I AM writing about a hole
This “essay” is published in the fourth issue of the Shanghai Literary Review. It is nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and is a required reading in a cultural studies course offered at the University of Guelph.
Sheung-King, Aaron Tang ©Shanghai Literary Review, issue 4, 2019; Nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize.
PLEASE DO NOT CITE, COPY, OR CIRCULATE WITHOUT EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR.
I Am Writing About a Hole
A white German artist—based in New York—visited Bali and became enlightened by the Buddha.
She then used her newly enlightened mind to create statues of the Buddha covered in emerald, gold, and crystal. She was so enlightened. Before she could even get used to this new transcendent state, ideas like waterfalls flowed into to her mind. The statues, she decided, would wear t-shirts with iconic images by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Coco Chanel, Franco Moschino, Louis Vuitton, Paul Smith, Balmain, Murakami Takeshi, and Kusama Yayoi printed all over. These t-shirts would be made with emeralds. Another idea rushed into the German artist’s mind: the statues would also have mohawks in glittering colors. Another idea: a gold Buddha, laughing, and holding up his middle finger with the words “brilliant,” “mother,” and “fucker” on its body. (In the transcendent state of mind, ‘motherfucker’ is not one word, but two.) Finally, she had to give her brilliant series a name – “Punk Buddha,” whispered her inner-self.
The first time I encountered the hole was when I was in high school. It was during a basketball game.
The game was close. I was on a fast-break. I scored. The person guarding me called me a “skinny chink.” When the game ended, I stared at my shadow. The shadow became the hole.
When the hole is present, the part of you that wants to speak vanishes and you lose the desire to say anything – like when you lose your appetite after drinking too much coffee.
The condition, however, is not permanent. Some people can break free from the hole quite easily – while some don’t even sense the hole’s existence. And some people can simply swallow the hole or vomit it out; I’m not sure how they do that, but I’ve seen it happen. Most people, however, just have to wait until the hole’s existence is slowly forgotten—until the next time it appears.
After that, I encountered the hole two more times.
Years had passed. I was no longer the skinny-chink point guard I once was. I met you. You urged me to eat more, and I gained a little bit of weight. We moved to Toronto and, because of your influence, I began to frequent galleries.
“Good afternoon. Is there a particular piece you’re interested in?” the manager asks. It is spring. It is a Saturday. We are strolling through the streets of Toronto in search of a nice place to have a drink. We come across a new gallery.
“Yes, the statues of the Buddha caught our attention, so we decided to come in.”
“Oh, yes! They’re from New York,” says the manager. I later find out they are actually from Miami. “Covered from top to bottom in precious gemstones,” he continues, “these statues resemble the Buddha sitting in a Buddha-style pose.”
“Buddha-style pose?” I am a little confused. I have never heard anyone call it that.
“Yes, and the spiked mohawk gives the Buddha an edgy, modern feel, don’t you think?” “Is there a story behind this?” you ask.
“Well, the artist was enlightened when she was in Bali –
“In Bali?” I ask. You give me a look. “Excuse him, please go on,” you say to the manager.
“After her enlightenment, she decided to create these. They’re really popular. Guess who was here yesterday?”
“Drake’s interior decorator – Ferris Rafauli.”
“Okay,” I say.
The manager, excited, takes out his phone and shows us a story on Drake’s Instagram page. The
diamond Buddha is sitting on a marble table in Drake’s penthouse. The caption reads:
@FerrisRafauli gifted me something special for my bday.
When the story ends, there is a prolonged silence. Between the three of us, our shadows meet and the
hole appears in the middle of the gallery. I stare into its bottomless darkness.
“Yeah, this statue is a hit or miss,” the white manager says. “So, what do you guys do?” The presence
of the hole keeps me silent. You too do not respond. The manager is the type who doesn’t sense the hole’s existence, as is the enlightened German artist.
The following paragraph is paraphrased from the enlightened artist’s bio:
The enlightened artist’s name is Metis Atahs, a Fine Art artist who is as dynamic as the pieces she meticulously sketches, sculpts, and brings to life. She is German by nationality, but is truly a citizen of the world. Her vast global travel to places far and wide eventually led her to the inlet of Miami Beach. After successfully operating her own investor relations consultancy boutique in Munich in 2006, Metis, who graduated in political science and economics, decided to turn her devotion and passion for art, design, and fashion into the creation of one-of-a kind sculptures that redefine what it means to be alive.
We leave the gallery.
It is a gallery in Yorkville – Lumas.
I feel the same silence from the gallery following us. We do not talk.
The second time I encountered the hole was at a restaurant. This time, no one called me a chink.
