Liquid Ink

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


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Readers ask: What’s your religion?

I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.

Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.

I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.

This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.

I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.

Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.

What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.

Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:

  • Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
  • Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
  • Will the individual please stand up?
  • What must be done in order to count beyond one?
  • Where is the past?
  • Where is the future?
  • If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?

 

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Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City 


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Readers ask: How’s it feel to kill a character?

I’ve been holding off answering some of the questions I’ve received about The Fugue because the book is really hard to talk about without giving up spoilers. Even skilled interviewers like Amy Danzer of New City (click for interview) and Rick Kogan of WGN (click for interview) had to find clever ways of talking about the book to keep from revealing too much.

At this point, I’ve gathered enough questions that I can start blogging on a more regular basis. I’ve found some to be really the provocative.

So, here’s the first:

How’s it feel to kill a character?

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun sometimes. To blow off steam, sometimes I’ll just write torture scenes in my notebook, most so over-the-top that they become nonsense. “Blood and brains were everywhere. Everywhere. She’d find bits of spongy brain in her pencil case months later.”

Of course, sometimes the death of a character is a really intense moment. Death is a central theme in my books, especially in connection to religion and love. I’ve written death scenes that have left me crying afterwards. There’s one particular bit in The Fugue that I feared writing. It has to do with a hanging. When I did finally complete it, I went for a long walk through Morningside Heights Park at around 2:00 AM.

I think it’s important to explain what assumptions I bring to my writing. I don’t feel very strongly influenced by the Hollywood narrative in which the good guy survives. I assume I’m treating representations of real people, and so death is a certainty for every character I’ve ever written. Sometimes that death happens within the plot, and some deaths are more gruesome than others. In The Fugue, some people burn alive; another one goes to sleep and never wakes up; a third is killed in a bus shelter; one guy gets kicked in the head by a horse.

I’ve never written a character just to kill them off. Unlike a writer like Flannery O’Connor, I don’t feel that death is a punishment or an instrument of God. To me, it’s part of life, like the rain or the sunset. Readers should notice, however, that unlike Tolstoy in Master and Man, I’ve written very few in-the-moment death scenes. There are two important ones in Finding the Moon in Sugar. In The Fugue, a character named Lars is near death, feverish and delusional in one scene, but he comes out of it. A lot of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and are either discovered or noted by other characters.

Of all the scenes I’ve ever read, I feel that Nabokov must have had more fun than anyone else writing Humbert Humbert’s murder of Clare Quilty. It’s a romp, at once sublime and profane, and even includes a poetry reading. I think the reader enjoys, at least partially, watching Quilty go. I’d be shocked if readers found characters in my books they wanted to see destroyed.

However, I’m working on one now that people will probably want to see tortured. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with him yet. But his fate won’t be easy.

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Dead Poets Society

Back in March, I wrote this article regarding my love of Dead Poets Society, and I admit what an influence the film and Williams’ interpretation of Keating were on my teen years. They led to me becoming a teacher, and of taking the writing life seriously.

I’ll be publishing an article about Robin Williams in today’s True Community. I’m shocked, reading back, that I wrote the previous article as I did, contemplating the film’s lessons about mortality, in the same year that Williams would end his life. Fans of his work, and those moved as I am by his loss, will appreciate it. Please share.


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Living an examined life

This week’s installment of True Community tells the story of the moment when I faced my mortality. I was sixteen, and it happened while watching Dead Poets Society. The event inspired me to become a teacher (I already knew I wanted to be a writer).

I used to directly teach the concept of the examined life. But various pressures conspired to see me give up the topic. It also got too exhausting because students didn’t respond well to questions like “Who are you?”  and “Where does the world come from?”

These days, I try to teach the lesson through the back door.

Hope you’ll check it out.

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Grading what does not exist

I am approached every semester, usually about 10 to 11 weeks in, by at least one student who has not turned in a single bit of homework and yet is very interested to know how he is “doing”. I use *he* with purpose. Probably four out of five of the students who’ve asked me this question over the years have been men.

My answer is always the same: You haven’t turned anything in. The student will, as a student did earlier today, stare at me in wonder, even bafflement. It’s as if there’s some hidden meaning, some riddle, some plastic we could bend to crack and reveal, pop!, the answer beyond what’s obvious. The student did not ask me to tell him how much homework he had handed in. He asked me to explain how he is doing, and I clearly misunderstood. Now the young man is at a loss. Should he repeat himself?

Some of them ask, “So, like, whaaaaat? You know. Does that, like, mean I’m not doing…good?”

I’m fascinated by the idea that I should know how the student is doing without having read any of the student’s writing. It’s a compliment, after all, to be considered a seer, to have the existential capacity to know how a student is doing on an absolute level. Pick a number: seer, priest, empath, monk, alien, god. Not even Apollo had the ability to feel how someone was doing. Apollo had to ask or observe. In terms of the pantheon of mythological figures, these students seem to think I’m the Holy Ghost.

It begs questions. Why? How? Is this the result of an education system that worries about how everyone is feeling? Is there a gap between how a student is actually feeling and how a teacher perceives the student’s emotional state? I don’t grade emotions, of course, but perhaps I should. I should imagine them and grade them.

Or perhaps I should imagine the paper I would really like the student to have written, award it exactly the grade I wish he could earn, and then announce to the world that our imaginations have become one, at least from my point of view. This is a path to perfection. Oneness with the teacher. It’s a concept of divinity, easy to consider real.

Shouldn’t this at least partially explain how this student got the idea in the first place? I mean, someone out there must have told him that, yes, you’re doing fine. I have not read a single thing you’ve written all semester—a piece of writing from you doesn’t even exist—but you’re doing fine.

There. I said it. You’re fine and so am I. You and I both are fine. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Feeling fine. It’s easy. Just ask someone to determine your emotions for you. It’s automatic.


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The power of the imagination

I took these photographs in Nida, Lithuania, on the Curonian Spit.

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Striking, yes? Imagine those people who saw this Christ when he was first hoisted up into the air at the pathway of the church. This church here, built on a sandy hill in Nida:
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These people, late 19th Century Lutherans, most of them having lived their lives in the peace of the Curonian dunes, had no access to the sorts of visuals we take for granted: Saw III or even photographs of the dead. People among them who knew violence had seen it with their own eyes on battlefields and in torture chambers. But even they had minds clean of any iconic violence, any representation of it, save in books. But the concept of iconic violence, the kind of artifice we know in Reservoir Dogs or even ER, was utterly inconceivable to them.Those people came upon this cross and were told: “This is God.” This. In the trauma of this sight, I imagine them cured, at least temporarily, of their petty concerns: Does my spouse love me? Will there be enough rain this season? Shall I find my daughter a husband? Will my knee ever heal? Will my death be a painful one or will I simply fall asleep one moment, never to wake up again? I must pray with all my might for the latter. And I certainly won’t complain, not by raising my voice, at any rate.

Such is the power of art. Of the human imagination. It takes imagination to create images and myths. And it takes imagination to consume, to turn an image carved from innocent wood into a series of emotions and ideas.

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DOMA goes down!!

Liquid Inkers, don’t miss my editorial about DOMA on The Good Men Project.

In short, you get to live your life exactly as you were living it before this ruling. If you believe that an invisible being loves you more than he loves your gay neighbors, you should find solace in that. Human laws do not interfere with your deity’s laws.

What a day!