Archive for July, 2011

July 31, 2011

World’s Second Most Mysterious Manuscript

Back in February I wrote a brief post about the world’s most mysterious book, known as the Voynich Manuscript. Over at the Retronaut‘s I learned about the Codex Seraphinianus. Not quite as mysterious as the Voynich, but equally headache inducing. (In a good way.)

Written by Italian artist, architect and designer, Luigi Serfini in the late 70s, it “appears to be a visual encyclopedia of an unknown world, written in one of its languages, an alphabetic writing intended to be meaningless.” (Wiki)

The page numbering code was cracked, as a variation of base 21. But the writing, said the author himself, is an asemic form of automatic writing. He “wanted his alphabet to convey to the ‘reader’ is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand, although they see that their writing does make sense for grown-ups.” (again, Wiki)

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July 30, 2011

Tidings of Pica

In 1581, a criminal set for execution by the name Wendel Thumblardt offered his captors a deal. In lieu of executing him, they could test the purported magical effects of terra sigillata from the Greek island of Lemnos. The source of the belief was the ancient Roman medical researcher, Galen, who claimed that the red clay from Lemnos had medicinal qualities. The authorities in the 16th century agreed to Thumblardt’s offer. They gave him a poison along with the terra sigillata, and when he survived, they freed him.

I read this in a fascinating article by Daniel Mason in Lapham’s Quarterly, entitled Balanced Diets. Mason was in medical school when he wrote a novel, The Piano Tuner, and when the novel became a bestseller, he decided to stay a writer. His subject in the article is Pica, a medical disorder, defined on Wikipedia as “characterized by an appetite for substances largely non-nutritive (e.g., metal, clay, coal, sand, dirt, soil, feces, chalk, pens and pencils, paper, batteries, spoons, toothbrushes, soap, mucus, ash, gum, lip balm, tacks and other office supplies, etc.).” More specifically, geophagic pica, or the practice of eating earth. Here, in five acts, is a very brief modern history of pica.

I

Prior to the 19th century, pica, like hysteria, was considered a woman’s disease, and associated with chlorosis (the green sickness). Mason quotes Ambroise Paré, “physician to four French kings: ‘And when they are mature and ready for marriage, if menstruation begins but marriage is too long delayed, we find always that they are tormented grievously by a swooning of the heart and suffocation of the womb, particularly if they fall in love; their genitals feel warm, which arouses their desires and titillates and stimulates them, causing them to expel their own seed themselves. The seed, if it remains in the spermatic vessels or in the womb, rots and turns to poison…causing putrid vapors to rise to the higher parts and to pass into the blood…They feel pensive and sad and lose all appetite, their depraved appetite being called pica…They seem more dead than alive and often die dropsical and languishing, or mad.’” Cure for pica, thus, was – marriage.

II

In 1800, Alexander von Humboldt reported on a tribe in South America he had encountered near the Orinoco river. Two or three months of the year, when fishing was difficult, the Otomacs ate huge quantities of earth. What shocked the European educated world was not just that seemingly healthy people ate dirt, but that it was eaten by men. Not to worry, the open-minded scientists of Europe amended their views of pica. The disease afflicted, they said now, women and savages. For this there was abundant evidence. European slaveowners in the Caribbean had plenty of accounts of their slaves, who came from West Africa, craving charcoal, clay, chalk, mud, sand, rotten wood, shells, cloth, etc.

III

The problem with this view of pica, fascinating as it was, lay in the overabundance of evidence. For in seeking to explain it, scientists started finding pica everywhere. By 1849, Humboldt himself had to add to the earth eating peoples list Swedes, Finns, and even northern Germans during the Thirty Years War. It wasn’t just women and savages. Then in 1851, Otto Funke discovered hemoglobin as the carrier of iron in the blood, opening up research of anemia. Even prior to this scientist knew that pica could be cured with a hearty meal of red meat and vegetables, but now they understood why it occurred in the first place: lack of nutritional food caused low iron in the blood, causing a craving for the kinds of minerals that could regulate the problem. To quote Mason, “…there is an inherent beauty in this image of auto-regulation, this instinctual understanding of the mineral commerce that moves so invisibly through our blood.” Neat, huh?

