Posts tagged Kristina Marie Darling
The Hermeneutic Problem

Nearly two weeks ago, I began to write here about my PhD exams problematic: liminality and narrativity. Today, wandering through a number of texts from my historical list, I realize just how far I’ve come since that spring day of my first year when Lance first suggested "liminality" as my possible problematic / topic / theme / subject / object of investigation. Looking back, I can articulate (I couldn’t have, then) that I did, in fact, identify as a cross-genre or hybrid forms writer. Today, I do not. Today, I say: it doesn't get much more traditional than the shit I do. Long, narrative poems featuring characters in dramatic situations? Real original. So yeah, let's throw out our trifling attempts to create neat taxonomies like "cross-genre" or "hybrid forms." Tell me where the borders are between fiction, poetry, nonfiction. Show me. Can't? Because genres aren't divisible. Neither are they definable or defensible. To “cross,” then, from one genre into another is absurd. Any “lines” drawn are imaginary, constructions that have evolved over time for at least a few somewhat logical, efficiency-focused reasons, which I acknowledge: to categorize, shelve, and sell books in stores; to organize in public and private libraries; to discuss and refer to more easily in conversations (for the vast majority of readers).

Categories, of course, undeniably help us make sense of the world as we experience and share our experiences of it. Nonetheless, whether or not they are functional, categories are dangerous. Categories enclose and limit far more than they set free, open, or create space.

Imagine: unexplored, uncharted spaces for unspecified, unknown possibilities.

Limitless.

Liminality.

Liminalities.

I see no difference, either, between “cross-genre” or “hybrid forms.” Each operates on the principle that generic forms are stable entities and can thus be split apart or transgressed (crossed) and blended together (hybridized).

Writing, I would much rather believe, is fluid.

I haven't always held this belief, these thoughts, which are admittedly subject to further change over time (which is the point, right?). A year ago, at the Best American Poetry blog, I spoke with Kristina Marie Darling about a number of things. Chief among them was the idea of genre: "I've only just begun to wonder," I wrote then, "about the broad-spectrum potential of what more play in literature might mean, what might come of more widespread generic boundary crossing, because if we can learn to be more willing to allow these shapes and forms to shift and mutate then perhaps we'll be less rigid in other areas of our lives, too." I'm not sure what to think of that now. I seemed to be taking for granted that there were boundaries to be crossed. And, perhaps, as a baby step toward my views now, I said they were invisible. Whether they are or aren't, though, isn't the point. Or the question.

To think of fluids is to think of liquids and gases and solids, and to recall that there is no single, magic moment of transformation from liquid into — poof! — gas. Or from gas into  — bam! — solid. Or from solid into — splash! — liquid. The measurable and immeasurable, physical and metaphysical, theoretical and hypothetical spaces of possibility in which these properties change are zones of liminality. Our willingness to enhance our perceptions, to recognize zones of liminality — possibility spaces — when we see them and to go out of our way to actually look for them, is directly related to our human / humane ability to think, speak, and write. In other words: create narratives.

Liminality and narrativity.

Problematic?

Indeed.

*

That spring day of my first year, in our dungeon of a café in the basement of the Marriott Library, when Lance first said “liminality” to me, I honestly didn’t have a clue. But I trusted him and went with it. In my very early research (e.g. Wikipedia), the name Victor Turner came up, and his influence and presence has remained constant in just about every scholarly article I’ve read about liminality — whether in anthropology, sociology, or psychology journals; in political and geo-political writings; or in (at the time, very few) critical lit papers.

During the summer, heading into my second year of coursework, and well into fall semester 2014, Lance oversaw multiple drafts of my living document titled “Liminality and Narrativity.” Attempting to at least propose whatever it was I thought those words might mean, I was mostly overwhelmed and confused. I just didn’t get it. But I kept revising until finally Lance approved a draft (40-some emails by this point) that I could present to my potential committee members — not one of whom actually read said document. Instead, they asked me to explain “liminality and narrativity” face to face. Fair enough, right? Good thing I had all those drafts behind me so I could mumble a few key words and names and otherwise plead, I just want to spend the next year thinking about this stuff. Will you help me?

Once my potential committee members agreed and became my official committee members — Lance (chair), Melanie Rae Thon (creative writing), Scott Black (history), Kathryn Stockton (theory), and Eric Handman (outside the English department) — I began drafting my historical, contemporary, and theoretical exams lists (40 texts per list, 120 texts total). For most of spring term 2015, Lance oversaw somewhere around ten-thousand drafts of my lists, and once these were approved by all committee members in an official “list meeting,” I was set free to begin reading. They all looked at me with such hope in their eyes, such excitement: What an amazing year of exploration this will be! How thrilling for you!

I still didn’t have a clue what liminality meant.

At least, that’s what I thought. I realize now that I had at least a working definition (thanks Lance!) around which I’d even attempted to write a few papers for the very last courses I would ever take as a graduate student (thanks Andy Franta especially, for suffering through my paper on liminality in “The Eve of St. Agnes”!).

But working definition and blind stabs in the dark aside, the truth is I still didn’t know what liminality meant to me.

