Let the Fire Burn

My dear friend Jack took me to go see the documentary film by Jason Osder, Let the Fire Burn, which examines the way the Philadelphia police department bombed the MOVE headquarters in West Philadelphia back in 1985. The resultant fire destroyed about 60 homes and killed many MOVE members, several of whom were children.

MOVE was a radical black collective that also functioned like a religion. Watching many of the members speak about their beliefs in the video footage was heart rending — I could so thoroughly appreciate their standpoint in the social order and how they were radicalized. I found myself agreeing with them when they spoke about how “the system” and “the man” were organized in such a way that the MOVE community could only be perceived as an alien, irrational threat. I also saw how their radical politics skirted on more dangerous philosophies — the way they were feeding their children, the way they were willing to provoke and alienate their neighbors.

The film did an excellent job of examining the complexities in community relations around this event. Set in a predominantly black neighborhood, MOVE antagonized many of their black neighbors, courted white radical allies, and was a lodestone for the police department’s interest — despite MOVE’s initially non-violent activities.

I saw much in MOVE that reminded me of North Korea. They were simultaneously clear sighted and mad. It was the clear vision and madness one clings to when the world refuses to acknowledge your basic humanity or right to self-determination — and sadly, madness distracts from any recognition of clearness. They reached out and imagined a new mode of being, setting out to recompose themselves as best they could.

Listening to the commission questioning a few MOVE members, police officers, and public officials also illustrated to me how these two imaginations for social order — MOVE’s and the City’s — were one hundred percent incompatible with each other. Several of the police officers involved clearly had no ability to see MOVE members as human beings with rights, thoughts, and feelings. There were two different sorts of human beings occupying a shared space together, and though they both seemed to speak the same language, the words they spoke fell on ears that could not hear them.

What I witnessed in this documentary film was a fundamental failure in the human imagination.

A failure to imagine each other otherwise.

A failure to imagine the world otherwise.

As much as I applaud MOVE’s desires to liberate themselves, I also saw how so much of this imagination was founded on completely broken structures of being. How can we create a break in the social order — with history — when we ourselves have been so broken?

This is a question I spin back to incessantly.

How to renew my imagination.

How to imagine the world otherwise.

How to be otherwise.

I do not believe any imagination can be renewed or produce fruit without love. A generosity in attention.

How can we start to see that to be human is to be more than our bodies and minds. That we are our histories and our environments. That there are collectives and trajectories that compose us all the time, which we participate in all the time.

I am describing the way we are starlight and earth, how there are spirits that fill us and they continue to have names. Fire consumes as it burns, but even it leaves a residue.

Philadelphia is a haunted city, but it is haunted in the way that so many of us are. Just under the skin. If you pay attention, it speaks to you. It writes ciphers in the sky. Listening to these sounds and signs can lead you into a transformative encounter of this space.

I wish more people could see this documentary. I wish its black char could rise into the sky and be free.

I wonder — what messages were sent skyward on the tongues of those flames.




Street Harassment: An Awful Narrowness of Attention and Why “Men” Aren’t Just the Problem

“You look just like Chinatown.”

“Let me taste your pussy.”

For me, living in Philadelphia often means getting sexually harassed on the street. Almost every week, I am the object of an unwelcome comment or stare from a strange male. This attention sometimes comes from men I do know, such as my neighbor, who deserves his very own blog post. Some comments are more banal than others, but all of the energy directed at me carries the ultimate message — “you are not a person.”

“Ride my dick!”

This post by Soraya Chemaly at Salon hits the nail on the head about street harassment. I completely agree with her comments that street harassment is indicative of how our culture subjugates women. However, what she fails to discuss is how street harassment often makes up for or masks other social subjugations. The black man who asked for spare change and didn’t receive any from me and then lashed out at me verbally with lewd comments — he doesn’t have any social power. So he turned to the one framework in which he felt he did. Recognizing the other social subjugations for men at work in street harassment doesn’t make it okay. However, I am concerned with the pervasive way men are criminalized, when I feel that they are just as frequently caught up in and at the mercy of larger social forces which likewise seek to dehumanize and flatten them as individuals. Yes, men regularly behave criminally towards women and those actions should be punished. But for true justice to occur, I think the conversation needs to expand to take in a broader view of subjugation more generally in light of larger historical sociopolitical flows. Global capital, race, urbanity, etc etc. Let’s not just beat men over the head about this stuff. Let’s have a genuine discussion about power.

