Even from 17 time zones away, Bradford Philen feels the impact of current events back home. Read the latest installment of our Active Voice: Writers Respond series to see how the last year has shaped the way he approaches his writing while living and teaching abroad in Beijing.
On Sunday, August 12, 2017, I received a brief email from a good friend. We had been trying to set up a Skype writing workshop session. His message ended with:
Crazy happenings in Charlottesville… how’s your sister? What’s she saying?
I live in Beijing, China, but hadn’t yet caught wind of that Friday night’s white nationalist tiki torch parade or the terrible Saturday mayhem. My wife and I immediately turned on CNN and then sat stunned at what we saw. It was surreal, confusing, and loud. It was horrifying and yet still sort of felt like something out of Hollywood, like the beginning of the next Purge movie. I sent my sister a WeChat message. She works at UVA, and I’ve spent many a vacation day enjoying its serene campus. Since it was a Saturday, she had been home all day with her six year-old. So scary, so sad, she messaged back.
I’m from the South, but haven’t lived there in a long time. When my wife and I are in America, we split our time between New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and California for all the essential stops to spend time with family and play catch-up with what’s changed and what hasn’t. The last three summers, I have squeezed in a two-week residency at UAA for the MFA summer semester. It’s an intense but exhilarating experience.
One of the more controversial sessions this past summer was a panel discussion entitled “Writing in an Age of Confusion.” My peers and I certainly left the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building that day in a state of confusion—but the good, challenging kind. So many ideas and thoughts, a lot of political dialogue, so much sharing. I walked away a little frustrated—had Trump trumped our creative endeavors? The last thing I wanted to do was write stories that even mentioned his deplorable name. But what is the fiction writer’s role in a burning, very polarizing 2017? Despite the food for thought, I still stuck to my guns: story starts with a character. The fiction writer’s job is to follow that character to see exactly what she will do. The fiction writer’s job is to capture her story. All that other stuff—that stuff of theme and purpose and whatnot—is an afterthought for the reader to decipher.
Living abroad is difficult at times. We miss a lot: birthday parties and Sunday brunches, friendly stop-overs, local sporting events, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach, all the glorious craft breweries America has to offer. We’ve also missed—luckily—the last few tiring years of political warfare. We can tune in and out as much as we want. It’s literally as simple as stepping outside. Why not catch the subway to one of the hutongs for Tsingtao beer and dumplings? Or, visit the Lama Temple to take in the calming, slowly burning incense and watch Buddhist monks spin the prayer wheels. Get caught people watching at a park or at one of Beijing’s million malls or markets.
I’m not sure Americans in America can unplug in the same way.
Too many tickers, sound bites, bulletin boards.
Too much road rage.
It’s too raw.
America, how do you get away from it all?
In the same way the fiction writer needs distance to contemplate her work, physical distance from home—from place—offers me therapy. That week after Charlottesville, I couldn’t unplug. I was glued to every screen and New York Times editorial. It was unbelievable—the worry, the noise, the violence, the rhetoric, the language. It is unbelievable how quickly language is changing.
It’s deeply troubling.
There’s little to no time to digest and discuss language as it forms and morphs, and I worry about my nine-month old. When will I have to explain to him what “fake news” means? And, since when did terms like “alt-left” and “antifa” become part of the news media vernacular? Did Trump subtly suggest the Black Lives Movement is the alt-left’s response to the KKK? The two are hardly comparable. While the so-called alt-left stands for the rights of the oppressed, the alt-right… well, has a rich history of violence, murder, and blatant bigotry.
I worry how this fast-moving language is shaping perspectives, shifting and distracting conversations, confusing our very vulnerable youth. The etymology of the word terror is fascinating in itself, and yet confusing in the context of America’s present climate. When President Bush called for the War on Terror, calling the world to fight an ambiguous fear, his focus was actually clear: Islam.
America still hasn’t recovered from that. Consider how that label, that call to action, has affected millions of Americans—Muslim, non-Aryan skinned, slightly accented (perhaps), Americans. That language—which President Obama must have consciously (and very rightly so) chosen not to use, is at the forefront of Trump’s presidency. It’s morphed to “terrorism,” but now, according to Trump, white supremacists and Klan members aren’t all bad and actually there are some really violent protesters at those Lives Matter alt-left marches.
I worry how this word terrorism will continue to morph and be used—in private, in the media, in the courts—to shape and shift narratives. This is America’s dream: make the most of yourself. Usually, this is at the cost of someone else. The “other.” The non-white male. I worry about history repeating itself and about black and brown little boys and girls. I worry about my son Khalil.
Sure, language always changes. And, the fiction writer—the poet and essayist, too—needs time to process. Writers need time to draft and draft and rewrite and sit and think and process. Process. While the mayhem in Charlottesville has certainly raised many questions about my writing approaches, I still feel strongly that story starts with a character, and I’ll stay with that for now. Perhaps though, the mandate of every creative writer—be it fiction, prose, non-fiction, poet—is to stay in tune with the language changes. To question how the language, here in front of us now, living and breathing and sweating and changing, can be a part of, a source of, an element of, perhaps, a starting block for, our work.
Bradford Philen, a third year student in UAA’s MFA program, lives in Beijing, China with his wife and son. He teaches at the International School of Beijing and is a contributing fiction editor for Spittoon Magazine (http://spittooncollective.com/)
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