Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Confessing my life to Ma Jian (in translation)

A personal essay by Uma anyar

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was a huge success. It attracted the largest attendance in its seven-year history. Not enough chairs at several events. Opening night dinner at Casa Luna had folks scrambling for seats at the table, sending off a cranky grumble until the first and then the second glasses of wine arrived and made everything all right.

Everyone wanted to do, see, attend, and partake in all that was available. The program centered on the notion of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Harmony in Diversity.) The actual presentations covered a lot of the same ground that has been explored other years, under different mottos, but you only notice this if you have attended as many of festivals as I have. Interviews with famous and near famous writers, who are questioned on how they write, why they write and what makes them write? The predictable replies, “I have to, I can’t do anything about it.” Etc. There were the usual travel-writing sessions and panels on race, religion and politics. Also, to lighten things up, there were the cute, the funny, and the clever sessions that sound like dessert menu offerings, ‘afternoon delights’. There was the standard all-day workshop on ‘writing the best short story ever’, repackaged for freshness, and the always popular half-day workshop on how to produce a successful memoir. This one filled up fast. This was no surprise as the dominant constituencies at the festivals are middle-aged women, who like me, are educated, serious readers with a week ‘s time to spare in devotion to words. Many harbor the secret desire to write a memoir. Heck, everyone past age forty has a story to tell. Intuitively we know that the writer who said, “At the end of your life all you have is your story … and perhaps that is everything,” was right on!

As there are more than three events going on simultaneously in venues near and far, indecisive people like me undergo angst and uncertainty all day, thinking ‘this panel and topic sounded great on paper but now that I am sitting in my chair surrounded by tropical greenery (always beautiful, especially at the Indus and Neka venues) and see that the moderator is silly and shrill or dull and monotone or worse, a mumbler, I have to keep my feet from fleeing. Patience is either a virtue or a stupidity depending on the circumstances. I have a difficult time telling the difference.
Most of the panels are either very good or just good enough. Some are out-standing. At least one-third of the audience members are struggling, striving writers. The presenting writers gave advice; some point or other will reach the listeners. “Writing is a matter of mood management, put your moods in a box, lock it and shove it under the bed,” states the Booker Prize winner, Anne Enright. Good advice. But how to do this consistently is the question. Still, it helps to know that the issue is something Enright and other writers struggle with. If it weren’t, she wouldn’t have mentioned it.

would be a fool if I didn’t already know that festivals are more about rubbing shoulders with literary stardom than they are about ‘INFORMATION SHARING’, as the festival would require a completely different model of connecting and interacting. But heck, information, interesting ideas and things you didn’t expect to happen, DO happen. Intellectual and (and dare I say it?) spiritual nourishment do occur. Everyone who attends these festivals has an unspoken, some times unknown desire they hope will some how be met. It has little to do with programs or topics or authors. It is something subtle. Something that isn’t clear until it is given and one thinks to oneself, ‘Ah this is why I came, this is what I needed.’
For me it occurred after the last session on the last day of the festival, in a panel presentation on the topic entitled Beyond Nations.

The three panelists, Ma Jian, Najat El Hachmi and Adrian Grima and moderator, Ruby Murray, were all serious, thoughtful people who had more on their plate than fiction per se. They were involved in the effort to expose the dire wrongs in human rights in their respective countries, Ma Jian from China and Adrian Grima from Malta, who didn’t want to be perceived as a typical European now that Malta had joined the EU. Najat El Hachmi from East Timor, an island east of Bali that had fought it’s way to independence from Indonesia said, “We are a free country but now what? How do you build a nation? “

It was Ma Jian that I came to see, in the living, breathing flesh. I had discovered him when I reviewed his book, Stick Out Your Tongue for the Festival. ”Make it a profile piece,” urged Sarah, the Co- director of the festival some time back in January. “We don’t have the other books currently available.”
Thank God for Google and e-books.

I spent hours on line reading and discovering a Chinese writer who wrote a book about a Tibet which, no one (to my knowledge) had shown before. It was a book that got Ma Jian booted out of China. Stick Out Your Tongue was a disconcerting surprise to me. It wasn’t anything like Xinran’s Sky Burial or the English journalist’s book about a wandering Buddhist Nun, Ani, or any of the more popular, more romantic spiritually uplifting books like Seven Years in Tibet.
Here was a book of travel tales that dealt with ritual incest, family abuse, ignorance, and male oppression of women. Marrying two brothers may be a form of sexual slavery. The feeding of hunks of flesh of a beloved woman the writer had cared for to vultures on mountain cliff is a bizarre and disturbing cultural custom. This was a book that slapped me awake. I wandered around the house trying to comprehend why the world is such a hard place to be in. Of course, I thought, my rose-colored glasses are culturally constructed and supported by western media. As Chinese propaganda influences Chinese citizens about Tibet, so does western media over sentimentalize and romanticize Tibet as a Shangri-La of purity and spirituality. Most of what I know about Tibet is from generic news media, films that featured Buddhism and books by the Dali Lama. I revere the latter and it was hard to ponder the notion that brutality is as much a part of the austere, rural-steppe life in Tibet as it is in Mongolia, Russia, Africa or elsewhere. Stick Out Your Tongue (A form of facial greeting) had the feel and taste of the writer’s unfiltered experience. The book was translated into English, but I could sense, it wasn’t written by a Westerner.

