Fireworks, like mothers, are loved universally. Ever since the Han Dynasty, everyone from a Wall Street investment banker to a Mongolian yak-herder would stop with a jaw hung in astonishment to see that special ratio of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur combust in a green bamboo shoot. Pao chuk or "bursting bamboo" gave way to huo yao, the addictive, impossible-to-look-away-from "fire drug" (or gunpowder).
In some cultures, like Trinidad & Tobago the bamboo bursting continues:
While at the other end of the spectrum, if this display on the occasion of China's 60th anniversary and the new high-speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai are any indication, the 21st century has began with a bang in the East.
Since the fourth of July impends, the promise of fireworks hang in the air, reminding me of how a poem can explode in transformative music. When it's working on every level, its syntax embodying its ideas, the voice inevitable and surprising in its trajectory, the sonic dimension intetwined with image like a grain of salt its mineral composition, then a poem can scintillate in the air like a flare of light to remain pressed in the mind's nightsky for longer than an evening.
And of course explosions have their darker sides like this devastaingly well-wrought lyric by Philip Larkin, which I love for the way the hard Anglo-Saxon syllables ring to indict the mining companies in the town he grew up in without ever skewing towards the polemic or over-dramatizing the emotion.
On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead.
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -
Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.
His famous adapatation was of "ero goru nansensu," or just "ero guro" for short, a phrase that even with a totally distinct etymologically background we might be able to puzzle out as "erotic gore." Eroticism, the grotesque and the nonsensical makes for a particularly delirious sub-genre of hentai but in Rampo's fiction this. quality is given its apotheosis. As Serdar Yegulalp has argued on his great literary site, Genji Press, "Rampo was compulsively readable: he tweaked your interest from the first line of every story and kept you hooked all the way through. He wouldn’t have sold as much as he did if he hadn’t been an entertainer first, either. He also kept sight of the oddly conservative morality that pervades much crime and mystery fiction: that the evil men do is a palpable thing, like a miasma that seeps under doors and poisons men in their sleep."
His collection should rub up nicely with Suki Kim's the Interpreter, a mystery about Korean-American Suzy Park's search for the real reasons behind her family's homocide. She descends into the Korean underworld and her search takes on a decidedly metaphysical turn, the searchs turning inward into herself and her poignant embodiment of the confusion that second- and third-generation immigrants manifest. I was at the MacDowell Colony with Suki nearly a decade ago and have followed her work intently ever since. I think this first novel puts her in Paul Auster territory and I am eagerly awaiting the follow up.
We're also going to read a couple of graphic novels, including Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, which is one of the most honest grapplings with the sticky issues of ethnicity and nationality that I've ever read...plus it's drop-the-soda-pop-and-bust-a-gut funny.
We'll also read and watch the movie version of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.
And read Pixar's lead animator, Sanjay Patel's retelling of the Ramayana, the Divine Loophole, possibly the most vibrantly illustrated graphic novel version of a classic work of literaure I've ever encountered.
Finally we'll end up with the works of hypertext, web art, interactive fiction, flash mobs, locative media and other genre-pushing kinds of creation emanating from specifically urban spaces in Asia. From Bombay, we'll look at PUKAR's The Gender and Space Project which "focuses on gender as a category to examine the ordering and experience of the city and its varied spaces, particularly public space. Public space in the context of the study refers to public places, ranging from streets, public toilets and market places (across class contexts) to recreational areas and modes of public transport.The project is located in and focuses on the city of Mumbai....research on this project combines traditional social science research such as ethnography, interviews and group discussions along with methodology drawn from the areas of film, photography, architecture. The project also has a strong pedagogic component involving elective courses in architecture and liberal arts colleges and short workshops. The project aims to understand the hierarchies and boundaries that determine access to public space along a variety of axes (class, caste, religion, geographic location and gender). It hopes to unsettle the gendered binaries regulating women's presence in public space, raising questions about the ways in which ideas of private-public, respectability-unrespectability, safety-violence, rational-risky are reflected the discourses of public space and citizenship."
From China, we'll look at Helen Marshall's Field of Vision, a collaboration with the Gao Brothers that digtally stitches together photographs and videos from a trip from Shanghai to Beijing.
There are some other texts as well but I should stop here. It's only a five week class so I don't want to - though I'm tempted! - over-stimulate the students or myself. As soon as I get the last revisions on this syllabus made, I too can finally get ready for the long weekend. Happy Fourth everyone!