Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 2 Reading

Close Reading, Gary Patrick H.

Gary Patrick Harvey

 

Eye of the Story

Writing American Cultures Review

 

Ataya Cesspooch

Virtual Reservations (excerpts)

 

Within the majority of these works lies a rich opportunity for self discovery, identifying that which makes us who we are or where we come from.  These studies act to voice a truth not necessarily predetermined by the writers themselves.  

 

The first chapter, written by Ataya Cesspooch, lays out a relevant example of how a peoples story can be arrested by the projection of an outside source and driven by popular media.  Ataya discusses the 20/20 episode hosted by Diane Sawyer “Hidden America: Children of the Plains.”  He writes that it ‘followed the story of three youths on the [Pine Ridge] reservation against the backdrop of high alcoholism and suicide rates.  It documented the struggles and hardships that some of the youth have been through and how they have overcome their troubles.’ (pg 10) It might be argued that the producers and Ms. Saywer herself might have thought they were doing a service to the community. Indeed opening a lens that is rarely seen to a mass audience may spark further inquiry to those enlightened to it for the first time.   However what is argued by Rob Schmidt, a reporter for Indian Country Today, is that the question “Why are people in these conditions?” is never asked. He goes on to say that  “It’s not that any of these stories are false or unrepresentative. But they seem chosen for the maximum heart-tugging effect.  You’ll suffer with the children in the first half, and you’ll feel their joy as things improve in the second half.”  Ataya concludes that the real problems are crafted into a heart-warming television special.

 

“It seemed they were always focusing in on all the negative parts.  They were focusing on them and either loathing us for them, or pitying us… If they did show some success story it was drenched in pity: some phoenix child who had risen from the turmoil of the reservation to fulfill her true potential.” (P 10)  The 20/20 broadcast is guilty of building it’s plot off of this stigma.

 

I recall our classes previous discussion of James Baldwin’s eye on plot from the Devil Finds Work.  Baldwin states that “a plot must come to a resolution, prove a point; a plot must answer all the questions which it pretends to pose.”  The 20/20 piece imposes this plot upon real people and inevitably omits the back story, context and unspoken elements of the people.  It speaks for them rather than letting them speak for themselves.  As filmmakers and writers we don’t want to undermine the ethical responsibility we have in our modes of representation.  How far will we impose our voices and how far will we allow the subject to be the voice.

 

Sawyer asks “Why don’t you just leave the reservation?”  Ataya’s shares writer Vic Glovers passage as the answer.  “You could say that many of us living up here have given up on the American dream, because we find that the values extolled and pursued by commercial, consumer-driven American society, in and of themselves are illusory, mythological, essentially empty, and selfishly unfulfilling.  Where in American culture is the heart?”  “Living outside of the American Dream, people are able to provide real meaning to their lives, through strong family ties and strong cultural identity.”  (p. 12)  

 

He writes on (pg 10) of the American perception of Native America, “They couldn’t understand why we would want to stay on the reservation and how our values differ from theirs. They never could quite grasp the complexity of it, the way that we were living out tradition but in the only way we could, in the present.”

 

Jack Sukimoto:  JA/LA: Shifting Meanings of Japanese American Identity, Culture and Community.

 

This final paragraph of my essay on Ataya ties into themes in other writings from this book. In particular Jack Sukimotos “JA/LA: Shifting Meanings of Japanese American Identity, Culture and Community.”  As he journeys through a gentrified area of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles he sees how his old home has transformed into a place more welcoming for tourists and non-Japanese American people.  “It still feels Japanese, but some of that authenticity I remember is gone. I realize how touristy it is, clean and straight, neat and rigid. And where were those mobile knick-knack and food stands in the middle of the wide walkways?  Were they even there in the first place, or was that just my imagination?” (p 94.)  As he learns of these changes he identifies ways the community holds on, the Japanese-American Baseball League, the Girls Club… things that are arguably American conventions, but are redefined by the people who adopt them.  The Japanes-American Baseball League itself is a response to the banning of Japanese from the games during World War 2.  