IV

Except that it’s a little more complicated. People with pica did not really crave foods high in iron, nor did they crave earth in general. “The Otomacs had not considered all clays “equally agreeable,” nor the “Negroes of Guinea” who sought vainly for caouac in Martinique. Across the world, the craved earths are mostly light-colored, crunchy when dry, aromatic when wet, easy to dissolve.” Nor could its prevalence be explained. Mason quotes Berthold Laufer, an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century. “Laufer left little doubt that earth eating had “nothing to do with climate, race, creed, culture areas, or a higher or lesser degree of culture.” Indeed, to read Laufer is to watch a war of attrition remove all notions of Otherness from our understanding of pica.” Pica, then, is not of the other, perhaps not even a disorder.

V

Even Humboldt recorded cases of animals consuming earth. “Over fifty species of primates practice pica,” writes Mason. So he, along with contemporary scientists, offers an evolutionary explanation for pica (after all, we live in the age of the evolutionary explanation). Eating earth is a way to domesticate food, so to speak. Eating clay cuts out the bitterness of certain foods, claimed Laufer, and bitterness is often found in foods that are in some way poisonous. They clay neutralizes the poison, which is what happened in the case of Wendel Thumblardt in 1581.

And that’s the best we got. Pica is a vestige of an evolutionary response to poisonous food. What I love about this article is how the attempts at explaining the disorder say more about the scientists and their prejudices, or the paradigms of their age (and our own!) than they do about the disease. And what I love about pica is that it lies at the cross of biology and culture, and the mind and body. Pica may appear in nature and may be an evolutionary response, but how cultures deal with this varies based on particular conditions of climate, flora, fauna, etc. And although it has something to do with iron deficiency, how and why that deficiency is manifested in the mind that craves not just specific kinds of clay, but chalk, metal, wood, ice – remains a mystery.

Oh, I almost forgot. The word pica originates from the Latin word for magpie, because it was considered that the bird would eat anything. So here’s a picture of a magpie.

July 28, 2011

Getting Stiffed

 – for Elise

You can tell that I was crazy about Apollo’s Angels from the simple fact that I made six posts about it. Clearly, I think that is the way to write non-fiction. On the other hand, I just finished Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed reading it. The book is highly amusing, funny, brimming with gore, disgusting details of the most delicious kind, full of informative and obscure factoids, which I love, even contains some cool (if gross) science of decomposition. Roach has an iron stomach to have looked at everything she’s writing about here, yet she’s good at not going over the top with nauseating descriptions, she relieves the situation with humor frequently. She also talks about things that are in the public domain, meaning that the information is out there if you want to know it, but nobody ever brings up. For example, historic and current problems of obtaining (and maintaining) human bodies for anatomy lessons, and the attitude of students who have to train on them. She also brings up how use of cadavers for science is a much broader concept that most people think. Aside from medical lessons and organ transplants, cadavers are used for car crash tests, examinations of airplane crashes, and even the military uses them to test resistance to bullets and explosions.

It’s even interesting when she veers off topic to discuss medical definitions of death, the history of “the soul,” and the way the guillotine works in relation to the body (it turns out the widely held belief that one is still alive and conscious after decapitation is true).

Ultimately, however, the book is a loosely connected series of journalistic articles, admittedly with a little more detail. She knows she’s grossing her reader out and she plays that aspect up like a trick at a party to keep attention on herself. Instead of really delving into the significance of some of the facts she presents or human behaviors she describes, she remains on the surface, moving through the topics a little too quickly, and letting her audience off the hook a little too easily.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Homans’ Apollo’s Angels and Roach’s Stiff is its relationship with our own, familiar culture. After reading the book on ballet, I really felt humbled, like taking down the walls that encircle my own little plot of land to see that it’s only a slice of a much bigger field. Roach’s book serves to reinforce those walls. Every time she ventures into dangerous territory, where one might really start to question one’s beliefs, to see that the ways we do things is only one out of many, she cracks a joke and places things firmly back in the known and expected. Death, illness, the body are big subjects, and one ought to have a new perspective on them after reading three hundred pages. (Isn’t that why we read, to see the world with new eyes?) Instead, this is a long list of facts, trivia, and clever ways to gross people out at a party, to everyone’s amusement.

I have to mention that I got the book as a present from a friend of a friend, for whom I did a favor. She is a flutist and composer, so I had her sign the book by writing out a couple of bars of a composition of hers. I figured I’d share that with you.

