Liquid Ink

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


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Alice Walker on a pissed off God

Liquid Ink continues its celebration of black history month with this quote from Alice Walker, one that hit me hard as I worked to compile this series. I think it’s particularly impactful to me now that I’m a student of Zen. I last read The Color Purple a few years after the film was produced and realize now I must return to it soon.

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

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Photo of Alice Walker from Wikipedia.


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An artist you should know: Susan Sensemann

Susan Sensemann is a member of my Zen center. She’s a skilled visual artist whose photography, painting and drawing prove intricate and powerful. I find her self-portraits particularly provocative.

If you’ve not heard of this artist, take a look at her work here. Here are some examples of her work.

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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: Why don’t your stories have endings?

This question came a while ago from someone who has read almost every available work of fiction I’ve ever written. While my novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar, saw very few reviews, several reviewers commented that the book had no ending. Reviewers of The Fugue have not made similar comments…not that I remember. But the reader asking the question felt the final paragraph of The Fugue is even less an ending than the final bit in Finding the Moon.

I find this really fascinating. It goes completely contrary to my process and point of view. I don’t feel I can really start writing something until I see how it ends. I’ve said in many interviews that The Fugue started out as a vignette of a man repairing a window. I didn’t know I had a novel until I imagined the very final scene. The horror and displacement convinced me I had a novel.

All this aside, my endings don’t offer resolution. I find resolution to be among the greatest contrivances in literature. I don’t think of narratives or time in linear terms, but if we do think this way, a cliché applies: all roads lead to the same destination, and that destination is a mystery. There’s a difference between writing the last word of a text—always an energizing moment—and resolving the narrative’s problem. A good ending is one that leaves the reader feeling obliterated or provoked. It is not one that leaves the reader with the delusion that now s/he “understands something” or, worse, “understands everything.”

There’s no way to answer this question in detail without discussing the actual endings. As a person fascinated with love and death, I write about not knowing. One of my most important themes, I think, is ignorance, especially the kind of ignorance we can’t perceive. So I don’t try to answer any questions in my fiction. My fiction is a way for me to express my ignorance, and my endings work to that end.

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Writing advice from Alan Watts

This is kind of classic Alan Watts. I just stumbled on it while looking for a text for a student. Watts says he has no advice and then gives the best advice you’ll ever get.

Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.

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Photo of Alan Watts, age 7, from Wikipedia.


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A very difficult question

Just a few weeks ago, I was in New York (to read at the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series at Dixon Place). While it was a mini-vacation for me, I ended up taking a phone call from a reporter who wanted to write me up for the Suburban Life. You can read that story here.

I took the interview while wandering around Central Park at dusk. Save for occasional brisk gusts, the evening was ideal, with the lights of the buildings along Central Park West and then 5th Avenue shining through leafless trees, the moisture in the air anticipating spring. For a part of the interview, I sat on an outcrop and, as night had fallen, did not encounter a single soul.

The reporter asked me some very difficult questions, perhaps more difficult than the ones Amy Danzer asked in this live interview of me. As these things go, obviously, some of the answers were cast aside in the drafting process. But one question stayed with me ever since that private moment on a Central Park boulder, perhaps because I had such a hard time answering it.

What does writing mean to you?

I had no idea how to answer this. I remember sighing and looking at the grass. What does it mean? I said something but can’t remember what.

I love writing fiction because it’s enough to ask a big question, poor form to try to answer it. But shouldn’t I know the answer to this?

I think, to answer it, I should compare writing to something I care very little about, like my shoes. My shoes mean almost nothing. They keep my feet from pain and offer me some capacity to look decent in public. Writing means much more than this.

But what?

I could get Zen about it. Meaning is a construct. But that’s a cop-out, especially when a reporter intuits that writing means some very important thing. After all, I wrote a 480 page book.

Since that time, I’ve found myself wondering if I would go on living were I to lose the ability to write. Let’s say I ended up suffering brain damage and could only know I’m unable to write stories burning themselves out in my mind. If I could see those stories and know them, feel their narratives like rivers or currents in my body, but never release them, would I keep living?

Surely, this bombastic question points to some meaning. I can’t answer it because my imagination can’t take me to the necessary place.

Central Park