I had just finished studying at the library and decided to go eat. I was with two friends. You were out of town at the time. You called me, so I went to a corner of the restaurant and answered your call. I was wearing a black turtleneck sweater and loose fit cotton chinos. The chinos were grey. It was an evening in November. While I was on the phone with you, a blond man with a beard, beer in hand, came towards me and said, “Why the fuck are you wearing track pants?”
I told you to hold on and explained to him that my pants weren’t track pants.
“We’re at a club, why are you wearing track pants at a club, man?”
I repeated to him that I wasn’t wearing track pants. I added that it was, in fact, not a club, but a
“You shouldn’t be wearing track pants at a club,” the man repeated. He wore a black t-shirt, jeans,
and cowboy boots. I pictured Clint Eastwood. I started remembering a scene in a Western I once saw where Clint Eastwood was shooting Mexicans. Throughout the film, Clint never smiled. The man in front of me was still talking. And I saw Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. Each time the guy spoke was louder than the last. I saw Clint Eastwood raising his voice as he questioned an empty chair at the Republican National Convention. People were starting to look. I decided to call you back. “I don’t think you’re listening to me,” I said to Clint Eastwood, “this is not a club, these aren’t track pants, and even if they are, I don’t understand why it’s any of your business.”
“Because people shouldn’t be wearing track pants at a club.”
I wonder, if I wasn’t an “oriental” (I don’t usually think of this word, but at the time, the word appeared to me), would the man be confronting me about my pants like that? Was he, in a way, talking to me as if I didn’t understand the cultural norms of this society? I bet if a tall white model had walked into the restaurant in track pants, Eastwood wouldn’t be complaining. Actually, he might still be. I couldn’t help but wonder.
We were standing opposite each other. The hole appeared where my shadow met his. I did not say another word to Eastwood. I did not call you back that night. Eastwood continued to talk. Eventually, a waiter came over and asked the man to go back to his table.
He was drunk. He thought we were in a club. He thought I was wearing track pants. He did not understand what I was telling him. Or rather, he chose not to understand. To him, what he thought was all that mattered.
In a way, Eastwood and I were speaking two different languages.
In an essay entitled “Nothing is Sacred,” from his book Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, Salman Rushdie relates an anecdote:
More than twenty years ago, I listened to a lecture by Arthur Koestler. He propounded the thesis that language, not territory, was the prime cause of aggression, because once language reached the level of sophistication at which it could express abstract concepts, it acquired the power of totemization; and once peoples had erected totems, they would go to war to defend them...In support of his theory, he told us about two tribes of monkeys living on, I think, one of the northern islands of Japan. The two tribes lived in close proximity in the woods near a certain stream, and subsisted, not unusually, on a diet of bananas. One of the tribes, however, had developed the curious habit of washing its bananas in the stream before eating them, while the other tribe continued to be non-banana-washers. And yet, said Koestler, the two tribes continued to live contentedly as neighbors, without quarrelling. And why was this? It was because their language was too primitive to permit them to totemize either the act of banana-washing or that of eating bananas unwashed. With a more sophisticated language at their disposal, both wet and dry bananas could have become the sacred objects at the heart of a religion, and then, look out! - Holy war. A young man rose from the audience to ask Koestler a question. Perhaps the real reason why the two tribes did not fight, he suggested, was that there were enough bananas to go around. Koestler became extremely angry. He refused to answer such a piece of Marxist claptrap. And, in a way, he was right. Koestler and his questioner were speaking different languages, and their languages were in conflict. Their disagreement could even be seen as the proof of Koestler’s point. If he, Koestler, were to be considered the banana-washer and his questioner the dry-banana man, then their command of a language more complex than the Japanese monkeys’ had
indeed resulted in totemizations. Now each of them had a totem to defend: the primacy of language versus the primacy of economics; and dialogue therefore became impossible. They were at war.
We are sitting at a patio. It is a sunny afternoon. We are now drinking. You, a martini, and I, a gin
and tonic. The words “Brilliant,” “Mother,” and “Fucker” that were written on a golden Buddha’s chest are now floating in my mind.
You stand up and walk away. I do not ask where you are going. Minutes go by. You return.
“I just puked,” you say. “But nothing came out.”
I am confused.
“I just puked. I’m sure I puked, I felt all the sensations of puking, but when I was done, I looked into
the toilet and nothing was there.”
I pass you a glass of water.
The hole that was once between us now exists only in me. You destroyed your part of the hole – by puking.
