About Ray

Raised in America, from the Midwest to the West Coast on a starchy diet of movies and comics and science fiction paperbacks. There's a Mid-East connection in there too. I write about such states as California and Ohio, and such provinces as Guangdong. Now in Taiwan.

Burn, baby, burn – Taipei Times

Turtle Burn, Taiwan’s spinoff of the avant-garde art festival Burning Man, will take place over the Tomb Sweeping holiday

https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2021/03/26/2003754519

In the mountains of Yilan, far from the confines of everyday life, people gather during the holidays to celebrate. Outlandish costumes are the norm. The fashion styles run from Mad Max-inspired outfits, to anime cosplay, along with colorful makeup and dresses for both men and women.

It’s time for the Turtle Burn, the official “regional Burn” of Taiwan. This is a spinoff of Burning Man, the world’s largest art and music festival held annually in Nevada. For one week a year, over 70,000 people camp out in Black Rock Desert to attend this seminal countercultural event. All over the world, there are also smaller regional Burns, and the Turtle Burn will be a more intimate affair, capping at 150 people.

Although the main Burning Man event was canceled last year due to COVID-19, the Turtle Burn did have a successful opening in 2019 and plans to continue annually. The latest will be from April 2 to April 5, over the Tomb-Sweeping Festival holiday weekend, at Shanlinciji campsite.

Wooden turtle sculpture is set aflame on last night of Turtle Burn, 2019.

The site is filled with several “theme camps,” which groups organize in order to spend time with likeminded friends and to pool resources together. One is the Tavern of Truth, headed by Kate Panzica, which holds a free bar to give drinks to everyone who strolls by.

“Educating both foreigners and locals on the Ten Principles is a net positive,” Panzica says. “I think it’s great for folks to explore themselves and what they want to be in the ‘default world’ as well as a Burn.”

The Ten Principles of Burning Man, written by late founder Larry Harvey in 2004, are: Radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.

Attendees gather around a flaming effigy on the last night of Turtle Burn 2019.

These guidelines help to make the event stay as ethical as possible, and people are encouraged to clean up after themselves and promote sustainable living. Radical self-reliance refers to how attendees must bring their own food, cookware, tents and other camping supplies. People are encouraged to contribute to the culture by building their own artistic creations, whether individually or as part of a group. And after the event is over, they must make sure to leave no trace by cleaning up all “MOOP” — matter out of place.

For four days the Turtle Burn will hold a variety of workshops and activities. The gifting principle doesn’t just refer to handing out free drinks or personalized jewelry, although that is also common. It can also be expressed by giving one’s time by hosting workshops.

In the past, these workshops have included improv comedy sessions, where participants learn to play and practice their comedic skills, yoga classes for keeping fit, lip-singing performances, fashion shows on a makeshift runway and even impromptu puppet shows. Some camps contribute at meal-times, cooking pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches to share with the entire community. At night, fire-dancers are a particular attraction of any Burn, dancing to the beat of electronic music and entertaining others as they express their craft.

Shanlinciji campsite overlooking the city of Yilan under a full moon.

“I was part of the Queen of Hearts camp,” said Michi Fu, sharing her experiences. “We had a shared costume closet with a full-length mirror to encourage radical self-expression through costuming. I sang with my furry, lavender bunny ears and turquoise silk robe and we all had hand-cranked ice cream.”

On the final night, tradition dictates that a wooden effigy is to burn. This started in 1986 at the very first Burning Man in San Francisco, as a symbol of how to keep the creative “fire” burning on even after the event concludes. At the Turtle Burn, a two-meter wide wooden turtle sculpture is scheduled to be set aflame. Dale Albanese, Taiwan’s official Burning Man contact, said of the installation: “There’s a sense of buildup and tension, and this sudden quietness and a collective shared spirit. You hear the oohs and the aahs at similar times. There’s a kind of shared attention. We’ve all been busy doing our own thing, and then there’s a pause. A reset. It’s also a moment to open up and say it wasn’t just about me.”

As 150 artists and performers gather their community together to continue the Turtle Burn tradition, they are also planning for next year and beyond. Tickets for this year’s event have already sold out but there is a waiting list. For more information, visit: turtleburn.com.

Preparing for Turtle Burn in 2019, attendees construct a communal dome space.

Turtle Burn 2021 Map.

Review: Lolita Podcast by Jamie Loftus

In this day and age, is it worth it to revisit Lolita?

For me, after I got very into audiobooks over the past decade, I recently had to ask myself this question. As I exhausted all my favorite novels and must-read literary canons over the last few years, #MeToo then happened. I found myself wondering: Has this book, as they say, aged badly? Fanciful prose or not, is Nabakov’s famous opus no longer appropriate in the 21st century?

I do remember reading back in my precocious and wannabe-edgy early twenties; why I specifically recall posting quotes on MySpace. There was no question that I was absolutely mesmerized by the language. Was younger-me, however, glamorizing child abuse way back then?

The whole molestation and kidnapping plot struck me as fucked up, surely, but like in a literary way. Honestly, I don’t think I was ever quite the sort to romanticize the disturbing premise as a “love story.” Yet it was quite fascinating.

I did consider it brilliant, and worthy of the reputation. I did watch the two film adaptations as well, which did not hold up. But now, as a more well-read and more knowledgeable man (of Humbert’s age no less!), it does feel kind of wrong to just read this like a normal novel.

