As published at OpEd News and Smirking Chimp, 5/22/18:
I’m back in Philly to wrap things up, return my apartment, give a paid talk and say goodbye to my friends. With Felix Giordano, I’ve hit bars in the Italian Market, Point Breeze, Pennsport, Fishtown and Whitman. Soon, we’ll run over to Billy Boy’s in the Pine Barrens, where the owner/cook makes some of the best comfort food anywhere, and the hardy, friendly people soothe our souls. Mellowing in there, it’s hard to believe you’re only 30 miles from the mayhem of Camden. Even in the Piney, though, things have changed for the worse. “You can’t really smell pig shit anymore,” Felix pointed out. “It’s not like when I was a kid, coming here. There’s less pig farming now.”
At Nickels’, I had a $3.50 roast beef sandwich that came with pickle, peppers, horseradish and potato chips. Can’t beat that! There was a sign, “DRUG ACTIVITY WILL NOT BE TOLERATED HERE.” At a Fishtown dive, Teresa the bartender comped my second Guinness, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” There, I talked to a 56-year-old union electrician, Matt, about Poland, the economy, his fishing boat and heroin. We both know people who’ve died from it.
Matt showed me, on his cellphone, a young man nodding on a subway train. A couple years ago, Matt found a friend passed out on the street, so he lifted him onto a shopping cart, pushed him home. The man died soon after from an overdose. “This guy was a football player in high school, man, a super jock, and very popular.” As we chattered, the pleasant smell of marijuana wafted in from the sidewalk.
As Felix and I were leaving Sit On It, a middle-aged black lady stood up and shouted at us, "I love you all! Love you all!"
Wandering around Center City, I enjoyed the bustle and fine, cool weather, but also got reacquainted with the sights of sleeping or panhandling homeless. Near City Hall, I noticed a row of broken glass panes at a subway entrance. I've been to maybe 30 countries, and the only one that had the same level of vandalism and graffiti as the US was Germany.
With purple hair, eyebrows and lipstick to accentuate her cadaverous complexion, an out-of-shape, college-aged woman wore a jean vest that had a cupcake on each side. “EAT SHIT” “AND DIE,” they said.
At Thomas Paine Plaza, there’s a multi panel art project celebrating Dreamers, or underage illegal immigrants. One large image shows a Hispanic girl studying a book, Milk and Honey, with these words surrounding her, “Education THINKING Research Success FUTURE Expert SKILLS PROGRESS JOB KNOWLEDGE TRAINING DEVELOPMENT PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE ADVANTAGE FOCUS LEARN WORK SOCIAL LEADERSHIP EMPLOYMENT TEST HOPE HARD WORK,” and so on.
Everywhere, there are LOOK UP/SPEAK UP signs to condition citizens to be suspicious of each other. Since the 9/11 false flag, enforced paranoia has become the norm.
Sticker on a steel pole, “THE LEFTIST AGENDA: DIVIDE AND OPPRESS.”
At a bus shelter, a fat man with a vapid expression sat next to a poster advertising the TV show, Arrested Development.
Near City Hall, there’s a white sign with a black arrow, pointing to the ground, “HUB OF HOPE.” I have no idea if it’s a joke.
Three days after I got back, I checked the Inquirer to find out nine Philadelphians had been shot within 18 hours, with five dead. Among the survivors was a 61-year-old man who had been hit in the groin, and a 28-year-old who had been blasted in the face. I was certainly not in East Asia anymore.
Six Temple students have been killed or committed suicide this academic year, with two business majors overdosing from drugs within one week. A 24-year-old was found dead in the library. In 2017, 1,217 Philadelphians died from drug overdoses, up from 907 in 2016. Per capita, Pittsburgh tops the country in drug deaths.
Discussing the opioid crisis last year, I was hissed at by a gaggle of pissy ostriches. One sneered, “What are these places he’s talking about? And the commenters, too? Who are these degenerates? I don’t know a single person or place that fits ANY of this. And I’m no spring chicken.” It is hopeless.
One evening, I ran into a 41-year-old bartender who had been fired, months before, for being so fogged up, she couldn’t give the correct change or even hear a drink order. It didn’t help that Becky also downed shots of Jameson while working.
“You look great, Becky! You really do. The last time I saw you, you were pretty out of it.”
“That guy Jack who gave you pills, he fucked you up!” Handing out pills, Jack got whiskey back.
“The pills did help me, Linh.” Becky’s foot was in extreme pain.
“Jack got you fired.”
“Yes, he did.”