July 27, 2011

The Hard Stuff that Remains

I think shows like Bones and CSI made forensic science more popular with the general public. (Since I never watch Bones, I did not know until two days ago that Stephen Fry guest stars in some of the episodes, which means that I totally have to watch those now!) Of course, being TV shows, they made it more popular at a certain cost, namely, accurate portrayal.

I’m guessing that actual science of reading human bones is both more pedestrian and more exciting. On the one hand, 99% of the time, there is no crime to be solved, so discoveries are less dramatic. On the other, the discoveries made, however slight and undramatic, are actually really new knowledge: not just use of existing knowledge to put a detective puzzle together, but actually stuff that nobody knew until that moment.

What made me think of this was a biological anthropologist, Kristina Killgrove who blogs at Powered by Osteons. For example, she reports on three Italian bio-anthropologists (archeologists? bone scientists, in any case), Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti who dug up and examined the bones of one Carlo Maria Broschi, also known as Farinelli. It appears that this is “the only osteological analysis of a castrato or eunuch.”

(Farinelli’s remains are circled.)

It’s almost banal to hear what they had to say about him: he was 6’3” and had good oral hygiene. The really interesting thing, though is that his cranial bone was quite thick, which is almost exclusively found in postmenopausal women. It appears that his castration caused a hormonal imbalance, which over time caused the thickening of the bone. See, not very dramatic news, that: eighteenth century castrato had a hormonal imbalance. But it is interesting in a (very) geeky way, and it will surely get people thinking about connections between hormones, bones, sex, age…

Interestingly, Killgrove is not crazy about digging up famous people’s remains. She reports on certain scientists wanting to dig up Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the woman thought to be Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or William Shakespeare. Most recently on her blog, she discusses why it’s not a good idea to dig up Cervantes. Not only can it not be confirmed with 100% accuracy that any bones found are Cervantes’, but the things they want to find out, can’t be deduced from the remains. Facial reconstruction (to see what he actually looked like) and whether cirrhosis was actually the cause of death.

As much as I too would want to know more about Cervantes, I have to side with Killgrove. Would we enjoy Don Quixote, the Mona Lisa, or Macbeth if we knew what these people looked like? What would this knowledge really do for us? It turns out, methinks, that attempts to dig up these three are much like Bones and CSI. Sensational stuff. Looks great in the newspapers, but hardly the stuff science is really made of.

July 25, 2011

Gentlemen, Welcome to Fight Club

 – for the wuc, working for the Man.

Fight Club, or a metaphor for cinema at century’s end.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I was wrong about Fight Club. It’s a better movie than I remember. It is at least as good and entertaining as David Fincher’s other good work, Se7en. It holds together. Like The Sixth Sense or Usual Suspects, the second watching has to hold against the knowledge of the revelation towards the end, which changes everything in the first watching. And for Fightclub, it does.

But this is not where I tell you about Fightclub itself. This is more a proposition of interpretation. (The stuff Susan Sontag said never to do. Yeah, whatever.) Others are possible, but this reading is mine now, so indulge me for argument’s sake.

I was struck how self-referential the film was. Ed Norton is not just the main character(s), he is also the narrator of the film. He tells us that the scene the film begins with has a story, and then goes back to not one, but two different points in time to tell it. The entire film is in fact that story, the lead up to the opening scene. This and other points of narration kept giving me the impression that the film knew it was being watched, that it is a film.

And then there are those moments at the beginning where the narrator stops the action, looks straight at the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and says “Let me tell you a little bit about Tyler Durden.” Naturally, Tyler, at this point only Brad Pitt, joins in, and faces the camera/audience himself. And what do they talk about? They tell you something about movies, cinemas, editing, the susceptible audience, and the sneaky way movies function.

That’s just the thing (here). The sneaky movies. Not that Fightclub lacks anxiety about the modern world, or that it’s suspicious of mainstream success (i.e. white collar jobs and middle class life), or that it’s worried about contemporary (American) masculinity. But on top of all of that, there is the anxiety of cinema.

Fightclub came out in 1999. Cinema had been around for about a century and by then had gone through a few phases. (The biggest changing points are perhaps sound and color?) There had been a few new waves and dark moments, but by the mid nineties, its own history had (blissfuly, as in Francis Fukuyama’s wet dream) ended. Not that there wouldn’t be new filmmakers, but they would rise through the cookie cutter mold of the big Hollywood studios, and produce predictable, bland, formulaic stuff.