I’m not saying old problematic stories must be—as they say so insincerely—“cancelled.” But I am saying that there are some questions that need to be considered. We need to think about these things.

Anyhow, I apologize for this droning disclaimer, but allow us to enter comedian Jamie Loftus’ 10-part Lolita Podcast. I first became familiar with the Robot Chicken writer’s excellent Mensa podcast, which highlighted so many problematic issues with that particular organization. It turned out, her latest was the exact context I so very much needed before revisiting.

A progressive and feminist take on Lolita comes at as a welcoming time as ever. It may be even more relevant to male readers (the demographic who tend to grossly take the notorious unreliable narrator at his word). As Loftus share so expertly, there is an extremely long and detailed history of popular culture not getting the point of this book.

Firstly, let’s make it absolutely clear. There is no question Humbert Humbert is the villain of this story. This really isn’t interpretable, look it up, author Vladimir Nabakov wrote extensively on how opposed he was to glamorizing the abuse of 12-year olds and calling it romantic. Again and again, he fought with the romantic notions that outgrew his novel and into its various adaptations.

Merely a cursory literary analysis gives endless evidence: Pedophile Humbert is introduced as a criminal in the introduction, the unreliability of his narration is laid out instantly! He is profoundly unlikable, and is consciously intended to be that way. He constantly lies to everyone around him. He spends his free time at the pool ogling children. He is contemptuous and hates all around him, insulting every random he meets with the worst kind of snobbery. Seriously, just because he claims he toxically loves one person so much and that is supposed to make him some sort of flawed hero?

He is pettily cruel to his new wife Charlotte Haze, he gaslights her, he fantasizing killing her in excruciating detail, he dismisses the tragic death of her son. (So much death, by the way. A theme that sure comes up a lot with his mother and his exes. But I digress.) Hell, if one really reads between the lines, he may have killed her himself and lied to the reader about the car accident just as he compulsively lies to his victim and every single person they meet. He drugs her with sleeping pills, then he drugs the eponymous character on their first night together so he can take off her clothes and fondle her, all while writing beautiful poetry of the sky-blue color of these rapey creep pills.

Indeed, Nabakov seems to be taking up a personal challenge to create the most creepy and cringing scenarios imaginable, and then dress it up with the most flowery of poetic language like it’s some kind of dare to see if the audience will buy his take. This takes seriously writing skill, no doubt. It can even be funny. But how very unfortunate that so often the public does just and are so easily impressed with this guy.

On the subject of the unreliable narration, the most egregious monstrosity of all must be the first rape after he picks her up from camp. The famous line, “Gentlemen of the jury. I wasn’t even her first.” As if that mattered. But whatever adolescent sexual experimentation his victim may or may not have engaged in, the very next day she specifically states that he “tore something inside me.” He was just plain lying through his teeth.

And then, the heartbreaking quote that really gives away the nature of this relationship. “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” To further illustrate, how Lo “sobs, every night, every night.”

So romantic, amiright? Furthermore, he threatens that if she turns him in then she’ll be a pitiful ward of the state. He calls her a whore and a slut and unjustly imagines the worst sexcapades. She accuses him of rape multiple times, using up a significant allotment of her rare moments of dialogue with which to express her truthful side of the story.

As a reader, I wholeheartedly thank podcater Jamie Loftus for preparing me to read between the lines with such careful analysis. Thank you.

Well, after that summation, if I may, I’d like to add some conclusions I have come to on my own.  Much has been said in criticisms of the assumption that Delores Haze is a “brat.” There is the issue of the so-called perfect victim, how that shouldn’t matter, but upon my reread that still doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t help thinking she’s only a normal child. Was Charlotte really a terrible parent who hated her daughter, or were they just having the normal bickering that happens in any family? The poor girl was certainly traumatized after the sudden death of the mother. Furthermore, there is the indication that she flirts with Humbert and has a crush on him: Again, he’s a damn unreliable narrator sociopath. Perhaps just let the kid be herself without putting so much on her.

My main maybe-somewhat-original perspective, is that I contend Clare Quilty does not even exist! That is, perhaps he was some celebrity playwright within this world, and perhaps Humbert was jailed for murdering him after inventing a reason. But I do not believe Quilty was following them around their Americana road trip, and I do not believe he was the one who helped Delores escape. There were other ways, and it must have driven Humbert mad to never know. He is a controlling paranoid predator, who admits hallucinations by the way, and the whole gimmick of someone driving behind does not ring true. That she ends up with an even worse abuser after leaving his clutches is just something his mind would project and imagine. The perfect rationalization for it all. I don’t buy it.

So, these are some of my thoughts after re-reading the book. On the subject of the podcast, the literary analysis and interviews with Nabakovian scholars made a supremely positive difference. But Loftus’s contribution doesn’t end there.

In fact, Lolita Podcast is as much about society at large as it is about one book. Popular culture has taken the trope of the sexy underage lover, sadly influenced far more by movie posters and YouTube clips than by actual reading, and the social impact is terrible. There’s the online Tumble “nymphet” fashion scene (ugh) which I previously knew nothing of, and that Lana Del Rey sure hasn’t helped. As a casual movie buff if nothing else, insider information about the 1962 Kubrick film and the horrible world of Hollywood was crucial and interesting. The 1997 film, featuring noted problematic male Jeremy Irons, was even worse. Note both of which aged up a star character who was twelve in the source material. There were also a couple of bizarre aborted stage productions which further reinforces how bad the sexualization of children has been, and how more modern audiences still don’t get it. The interviews and biographies of the main actresses showcases how their voices deserve to be heard. An important and informative work of journalism indeed.