In retrospect, Becky is not all that sorry to be canned, for her boss was an asshole, “Mario kept telling me to not let the Mexicans sit at the bar. ‘They have to sit at the tables,’ he kept saying, but how do you tell people they can’t sit at the bar?! That’s why I came home crying all the time. One time, Elio came in and yelled at me, ‘Why is that guy sitting at the bar?!’”
“I know Elio’s an asshole, but I didn’t know he was that much of an asshole!”
“That’s why he won’t stock Corona or Tecate. Elio doesn’t want Mexicans in his bar.”
“With all the old white guys gone, he should welcome these Mexicans as customers.”
“And they’re good customers, too. He keeps saying they don’t tip, but they do tip. They’re very sweet and never cause any trouble.”
With no work since, Becky’s been supported by her 48-year-old boyfriend. They’ve been together eight years. Volatile, he sometimes beats her.
Two years ago in Brooklyn, I interviewed Noam, a straying Hasid, and we’ve been in touch since. I encouraged Noam to get out of smug, close-minded New York whenever possible, so he could be more exposed to life’s infinite variety. Last Yom Kippur, Noam came to Philly for the first time, and he liked it so much, he returned this Shavuot. Noam emailed me, “I’m actually in Philly again for the weekend, avoiding another Jewish three-day holiday.” Huge family gatherings had become insufferable to the 25-year-old apostate.
From his Airbnb room in Fishtown, Noam walked four miles to the Friendly Lounge to meet me. Along the way, he stopped in Old Philadelphia for a Yuengling or two. “It’s a great old-school bar,” I texted him. One by one, they’re being destroyed. To many people’s dismay, Jack’s Famous Bar, with its 400 brown, dusty bottles of liquor from the 1930’s, has been shuttered by the building’s new Asian owner. It was owned by a bookish Jew who would sit at the back, leaning over a novel. Mel charged but $4 for a cheesesteak. I had planned on stopping by to say hello.
In two years, Noam has made great progress in shedding his Hasidism. He has a job as a driver for a car leasing company and is enrolled in college. “My psychology teacher is this pretty hot Asian woman who dresses like a porn star.” He has read Kafka, Singer, Erik Erikson and Kerouac, among others. His wardrobe of thriftstore clothes has become increasingly casual and colorful. He keeps his beard trimmed and has even shaved his head.
Noam sees me as a sympathetic, advice-dispensing uncle, so I try my best to fulfill this role. Noticing plenty of crusty, pustulent, maroon and chalky scales on his arms and scalp, I cringed, “What the fuck, man! You’ve got to do something about this.”
“It’s the stress. I’ve had it since I was twelve.”
“You’re not going to get laid, looking like this.”
We had been talking a lot about women, just like the last time. Noam informed me that a love interest, Rachel, had gotten married, so he’s now focused on a Taiwanese-Australian with a “temporary boyfriend.”
“I feel so behind,” Noam said in the darkened Friendly. “Growing up, I was told to stay away from all women, as if they were a great source of danger, and even at home, I was not supposed to touch my sister. Ever!”
“That’s pretty extreme!”
“When I was 12, I had my first spermache.”
“A spermache. I had my first ejaculation. I was in sitting in class and feeling extremely claustrophobic. I had never felt so trapped, I just wanted to get out of there, but I couldn’t, then suddenly, it happened, and I felt so relieved, but also fearful and confused. I had no idea what had just happened.”
On television, Jorge Alfaro had just reached on an infield single, plating somebody. Led Zeppelin blared from the juked box.
“All through my teens,” Noam continued, “I felt so much guilt because I was attracted to my male classmates. I just wanted to touch them.”
“You thought you were gay?”
“No, it wasn’t that. Just the sexuality. I didn’t understand why I felt such a strong need to touch.”
“And you didn’t feel this towards girls?”
“There were no girls! I was never around any girl!” Noam leaned back, lit another cigarette then huffed out a disgusted smile. “Recently, I was on a commuter train, and surrounded by all these gorgeous women. They were showing legs and cleavages, so I had an erection, you know. It was so obvious, I thought I might get arrested. Suddenly, this huge black guy came in and sat down. He was manspreading. For some reason, I came right then. I was practically convulsing. I thought surely, everyone knew, but nothing happened.” Noam laughed.
“Man, you must solve this soon, get it out of the way, so you can think straight!” I did add, “But sex, though, isn’t just the act. It’s the totality of being with someone. One step at a time, man. You can be with a girl, and get used to each other, then if it happens, it happens.”
“It almost happened.”
“What did you do?”
“I went to a massage parlor on the Lower East Side.”
“A Chinese place?”