During the panel discussions when asked about the notion of the nation, Ma Jian said, via Flora Drew his English wife, interpreter and translator, that in China, ‘the Nation’ is the BIG ME and the individual is the little me, who is taught from kindergarten to think that it is an honor and a duty to sacrifice oneself for the nation. Women do not have ultimate control of their bodies as they must report to a family planning clinic and be checked to see if the birth control coil is in place and that they are menstruating regularly. His examples of Chinese Communist oppression, conveyed in a level voice, touched some thing buried deeply within me. This thing spilled over when the moderator mentioned in closing that there were more displaced peoples now than ever before. I think she was incorrect about that but numbers are not the issue when the displaced person is you. After the session finished, I walked over and told Ma Jian that I had reviewed his book for the Festival and that it had affected me more than any other book this past year. Flora translated this to her husband. We were being polite. Then it happened, my words just spoke themselves while I stood by helpless.

“I was born in a displaced person’s camp in Austria after WWII to a White Russian soldier and a Ukrainian girl who was a Nazi labor camp survivor. They could not return to their homeland as White Russians were considered to be traitors by the Red Soviets. My father had lost his father, his uncles and his brother to Siberian prison camps. The family lands were taken over by Stalin’s soldiers. He didn’t see a glorious new Russia arising from the blood and bones of his family. He knew that repatriation meant Soviet prison or a firing squad ,later verified by the forced repatriation and slaughter of thousands of White Russians. Home was something he had fought for, but even if the land was still there it was no longer home. Ma Jian nodded in agreement.
“We got to America with the help of Tolstoy’s daughter, Alexandra and the Tolstoy Foundation, located in Valley Cottage, New York. It seems ironically relevant to mention Tolstoy, a writer with a mission. I told them about growing up in the United States, about being ashamed of being Russian in the cold war atmosphere of 1950’s America. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I traveled there to see, to feel to celebrate, to document and make photographs. Later, I produced two photographic exhibitions about those trips to Moscow and St Petersburg, but I did not feel I could move to Russia. Flora asked if I spoke the language. “Yes, enough to get by but I was too American culturally and I felt I stuck out awkwardly. During the George W. Bush administration I became ashamed to call myself an American. I also discovered Bali and fell in love with it, as did my husband. We moved here with my mother six years ago. “
“But this time you left by choice” says Flora, speaking for both of them. “Yes, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Ma Jian asked if I had written my story.
If only he knew how hard I had tried. How many conflicting and contradictory feelings I have about the history I was handed in Pegettz, the displaced camp in Lienz, Austria. It’s not my story; it’s my parents’ story. It’s my mother’s story and I can’t stand to hear it, to tell it, to think about it ever again. The story is a burden, something that over shadows me, a horror I did not personally endure but still carry its wounds. It colors everything grayish.
If I told the truth or rather my feelings about the story I was born into I think my keyboard would burst into flames.
I had no idea so much would come out, and so intensely. Ma Jian eyes wetted for a single second. He averted his face just a little, men don’t cry. He got it, Flora got it, and even I got it. The damned story just slipped out of me and told itself to someone who made the time to listen.

For this I am grateful. In the silence afterwards I felt awkward. Mercifully someone came up to ask Ma Jian to sign a book.

I stood on the top steps of Indus, tears spoiling my view, but happy and satisfied with the festival.

Later, I wondered how many other stories like mine jump out of strangers and find their way to Ma Jian, because he is a writer, has an empathetic face and stories want to be told.

October 13, 2010


brent hirak said...

how lovely... i send my love, and e-books! also greetings from texas. thinking of your many investigations, the ones you took me on too, and how they continue to effect me. i hope to see you soon. with love, brent

Shelley said...

Uma, this is such a touching and beautifully honest piece. Thank you for it; for your continued writing (here's to more!) and for taking and sharing such a deep way you look at things.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work!
I hope you gain more success in the future.