I find that street harassment is usually a compensatory gesture for the men who use it against me. The men who have harassed me are disproportionately ethnic minorities, of lower socioeconomic status, under-employed or unemployed. They are sometimes under the influence of some psychotropic substance.

Philadelphia is a city at some risk. Our public school system is actively being dismantled by forces that want to see everything privatized. (For more about this IMMENSE CRISIS, please visit The Notebook.) We are still teetering from the financial crisis and housing bubble collapse. There are more and more yipsters (young urban professional (? I never know how these folks are employed) white hipsters) moving into the city, pushing out longtime residents. Once while biking home, I saw a white guy in a beard and flannel shirt holding a large package get SCREAMED AT by another white man in a car. The white man in the car was a prototypical working class Fishtown-ite who was foaming at the mouth at these “asshole kids” moving into his neighborhood so he can’t afford it anymore. A friend of mine — a tenured professor — recently moved into a block where she noticed that a home was for sale for over $600,000. To turn the gas on at her apartment, she had to take a signed copy of her lease to the utility company because they described her block as “low income housing.” The breaks between those who have and those who have-not and those who are actively having-things-taken-from-them are very thin.

It is in this framework that I can appreciate why I get harassed here more than any other place I have ever lived. While in Boston, I was hardly spoken to on the street. The same goes for New Orleans. But here in Philadelphia, it’s endemic.

The compensatory function of street harassment is terrifying — what other violence will such men take up against me in order to vent their social impotencies and frustrations? I won’t even get into the other optics of race that shape how I am perceived by these men. I’ve had glass bottles thrown at me and once feared I would get pulled off my bicycle by a white man who was *clearly* angry, sick, and high.

These men are behaving badly. They are dangerous. But they are also caught in a system that is bad to them and dangerous to our humanity. Simply condemning them isn’t helping us think more clearly about the broader social ills that have placed these men in such precarious and socially abjected positions. Yes, women still occupy some of the lowest rungs on the social pole, which is why these men turn to harassment in order to empower themselves — but that doesn’t mean that these men’s stations are actually any “better” for it. If we want to genuinely stop harassment, we can’t just criminalize men and their behavior, but get at the root causes for these actions. Telling a poor, frustrated, politically impotent man (often of color) to be polite to women is potentially just one more way of policing him. Where and when does he ever get to be bad, mad, and powerful? I’m not licensing harassment. But we need a broader view for the conversation to have meaningful social change derived from it.

I am writing this in the wake of four Indian men who are going to be executed for raping and killing a young Indian woman. These men are murderers. They are also without social prospects and opportunity. If these men had a stronger political consciousness, would they be trawling around town in a bus looking to attack women? This case ignited a global furor that will now be slaked with their deaths. And whose heads rolled when the global economy nearly collapsed? The perceptual blade of criminality and justice only cuts one way — down.

And another point — personally, I have noticed one major, unexpected consequence of being the object of this type of harassment, which I wanted to describe a bit.

One of my responses to street harassment had been to narrow the focus of my attention when I walk through the city. It was a defensive gesture on my part — of not letting myself make eye contact with men in public, of not turning my head and looking around. All of this was in order to convey an aura of “she is so terrifically focused and bad ass that nothing I do or say will penetrate her attention.” I used to try to actively embody a certain kind of shark-ness as I walked — a sleek attention that was dormant and too powerful in its inattention to provoke any comment. You can marvel at a shark, but the shark is too otherwise to even know about it or care. Its silence eats your words. It is of the deep and alien sea, without ears.

This had the negative effect of making me less attentive to the details and environments of my daily life. I noticed this when I was walking through town with CA Conrad a few years back. He kept pointing out and commenting on amazing graffiti, colored lights, and details on buildings that caught his attention. All I could see was a gray street and the road ahead of me. This made me incredibly sad. CA’s world was textured and vibrant, magical. Mine was dark and quiet, encased like a bullet in its shell.

People often list low self-esteem, depression, and body image problems as results of sexualized harassment. I noticed an awful narrowness of my attention. Time and space were flattening for me. I didn’t allow it to surprise and challenge me. I did not want to let my city in.

Now, given so much that has happened in the past few years, I see how I do not have skin, that I have been misled my entire life by all the forces of society and “learning” that sought to teach me otherwise. I am actually porous with my location. It is coterminous with my consciousness. Its horizons equal the limits of my spiritual focus. You are as much a part of me as I am of this earth.

