the youth. It affected me horribly to learn that he had become a junkie, later to learn that he had overdosed in the woods outside the capital; that he had—the theory went—gone out there to OD on purpose.

These photographs, while from Odessa, are taken in 2006, at exactly the same time that Finding the Moon in Sugar takes place. While my book is a work of fiction, these photos are clearly not. I’m sure that someone’s going to say, given my usage of these photos to draw attention to the very real problem of child-addicts in Eastern Europe, that Odessa and Vilnius are very different. You can believe that if you want to. I’ll make this suggestion: herion doesn’t discriminate, and it doesn’t check your passport. The reasons kids in Odessa are out shooting heroin are identical to the reasons kids in Vilnius are doing it.

Why do children end up joining drug communities? They often percieve that they don’t matter to the environment they know.

It should not matter to us how many such kids can be found in major cities of the former Soviet Union. Pointing out they exist is not an exaggeration. It should upset us that these kids exist in the first place. But they won’t go away if we pretend they aren’t there.

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