*

Two weeks ago, when I sat down to start figuring it out, I went back to the first text on my historical list: The Odyssey. I was worried. Scared. Terrified. Almost to the point of temporary paralysis before my computer screen. What could I possibly say about The Odyssey that hadn’t been said a hundred times before? This was the first text on my historical list, my point of entry into an entire yearlong study of canonical Western texts of my own choosing. As such, The Odyssey bore a heavy burden. What, I demanded of it, did it set into motion for me as a reader, a thinker, a writer, a teacher?

I began typing and eventually what emerged was a strong gut feeling that the first character from the Western canon who matters most to me should be Hermes. I concluded that Hermes’s presence / non-presence challenges the very first line of The Odyssey. That he is disembodied is perfect. Unlocatable, he’s not fixed in time, place, or text. He is present, however, as the patron of travelers — patron of Homer, that traveling bard who in the first line appeals to the muses, and patron of Odysseus, that famous traveler / wanderer / adventurer, about whom Homer sings.

Even as my word and page counts multiplied, I was entirely self-conscious about the idea of Hermes — a mythological character — emerging as my primary point of focus. But I pushed away my doubts and made my way toward some kind of argument about how epics, our earliest tales, begin in medias res. Odysseus’s story in The Odyssey begins when Hermes is sent by Zeus to tell Kalypso to free him. After years of imprisonment and immobility, Odysseus is allowed to go home.

Without Hermes, Odysseus would stay stuck.

Without Hermes, wouldn't we all?

*

Today, I found an essay online that reassures me for now at least that I haven't completely lost my mind. In “The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics,” Richard E. Palmer reminds us of Heidegger, who tells us:

the Greek words for interpreting and interpretation — hermeneuin, hermeneia — can be traced back to the god Hermes. However questionable the etymological connection between Hermes and hermeneuein may be, hermeneutics, as the art of understanding and of textual exegesis, does stand under the sign of Hermes.

From Hermes, then, hermeneutics. "Hermeneutics," Palmer reminds us, "is the discipline concerned with deciphering utterances from other times, places, and languages without imposing one's own categories on them (the hermeneutic problem)." From Hermes, the art of understanding. From Hermes, the art of textual exegesis. The art of interpretation, explanation, exposition, explication. Which is to say: what we English majors nerd out over. Palmer continues: 

"Liminality" is a term given currency in twentieth century anthropology by Victor Turner [...]. During the liminal stage, the between stage, one's status becomes ambiguous; one is "neither here nor there," one is "betwixt and between all fixed points of classification," and thus the form and rules of both his earlier state and his state-to-come are suspended. For the moment, one is an outsider; one is on the margins, in an indeterminate state. Turner is fascinated by this marginality, this zone of indeterminacy. He argues that it is from the standpoint of this marginal zone that the great artists, writers, and social critics have been able to look past the social forms in order to see society from the outside and to bring in a message from beyond it.

Palmer goes on to discuss the significance, for Heidegger, of messages brought by Hermes from the gods to humans: "This primordial listening is hermeneutical in yet another sense: it is a listening to texts. The 'message' one must interpret is really the doctrines and thinking of one's forbears as embodied in great texts. To exist hermeneutically as a human being is to exist intertextually. It is to participate in the endless chain of interpretation that makes up the history of apprehending being." 

He closes with this lovely summation: 

Hermes is the god who presides over all transactions held at borders. Thus he is the god of translation and of all transactions between realms. And it would seem to be the essence of hermeneutics to be liminal, to mediate between realms of being, whether between god and human beings, wakefulness and sleep, the conscious and unconscious, life and afterlife, visible and invisible, day and night. The dimensions of the mythic god Hermes suggest a central element in the meaning of hermeneutics: that it is a mediation-between worlds. And in the strongest instances, Hermes' message is "world-shaking": it brings, as Heidegger says, "a transformation of thinking."

A transformation of thinking. 

Yes. 

Exactly. 

*

I feel the need to clarify that I'm not lighting incense and standing at a crossroads praying to the god of transformations. What this investigation into Hermes really gets at, for me, is a starting point for all that he represents. His presence in The Odyssey is perfect. If The Odyssey is Odysseus's story, then it really doesn't start without Hermes. It is Hermes who sets the Western canon into motion. At least, that's one way to read him. And one way to read The Odyssey. That I must identify "ways of reading" at all is, funny enough, the hermeneutic problem borne from Hermes himself. He is at the beginning of everything, and because he's in the middle of everything he reminds us that we are always in the middle of things, even at the beginning of things. We are always in medias res. We are always located in the liminal. And in this space, the past is behind us and the future lies ahead. Let us never fail to pause then at the threshold, and let us never forget that from within this possibility space — for better or worse — we are capable of great transformation. 