I still get pissed off when I am harassed, but I also try to forgive my harassers with the same generous kindness I seek to permit for myself when I fail to be “good” — when I am bad, mad, and powerless. And then I write and think about these things and talk about them with friends and try to effect a change.

I want us to be emotionally round and psychologically full, not spiritually flat and politically thin. I want to be free to move through a textured and surprising world. I want men to have these same freedoms, too.

Can we work against the awful narrowness of attention that this world constantly seeks to impress upon us?

Wish You Were Here! Public Poetry Workshop This Saturday 9/14

3-6 PM  Saturday September 14, 2013
North Chinatown
*meet in front of the Asian Arts Initiative at 2:45
1219 Vine Street
Join Philadelphia poets Sueyeun Juliette Lee and Quyen Nghiem for a Hot Tea! public poetry workshop and exploration of public spaces in Chinatown. As part of the Asian Arts Initiative’s Tea Trike public arts initiative, we will walk through and explore two “public spaces” in North Chinatown — an urban park and an abandoned alleyway — as we enjoy tea and compose postcard poems to the city. Postcards invite loved ones and friends to imaginatively join us during our travels. They often feature a key image that represents the most memorable and beautiful aspects of our journey. In addition to writing poetry, we’ll be “editing” postcards of Philadelphia to include snapshots of ourselves and these abandoned spaces. Our postcard poems will strive to remind our community of those spaces that have been abandoned, neglected, and forgotten here in Philadelphia. Help us imaginatively revitalize these spaces with your dreams. Help us speak out to the community–Oh Philadelphia, how we wish you were here!
All ages are welcome.

The Story I Never Know

I have been taking sky portraits for over two years now. It developed out of an eerie experience I had once while on the train to work.

I suddenly AWOKE. I suddenly found myself on the train, surrounded by others on their morning routes. I had no memory of rising out of bed, my morning toilet, dressing, leaving my home, or waiting for the train. It terrified me. What had become of all my lost time? And where was I in those spans? Who was I now without that person of those times lost? I felt intermittent. Was this dangerous? Perhaps so. It troubled me.

I realized I needed a mindful practice. Something to sweep me out of the default zero-grade attention that our banal daily activities lull us into. I needed something I could do regularly no matter where I was. And so my eyes turned skyward.

As a child I used to love cloud watching. I have a distinct, visceral body memory of me laying in the grass out front of the house where I grew up. I recall the dry crackle the grass made in my ears, the slight cool dampness of it pressed into my back. The way the clouds tumbled their way across the sky, eating each other.

When I was living in Pittsburgh, I was agog at how close the sky felt. It hung just over me. Perilous.

Back here in Philadelphia, it feels tamed by the lurking wild abandonment of so many of the streets near where I live.

I’m struck by a certain mode of day. I’m struck by the preciousness of that constantly evasive terrain–sky so fleet and stern. I want to say it.


Release Reading in Philadelphia

Reception and Poetry Reading
Celebrating a Book Release and New Exhibit Opening

Friday March 5th, 2010
5:30-7:30 gallery opening and reception
7:30 PM-8:30 poetry reading
Asian Arts Initiative
1219 Vine Street, Philadelphia

There’s so much to celebrate!

I am incredibly excited about the release of Underground National (Factory School), which I’ve been working on for about three years. One of my favorite poets, Linh Dinh (also a Factory School poet), has kindly agreed to celebrate with me and share from his poetry and fiction.

The Asian Arts Initiative, which has been a generous friend and ally, will be hosting the event. The reception also celebrates their newest exhibit, CARRYING ACROSS. Curated by local artist Yvonne Lung, CARRYING ACROSS is a multi-media group exhibition that explores the nature, processes, and products of interpretation and translation. The findings range from morbidly beautiful to elegantly understated, hysterical to heartfelt.


Linh Dinh is the author of a novel, two collections of stories, and five books of poems. His work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007 and Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, among many other places. He is also the editor and translator of Vietnamese poetry. His collection of stories Blood and Soap was chosen by the Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004.

CARRYING ACROSS features artwork by Sama Alshaibi, Midori Harima, Tomiko Jones, Jong Kyu Kim, Sarah Koljonen, Larry Lee, Yvonne Lung, Shanjana Mahmud, Rana Sindhikara and I Gusti Putu Hardana Putra, and James Sham.