“Yeah, and she touched my penis, gave me a hand job. She was about 32, and good looking too. That was the very first time anyone touched my penis, and I’m not counting myself, of course. That was my very first sexual experience! It cost me $80.”
“You overpaid, but so what! At least you got that out of the way. So did you go back?”
“Yes, I did, three times, but they never let me back in.”
“That’s fucked up. They must have thought you were a cop, man.”
“I think so. I tried another place, but they gave me a guy!”
“That’s funny as shit!”
“I wasn’t going to pay good money to have some guy knead my back, so I insisted on a woman.”
“So did they give you one?”
“Yeah, a 65-year-old!”
“Some of them can look OK,” I smiled.
“This one was super ugly. She shoved a hand in between my butt cheeks, but I felt nothing.”
“What a nightmare.”
“It was. Another time, I had a date with a black girl, and she let me touch her thigh. She was very aggressive. Finally, she said, ‘I want you to come home with me,’ but I couldn’t.”
“I was filled with fear.”
“That’s understandable. Hey, are you familiar with the shower scene from the movie, Carrie? It’s very famous.”
“Not at all.”
“It’s this girl with a very religious mother, and she’s in the school shower, after gym class, and she has her first period ever, so she freaks out, because she doesn’t know what’s happening. Screaming, she runs to her classmates for help, but they just laugh at her and humiliate her. Why don’t you pull it up on YouTube.”
As we watched all these supposedly teens with 70’s haircuts pelt a cowering and naked Sissy Spacek with tampons, Noam sighed, “That’s me, man.”
Through Noam, I found out about incel, an internet community of involuntary celibates. Unable to get laid, they rage against women, as well as the men who can bed them. In today’s sexual economy, the beefcakes, “chads,” don’t just snag all the babes, “stacys,” but shag all the plain ones, “beckys,” as well, leaving no nookies for the weak-chinned, pencil-necked, stoop-shouldered, muscle-free or just plain socially-awkward dudes.
Before allegedly killing 10 people with a rented van in Toronto this year, 25-year-old Alek Minassian declared on FaceBook, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” In 2014, a similarly sexually-frustrated Rodger murdered six people, before killing himself.
Much has already been written about the incels, but most commenters have only focused on their worst, most hateful aspects, without much sympathy for their sexual starvation. While no man can demand access to a woman’s body, it’s also true that access to sex, love and acceptance is becoming increasingly hard to come by for more Americans. A recent NBC headline, “Americans are lonelier than ever—but ‘Gen Z’ may be the loneliest,” so the trend is towards more social isolation. Confirming this withdrawal and defeat are spreading addictions to porn, video games and opioids.
In this winners take all culture, there’s a widening sex gap between the haves and have nots. While some are sexual Walmarts, many more must lick whatever scraps flutter their ways. Those who can’t get any are still titillated nonstop, for this is the land of the endless comeons. Masturbating, they can consume sex as spectacles.
On June 1st in Las Vegas, at least a thousand people are expected to participate in the world’s biggest orgy ever. Couples must pay $200, and it’s $25 for single women. Since no single men are allowed, the incels can stay home and seethe. The current record is 500 people, established in Tokyo in 2006. Japan, too, has a mushrooming population of sexless miserables.
Pushing cockteases as much as bombs, we must expect eruptions.
Postcards from the End of [the] America[n Empire]
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
As published at OpEd News and Smirking Chimp, 5/22/18:
Monday, May 21, 2018
[photo taken in Vung Tau, Vietnam by Hai-Dang Phan, 2017]
From 1998 to 2010, Vietnamese American author Linh Dinh released six books of poetry, one translation, two collections of short stories, and a novel. It was a prolific twelve year span for the author, who has continued to type like a madman with an endless gallon of black coffee running through his bloodstream. His work is energized, debauched, hysterical, lonely, perverse, lovesick, critical, and adventurous. Whimsical and wild, without a filter, he keeps his chaos brief, blending prose poetry with microfiction.
With that being said, just last year, Linh Dinh released two of his largest bodies of work: the nonfiction journalistic Postcards from the End of America and the poetic and cultural A Mere Rica. Focusing on documenting and providing insight into the down and out underbelly of America, Linh Dinh's two most recent books almost act as U.S. closure for the author, who is currently in the process of moving back to Vietnam. As an intermission during the move, Linh Dinh stopped in Japan for a writing assignment where he answered some of my questions during his down time. He discussed his writing discipline, his views on higher education, and the best place to die.
As I just mentioned, in twelve years, you wrote nine books, translated another, and edited another. What was your daily writing regimen like during that time?