Enter Tyler Durden. He is going to save Ed Norton’s nameless, lame, starched stiff character from the Man. This is the perfect subversion from the inside. Just like Tyler Durden never physically hurts anyone (but himself), and all his actions are designed to open eyes, reveal a true(r) nature, force people to look at themselves, show the world to itself (its constituents) – so the film is not a real destructive force against cinema, but only a fierce reminder that we have fallen asleep as audiences.

Tyler Durden is the independent filmmaker who will blow up his life, destroy his body, sacrifice his sanity for the sake of opening up some space for new expression, and wresting artistic cinema from the Man. Nowhere is this more evident than when he threatens the Korean store clerk with death unless he follows his own dream of becoming a vet: violently he forces the man to confront his own dreams, to find a way to be what he really wants to be (instead of a cog in a machine). When the store clerk is released and running away, Tyler yells after him “run Forrest, run!” Oh American cinema, you could have been so much more than Forrest Gump.

The thing is, along with (say) Kevin Smith, Kevin Nolan and the Wachowski brothers (whose Matrix also came out in 1999), at least for a time, it might have worked.

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July 23, 2011

Letter to FIAF

I discovered this while going through some stuff in an old box.

Back in 2006 I was working part time for FIAF or French Institute Alliance Française. Among other inane tasks, I was in charge of opening random mail. One day, I got a letter from a prison inmate in California. In itself, that would be pretty interesting, but this letter was also special because I have never quite seen handwriting as beautiful as this.
Click on the image for a (much) larger version so you can see the penmanship.
[transcript after the break]

 

Sept 19, 2006

French Institute / Alliance Française
To whom it may concern:

I just came across your address in an old almanac and I had to write you to see if you could help me.

You see recently I started reading and studying French because one; I have plenty of time on my hands and two I have always admired everything French, especially the language.

I am currently studying French from this book titled “French step by step” by Chalres Berlitz and so far I’ve learned many words and sentences however I feel that I would learn faster if I could hear the language and speak it but since I’m in prison there isn’t anyone who speaks it.

Well I’m wondering if you offer any c.d.’s that could help me to learn this beautiful language and if you do could you please send me a catalog. Also do you have any free literature about your organization and what you are all about.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my letter.

[his
   address
          was
               here ]

Sincèrement,
Ruben Vasquez

I smudged out the address in the bottom left of the letter, in case you’re wondering what that is.

Nobody from FIAF ever responded to him. I talked to a coworker about writing back to him, but we agreed that it would not be a good idea. More than just information about learning French, this person is looking for someone to talk to, and writing back once would be making a commitment to keep writing. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw the letter away. And then I forgot about it, until I found it among old papers.

 

July 21, 2011

Language of Hell

Back in the nineties, National Public Radio had a music program called Schickele Mix, hosted by the composer, musicologist, and all-round funny guy Peter Schickele. The program was “dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal,” and it was true to its motto. I got my hands on a bunch of the episodes and I am going through them slowly.

Towards the end of one, Schickele is introducing the end of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. He’s explaining what is going on in the clip he’s about to play. (I wish I could play it for you, but you’ll have to settle for the transcript.)

“The demons bear Mephistopheles in triumph. And then the chorus sings ‘Tradioun Marexil fir trudinxé…’ what is this? What it is, according to these notes, it says while the demons bear mephistopheles away in triumph, singing a chorus in the language of Hell, invented by Swedenborg in the eighteenth century. So there you have it, Swedenborg apparently invented this langauge. And it’s a perfectly appropriate language to go to Hell with.”

WHHAAAAAAAAATT?! Swedenborg invented a language of Hell? Holy…!

Ok, so Emanuel Swedenborg was a (no prizes) Swedish mystic, theologian, philosopher, born in 1688 and died in 1772. He is one of those unknown historic figures who exerts more influence than he gets credit for. Both Immanuel Kant and William Blake were Swedenborgians before they broke with from him, and traces of his thought can be found in Poe, Emerson, Balzac and others. (Swedenborg at one point declared that the Messiah would arrive in the year 1757. After breaking with Swedenborgianism, William Blake ridiculed Swedenborg for such an exact prediction, but also couldn’t not notice that it was his own year of birth.)

Among other things, Swedenborg claimed that he could talk directly to Jesus, the saints, and could communicate with the dead. Kant himself collected testimonies from people who claimed that Swedenborg communicated with a dead family member. From these visits to the world of the dead, I imagine, the language of Hell.