Loftus concludes by asking the question of whether yet another adaptation would still have relevance and make a positive difference. For one thing, it’d be nice to have one helmed by a female creator for the first time ever. While there is the controversy of utilizing teenage actresses, and another question of how simulating ages can be just as bad, Loftus concludes animation may be the most ethical way. I’d argue a graphic novel could work, but in any case point taken. A new take does seem necessary. The themes of abuse and grooming and gaslighting are absolutely as valid as ever. The trope of a “Lolita” (and Loftus compassionately makes sure to always call the character Delores), often taken up by an opportunistic news media sensationalizing real-life tragedies, is still a term in our language today. The public deserves to know better of what this really means.

The novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov is a horror story told from the point of view of the monster. It is, I strongly argue, a masterpiece of horrifying and toxic obsession. The ultimate anti-love story.

In the decades since, this tale has permeated the broader culture at large, drifting far from its literary roots, and the world has quite literally lost the plot. The solution is not to try any ill-fated attempt to send Lolita down the memory hole, but to think harder, and fix this mistake of pop culture by staying true to one brilliant author’s intentions and share the truth. Lolita can be a powerful tool for education on toxicity and abuse, and it is still worth a try.

 

Lolita Podcast is available from iHeartRadio and is available on podcast platforms such as Apple and Google

Taiwan Travel Video: Chiayi to Alishan Mountain

Traveling by motorbike from Chiayi city (嘉義) up to Alishan Mountain (阿里山) and surrounding villages in central Taiwan, during the Lunar New Year holiday 

Can I stop blogging about politics now?

What a month it’s been. What a four years it’s been.

At the time, I felt I didn’t have much to add to the January 6 conversation. The new year was fresh, and I felt optimistic. The Senate election in Georgia gave me hope for my country, and also hope for my personal issues in feeling so much anxiety every damn time there was an election.

While the lawsuits trying to overthrow the presidential results were disconcerting at first, they were of course absolutely pathetic and nothing to worry about. If anything, it just energized the opposition more and more seeing that wannabe dictator lose dozens upon dozens of times all over again.

That said, America is kind of broken when the leaders don’t concede in lost elections anymore. If we’re not all playing by the same rules, the social contract doesn’t work.

It makes for some very dangerous shit.

Then, on the 6th, all those horrifying images. What can I say about the stupid bullshit insurrection that hasn’t been said already?

I’m just sick of the excuses these past four years, with various apologists saying that “the resistance” has been overreacting and he’s not really that bad. Fuck that perspective.

This was an evil unique to American history. And yeah, a lot of evils that happened before were also bad. Many things have been bad. It would be nice though to get to have some progress in the 21st century, to get better as a society, instead of having this terrible form of bigotry and authoritarianism backsliding so horrifyingly.

It’s damn irritating.

Well, guess we made it to the other side. Inauguration has come and gone and all that.

Peaceful transfers of power aren’t a thing in America from now on, which we’ll have to get used to forever. Doesn’t really feel like mine is a normal country anymore. It was quite a record, all those centuries.

I didn’t appreciate how important that was before. Took it for granted, didn’t we?

So. That said. Of course America is not suddenly a utopia just because one terrible menace is out. It’s important to hold the new president accountable, and corporatism and all the other -isms affect both parties. Still, I believe that this administration will be held more accountable due to the new generation that has awakened politically. It’s not going to go back to the complacent status quo. A whole hell of a lot of people will demand better from now on, and that is something to be optimistic about indeed.

Healthcare, police brutality, universal basic income, economics, climate change, discrimination, sexual harassment, war, diplomacy, foreign policy, the courts, technology, automation, misinformation, education, and of course the dreaded pandemic. At least there’s a good chance now that it’s all going to get better!

But I don’t feel like I’m qualified to be a political commentator any longer. I’ve shared how I felt from time to time in these writings, and I certainly have a lot of opinions. I may even review a book on current events from time to time.

Yet, when the boring and flawed party is back in charge, then I get to take it a little easier. I deserve it.

Let’s enjoy the promises of this better future, and not worry so much. At the same time, let’s still stay active and demand a more equitable system from our lawmakers.

Vote. Learn about the issues. Educate yourself for God’s sake. Also, at some point, do take a break and relax when possible…

 

2021

Well, looks like we made it. A whole new year.

What an accomplishment!

Feels like the time for one of those particularly reflective end-of-the-year retrospectives, doesn’t it?

Much has already been said about how unique a time it has been, without getting into the morbidity of the topic. Perhaps I cannot add so much. Suffice to say it’s been hard times for a hell of a lot of people. No doubt about that.

Just hope it’s not terribly naïve to be cautiously optimistic now that we will soon enter a new era…

Life is never easy, and there will be a lot of challenges ahead. That said, it simply has to get better.

Right?

Things seemed to have truly turned around, or at least started to turn around, just at the very end. Politically speaking, that is. Yes, things are by no means all better just yet. That will take a lot of work, but the worst is seriously over with back in the home country and that makes for some real reason to feel hope.

Anyways, personally life is good here in Taiwan and I am grateful to be here. I get to be part of a positive community, I get to work for a living (though I don’t love that part), and I even get to be creative and then share my creativity from time to time. This current year started out with a cancellation of a book fair, and then we all had to wear masks. Blech. I would have liked to promote my own books a bit more, make some progress in that field instead of hit pause. Yet I did get to do a book fair last month so that was cool.

