BootsnAll Travel Network

Writing, Language, Ralph Fiennes

This email from Alberto Greenberg, who gave me permission to put it in the blog: “I WROTE MANY SHORT STORIES IN MY LIFE. AND ONE OR TWO LONGER ONES. I WROTE IN SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE. I WAS FILLING MANY NOTEBOOKS WITH THEM. BUT NEVER PUBLISHED. I FEEL HAPPY WHEN I WRITE AND THEN READ IT AGAIN. IT ALL MAKES SENSE. DIFFERENT FROM LIFE ITSELF!!!” We feel happy when we write and then read it again. I love that. It’s a little like gazing at our reflection, but it’s also about what Kripalu’s displaced guru once said: “The most important book you will ever read is the story of your own life.” Big emphasis in Asian cultures on “knowing yourself.” What’s written down, fictional though it may be, since each of us sees everything through individual lenses, is a little less ephemeral. The patterns are a bit clearer (even if distorted) when they’re on the paper, and it’s a chance, as Alberto says, to see sense in it. Different from life itself. M’e Mpho Nthunya once said of her book, “It’s my way to hold my whole life in my two hands.” I’ve been enjoying emails with Alberto, reading his blog, and (completely unrelated) watching Ralph Fiennes films.

I met Alberto at Green Gulch Farm when I was doing my “tryout” period last summer, hefting great vats of soapy water from the floor to the waist-high counter where we washed thousands of dishes. Alberto was my supervisor when I was sent to make beds, clean toilets, and sweep the guest house. He had been at Green Gulch for a few months at that time, and he knew the system down to the details of which way the blankets should be folded and whether the pillow case should be tucked in facing the door or the wall. We also often met in the computer room after hours, where we were keeping our respective blogs up to date. I think he’s on his third or fourth blog now. Like many of the people I admire, Alberto rejects other people’s expectations and actively tries to find a way to make a living, support his writing habit, make sense of the world, be responsible to his values, and have a good time. 

Alberto’s dilemma, as he expresses it to me, is similar to the dilemma Africans from Anglophone African countries experience, the whole subject of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind. If you write in your mother tongue, you won’t reach the readership (or have the publication options) available to people who write in English. But if you write in English, you may commit violence to your own experience of life shaped by a language with a different system of seeing and naming.  Malidoma Some also talks about this wonderfully in Of Water and the Spirit. You may also end up sounding incompetent, since English is not a comfortable language to your brain and body. Language is embedded in a matrix of ways to understand and interpret experience. (Some language has thirty-two words for snow.) However Alberto’s problem is not nearly so extreme as the problem of someone who experiences life in a Kikuyu context (as Ngugi does). There are millions and millions of Spanish-speaking people who read, write, and publish. So I’ve been saying: write in your mother tongue, Alberto; after you do that, you can consider translating what you’ve written into English, or maybe you can find a translator. “Easy for you to say,” he answers, “you who dream and speak in the dominant language.” Yeah, easy for me to say, not only speaking in the dominant language but having lived long enough to qualify for Social Security. I still say it, though. I hope he starts over and writes his memoir in Spanish.

Thanks to Rachel for reminding me of Chrystos, who I used to read and appreciate but hadn’t thought about for a few years. I’m glad she’s still writing and talking.

I’ve also been having my own private Ralph Fiennes festival, and I’m just overcome by his acting. I’ve seen his big-dollar films over the last ten years or so, of course. I’m sure everybody has. But while I was driving across the USA with a head-cold from hell, I caught in a motel in Medford, Oregon a made-for-cable TV movie called Bernard and Doris, about the millionaire Doris Duke, who left much of her fortune to her eccentric alcoholic butler. Fiennes did a richly-nuanced butler, so when I got to Portland I set about looking at his less-common films. Two I’ve seen in the last week are terrific. They are Sunshine and Oscar and Lucinda.

In Sunshine Fiennes plays a man, his son, and his grandson in a sprawling Jewish family epic that straddles the Holocaust. The film is the concept of Istvan Szabo, whose anthem for it, “Please God, Let Us Go On Singing” is not a sentiment I’ve heard voiced by actual survivors of the Holocaust, though it certainly moves me. But Fiennes does a remarkable job of creating distinctions through voice, posture, and –what is most amazing– a look of innocence that is present in each man in his youth and fades completely as he ages. Fiennes has a face that expresses what he thinks: what each of us who acts hopes for.  Then in Oscar and Lucinda Fiennes plays a man who is a wreck, really: a neurotic, phobia-ridden, brilliant, almost-autistic and utterly lovable mess.  What he does with his fingers, his hair, the tilt of his head, and his voice is absolutely riveting. See these, if you haven’t yet seen them and if you care about good acting. That’s my suggestion.

I couldn’t stop myself from reading the Wikipedia entry on him (although I used to forbid my students using that unreliable source), from which I learned (a) his mother was a writer (I’d like to read her last book) who home-schooled eight remarkable children before dying at 55 and (b) Fiennes has at least once lived out the fantasy of having sex in an airplane toilet. Thank God for the internet.

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