I say I imagine because I have no idea where Schickele is getting this from. Not that I don’t believe him, but I haven’t been able to find anything online to verify this. I downloaded the complete libretto and score of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust in hopes of finding the note Schickele was reading on the air – to no avail. Nor have any of the links to Swedenborg’s life story yielded any comment about the invention of the language of Hell. I don’t know where I’m gonna find this…

In the meantime, I’m giving you a page and a fragment of Berlioz’s score, containing the words from the language of Hell, sung by the chorus.

.

July 20, 2011

Faith in Music

Recently, I met someone who made me attempt to listen to contemporary classical music. You know, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg…Some of it I like, but most of it goes over my head.

Then I visited a blog I had neglected for a while, waggish, and ran across this post. David Auerbach, who is ‘waggish,’ quotes Charles Rosen, a pianist and author:

It is not at all natural to want to listen to classical music. Learning to appreciate it is like Pascal’s wager: you pretend to be religious, and suddenly you have faith. You pretend to love Beethoven–or Stravinsky–because you think that will make you appear educated and cultured and intelligent, because that kind of thing music is prestigious in professional circles, and suddenly you really love it, you have become a fanatic, you go to concerts and buy records and experience true ecstasy when you hear a good performance (or even when you hear a mediocre one if you have little judgment.)
Berlioz detested the music of Bach: he did not want to enjoy it. Stravinsky despised Brahms, but came around to him at the end of his life. Not all composers are easy to love: Beethoven was more difficult than Mozart, Stravinsky harder than Ravel. Some composers, on the other hand, bring diminishing dividends over the years to their amateurs. One can revive a taste for Hummel or Saint-Saens, but it is not nourishing over a long period. (A little Satie for me goes a long way: I am never in a hurry to return to him.) Those amateurs who love a composer are the only ones whose opinion counts; the negative votes have no importance. The musical canon is not decided by majority opinion but by enthusiasm and passion. A work that ten people love passionately is more important than one that ten thousand do not mind hearing.

Waggish has this under the entry Elitist Credo, but I think the more interesting aspect is the idea that if you just put all the negative opinions aside and listen to the music enough, it will eventually mean something to you. So we’ll see…

July 17, 2011

Our Pneumatic Past and (fingers crossed) Future

Over at Scientific American, Jennifer Ouellette wrote an article that talks about two things I love: urban structure and bits of forgotten history. Her article goes into the history and physics of vacuum and air pressure, starting with the Arab philosopher Al-Farabi in the 9th century, but I begin my story in the mid 19th century.

“In the mid-1850s, there were several rudimentary “atmospheric railways” — in Ireland, London, and Paris — and while the London Pneumatic Despatch system was intended to transport parcels, it was large enough to handle people. In fact, the Duke of Buckingham and several members of the company’s board of directors were transported through the pneumatic system on October 10, 1865, to mark the opening of a new station.”

Over in New York, traffic had become a nightmare by 1860. So some guy (there’s always a guy) came up with a solution. Alfred Ely Beach, who had previously acquired a little magazine that had only been started up ten months prior, called The Scientific American, decided to move traffic underground. He exhibited his prototype of an above-ground pneumatic train in 1867.
Being the fickle and conservative bunch that they are, New Yorkers rejected his proposed underground transportation. A combination of powerful store owners along Broadway (where Beach wanted to construct the railway), who did not want foot traffic diverted from their store fronts, and the general public not wanting its habits disrupted had his project…ehem…derailed.

Undeterred, Beach got permission from the state to build a tunnel for small pneumatic tubes under Broadway. Instead, he used the opportunity to show off his grander idea. “In February 1870, Beach unveiled his masterpiece, and it was an immediate novelty attraction for the public, especially given the luxury of the station: it boasted a grand piano, chandeliers, and a fully operational fountain stocked with goldfish.”
The opening of the station was popular with New Yorkers, but he needed more permits to construct a line up to Central Park. This made him bump up again against powerful interests in the government, and Beach was unable to do anything in the next few years.

By 1873, two things happened. There was the economic depression, also known as the Panic of 1873. And starting in 1870, other investors, working on the west side of Manhattan, namely on Ninth Avenue and Greenwich Street, constructed a steam engine, elevated transportation system. (Once abandoned, it was on these elevated, West side tracks that the High Line was built.)