You finish the entire glass of water. “I hate Lost in Translation,” you say, out of nowhere. “The film, Lost in Translation. I hate it,” you continue. “Watching the film made me a little uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure why. After seeing those Buddha statues, I realize that I hate that film. I hate that it won so many awards and that so many people love it so much!” There is a pause. And then you continue, “Someone told me to watch it last week, saying that I’d like it. After seeing the film, I said nothing and went home. But now I realize I hate it.”
You, too, have encountered the hole before, I realize.
You don’t seem to notice that I have yet to regain the desire to speak. You order another round. You continue to talk about the film.
I agree with all your points. I hate the film as well. This is why:
Lost in Translation centres on Bill Murray’s character, an American movie star, and Scarlett Johannsson, an American journalist, and their experiences of loneliness in a foreign country. They meet and spend most of their time in Tokyo’s Park Hyatt – an American hotel filled with tourists. Murray is married and Johannsson has a fiancé or something. It isn’t until they meet each other that they actually go out to explore Tokyo. As with most films that follow Hollywood tropes, they develop feelings for each other, but in the case of this film, they try to maintain a platonic relationship. The only thing that draws them together seems to be the fact that they are both lonely foreigners in Japan.
Throughout the film, never once did Murray’s character try to understand the culture that surrounded him, which is why he feels out of place. He was being querulous.
There is a scene where Bill Murray’s character is crammed in an elevator with a number of Japanese businessmen, all of whom are shorter than him. The film really emphasizes the fact that Murray, the American movie star visiting Tokyo, is uncomfortable because he is tall and the others around him are short. We see Murray’s face, uncomfortable, almost irritated by the fact that he’s in this elevator. As viewers, when watching the scene, we are supposed to find the uncomfortable situation that our white guy protagonist is in to be humorous. Why the stereotype that Asian men are shorter is funny, I do not know.
In a later scene, Murray is filming a Suntory commercial with an enthusiastic Japanese director. The director goes into an extended monologue in Japanese about how he wants the commercial to look. The translator, however, when translating for the director, simply says, “turn, look to the camera with intensity, and say, ‘it’s Suntory time’.” Murray doubts the translator. The director then goes into another monologue and the translator translates what the director said to “turn slower”.
I wonder if SofiaCoppola was enlightened as well.
Edward Said writes in Orientalism, “The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of
representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire.... The Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On
this stage will appear the figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe...Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny, and so on. . .”
It is evident that like the German artist, Koestler and his student, and Clint Eastwood at the bar, Coppola, when looking at Asia, has affixed a Western point of view – she is speaking her own language– Americanese.
In the commercial scene, the translator’s translation is not inaccurate but simplified so that Murray’s character can understand. It is important to note that the American release of the film did not bother to add subtitles to the director’s speech—an indication that Coppola is fixated on an Orientalist’s point of view; in other words, the ignorant Orientalist director is saying that, in order to find her scene humours, we need to first accept the following colonialist premise: that the English language and Americans are superior. Fuck you, Sofia Coppola.
In creating such a film, Coppola is looking down on a culture, and at the same time, solidifying the white American man’s status in the world. It’s a kind of propaganda/masturbation tool for American men and, to Asians, a colonial gesture – typical of most Hollywood movies, and to be expected from the spoiled daughter of a privileged, American-centric, overrated, and likewise culturally ignorant director.
I realize that the paragraph above is aggressive, I do not wish to be in the situation Koestler was in— I do not wish to be at war. I always disliked the word “war”. I wonder if there are ways to defend my totem without being overcome by emotions.
We are home. The hole is still there. You are asleep. Still, I feel no desire to speak. Staring at the
cactus on my desk, I realize that I have no idea how to talk about such issues with calmness, but I understand that unlike Koestler, anger is not a solution. If I had reacted physically towards the opponent who called me a
“skinny chink,” I would have gotten a technical foul, or perhaps even been suspended, and that would have hurt my team. If I had started an argument with Eastwood, I would have caused a scene and been kicked out of the restaurant – and my friends would have had to leave in the middle of dinner. The fact that I am the subject of repression and still feel like it is my fault if I react shows how power works and how unjust society is.
Therefore, I decide to look for ways to deal with such issues without getting angry. 6
Contemporary Chinese literature has a delicate way of incorporating social critique. Noble Prize Laureate Mo Yen, whose name literally translates to “don’t speak”, said in an interview with Time Magazine, “...a writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel. One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety.” In most of his work, Mo Yen uses hallucinatory realism to blur reality and dream, fact and imagination, to create narratives where the social critiques are disguised within a fictitious dream-like world in which nothing can be taken literally – yet there still exists a sense that the narrative is about something true and relevant.
For directly engaged literature—literature that employs a didactic approach to criticize a certain issue, written by minority writers to gain the attention they deserve, and not be dismissed for being irrelevant, they often need to be aiding mainstream political movements at the time.