 

In response to Jack’s concerns about the loss of the culture his subject Craig responds: “One day, if and when you have a family, if it’s that important to you, you’re going to make sure it happens in your own family, and that’s how tradition gets passed down.  You may not be cooking the same stuff; you may be cooking taco salad instead.  That’s how tradition changes.”  In the end Jack asks “How might the culture change , and how can we embrace this change to find our own Japanese American experience?”

 

I think this question can be said of any culture, of any community. We live often separated from our roots, our homelands, our home towns, our ancestors.  Somewhere in history the American Dream became something so viciously hoped for that some of our ancestors actively forgot and actively deprived their offspring of ethnic history.  Unfortunately that hope was not always born in the lightest of circumstances.  It was often born in discrimination, fear, oppression.  In Ataya’s case, his community reacts to set the story straight with media.  In Jack’s case, his community creates and participates in organizational activities.  

Linna Teng

Khmao Euy Khmao: Colorism Amongst Cambodian Americans

 

Linna Teng’s account uncovers an internalize racism.  It appears that her Cambodian American community internalized a bias of light skinned over dark skinned people which was passed it down generationally. The language translates “Dark but beautiful” and there is no term for “Dark and Beautiful.”  

She returns to her community to discuss how Americanization manifest in her Cambodian community not only in style and food, but also in a preference in many that she interviewed to have partly white, not fully Cambodian children.  “There seems to be an abundance of interracial Cambodian children and so many Khmer Americans giving their children American names, how will I know when someone is Khmer?…This seems to be a trend amongst many that I interviewed many were uninterested in having full Cambodian children.” (p 55)  

What this collection of stories tells us is that sometimes we need to dig deeper and even pry out our respective histories.  And these histories are not always a given, not celebrated and highlighted in our mass media.  Our elders may not even have access there own loss of culture, there own histories, their own biases built around normalizing into the American way. It’s through engagement, conversation with our elders and community that we learn where we come from.  I also think that we, as the documentarians, visually or written, should remember that we play a role in revitalization, in the continuation of our stories.  When I returned to my home town to piece together my uncle’s story, my family history, most of these folks had not talked about it in years.  This was a new chapter for them as well.  We shouldn’t take our own influence for granted.  We should take care to present and represent as honestly as we can.  Giving voice to the voiceless is not a game.

Writing American Cultures Essay .. Celestine Ames

 

In reading Melanie Curran’s essay entitled “Lived-In Experiences of Architecture in New Orleans”, I was struck not only by Curran’s stunning use of language, but also by her ability to personify and give meaning to the various forms of architecture in New Orleans. Before reading this essay, I hadn’t really thought of the buildings that I’ve lived, worked, and learned in as significant aspects of my life. I didn’t have much of an interest in the history of these buildings, or the small details that make them unique. Curran, on the other hand, seems to view the buildings in her life almost as living, breathing entities. She places quite a bit of importance on the stories of the buildings that she encounters.

            Curran’s writing style is breathtaking and artistic, even when describing something as matter-of-fact as architecture. Her poetic language gives the essay a certain amount of color and depth that it might not have had otherwise. I was struck by lines like “Conversations melted into walls and doors” (pg. 224), “The back door swung at the mercy of the wind” (pg. 227), “I grew permeable to the feeling of living in living buildings” (pg. 227), and “a dreamy fictionalization of a real place” (pg. 227). In her essay, Curran displays her very special talent of writing in a poetic state of mind. In addition to the writing style, I absolutely loved the structure of the piece. It seems to me that the essay came together in the same way that a collage might. The piece isn’t very organized, which I actually appreciated quite a bit.  A few pages are devoted to each architectural structure that Curran lived in or had experiences with while she was in New Orleans. But other than that, there isn’t much structure to the piece. It almost feels like a series of vignettes, each tied together by the common theme of New Orleans architecture. This gives the essay a nice contrast with the rest of the pieces in the collection, most of which were told in a more traditional way. I was amazed by Curran’s ability to piece together what felt like fragments of memories and experiences, into a cohesive and enjoyable essay.  

