4/19/07

SPEECHLESS


He came at roughly the Beaver’s age, learnt our language word by word, each syllable mangled, botched, before being straightened out, finally, but some sounds would remain elusive, even towards the end, whimpers and bangs. “Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out.” “We’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” “Kick ass then go home.” Beneath a nuclear mushroom: “Made in America, tested in Japan.” There are so many cool ones. When he tried to talk, he mumbled, “as if he had something in his mouth,” which made them guffaw and shout, “Go back to China,” a generic taunt I’ve heard more than once, of course. "You talkin' to me? Hey, I said, Are you talkin' to me?"

There was nothing he could do about his unusual eyes, nose and mouth, short of violence, but he could have changed his name to “Joe” or something, placate them a little, betray his good will. By college, he had enough Anglo-Saxon, Latinated gibberish roiling in his head to entertain the funky, desperate notion that he could become a writer, an American one. Holy shit, no joke, say what? Feeling queer about it, a naked impostor, he pretended to be a business major. "Do you write in Korean? Chinese? Mongolian?" At last, he’d open those lips and flash his never-seen tongue.

He could never join, only look. He was a looker only, only he wasn’t a looker. He didn't want to be looked at, actually, especially his looking eyes, which he hid behind shades. Through a digital peephole, he checked the scenery beneath tables, to examine seams, pleats, ruffles, anything tucked beneath anything else, fuzz, scars, socks, pom-poms, pores, he measured hips. True, everyone else just mostly looked also—this is, after all, a land of tireless oglers and vigilantes—but occasionally they could mesh into a resistant something or other, after a six pack, a cognac or a vodka. He shared their values, totally, only he couldn’t get none, until that moment when he finally dashed across the landmined border to join his peers on the other side. After this catharsis, we all got plenty to look at, between the car, Coke and bullshit commercials.

Why couldn’t he be like Hen Ly, or Henry Lee, one of his victims? Fresh off the boat, Henry just grinned, untied his tongue, snatched most of the awards, became a salutatorian. “Imagine sitting in class not knowing the language, now I am number two.” Why couldn’t he be like Bruce Lee, or Donald Trump, for that matter? Hell, why couldn’t he be like Linh Dinh, who was poised enough to write these calm lines:

Refrain

Well, then, if an alien object, something tiny
Even, like a grain of bullshit, is persistently
Lodged within the brain, there’s nothing to do
But to shoot the motherfucker. My eyes
Are alien to me, their defects hindering
My already dire discourse with the real,
This lake here, them privates. That’s why
I must shoot the motherfuckers.

[from “Jam Alerts,” Chax Press, 2007]

Judging from his plays, Cho Seung-hui never nicked his target. Judging from his acts, he was as American as, well, too many to mention. Pumping iron, cropping his hair short, flipping his black baseball cap backward, in a black T-shirt, he finally looked like he belonged, an Army of One, ready for action. Bring 'em on.

15 comments:

Murat said...

Linh,

Is it a question of "just by the grace of God"?

In my case, I just can't look at it. It feels like sticking my head into a corpse.

My first reaction was how American all this seems to be. My immediate second thought was Iraq. The Iraqis are going through this every day. Perhaps this will bring some understanding, the enormity of the suffering.

Then those obscene photos appeared. Actually, what Cho did is post modern, pure twenty-first century, full of disjointed, trans-national associations: the Japanese novelist who committed suicide (I can't remember his name), The Taxi Driver, the farewell talismanic souvenir photos of the suicide bombers, the Abu Ghrab counterpoints. To add to all this, Cho was aiming his guns at everyone who was looking at the photos, which may have been in the billions.A horrifying reality.

Did any one see any coverage of Cho's family? They seem to have disappeared. Why? Is that due a lack of interest by the American media? Is the family hiding in grief or in shame?

For me, it is too early to talk about all this. I am really speechless.

Murat

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

His family has gone into seclusion. The Japanese novelist you're thinking of is Mishima. You're right, this Cho case is very postmodern.

Anonymous said...

Linh,

The worst of it is how eager NBC was to turn this campus slaughter into Cho Business--gulp, gulp, consume, consume. And the public's blubbering and asking why--an eternity of "why?" "Why me, o Lord?" Sadly, it's not an unusual response, to want to destroy those who persecute you, but to act on that is a sign of how far gone the world is in a way. It's the self magnified. And Cho came to the land of expansive selfness. The world of others hardly matters. And in that, you're right, he became American--blasted, disregarding other perspectives, leaving the question of what there is to regard--and how?

Dale Smith

Murat said...

A completely irrelevant thought which keeps coming back to me: more than thirty years ago, Nikki Giovanni and I were in a poetry class together. She had written a very interesting poem I think about crabs.

Murat

Anonymous said...

Dear Linh,

Your reaction to the the Cho Seung-Hui massacre at Virginia Tech reads like a prose poem, and your title “Speechless” does make me think of Carolyn Forche’s point in her essay about poetry of witness—speechlessness/muteness is a consequence of oppression, just as irony—raised in Thuong Quan’s Thu Toa Soan slated for Da Mau #24, is often a point of departure for all witnesses of extreme events. You were right on target (pun intended) in pointing out the irony implied in Cho’s act. If his murderous impulse was purely “American,” then it’s an ironic and devastating assessment (or denouement) as Cho was never considered “American” enough while he was alive. Only in real life—not in fiction—could you get this kind of “denouement”—to become an American not by birth, not by naturalization, but by “un-naturalization”—by achieving murder.

Thuy Dinh
http://damau.org/

barbara jane said...

"The pure products of America go crazy."

Hi Linh, thank you for this post. I too am having a hard time organizing my thoughts on all of this, but it really is nagging at me and freaking me out, what I am understanding as a (purely?) American (male?) rage.