I changed jobs this year, I participated in an unlicensed regional Burn event, and I only traveled in-island. I even voted.

I survived the holidays, and now there’s only one more all-night party to go to with which to ring in the new year and that’s gonna be a lot of fun 😄

Like everybody else out there, I have many goals for 2021. I need to catch up on my own prose writing and share a new novel when the time comes. Exercise, studying, I generally need to get it together personal growth-wise on so many fronts.

I also look forward to watching many movies after we’re all vaccinated and pop cultural life goes back to normal. I have much to read and series to binge.

So much to do indeed….

At least we have a chance.

Here’s to the rest of the world, maybe just maybe we’ll make it ~

2020

I don’t know how to feel about the rush of current events.

There is obviously some very good news. It was long dragged out, but seems to be coming to a close, and celebrations are indeed in order. That feeling of relief as a dead weight is assuredly going to go, sooner or later. Incredible times, especially after so much uncertainty.

But it’s still a lot to process. I’ll spare any readers from all my obnoxious political opinions, well-thought as I’d like to think them to be, and just express how this state of affairs still leaves me anxious.

I’m no pundit. I have my perspective, and I like to read and review and share my thoughts, but there’s not really any reason people should listen to me.

That said, I simply cannot escape this terrible sense that tens of millions of my fellow countrymen are undeniably bad people. I had no idea it could get this bad. It’s not worth it anymore debating and talking about fake news and racial bias and social hierarchies and brainwashing etc. It’s a fact and here we are. They are bad people and there so many of them.

What is my country and the world going to do?

Well, turns out in the end, the good guys (or at least the moderate-not-that-evil guys) have won/will win. The fight for so many issues goes on, for healthcare and peace and freedom, no doubt about it, and at the very least there’s still a chance now… perhaps state of the world can actually survive at this rate and progress…

I voted from afar. Funny thing, as a matter of fact, it’s the first time I have voted for the winning team. It seemed an emergency so I had to. But I remain an American abroad, a privileged expat, incredibly lucky to live in the only country on earth to have defeated the pandemic. I do have to wear a mask everywhere, slightly annoying, and there’s danger from the mainland, but above all I am in the greatest social democracy in Asia and I am grateful to be here.

Been weird staying on the island for an entire year. No travel, no airplanes. No visiting relatives, no exploring new cultures. And yet right now I am far luckier than the vast majority of the planet.

To feel hope for the environment of this world, for the climate, for the very air, and to have so much reason to worry at the same time. It’s all come to ahead, and 2020 isn’t even over. It looks like the danger to democracy isn’t going anywhere in the next couple of months, plenty of anxiety is going to continue. At the same time, hope exists. Humans may, believe it or not, make it through this.

Going back to ‘normal’ or not, there is a future. If we can survive the grueling present.

This damn year. Let’s try to make it through this, everyone.

Bookish Asia review: All Flowers Bloom

http://bookish.asia/all-flowers-bloom-%e2%80%a2-kawika-guillermo/

All Flowers Bloom, written by Kawika Guillermo and published by Westphalia Press, is a book that is difficult to define, let alone review. It is ostensibly a novel, classified as queer speculative fiction, but there is not exactly a plot to follow. At least, there is not just one plot but at least 26 smaller stories within. The protagonist is not only one character, but a multitude of characters linked by a resurrected soul repeating through time in chapters labeled from A to Z. Gender and nationality and circumstances change again and again, leaving the reader with strong impressions but hard to remember details… Not unlike a dream that way.

The main character, if a name can be given at all, is called 871. (The only other character, just S.) The only consistent setting to keep track of is the strange surreal limbo known as the Ilium, the afterlife waystation described irreverently as some kind of gaudy cruise ship, a lonely sort of paradise. There, this soul finds him or herself occasionally between lives, reflecting on what has come before.

That reflection is often about love, for this is above all a love story. The most epic love story imaginable, consisting of endless lifetimes as two souls find each again and again in new circumstances. Guillermo shows much range in writing about so many times and places.

When the journey begins, far back in Biblical times, the prose is already eminently powerful in describing the obsessive struggle to go on. “The day didn’t come by itself. We had to push the sun up, lift it with our arms to keep time from standing still.”

The whole setup of this world is not explained in so many words initially, leaving the reader to interpret. Eventually, some questions are answered, such as in a certain lifetime when the two intertwined souls find themselves in warring tribes and a shaman explains, “You were in love before you were born.”

However, another theme other than love that keeps coming up is the concept of death. There are the suicides, the lives failed. One lifetime ends with the execution of a Roman slave, a tragedy finalized by the beautiful line, “The debris of time stripped away until I collided with your corpse.”

All over time and place, the book keeps going. The Kanem Empire. Colonized India. Every land from history that can be imagined. In imperial China, the soulmates are prostitute-courtesans unable to admit they are lovers. Sadly, in many of these timelines love is a sin. In so many cultures, their love is a blasphemy. They are infidels.

Soon, the chapters begin to catch up to the 20th century, featuring American servicemen, World War II from the perspective of a German POV, and the nearly-modern 1970s. Meanwhile, in the afterlife ‘Pleasure Cruise’, he/she laments on all these past lives while hibernating eternity away. Yet if this sounds too serious, there’s also plenty there to lighten the mood “Heaven has alcohol,” they say. “That’s what makes it Heaven.”