            While the majority of the essay centers on Curran’s personal experience, she also takes a few opportunities to comment on the way that architecture can reflect the state of a culture as a whole, and how this relates to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On page 223, Curran relays her belief that “by rebuilding structures, [volunteers] were helping to give back to the city the very structure of its culture”. Evidently, Curran places quite a bit of importance on the buildings that hold a place in our lives and hearts. And she has found a way to help with the rebuilding of New Orleans culture in her own way. “I realized that I want not so much to rebuild houses, but to build the stories of houses through the lens of architectural ethnography” (pg. 224).

 A good illustration of Curran’s writing style, as well as an overview of what her essay is focused on, can be found in this passage on page 225:

 

“A Mathematical Approach to Determining the Lived-In Character of Architectural

Experience

 

For every building, there is an equal and opposite abundance of life being lived. Washers, dryers, ceiling fans, and air conditioning units are all whirling at speeds relative to the pace of personalities. Cracks, creaks, leaks, and bends are all dismantling at ratios determined by a factor of X. The value of X derives from usage of material amenities by tenant, multiplied by intensity of light bursting through south facing windows, supplemented by forces of nature encroaching on said building, divided by occupancy and sanded down to the wood grain and number of children brought up under the roof before it was patched in 1997.

Using such calculations, it is understandable that the amount of passion, dreaming, sexual desire and routine dwelling within the physical walls of buildings leads to “lived-in” characteristics that take effect in the architectural context. I will be exploring such characteristics of vernacular forms of architecture in New Orleans unearthed during my fieldwork from February to May 2012.”

When reading this passage, I was especially struck by the first line in the second paragraph (“Using such calculations, it is understandable that the amount of passion, dreaming, sexual desire and routine dwelling within the physical walls of buildings leads to ‘lived in’ characteristics that take effect in the architectural context”). I thought that this was an incredibly beautiful and inspiring line, and it gave me a new appreciation for all of the buildings that I’ve lived in, worked in, learned in, or had any sort of connection with. It’s fascinating to think of the history of these buildings, the connections that others have had with them, and the stories that can be told about them. I think it’s important to preserve these stories, and Melanie Curran does a wonderful job of preserving a bit of the history of buildings in New Orleans, as well as her own personal experiences in them. 

Close Reading: Writing American Cultures

Joesph Langdon

Eye of the Story

Close Reading: Writing American Cultures

 

In reading Writing American Cultures I felt compelled to look at the way different narratives are brought to the literary table through the author’s writing. This compulsion stemmed partly from the nature of our program, and partly out of a larger desire to explore methods of contextualizing personal narratives within a larger framework of shared history. Coming from this direction, I decided to delve deeply into a passage from “Lived-In Experiences of Architecture in New Orleans”, which I felt layered multiple narratives in such a way that they informed each other, painting a much larger story than could be told from any one point of view.

On page 235, in a passage entitled “Open Air Warehouse”, Curran writes, “The Open Air Warehouse is an example of architecture employing methods of structural ventilation by the inclusion of large open windows near the roofline and an open entryway where two people can sit and have a conversation. Responsible ventilation practices create a breezy environment in the Open Air Warehouse, where a constant air of tobacco and sawdust is not only bearable, but somehow romantic and life-giving.”

This passage starts by painting a picture of the structural image of the building Curran is interested in. She focuses not on providing an surface overview of the layout or look of the building, but rather immediately hones in on the feature she (as a pacific northwesterner in New Orleans) finds most notable, it’s remarkable ventilation system. She points out what makes this building unique, what gives it a life of its own. I would also note that she has set the stage for the reader’s conceptualization of the conversation to come.

“Omar’s warehouse, a place where wooden windows and ancient doors come to vacation. They lean on each other in massive shelves awaiting his caresses. Someday Omar will take them out of the Open Air Warehouse and put them back into the vacant orifices of historic homes. Air flows fluidly through the neat stacks of material on sabbatical. The passionate Moroccan carpenter moves past the shelves admiring his favorite guests. I follow behind, mesmerized by ornate slabs of functional cypress wood.”

Here Curran shifts the attention of her narrative from the life of the building itself to the life it contains. She has begun hinting at the more personal stories that live within the Open Air Warehouse, while still maintaining her focus on the functionality of the building. She begins to paint a picture of its inhabitants, one of which will play a much larger role in the structure of this passage, a role that will require us to look at Omar with much the same eye that she does, for the conversational nature of the piece to work.