Observing, listening and reflecting are also parts of writing, so in that sense, I was writing all the time, but I had to work hard at those three activities, and I’m still practicing, daily. Like nearly everybody, I hardly know how to see and hear, much less think. I miss so much. As for the actual writing, I wasted a lot of time banging on a typewriter, since I didn’t know how to type, but the arrival of the computer saved my ass. To write, one should read very carefully, that’s all. See all the different ways Hemingway or Annie Proulx build a sentence, for example. Teachers and writing workshops aren’t just useless, for the most part, but likely harmful, for you’re prone to be learning from not just a failed writer but someone who’s hustling for a deeply corrupt and intellectually crippling institution, an American university. On top of that, you’ll receive idiotic inputs from your fellow students. Although people can learn directly from Celine, Paul Bowles and Whitman, etc., at minimal cost, many are still willing to go into suicidal debt to receive instructions from a cast of dishonest incompetents, and they do this because they’re much more interested in networking than writing.
How has your writing discipline / routine changed over the years?
Nine years ago, I made a conscious decision to spend less time inside my room, and more time on the streets. I also realized, once and for all, that I would rather hang out with anybody but writers or intellectuals. Even historical writers I deeply admire, I wouldn’t want to meet, for they’re already at their best in their writing. That said, I do have writer friends, just as I know people who are cooks, waiters, mechanics or domestic servants. In any case, since I couldn’t even finish college, I knew early on that I was no academic, but then universities started to invite me to teach, which forced me to interact with other professors, something I was not at all comfortable with, and this distaste is clearly mutual, for I haven’t had a teaching gig in a while. The last one was in Leipzig, which of course I welcomed, for it allowed me to stay five months in Germany. I’ve spent over 3 years in Europe, an exposure which has been so instructive in so many ways.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a collection of writing about foreign places, and I’ve covered 16 countries so far, with Germany, France, Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia discussed in more than one essay. It’s basically Postcards from the End of the American Empire. I hope to do a lot more traveling for this book. I just finished a 2,900 word piece about Japan, after a too-brief visit, but I’ll return this October for the launch of the Japanese edition of my Postcards from the End of America. I will stay longer this next time. Last year in Toluca, Mexico, I met a young poet who said his ideal life would be one of constant moving, from hotel room to hotel room. Although already quite worn out at 54, I can understand the sentiment.
This fall, Chax Press will put out my collected poetry. Going through all of my poems, I revised a bunch and deleted some that should never have been published. This book, then, will present all the poems I’m willing to stand behind. Once it’s out, I can start on my posthumous collection. I certainly feel dead enough, especially today.
You're moving back to Vietnam, yes? Will this be your first time living there long term since your youth?
No, I spent 2 ½ years in Saigon from 1999 to 2001. Unlike nearly all of the Vietnamese-American writers, I speak the language well, and have even published quite a bit in Vietnamese. I also know many Vietnamese writers. Later today, I will down a few beers with poets Bui Chat and Ly Doi, for example. Some of my closest friends are here.
If it isn't too personal, what's the reason for moving back?
Money. At 54, I have nothing, no house, car or even job. By moving back to Vietnam, my wife can work for her sister, who’s a very successful businesswoman, and I can continue to write for PayPal donations. Ron Unz, for whom I write a column, also sends me a few thousand bucks a year. By writing so passionately about the US, I’ve been disowned by it, in effect. As my writing and thinking improve, the university reading gigs and book reviews disappear. Describing the down and nearly out, I’m also dispossessed, which is fine, actually, for it means I’m not a brown nose. In the US, nearly all self-identified rebels only rebel in prescribed and heavily manipulated ways, which makes them pawns of the very people they think they’re rebelling against. History will retch in disgust at the cowardly collusion of our “intellectuals.”
I was in Vietnam for three weeks last August/September and my favorite city (as well as my girlfriend's) was Ninh Binh, so when I started reading your work, I kept thinking of that city. Do you have a favorite place in Vietnam?
No, because I appreciate so many places everywhere. In fact, I’ve never disliked any place I’ve visited. In Vietnam, I’ve experienced many cities, towns and villages. I’ve slept in a wooden box and a grass hut with no toilet. I’ve eaten everything, much of it delicious but some truly awful, but if it was good enough for whomever I was with, then it was more than adequate for me. If I could choose a place to live, maybe it’s Vung Tau, a once popular seaside resort now turning sleepy, though convenient to Saigon via a fast passenger boat. My close friend, poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh, has relocated there.
I used to think I’d like to die in Hanoi, perhaps immediately, because that city had so much depth and resonance, but its oldest section is now a crass playground for tourists, and many other parts have been leveled to make way for highrise condos or office buildings. It would be most appropriate, I now think, to be killed in a place one has no business being at, and not as any sort of invader, but just a lost fool.