This sort of book can be a challenge, admittedly. The questions asked and unanswered repeat themselves at times, the fanciful wordsmithing is something the reader can appreciate and also something that can be exhausting. “The stream was a consciousness,” the text explains, a metaphor most literal.

In Book Two, the poetry continues but suddenly an even more ambitious genre begins. As the present time comes and goes, we enter the science fictional era. So begins tales of the corporate wars to come, of digitally uploaded sentience, of post-humanism. This makes for some truly surreal futuristic sex scenes.

Foremost, this is still a spiritual tome. From the Islamicist references early on, to a bourgeoning Buddhist enlightenment as the novel progresses, religion keeps coming up. One question that is repeatedly asked and never answered to satisfaction, is that of who and what is a god.

“Do gods exist?” (s)he asks.
“We’re the only gods I know of,” is answered. “We are the only true gods.”
“We’re souls, not gods.”
“We. Are. Gods.”

And back and forth it goes into infinity, never truly explained.

Millennia later, it turns out that this story may be more cynical than all that love talk previously implied. Not that there wasn’t foreshadowing. “Love is a false desire when directed at one rather than many,” warned the Buddha. A good reviewer shouldn’t give too much away, but perhaps there’s a lesson in there about how when we get what we want it doesn’t always make us happy. Even if it takes four thousand years.

If all is erased, then was it just meaningless? That is up to the reader to decide. In the grand scheme across epochs, there were three phases: Generation, Optimization, and Destruction. Interpret that as you will.

As for the title, early in the book we are told that not all flowers bloom. Yet later, after so much philosophizing, another conclusion is reached. All Flowers Bloom!

So there is reason to hold out for hope after all. Don’t ever forget it.

Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht

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What I Says:  An autobiography about somebody unknown and done in the format of a comic, how could that work?  Well it worked for me, I really enjoyed reading this, I can’t stand those autobiographies by famous people full of name dropping and desperately trying to make every aspect of their life interesting.  Always Goodbye is the sort of book that could be about you, the reader, if you are a child of the 80’s then you’ll see similarities to your own life in this book, as Ray Hecht describes events you’ll be going “I remember that” and you’ll end up on your own journey down memory lane.  And being born in the 80’s means a lot of big moments in your life would be defined by technology, getting that first email address, joining myspace and Facebook, games consoles and smart phones are all big points in Rays life and until reading this I have never thought of things like that before.

A huge part of Rays life has been spent reading and making comics, falling in love with Marvel and DC universes and because he has that huge knowledge about comics it has made this book much more special.  Some clever little bits really bring this to life, describing his parents, birth, upbringing and how they met was cleverly done, drawn as a column with each event side by side worked well.  Each chapter starts off with a year of Rays life and the first window shows a significant event from that year and I loved trying to figure out what they represented.  There was the odd quirky bit thrown in too which gave me a chuckle, favourite bit was Ray sat at his desk at school and the writing about the scene takes up so much space that he has to have his head at an angle.

The comic has been hand drawn, which gives it a personal touch that would have been taken away by a piece of software, whenever Ray draws one of his girlfriends the amount of detail increases until they are almost glowing, it shows just how important they were in his life.

I have really enjoyed reading about Ray’s life and now wish I had a time machine to go and get my hands on the sequel in 30 years time 🙂

 

Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht

Always Goodbye: a review of the graphic novel by Frank E Beyer

https://medium.com/@frank.e.beyer/always-goodbye-b46c36a9d202

Always Goodbye

A review of the graphic novel

 

Ray Hecht’s autobiographical graphic novel starts with his birth in Israel, where his parents were immigrants, and ends up with him working in Asia. Moving to America as a small child he has an unstable upbringing, thanks to his Ukrainian mother and American father divorcing. The drawings and the layout here obviously took a lot of work and I dare say it may have been easier just to write the narrative, however, this was a more interesting way to tell his story. Each year is introduced with a picture of a key event and I laughed when I saw OJ’s Bronco being chased by police down the highway for 1994.

 

Things start out well for the family in America, but after a few years the cracks begin to show and his parents get divorced in the early nineties. His mother remarries a none-too trustworthy Israeli man and Ray stays with his Dad, who trains to be a nurse. Ray does recognise his father’s efforts to better himself. His sister is academic and as she grows up gets sucked into a conservative Israeli world that Hecht wants no part of. She learns Russian and presumably Hebrew too — as she moves to Israel and gets married there. Ray’s trips to Israel don’t work out well, it’s not a place he connects with. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that he prefers to study Japanese and later Chinese.

A self-confessed nerdy child, Hecht struggles socially and finds solace in comic books. (I was waiting for his reading to break out from the pure escapism of comics and this does eventually happen.) A convincing portrayal of how America can be a lonely place for a teenager, a lot of this must have been hard to bring to the surface again. One major problem for him is always moving from school to school, as the title indicates it is “Always Goodbye”. Probably the most painful incident is when he gets kicked out of school for something he says about a mass shooting. Despite being an introvert, he makes various efforts to improve his social life, investigating subcultures — punk, Goth, arty-type, straight edge, hippie — looking for something to hold onto. His friends do the same thing and he falls in and out with them depending on what phase they are in — a problem of a fractured society: you can join many different tribes but a sense of belonging is not guaranteed. He does some hallucinogenic drugs, but the answer doesn’t lie there.