“While the breezes circulate the air within Omar’s warehouse, his memories become active and colorful. ‘It was the gay community in here,’ he says, recalling the height of his historic restoration career in the late 1980s and early 1990s. ‘They come and they buy a lot of houses in the French Quarter, and the Marigny.’ These people possessed the imagination and the money to invest in the restoration of the Creole cottages, double gallery townhouses and antique shotguns that populated the fatigued historic neighborhoods of New Orleans. ‘It was like ninety-seven percent were gay people. There wasn’t no straight. Straight people, they don’t pay.’”

Three paragraphs into the passage Curran makes the move from the architectural and professional functionality of the Open Air Warehouse, to the personal and historic memories of its inhabitant. She chose to frame Omar’s recollection in such a way as to call attention to his nostalgia and connection to the space and city (calling to mind a much larger narrative). The recollection itself informs the reader of the historic context in which the building stands; a context that is shown through the lense of the one who lived it.

“It comes down to a lavish purple story. There was a man named Art who entrusted Omar with the complete artistic restoration of a decayed historic building. It was a massive long open room. ‘I would say at least eighty to a hundred feet long, maybe more. It was the whole length of the building. He wanted me to paint it purple; In Art’s community, competition to create beautiful interior environments in the exhausted antique buildings was fierce. Life was being pumped into the old buildings of the Vieux Carre and Marigny neighborhoods with a sensuous vigor not seen since the original construction of the hohouses. ‘You see, when you go to your friend’s house, and he have this beautiful house, your house have to be nicer!’ Omar remembers. ‘It was all show-and-tell, but in the meantime, it’s working for the economy, it’s working for the city of New Orleans.’

Curran separates here, for just a moment, from the warehouse, delving headlong into another story of another building. We might feel lost, were we not already anchored into the warehouse’s breezy entryway, listening to her and Omar speak. The narrative in this paragraph is tied to the recollection and reverie of the previous one, but this opens the door to a story much more personal than historical. No longer am I hearing about the building, but the community surrounding it. In this moment I can catch a glimpse at the larger culture surrounding the buildings discussed in this piece– I get a closer look at how the people who live in these buildings live in these buildings. It is in this paragraph that I begin to see what Writing American Cultures is trying to show us in its unique narrative ethnographic approach.

“Omar painted the room the deep shade of purple requested by his customer. Satisfied, Art began to hang silky drapes over the delicious walls. ‘That room start looking beautiful, like you are in Heaven. Gorgeous’”

This small paragraph provides a lot in terms sensory imagery. Deep shade. Silky drapes. Delicious walls. At the peak of the story Curran doesn’t want us to make judgements or conclusions; simply to sit there with her as she listens to Omar talk about his work. She draws us in with the pleasant sonorous contrast of her easily imagined words, then she goes in for the coup de grace.

“The memory of total sensual transformation colors Omar’s story, recalled from the central bunker of his sheet metal and aluminum warehouse. Purple paint drips through the air, and I can almost hear the old windows and doors laughing with pleasure. Maybe they will take part in such a revitalization of space, opening and closing at the hands of ornate artists, who call out from some deep well of fashionable bounty to mystify walls of old.”

Curran draws us in from the rich imaginings of Omar’s revitalization and guides our attention back to the Open Air Warehouse. For just a moment we hold the simultaneous image of both buildings, and the almost anthropomorphic personality they seem to share. Then the doors close, we are no longer sitting on a porch in New Orleans, rather we are left with the reflections of Curran, which in a distinctly wistful tone, somehow manages to parallel our own.

Writing American Cultures/Close Reading

Writing American Cultures: Close Reading

Vairea Houston

1/12/16

 

“Many native people still carry mistrust of non-native people, and that feeling can be difficult to overcome.” (Pg. 27) Virtual Reservation: NDNs in the Digital Age by Ataya Cesspooch.

