March 19, 2008



Someone has observed that a pig resembles a saint in
that he is more honored after death than during his
lifetime. Speaking further of his social standing, we
have noticed that, when smoked, he is allowed to
appear at quite fashionable functions; but that only
one’s best friends will confess more than a bowing
acquaintance with pork and sauerkraut or pickled
pigs’ feet.

        The Joy of Cooking


One morning language thought me. I collected its thoughts over breakfast and sorted them into loose characters. Were they friends? I copied their words. God helps those who help themselves one said. Did I hear that right? Did I cross it out carefully? Is self-help the opposite of self-reliance?


Jacques Lacan liked to think of psychosis as when you don’t quite understand the language you’re speaking.Did I mean other people? I said language. Others thought about me in different ways than I thought about myself. They pointed out what was written on my face. I tried to be coherent, but met versions of me that had been invented by others. Because he doesn’t know who he is, the Tao Te Ching tells us, people recognize themselves in him. They were my teachers. They taught me what I could be. We are real and imaginary.


They followed me on the Greyhound bus to Wisconsin. Michael Taussig tells us that the power of the copy is the power to influence what it is a copy of. I studied others’ inventions of me and extracted ingredients from them. Then something about me changed.


To experiment, I need to judge what has worked and what didn’t. Taste is a good way to judge. If I don’t have taste, then I need people with taste, to taste. Is it selectivity that makes good art? Tastes tell us about desire. I like reading my tastes: they show me how I consume. They also show how others consume me. A swordsman should not have a favorite sword, Miyamoto Mushashi thought. I like to think that I have no taste.


Over time, my characters developed many interesting facts. In a room, I copy down two that are scattered throughout this book. [1] [2] To both of these, I hear my mother think of me. Food is the one thing that you must ensure is good because it gets in your body, she’d say.

[1] The last time I taught creative writing, each student had written an average of ninety-two pages over fifteen weeks, which was more than I had asked for.

[2] One of my students in prison wrote an essay that was good enough to be in the 95 percentile of all my campus students. His teacher and principal tried to use his writing to reform a section of the prison. But some view change as a threat: someone put copy of essay in his file, probably the head of security, and this essay will mark him as a troublemaker from now on. Do I want to change things for the better, even if it risks my students? I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t remember whether that I had left his writing behind where a guard or administrator might find it.


—Ray Hsu

Posted by dwaber at 01:41 PM