My stories are nearly all allegorical, and I am more a student and regurgitator of philosophy than a novelist. At the heart of my writing is the juxtaposition of essential and imaginary and the paradox involved in taking one side over the other.
I believe the secret to wisdom lies neither in the destruction and abandonment of these illusions nor in giving up and being swallowed by dreams. Neither extinguishing desires nor going to the pure land, in other words. Wisdom, as far as I can see it, lies in seeing what is essential and what is illusory, and knowing when to use or abandon each.
I want to write humid, tropical fiction. The sort that rests in your lungs and grows orchids. The separation of structure and collapse is a thin one. A filmy membrane of imagery is all that keeps us in governments, families and jobs. Necessary fictions, illusions of social contracts, hegemonic mirages; these are the cards with which we build the transitory houses of our lives.
It can seem especially to those of us living in cities that the world is a concrete thing; poured out, hardened and dense. This is why I delight in tropical cities where the humidity seeps into the stones and weeds sprout from cracks in the pavement or cause the cracks themselves. I believe all cities are collapsing and that collapse is a defining characteristic of a city. Collapse need not be a negative thing. Nor is a volcano or a cloud or other instrument of renewal.
For all that we live in a frame of concrete, it doesn’t take much to erode. The word concrete itself has taken on the significance of hardness, certainty and inflexibility, and thus does the concrete world. But this is an illusion. In those tropical cities I have felt the encroaching wildness of the non-concrete world. I have reveled in the belief that if I turned my back for a moment, Bangkok would be covered in creepers, or New Orleans veiled in moss. I see the pavement buckled and the roots of trees sprawling across the highways. Though this vision is clearest in the tropics, it is present in the forest of Seattle and the desert of Los Angeles if only I can accelerate my perception.
In the “Records of the Grand Historian,” the scholar Sima Qian tells of the maiden Nuxiu and her descendants. One day while weaving, a swallow flew over her and dropped an egg in her mouth. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Daye. Daye’s son Dafei became an expert in taming animals. Daifei’s son Dalian founded the “Bird-Custom” family. Dalian’s great-grandson Zhongyan had the body of a bird.
Where is the Bird-Custom family now? Did Nuxiu’s descendants continue to have the occasional avian member? Could there be some woman in San Francisco who’s great grandmother was Chinese (though she might not know this) and though she has never heard of Zhongyan or Dafei might be an expert with parakeets or pigeons? Or maybe all the old men in Beijing who walk their songbirds in the morning are in fact distant cousins.
And if so, what of the dog families, the stargazers, the descendants of the trance-walking shaman or the snake? There might be a myth or two in the most mundane of people. People can be concrete as well, or believe themselves to be. But there are humid people, tropical hearts full of vines and ancient birds. People on the verge of cracking their concrete...these interest me most of all.
*Rushdie summarizes Dorothy’s motivation in The Wizard of Oz by calling it a “human need for leaving.” This is a beautiful phrase, in my opinion. The whole of allegorical fiction can be summed up as that same human need.
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