 

In his early twenties Ray moves out of his Dad’s place and back again several times, in a non-linear surge towards independence common in his generation. He has a string of dead-end jobs in various States and then vaguely commits to life in California. Salvation comes in the form of China, recommended to him by a random character at the Burning Man Festival 2008. Like many young Westerners who go to work in Asia (me included), it’s the first time he has the luxury of living alone in a decent apartment. He begins teaching at a kindergarten in Shenzhen, the huge city over the border from Hong Kong where everything is new and exciting. He mentions the bootleg markets and this reminded me that one of the pleasures (and even social activities) of living in China back then was shopping for pirated DVDs; now of course we just download movies without leaving the house. He survives the kindergarten, moves onto a Korean owned school in Guangzhou, and escapes the English teaching world to become a copy editor.

Ray realises that a lot of the expat life is about drinking and tries to find meaning through writing and dating. The dating doesn’t go so well, but gives him material to write about. While many say it’s easy to get an Asian girlfriend, it doesn’t work out most of the time because of different expectations and, sure enough, Hecht takes us through a few awkward flings. The world of online dating also turns out to be a wash-out. Despite these romantic failures, he publishes a novel and eventually gets involved in a serious relationship with a creative South African woman— i.e. finally he has some good luck. I was interested to read that he initially went down to Hong Kong every six months to get visas, but later got a ten year China visa. Surely long term visas like this are not on the table anymore?

The text isn’t that polished and there are still a few mistakes to be ironed out, or perhaps they were left in the on purpose to emphasize the DIY nature of this work? His analysis of society is usually spot on and you can see a narrow view of the world broadening as he travels more — this gives the story a nice arc. As a thirty-something he ends up in Taiwan, looking at current events it was probably a wise decision to leave China and move there.

Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right by Michael Brooks

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of The Majority Report podcast. Watching their video clips online has become a daily habit of mine for keeping up with the political world, especially during these tense last few years.

Co-host Michael Brooks (who also hosts his own solo The Michael Brooks Show) always has a very poignant take which I enjoy listening to, with the ability to summarize complex issues in a way both intelligent and entertaining.

The news market nowadays is indeed very oversaturated, particularly when it comes to opinions on YouTube, yet there is a reason I find myself drifting towards the Majority Report more than sources like the more independent and objective Democracy Now. Because in this current climate, it’s not just about getting the most facts. Anyone can do so if they want.

The battle over messaging has really become about being able to fight back against misinformation as much as anything else. And that is what I truly love about Sam Seder and Michael Brooks, that they aren’t above the fray at all—unlike that example I’ll use again, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. They fully take on the trending online garbage of the extreme alt-right, refusing to cede the internet world over to those charlatans.

For whatever reasons of history, social media’s biases tend to reward the worst of the worst when it comes to extreme political rhetoric. Even the old medias of cable news and talk radio can’t compete with the unfortunately powerful trolls of today.

But at least some people are fighting back, and are damn good at it. Therefore, I was very intrigued when I heard about Michael Brooks’ book project titled Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right published by Zero Books. The book is slim at only a hundred pages, which fits well as an e-book for those more low-attention spanned readers struggling to keep up with the information overload of the times.

The main focus of his critique concerns the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” the IDW, which is truly one of the dumbest names for the cheap yet successful motivational speakers who now pervade the gross right-wing. He starts of with an analysis of Sam Harris, who rose in fame as one of those New Atheist war-mongering neo-cons during the Bush era. Brooks lays out the laziness of his debate, which never truly was very intellectual at all. Particularly embarrassing is his email spat with Noam Chomsky, in which he actually says: “The history is completely irrelevant.”

And that’s it right there. These grifters cash in by presenting themselves as deep, yet don’t care to analyze how much of the state of the world is a product of historical context. Again and again, they are proven to have an authoritarian mindset, “a penchant for defending hierarchy” as Brooks expertly sums up. Even the late Christopher Hitchens was able to mock the “IQ obsessed.” He may have been wrong on Iraq, but I can’t imagine Hitchens today tolerating the logicbro nonsense of his old contemporaries.

Much of the book focuses on Jordan Peterson as well, the very definition of a self-help hack trying to cash in on the zeitgeist. Clearly, Peterson is not very good at being an academic as he flames the campus culture wars with his overuse of the term postmodernism—that catch-all nebulous term which is usually conflated with Marxism for no reason whatsoever. Peterson famously crashed and burned in his big Zizek debate, and has since gone so off the deep end that he is now in some of kind of rehab and/or in a coma in Russia of all places after hawking a bizarre all-meat diet. You can’t even satirize this stuff.

As Brooks says, “the Petersons of the world want to naturalize or mythologize the injustices we see around us instead of analyzing them as a function of historical process that, because they are human-made, can be rectified in the future.” They never were very interested in honestly learning what makes the world turn and, God forbid, trying to make the world better. The truth is, they only want Patreon subscribers.

The way they pretend to be victims and underdogs while growing in power is particularly infuriating. As he says, “The IDW and right in general love to have it both ways with free speech. On the one hand, if a reactionary is criticized for something they say, Free Speech is Under Attack. On the other hand, if a left-wing professor says something they find objectionable, or if too many faculty members have political views they dislike, they have no problem asking the government to step in to examine the curriculum and impose ‘balance.’” (Hell, check out the presidential Twitter fact-checking controversy happening right this very moment…)

“Still, right-wing media is one of the easiest gigs in the world.” You said it, Michael.

