Liquid Ink

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

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Storytelling is superior to lecturing

My last article points out the obvious: Why Storytelling Has Always Been Better Than Lecturing, Period. It’s a response to another Good Men Project article that argues for parents to use stories to instruct their children.

Hope you check it out and spread the word.

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Interviu per LTR

Va, pirmą kart tokioje viešoje erdvėje rašau lietuviškai . Pasiklausykite mano pokalbio su LTR žurnaliste, Raminta Jonykaite. Labai man patiko jos klausimai. Laidoje eina apie rašytojaus vietą visuomenej, skaitytojų užprovokavimą, žmogaus tapatybę, kultūrinių ir etninių tapatybių iliuzijas, romano naudą, ir panašiai.

Nuorodą rasite čia. Linkiu smagaus pusvalandžio.



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Synchronicity with Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

Note: I was asked by Mikhail Iossel to write this text. It ended up posted on his Facebook.

Early this summer, I needed to ride a train and a bus across Chicagoland, a trip that would take a good hour or so. Buying coffee, I looked in my bag to find I had forgotten to bring a book, so I went to my neighborhood bookstore to browse around. My desires were straightforward: a book of shorts, either poems or essays or stories, something that would not weigh down my bag very much. And I wanted to spend less than ten dollars.

Several books caught my eye, but I finally settled on a tiny little tome, a simple black and white cover. It was titled Dust, a collection of essays by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The blurbs said something about memory and dreams, favorite topics, but besides this, I had no idea who he was. I knew he had been translated from Russian, and I trusted Dalkey Archive Press. The book also cost less than six dollars.

The first sentences engaged me in a way books rarely do. As the initial paragraph made its way through my mind, I felt Dragomoshchenko’s prose was braiding strands of light among my thoughts; the effect was a trancelike wonder at the power of words to evoke spaces and sensations in the imagination. I had to stop reading for a moment to begin again—perhaps I was not concentrating properly. But this was simply the effect. The sentences were about something familiar, even tactile and intimate—knives, streets, shells—and yet his ideas and gestures flowed from one unexpected moment to another, cutting at angles that seemed invisible, passages that operated by association and accident, but also depended on some perverted mathematical principle, perhaps algebra. I read slowly, patiently, and let go of any need to understand this man, this Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. I simply let myself experience his beautiful visions, accept his gifts.

Later on in the summer, all the way in Vilnius, Lithuania, I attended the opening reception of the Summer Literary Seminar. I ended up in a conversation with Elizabeth Hodges, the publisher of the St. Petersburg Review, who handed me a bookmark, one of these meant as an advertisement for the journal. Among the names of people the journal had published—it leaped out to me—was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko.

I grew excited, “This guy! This guy! I read this guy! This guy’s a trip!” Someone else in the world knew him? Someone else liked him? Here was a person who had published him? “I stumbled on his book, totally by accident, and it blew my mind.”

I learned that he had only recently died. The news hurt me, a curious kind of pain. It was not the hurt I have felt when relatives or loved ones have died, but very much like the kind that pangs when I hear about the death of a colleague I had worked with overseas, or if I hear that my old professor’s heart stopped beating in the middle of a lecture. Reading Dragomoshchenko is like swimming in his consciousness; at least for me, it was like knowing him across a dozen births and reincarnations. He and I were once goldfish sharing the same bowl; later on I was his housekeeper, and now he was this writer who braided light in my head.

Hodges told me that Michael Iossel, the director of the seminar, had been Arkadii’s close friend. I had to tell him about my accidental discovery. While speaking, I watched a restrained, sublime pain soften Iossel’s expressions, loosen his posture. He told me about Dragomoshchenko’s methods and relations with others in Russia, few of them very good. I took mental notes on what else to read even when I already knew I’d read anything that existed in English.

