I got admitted to grad school in the English Dept despite having essentially no undergrad English classes. To compensate, in addition to the regular Grad classes, I was supposed to take a bunch of undergraduate English to make up the deficit. I did take a few of those classes, but then I got bored and decided to leave more of the units for later in the program. Eventually, they got waived — I think because they wanted me to finish and I was taking forever.
I wrote this essay for one of my undergrad grad classes in 2002. The task was to read a series of articles and compare and contrast two of them. If you’re patient or interested enough to read to the end, it’s still relevant today. Perhaps more than ever, actually.
October 7, 2002
My reading journeys take me down diverse paths. Without question, my world expands with every corner turned. Should I find myself at a literary crossroad, I go where I like, secure in the knowledge that I’ve got the road not taken tucked under my arm. I fondly recall Yama, the Pit which I bought because of the cover, a claw-like grasping red hand on a black background. (It proved to be about life in a Russian brothel.) The Man Who Lived Backward, alas, was not so fruitful as the brothel. The Once and Future King succeeds with the life-in-reverse theme as splendidly as the other fails. I followed a Japanese path for some time and discovered a world where small is immensely large. The Popul Vuh introduced me to an underworld of bats and blood and words that transform the English X into a soft and mysterious shh. “Xibalba” still makes the back of my neck shiver.
So, naturally, when presented with the opportunity to read any two essays from a selection grouped by theme, I did what I do in a used book store. I selected the theme I felt I knew least about. In this case, Race and Ethnicity. What, I thought, would a woman of such pale coloration as myself know about issues of race and ethnicity? After all, many would argue that I have neither.
In doing the reading, I met an old friend, Junichero Tanizaki, and found myself once again floating on images of exquisite shape and infinite depth. I admit to broad holes in my literary portfolio, and Carlos Fuentes is one of them. I’m glad to at last make acquaintance with him. Where Tanizaki is all delicacy and shading, Fuentes feels robust and vigorous, even when he’s confessing to youthful uncertainty. And yet, having read these two essays and adored and admired the words and meaning and presentation, I find myself face-to-face with an irony so profound I hardly have the words to express it. Which sparks another confession; I’ve read ahead and now wonder if I’ve cracked like poor F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Tanizaki bemoans in phrases of exquisite shape the loss of what is Japanese. Fuentes grapples with his discovery of what it means to be Mexican. These two brilliant essays, crafted by men of genius, let others see with Japanese eyes or feel with a Mexican spirit. They rail against the West and how its whiteness subverts their native souls. It’s hard not to feel the white man’s guilt since both essays put voice to the voracious destroyer that is Western culture. And yet. Neither writer seems the least aware they share a gobbling hunger of their own.
If Tanizaki has correctly captured the Japanese spirit, then Japan is a country without women, for in this essay, women are, quite literally, disembodied objects to be admired in shadow and light and made love to in the dark. He never wonders whether the woman with black-painted teeth chafes in her box of shadowed sex or whether she might want to make love in the light. Fuentes hardly fares better. Gladys from Guadalajuara is a whore who exists without face or identity and even then only while he has a yen for orgasm. In the anti-climax, Gladys ceases to exist. What happens to her Mexican spirit when the razor cut festers?
With every sentence and word, women were the whiteness of this page, unseen and invisible no matter how loudly we shout, “Here I am!”