While it’s easy enough to dunk on the shallow Dave Rubins and Ben Shapiros of the world, that standard conservative trying to rebrand as wannabe intellectuals all of a sudden—and dunk he does, who couldn’t not reference Shapiro’s disastrous BBC interview with Andrew Neils—Brooks’ real point goes far beyond such critiques. The true core of his thesis is that it’s time for the left to do better in winning over that angry young man demographic these guys so easily convert.

Don’t let them use fake terms like “classical liberal,” don’t let them have free reign on Joe Rogan and then just hope the moral superiority of the left will actually win elections and change hearts.

In his final criticisms of the “ultra-woke” left, Brooks has much to say on why we should encourage moral growth instead of shaming and canceling, of which the latter often adds fuel to the bad faith arguments of the right. Personally, I think the apparent craziness of the university protest crowd has always been exaggerated and never was as big a deal as the clickbait merchants would have us think. But Brooks does have a point.

Like it or not, this new crop of right-wingers is a loud voice today. It’s time to understand them, so that the good guys can win. The end goal is a fair and just society, a cosmopolitan socialism as Brooks concludes which is able to express itself successfully in the modern landscape and that can unify the positive traditions of cultures from all over the world. That’s the fight worth having.

It is time to form an international message of solidarity, and the path forward with be both for the left to get it together and also to finally defeat the manipulative new right of the web.

So let’s do it!

 

Speaking of China: ‘Always Goodbye’ Ups, Downs in China, US and Beyond in Graphic Novel by Ray Hecht

https://www.speakingofchina.com/bookreviews/always-goodbye-graphic-novel-ray-hecht

In this midst of this worldwide pandemic, I’ve found myself passing on those dystopian novels I used to adore and instead seeking out a little more “comfort food” in the books I’ve read this year. Lighthearted, humorous and even self-deprecating stories of people grappling with everyday problems that you wouldn’t find in a disaster film have offered me much-needed refuge in these unusual and challenging times for all. Bonus if they touch on experiences I’ve had living here in China and Asia, including cross-cultural dating and relationships.

Thank goodness Ray Hecht sent me his new graphic novel Always Goodbye, which really hit the spot on all fronts.

The graphic novel spans Ray’s life from birth up to 2019, and it makes for a pleasant read, thanks to its honesty. As much as it charts the highs in his life, the novel also delves into those lows and failures too as he pursues a variety of different careers, not always with success. Ray approaches even difficult topics and moments with a refreshing sense of humor, and we could all use a laugh these days. And Ray’s experiences in moving to China and dating locals will resonate with those of us who have visited or lived here.

I’m honored to feature this interview with Ray Hecht about Always Goodbye.

Here’s Ray’s bio from Amazon:

Author Ray Hecht was born in Israel and raised in the American Midwest. He currently lives in Taiwan.

You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.


Why did you decide to create this graphic novel?

I’ve always loved the comics medium. I worry I”m not quite good enough at drawing, and that’s why I’ve been focusing on prose writing for most of my creative career, but after a bit of a dry spell in book publishing I decided to return to my first love…

The decision was partly due to me just trying to practice the art of cartooning again. Focusing on myself has worked well with my writing before, so why not? Autobiography/memoir has been an indie comics tradition for many years, and it simply felt right for me to share my perspective that way. When I sat down and thought about the whole of my life, with the second half focused on being an expat in China until in the “climax” finale I moved to Taiwan, it seemed like a story worth telling.

What’s the story behind the title?

To be honest, I struggled to come up with a title. At last, it came to me.

Perhaps it’s a somewhat dark interpretation, but the one constant in my life seems to be that I always move. I moved from Israel to Indiana to Ohio to California to Ohio again to California again to China to Taiwan.

That’s a lot of goodbyes. So what else could I call this, other than “Always Goodbye”?

In your graphic novel, you chose to organize it chronologically, through your entire life. Why did you choose this approach?

Good question. Indeed, such a narrative doesn’t necessarily need to be chronological. Nor must it start at the beginning. Authors more clever than me may have taken a non-linear approach, but I went with being direct.

Back when I first thought about how to explain my life in a way that made sense, taking notes and interviewing my mom, I realized I didn’t just need to start with my birth; I actually needed to start with my parents. So the first years covered were 1954 and 1956, in Chicago and in the Ukraine of the former Soviet Union. From there, naturally it led to the year that I was born, and so on.

Plus, it was fun to map out a pop cultural or technological marker. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. 1982 to 2019, every year needed at least it’s own little chapter.

What was your favorite year to detail and why?

That would probably be 2008. A seminal year for me.

It was of course the year I risked it all and moved to Shenzhen, China to do the expat thing. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be in the China blog scene at all! But even before I moved, over in Southern California, a lot changed in my life. Maybe in a way that was the year I finally grew up. The crazy Burning Man festival part of that story was pretty interesting as well.

Your graphic novel gets very personal, including in how it portrays people close to you, such as family and friends. How have family and friends responded to your book?

I’ve been very fortunate to so far have almost no negative criticism from anyone portrayed in the book. I feel extremely lucky and grateful for that, otherwise it could have gone awkward.

Even if someone did respond negatively: My philosophy is that they were my experiences and I have a right to express what happened as long as I was involved (so long as I don’t literally libel someone, or expose some deep dark secret or anything). There was a common sense balance to the portrayals. I also didn’t include any last names for obvious reasons.

I needn’t have worried. For the most part, I have found that a lot of people are flattered to be caricatured in a graphic novel by me!

What do you hope people come away with from reading your graphic novel?

I suppose the main hope is to increase readers’ empathy.