Along with your writing, you are also an editor and translator. Are these disciplines you're still pursuing?
Editing and translating helped me to develop as a writer, since it forced me to read very carefully many writers. Translating, I also had to ape many authors’ individual technique and syntax, thus allowing me to enlarge my repertoire when it came to my own writing. I’ve stopped editing and translating, however, for I can only do so much. Moreover, photography has become my secondary activity. Trained as a painter, I need my visual art fix. Yanking me onto the streets, photography hasn’t just conditioned me to see much better, but become more social. These enhanced skills have benefited my writing greatly.
While they contain many other elements, your poems and stories are often debauched, full of humor, and a bit on the wild side. Do you feel like these characters reflect your personality?
Language is used mostly to disguise and mislead, with whatever of any importance hardly ever addressed, much less probed. Although failing abjectly, of course, I’ve tried to give shape to these unmentionables. In Tokyo last month, I suggested after a reading that the first poem hasn’t been written, that “poets” are merely preparing the groundwork for a distant poetry, which of necessity must be unspeakably devastating. “We’re in the prehistory of poetry,” I said. “We’re cavemen.”
Dishonest, inept and cowardly, we echo other people’s lies, proudly produce more of our own, then preposterously call ourselves poets and writers. As for being “debauched, full of humor, and a bit on the wild side,” I’ve learnt a bit from the Rabelaisian strain of French literature. Kafka and Borges’ senses of humor have also been inspiring. As for how I’m in real life, I’m mostly a bore, honestly, and when trashed, I can be quite garrulous and maudlin, too. Knowing my flaws, I try to just shut up, observe and listen.
Some of your pieces are prose poems, while others form shapes, and others are traditionally lined. How do you approach a blank page?
As far as poetry, I’m fairly straightforward, actually. Nearly always, I indent left and capitalize the first letter of each line. If you get too cute with the layout, you can distract the reader from your poem’s best moments. In writing a prose poem, I remove enjambments as an option because I see them as distracting from what I’m trying to highlight, the juxtapositions of images and leaps between sentences.
Outside of your own work, who/what have you been reading recently?
Since I was thinking about Japan, I read Morris Berman’s book on the subject, Neurotic Beauty, then I read about Japan and China in David S. Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. Thinking about war after a visit to Nghe An, a much bombed province during the Vietnam War, I read Norman Lewis’ Naples ’44. It’s so insightful, humane and beautifully written, I felt ashamed to call myself a writer. It’s crucial to be reminded, often, of one’s ignorance and clumsiness. As a young writer, I was embarrassed at my lack of life experience, so I saw the accumulation of that as a first order of business, but now beginner writers are demanding safe spaces and fleeing to writers’ retreats, which I find ridiculous. Born a coward, you must remedy this by walking onto every mental mine field possible.
For this ongoing author interview series, I'm asking for everyone to present a writing prompt. It can be one that you craft out of thin air, it can be one you created a while ago, or it can be one you adore from an outside source that was passed down to you.
Go where you don’t belong, observe and, if possible, talk to people you’re not supposed to talk to. If the richness of life isn’t enough to jolt you into writing, then you’re not a writer.
Do you have any advice for writers/poets working on their craft?
Use what you learn from even the most unpleasant labor to inform your writing. Money is time, and since you need as much time as possible to observe, think and write, you must cut out all unnecessary expenses. Since it’s hard enough to just live, much less live and write, you must be willing to sacrifice many creature comforts, and even emotional ones, in the pursuit of a craft that may, in the end, yield no success whatsoever. Be confident that as you gain life and writing experiences, your thinking and writing will improve continually, and this ability to think better should be rewarding enough in itself. Since you’re the most readily observable specimen, to yourself, dissect your sorry ass most mercilessly. Your moral failures will taint and stink up your writing, and life too, of course, so don’t be an asshole. Strive to see everything from everyone else’s perspective. Don’t get addicted to any electronic drug, especially canned noise, for it will prevent you from hearing your deepest and most articulate thoughts. Consider yourself a mere tool to appreciate and love, if only optically, such is our misery, everyone and everything else.
Any final thoughts / words of wisdom?
Always listen attentively and read slowly.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
June 1 @ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
Asian Arts Initiative
1219 Vine Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Linh Dinh will read and show photos from his recent essays on Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. Though Americanized to various degrees, these societies are radically different from the US, and will be more resilient in the long run, he argues. Linh Dinh is the author of Postcards from the End of America, plus nine other books.
Friday, May 18, 2018
Monday, May 14, 2018
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.