 

When reading the first essay by Ataya Cesspooch in Writing American Cultures, this particular sentence struck out to me. In the paragraph she is talking about the stories of Native American culture and the problem of stories being carried throughout the internet. On one hand the story could be preserved forever, unchangeable once placed on the internet. Yet, it could also be changed and altered at the hands of anyone able to use the web.

She writes, “Native culture has been exploited to the point that many elders fear sharing things and keep wisdom far from strangers.”  This reminded me of when I was working as a waitress just outside the town I grew up in. My senior class in High School had collaborated on a t-shirt that we would all wear to our last assemblies of school pride. I used to wear the t-shirt because it reminded me of some of my fond days of school and the classmates I grew up with. The t-shirt is of a native american headress (our school mascot was the Redskins) with the names of each member of our class forming the shape. One day (three years after having graduated high school) I decided to wear it to work. That day a native american man and his son came into order food to-go and they sat at the bar in front of me. It’s a busy day for work, so I say a polite greeting, and continue to deliver drinks to other tables. I soon notice that the man keeps staring at me as I am walking around the restaurant. I thought that by doing that he must have been ready to order his food but when I got back order to him he said abruptly,

“What gives you the right to wear that shirt?”

I simply replied, “This is my senior t-shirt.” Which I realized afterwards how dumb sounding it was. He gave me his order for food and I left to hang it up. I contemplated what I should have told him when he asked me. I should have told him that I saw this shirt as a symbol of my completion of high school with my classmates, nothing else. But that would have been foolish too because I had no idea what adorning that headdress on my t-shirt meant to the Native community and the conversation it had brought up in the community. He then said, “That shirt really offends me.” I could tell that his temper was rising as he continued to glare at my shirt.

“I’m sorry I don’t mean to offend you” I said. He continued to raise his voice at me, mostly asking me questions that he wouldn’t let me answer. This made me realize that I was wearing a shirt with a deeper meaning than I had known, one that had the power to affect people around me.

 

On page 28, Ataya says, “Sometimes reinventing yourself is necessary. But sometimes we stray too far into individuality and long for community and life with a meaningful worldview.” Ataya is talking about the Native community being accessible on the internet and having the ability to further culture in the right step. I also look at this quote as one that resonates for me and my senior t-shirt. It’s as if us that bought this shirt were stepping too far into our own individuality, having been so comfortable with the mascot we had had for decades. We were so used to the norm that we had lost sense of the greater community and the voices of others. We weren’t told the meaning of the headdress to the Native community when the shirt was in creation but we should have understood it before we began wearing them. I had no intention of disrespecting this man or his community but by wearing the shirt and not knowing the brevity of the situation, I already had. I had closed my mind to what was in front of me by not opening myself up to the situation. I believe that we need to teach Native culture in our schools even to non-Natives so that we can avoid situations like these, and nullify terms (like mascot names)  that represent derogatory terms. Creating videos to teach people about different things will always be susceptible to the possibility of learning it the wrong way. We need to be teaching stories of other cultures so that we can respect people and their heritage.

“An Indian child without knowledge of his own cultural traditions is like a tree that, when it was young, did not have a lot of trees around to make it go straight up to the sun… [On the other hand] in a great forest, where you’ve got a lot of trees around this young tree , and that one tree grows straight up between those other trees to reach the sun , then it’s going to be strong and it’s gonna be there for two and three hundred years. And that’s the way it is with Indian children. Without that foundation or that circle of tradition, to raise that child in, it becomes weaker and weaker as its years go on (Garroutte 74).” – Page 23. This passage really spoke to me because I understand this personally. It reminds me of the quote, “It takes a village to raise a child.” A child learns from those around him and he/she need to gain wisdom from different places and different people to become who he/she wants to be. I’m constantly reminded that wisdom sits in places, we take a little bit of wisdom from each place we go and we take it and learn from it. Without other people or places we will either lose our identities or never find them at all. We all identify personally with a heritage, place, religion, etc. and with it we continue to grow. I traveled all the way to Indonesia this fall just to meet my fellow trees (family) to develop my heritage and continue my growth. Without having gone to Indonesia I probably would have thought of my Indonesian heritage as distant family history and that part of my grandmother would have died too. So here we all are, growing up to the sun.

 

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The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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