On Dissociating; or, A Two-Day Literary Conference
Ming was one of the few Americans and the youngest presenter at the second-ever convention of the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress (WALTIC) in Istanbul in September 2010 (the first was in 2008 in Stockholm, where she fangirled Philip Pullman so hard he ran away from her). She presented in the "Freedom of Expression" bracket in the "stories" category to an audience that included Maureen Freely, Orhan Pamuk's literary translator, and the secretary of International PEN and the exiled President of China's Independent PEN. Ming spoke of her experience in Mongolia working with PEN International and Freedom to Write in order to assist exiled Chinese Inner Mongolian dissident Tumen Ulzii Bayunmend. What follows are off-kilter poet-thoughts she had during the conference and scribbled in her notebook.
The most hopeless act of Course is telling the story. I’ll fashion something else out of you.
Juris, the man who takes me as his guest to the reception at the Swedish Institute in Istanbul, knows Syktyvkar is on the European side of the Urals when I say that’s where I lived. He knows Manchurian is part of the Altaic language family. In my placelessly and reasonlessly desperate daydream X and I barely make it to the inside of his hotel room before tearing each others’ clothes off.
Kitties in the compound, and a slightly bored waitstaff. Juris nods when I say I grew up on a zebra farm. Ming holden, he says simply. As in, it follows.
I used to be Sweden's cultural attache, he says, but I stopped because it occupies your brains. As in, no room for writing. (I was going to write “infecting” or “invading.”)
I have had problems like that, he says.
What, like being the toastmaster (I wrote “postmaster” just now)? I ask.
I have no problems with my voice, he says.
A toddler in a pink dress toddles in back of/behind the woman in purple who holds a thank you cheat sheet and announces thank yous on behalf of the Swedish Institute. Toddler girl's underwear-butt, showing through her dress, makes me happy as she toddles. When does that become a bad idea? “Think of it as a recovery from a broken leg,” someone told me; when the poison rises in my blood I think to nail him to the wall electronically. At the end of my speech, let me go back in time, says the woman in purple.
I thought we were at a WALTIC event, but there are no WALTIC people and she hasn't mentioned WALTIC. Are we at a reception for WALTIC? I finally ask Juris. No, he says, it is a reception for this, the new building. That is why we are here. Instead of “dear X” why don't I just write “dear pervasive self-hatred that kept me sick as a black-slimed, malnourished thing crawling feebly across the creekbed.” That'd do it. The building goes down for six stories, we just can't see them from outside.
Ovid died in 18AD, forced out because of erotic poetry, says one of the exiled panelists. When I asked her how she was so sure of god when there is such pain she said, how could you care for someone in pain if everything were perfect all the time? She was a librarian in Iran. For six months strangers gave me shelter, she said, two nights here, two nights there. My cousin, a boy, died of cold in a flood on a mountain en route to Turkey from Iran. How could a boy die so easily? People die like fleas. I decided to write down my own experience of flight. How do we integrate perversion? Asks another presenter.
A boy at a hostel watches a girl head out of the room with a speck of blood on her pants. On the Bosphorous, after walking downhill in the sunlight with a her to where they could see the river, south of Taksim Square, her huge lips and perfect skin and how wide her lips were, her long tangled braid, the twelve black pantsuits she bought, the shuttle ride beforehand, and search for her cigarette in between, her semester at the Sorbonne and the one time she used the walking home service since she lived too close to a dark alley for comfort and the person who walked her home was this inert girl, the act of writing as one of compassion, empathy, witness, of selecting things by seeing them, an act of creating a world. I confide in a gentle woman on a boat on the river Bosphorous that night that the only thing wrong was my thoughts. Oh no, she said, your thoughts are the most wonderful thing because only you can express them. You’re the only one who was there, who is here.
4pm napping hour I checked the other five bunk beds for sleepers. Voices through the window in the overcast, the window that shows the dome across the street and the large metal screens in the alley if you crane your neck, swift clicking of the fan as it made its revolutions, and during one of the most important and compelling seminars, the one with the three exiled women, one of whom has been imprisoned four years by the time she was my age, and I’d been unable to think, only to feel a physical want, tired and mottled and missed entire minutes stuck for some reason on hypothetical fucking. Memories are a transcript of wonder, a record of beauty only you keep. You are witness to them, sentry of them, barefoot up the concrete hostel stairs.
Me and a fellow hostel resident, a German, go out after I shower and put on clothes. When the content of the moment leads to overwhelmed emotion, the brain will float, it will autopilot. My first night in Istanbul, we go to the grand bazaar. I am the only conference goer at a youth hostel; the rest are in fancy hotels on the square. I am one of the Americans, this I know if only for the narcissism bleeding into the ink. This one, he says, pointing to a white plate. We eat here, in front of the stall. That's an interesting cultural practice, he says. Squeezing lemon on yourself. I squint in the seafood stand light. A man made pomegranate juice in front of us and it purses my entire mouth. You are tired from all the learning, he says. I nod.
MING HOLDEN served in the Mongolian Writers Union as their International Relations Adviser during her year as a Henry Luce Scholar in Mongolia, collaborating with The Asia Foundation on literary translations and working towards the formation of a Mongolia PEN Center. While an undergraduate at Brown University (’07) she co-founded and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Brown Literary Review. Ming’s poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and literary translations have appeared in Caper Journal, Cerise Press, The Best American Poetry Blog, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Huffington Post, InAsia, InTheFray, Molotov Cocktail, Peaches and Bats, The Poker, Poets & Artists, Prospect, the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, the Santa Barbara Independent, Slice Magazine’s blog, and others. She recently taught a cross-genre workshop at the Richard Hugo House. Ming has done international nonprofit work in Russia (at the Silver Taiga Sustainable Forestry Foundation); Ecuador (at the CEMOPLAF family planning clinic); Bolivia (at the Rio Beni Health Project); Mongolia (at The Asia Foundation); and also in New York (at Archipelago Books) and California (at People Helping People).