Braiding Identity and “A Short Essay on Being”

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, the braided essay is “broken into sections using medial white space, lines of white space on a page where there are no words (much like stanzas in poetry), and each time there is a section break, the writer moves from one ‘thread’ to another.”

I find this definition limiting, especially due to the fact that our primary reading from Stephen Church, and a new piece I’ve read, “A Short Essay on Being” by Jenny Boully, do not fit into this form. Both of these essays do not attempt to spatially remove themselves from other parts of the narrative on the page: rather, this happens in the prose. In Boully’s essay especially, the braiding happens not only in different paragraphs but also throughout sentences, due to the almost stream-of-consciousness pacing of the piece.

Like the narrator’s identity, this braided work is a hodge-podge of confusions and contemplations on identity, and is as complex as the abstract concept itself. This “Short Essay on Being” seems to tell us that being is not as simple as it sounds, especially when you are a minority in the United States where prying people try not only to coax you to reveal where you’re “from,” but also try to tell you about your identity after they’ve heard the answer they wanted.

The essay moves in between narratives of the own narrator’s understanding of her Thai identity, which is frequently compared to her knowledge of pot Thai. The piece starts off with the etymology of the English word, “pad,” and Boully spells out for us that: “A pad is something you can write in, as in sheets of paper bound together. It is also what you bleed on when you first start.” Her grad school friend corrects her pronunciation of “pot Thai” to “pad Thai,” and the Thai-raised narrator “thanked her for correcting me,” as is the Thai way.

We don’t learn until later in the essay that the reason the narrator pronounces pot Thai in this way is because for her, “The quick and sharp way that you say ‘fried’ in Thai is more like ‘pot’ when spoken quickly in English than ‘pad.’” Yet, as seen through various threads in the essay, friends and strangers are constantly trying to explain to her the right way the right way to be Thai, and the right way to pronounce her own culture’s food.

This piece is braided because it works with the complex and messy trappings of the narrator’s identity: one that is constantly fluctuating between what she knows about her identity and what others are telling her, juxtaposed between insider and outsider narratives, like the comparison of a Chicagoan Thai shop owner to the grad school friends that speak of Thai tourist traps as if they understand the culture. The essay moves between the foods and the flavors of her and her mother’s home cooking, to the syrupy, artificially-crafted food narratives of “Thai” restaurants in Brooklyn and the oft-feigned dietary needs of grad school friends. Like the narrator, the essay lives in many different worlds, but coexists formally in one experience.

“A Short Essay on Being” shows us how form can, truly, be an extension of content. The way that this experience is formalized in one piece, with multiple threads running into each other with varying levels of pacing, sentence structure, and mood, shows how we ought to not limit the ways that we envision a braided narrative. Like our lives, a multifaceted narrative on identity shouldn’t constrict itself to the limitations of “sections” and purposeful “white space.” In Boully’s essay, the squashing together of a dozen narratives about a narrator’s life, some of them her own and some of them from others, shows an identity crafted from the inside and outside. It gives us insight on the sublime nature of our complex and human identities, and just how blurry an “identity” can be.

Fact and Fiction in Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea”

“Children of the Sea” by Edwidge Danticat is a short story that I read last semester in Maria Lima’s 203, Reading Transnationally. It is a fictional piece about the experience of two teenage lovers who are separated during the violence of “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s despotic dictatorship in 1950s-70s Haiti—one has fled from Port-au-Prince to a small town, and the other is on a small boat headed to Florida. In this braided narrative based on exchanged letters, the balance between elements of fiction and nonfiction are what make this piece so striking. Danticat is Haitian, and she herself was not around during the regime, but her fiction is based on true historical events of this horrific time in Haitian history, making this piece a real blend of “fact” and fiction.