Liminality, Identity, and Gratitude

Kristina Marie Darling, one of the hardest working women I know, has invited me to participate in what I'm sure will turn out to be an enlightening conversation. If not for anyone else, then at least for me. Today, in our first exchange, I shared something that feels both too-revealing to share and at the same time exhilarating, simply because I have always maintained that my private life is my own. So, I imagine, unless you know me in real life, you probably have no idea if I'm married, single, or dating. I have been especially withholding in that most public private space, Facebook, where I have never revealed even the slightest glimpse into my romantic life. And while I don't intend to start now, I do want to speak up, finally, about my strong personal belief in the freedom and power of sexual fluidity, and my own resistance to being categorized as some troubling label that can't possibly represent who I am and why I love and have loved the people with whom I've shared and given so much of myself.

A small group of local writers I know gather regularly for Queer Family Dinners, and I am honored to be invited to share these meals. Sometimes I feel like a beige and boring J. Crew ad in the midst of more exciting personalities exhibiting exquisitely individualized styles. But never once have I felt anything with them but safe, comfortable, heard, appreciated, understood, cared for, trusted, respected, loved. This is my family away from family, the family I see every day. These are the people who can actually get me out of my house for social interaction. And today it feels necessary to publicly honor them. And my own place within our circle. 

It has been a long day, actually, of so many questions and answers. In addition to the exchange I had with Kristina, I also returned a completed interview to an MFA student at LSU, who will be presenting in class on a number of topics, including craft and process concerns, publishing fears, cross-genre writing, and Asian American women writers. I was uncomfortable, to be perfectly honest, answering the question about my Asian-ness, because I have no idea what it means to be Asian. Adopted from Korea at the age of two, I am unable to identify as either Korean or as a properly assimilated American. I am in-between. Just as my writing is in-between. 

Coincidentally, my first attempt at answering that question about my Asian-ness actually prepared me for another set of questions that came along later in the day for a different audience. Here, I began to fall apart. I deferred to other writers of color. I let their words speak for me. I needed their words to open the door for me to even be able to think about responding with stories of my own experiences. But why? Are my experiences not worthy of being shared? And why have I felt, for so long, that to have any experience at all is fraudulent, if only because I feel no allegiance to any sort of racial identity? 

One interview answer I'll share a small excerpt from is in response to Claudia Rankine's CitizenThe book opens with a classroom scene that brought up long-buried memories for me about my own invisibility, which was never more obvious to me than on the first day of every school year: 

During roll call, I hear my name and raise my hand. The teacher says my name again and doesn’t see my raised hand. She continues scanning the room for Molly Gaudry. When the teacher does finally see my hand in the air, because there are no others, she is annoyed that it is there. I must not speak English. Yes? What do you need? My hand goes down. 

I have never liked talking about race. I realize now that it's quite reasonable to assume that nobody likes talking about it. But it is necessary. And we all have important contributions to make. Mine, oddly enough, is less about race than it is my own sense of racelessness. I feel nothing. I do not feel Korean. I do not feel my mother's Russian and Hungarian lineage. I do not feel the French Canadian roots of my last name. And actually, I don't know if it even is French Canadian. It's always been as good a guess as any. I certainly don't feel the Irish history behind Molly. Or the Chinese name my parents wrote in as my middle name, just in case I wanted a more Asian-sounding name when I grew up. Regarding my Korean name, I feel even less of a connection. The girl with that name was someone I have never known how to be. That girl died on the plane from Korea to America. 

Many years later, I would return to Korea, thinking I might dig up that girl, her family, her roots. I was lucky, in contrast to so many other adoptees hoping for the same, because I did reunite with my biological family. I met my paternal grandmother, many aunts and cousins, and I accepted the invitation to live for a while with my biological father and his wife and their two children. One night, after many shots of soju, that man said I was not the "virtuous girl" my birth name signified. He then renamed me, right then and there. The new name, which I have forgotten, means something like "woman from the sea." 

Identity is a slippery thing. I find myself, surprisingly and suddenly, at 33 years old, though, finally confronting my own reasons for having always turned away from these discussions and self-interrogations. Trapped in the liminally charged space of my own culturally liminal subjectivity, I am saddened to see it now for what it is. And I am saddened, too, that I have no desire to create even an imaginary homeland. I feel nothing. I feel no need to look back. I feel no need to look anywhere but into the faces and hearts of those I love most, and find myself there. 

What I want to say now is something I am very grateful to be able to say. I would not have come to any of these realizations if not for the three different sets of interview questions I received today. I would not have revealed here in this post what I, on principle, do not wish to ever share with others because it's none of anyone's business but my own. And I would not have made these connections if I weren't already neck-deep in critical essays on Liminality. I have resisted Liminality for months now, I have rejected the obvious implications of how it appears not just in my formal genre-blurring projects and hazy, magical realism-inspired landscapes, but also in my sexual and racial histories, too, and so many other aspects of my constantly shifting and sliding identities. 

It seems, though, that ultimately Liminality is it. I'm going to finish Problematic proposal once and for all, and when it's finally approved I'm going to start reading. The texts I read over these next few years will all, I hope, help me to further interrogate myself, my histories, my now. And maybe these findings will have a significant impact on my future. Not only in my real life, but also in the writing that might emerge. So much remains to be seen. But so much, today, has begun to be said. And I am grateful.