.

Alfred Ely Beach died in 1896, his dream unaccomplished. It would take electricity to bring about the explosion of the NYC subway system. And even then, there were just as many elevated trains as there were underground. In Manhattan these lines, like the Third Avenue, Eighth Avenue, and Broadway El were scrapped as late as the 1970s, but elevated trains still operate throughout Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

As for the idea of pneumatic propelled transportation, Jennifer Ouellette fills us in. “The US government considered the possibility in the 1960s of running a vactrain (combining pneumatic tubes with maglev technology) between Philadelphia and New York City, but the project was deemed prohibitively expensive, and was scrapped. […] An engineer with Lockheed named L.K. Edwards proposed a Bay Area Gravity-Vacuum Transit system for California in 1967, designed to run in tandem with San Francisco’s BART system, then under construction. It, too, was never built. Nor was the system of underground Very High Speed Transportation conceived by Robert M. Salter of RAND in the 1970s to run along what we now call the Northeast Corridor.” However, she adds, Beach’s “vision is still influencing engineers in the 21st century, most notably researchers in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering. Apparently, traveling through networks of these vacuum tubes enables supersonic speeds without the drawback of sonic booms that plague supersonic jets, making the trip from London to New York in less than an hour.”
Surely, this is the way forward!

Ouellette, who also has a blog here, was a guest on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Hilarity ensues.

July 15, 2011

Somewhere in Between

Suheir Hammad’s Drops of This Story slips through my fingers. I do not know what to do with it. There’s no story, but the half-page sketches (?) add up to a life. A young life, but a life nevertheless. There’s no narrative, but each sketch alludes to events beyond itself. I can’t tell if it’s poetry or prose: the sketches are too incomplete to be prose, but form a whole too coherent for each to be poetry. At moments it seems to be directly autobiographical, in others, I feel she could just as easily be making things up or embellishing. And it’s somewhere between traditional writing and slam, spoken word poetry.

Somewhere in between, like the poet herself. Palestinian, born in a refugee camp, raised in Brooklyn and later Staten Island. She laments being American when she visits her Palestinian cousins, and Palestinian when she’s in New York. (That is, when she’s allowed to be Palestinian, when her teachers aren’t telling her that there is no such thing as being Palestinian.) She’s also somewhere in between genders. “…my father really did raise me as a boy. I was encouraged to think, to ask, to figure out. […] My father raised a strong human being, but when when he realized I wasn’t gonna grow a penis, he changed his mind. Thank God it was too late.” When me meet her, the opening line, she says “I told her to chop it [her hair] all off.”

The drops of story are a great metaphor: each are a tiny bit, but together they add up (and they don’t always blend the way they’re supposed to). And the fluidity of the story reinforces the fluidity of her identity: slipping in and out of contexts, not being sure which side to belong to…all this I get. But all that in between is not why it slips through my fingers.

I understand now my father really thought he was doing me good. Education means a lot to Palestinians. We’ve become some of the most educated people in the world through our diaspora. We’ve had to be. When you ain’t got land, your degree may be your only solid ground. May father felt (feels) that being a doctor would give me security. How can I explain that I’m not safe from anything if I don’t write?

When I read that passage I thought a-ha! so that’s what she wants to do: she wants to solidify her identity through writing. She doesn’t want to find herself in either the oppressive Palestinian tradition of her father, nor in the racist tradition of her adopted country (US). She is going to will her own identity, with he own words, against the traditions that would both claim her in a way that she is not and reject her for what she is. Great.

Except that that effort is belied by her constant defense of one tradition to the other, by her attempt to be both forgiving and condemning her mother for staying with her abusive father; by her attempt to both side with the youth she’s surrounded with, and stand apart from their self-destructive drug, alcohol, violent tendencies; by her attempt to both fit in with the boys (when playing hand ball), and not be seen as a girl watched by boys’ eyes walking down the street.

She wants to fit in with the traditions that surround her (one or the other, or both), but also stand for herself. She wants to be seen as the sum of her own experiences and defend Palestine, except she has never been there, this is not her experience. “You are what your experiences make you… […] spirit of dance slave who bathed in the Nile”. This is her story, but “before I knew how to write, this story was around, waiting to let me know it was there.”

Suheir Hammad – somewhere in between her own story and two larger stories, not her own, to which she wants to belong.