It’s quite apparent that this piece does a lot of work with “fact”, being that it is a historical piece based on the experiences of Haitians during this time. Having learned about the regime in a history class, with my limited knowledge I can confirm that state terror and rape as a means of control were tactics widely utilized in the twentieth-century military regimes of the Caribbean and Latin America. The story goes into the tactics of the “Tonton Macoutes”, or the police force that would terrorize citizens in order to maintain control, often by forcing family to rape each other as others watch. Although horrific, these are the realities of state violence. These jarring and vivid scenes are illustrated throughout the piece, such as when female narrator describes why her uncle sometimes sleeps at her house:

“they have this thing now that they do. if they come into a house and there is a son and mother there, they hold a gun to their heads. they make the son sleep with his mother. if it is a daughter and a father, they do the same thing. Some night papa sleeps at his brother’s, uncle pressoir’s house. uncle pressoir sleeps at our house, just in case they come. that way papa will never be forced to lay down in bed with me, uncle pressoir would be forced to, but that would not be so bad.”

Fictionally, I found that the braided narrative was one of the most striking aspects of this piece. The use of the braiding brings a very personal aspect to the fiction, showing characters in their true raw thoughts. The narratives of the two lovers are artfully executed in the way that they are each characterized so carefully, even when it comes to the style of the prose—the girl’s narrative lacks punctuation and capitalization, giving a sense that she is rushed and nervous. This makes sense because she is the one that has fled to a small town, still in Haiti and reeling from the recent rapes and murders of her neighbors. The boy’s narrative differs starkly—his is meditative and paced, which relates to the fact that he is writing these letters on a boat with no sense of time or direction, and he is eager to do anything to pass the time in limbo. As the male speaker comes closer and closer to the realization that the boat will sink and that everyone on it probably will die, his writing only increases in its concentration and somber pace, starkly contrasting the nervous writing of his lover who is so eager to know if he still alive.

Fact and Fiction in Nate Pritts’ Poetry

This analysis is based on the second poem from “Pattern Exhaustion” (on page 12 of Post Human, if you have the book handy.)

After attending the Nate Pritts reading and buying his book, I began to notice in his writing the mixed elements of reality and dream, something that Pritts interweaves together wonderfully in his honest and post-modern poetry. I know from his reading that his poems are based on his own thoughts and experiences, making them largely nonfiction—but of course in poetry, elements of fiction and the unreal seep in to make the real more poignant.

In this poem, I see four spaces—looking at photographs online, envisioning a camera flashing, and the street outside. The action of looking at the photos hints of nonfiction because it is a mundane, daily activity that one would do everyday. And since so much of Pritts’ poetry is about the intersection of humans with technology, and he often relies on scenes of him being on his phone or computer, I get the feeling of “fact.” I was struck by the usage of “high resolution American hush” to describe this action, and could feel, hear, and see the din of the LED screen—packed into this line are images of high advanced technology, the notion of a nation (a nation, like an image being on the screen, something that is intangible and living in the imaginary), stopped with the action of a hush, creating a sense of hiding and secrets.

Then the most fictional element comes in—the moment when the photograph from computer screen is taken; an action that took place in the past. Of course, this is a fictional creation because I doubt Nate was there to witness whoever was taking this photograph and knows the exact time and method in which it was taken. The action of taking the photo is described as so:

 

“seeing the dynamic

moments stopped                 the camera

 

singling out only one thing

that happened to keep forever”

 

What’s captivating about these four lines interspersed in two stanzas is how well the form is able to manifest the action. Of course, one is immediately drawn to the spacing between “stopped” and “the camera”, a pause that reminds me of the moment in which a camera shutter makes that satisfactory, half-second click before the photograph is recorded. In the second stanza, the juxtaposition between “singling” and “forever” is an immense one—the taking of the photo is at the same time single and local while also being a cosmic event, a small but extremely important blip in the universe when something was being created and recorded for all time.

 

The last line of this poem is one I’ll never forget:

 

“I forget how to be solid.”

 

This statement itself is a real emotion that I think will resonate with anyone who can relate to Pritts’ poems—the feeling of emptiness, of floating, of confusion in the modern internet-driven world. Yet it is also a statement of fiction in that it implies that the state of being solid is something that human thought can control; it relies on extraordinary metaphor and the contemplation of the metaphysical. Being most literal, it must be fictional since our bodies are made of mostly liquid, and so implying that you could be solid would be especially presumptuous. But besides all that—I think we all forget to be solid sometimes, and it’s nice to be reminded that that’s okay.