It is easy to explain this as synchronicity—how often do we run into friends and colleagues of artists we admire? In one way, my encounter with Dragomoshchenko, then with Hodges and Iossel, is exactly the same as being hit by leaves falling from the same tree at different moments of the day and in different parts of the forest. In another, it is the same as searching out for those leaves, the leaves of an elm, in a space where all the other trees are maples or oaks. I read Dragomoshchenko because he is exactly the kind of writer I’d read, and I met his colleagues because they are also interested in these kinds of letters.

Even so, it illuminates something I’ve always believed about literature. Reading a book is not just to engage the thoughts of an author but also to join a community. It’s invisible, spread out over great distances, even foreign to itself, barely aware of how large or small it might be. Despite all this, it is real, enormously powerful and deeply intimate.

Writers must remember this when they stare at their words and wonder, “Why the hell should I bother with this tripe?” There’s no reason, actually, just as there is no reason to invite friends for dinner or ride the bus across town to meet colleagues. But when we do it, and when we share, we create and maintain communities which contribute to what makes life interesting. Books improve bus rides for strangers and make distant friends in the process.


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A feminist grad student and Othello

My recent Good Men Project, Becoming a Man Who is Ready For Love, has been shared over 400 times on Facebook and continues to be read today. I hope you’ll take a look at it. It’s about a pathetic relationship I had a with a girl when I was in college, and what I learned in the introspective aftermath.

The piece is short and tells only part of the story, as these things do. There’s actually quite a bit more to tell: I’d have to cast characters like psilocybin and mescaline into the narrative, and retell a long conversation I had with a former roommate. I’m saving all these things for the memoir I’m writing.

I do want to fill in one gap and tell you about a lecture I heard at the University of Illinois when I was taking a course on Shakespeare, one of the more important classes I have ever taken. We certainly learned all the things one learns—all the important questions about psychology—when you read a load of Shakespeare’s plays. There were also unexpected, empowering lessons.

We were studying Othello. Here’s a layman’s summary of the play’s plot that I found on a therapist’s website:

Well there was this guy, a military guy. Othello. He was a black general and he was very successful. And the world at that time was dominated by whites. Anyway, he had a beautiful wife called Desdemona and there was this evil guy called Iago who tried to make Othello believe that Desdemona was having an affair. He stole her handkerchief and then Othello got really jealous and he was so convinced [of Desdemona’s affair] that he killed her.

Of course, in our study, many questions about race and political power came up. Most of the students were used to them and anticipated what the professor was going to do. Towards the end of our time with Othello, however, the professor invited a graduate student, a feminist only a few years older than me, to give a lecture on her study of Othello. What she said planted an important seed that left me rethinking what I believed I knew about human emotions and romantic relationships between women and men.

She analyzed Othello’s motivations, and she claimed that Othello killed Desdamona not because he was jealous or even because he was sexually possessive. Othello had been projecting himself onto Desdamona, and determining his own personal value through his marriage to her, a beautiful woman who should have been (indeed, she was) “true” to him. This is an important distinction. The student didn’t believe Othello was simply seething with rage because he’d been betrayed. He was seething because his peers would judge him for being unable to satisfy and control his wife. But he was also seeing his identity crumble. What was he? In large part he was the husband to the fair Desdemona. And if Desdemona were not fair, than that husband no longer existed. He didn’t love her as a person. He loved what she made him out to appear. It’s vain and dehumanizing.

Psychologically, I had been doing something very similar in the relationship to “Lucy”, the figure I draw in the article. I had not been dating her because I had any interest in her. I was interested in what status I gained by showing up places with a beautiful girl. That’s not love. It’s (a very flawed kind of) self-inflation. Tragically, I was only partially aware of it, and I never got the status I desired except from total strangers in places like cafes, people seated at neighboring tables.

As a side note, part of the reason I believe great literature should be taught in schools, and people who understand literature should be asked to present their findings to young people, is exactly because of this kind of moment. I had hundreds of them as a literature student, and I continue to have them as I read great books.