Finally, the Sam Houston biography is behind me, and at the suggestion of a friend, I have moved on to the Flannery O'Connor novel Wise Blood. What a pleasure to read something so beautifully written and compelling after struggling through the book club assignment!
This novel has gotten me thinking about the South, about how much I love it and love identifying myself as being from it (however disingenuous such a claim is coming from a nomadic Navy brat turned FS officer born in California). The South is a place heavy with secrets, a place desperately using the excuse of tradition to cover its shameful past like a fig leaf. There is a strong drive in the South to re-appropriate symbols towards this end: the Confederate flag, the Southern belle, the poor illiterate who seems to possess some other-worldly religious knowledge... The latter is a character often seen in novels, and a particular favorite of mine. These sorts of identities, though ultimately false, are seductive; hence my own desire to shape myself as a Southerner (though I prefer to do so following the Atticus Finch model). I suspect awareness of the darkness hidden beneath a thin veneer of assumed propriety and inscrutability is what fuels the quality of Southern authors. The South struggles with itself.
Japan actually reminds me a lot of the American South. This country, too – at the West's encouragement! – has been allowed to use tradition and some notion of congenital 'Japaneseness' to excuse itself from detailed reflection on its past. We love to see Japan as the enigmatic 'Other', so different and unknowable (yet still something an enlightened Westerner could slip into, like Tom Cruise putting on samurai armor), and Japan is only too happy to oblige. We want geisha and cherry blossoms and sliding paper screens hiding mysterious ceremonies, when the reality is electrical lines and cramped apartments and drunken business men passed out on trains. Picking and choosing from the past to create 'traditions' allows for reinvention not only of the past, but also of the present; these 'traditions' merely reflect how a society wants to imagine itself today.
I can see my friend Esther shaking her head as she reads this; questions of identity, about its construction and creation, absorbed a great deal of my attention during grad school, and she and I spent many hours discussing the notion of Self and Other over coffee at the British Library... I'm not sure why the topic fascinates me so. Perhaps it has something to do with wanting to know my own self better. Though whether or not it's the case that all interest is inherently interest in one's own self, I couldn't say.
In other news, I attended the Ambassador's book club in Tokyo. In Japanese there is a proverb: Iwanu ga hana -- literally, 'To not say is a flower' Following this advice, I only spoke twice during the dinner and subsequent book discussion; which is to say, I spoke twice during dinner, and not at all during the discussion. I spent a lot of time looking at the Ambassador's tie, which was pink with stripes and lines of little blue dolphins on it, running in alternating diagonal rows. I was quite sure that I'd seen the same tie for sale in Osaka Station, next to one I'd bought for a friend in Peru (though the one I bought was red with little baboons and bananas on it -- it made me wish I wore ties). But Heather assured me that the Ambassador only dons Versace neckwear...
Our next book is Team of Rivals, a biography of Lincoln. If you've already read it, don't tell me how it ends!