I come to the conclusion that, for me at least, the way to do so is to address the issue indirectly.
Murakami, in his book, After the Quake, writes a collection of stories set in the aftermath of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake. Other than the title and the back of the book, however, the earthquake is only vaguely referenced and is never an explicit part of the plot; instead, in all of the stories, dreams and real- life nightmares are impossible to tell apart. There is also, throughout the book, a lack of emotion – synonymous with one’s numbed state of mind in the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake. “Each article [in the news] reported something tragic, but to Komura the details seemed oddly lacking in depth...when he grew tired of this, he closed his eyes and napped...he didn’t know what would happen next.” In my opinion, not confronting and not including the earthquake in the plot allows its presence to become ubiquitous,
making its lack continuous throughout the entire book, leaving the reader without a sense of security, as if the theme – earthquake—is lying beneath the narrative, ready to strike and destroy all things at any moment, creating even more provocative stories.
Perhaps the most relevant example that comes to mind is the ending of Yōko Tawada’s novella, Persona. Persona tells the story of Michiko, a Japanese graduate school student studying in Germany. Whenever Michiko is walking on the street, people stare at her and some even approach her to ask if she is Japanese because she “doesn’t look Japanese enough”. In the end of the story, Michiko decides to put on a Noh mask:
...No sooner did Mrs. Steiff sit down and look up, then she asked in English, “Is that a nomen?” ... “Yes,” Michiko said. “It’s a Noh mask and it’s made in Spain.”
“Oh, is it fake then?” asked Mrs. Steiff, furrowing her eyebrows.
“Well, you could say that,” said Michiko, feeling a sense of closeness to the mask, “but if Noh masks made in Spain are fake, then aren’t Japanese automobiles all fake, too?”
Michiko returned to the room and placed the mask over her face. Seeing herself in the mirror, she suddenly felt that her body became larger and that all the thoughts she was unable to put into words were “given expression” in the mask. As Michiko walked down the street, she felt naked. Her body, she thought, was not one to be judged for its beauty, but one that possessed its own powerful language. She thought she heard someone say, “mental hospital,” but didn’t turn around to look...her chest throbbed only with the feeling of being liberated from a specific, individual face.
Tawada, in this story, defends her totem by bringing attention to their orientalist point of view. By putting on a mask that is unquestionably Japanese, Michiko is putting forth what orientalists would expect from a Japanese person. And perhaps because of that, the German people around her become more aware of their own Orientalist gaze; Michiko, through putting on a noh mask, is forcing observers to confront the fact that they see through an orientalist’s point of view.
“I can’t sleep,” you murmur, “what are you doing?”
I cannot talk. Instead, I show you the enlightened German artist’s website and her artist statement. I get into bed and you start reading her statement to me.
“Metis sculpts in fiberglass and uses acrylic paint, automotive lacquer and SWAROVSKI Crystals to enhance her pieces...The objects of her work are based on the spiritual being and her sculptures are inspired by the ancient teachings of the DAOISM. The word DAO translates as "path" or "way" of life. DAOIST propriety and ethics focus on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos, health and longevity, as well as action through inaction, which is thought to produce harmony with the universe. Metis’ pieces are aimed to be perceived as the mirror of our eternal souls. They showcase the duality in life and the merging of our inner beings with our physical beings.”
At this point, you burst into laughter.
“Each piece is one-of-a-kind and awards the living space with an aura of captivating experience. In order to understand my work, one must understand my journey and my ongoing search to connect with something greater than myself... with the source of my inner being...To understand our own thinking is to understand all thinking. The mind falls in love with itself, and this amazing passionate love affair is the foundation of all. It creates out of a space that is so unlimited in its self-love that it doesn’t ever have to be told or proven or seen. It is its own experience. And it’s happy—in that all”.
With LOVE, Metis
We are in bed. We are laughing. We are speaking the same language.
“Okay, I think she’s actually unhinged,” you say.
The hole, the presence of which I felt throughout the day, disappears; like the weather, it changed its form, and is now a story.
Atash, Metis. “ARTWORK.” METIS ATASH, www.metisatash.com
Capolla, Sofia, director. Lost in Translation. Universal, 2004.
Murakami, Haruki, and Jay Rubin. After the Quake: Stories. Vintage, 2003.
Ramzy, Austin. “China Celebrates Author Mo Yan’s Nobel.” Time.com, Time Magazine, 11 Oct. 2012,
Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. Vintage Books, 2010. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 2004.
Slaymaker, Douglas. Yōko Tawada: Voices from Everywhere. Lexington Books, 2007.