Thank you so much. I am so grateful for this. I was thrilled but also a little shocked to receive this fellowship. Just the evening before I found I received it, I was telling a writing group I’m in that I had been reading about how one of the original purposes of American creative writing programs was to promote the ideology of individualism in order to combat communism. For the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference in story structures between individualist and collectivist cultures. I was telling this writing group that I felt sort of liberated to realize that if all writing is a form of propaganda, then I might as well write collectivist carnivalesque eco-communitas propaganda. But I didn’t expect to be recognized in the US for a style of writing that’s trying to resist an individualist ideology.
After I heard I won this award, I called my friend, Bongjun. He’s a recurring character in the essays I’ve written for n+1. Bongjun, the character, has become kind of like our son who we have joint custody over. So I told Bongjun the person, “Our son was a big part of these essays, so we should celebrate. I also told him how shocked I was. “I mean most of the people who write for n+1 are geniuses from the East Coast, and I’m from CA and not a genius.”
He said, “It’s not surprised you got this award.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
He said, “Because n+1 means anti-totalitarianism.”
“It does?” I asked. He’s a physicist, so I figured he knows his equations. But I had been thinking that n+1 meant infinity plus one more thing, or even something political mixed with something whimsical.
“Yes,” he said. “n+1 means anti-totalitarianism.”
How’s that?” I asked.
He said, “In Korea when a group of friends go to a restaurant, we always divide the check by n. So n means mass, or the number of people in a group. N represents the collective. But a collective is always in danger of totalitarianism. But if you add one individualist, you can prevent that. That’s why we need each other.”
For me, that one individual is the emancipatory stranger, the person who can help us find a new way of seeing. Tolstoy is reported to have said there are two types of stories, a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. They are the same story but from two different perspectives. The Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi in her book Scheherazade Goes West says this about the stranger:
If by chance you were to meet me at the Casablanca airport or on a boat sailing from Tangiers, you would think me self-confident, but I am not. Even now, at my age, I am frightened when crossing borders because I am afraid of failing to understand strangers.” She speaks of how in in Fez, the city she grew up in, trained Sufi masters would get extraordinary “flashes” or lawami and expanded their knowledge exponentially, simply because they were so focused on learning from the foreigners who passed through their lives.
The collectivist and the individualist worldviews represent two types of seeing, the independent and interdependent. We need each other to become ambi-dependent. In our flattening world right now, where my brain feels so often colonized by soundbites and people trying to prove their affiliations, I’m so grateful that n+1 has provided me a place to write about the strangeness that hasn’t yet gone extinct, and the emancipatory sparks that still alight during the colliding of worldviews.