If you’ve met me in person, please read to get a better understanding of who I am and where I come from. If you haven’t met me in person, I do hope that my life stories around the world are interesting and entertaining, and can also give some sort of deeper window into a different person’s perspective.

After all, isn’t that ultimately what all art is all about?


Many thanks to Ray Hecht for this interview! You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

Review: An American Bum in China

https://chajournal.blog/2020/03/07/american-bum

[REVIEW] “A PERPETUAL HARD-LUCK CASE: AN AMERICAN BUM IN CHINA” BY RAY HECHT

{This review is part of Issue 46 (March/April 2020) of Cha.}

Tom Carter, An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bubblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, Camphor Press, 2019. 132 pgs.

An-American-Bum-in-China-cover-1113x1800-917x1483

“Disparate as they sounded back then, however, I realize now that the arc of his adventures share the same timeless threads that, throughout world history, have driven other immigrants, expatriates, and refugees to the United States, only in reverse. His singular story has all the makings of an un-American folk tale…”

So author Tom Carter tells the story of his friend Matthew Evans, a perpetual hard-luck case who might just be the oddest expatriate you’ve ever heard of (and if you’ve been around a good number of expats, that’s saying a lot). The full title of this tome is An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bumblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, and it is a fitting title indeed.

Evans’s tale begins in the small town of Muscatine, Iowa—where Xi Jinping actually visited in 2012. The comparisons of rural America to rural China are vivid and foster much conversation. In a way that makes it only natural that such a person would be driven to Shanghai and elsewhere as he seeks a better life. Spoiler alert, he never does get that better life.

He does try. Sort of. As he drifts from one town to another, somehow surviving while apparently making no money, it’s not always clear how bumblingly brilliant the man’s so-called escapades may be. The lingering question is never fully answered: Is he an idiot savant or just a slightly-luckier-than-average idiot? In this sense, there are several ways to interpret the book.

Either way, Evans most consistent trait is that he takes it all in strides. “Like everything else that had happened to him in life, from leukemia to being deported, Evans took his dismissal stolidly and as a matter of course.” That just about sums it up best.

Within this slim tome, we are quickly taken on this man’s journey around the world. First, he pushes himself to run away from his controlling mother’s shadow, even as she dismissed the “commies” in China. Usually, he does this by way of spending his loving grandmother’s money. Also, he gets diagnosed with cancer.

He arrives in China after some QQ flirtations. His first relationship is never consummated due to his terrible bad luck of hitting on a lesbian, but he keeps trying. He then gets his first kiss and the book is even so personal as to describe how he loses his virginity. Time after time, he bumbles and messes everything up. He gets deported a couple of times, returns, orders up a fake degree most unethically, and so on, and so on.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be particularly remarkable to describe an American who teaches English abroad. That sort of expat memoir has been done many, many times and wouldn’t make for much of an engaging book. Rather, An American Bum is more unique, and full of legitimate surprises. For example, somehow Evans actually briefly becomes a “professor” at not one but two prestigious Chinese universities!

Matthew Evans is certainly interesting, and at the same time, not necessarily likeable. He becomes increasingly hard to empathise with, specifically when it comes to how he obliviously treats his female university students. There’s no question this poor fellow was not equipped with the skills necessary to make it in the world, whether in the States or in China. But he does keep making it worse for himself and most readers will probably not quite root for him.

In the end, whether one approves of his character or not, it certainly can’t be denied that he keeps one’s interest and I suppose that makes this a successful book.

Author Tom Carter began as a photographer, and there is a large visual element to the book featuring illustrator John Dobson’s additions. The black & white artistic depictions round out the story nicely, leaving an impression that resonates with the scenes described. If it was only prose, the book would frankly be too short at only about one hundred pages.

Eventually, the narrative rounds out with a Burmese misadventure involving several illegal uses of a passport, and finally jail time and outright homelessness. At last, Evans is permanently exiled from China. Justifiably so, it must be said. He arrives in Hong Kong as many such people do, and he is unable to even make it in Chungking Mansions. However, it turns out that there were other options at the time. The year is 2014 and he finds himself teargassed during the Umbrella Movement.

It happens to be a very poignant time to tell this particular story right now. In Evans’s own way, he joins the encampments purely out of personal convenience while undeservingly receiving credit for his brave political stance. That’s one way to witness history in the making.

The book is certainly a page-turner. Carter philosophises from time to time, speculating on what it all means. An American Bum can be very introspective, analysing the state of the West and China and modern societies. It does feel bigger than merely describing one random person’s misadventures. It’s a bit difficult to sum up these musings, but there are things here worth thinking about. Where does a man like Matthew Evans belong? In just what kind of culture would he be able to live a life worth living?

The book is over before you know it, leaving the reader with a strange yet authentic taste of life in the margins of expathood. Honestly, the book may not be for everyone and certain people will be offended and turned off by Matthew Evans. Whether one reads with feelings of compassion and empathy, or just can’t look away from the train wreck, one way or another, it will definitely be worth the read for some people.

Review: ALWAYS GOODBYE by Ray Hecht — Comics Grinder

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Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht. 88 pages. TWG Press, 2019, paperback, $5.99. With great insight and humor, Ray Hecht shares his life with the reader in his autobiographical graphic novel, Always Goodbye. This is an ambitious work as Hecht takes stock of his whole life thus far. Hecht sums up his life, year by year, […]

via Review: ALWAYS GOODBYE by Ray Hecht — Comics Grinder