When I first received the invitation to participate in Writers in Motion 2011, a project of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved in another IWP undertaking. My experience during the 2009 IWP residency proved thoroughly educational and productive, not to mention fun, that the chance to see more of America became a secondary consideration.
Once the dust had settled, though, I realized that I might have brought upon myself more trouble than I had anticipated. The study involved visiting American cities that had experienced crises and disasters—natural, social, economic—and reflect on the theme “Fall and Recovery,” towards writing a travel essay about the experience.
Several concerns gnawed at me, all variations on the theme of “How am I going to do this?” The problems of the United States are not matters that I think about. News readers serve up doses of news on my computer daily, but I’m rarely moved to click and read, the problems of my immediate neck of the woods usually being more pressing.
The vaguely imperialist undertones of the project were also a cause for concern. The “international” writers with me on the tour seemed to represent a sampling of the world beyond America, and I wondered which specific perspectives I was expected to contribute to the discussion. The itinerary also appeared very tightly structured, with resource persons pre-selected for each leg of the tour. Our experience of America was certainly going to be controlled to some extent, and perhaps many of the conclusions on the theme had already been made for us.
Finally, there was an aspect of parachute journalism that clung to the enterprise. I’m no authority on America; what right do I have to write about it after a mere two weeks of harried observation? We had been prescribed a set of introductory readings designed to set the tone for the tour, and many of us had done our own reading, but could that be enough? Our program coordinator, early in the tour, brought up an old writing conundrum: “Stay a week in a new place, and you can write a novel about it; stay a month, and you can write a short story; stay a year and you can’t write about it at all.”
In my case, in addition to the lens of “Fall and Recovery,” I had the lens of the America of the Mind, which I wrote about here. How much would my impressions of the stops on the tour be informed by books, television, and movies? These Americas, meta- and otherwise, would collide at least once on the tour—we would visit the set of Treme in New Orleans and chat briefly with show creator David Simon as well as observe a shoot of the second season in progress.
The project felt hopelessly contaminated from the get-go, and I had to disabuse myself from the notion of a relatively “pure” approach to the tour. These were the concerns on my mind when I drafted the “Personal Statement” on my participation requested of me by the organizers. At least one of the other writers had actively resisted the task, citing its absurdity. In my case, it helped me to acknowledge the extent of my contamination and articulate where I was coming from, at least initially. I wrote:
The case of the United States makes for an interesting study. Massive and monolithic, yet globally dispersed, America exists as a geopolitical, cultural, and social entity that seems entirely capable of lumbering on despite increasingly serious, wide-ranging, and disabling devastations. Contemporary power-societies, aided by technology, seem more and more capable of either extending themselves infinitely into the future or annihilating themselves. Human beings that make up such societies must either struggle to keep up with the slouching mass or be crushed.
The epics and romances of the Western tradition are often stories of individuals framed against larger narratives of war. American and European Realist and Naturalist fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries featured the travails of individuals caught up in circumstances beyond their control, at the mercy of socio-political and cultural forces. Such pictures of the plight of humanity seems doubly relevant today, when societies are empowered by more than just the coal and steam of the Industrial Revolution. Science fiction, on the other hand, has often revisited the trope of the post-apocalyptic world. Lately, it seems as though the question has shifted from “What would happen next?” to “How could such a thing happen, if at all?” The historical approach of this American study tour, which combines both natural and social devastation, allows for a penetrating exploration of these issues and their relevance to the history and art of fiction.
As a non-American from a country that was once an American colony, I, like many other Filipinos, have gazed on America in adulation as well as dismay and bafflement. The recent example of the events following the rampage of Hurricane Katrina, and their representation in the media, was especially puzzling. The Philippines being no stranger to natural disasters and far less better shielded from them, the images of impotent helplessness and of human beings turning on each other in a country as mythically ideal as America, seemed not just incongruous, but illogical, given the circumstances.
America persists, despite this disaster and others, as does the Philippines, as do other countries in the world. And yet world history is littered with the remains of once thriving civilizations that passed out of existence. It falls to the writers of fiction to take note of the new factors that determine survival and extinction, to make sense of them, and to shape them into narratives that can and will in-form humanity as it struggles to keep up.
In the end it was sheer momentum and frantic note-taking that propelled our group through seven cities in thirteen days. Much of the trip was a blur of airports and fast food eaten in cramped quarters. We documented some of our impressions in a blog, though by the time we had reached our last stop, information overload had taken its toll, and we decompressed in hotel rooms with Persian takeout, random wines, and games of truth.
The complexity of our task wasn’t lost on us, and we found ourselves bouncing opinions and insights off each other in rental cars, taxis, airport gates. There was a valuable range of stances in our group, from cynical to earnest, critical to approving, ironic to literal. Contamination, it was clear, could be used like a sieve to filter the material out of which an opinion could be shaped.
(To be concluded.)
Culture, Travel, United States