Barbara Jane Reyes

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Barbara,

There's no saying Cho wouldn't have become a mass murderer if raised in South Korea or some other society, but the manners in which he acted this out, his "style," if you will, was very American and, yes, very male. (Murat did point out the postmodern, disjointed, trans-national nature of his act, however.) Cho's Koreanness and immigrant status should not be ignored, obviously, but he was basically a kid from Northern Virginia, a Christian who wanted to become an American writer. Cho was eight-years-old when he came to the US, so I'd assume he didn't see himself as Korean but American, even if many of his peers weren't quite convinced of this fact in life, or the media in death. Hell, Willem de Kooning came to the US at age 22 but do we consider him anything but an American, even the quintessential American, painter? But de Kooning was white, of course. That's how it is. A blonde Russian fresh off the boat, speaking zero English, could pass himself off as an American more readily than a 4th generation Asian-American.

Linh Dinh said...

I reposted my Cho comments at
opednews.com and got this curious response from "Katarina":

"This one of his writings ?

Or were you making this up to make fun of him ? I hadnt seen this incoherent one. It appears whoever wrote it took words of others and threw them out there without being coherent of the situations where/when the words were used?"

Murat said...

Linh,

I have been in the States since I was nineteen. When I my green card in mide sixties, I had a final interview with an immigration officer, who was originally from Jordan.

At that time in the questionnaire I had to fill up,there was the question about my race. I had answered it as white. The American/Jordanian officer crossed my answer out and wrote "medium."

I didn't see Cho's manifesto. But Joel Lewis told me it sounded like a Nikki Giovanni poem. Is that true?

Ciao,

Murat

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

I haven't seen his manifesto, only read his two plays, which are very bad and not even that alarming, to tell you the truth. I inserted one of my own poems here to point out that Cho wasn't nuts because he wrote (supposedly) disturbing poems and plays, but because he acted disturbed and disturbing. My writing is much more disturbing than his and yet I'm more or less sane and civil.

One of the noble aims of literature is to be disturbing, no? Cho's plays are merely tepid, mildly slapstick and only "alarming" in retrospect, after what he's done.

In response to an earlier post, I mentioned a 700-page anthology by mass murderers called "Lustmord." These diary entries, taunting letters to victims' families, poems and bloody confessions on walls are truly disturbing partly because they were written while these individuals were committing their serial mayhem, after they had killed, with time in between each killing to reflect on what they had done. Having crossed all social, moral and psychic boundaries, these mass murderers and cannibals had no hangups about telling the truth about themselves. There is amazing clarity in much of their writings.

Cho's plays, on the other hand, were composed before he committed his first murder.

mark wallace said...

I too was struck by how much more disturbing many acknowledged works of literature are than Cho's supposedly extremely obvious "warning signs." A good portion of his work consisted of profane sodomy references that aren't even as far out as what you can hear at a college frat party on any Friday night of the year. Some of his jokes were even funny, if you like that sort of thing. Certainly the person writing them was unhappy and angry--but really, how unique is that?

I say this, by the way, as someone who in the last four years has had two students commit suicide and a third hospitalized and dropped out of school. All three of them wrote precise and insightful work that was worldly and informed, as well as attuned to the nuances of suffering. The pain that many of my students articulate in all their different ways can certainly be wearing--but the idea that you'd know what someone would do based on what they've written is just transparently untrue.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

You wrote, "in the questionnaire I had to fill up,there was the question about my race. I had answered it as white. The American/Jordanian officer crossed my answer out and wrote "medium." Medium what? Rare? One word I can't stand is "colored," because it pits "white" against everybody else, black, brown, yellow, medium, medium rare, all lumped together as "colored." "White" becomes exclusive in this context, distinctive, an ideal, an absolute against which every other shade is measured and found wanting. You're not white, Murat, you mediocre.

Murat said...

Linh,

I am medium rare.

Unquestionably there is all the difference in the world between disturbing behavior and disturbing writing

Disturbing behavior is more or less disturbed behavior, requiring little effort on. Disturbing writing, as yours, is rare, the saner the better and more disturbing.

Ciao,

Murat

Murat

Linh Dinh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linh Dinh said...

Hi Mark and Murat,

I was so wound up, so easily provoked, so spread thin that, with any stimulant whatsoever—a lingerie ad, a cup of coffee, a donut—I would think, Blood! I used to think of my body as one long knife, and each day a long thrust forward in search of my next victim.

In the beginning I just killed blindly, like a madman, with no philosophy behind what I was doing, but after my sixth or seventh victim (Diana? Susan?) had been quieted, when I had suddenly become the only person left in the room, I realized what I was after. I was not so much interested in snuffing out a life as in creating a bond with my victims through humiliation. (What is intimacy but shared humiliation?) After that epiphany, I would say to each victim before I slit her throat: “Now that we know each other’s secrets, now that we’ve humiliated each other, there is nothing left for us to do but to meet in the next life. I love you.”

I would become so moved by this declaration of love that tears would well up in my eyes. I would kiss the cold teeth of my women.

There is a strange silence after a killing. It is as if the corpse is absorbing all the noise of the world into its decaying orbit. Right after you’ve killed, you feel as if you’re the last person left on earth. A wonderful, peaceful feeling. They used to blindfold a dozen or more slaves and force them to box each other in a ring until only one was left standing.

After my tenth victim, I felt so ecstatic I thought God would call me up. I kept staring at my phone, certain that it would ring at any moment. I was sure God would congratulate me for participating in his joke. A woman colludes with God at the beginning of the joke by giving birth. A man at the end of it, by killing.

[from "Two Intellectuals," in the collection Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004)]